Politics

The New Rush Limbaugh Is Even More Inflammatory

A man in a gray T-shirt that says, "Don't feed the hipsters."
Dan Bongino in Los Angeles in 2018. Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos first started hearing the name Dan Bongino about two years ago. “I first saw his name appear on the list of the most-trafficked items on Facebook,” he said. “Some of the names were familiar, like Sean Hannity or Ben Shapiro. And then there was this guy named Dan Bongino. And very often he would have many of the 10 most popular items.”

In case you aren’t quite sure who Dan Bongino is, here’s what you need to know: Over the past few years, Bongino has made himself into a central node in the right-wing information ecosystem. Bongino dominates on Facebook—his page often gets more engagement than those of the New York Times or Washington Post. Bongino’s got a podcast, of course. He spun that into a show on Fox News. And earlier this year, he took over Rush Limbaugh’s time slot on many terrestrial radio stations. “Millions and millions of people are listening every day,” Osnos said. “It is pure, constant political talk of the most intense and angry and agitated kind. It’s designed to be unifying of the believers and separating with the nonbelievers. It is about drawing boundaries of a tribe, of a community.”

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On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Osnos about how Dan Bongino became the leader of this tribe—and one of the most influential figures in conservative media—even though half of America is still learning his name. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: For those who may have never heard of Dan Bongino, I want to go way back and talk about where he came from. Can you give me a brief biographical sketch of this guy?

Evan Osnos: He started out as police officer in New York City. He’d grown up in Queens and Long Island, and studied psychology in college. And then he got a master’s degree in psychology, too, while also being a cop. He was always kind of restless. When I interviewed him, the moment when he was most vivid was in the description of an experience that he had as a child, when his mother’s boyfriend was abusive to him and his brother. And he told this very detailed description of the fear that he felt as a kid—this fear that is deep in you and it changes you forever.

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And he also described the relief of when he would encounter law enforcement, after having a run-in with this boyfriend, and how he wanted to be that person.

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He discovered that he could call the cops on the boyfriend and that would defuse the crisis and would relieve him of his fear. And he talks about it in ecstatic terms, that it was this moment of total relief. And he said, “I wanted to be that police officer who could show up and have that effect.” That was his reverence for the police. And eventually he makes a life in authority of various kinds. He goes on and joins the Secret Service and came to Washington and worked on the presidential detail for the George W. Bush administration and then ultimately for the Obama administration.

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In 2011, you found this quote where he described Obama as a wonderful father, a wonderful man. 

Mm hmm.

Which is so interesting to me because now he’s so extreme. I don’t think he would describe Obama in those terms at all.

No, he calls him the most corrupt president in American history now. There is this very distinct difference between the former Bongino and the person or the role that he expresses now. When he was in the Secret Service, he never talked about politics. He didn’t have a strong political identity. And he’s gone through this thorough transformation over the course of a decade to the point where he is now this self-described combatant in the world of information warfare. And what changed is that he found himself in a moment of opportunity, a chance to be a big deal in the conservative world, and he has grasped it.

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How did he get that opportunity?

He first left the Secret Service in order to run for office, and that didn’t work very well. He lost a race in Maryland for Congress. Then he ran again, and he lost again. And then he ran again, and he lost again, this time in Florida. So he had these three experiences of being rejected by electoral politics. But along the way, he found this other way in. He started this podcast in his basement.

And all of a sudden, he was getting invited on to shows like Infowars and Sean Hannity’s and Mark Levin’s shows. And he had this key thing: The thing that set him apart was, because he had worked in the Secret Service, he could present himself as almost a teller of truths, a defector from within the halls of the White House. And Alex Jones loved that because he could say, “They’re so afraid of this guy now.” The truth was: No, they weren’t afraid of Bongino. But it was a very valuable role to play. And he eventually got a TV show on NRATV.

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All of this is building his identity and making it more and more concentrated and intensified as this very aggressive conservative. As he finally said one day, “My entire life is about owning the libs now.” The Dan Bongino that had once described Obama as a great father and a great man was way in the rearview mirror. And this new Bongino was profiting spectacularly from this new identity.

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So Bongino built this media presence, but then it seems to me like Trump supercharged it. And you actually wrote, “No one in American media has profited more from the Trump era and its aftermath than Bongino.” Can you explain that?

If you think about it, five or six years ago when Donald Trump came into politics, Dan Bongino was in his basement running his podcast with moving blankets on the wall. And he figured out early on that Trump would respond very favorably to flattery. And Bongino did see himself as very much a Trump guy—they’re both from Queens, so he saw himself as a kind of natural Trumpist. When he would say things about Trump on Fox or on the radio, Trump would retweet it. And people around the White House started to hear Trump talk about, “Hey, this guy Bongino is really saying all the right things,” and that’s the symbiotic relationship.

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Symbiotic or parasitic, it’s hard to know.

Yeah, that’s a good way to put it, actually. He latched on and found this thriving blood source in the Trump movement, and he could build off of it. And Trump endorsed his books. Bongino’s identity was that he was the one who was willing to stand up for Trump when others in the Republican world would wobble. And that became his identity and began to build out his audience in larger and larger numbers.

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By 2021, Bongino’s podcast had become the place for the far right to get its fix. When Bongino took over for Rush Limbaugh, Trump himself came on to announce that he was considering running for president again.

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But listening to Dan Bongino ascend to Limbaugh’s throne, Evan Osnos has mostly been struck by how different Bongino is from his predecessor. While Limbaugh was schticky, broadcasting hokey songs and skits, Bongino’s show puts entertainment on the back burner, hammering away at right-wing talking points. Osnos says the show’s repetitive nature is actually part of its appeal.

