TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. One of the most popular right-wing talk show hosts and podcasters, Dan Bongino, does more than talk. He’s trying to build a right-wing media infrastructure in time for the 2024 elections. My guest, Evan Osnos, profiles Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. He writes, because Bongino has emerged so fast and because so much of his activity occurs away from mainstream media, few Democrats have noticed he exists.
Bongino’s hosting career started with a fledgling podcast recorded from his basement. Now he has a syndicated radio show in the timeslot Rush Limbaugh used to have that has 8 1/2 million radio listeners a week, making him the fourth-most-listened-to radio host in America. For his first broadcast in that timeslot, his guest was former President Trump. Bongino also hosts a weekend show on Fox News. Before his media career, he spent four years in the NYPD and 12 in the Secret Service, where he worked with President George W. Bush, Senate candidate Hillary Clinton and President Obama.
Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s the author of a book about Joe Biden. His latest book is called “Wildland: The Making Of America’s Fury.” It’s about how America became so divided and why there’s so much rage and fear. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So as I’ve mentioned, we’re recording this on Wednesday, January 5. So as we record, we don’t know what is happening on January 6 or what will happen later on January 6. But you write, spend several months immersed in American talk radio and you’ll come away with the sense that the violence of January 6 was not the end of something, but the beginning. Some of Trump’s most influential champions are preparing the ground for his return, and they dominate a media terrain that attracts little attention from their opponents. So what are some of the things that you heard that led you to the conclusion that January 6, 2021, wasn’t the end of something, it was the start of something?
EVAN OSNOS: I think the fundamental takeaway that you get when you listen to months of this material is that the language, the octave, the register is of total existential showdown, meaning it’s about life or death. This is not abstract. I mean, I’m not interpreting what’s being said. I mean, as an example, Dan Bongino said on his show not too long ago – Speaking of his opponents – these people want you dead, he said to his listeners. So there is a way in which it is a constant infusion and repetition and really sort of escalation of this spirit of live-or-die confrontation.
And I think there is a piece of us, obviously, many thought that after January 6 that the mood might dissipate if Trump left the White House and so on, that maybe that event was so shocking to the conscience that people would sort of change the way that politics was being talked about. And whether you think that was naive or not, it’s just remarkable to know here we are a year later, and if anything, the language on really prominent shows – these are not obscure venues – is framing our moment in politics today as a moment of total alarm and of life-or-death confrontation
GROSS: Of all the people in right-wing media that you could have profiled, why did you choose Dan Bongino?
OSNOS: In a way, he was the right person to talk about simply because so many people don’t know about him. He occupies this place that is just off stage, I think, from what particularly Democrats and liberals pay attention to. I think, obviously, there’s a lot of focus on Fox News. People might be able to name some of the biggest conservative commentators like Sean Hannity. But if you actually look at the list of who has impact, who is reaching, as in Dan Bongino’s case, 8 1/2 million listeners a day, I mean, it’s a pretty big group of people – it’s about the size of the state of Arizona – that he’s not somebody that most Americans could tell you much about.
And I think there is a degree to which, I think, particularly in the period after Trump left office, that as a lot of folks have wanted to sort of take a break from politics and not really think about it all that much, that it’s easy to ignore what is being said on – day after day, hour after hour on these shows. And I think if you don’t want to be caught flat-footed or sort of caught by surprise about what the implications might be, you have to sit down and pay attention to what’s being said.
GROSS: You describe Bongino as having profited more from the Trump era than anyone else in the media. How?
OSNOS: Well, I mean, to put it in clear terms, five or six years ago, he was starting a podcast in his basement, and he was putting moving blankets on the wall as a kind of homespun studio. He had tried to get into Congress. He’d lost a couple of races. He ended up losing another. And then he had this extraordinarily precipitous rise through the conservative broadcasting ranks, to the point that today, he has a podcast, which at some points has been the No. 1 in the world. He’s been – he has this social media enterprise, something that’s like an alternative to the Drudge Report, which has – on many days, is able to put some of the most highly engaged, highly trafficked items on social media.
