Photography by Mirelle Inglefield

The Trump Whisperer

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: People Issue: October 2017
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KTAR’s new pro-Trump voice is a former Phoenix hip-hop DJ with an odd gift for comprehending the president. But what does Darin Damme’s arrival on mainstream talk radio say about the Valley? And the nation? 

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign lasted exactly two minutes and five seconds for Primavera Damme.

That’s how long it took the improbable candidate, after descending his golden escalator at Trump Tower in July 2015, to insult her heritage with his headline-grabbing condemnation of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

“I wasn’t a fan of his before that, but I was open to hearing what he had to say,” says the Chandler mom, who grew up as Primavera Sanchez in the largely Hispanic community of Fresno, Calif. “But once he started saying those things right at the beginning, it really turned me off. And I just could not stand behind and support somebody that talks the way he talked.”

“Trump lost her forever at that moment,” says Primavera’s husband, KTAR radio talk show host Darin Damme. “My wife comes from a strong Mexican-American family – they’re not Latino, they’re Chicano, and there’s no question about it! I mean, her parents marched with César Chavez. So I completely understood where she was coming from. She wasn’t wrong – what Trump said was highly offensive.”

Damme pauses. This is an uncharacteristic moment for the stocky, energetic broadcaster, something he rarely if ever does when the mic is hot – criticize the president.

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Damme DJing at Y95 in 1989

Since launching KTAR’s new evening talk show Reality Check With Darin Damme last January, the one-time Top 40 DJ has distinguished himself as Trump’s most ardent supporter and fearless apologist in mainstream Valley media. While his fellow conservative talkers at KTAR gamely take Trump to task for his unbridled tweeting and desultory, self-aggrandizing press conferences, Damme sees only a winning disposition. When his colleagues criticized the president for his cavalier address to law-enforcement officers in Brentwood, Long Island, urging them “[not to] be too nice” to suspects in the midst of escalating national unrest over use of force, Damme saw only levity. “He was joking!” Damme insisted, towing the Trumpian line.

He dismisses the FBI’s ongoing Russian hacking investigation as “a witch hunt,” excoriates Arizona’s U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake for defying the president and frequently traffics in fake-news conspiracy theories voiced by Infowars ringmaster Alex Jones and other members of Trump’s alt-right base, including hinting strongly that the murder of a woman during August’s anti-racism protest in Charlottesville, Va., was part of a “false-flag” operation designed to discredit Trump and his supporters.

And then there’s his voice – a remarkable, helium-pitched instrument that suggests a hybrid of comedian Charlie Day and the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee. When Damme wanders into a topic that really gets him fuming, like Hillary Clinton’s emails or Barack Obama’s deep-state cabal, he adds a touch of ticked-off Long Island grandmother, and it’s tempting in those moments to imagine he was created in a laboratory by a team of alt-right scientists specifically to torture progressives, moderates and mainstream journalists.

To be sure, Damme is a unique product. Though aggressive pro-Trump ideology is easily found on the Internet, particularly in the dark recesses of alt-right forums, it’s much rarer in mainstream talk radio, where stations are still grappling with how to attract Trump’s base without tainting their news departments, whose facts are often at odds with the president’s alternative ones.

But Reality Check is heard every weeknight on Phoenix’s leading news radio station, an outlet that consistently ranks in Nielsen’s top 10 for local audience share.

No question – Damme has influence and power. But just how far will he follow the yellow-haired rabbit down the alt-right hole? And perhaps more importantly, how far will KTAR let him?

“Darin Damme is one of us! And he’s broadcasting in the mainstream media!”

In July, Dave Hodges of Surprise, creator of conservative podcast The Common Sense Show, tweeted a link to a blog post with that title, and the pronouncement has become the most retweeted item regarding Damme.

