The New King of Conservative Media

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S1: So Evan, when was the first time you heard the name Dan Bongino?

S2: That’s interesting. I guess it was probably about two years ago.

S1: Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

S2: I first saw his name appear on the list of the most trafficked items on Facebook. Somebody at the New York Times had started putting together a list every day of the things that were most popular, and some of the names were familiar. You know, you might see somebody like Sean Hannity or Ben Shapiro. And then there was this guy named Dan Bongino. And very often he would have many of the most of the 10 most popular items.

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S1: And were you just like, who is this guy?

S2: Yeah, yeah, I really was. I was. For me, at least, it was a totally brand new name.

S1: In case you aren’t quite sure who Dan Bongino is. Here’s what you need to know. Over the last 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 The Washington Post. Bongino has got a podcast, of course. He spun that into a show on Fox News, and earlier this year he took over Rush Limbaugh’s timeslot on many terrestrial radio stations.

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S2: Millions and millions of people are listening every day.

S3: We dismantle lefties talking points on the regular every single day. I’m telling you almost nothing they’re telling you is true. You’re one.

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S1: It’s funny because I think of taking over Rush Limbaugh’s slot as kind of a coronation of sorts. Did Bongino see it that way?

S2: Yeah, it was certainly felt that way in the conservative media world.

S3: Do you realize how dumb you have to be to be a liberal?

S1: When I read the way you describe Bongino show, I think of it as like a distillation of Limbaugh or like boiling it down to its parts. Is that how you think of it? Could you describe it?

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S2: Yeah, that’s an interesting way to frame it. I think that’s right. In some ways, it’s this kind of next iteration of the model. There’s an apocalyptic overtone to a lot of what he says. And you know, it’s it’s not that obscure. I mean, he is selling survivalist food rations on his show. I mean, those are the kinds of advertisers and a lot of guns. It is pure and constant political talk of the most intense and angry and agitated kind. That is all that is left, and that is what people tune in for. It’s designed to be unifying of the believers and separating with the non-believers. It is about drawing boundaries of a tribe of a community.

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S1: Today on the show, 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. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. For those who may have never heard of Dan Bongino, I want to go way back and just talk about where he came from. Can you give me a brief biographical sketch of this guy?

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S2: Yeah, he started out as a police officer in New York City. He’d grown up in kind of queens and Long Island and studied psychology in college. And then he got a master’s degree in psychology, too. But while also being a cop and he was always kind of restless, you get the sense that he’s always been trying to do something different. When I interviewed him, the the moment when he was in in web most vivid was in the description of an experience that he had a very unhappy experience that as a child, when as by by his description, 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 and the fear as he says it wasn’t just the fear that you have of a horror movie. It’s like this fear that is deep in you and it changes you forever. That was how he described it.

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S1: 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.

S2: That’s exactly right. He sort of discovered that he could call the cops on the boyfriend and that that would that would defuse the crisis and would relieve him of his fear. And he talks about it and in kind of ecstatic terms that it was this moment of total relief and it was like. And I think and he said I wanted to be that I wanted to be the police officer who could show up and have that effect. And I think that was his kind of reverence for the police. And eventually he makes a life in authority of various kinds. He goes on, 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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S1: 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, you know, now he’s so extreme. And I don’t think he would describe Obama in those terms at all.

S2: 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 of the role that he expresses now. When he was in the Secret Service, he never talked about politics. You know, somebody worked with him was like, we had no idea what his politics were. I don’t think they existed, really. He didn’t have a strong political identity. And he’s gone through this rapid transformation, or at least a thorough transformation over the course of a decade to the point where he is now, this kind of self-described combatant in the world of information warfare. And I think what changed which is the key question, is that he found himself in a moment of opportunity, a business opportunity, a personal opportunity, a chance to be a big deal in the conservative world. And he has grasped it.

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S1: How did he get that opportunity?

S2: Well, you know, 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 kind of three experiences of being in effect, kind of rejected by electoral politics. But along the way, he found this other way in. He started this podcast in his basement.

S3: Welcome to Dan Bongino show, I’ve got a loaded show, including a major break yesterday, a warren served apparently at the residence of a Russian, and maybe there’s a connection to this Soros thing I’ve been telling you about for the last few days. Floated show again, let’s get right to it today’s show.