If you look at the rankings of things that are being circulated on Facebook, many of them are associated with Dan Bongino. And the fact that it’s all happened in the course of barely five years, I think, is part of the reason why his name doesn’t really have much impact for people who he would define as his enemies and opponents.
GROSS: He did a recent video that had 6 million views. What was that video?
OSNOS: That video, which he posted this fall, was in some ways typical of what he does every day, and it was also memorable simply because it was so stark. You know, he was sitting wearing a T-shirt from one of his sponsors, which is a gun retailer. And, you know, their motto is, if you wish for peace, prepare for war. And he then went through this kind of crescendo of alarm in which he said that we are seeing the evaporation of civil liberties, as he said. He said, we’re descending into chaos. We’re descending into fascism, as he put it. You know, in some ways, the center of what he was saying was that we’re living through the rise of what he called insane deadly ideas. And he talked about the Biden administration and Silicon Valley. And he said, the fight is all that matters and it’s all it should matter to you.
And I think what’s really striking about that is it’s easy for us in this period to think, well, I guess that kind of belligerent language is everywhere. Maybe that’s just the tenor of politics. But actually, if you see it every day, if you listen to it day after day, then it really sinks in. And when you looked at the comments – that generated thousands of comments of praise from his listeners – people said it’s time for revolt. They said this is the beginning of a revolt. And they’re ready to join in. And that’s really not ordinary radio programming, frankly.
GROSS: Does Bongino imply that the revolt should be a physical revolt, like another storming of the Capitol or of another – of a place with symbolic value or that people should be armed and ready to fight?
OSNOS: No, Bongino is very clear. He is – he draws a distinction between physical violence and the language of war and confrontation and conflict. He condemns violence. He says that it’s actually the other side, as he puts it, who wants you to be induced or driven to take up arms. And he says, and don’t be seduced by it. But the broader message – and I think it’s important to understand both pieces of this – is that he is constantly talking about conflict and about a risk to your life and your welfare and your family. And so he’s asking his listeners in effect, to both reject violence and, at the same time, to see themselves in a life-or-death struggle in which, as he puts it, the other side is determined to be fascistic and tyrannical and to take away everything that you hold dear.
So he’s kind of calling on people to make this, I would say, somewhat subtle distinction. And I think one of the things that I came away with from listening to a lot of it was there’s some portion of the public who may find it difficult to discern the boundaries between when he’s talking about pursuing conflict and defending your life and when he’s condemning violence.
GROSS: Considering that Bongino is issuing calls to action about, like, massive boycotts against mandatory vaccines if the federal government decides to mandate them for private corporations and, you know, he’s urging his listeners all the time to, like, take action. He has ads for guns on his show. The line seems a little gray, although, you know, he advocates against violence. But he uses the language of war in his rhetoric. What are some of your concerns about that – you know, even though he doesn’t call for violent action?
OSNOS: Right. Yeah, he condemned the violence of January 6. And I think that there this environment in which there are some people who begin to lose some of that distinction. There was a very telling moment not long ago when Charlie Kirk, who is another one of the broadcasters that has kind of come up in the Trump era alongside Dan Bongino, he was at an event out in Idaho. And one of his fans stood up and asked a question very bluntly, said, when do we get to use the guns? The fan said, you know, these people, referring to their opponents, have stolen elections. And “when do we get to kill these people?” That’s a quote. And Charlie Kirk immediately said, no, no, no, I reject that. I denounce it. I think he sort of – you got the sense watching it that he had realized how badly this was all going to look. And then he said, look; that’s exactly what they are trying to get us to do, they meaning our existential opponents. And this guy then asked the question again. And he said, no, when do we get to use violence?
And I think there is, in that moment – that’s a sign of the risk, which is that when you talk about conflict all the time and you tell people that they should be afraid and you tell people that their liberty and their lives and their livelihood are at risk, that some portion of the public begins to believe you and take action into their own hands. And that’s very risky.
