|Dan Bongino and the Big Business of Returning Trump to Power|
The Secret Service agent turned radio host is furious at liberals—so he’s trying to build a right-wing media infrastructure in time for 2024.
By Evan Osnos
The New Yorker
December 27, 2021
Bongino’s combative style has made him a star of talk radio, where he occupies the time slot once held by Rush Limbaugh. Illustration by Zohar Lazar
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.”
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.”
On any given afternoon, Bongino might read advertisements for survivalist food rations (“Act now, and your order will be shipped quickly and discreetly to your door in unmarked boxes”) and shotguns and massage chairs and filet mignon and holsters—“custom-molded to fit your exact firearm for a quick, smooth draw.” In between, he supplies listeners with a tight rotation of political hits—a jab at the “pino” (“President in name only”), followed by a savaging of the press (“Don’t ever call me a journalist, that’s an insult”)—interspersed with dispatches from the culture wars (a ruckus over the use of “jedi” as an acronym for “justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion,” which prompted Bongino to cry, “They can’t cancel ‘Star Wars’!”). The effect is a meandering tour through politics and combat and commerce, led by a combustible guide. Brian Murphy, a former gubernatorial candidate in Maryland who advised Bongino’s first campaign for Congress, in 2012, said that Bongino had a “bare-knuckle style.” He added, half in jest, “Dan will debate you, and then he’ll go rip a phone book in half.”
While Trump thunders and plots from Palm Beach, Bongino does the daily work of sustaining the faithful. On a show this fall, he read a listener’s question: “In the event that Trump does get reëlected in 2024, what has he learned from his first go-round of draining the swamp?” Bongino had a ready answer. “They tried to take kind of a ‘Team of Rivals’ Lincoln approach,” by appointing Republicans who had not been among Trump’s original supporters, he said. “That was clearly a mistake. They backstabbed him. The John Boltons and others.” That wouldn’t happen again, he vowed.
Expanding on the idea days later, Bongino told his audience, “The key to understanding Trumpworld is understanding who the loyalists are and getting the grifters out. And, sadly, there are a lot of grifters who pretend to like the President, because there’s a check in it for them.” (The late Representative Steve LaTourette, an Ohio Republican, described how this impulse arose in the G.O.P. in an essay from 2014: “The grifting wing of the party promises that you can have ideological purity—that you don’t have to compromise—and, of course, all you have to do is send them money to make it happen.”) Bongino discourages any doubt about whether he likes President Trump. During a Fox News segment in December, when his colleague Geraldo Rivera described the events of January 6th as “a riot that was unleashed, incited, and inspired by the President,” Bongino accused him of disloyalty, saying, “The backstabbing of the President you’re engaging in is really disgusting.”
Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of rhetoric at Texas A. & M., analyzed the information warfare of the Trump era in her book “Demagogue for President,” and catalogued some of the ascendant patterns of communication. There was “paralipsis,” emphasizing something by professing to say little of it (“I’m not going to call Jeb Bush ‘low energy’ ”), and the ad populum appeal, flattering a crowd by praising its wisdom (“The people, my people, are so smart”). When possible, Trump turned to the power of “reification,” applying nonhuman sobriquets to his opponents (“disgusting animals,” “anchor babies,” “pigs”). Aldous Huxley recognized that tactic as long ago as 1936, writing, “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”
Mercieca describes Bongino as “an important node in the amplification of propaganda.” She told me, “Propaganda used to be primarily vertical, in the sense that it came from the state or some authority, and it was distributed down to everyone through one-way channels of communication. But, in the current moment, propaganda has become horizontal, too.”
Life in the wilderness has imposed certain rhetorical adaptations on the Trump movement. Bongino, like other prominent supporters, seems to put increasing stock in what researchers refer to as “blue lies,” the kinds of claims that pull believers together and drive skeptics away. (“There were known issues with the election,” he said in December, adding, “We get that.”) Bongino is also adept at the “accusation in a mirror” approach—co-opting the language and strategies of his opponents. (He often endorses “defunding components of the F.B.I.” and maintains that “misinformation comes almost exclusively from the left.”)
