What is my obsession with late-night AM radio? I started tuning into it eleven years ago while driving around the country after my mom’s death. I drove from Detroit to the Pacific Ocean with her ashes in the car, wanting to scream. As I scrolled through the radio in search of voices to keep me company, I began to understand the appeal of its doomsday preachers and fear merchants. They take personal pain and direct it outwards, pointing our private fears and failings toward the government, Marxists, or flying saucers. If that fails, you can always blame the ubiquitous they. They control the weather. They lie to you. They want to take your freedom. And so on.

Over the years, the radio became meaner and more partisan. No matter the program, the tone was the same: frightened voices indoctrinating a cult that rejected compassion and rational thought. I worried about where these energies might lead. Today the paranoid style dominates the internet and speaks from the White House. Late-night radio has lost its weird appeal for me, a dead canary in a coal mine. But sometimes, I enjoy skipping from station to station and listening to the nation babble to itself as it glides through frazzled sermons, nutritional advice, alien abductions, financial planning, and light drizzle at the airport.

Today the New York Times published at least two essays about doomsday prepping for the election and maybe a civil war. (Another unexpected iteration of those late-night shows about emergency food rations, etc.) Anxiety spreads like a virus, and perhaps these hysterical articles aren’t helpful when the election is still two months away. Our president is a grifter, a bully, and, thankfully, uniquely stupid; I don’t think he can tear civilization apart unless the media wills it into reality so it can gin up page views. Meanwhile, health officials are warning Americans not to gather in large groups this Labor Day weekend, which feels like Memorial Day again because the pandemic has stopped America’s clocks.