“He’s a truth teller,” says Hodges, who recounts the moment he first heard Damme on air the same way someone would describe meeting a long-lost brother. “As a broadcaster myself, I’ve experienced the real prejudice in our major media toward anyone who says they endorse Trump. There is an elitism and a worldview repeated over and over on outlets like CNN, ABC, The New York Times and The Washington Post. And it’s good to hear, in our mainstream media, someone like Darin Damme who is able to present that middle-class, conservative view that’s missing.”

For Hodges, who syndicates his show on conservative Internet radio outlets like Red State Talk Radio and TalkStream Live, Damme represents one of his own breaking into the mainstream big leagues – bigly.

“Heretofore, people who expressed Darin’s points of view had been labeled a conspiracy theorist, and that’s been a pejorative term to marginalize people like Darin,” he says. “And now he’s getting to present a more complete story of the way the world’s really working – on the largest news/talk station in the state!”

Damme’s journey to prominence was unconventional, but it did cross a surprisingly common intersection for radio political pundits: Top 40 FM radio.

The broadcasting bug bit Damme early. At 13, as a kid growing up in the Arizona mountain town of Pine, he got a job reading the Pine School newsletter on KMGF in Payson, and says he instantly “had the fire.”

“Right then,” he says, “I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

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Damme with his family

After moving to Phoenix and graduating from Mountain View High School in 1989, Damme began pursuing radio seriously, bouncing from city to city – Milwaukee, Riverside, Las Vegas and Fresno, where he met his wife – before eventually returning to Phoenix.

In the Valley, Damme made a name for himself as Krazy Kid, co-hosting the Krazy Kid and Ruben show with partner Ruben Solorzano on several hip-hop and Top 40 radio stations from 1996 until 2008. One of the great phenomena of Phoenix radio is how so many people who got their start at Phoenix music stations like Y95 (KOY) and Power 92 (KKFR) ended up in conservative talk radio.

“It’s amazing how you don’t realize you’re part of history while it’s taking place,” Damme says. “When I walked into Y95, Glenn Beck and Tim Hattrick were doing the morning show. And Jessica Hahn and B.J. Harris were the evening show. I’m 16 years old, and Jessica Hahn’s doing Playboy layouts, we’ve got Geraldo Rivera on the hotline. It was pretty neat!”

KTAR mid-morning talker Bruce St. James started at Power 92, too; and morning news anchor Jim Sharpe worked at alternative outlet KZON The Zone, where Damme drove the “Party Patrol” van to live remotes from local high schools. Sharpe can’t recall Damme revealing any early inklings of his right-leaning political views back then.

“Honestly, I don’t know if we ever had any big political discussions riding around in the party van,” he says, with a laugh. “Back then, he was just a high schooler who was dying to be on hip-hop radio.”

The first sign that perhaps Damme’s political bent may have been just a bit out of whack with the more liberal ethos of the music stations he worked at was when he made an off-the-cuff comment on the air at 104.7 KISS FM following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I saw on the news that people were losing their lives because these other able-bodied people refused to leave when they were told,” he recalls. “So there were people looting, law enforcement services being stretched thin.” His lightning-rod remark: “I don’t think you can yell into the camera, ‘Where’s the help?’ when you’re not willing to help yourself.”

At a moment when Kanye West was proclaiming, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” Damme’s comment enraged a good portion of KISS’ audience, prompting a seven-month suspension by station owner Clear Channel Communications that finished out his contract.

After that, Damme had trouble finding work at other music stations. But talk radio began to show interest. KTAR gave him a brief tryout as a late-night host, substituting for a vacationing Larry Gaydos from 9 p.m. to midnight in December 2006.

“I got suspended because it was a Top 40 station, and you’re not supposed to get political,” he says. “But in the end, that’s what got me the job at KTAR. Because they saw that I was opinionated and not afraid to say what I felt.”

Presaging his talk radio career, he ventured into businesses catering to the fringe “prepper” element, opening a gold store and the Off The Grid survivalist supply store in Palm Springs. In the meantime, Damme was trying his hand at Internet radio, investing $25,000 into a home studio. Around that time, he also became fluent at scouring the Web for beyond-the-headlines news tidbits, a skill that would serve him well later.