Nothing, though, has proved more potent than the constant regeneration of fear. The day after Bongino riffed about the Arizona audit, he told podcast listeners that liberals are happy when conservative vaccine skeptics get sick. “These people want you dead,” he said, and offered a call to action. “The activism has to be dialled up times ten. These people are crazy. More in a minute, but first . . .” His baritone shifted into commercial mode. “Science tells us the best way to achieve and maintain consistent, quality deep sleep is by lowering core body temperature.” After sharing a few words about the makers of a luxury cool-mesh mattress topper, he advised Americans to “head on over to chilisleep.com/Bongino.”
For as long as broadcasters have had access to radio waves, they have tested their extraordinary power to unite and divide. In the nineteen-thirties, as President Franklin Roosevelt was boosting his popularity through the intimacy of fireside chats, the nativist Charles Coughlin was reaching as much as a quarter of the American populace with tirades against “godless capitalists, the Jews, Communists, international bankers and plutocrats.”
But it took a revolution, of sorts, to establish many of the techniques we see today. 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.
Repetition, as every cheerleader and every dictator learns, trains the neural networks to make some thoughts more durable than others. “The more we hear something, the more ‘sticky’ it becomes,” Mercieca said. “If we see something a lot, then it feels true.” Until the eighties, though, radio stations were forced to avoid too much repetition in political coverage; the Federal Communications Commission had a “fairness doctrine” that required equal airtime for competing views on major public issues. In 1987, during the Reagan Administration, the F.C.C. stopped enforcing the doctrine. The next year, a college dropout and former Top Forty d.j. named Rush Hudson Limbaugh III introduced his talk show to a national audience.
New technologies provided an ambitious host with unprecedented reach: satellite transmission allowed a single broadcaster access to hundreds of stations, and toll-free calling let listeners across the country hear their own voice on air. Limbaugh’s show became the cultural standard-bearer of American conservatism. William F. Buckley, Jr., an early mentor, effectively ceded the floor in 1993, when his magazine National Review hailed Limbaugh on the cover as “The Leader of the Opposition.” Talk radio made Limbaugh wealthy—at his peak, he earned about eighty-five million dollars a year—and he didn’t obscure the fact that his strongest motivation was financial. When the biographer Zev Chafets visited him at his manse in Florida (twenty-four thousand square feet, with a salon decorated to resemble Versailles), Limbaugh told him, “Conservatism didn’t buy this house. First and foremost I’m a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates.”
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.”
Broadcasters no longer need to cater to what Limbaugh called the “largest possible audience.” Thanks to social media, they can thrive with a narrow, deep gully of fans, who follow everything that comes out. “The ad agencies are looking to get the best bang for their buck, and with social media you can more specifically target your buys,” Harrison said. One of the ads on Bongino’s show is for the Hidden Wealth Solution, a service that offers to help “boomers and retirees” learn “how to protect your retirement from Socialism.”
With little incentive to widen his appeal beyond avowed loyalists, Bongino sees limited value in traditional media. When I first contacted him for this article, he agreed to phone conversations but declined to meet in person; because I’m a contributor to CNN, he assumed that our interviews were a zero-sum proposition. In one of our calls, I asked why he was bothering to talk to me at all. “I at least get my say in there,” he said. “The reality is, I’ve got a bigger footprint than you guys by tenfold, if not twentyfold. I don’t want to be an asshole about it, but there’s nothing you can write that I can’t write back even worse. It’s asymmetric warfare. You’ll never win.”
Later, when The New Yorker sent Bongino a memo to confirm facts for this article, he responded that it contained “obviously false material,” but declined to identify specifics. On his podcast the next day, he complained that I was portraying him as a hatemonger. “Maybe have a little bit of personal dignity,” he suggested, “you ass-kissing-Biden, surgically-attaching-your-lips-to-the-ass-of-the-Administration piece of garbage.”
