These talkshow hosts once called Trump a bully and an idiot. Now, they’re his biggest defenders

<span>Donald Trump campaigns in Vandalia, Ohio, on 16 March 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Jeff Dean/AP</span>
Donald Trump campaigns in Vandalia, Ohio, on 16 March 2024.Photograph: Jeff Dean/AP
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It was March 2016. Wisconsin’s Republican primary was just days away, and the GOP establishment was making a desperate last attempt to block Donald Trump from the Republican nomination.

Related: Rightwing effort to oust Wisconsin’s Republican assembly speaker falters

Vicki McKenna, a popular Wisconsin-based conservative talkshow host, had just spent 25 minutes grilling Trump on policy when she turned to Trump’s decision to mock the physical appearance of Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi. “So, no more wife-bashing?” she asked. When Trump tried to excuse the attack, she wouldn’t let it go: “How about this: how about wives and kids, off-limits?”

Trump began to push back again – then decided better. “Best of luck to you, Vicki. Best of luck,” he said before a click.

“He just hung up on me,” McKenna said after a long pause. “That’s OK, he gave me 25 minutes. That was fun.”

Charlie Sykes, who was then the state’s biggest conservative radio star on the Milwaukee-area station WTMJ, told Trump in another contentious interview that he was like “a 12-year-old bully on the playground”.

Dan O’Donnell, an up-and-coming host at the Milwaukee station WISN, piled on, posting on Twitter that Sykes was making Trump “sound foolish on pretty much every answer. My goodness, does he sound like a blithering idiot.” His colleague Mark Belling joined the on-air crusade, calling Trump “the biggest wussy of all time”.

The coalition of Wisconsin conservative radio hosts collectively held Trump’s feet to the fire, helping deal him his final major loss of the 2016 primary season.

“All of us were anti-Trump,” said Sykes. “Everybody.”

That’s all gone. Sykes left his radio show, abandoning Wisconsin’s airwaves for more moderate national outlets. His former colleagues, meanwhile, have come around to embracing the former president and platforming Maga leaders in Wisconsin – including figures on the rightwing fringes of the movement. Some have gone even further, amplifying accusations of voter fraud in Wisconsin in the wake of the 2020 election and doubling down in the years since.

With the 2024 election quickly approaching, Wisconsin’s stars of rightwing talk radio have continued to raise doubts about elections administration in the state – while painting the criminal cases Trump faces for attempting to overturn his loss four years ago as unwarranted and undemocratic.

In November 2020, weeks after the Wisconsin election was called for Joe Biden and four years after her aggressive interview with Trump, McKenna attended a “stop the steal” rally in suburban Milwaukee.

“You all should have been there!” she wrote on Twitter afterward. “Easily a couple of thousand at MAGA protest in Tosa. #ProudBoys held the perimeter.”

In a selfie accompanying the post, McKenna grinned next to the former Milwaukee county sheriff David Clarke, a rightwing mini-celebrity and Trump ally who has promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories and advocated vigilante violence against his political opponents (among them, Black Lives Matter protesters and social media companies). Clarke also guest-hosted WISN’s The Mark Belling Show – inviting Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader, to take over the airwaves two weeks after the 2020 presidential election. Tarrio was sentenced three years later to 22 years in prison on terrorism charges for his role in spurring on the January 6 Capitol riot.

In response to a question about Clarke’s role as a guest host, Belling wrote: “Our station policy is to allow the guest hosts to choose their content. I have zero involvement or knowledge of what they talk about as they report to station management, not me.”

McKenna did not respond to requests for comment. O’Donnell initially agreed to an interview but did not answer a call or subsequent requests to schedule one.

O’Donnell has often threaded a tricky rhetorical needle, distancing himself from Trump’s brazen and false claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” while nonetheless sharing anecdotal and unsourced claims of voter fraud and presenting the Trump campaign’s legal theories credulously and without context.

Shortly before January 6, O’Donnell described a last-ditch lawsuit from GOP attorneys general to delay the election’s certification as a long shot – before calling for an even more aggressive solution. “The only equitable remedy,” said O’Donnell, “is to rerun the elections.” During testimony to Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled state assembly shortly after the election, O’Donnell insisted the hearing “most certainly is not” about overturning the election results – then went on to recount case after case of alleged voter fraud that had occurred in nursing homes during the presidential election, citing the anonymous accounts of relatives of nursing home residents.

The idea that voting fraud was rampant in nursing homes has ever since been a centerpiece in conspiracy theories about the 2020 election in Wisconsin – despite subsequent investigations yielding no evidence of a plot.

In a 2020 opinion column, Belling echoed the false claims of far-right groups who had focused their sights on the state’s bipartisan elections commission. “The Wisconsin Election [sic] Commission is a tool of the Democratic Party,” wrote Belling. “This commission facilitated the mail-in ballot fiasco that magically found 250,000 more Biden votes than Hillary Clinton received in 2016.”

Ken Chesebro and Jim Troupis, two conservative attorneys who helped formulate the Trump team’s attempt to overturn the election results with fake electors, saw Wisconsin’s far-right talk radio hosts as key allies in spreading their bogus theories, emails and texts released in a March court settlement show.