“He just immersed himself in news and current events,” Primavera says. “Always researching on his own, and never taking what any one news channel was saying at face value. He would dive into it.”

Damme’s passionate aggregation of alt-right news sources is presumably where he gets his wizardly knack for guessing Trump’s next move before he makes it. Consider POTUS’ Saturday morning tweet storm on March 4, when Trump accused President Obama of wiretapping his phones during the election. It turned out that Damme had been mining that same conspiracy theory on-air since February 14 – along with much of the alt-right “news” community. It was only a matter of time before Trump picked it up and tweeted it as fact.

“I remember calling my wife over to the computer, saying, ‘Look, he just tweeted that he was being surveilled’ – just like I’ve been saying!’” Damme recalls. “She just rolled her eyes and said, ‘OK, whatever. Cool.’”

He latched onto Trump early in his campaign, discovering in the blustery candidate an unfiltered audacity that Damme took as a muse for his own opinionated voice.   

“People don’t care about politically correct anymore,” he says, employing the hot-button phrase that has riled free-expression libertines on every side of the aisle from Bill Maher to Rush Limbaugh. “So I thought, right at the beginning of Trump’s candidacy, ‘This guy’s gonna win. You watch.’”

Damme communicated that prediction to the executives at KTAR radio, and continued sending them emails and text messages throughout the Trump campaign. “On the night he won, I sent them another text, saying, ‘Well, who called it?’” he recounts with a laugh.

By then, KTAR had already agreed to give Damme a shot on the air, handing him the 6 to 8 p.m. shift previously slotted to KTAR’s evening news program. “After Trump had gotten the Republican nomination, they finally told me, ‘OK, we’re looking to add a new voice here. Let’s see what you’ve got.’”

Since starting Reality Check, Primavera says she and their three kids are just happy Damme’s finally got an audience beyond the dinner table for his political musings. “This is not a new thing for him, this is always what he’s been about,” she says. “But now he gets paid for what he’s always been doing!”

KTAR staffers privately admit that Damme’s hiring has been divisive at the station.

Some view it as a crass attempt to pander to the alt-right. Others are more philosophical.

 “I think Darin was seen as a [good] opportunity, rather than, ‘Let’s go find somebody who likes Trump!’” says Jim Sharpe, co-host of KTAR’s morning news and commentary program. “He is definitely different than all the other hosts, in that he is willing to see the president’s point of view and accept what the president says more readily than anybody else at the station, I’ll say that. I don’t think it makes him a sycophant, but Darin’s definitely more of a cheerleader for the president, and a lot more skeptical of his critics, than anybody else at the station.”

That was clearly evident following the August 12 clash between torch-bearing white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville. While business leaders and GOP lawmakers formerly aligned with Trump scrambled to distance themselves from a president who appeared to be unable to unequivocally denounce racists, Damme doubled down. For him, the violence of the weekend ranked as a tragic sideshow to what he saw as the real battle: the establishment’s efforts to use the event to demonize the president and his followers.

“What this is,” Damme said, “is a full-blown assault on a major section of the American people whom the establishment wants to ostracize, because we dared to stand up and say we want a different form of government.”

He floated the conspiracy theory that the Charlottesville clash was a planned “false flag” operation, charging that the left bussed paid protestors to the rally as a “set-up” guaranteed to generate confrontation that would make Trump look like the instigator. “The people involved were not actors, they were useful idiots,” Damme says. “On. Both. Sides.”

By week’s end, he was pushing the alt-right talking point about the anti-fascist militant movement, Antifa, wielding a self-appointed “moral authority” over the neo-Nazis as an excuse to be equally hateful: “If the protesters from the other side also bring bats and shields and helmets and are striking out at the racist protesters, that’s not an issue?”