In 1971, in the prehistoric age of talk radio, the novelist Stanley Elkin published “The Dick Gibson Show,” which conjured the powers of an ambitious, protean host. The fictional Gibson conducted his audiences through crescendos of outrage and grief and paranoid self-pity, drawing in callers from across the country—“wild visionaries” who “believed in the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Communist Conspiracy.” The persona that made Gibson effective, Elkin wrote, was the “sum of private frequencies and personal resonances.”
In the stories that Bongino reveals about himself, there are some of the usual private frequencies: status, grit, yearning, humiliation. But nothing rings louder than his awareness of fear—how it arises and subsides, what it does to the body and the mind. In his punditry, Bongino talks about fear all the time. “Fear has always been the Democrats’ coin of the realm,” he told podcast listeners in June. “How else are they going to coax you into delivering them your civil liberties and freedom? They do it through things like coronavirus.” In a mock orator’s voice, he said, “Give up your right to assemble!”
When Bongino talks about his early life, he also lingers on fear. He grew up in Queens and Long Island, with two brothers. His father, John, was a plumber and a building inspector; his mother, Judy, worked at a grocery store. (For a time, Bongino wanted to be a doctor. “Remember Charlie Brown encyclopedias?” he asked me. “My favorite one was the biology one. It showed the muscle and heart, and I must’ve read that, seriously, twenty times.” He went on, “I know a lot of lefties who read this will probably laugh, because they all think we’re cretins.”) When he was about nine, his parents split, and Judy began a relationship with a man known as Big Mike, a dockworker and a former boxer, who Bongino says would drink and assault him and his brother Joseph. “The abuse became a familiar routine,” he wrote, in “Life Inside the Bubble,” a memoir from 2013. “Joseph and I never discussed it. No one did. We all just pretended it didn’t happen and the world was happy to acquiesce.” (Big Mike could not be reached for comment.)
When I asked about Big Mike, Bongino said, “The only thing that scared this guy was the cops.” He took to restraining the abuse by calling the police. “It became almost Pavlovian in its association to me. Where you’d go from this point of maximum trauma in your life, I mean maximum trauma, pupils dilated, heart racing, fear. I’m not talking about fear like you’re watching a horror movie. I mean, when you’re a kid you can’t process fear. You think you’re next. That’s not the kind of thing you have the adult faculties to deal with. It’s traumatizing. And it changes you forever,” he said. “To go from that to ‘O.K., everything’s good now,’ I can’t even describe to you the elation. It’s literally indescribable. I just remember the feeling being like a light switch: the fear turned off. I thought, I want to do that. I want that kid to look at me like that.”
In 1995, he entered a cadet program for aspiring police officers, while studying psychology at Queens College. He became a cop, and also earned a master’s degree in psychology. Soon, though, he was craving “something bigger.” In 1999, he entered the U.S. Secret Service, and when Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate that year Bongino was assigned to help protect her. He received, as he put it later, “a Ph.D.-level course in campaign management.” In particular, he appreciated the canny efforts of Clinton’s aides to insure that she was photographed travelling in a frumpy brown van, which the Secret Service agents nicknamed Scooby-Doo. (He invoked that lesson years later when he was running for office, telling his staff that campaigns come down to “sound bites and snapshots.”) Among colleagues, he was known as a skillful agent—well liked by both peers and superiors, and quick to venture out in the middle of the night if asked for help. An agent who worked with him recalled, “Nobody knew his politics at all. He never talked politics.”
In 2001, Bongino met Paula Martinez, a Web developer at the Securities Industry Association, and they got married a couple of years later. (Today, they have two daughters, and Paula oversees much of Bongino’s business operation.) In 2006, having moved to Maryland, he joined the Secret Service detail that guarded George W. Bush and his family, and learned the byways of Presidential service. (One rule: Never initiate a conversation with the President.) After Obama was elected, Bongino drew the high-stakes job of organizing his protection during the walking portion of the Inaugural parade, and worked for him for about two years. In 2011, Bongino said of Obama, “From what I saw, he was a wonderful father and a wonderful man, and he was very, very nice and very kind to me.”
