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Dan Bongino and the Big Business of Returning Trump to Power

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Dan Bongino and the Big Business of Returning Trump to Power

Dan Bongino, one of America’s most popular conservative commentators, lives in the seaside city of Stuart, Florida, less than an hour from Mar-a-Lago, where his friend Donald Trump bridles against a forced retirement. Every weekday from noon to three—the coveted time slot once held by the late Rush Limbaugh—“The Dan Bongino Show” goes live across the United States, beginning with an announcer’s voice over the sound of hard-rock guitars: “From the N.Y.P.D. to the Secret Service to behind the microphone, taking the fight to the radical left and the putrid swamp.”

One day this fall, minutes before Bongino went on the air, he learned of an unfolding drama that offered prime material: in New York, a live interview with Vice-President Kamala Harris had been disrupted because two hosts of “The View” tested positive for breakthrough cases of COVID-19. Bongino, who rails against vaccine mandates and calls masks “face diapers,” announced to his audience, “None of those seem to work on ‘The View.’ ” But, he said pointedly, he wasn’t gloating—“unlike insane leftists, who wish death on me and everyone else from COVID, because they’re legitimately crazy satanic demon people.”

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Bongino draws an estimated 8.5 million radio listeners a week, making him the fourth most listened to host in America, ahead of Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, and other big names, according to Talkers magazine, which covers the industry. Though he came to broadcasting only after three unsuccessful runs for Congress, he now commands a Fox News program on Saturday nights, a podcast that has ranked No. 1 on iTunes, and a Web site that repackages stories into some of the most highly trafficked items on social media. In recent months, according to Facebook data, his page has attracted more engagement than those of the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal combined.

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. “For the fifteen-thousandth time, if you want to wear a mask, knock yourself out, daddy-o,” he told me recently, after finishing his taping for the day. “Whatever. You do you. This is what infuriates me: if you dare say anything like ‘Hey, do those things actually work?,’ people are, like, ‘What the fuck? You lunatic, heretic, you flat-earth son of a bitch! Kill this guy!’ ”

Bongino records at a desk adorned with a boxing bell, a judge’s gavel, and a carved stone nameplate with the message “Be Strong Like a Rock!!!” His aesthetics, visually and editorially, bespeak his political moment. Limbaugh, the dominant conservative pundit for three decades, was a dedicated indoorsman, with a physique that celebrated sybaritic contentment. Bongino, at forty-seven, is six feet tall and muscle-bound, with a martial buzz cut and a trim goatee. Like others in his cohort—including the podcaster Joe Rogan and the Infowars host Alex Jones—he favors a wardrobe of tight T-shirts. He displays a tattoo on his left biceps, and he often broadcasts with a facial expression that resembles the angry emoji. Asked by a fan what he would do if he were not a political commentator, Bongino said that he would compete in mixed martial arts.

After exhausting the Kamala Harris riff, Bongino turned to his main interest of the day: “rigged” elections. For years, he has claimed that “deep state” plotters and foreign entities sought to sabotage Trump in 2016, infiltrating his campaign and leaking allegations about his dealings with Russia. (He parlayed that theory into a book, “Spygate,” one of four briskly generated volumes that bore Bongino’s name during Trump’s Presidency.) These days, his story line has expanded to encompass President Joe Biden—a “disgraceful, disgusting, grotesque bag of bones”—as well as his son Hunter. “The F.B.I. and the C.I.A., members of it, unquestionably tried to rig both the 2016 and 2020 election,” Bongino told his audience. In the latter, he explained, “they didn’t put out bad information on someone—they hid information about Joe Biden and his corrupt son.”

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.

Seven out of ten Republicans want Trump to run again, according to a recent poll by Politico and Morning Consult. Senior Party leaders perpetuate his fraudulent claims about the 2020 election; in a Fox News interview, Representative Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the result. Trump associates have risked jail time in order to thwart a congressional inquiry into the attempt to overturn the vote. At the state level, an unprecedented effort is sidelining Trump’s opponents and rewriting laws to give partisans control over the administration of elections. On America’s balkanized airwaves, his supporters are using their platforms to spread disinformation, undermine faith in governance, and inflame his followers.

No one in American media has profited more from the Trump era and its aftermath than Bongino. Since 2015, he has gone from hosting a fledgling podcast in his basement to addressing audiences of millions. Pete Hegseth, a fellow Fox News host who served in the National Guard, told me, “I carried a rifle in the military, and now I get to serve in information warfare.” Bongino, he added, “is one of our generals.” This vision of cultural combat is prominent in Trumpworld. Alex Jones, who named his conspiratorial media brand Infowars, uses the motto “There’s a war on for your mind!”

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.”

After Bongino’s monologue about the intelligence community, he moved on to another case for skepticism of American elections. In Arizona, he informed his audience, a “forensic audit,” launched by Trump supporters who were certain that his loss there was fraudulent, had delivered bad news: Biden received even more votes than originally counted. Bongino urged his listeners to remain doubtful. “The numbers may be correct, but who was behind the numbers?” he asked.

Encouraging this way of thinking is a reliable business bet; suspicion is an appetite that is never fully sated. And, as any gun-shop owner knows, certain enterprises thrive when customers feel vulnerable. “The liberals are the Man,” Bongino told his audience in August. “They run big corporations. They run YouTube. They run Facebook. They run the government. We’re the real misfits, we’re the real rebels now.”

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Dan Bongino and the Big Business of Returning Trump to Power