GROSS: Well, why don’t we take a short break here? If you’re just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He’s a staff writer at The New Yorker. He profiles Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Evan Osnos, who profiles right-wing talk show host Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. Bongino is also helping to create and fund right-wing alternatives to YouTube and social media, alternatives he says are immune to cancel culture. Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
You describe Bongino as trying to build a right-wing media infrastructure in time for the 2024 elections. So what is the right-wing media structure he’s creating that you refer to?
OSNOS: In a way, he’s trying to replicate YouTube and Twitter and, to some degree, Facebook on terms that conservatives can control. So as we all know, over the last couple of years, there have been many examples, probably most prominently Donald Trump, of conservatives who’ve been kicked off for violating the rules of Twitter and other platforms. And Dan Bongino has been working on building things with names like Parler and Rumble and AlignPay, which is a sort of payment processor – all of it with the goal of saying, we’re going to be immune to the kinds of pressure campaigns that pushed Donald Trump off of social media.
GROSS: So AlignPay, for example, is like a right-wing alternative to PayPal and self-described as payment technologies engineered to cancel cancel culture.
OSNOS: Part of this is an outgrowth of the experience of January 6, in which PayPal and other payment processors were pressured to prevent organizers from being able to use their services to do things like – to organize more action. And Dan Bongino’s view is if we can build our own systems, then we’re in control, and nobody can seek to boycott us. Nobody can seek to cancel us, as he would put it.
GROSS: Rumble is designed to be an alternative to YouTube, and that’s self-described as, we create technologies that are immune to cancel culture. What is Rumble like?
OSNOS: Rumble looks more or less like a clone of YouTube. And – but it has this very distinct difference, which is they make no effort to police their content for things that YouTube would describe as medical misinformation. So YouTube, for instance, today will kick people off or will suspend them, or it’ll take down videos if it seems that they’re trafficking in fictions about the vaccine or about the COVID pandemic. Rumble takes no position on that. If you ask Dan Bongino, are there things that you would kick people off of Rumble for? – he will say, well, if they’re following our terms of service, then it’s not my business what they’re saying on there.
GROSS: And another difference between Rumble and YouTube, this morning – and this is Wednesday morning as we’re recording this – the homepage had, like, a Fox News video on it prominently featured.
OSNOS: Yeah. It’s this very symbiotic relationship with the original traditional conservative media infrastructure. You know, the goal is to say that, over time, only more and more pressure is going to come on conservatives to, as they would put it, toe the line on vaccines, to not promote alternative experimental treatments, things that they think are legitimate but have in most cases been rejected by the medical consensus. And so, you know, the whole idea is that if they can build out their own channels, their own platforms, that they can control who gets on and who gets kicked off. And, let’s be blunt, they can also profit from it. So that is part of the formula.
GROSS: Let’s hear how Dan Bongino described this alternate media on his podcast Monday of this week.
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DAN BONGINO: Folks, on a very serious note, we are in a war right now for free speech, and it’s time everybody understood the battles – the terrain features of the battlefield here. It’s tough for me to talk about ’cause you know I put my money where my mouth is, and I have a number of financial interests in the parallel economy. I do it for a reason. The parallel economy, the free speech economy, has to grow. It needs money. I’m willing to put up rather than shut up. I’m involved with Rumble, Locals, Parler, Truth Social. I’m not – I don’t have a role in Truth Social, Trump’s platform, but I’m asking as a favor. Please, in this war on free speech – and I get it, I understand that some of you just don’t want to or maybe don’t have the time. Please go set up a Locals account. Go set up a Rumble account. You don’t have to – just follow my account. You don’t have to set up an account on Rumble at all. Watch the videos there. Go set up a Parler account. When Truth Social launches, go set up an account on Truth Social. Please.
Folks, it is hugely important. We are in a war for free speech right now, and none of this is going to change on the – I’m not telling you you have to abandon these other platforms. I think there is value for people to stay there on these leftist platforms while they still can, and fight back and own the libs over there too. There is value in that. I’m not telling you to give up your YouTube or anything else. I’m simply telling you this. Please go over to Rumble, Locals, Parler, Truth, and post over there, too. That way, when they ban you – which is inevitable because they’re communist – you have the backup already ready to roll. If you start it three or four months down the road, that’s three, four months down the road of followers you already missed. Parler, Rumble, Locals, Truth – please go on today. It is super important. These people are doubling down on their tyranny.