Even in the prime postings of the Secret Service, Bongino was restless. He invented a product for martial-arts practitioners—a sock with a sticky sole, which he called the GrappleSock—and he and Paula sold it online. Reviving his childhood ambitions, he crammed for the mcat and applied to medical school at the University of Oklahoma. Because his brother-in-law had worked there, he said, “I thought I stood a good shot.” He was rejected. Instead, he enrolled in an M.B.A. program at Penn State and completed it in his off-hours.
By then, Bongino had started paying attention to the cable-news channels that played constantly in the office. He asked a colleague, “What do you listen to on the way home, the Sports Junkies?” The colleague said, “No, I listen to this guy Mark Levin.” Bongino began tuning in and was captivated. “I was, like, ‘Man, this guy’s speaking my language. He’s as furious about things as I am.’ ”
In 2011, Bongino quit the Secret Service, sick of the travel and what he called the “ ‘cocktail party’ managerial class.” He entered an uphill race against the U.S. senator Ben Cardin, a longtime Maryland Democrat. During the campaign, Bongino’s brother Joseph, who had also joined the Secret Service, was implicated in a scandal in which several agents hired prostitutes while on a Presidential visit to Colombia. According to the Washington Post, Joseph Bongino had a one-night stand, but kept his job because he did not pay for sex. (Joseph declined to comment for this article.) In Dan Bongino’s view, the case was bound up with matters of class and status. “I assure you, if the same level of investigative scrutiny was applied to the White House staff members conducting advance work as was applied to the Secret Service, the results would not be flattering,” he wrote in his memoir.
The race ended badly for Bongino—he lost by nearly thirty points—but it cemented his contact with powerful Republicans, including Sarah Palin, who had endorsed him. Within months, he had become a frequent guest on Infowars. For Alex Jones, it was a perfect pairing: he could present Bongino as a defector from the White House (“They’re so scared of him and what he knows”), and Bongino could play the role of a reluctant but brave truth-teller. In appearances, he said that the American public was being “manipulated” by a “tyrannical group of insiders.” Over time, Bongino’s estimation of Obama changed from “a wonderful man” to “the most corrupt president in U.S. history.” To the Secret Service agent who had worked with him, he seemed transformed by the business that he had entered: “It’s the tale of two Dan Bonginos—the agent and the politico.”
Bongino was honing an ethos that would serve him well: as he put it, “Everybody loves behind-the-scenes stories.” He rarely finishes a show without touting a revelation from behind the scenes—any scenes. Publicizing his book in 2013, he described himself to ABC News as being “in the room during some of the most important conversations”—even though Secret Service agents told ABC that they do not sit in on high-level meetings. In a Washington Post column, Ed Rogers, a veteran of the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations, derided Bongino for capitalizing on his duty in the Presidential detail. “Gag me,” Rogers wrote. “The author should ask for forgiveness, go live in a monastery for a few years and then permanently drop out of sight.”
Instead, Bongino found his way to a more defiant corner of the Republican world, aided by Virginia Thomas, the wife of the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. A prominent Tea Party activist, Ginni Thomas ran a government-affairs firm, Liberty Consulting, and described her work as a “fight for our country’s life.” In 2013, she and a number of prominent conservatives, who believed that they were losing a messaging war against progressives, started meeting to develop talking points. The group, which included congressional staff and reporters at right-leaning publications, was called Groundswell. Members maintained a Google Group, where they swapped proposed phrases. After they workshopped an attack on Obama for putting “politics over public safety,” the phrase became the theme of articles published by the Washington Times, RedState.com, and Breitbart, the last of which Bongino promoted with a tweet: “Politics over public safety?”