There’s this incredible, fascinating research done about why radio works—why Top 40 radio works—and what some DJs figured out is that even though people say they want variety, they don’t really. Actually they want the same thing over and over again, and they’ll turn away, in fact, if you mix it up too much. And then that just came over into the talk radio world to the point that now you hear people repeat the same messages over and over again. But when those are political messages, that has the effect of actually altering people’s perceptions, because one of the things we know—every dictator and cheerleader figures out early on—is that repetition has this really powerful cognitive impact. It makes you begin to see things as more important, as larger, as dominant. And that is essential to his approach. That’s why he repeats the same expressions, the same warnings, the same sense of alarm, the same encouragement to see yourself as imperiled. That is the core of the product.

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Is there any nuance here, because there are these contradictions in what he says. Like, Bongino says the election was rigged but not stolen. And he’s also against vaccine mandates. But he’s pretty clear that he’s been vaccinated. So are there nuances here and do the nuances matter?

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Exactly as you say, he’ll talk very often about how the presidential election was rigged. He often repeats the word. And if you press him on it, he’ll say, “Well, I don’t think it was fully stolen.” But then he’ll describe in more generalized terms why he thinks that the intelligence community and the media interfered with the election in a way that threw the results.

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And you have to decide whether you think that’s nuance or whether that’s him talking out of two sides of his mouth. He often finds ways of galloping toward a red line, and then he’ll veer away before he gets to that line because he knows that there are things that he will do that will get him thrown off of the social media and video-streaming channels that he really depends on.

But do you think he believes what he’s selling, and does it matter?

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That’s one of the core fascinating questions, right? I thought a lot about this, and I came to the view that if you look at the way that he changed himself—he’s transformed over the last 10 years, almost physically too, he’s gotten much brawnier. He broadcasts in a T-shirt now instead of wearing a jacket and tie the way he did when he was a Secret Service agent—he clearly found a business, and that business depends on him voicing these ideas. And at a certain point, it becomes almost irresponsible as a businessman for him not to sell these things as passionately as he can.

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I kind of came to see him a little bit like a method actor who really is inhabiting every idea that he says, whether or not he believes it. I can’t pretend to be between his ears and know what he thinks. The net effect, though, is that he does it with such intensity that his listeners don’t seem to question whether or not he believes it.

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So in the end, I don’t think it matters that much if it’s a grift or if it’s a deep belief. What matters is the effect on our politics and on our country.

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So what is Bongino’s goal? We’ve talked about how he’s intertwined and inseparable from Trump. So is part of his goal with his broadcasts getting Trump back in office and back in power?

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Yeah, for sure. Because as he says explicitly, “I hope he comes back.” There’s been nothing that has been more important for him personally and financially than Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. There’s a lot of reasons why he would want Trump back in power politically and every other way.

But there’s also a larger play here, which is Bongino is laying the foundation for a new generation of conservative voices and the stages on which those voices will be heard that will be there, whether Trump returns to office or not.

You highlighted a moment from this fall as a turning point for Dan Bongino, because he threatened to pull the plug on his national radio show because the company that distributed it had a vaccine mandate. Can you explain what happened?

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Yeah, he had a showdown that he created with his radio network, where he said, “Look, I can’t stand for these vaccine mandates.” Even though he is personally vaccinated, he regards the mandates as odious. So he went on hiatus.

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It didn’t exactly go how he hoped. He’d imagined this might generate a big public outcry in support of him. But actually other right-wing broadcasters called this virtue signaling. And some of the local affiliates began to complain that he was forcing them to run reruns. It just didn’t go very well.

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So eventually he comes back on the air, and he described it as a stalemate and said he had set up a fund and put about a quarter of a million dollars of his own money into it in order to compensate people at the network who had lost their jobs because they wouldn’t get the vaccine. But he used it as evidence of why he’s been saying all along, “We have to have our own technology, our own platforms, because otherwise we’re always going to be subject to these kinds of pressures and authorities.” So it became proof of concept for him.

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All that talk about building networks specifically for the right isn’t just talk. Bongino has invested in a host of apps and platforms designed to create a parallel online ecosystem for people who see the world as he does. That includes a payment processor called AlignPay instead of PayPal; the video-streaming service Rumble instead of YouTube; and Parler, aka conservative Twitter. The point is to create an information economy where the far right gets to make the rules.

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These websites are all designed to be insulated from the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear on places like Facebook and Twitter. There are a lot of people who would say that the big technology companies don’t do enough to police themselves against things like hate speech or the organization of violence of the kind that we saw on Jan. 6 or things like that. But the truth is: There is also some degree of governance on there. They do kick people off for violating their rules. So there is a way in which these platforms do provide some level of guardrails.

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And what Dan Bongino is using his money and his influence to do is to try to create alternative technology platforms that would not have those guardrails, that would not be subject to the pressure on advertisers from people who say that this content is dangerous and inflammatory and shouldn’t be on mainstream platforms.

So the idea is basically in the wake of Jan. 6, Trump gets kicked off Twitter, but if we have a Twitter of our own, he’ll never get kicked off.

Yeah, that’s exactly it, actually. It’s a double-edged sword because on the one hand, OK, that gives them a voice they never had before, but it is different than being on the main stage. It’s a little bit like they’re going to be off in their own cul-de-sac. But I think it’s a big mistake to assume that that means it doesn’t have an impact. We know now that Parler was an important venue in which people on Jan. 6 had been discussing these ideas. So we have to be alert to what happens on those alternative websites or we’re going to be caught by surprise.

Going into the long weekend, YouTube temporarily suspended Dan Bongino’s channel, after he said masks were “useless” in the fight against COVID-19. This is a “first strike.” After three, Dan Bongino would be kicked off the platform—permanently.

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