GROSS: OK, so Parler is a right-wing social media platform, and Truth Social is the platform that Trump has in the works that has not been launched yet. So when Dan Bongino’s talking about the parallel economy and saying he’s put his money where his mouth is, what is his financial investment in these alternate platforms that he is helping to build and that he’s advocating for on his show?
OSNOS: It’s not entirely clear how much money he’s put into these businesses. You know, he talks about himself sometimes as an investor or a promoter. You know, he has very clearly associated himself with them. He talks about them all the time on his show, as he does right there, very kind of explicitly appealing for people to send money, in effect, to get these businesses off the ground. There has been a lot of – in some cases, there’s been litigation around the origins of Parler, who owns what. In the case of Rumble, most recently, Bongino has been involved in trying to turn it into a public company, using one of these sort of new Wall Street innovations known as a SPAC, which is essentially a blank check company. So they would merge it with something that’s already listed, and then it would become a public company, which in theory could unlock tremendous resources for him and for the company and for other investors. And look, he is very blunt about the fact that this is not just about free speech. This is about financial power, too. This is about building something that can rival Silicon Valley in its cultural imprint and its ability to shape the nature of communication in this country.
GROSS: What is his connection or what has his connection been in the past to the social media platform that Trump is trying to launch, Truth Social, which Bongino referred to in the clip that we just heard?
OSNOS: He and Trump, of course, have this very distinct personal relationship. Trump was – has been a guest on his show, and Bongino has praised him in the past, and Trump has tweeted about Bongino’s books and things like that. And now in this new era in which both of them are trying to become media entrepreneurs, they have come up with an early partnership where Rumble, which is the video platform that Bongino is promoting, will be the streaming service as part of Trump’s now theoretical social media company. So from the very beginning, both of them have joined up. And I think there’s a lot of questions about how reliable the technology will be, whether in fact they can make these things viable. But in the early days, Rumble has achieved some pretty rapid growth, even if it remains just a tiny fraction of how large YouTube is.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you’re just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He profiles Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. We’ll be right back after a short break. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Evan Osnos, who profiles right-wing talk show host Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. Bongino has also helped to create or fund right-wing alternatives to YouTube, PayPal and social media, alternatives, he says, are immune to cancel culture. Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
What was Dan Bongino’s reaction when he found out you were profiling him for The New Yorker and that you wanted to interview him?
OSNOS: He was not happy about it, actually. I mean, he had this unusual suggestion. He said, I won’t see you. I won’t meet with you. I will talk to you on the phone. We’ll have interviews. He was kind of hostile to the idea of it. He said because I’m a contributor to CNN that he considered this, more or less, a zero-sum encounter. I finally asked at one point – I said, why are you doing this, actually, if you’re suspicious of The New Yorker and of my intentions? And he said, because I get my say in there. And then he said something, actually, that was sort of very blunt. He said, look; I, Dan Bongino, have got a much bigger footprint than you guys, he said by tenfold or twentyfold. And then he said something that kind of stayed with me. He said, this is asymmetric warfare. He said, you’ll never win. And I think I was a little taken aback by it because – you know, I don’t mean to be naive about it. But I didn’t regard an interview fundamentally as an act of warfare, but he did. And that was helpful for me to understand.
GROSS: Do you think he interprets the article, the profile, as an act of warfare?
OSNOS: I think he thinks of media and politics, fundamentally, all of it, as an arena of combat. So yeah, I think he received it, essentially, as an act of warfare. And from his perspective, that’s actually good for business, to be blunt about it. I mean, he makes combat, belligerence – he makes those kinds of confrontations the centerpiece of his message. And so he can turn anything, if necessary, into a tactical moment. And that’s more or less what he does.
GROSS: So you did get to interview Bongino but not in person. So what was that conversation like? Was he comfortable answering your questions and amenable to doing it?