Bongino told me that Thomas is a “good friend,” who has encouraged him toward more intense activism: “She says all the time, ‘Dan, we’re the leaders we’ve been waiting for.’ Everybody is waiting for this white knight to come and save the day, but it’s not going to happen. We’re the ones.” For a while, though, he seemed uncertain how to effect the changes he wanted to see. In 2015, after narrowly losing another run for Congress, Bongino fashioned a podcasting studio out of moving blankets at his home in suburban Maryland. He was appearing occasionally on larger conservative shows, which helped build his audience. But he wasn’t yet done trying for public office. That summer, he and Paula bought a house in Florida, not far from where her mother lived, and Bongino launched a third run for Congress. This time, he failed to make it out of the Republican primary, and was noticed mostly for a conflict with a Politico reporter, which became public when a telephone interview was leaked. As the reporter pressed him on campaign donations and on his motives for running, Bongino exploded. He called him a “fucking coward,” speculated that he got beat up a lot as a kid, and threatened to “expose your fucking ass.”
Later, looking back on his electoral career, Bongino acknowledged that he “got smoked,” but said that it was “probably the best thing that ever happened to me.” He was better off behind the scenes—as a broadcaster who could help the right candidate win office. In the summer of 2016, Trump was the Republican nominee for President. Bongino, a proud fellow-product of Queens, appreciated his sensibility. “Queens kids never had money like the Manhattan kids,” he told a local magazine in Florida. “But there’s always puffery. Everything’s huge, magnificent—even if it’s not and your car’s 10 years old.” In 2018, Bongino landed a show on NRATV, an online video channel run by the National Rifle Association, on which he often echoed Trump’s complaints about a “witch hunt” and the “biggest scandal in American history.” Trump, recognizing a reliable supporter, began promoting Bongino’s endeavors on Twitter. (“Thank you Dan and good luck with the book!”) In September, 2018, as political leaders were gathering for John McCain’s funeral, Trump was tweeting about Bongino’s latest appearance on Fox.
NRATV closed down in 2019, but Bongino had found his most effective register: existential showdown. In a segment about the confirmation battle over the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Bongino called it “pure unadulterated evil, what they did to this guy.” He announced a new sense of vocation: “My entire life right now is about owning the libs.”
In broadcasting, one marker of status is the ability to do your job without leaving home. Hannity often does television from his house on Long Island; Carlson has a studio in Maine, where his family has summered for decades, and another near his house in Florida. When Bongino spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference last February, he said, “I don’t get out of my house much.”
For a promotional event in 2018, Bongino and his wife signed in from a couch at their home in Florida. He spent an hour autographing books to send to fans, while Paula—a composed presence in a black dress and chunky glasses—read questions that supporters had submitted. “How do you handle the frustrations you encounter daily?” she asked. Bongino replied, “Who said I handle them?” He barked a laugh and turned to the camera: “You’re not aware of my notoriously horrible temper and disposition?”
Bongino credits his wife with fine-tuning what he calls “the product.” When Bill from New Jersey asked, “Have you always been this competitive and passionate?,” Bongino explained that Paula keeps track of which topics inspire the greatest surges in engagement. “She’ll be, like, ‘Dude, you are slaying it today,’ ” he said. “Because she has these metrics on the Excel spreadsheet.”
Social-media algorithms rely on the principle that Internet momentum is self-justifying: if something is popular, it deserves to be more popular. Bongino has learned to capitalize on this tendency. Across his shows and Web sites, a small staff of editors and producers—he declined to say how many—help him trawl right-wing sites and accounts for videos and sound bites and news items that will furnish the ingredients of social-media arousal.
In December, 2019, he started a business to maximize that power: the Bongino Report, a news aggregator designed to lure Trump supporters away from the Drudge Report. Matt Drudge had soured on Trump, and Bongino seized the opportunity. “Drudge has abandoned you. I NEVER will,” he tweeted.
The Bongino Report completed what Carusone, of Media Matters, described as an “engagement machine”—a suite of businesses across broadcast and mobile technology that introduce large audiences to themes that were previously obscure. “Bongino understood that if you’re connected to the fever swamps you can pull together raw material that differentiates you and gets high engagement,” he said. “He takes the right kernel of highly charged, emotional content, with the right headline, and reaches a large enough platform.”