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S2: And all of a sudden he was getting invited on to shows like Infowars and on to Sean Hannity and Mark Levin shows. And he was building this audience and he had this key thing. The thing that set him apart was because he had worked in the Secret Service. He could kind of present himself as almost like a sort of teller of truths, a kind of defector from within the halls of the White House. And that was, you know, Alex Jones loved that because he could say, like, they’re so afraid of this guy. Now, the truth was, no, no. They weren’t afraid of Bongino. That was not, but it was a very valuable kind of role to play. And he developed that eventually got a TV show on MNRE TV, which is this video streaming platform supported by the National Rifle Association. And all of this is building his identity and making it more and more kind of concentrated and intensified as this very aggressive conservative. As he finally said one day, he said, You know, my entire life is about owning the libs now and the Dan Bongino that it once described Obama as a great father and a great man. You know, that was like way in the rearview mirror, and this new Bongino was was was profiting spectacularly from this new identity.

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S1: So Bongino kind of 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?

S2: If you think about it five or six years ago when Donald Trump kind of came into politics, Dan Bongino was in his basement running his podcast with moving blankets on the wall. You know, he he’d lost a couple of races. It wasn’t clear what he was going to do. He had a little business that he ran out of his house at one point with his wife that sold socks for mixed martial arts, which is his hobby. And he figured out early on that, you know, Trump would respond very favorably to flattery. And so, you know, when when Bongino, who did see himself as very much a kind of Trump guy, they’re both from queens. So he saw himself as a kind of natural Trumpist. And then when he would say things about Trump on Fox or on the radio, Trump would retweet it. And actually 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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S1: symbiotic or parasitic. It’s hard to know.

S2: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it, actually. I mean, he latched on and and found this thriving blood source in the Trump movement, and he could build off of it. And Trump endorsed his books. He would tweet about it. He’d say, Hey, buy this book, or this sounds like a great book the Bongino is publishing. And, you know, Bongino, whose identity was that he was the most. He was the one who was willing to stand up for Trump in effect, when when others in the Republican world would would wobble. And and that became his identity and began to build out his audience in larger and larger numbers by 2021.

S1: Bongino, his podcast had become the place for the far right to get its facts when he took over for Rush Limbaugh. Trump himself came on his show to announce he was considering running for president again. 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 sticky broadcasting, hockey songs and skits, Bongino show puts entertainment on the back burner, hammering away at right wing talking points. Evan says the show’s repetitive nature is actually part of its appeal.

S2: There was this incredible, fascinating research done about why radio works, why Top 40 radio works and what they discovered was back in the 1950s. Some deejays figured out that actually people, even though they 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 if you mix it up too much and that that fact became the reason why Top 40 exists. 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, as you know, every dictator in cheerleader figures out early on, that repetition has this really powerful cognitive impact. It makes you begin to see things as 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 sort of encouragement to see yourself as imperiled. That is the core of the product.

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S3: Folks, it pains me to have to tell you this how disingenuous and how grotesque our government has become. You have been lied to for two years now for two reasons and two reasons only they wanted to attack Donald Trump, and now they want to protect Joe Biden, who by his own measure, remember when he said any president on guard while there’s 220000 deaths from COVID doesn’t deserve to be president? There are more deaths now over there under Biden. So now what is the media? Do they need it? A fear porn campaign. Hospitals are overflowing. People are dying everywhere with COVID. They’re burning the bodies. Joe in the emergency room, meanwhile, doing dance videos and stuff in the hallway of these hospitals. Why? Not because any of it was true, but because they needed to make it appear that Donald Trump didn’t have his arms around in a bear hug situation and lost control so they can attack him. Now that Joe Biden’s numbers on coronavirus are far, far worse, they have to start to dial all that back. Dial it back, dial it back.

S1: Is there any nuance here because there are these contradictions or nuances in what he says? Like Bongino says, the election was rigged but not stolen, right? And he’s also against vaccine mandates, but he’s pretty clear that he’s been vaccinated. He’s a cancer survivor, and it was necessary his doctor recommended it. Yeah. So are there nuances here and do the nuances matter?

S2: Well, exactly. As you say, he’ll talk very often about how the the presidential election was rigged. He often repeats the word, and he says, I know that liberals don’t like that word rigged. It’s rigged. And if you if you press him on it as some reporters have, he’ll say, Well, I don’t think it was fully stolen, but then he’ll he’ll describe in sort of more generalized terms why he thinks that the intelligence community and the media interfered with the election in a way that through the results. And you know, you have to decide whether you think that’s nuance or whether that’s him talking out of two sides of his mouth. And kind of he often finds ways of sort of galloping towards a red line, let’s say, some kind of incitement or or bullying somebody. 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.

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S1: But do you think he believes what he’s selling? And does it matter?

S2: I mean, that’s that’s sort of one of the core fascinating questions, right? Is does he believe it or is it just for business? I thought a lot about this, and I came to the view that if you look at the way that he kind of changed himself, he transformed over the last 10 years, almost physically to. He’s got much broader kind of broadcasts in a T-shirt now instead of wearing a jacket and tie the way he did when he was a Secret Service agent. You know, he clearly found a business and that business depends on him voicing these ideas. And at a certain point, it becomes almost irresponsible as as a businessman for him not to to to to sell these things as passionately as he can. And so 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 or not, 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. And if you watch or listen to him, you hear that that his listeners, they don’t seem to question whether or not he believes that. Just read the comments on what they think about him. They’re ready to do what he asks of them. 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, the effect on our politics and on our country.