OSNOS: At times, he was. He was OK with talking about the business of building this alternative media infrastructure. And then at other times, he would get very hostile. I mean, he would say to me – what are you, a lemming? – for taking the advice of Anthony Fauci and other health authorities to wear masks and to adhere to vaccine mandates. He fundamentally believes that this encounter, this interview, you know, two people talking to each other on tape, that that is an arena of conflict, and that I was seeking to dominate him and that he would seek to dominate me. But, you know, interestingly, there were times where he’s actually reflective about his own past and about the role that, for instance, fear played in his upbringing. And he’s torn between the desire for mainstream validation, to, you know, want to be recognized by people out in the world, and by this recurring instinct that he’s somehow on the defensive, that he is, as he put it, a misfit, a rebel. And, you know, the truth is that being a misfit and a rebel has been part of his business. That’s a key piece of how he has built the profitable media engine that it is.
GROSS: I don’t know if this is relevant here or not. But you had asked him if you weren’t a political commentator, if you weren’t in the media, what might you be doing? And tell us what his answer was.
OSNOS: Well, he said he’d be a mixed martial artist, I mean, essentially doing the thing that you see on the Ultimate Fighting Championship. And, you know, it’s not abstract. I mean, he – when he broadcasts, he has a boxing bell on his desk. He really regards this domain as an act of warfare. I mean, at one point, I interviewed Pete Hegseth, who’s another Fox News commentator, a colleague of his. And he said – Hegseth had been in the National Guard. And he said, you know, I used to carry a rifle in the military. And now I am in the world of information warfare, he said. And Bongino is one of our generals. And that was the first time that I’d heard that language applied to how they thought of their own work. And actually, it’s a useful framing device.
GROSS: He has vehemently opposed masks and mandated vaccines on his podcast and radio show. Can you talk a little bit about the language that he uses in opposing masks and mandatory vaccines?
OSNOS: Yeah. He calls masks face diapers or COVID burqas. I mean, it’s for him a sort of source of great fun, to talk about masks as being an overreaction by liberals and Democrats. That’s how he frames it. And he frames it as an act of liberty to refuse to wear a mask. Now, look; he said to me, if somebody is running a business and they say, I have to put a mask on to go in that store, I might or might not go in and put on a mask if they want me to. But he makes it a real center of his language is to define the resistance to vaccines and to masks as something dignified.
GROSS: Bongino had a big fight with Cumulus Media, which is the media company that syndicates his radio show. It owns the network that his show is on. And this fight was over Bongino’s threat to leave the company if it continued to require employees to get vaccinated. And Bongino said, I don’t believe this is based on any science. It’s antithetical to everything I believe in. How did that fight end between Bongino and Cumulus Media?
OSNOS: It didn’t end as he would’ve wanted. He went on hiatus for a couple of weeks. And, you know, I think the goal in a moment like that is you hope you can whip up a sort of public reaction, that your fans would begin to put pressure on Cumulus and say, well, you’ve got to accede to his wishes. And actually, what happened was, for instance, another right-wing broadcaster accused him of virtue signaling, of essentially trying to score points by looking like he was holier than thou. I think there were also a lot of complaints that this, as some people put it in the trade press – that this might be an attempt for him to sweeten his contract. Or – he, of course, rejected those criticisms. He eventually came back on the air, essentially, called – described it as a stalemate, but just kind of went back to work. And I think, in a way, though, it proved what he had been saying he needed to do because he couldn’t prevail over this large radio company. But if he created his own alternative infrastructure, then nobody could impose a mandate on him. So he’s been using it – even though it didn’t succeed, he’s been using it as an example to prove the concept in mind.
GROSS: Now, he has been vaccinated himself. So why was he vaccinated? And how does he square that with his opposition to mandated vaccines?
OSNOS: He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which gives him a compromised immune system, and so he did receive the vaccine. And he’s kind of, I think, aware and a little bit uncomfortable with the fact that he knows there is an aroma of hypocrisy about him getting the vaccine himself, but then calling on his listeners to reject vaccine mandates. When I asked him about it, he said, you know, why is there anything weird about that? He was kind of uncomfortable with the question. He says, I tell people, go talk to your doctor. It made sense for me, but I can’t tell you if it makes sense for you.