The process is a kind of “narrative laundering,” Jennifer Mercieca said. “You start with a story from a tainted source, like Alex Jones, and then you process it through something that is more trusted. People may not have trusted Alex Jones and his information in 2015, but, when they heard a Republican nominee or a President say it, then it sounded way more legit.” It benefits the launderer, too, she added; when heavy Internet users hear him refer to the latest trend, they feel “dialled in to the cusp of the information wars.”
The growth of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 gave Bongino a chance to tout his background in law enforcement. (“I spent four years with the N.Y.P.D. and twelve years with the Secret Service. I didn’t have one civilian complaint.”) Between April and October, engagement with his posts on Facebook rose nearly six hundred per cent, according to an analysis by Yunkang Yang, a researcher at the George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics. The most striking increase, Yang said, came just after the killing of George Floyd. A post from Bongino.com amplified content from a smaller right-wing site called the National Pulse, which showed footage of a Black man at a rally in Washington, saying that he was ready to put “police in the fucking grave.” Bongino’s team added a brief commentary, suggesting that the sentiment was widespread: “This is what the Left is. . . . They personify hatred and embody divisiveness. We can never let these people anywhere near power.” The post generated more than a hundred and forty thousand likes and comments.
Before long, Bongino’s posts were consistently in the top ten on Facebook. His competitor Ben Shapiro reportedly achieves big numbers by running a network of pages that disseminates his content—the social-media equivalent of buying your own book to get on the best-seller list—but Bongino denies employing such tricks.
His fans follow him closely. In the fall of 2020, an oncology nurse and admirer spotted a lump on Bongino’s neck during a video appearance and encouraged him to get it checked. He was diagnosed as having Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Doctors removed a seven-centimetre tumor, and he underwent chemotherapy and radiation. In March, he was pronounced cancer-free, a development that generated fervent engagement on Facebook.
Because Bongino has emerged so fast, and because so much of his activity occurs away from mainstream media, few Democrats have noticed that he exists. Carusone notes that there is an entire realm of influential figures who are effectively invisible from the outside. “They’re no longer the fringe,” he said. He points to Steven Crowder, a thirty-four-year-old YouTuber who often broadcasts wearing a gun in a shoulder holster. YouTube has cited Crowder for “egregious” violations of its policies on disinformation and cyberbullying; last spring, it suspended his ad sales, and reportedly penalized him for “reveling in or mocking” the police killing of a Black teen-ager in Ohio. (He disputed the accusation.) In October, 2020, as the election approached, his YouTube channel had more viewers than CNN’s did.
In the days following the election, conservative hosts jockeyed for attention, but Bongino outperformed his peers. A headline in Politico declared, “Dan Bongino Leads the maga Field in Stolen-Election Messaging.” Like others, he often charged toward a red line—incitement, libel, bullying—and then veered away. On November 9th, in a podcast episode titled “Resist,” he said, “I’ve never been more fired up. We need a rally and we need the President at it.” Then it was time to hedge. “There will be no riots at that rally,” he went on. “The safest place on earth for police officers is at a Trump rally.” That day, Bongino’s podcast became No. 1 on iTunes.
In tweets, there was less room to hedge. On November 11th, he wrote that conservatives were being “put on targeting lists” and that his opponents were “tyrants, nothing more.” Less than a week later, he wrote, “The mask is off. They’re not hiding anymore.” One of the people reading, according to an analysis by National Public Radio, was Ashli Babbitt, a devoted Trump fan from Southern California. On January 6th, she was killed by police while trying to storm the Capitol. In the last year of her life, Babbitt retweeted Bongino at least fifty times.
In the months since the siege, Bongino has condemned the violence but has taken to warning conservatives of a new risk: political profiling. “I’m not suggesting to you we shouldn’t investigate, to the moon, attacks on police officers,” he told his audience in June. But he mapped out a dark hypothetical: “A certain candidate runs for office they don’t like—all of a sudden the F.B.I. is investigating ‘white supremacy.’ ‘He talked to a guy who knew a guy who talked to a guy who was on Capitol Hill January 6th.’ ‘White supremacy’! You see where this can go?”
