Last November, Jerry Springer’s phone rang, as it does whenever the Democrats lose. Would the outspoken talk show host, liberal political commentator and former mayor of Cincinnati consider running for office again? The answer, as always, was no.
There’s his age, 73, for one thing. And there’s his show, now in its 26th season and still kicking. He commutes from his Sarasota home to Connecticut to film five episodes every Monday and Tuesday. He also records a weekly podcast in Kentucky and travels around the country supporting Democratic candidates and talking politics.
Springer calls Sarasota an “oasis,” a place to lay low and escape attention, but in March, he made a rare public appearance at Bookstore1. Dressed in a charcoal blazer and a gray V-neck sweater over a white T-shirt, he spoke softly but with conviction, ripping the Trump administration and, in particular, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. He cited James Baldwin, teared up when discussing children’s health care and told the crowd he hoped he never saw them on his show.
“The show is so stupid,” he told me over coffee and iced tea the next afternoon. “It’s a circus.” It’s also too much fun to give up. Nobody will ever have better anecdotes at a party. Oh, you had a crazy day at work? Springer met a man who married his horse.
It’s understandable why people ask him to run for office. In the era of Trump, Congressman Springer, Sen. Springer, Gov. Springer—nothing sounds too farfetched. Almost nothing. Although Springer likes to mock-announce that he’s running for president to challenge Trump, he can never become president, because he was born in a London subway station that was sheltering people, including his parents, refugee Polish Jews, from Nazi bombing raids. They immigrated to Queens in 1949.
His family’s experience, Springer says, taught him something vital: “Governments can turn on you. Much of my family was exterminated in the Holocaust, and so for those of us who survived, politics was never just a topic of interest. It was our lives.”
As it is today for many Americans: Middle Eastern immigrants whose families are barred from visiting, undocumented college students brought to America as infants, black Americans facing obstacles to register to vote. If there’s one through-line to the Trump administration’s actions so far, Springer says, it’s a sustained attack on “multicultural America.” Bannon, for example, has suggested that America’s priority shouldn’t be to just halt illegal immigration but to also restrict legal immigration and slash the number of refugees entering the country.
The administration’s actions and rhetoric are “un-American,” Springer says, an insult to the very “idea of America.” There is no “real” homogenous straight white Christian America out there, he insists, a lesson that’s easy to discern from Springer’s show.
When I watched the show as a straight white Christian 15-year-old living in an almost all-white Ohio suburb, it was the first time I saw openly transgender men and women on television. Gay, lesbian and bisexual relationships were considered no big deal, and segments on interracial couplings depicted the bigots opposed to them as fools. Were the participants there to be mocked by the audience and viewers? Undeniably. But another message came through, too: These people’s desires and predicaments weren’t always alien from my own.
“Where do you find your guests?” people ask Springer. His answer: “Your neighborhood.” He’s said he wouldn’t watch the show, but he also charges that people who hate it are being elitist. Celebrities on late-night talk shows act just as stupid as his guests, he says: “Because they’re rich, famous and beautiful, they get away with it.”
Springer’s guests are “regular folks of no fame, little if any wealth and very little influence,” he said during one of the program’s “Final Thoughts” in 2015, “folks just taking a moment, which they rarely if ever get, to let the world know what they are thinking or feeling or doing. Admittedly, it’s often crazy.”
That populist stance connects his show to his politics. He wants to extend Medicare coverage to all Americans from birth until death, and he’s outraged by Trump’s proposal to eliminate federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels. The day after the inauguration, he showed up for the 8,000-person Women’s March over Sarasota’s Ringling bridge. Americans are waking up with a hangover and taking a hard look in the mirror, he says. “The history of America is that we do eventually come around,” he says. “But damn, it takes a long time to get it right.”
And if we don’t? He has a proposal. Springer estimates that he’s done 200 shows a year for 26 years, with an average of 10 guests a show, which means roughly 50,000 Americans have appeared on TV with him. He’s willing to cut a deal with Trump: Give Springer Nation an island and let Springer and his guests secede. He laughs and says, “All the people who hate my show would be so happy.”