He’s very uncomfortable with the idea that when people who have railed against vaccines in some cases, like other right-wing hosts when they have died from COVID, he’s really offended by the idea that anybody would see a connection between those two or that they would sort of point fingers at that. And he thinks of that, he talks about that as an example of, as he would put it, liberals and Democrats – leftists, as he often says – who are glorying in the death of conservatives. That’s his message, and he mentions it very often.
OSNOS: Let me reintroduce you. If you’re just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He profiles Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Evan Osnos, who profiles right-wing talk show host Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. Bongino has also helped to create or fund right-wing alternatives to YouTube, PayPal and social media, alternatives, he says, are immune to cancel culture. Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Before entering the media world, Bongino worked for four years with the NYPD and then for 12 years at the Secret Service. And in the Secret Service, he was on the detail for President George W. Bush, for Senate candidate Hillary Clinton and President Obama. What was his reputation within the Secret Service at the time?
OSNOS: Oh, he’s known as in a sort of ordinary way as a capable, competent, pretty good Secret Service agent, actually. People thought that he was well-liked by those below him and those above him. And curiously, people say that they had no idea of his politics, actually. He never talked about politics. And shortly after he left the Secret Service, he was asked about working for President Obama. And he had very positive things to say about Obama, called him a very good father, good man. And then there’s been this rapid transformation of him over the course of the years since then. And I think it’s caught some of the people he worked with at the Secret Service very much by surprise. Somebody said in this article that it’s like there’s two Dan Bonginos. There’s the agent, and now there’s the politico.
GROSS: After Bongino got involved with the media, he said about Obama that he was the most corrupt president in U.S. history, whereas earlier he’d said he was, you know, wonderful father, a wonderful man, very nice and very kind to me.
OSNOS: Yeah. He’s been a very quick study in the language of particularly the sort of far-right wing of the American media world, places like Alex Jones’ Infowars. You know, that was one of the first places where he began to get any visibility and traction. And he learned that going on there, one of the things he could do was sort of leverage his background in government to present himself as a truth teller, almost like a defector. And Alex Jones loved it. And that was one of the ways when he began to see to – I think you could begin to see in his comments that when he talked about the idea of the government, as he put it, as a sort of tyrannical group of insiders, that there was a big audience for that. And that was really the beginning of this kind of identity that he created.
GROSS: And you write that Alex Jones, who’s a conspiracy theorist, portrayed Bongino as a defector from the White House. They’re so scared of him and what he knows. And then Bongino could play the role of a reluctant-but-brave truth teller, saying America was manipulated by a tyrannical group of insiders.
OSNOS: It really is a kind of theater, and I’m struck by it as I sort of listened to it and went back and watched his appearances over so many years, that he was creating this sense of privileged knowledge. He would often talk, still does to this day, talks constantly about what he says is behind the scenes. And so, for instance, when he came out with his memoir of being a Secret Service agent, he said that he had been present for these conversations about the creation of legislation like Obamacare. And, you know, at the time, there were Secret Service agents who pushed back on that and said, well, actually, no, agents don’t sit in on high-level negotiations.
But that spirit of somehow giving people a window into a world they don’t otherwise see, that became really sort of the coin of the realm for him. And that is playing into what his audience, what his customers already come with, which is this suspicion that government is not working to their advantage. And he plays to that very profitably.
GROSS: In 2018, Bongino got a show on the NRA’s web TV channel, NRATV. It shut down the following year. But did that show help him?
OSNOS: It did. It established him in the world of guns as somebody who is speaking for, quote-unquote, “the community,” meaning that, you know, he had a show in which he was essentially the gateway between people who cared about the Second Amendment, who wanted to make sure that they could buy and hold on to their guns and people who were interested in politics. And so he started talking about things like the confirmation hearing for Justice Kavanaugh. And so he was making this link between the tools of combat, really, and the language of political combat.