In May, he started the radio show in Limbaugh’s old slot. It was not a simple inheritance; some local stations opted to fill the slot with other aspiring heirs. There was the duo of Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, a sportswriter and a former C.I.A. officer; there was also Erick Erickson, an evangelical Christian who once called the Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat-fucking child molester,” and was now being positioned as the calm, mature option.
But Bongino had an advantage: Trump, who agreed to be his first guest. Bongino asked if he would run in 2024, saying, “We need you.” Trump basked in the question. “Well, I’ll tell you what,” he said. “We are going to make you very happy, and we’re going to do what’s right.”
During the summer, Bongino added a new topic to his rotation. After months of fanning listeners’ distrust about the election of 2020, he began prepping them to doubt the integrity of an election that was still more than a year away. “They’re hiding information from you now about what happened in Arizona and Georgia,” he said in July, in a riff about Silicon Valley. “They disrupted the 2020 election. And they want to do it in 2022.”
When Trump was in office, his media allies played the role of interpreters, defending his actions and his non-actions and distributing blame to enemies—the press, China, Anthony Fauci. Under Biden, they no longer have to play defense; these days, it’s offense all the time. By the fall of 2021, as the Biden Administration sought to force companies to mandate covid vaccines or weekly testing, Bongino was forthrightly calling for “mass civil disobedience.”
On October 18th, Bongino issued a public ultimatum to Cumulus Media, the owner of the network that syndicates his program, threatening to part ways with the company if it continued to require employees to get vaccinated. “I don’t believe this is based on any science,” he said on his show. He called it “antithetical to everything I believe in.”
For Bongino, the policies of the pandemic—mandates for masks and vaccines, admonitions against experimental treatments—have always rested on a dubious expectation of trust. When I asked him why he challenged the science, he cut in: “Time out.” He fed my words back to me: “ ‘You challenge the science.’ No, that’s not the way science works! Science is a process of challenges.” He went on, “What are you, a lemming? Just because people tell you to do things doesn’t mean you should automatically do it. Pregnant women took thalidomide for morning sickness. That was the consensus of the time. Look how that worked out.”
Bongino does not dispute the lethality of covid. Before I could ask whether he was vaccinated, he volunteered that he was. Citing his treatment for lymphoma, he said, “I have a wiped-out immune system. My doctor told me, ‘This, for you, is probably a good idea.’ ” He saw no conflict between his need for a vaccine and his tirades against mandates. “I go on my show and say, ‘Hey, I took it. But I really think you all should talk to your doctor first.’ ” In fact, some of his on-air rhetoric was considerably more forceful. “The reason the left is doubled- and tripled-down on vaccine mandates—it’s not by accident—is because the left has a totalitarian bent,” he told listeners. “They don’t want you to have control over any sphere of your life.”
Once Bongino picked the fight with Cumulus, his show went on hiatus. It did not go as he had hoped. Another right-wing Cumulus host, Dale Jackson, mocked him for “virtue signalling”; local stations griped about having to play reruns; the trade press quoted speculation that Bongino was using the fracas as a ploy to sweeten his contract or sign with a new network. (Bongino denied the speculation, attributing it to “jealous” fellow-hosts.) After a week and a half, he declared a “stalemate” and returned to the airwaves, promising to put two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of his own money into a fund for Cumulus employees who had lost jobs for refusing to be vaccinated.
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.’ ”
As a first step, he had invested in Parler, a social network funded by the Republican megadonor Rebekah Mercer. Founded in 2018, Parler prohibited criminal activity and bots but otherwise pledged not to “censor ideas, political parties or ideologies.” Anti-Semitic material abounded, including hashtags such as #HitlerWasRight, but the platform nevertheless attracted official accounts from many prominent Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas. In June, 2020, Bongino and others involved in the company visited Mar-a-Lago to meet with Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager. According to a participant, the goal was to discuss the prospect of the President adopting Parler in exchange for partial ownership. During the meeting, Jeffrey Wernick, who was a Parler consultant and is Bongino’s partner in other ventures, grew suspicious that Parscale was there mostly on his own behalf. “I sat there. I listened,” Wernick told me. “All I’m hearing is a guy hyping himself.” The talks were soon ended, after the White House counsel’s office registered concerns that such a deal with a sitting President could violate ethics laws.
