Dan Bongino and the Big Business of Returning Trump to Power

Evan Osnos writes for the New Yorker:

* The history of broadcasting is replete with figures who play a combative character on the air but shed the pose when they leave the studio. Bongino is not among them.

* In Bongino’s world, it matters little that Trump’s claims of rampant fraud were dismissed by his own top appointees at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, as well as by federal and state judges. To the true believer, the lack of solid evidence simply confirms how well hidden the rigging was. In the study of conspiracy theories (a description Bongino rejects), this is known as “self-sealing”: the theory mends holes in its own logic. “A corrupted intelligence community, in conjunction with a corrupt media, will eat this country like a cancer from the inside out,” Bongino told his audience, as he built to a takeaway. “This is why I’m really hoping Donald Trump runs in 2024,” he said. “He’s the best candidate suited to clean house. Because if we don’t clean house the Republic is gone.”

Spend several months immersed in American talk radio and you’ll come away with the sense that the violence of January 6th was not the end of something but the beginning. A year after Trump supporters laid siege to the U.S. Capitol, some of his most influential champions are preparing the ground for his return, and they dominate a media terrain that attracts little attention from their opponents. As liberals argue over the algorithm at Facebook and ponder the disruptive influence of TikTok, radio remains a colossus; for every hour that Americans listened to podcasts in 2021, they listened to six and a half hours of AM/FM radio, according to Edison Research, a market-research and polling firm. Talk radio has often provided more reliable hints of the political future than think tanks and elected officials have. In 2007, even as the Republican leaders George W. Bush and John McCain were trying to rebrand themselves as immigration reformers, Limbaugh was advocating laws that would deny immigrants access to government services and force them to speak English.

* Trump has fostered a crop of broadcasters who owe their power to him, men like Sebastian Gorka, the former White House aide, and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA. Brian Rosenwald, the author of the history “Talk Radio’s America,” has noted the triumph of ideology over experience. “Bongino is speaking to the people who believe Trump’s press releases, who see the world caving in and Biden as a raging socialist,” he told me. Rosenwald likens Bongino’s ascent to that of Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, who reached Congress in 2021, despite having voiced belief in a “global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles” and other delusions associated with QAnon. “Back in the day, Marjorie Taylor Greene would have been consigned to the worst committees, buried by the leadership,” he said. “But the old rules of how you gain stature are out the door.”

* Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, a nonprofit group that tracks and criticizes the conservative press, said that the field is changing for the first time since the nineteen-nineties, when Limbaugh, Fox News, and the blogger Matt Drudge established dominance. “They created the guidelines that people walked along for decades,” Carusone said. But Limbaugh is gone, and Drudge and Fox face more radical competitors. “The new information ecosystem is taking shape over the next year or two, and whatever shakes out is going to set the path for years to come.”

In the long run, Bongino’s most significant impact may not come from what he says on his broadcasts. “My goal is for my content to be the least interesting thing I did,” he told me. He has used his money and his influence to foster technology startups, such as Parler, Rumble, and AlignPay, that are friendly to right-wing views. These companies are intended to withstand traditional pressure campaigns, including advertising boycotts like the one that Media Matters prompted in 2019, based on old radio interviews in which the Fox host Tucker Carlson described women as “extremely primitive” and Iraqis as “monkeys.” Carusone said, “What scares me about Bongino is that this guy could end up owning or controlling or directly building the infrastructure that operationalizes a whole range of extremism.” He continued, “There used to be lines. You could say, ‘O.K., PayPal, don’t let the January 6th people recruit money to pay for buses.’ This new alternative infrastructure is not going to stop that.” If another uprising organizes online, he said, “there will be a whiplash effect. Everyone will say, ‘How did that happen?’ Well, it’s been happening.”

* At first, according to “Something in the Air,” Marc Fisher’s history of radio, stations emphasized variety, and avoided playing the same song twice in twenty-four hours. Then, in 1950, a young station owner in Nebraska named Todd Storz started to study listener preferences, perusing research by the University of Omaha and, as the story goes, staking out the jukebox at a local diner. He discovered that, even if people claimed to want variety, they tended to choose the same songs over and over. In 1951, Storz introduced a two-hour hit parade—a finite, repeated list of songs—and by the end of the year his station’s market share had grown tenfold. Storz’s method became known as Top Forty, though d.j.s discovered that they did not need forty songs to keep listeners engaged. “If they quietly cut their lists down to thirty or even twenty-five songs, the audience numbers responded immediately,” Fisher writes.

* Other d.j.s, including Don Imus, Howard Stern, and Glenn Beck, migrated from music broadcasts to talk radio, bringing with them a pop sensibility. At Talkers magazine, the editor, Michael Harrison, created a weekly list of hot topics—a hit parade of politics. “The similarity between Top Forty and commercial talk radio has been profound,” he told me. “Certain topics get the phones to ring. Certain topics are boring but important, so they stay away from them.” Even though Limbaugh saw himself as an agent of commerce, his political identity proved so profitable that it left a permanent imprint on the industry. The new generation of radio conservatives—Sean Hannity, Mike Pence, Mark Levin—devoted more attention to ideology than to show biz. “They still want to be entertaining, but entertainment is not as big a deal,” Harrison said. “These are people who are doing political content on broadcasting platforms, as opposed to doing broadcasting with a political aspect.”

* But his failure to make his network comply fortified his argument that conservatives needed their own platforms, to protect against liberal antagonists. “If they can’t get a bank to cancel you, they’ll go to the payment processor, Stripe,” he told me. “If they can’t get Stripe to cancel you, they’ll go to PayPal.” He added, “I said to my audience years ago, ‘We have to find every single link in that chain and create an alternate company that believes in free speech.’ ”

* He conceived of projects to create conservative alternatives to GoFundMe and Eventbrite, and promoted the video site Rumble, in which he is an investor. I asked him what boundaries Rumble imposes on users, and he said, “If you’re not violating our terms of service, and you’re abiding by the law, it’s not my business.”

Since the fall of 2020, Rumble’s traffic has grown more than twentyfold, to an average of thirty-six million users a month. Bongino, in promotional mode, told me that it was the “first viable video-platform contender to YouTube that’s exploding in traffic.” It’s “through the roof,” he said. Still, Rumble’s traffic represents less than two per cent of YouTube’s in a typical month.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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