And that was an important phase. By the end of it, as he said once on his show, he said, you know, my whole life now is about owning the libs. And I think you see in that period the ingredients that have become what he represents today as one of the most influential conservative broadcasters, which is this fusion of combat and politics and conspiracy thinking. You put those things together, and it’s a very powerful product.
GROSS: You know, we’ve mentioned that he started off as a podcaster in his basement. Now he has a very popular radio show. He has influence on social media platforms, has a very large following. How did he build that following from his days podcasting from his basement? Like, what are some of the strategic things that he did, because you can have a podcast and you can have a presence on Twitter and Facebook and still have nobody paying attention to you? Like, you really have to amplify what you’re saying on all of those platforms in a very effective way. You have to be smart and strategic to do that.
OSNOS: Yeah. He did a couple of things that I think were very important. One was that his background in law enforcement gave him a bit of a supercharged identity. When he would come on as a guest, for instance, on “Mark Levin Show” or Sean Hannity – these are other major conservative broadcasters – they would defer to him, kind of, you know, a thank you for your service, sort of warm embrace. And that was very important because it gave him credibility early on. Even though he had lost three congressional campaigns, he was discovering that his role in broadcasting was, perhaps, more effective than it was in politics. Another important thing that he did was he wrapped himself very tightly around Donald Trump. I mean, when Trump was in the presidency, Bongino would go on in the morning on Fox and would praise the president for either things he had done or not done. And then Trump would see that and then tweet about Bongino and would often talk about him in the White House, according to sources.
And so the result was that this was this kind of symbiotic rise, where Trump’s presidency and Dan Bongino’s growing business benefited one another. And then the third thing he did, which is important, is that he figured out that on social media, there are certain words – he’s constantly talking about an explosive revelation or a thing from behind the scenes, something that is going to, you know, blow the lid off of stuff. And he’s been very canny about how to tweet, about what kinds of videos to put out there. And he’s just better at it, frankly, than some of the others in his cohort, like Alex Jones or others.
GROSS: Do you think Bongino represents a new generation in right-wing media compared to, say, Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge?
OSNOS: Yeah. This is a really important moment in the sort of transformation of conservative media because for a long time, there were these huge powers. There was Fox News. There was Rush Limbaugh. And there was Matt Drudge. And, of course, Rush Limbaugh died in 2021. Fox News and Matt Drudge are facing this more extreme competition from the right. So there’s a kind of a shuffling of the forces, of the powers. And Bongino is one of the people who is contending for that crown. And it’s not clear, frankly, if he will succeed. There are rivals. There are, certainly, efforts to boycott his show.
And I think that what’s telling, though, is that he has succeeded in part not by doing what Limbaugh did – you know, Limbaugh, who was obviously a conservative firebrand and, you know, had a lot of opponents on the left. But Limbaugh, when he described his own business model, said that my goal, as he put it, is to attract the largest possible audience. Bongino doesn’t really need to do that because of the way social media works today, because of the fact that he can narrow cast to his people. All he needs to do is keep a certain number of people coming back, coming back, coming back. And he can sell ads to them and sell products to them. And that’s enough.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. My guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He profiles right-wing talk show host and social media activist Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS’ “PIXIES”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Evan Osnos, who profiles right-wing talk show host Dan Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. Bongino has also helped to create or fund right-wing alternatives to YouTube, PayPal and social media, alternatives, he says, are immune to cancel culture. Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
To have alternative media and advocate, like, a parallel economy, as Bongino does, you kind of need alternative sponsors. Like, who are some of the sponsors of his show on his podcast?
OSNOS: Well, he has a lot of gun-related advertising, so places that are selling shotguns or selling AR-15s or holsters, for instance or survivalist rations – as he put it, you know, they will be delivered unmarked to your front door. And that’s consistent with his kind of apocalyptic message that we’re facing this great showdown in this country. But then there are sort of more conventional advertisers, places like Omaha Steaks and, you know, mattresses and other kind of sleep products. It is remarkable to hear him go back and forth between talking about this country in a state of kind of abject crisis of – in which he’s facing a fascistic enemy. And then he’ll sort of just move into an advertisement for – you know, for steaks. And that’s a big – you know, that’s part of the business.