It’s a textbook Trump-era statement – the kind of labored equivalency that makes like-minded listeners collectively nod in agreement, while others blink and say to themselves: “We’re talking about Nazis, right?”

On his KTAR bio page, Damme caricatures himself as a “cowboy boot-wearing white guy.”

He also proudly touts his family’s mixed roots. “My wife is Hispanic, our three kids are both,” he writes, “and if someone hurts them, one of us is going to the hospital and the other is going to jail.”

Conservative pundits and politicians often name-drop their diverse relations to gain a pass with various communities: Former CNN commentator Lou Dobbs would frequently invoke his Hispanic wife as a shield against critics who charged him with immigrant-bashing.

But Damme’s roots in the Valley’s Hispanic community, along with the city’s hip-hop culture, undeniably run deep. That may explain why he reserves a special passion for supporting programs like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) on air, regardless of the president’s ambivalence.

“With my background in hip-hop and Top 40, we were at the car shows, we were at the car washes, the quinceañeras,” he says. “So I’ve seen that culture, I’ve been in that culture and I love that culture.”

Corbin Carson, a reporter and producer at KTAR who spent time before college as rapper Mic Wyld, co-founder of the pioneering Valley hip-hop duo Know Qwestion, says Damme was an important ally for young black kids then, too.

“When you were trying to break into the hip-hop scene and you had somebody like Krazy Kid working at the biggest hip-hop station in town, you wanted to get to know that guy,” he says. “He meant a lot to the scene back then.”

Alafia Long, Carson’s partner in Know Qwestion who, as rapper Pokafase, became Phoenix’s first hip-hop artist to sign with a major label, remembers how he was taken aback by Krazy Kid’s Katrina gaffe.

“Definitely the Katrina remark was a red flag to me,” says Long, who remains at the forefront of the local hip-hop scene, hosting the Sunday morning homegrown showcase The Beatlocker on 101.1 FM The BEAT. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ Yeah, in retrospect, some of that conservatism may have been shining through then.”

Damme’s hip-hop and Top 40 roots peek through his commentary in playful urban linguistics. On Trump’s threats to use “fire and fury” against North Korea, he boils down the media’s reaction to “Hey, tone it down, playa!” On criticisms of Trump’s constant retreats to his golf resort, Damme just shrugs, “Dude’s got a place to kick it.”
But his younger brother Dayne, who followed him into radio and now works as a marketing director for the Entercom chain of stations in Austin, Texas, insists that Damme does practice genuine empathy.

“While we have many similarities, our political differences have always been apparent,” says Dayne, who recalls his brother was initially troubled when Dayne came out as gay but eventually began to evolve his views on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. “I remember back in the day we would have heated exchanges, but always come to a middle ground of realization that everything isn’t always right or left. There is a middle ground that we as Americans, and human beings, need to find.”

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Carson often comes on Damme’s show in the role of the black friend. Their debate on Confederate monuments was particularly testy – at one point, Damme told him, “You and I both know Abraham Lincoln was no fan of black people.” As such, Carson allows that Damme has taken some unexpected right turns since his DJ days, but insists it hasn’t hurt their friendship.

“Maybe two things like [having] conservative values and liking hip-hop don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he proposes. “People can be more than one thing.”

Naturally, Damme’s views don’t always play well with his wife, either. Primavera says the two of them consciously avoid discussing politics at home.

“There’s so many other things that are important in my life that I’d rather focus on,” she says. “Besides, he knows I’m not going to debate or go back and forth on any of the issues. His views are his views, but, like I’ve told him many times, he’s not going to change my views.”

One group of people who haven’t yet heard Damme’s radio show are Primavera’s family members and friends in California.

“They know about Darin’s show, but I don’t think they’ve ever listened,” she says, noting that archives of each broadcast are available online. “And that’s probably a good thing! Some of my friends in California are very, very liberal, and when they ask where they can hear his show, I say, ‘You know what? Don’t bother. It’s OK!’”