S1: So what is Bongino goal? I mean, we’ve talked about how he’s intertwined and inseparable from Trump. So as part of his goal with his broadcasts getting Trump back in office and back in power?

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S2: Yeah, for sure. Because as he says explicitly, I hope he comes back. I think there’s there’s been nothing that has been more sort of 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 I think 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. So these technological platforms like, you know, these alternative websites that will be there, whether or not Trump returns to office or not.

S1: When we come back, why Bongino is content might be his least important contribution to the far right movement. You highlighted this moment from this fall as a little bit of a turning point for Dan Bongino because he had 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?

S2: 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, as you said, personally vaccinated, he regards the mandates as as odious. And so he said, I can’t do that. So he went on hiatus. He kind of went on strike in effect, and it didn’t exactly go how I think he hoped, which was. He’d sort of imagine this might generate a big public outcry in support of him. And but actually other right wing broadcasters called this kind of virtue signalling. And they they said, What is this guy doing exactly? And some of the local affiliates began to complain in the trade press that that that he was forcing them to run reruns. It just didn’t go very well. So eventually he comes back on the air and he 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 at the network who had lost their jobs because they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the vaccine and just kind of went back to work at that point. But, you know, he used it as a way of signaling, he said. Look, this is evidence of why I’ve been saying all along that we have to have our own, our own technology. We have to have our own networks, our own, our own platforms because otherwise we’re always going to be subject to these kinds of pressures and authorities. So it became kind of proof of concept for him.

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S1: The thing about all this big talk about building networks specifically for the right is that it isn’t just talk. Bongino is invested in a host of apps and platforms that are designed to create a parallel online ecosystem for people who see the world the way he does. That includes a payment processor called a Line Pay instead of PayPal. The video streaming service Rumble instead of YouTube and Parler, also known as conservative Twitter. The point here is to create an information economy where the far right gets to make the rules.

S2: These websites, these technology platforms are all designed to be insulated from the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear on places like Facebook and Twitter. I mean, look, I think 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 January 6th or things like that. But the truth is, there is also some degree of of governance on there. They do kick people off for violating their rules. So there is a way in which these these platforms do provide some level of guardrails. 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 or boycotts from people who say that these that this content is dangerous and inflammatory and shouldn’t be on mainstream platforms.

S1: So the idea is basically in the wake of Jan. six, Trump gets kicked off Twitter. But if we have a Twitter of our own, he’ll never get kicked off.

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S2: Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly it, actually. And I think there’s a there’s sort of 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 in the main stage. It’s a little bit like they’re going to be off in their own kind of cul de sac. But I think it’s a big mistake to assume that that means it doesn’t have impact. We know now that Parler was an important venue in which people on January 6th had been discussing these ideas and so on. So we have to be alert to what happens on those alternative websites where we’re going to be caught by surprise.

S1: Do you still listen now that your reporting is done?

S2: I’ll tune in now and then I’ll tune in now and then. Yeah, this story, I have to say sort of perfectly bluntly, kind of changed my understanding of the world we inhabit. Post January 6th. It was it was alarming to me in a way that no story I’ve done has alarmed me since 2015, when I first wrote a piece about Trump’s phenomenon and the effect he was having on the far right. And listening to this show for months really persuaded me that the post January 6th world is really the beginning of this phenomenon. It’s not the end of this phenomenon and and I think it would surprise people, frankly, how dire the language is, how how much everyday people are being told, as Bongino says, that Democrats and liberals want you dead. That’s a quote from him.

S1: And that’s not metaphorical.

S2: No, no, no. There’s nothing metaphorical about it. And I think there is a way in which we, a lot of us today in politics, sort of readers and observers and analysts are always sometimes like, how did this happen? How did you know, where did school boards become the the primary venue of American political competition and combat? When did the like? How did that happen? Well, if you’d been listening to Bongino show, you wouldn’t have been surprised at.

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S1: Evan Osnos, thank you so much for the work you’ve done.

S2: Thanks for the conversation, I really enjoyed it.

S1: Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Going into the long weekend. YouTube temporarily suspended Dan Bongino channel. This was because he said masks were useless in the fight against COVID 19. This is a kind of first strike after three Dan Bongino would be kicked off the platform permanently. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Carmel Delshad and Danielle Hewitt. We get oversight each and every day from Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter to say hello and tell me what you’re thinking about the show. I am at Mary’s desk. I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.