People usually put radio host Michael Savage in the company of other bombastic conservative broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. But in a brilliant profile in this week’s New Yorker, writer Kelefa Sanneh places Savage—born Michael A. Weiner to Jewish immigrants who ran a Lower East Side antique store and voted Democratic—in the much more interesting company of Jewish reactionaries (in the literal sense of the term) like Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and David Horowitz. Savage started out as a member of the 1960s and ‘70s counterculture, Sanneh reports: after graduating from Queens College he moved to the Bay Area, earned a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine from Berkeley, and authored numerous holistic health books. His political turn came in the early 1980s, when many patients began turning up at his San Francisco clinic with mysterious illnesses. Savage hypothesized—correctly, of course—that the disease was spreading through the city’s gay bathhouses, and it was his failed attempt to get San Francisco to shutter them that sent him on his rightward journey, eventually landing him in his current province of nativist, anti-affirmative action, media-hating talk.
Still, Sanneh argues that underneath all the bluster Savage is still just a neurotic New York Jew: one who peppers his show with references to shaygitzes and Shabbes goys; who flinches when remembering the time his car backfired in front of a shul on Yom Kippur, and who used to drop by Chabad services; who is preoccupied with his father’s early death and his own mortality. So what’s the difference between Savage and his Jewish neocon comrades? In the podcast that accompanies the story, Sanneh says it’s simple: “He stayed weird.”