It’s the Friday after Charlottesville, and it’s been a particularly trying five days for Damme.

All week long on his program, he’s had to address what he calls the “mass hysteria bubble” regarding Trump’s perceived failure to condemn white supremacy, even as white nationalists and pro-Confederate groups continued to announce rallies in other cities, drawing much larger groups of anti-racist protesters.
Damme tells his audience the vitriol has spread into his personal life, with angry listeners lumping him in with the Nazis for parroting Trump’s “many sides” stance.

“What’s going on with everybody out there?” he asks. “People are attacking friends. People are attacking normal, everyday people. I’m getting attacked personally. My wife and kids are being brought into it.”

He pauses to read an email from a woman named Kate. “You are shameless,” she writes. “I feel sorry for your Hispanic children and wife – assuming you’re still married. You completely lack the empathy you need to be friends with any minority.” And finally, “You’re like Alex Jones, who only... incites hate and paranoia.”

Damme is clearly affected by the broadside. “You tell me who is filled with hate,” he says, in a quiet voice. “People say, ‘Well, we have a moral authority.’ You know, you can beat the snot out of people marching down the street because they’re KKK members and you’re good people standing up to racists. There’s a ‘moral authority.’ And Kate, you think you got a moral authority to go after somebody’s kids and wife because you think you’re on the right side of this.”

It’s an odd defense. Damme is not arguing that his “side” has its own comparable moral agenda; rather, he seems to be conceding that the Trump movement may truly be “morally barren,” as The Economist characterized it. Damme’s point is that it doesn’t matter anymore – unapologetic cynicism.

It’s a contagion that pervades America’s current moment, and may be the reason Damme’s story is bigger than that of a Top 40 DJ who reinvented himself. If supporting the president means equivocating on Russian hackers or white supremacist marchers, might the country’s self-esteem – or, at least, its shared standards – be at stake? Damme cleanly distilled it in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when he offered this matter-of-fact defense of the president’s performance: “The guy who didn’t offer to be your moral leader didn’t offer any moral leadership. Just law and order, applied equally.”

It’s a sobering statement, because the president is probably listening. And he just might believe it.

 

From Party Vans to Party Lines

Phoenix has a history of transforming DJs into conservative talk radio hosts. Some notables – where they started and where they are now:

Glenn Beck
1986-1989: Co-hosted the “Morning Zoo” with Tim Hattrick on Y95 (KOY). Drew fire for once calling the wife of KZZP rival Bruce Kelly on-air to ask her about her miscarriage, then joking that Kelly “can’t even have a baby right.”

Today: After appearing regularly on Fox News and launching his own conservative cable TV network TheBlaze, Beck’s nationally syndicated talk show now airs in Phoenix weeknights on 550 KFYI.

Bruce St. James
1997-2007: Toward the end of his tenure, pulled double duty as program director of Power 92 (then KTAR’s sister station) and early afternoon talk show host on KTAR. Conservative even then, he programmed 2 Live Crew and Eminem while backing George W. Bush on talk radio.

Today: Co-hosts  the Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes show on KTAR weekday mornings from 9 a.m.-noon.

Jim Sharpe
1996-1999: Morning and afternoon DJ on KZON The Zone. Worked with Damme on the “Party Patrol” van, doing remote broadcasts on the streets, with Damme as the driver. Got first talk radio gig in 1999 at KFYI; briefly served as a war correspondent in Iraq.

Today: Co-hosts Arizona’s Morning News with Jayme West on KTAR from 5 -9 a.m. on weekdays.

Corbin Carson
Late ‘90s: Co-founded Phoenix hip-hop duo Know Qwestion with Alafia Long, AKA Pokafase. Opened for acts like the Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim, Big Pun and Nas. Once rapped over a loop of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun.”

Today: After graduating with a master’s in journalism from ASU in 2012, now works as a reporter and producer at KTAR; frequent guest on Damme’s Reality Check.