GROSS: Do you think that Dan Bongino has a counterpart on the left?
OSNOS: Look; the simple fact is there is no natural analog to Dan Bongino on the left simply because you don’t have people on the left today saying that the election of 2020 was rigged, despite the fact that government agencies and state and federal judges have all said that it wasn’t rigged. There’s just a degree to which folks on the left, sure, they will make mistakes, there’s no question about that, but there is not a determined effort to cast skepticism on the fundamental integrity and credibility of American governance. That is just a deep difference. And frankly, there is not a kind of integration with the commerce of of guns and of survivalist thinking. That is something that is really actually confined to the right.
GROSS: What role do you see right-wing media playing in the next presidential election?
OSNOS: They already are playing a role in a fascinating way. I mean, if you listen to his show over the course of the last several months, he very often will bring up the subject of 2024 in a couple of ways. One is he’s calling quite openly, saying, I hope that Donald Trump will run. He’s sort of offering insights into how a Trump presidency part two might be different than part one. You know, one of the things he says is there would no longer allow people into the administration who don’t completely agree with them, no longer have others, because, as he said, they backstabbed Trump.
The other role that they play, though, is in generating skepticism about the integrity of elections at all. He has been returning over and over again to things like the Arizona audit, which was, of course promoted and funded by Trump supporters. And even though it found in the end that there were more votes for Joe Biden than had been originally counted, on Bongino’s program, he still finds ways to say well, don’t trust that – there are – you have to ask the question of who is behind those numbers. He is encouraging the idea – to use his word – that elections are rigged. And that’s the word he returns to, rigged, and it’s promoting the sense that they’re not to be trusted.
GROSS: How do you see this profile of Dan Bongino as a relating to your latest book, “Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury,” which is about how America became so divided and why there’s so much rage and fear?
OSNOS: I think Bongino is a creature of that period that I’m describing, you know, almost right down to the fact that he came up through the NRA television world. I mean, there is this phenomenon I describe in the book called the combat mindset. This is a term that comes actually out of the gun industry in which it is to the benefit of the industry to encourage people to feel afraid, to worry about themselves and their families, to imagine themselves at risk. And, you know, Bongino has taken that combat mindset in effect and has brought it over into the world of politics, telling people every day that they have reasons to worry about themselves. That is – it’s not entirely unique to the United States, but you don’t see very much of that in the Western democratic industrialized countries. And I think sometimes it’s easy for us to lose sight of just how unusual it is. And I came to this having been abroad for a decade, and I came home and was really struck by that merger of the language of combat and the language of politics.
GROSS: What has it been like for you to listen to so much right-wing media in the past few months as you were researching this piece?
OSNOS: It’s been alarming, to be perfectly honest, Terry. I think – I write about politics for a living. I know how toxic some of our politics have become. And I think, like a lot of people, I’m sort of eager to find some reasons for good news. I’m constantly on the lookout for examples of things that are going right, they’re going well. And at the same time, I felt this really growing sense as I was listening to this that we can’t afford not to understand what’s being said on these shows because they lead ultimately to the world that we inhabit. They shape it in really profound ways.
You can’t understand what happened on January 6, 2021, without looking very closely at the tweets and the language of the podcasts and the shows that were cultivating that mood in advance. And I felt as listening to it now that, you know, frankly, there are a lot of other ways I might choose to spend my time, but there – but I have to understand what’s being said on there in order to understand why it is that a year after January 6, we’re still at this arguably even more intense period of confrontation.
GROSS: Evan Osnos, it’s always great to talk with you. Thanks for coming back to our show.
OSNOS: My pleasure. Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His profile of Dan Bongino is in the current issue. Osnos’s latest book is titled “Wildland: The Making Of America’s Fury.” If you’d like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast. You’ll find lots of interviews, including this week’s with Congressman Jamie Raskin, who’s written a new memoir, actor Kirsten Dunst and journalist Christopher Mims, who’s written a new book about the supply chain.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today’s show. I’m Terry Gross.
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