McKenna needed no convincing.

“My friend Jim Troupis – Jim Troupis, friend of show, frequent guest on this program – is the lawyer in charge of the Trump recount,” said McKenna on 18 November. “He is going to be joining me very shortly to talk about the strategy.” During their conversation, Troupis laid out his theory: that thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of votes had been cast illegally. A recount would begin soon, and Troupis promised that “every challenge you can imagine is on the table”. McKenna responded that any challenges to the election results would probably be heard in court, and mused that “judges” hearing the case might not be willing to “do anything courageous”.

As January 6, the date when Congress would certify Biden’s 2020 win, approached, Chesebro floated a series of legal theories to justify overturning the 2020 election results, including suggesting the state legislature could ignore the popular vote in Wisconsin and send their own, pro-Trump electors.

This, Chesebro wrote in a 19 November email, “would only be viable if by early December there was a palpable sense among conservatives that there was a concerted effort by Democrats to steal this election in multiple states, and that the Wisconsin vote and vote-counting were so egregiously manipulated and opaquely handled that it would be unacceptable to credit the electoral votes that emerge out of this corrupted sausage factory”.

Eventually, a separate plan emerged: Republicans from the swing states that Biden won would submit “alternate” electors, for Trump and Mike Pence, his vice-president.

They turned to rightwing radio hosts in Wisconsin – as well as some activists – to communicate their theories to listeners across the state, name-checking hosts like O’Donnell, Belling and McKenna.

In a 1 December text message, Chesebro advised Troupis to send documents to their allies in the state.“I know you’re super close to her, but just a reminder to have someone get copies to Vicki [McKenna],” wrote Chesebro, before suggesting that he also share them with other conservative activists and talkshow hosts – including Belling, Clarke and O’Donnell.

As the 2024 election has drawn nearer, these same hosts have boosted Trump – and continued to push the idea that the political system is rigged against him.

Belling declared in a June 2023 column that Trump “would be serving a second term right now were it not for the lies and corruption of a government establishment, Democrat party and media/tech establishment”.

Jay Stone, a hypnotherapist who rose to prominence in Wisconsin as an election-denying activist who insisted that the 2020 election was rife with fraud, spoke on McKenna’s show on 15 November 2023, to advertise his legal efforts to change election administration in the state.

“Jay Stone is standing by,” said McKenna, introducing Stone to her listeners. “He’s the president of Hot Government, a citizen watchdog, election watchdog organization that has been on its own investigating Wisconsin election irregularities.” As Stone, who assisted the former Wisconsin supreme court justice Michael Gableman’s discredited hunt for fraud in Wisconsin, touted his lawsuits targeting absentee voting in Wisconsin, McKenna encouraged him: “These are irregularities that we’re talking about!”

Over the past year, the talkshow hosts have also rallied to recast Trump’s multiple criminal indictments as a Democratic conspiracy.

“You and I understand what all of this is,” said O’Donnell on his show in early March. “It’s lawfare, it is manufactured charges. I could make a compelling case, I could write 5,000 words about how none of the criminal cases against Donald Trump actually constitute crimes, not a single one of them.”

Unlike in much of the US, where conservative talk radio is dominated by nationally syndicated hosts, in Wisconsin it’s a homegrown phenomenon. Sykes rose to prominence in the 1990s on WTMJ, and Belling’s star rose during the same years on WISN; other stations in the state have since adopted the conservative talk model that was so successful there. By the early 2000s, conservative politicians understood the power of talk radio in Wisconsin and invested hours on shows promoting their campaigns and policies.

Their investments paid off: they helped elect Scott Walker as governor in 2010, and were his fiercest defenders in the media when he rammed through a bill that gutted public-sector unions.

Sykes’s relentless support for the conservative businessman Ron Johnson the same year helped propel him to the front of the Republican pack in 2010, helping Johnson win an upset Senate victory and positioning him to become one of Trump’s loudest, and most conspiracy-minded, supporters.

Since 2016, talkshows that once provided a megaphone for libertarian ideology have become more radical, propelling listeners further to the right.

In a 2023 report, researchers with the University of Wisconsin school of journalism found that Republican voters in Wisconsin who had siloed in partisan news “bubbles”, in which talk radio plays a prominent role, were more likely to accept anti-democratic views and conspiracy theories – including the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The radio landscape in Wisconsin could be shifting. In 2022, the tech entrepreneur and Democratic party donor Sage Weil introduced Civic Media, a left-leaning Wisconsin-based radio network, which he envisioned as a “counterpoint” to the rightwing voices that dominate the air. The popular Milwaukee-based radio show WTMJ has shifted away from conservative talk radio, too, adding a lineup of shows featuring voices from Civic Media.

“There’s some evidence that they’re picking up some traction,” said Michael Wagner, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“They’re not nearly as popular as conservative talk radio, but if you can persuade 5,000 Wisconsinites to change their vote in a presidential election, you can literally decide who the president is going to be for the whole country.”

With Trump now the presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 election, Wisconsin’s conservative talk radio hosts have a chance, again, to affect the former president’s odds in the state.

This time, though, they’ll be with him.