In the days after the siege of the Capitol, as Trump and his allies were ejected from mainstream social media, Parler became the most downloaded item in Apple’s App Store. It didn’t last; Apple and Google stopped offering the app, and the company faded into a scrum of litigation among founders and investors. But Bongino saw that flash of success as proof of demand. 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. The tech giants that Bongino resents succeeded by promoting conflict and scale. But, if conservatives evacuate the center rings of American technology, they will lose an essential part of any matchup: the heel. You could still own the libs at a distance, but it would no longer be a contact sport. It’s akin to changing the channel from Ultimate Fighting Championship to the Sports Junkies.
At times, in our conversations, Bongino seemed to be straining to make the case that his alternative technologies pose a meaningful challenge to the behemoths. “There’s a lot happening behind the scenes,” he said. “I don’t think the left and the media and the Big Tech tyrants out there have any idea what’s coming. Believe me. There’s a consortium of people who’ve had enough, and they’ve got the money, the assets, and the time.” I asked him to mention one other entrepreneur who was working behind the scenes. He balked. “I’m hesitant to give that up,” he said. “Leftists will cancel them.”
In any event, the biggest entrepreneur came pre-cancelled. Trump announced in October that the Trump Media & Technology Group was developing an alternative to Twitter, called Truth Social. To finance its growth, the firm would merge with a publicly traded blank-check company (the fashionable Wall Street innovation known as a “special-purpose acquisition company,” or spac), giving the former President access to hundreds of millions of dollars. To Trump’s critics, the deal sounded like a grift to end all grifts. Within weeks, it was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. But, if Trump can hold it together, it may provide his largest step yet toward regaining a political voice in the lead-up to the 2024 election.
Several weeks after Trump’s announcement, Rumble declared that it, too, planned to merge with a spac. Then the companies announced a partnership: Bongino’s favored platform would stream the video for Trump’s app. If conservatives wanted to get out of the wilderness, Bongino told listeners, they needed to build their own “parallel information economy.” Act now. “We decide who comes in,” he said. “It’s the only way to win.”
Even if the technology proves rickety, ventures by Trump and Bongino would give their fans new power to turn zeal into action—a crucial element of what Edward Bernays, one of the founding fathers of public relations, called the “simple machinery of group leadership.” For Bernays, who in his long career persuaded Americans to buy more Ivory soap, to eat more bananas, and to support the First World War, the goal was to cultivate customers so devoted that they take matters into their own hands. “As if actuated by the pressure of a button,” he wrote, “people began working for the client.”
A fanatically loyal audience can be very profitable—and, at times, very dangerous. During a public event in Idaho in October, the pro-Trump commentator Charlie Kirk was asked by a fan, “When do we get to use the guns?” The crowd tittered, and the fan continued, “I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” Kirk, who seemed to sense how poorly the moment was going to play on YouTube, interrupted him. “I’m going to denounce that,” he said. “We have to be the ones that do not play into the violent aims and ambitions of the other side.” Instead, he said, Idaho should ban vaccine mandates, eject some federal agencies, and “pick and choose” what federal laws it considers constitutional. When the man asked again when violence was required, Kirk urged him to be wary of abetting his opponents’ conspiracy: “They’re trying to get you to do something that then justifies what they actually want to do.”
The moment captured the perils of living in a nation beset by information warfare: if January 6th made anything clear, it was that some number of Americans will eventually abandon a distinction between rhetorical battle and the real thing. Bongino’s business thrives in that borderland, the realm of thinking where the best way to stay safe is to buy the shotguns and holsters that he advertises on his show.
One morning in November, he posted to Facebook a video of himself in an especially grave mood. He wore a bright-red T-shirt from a sponsor: Bravo Company, a manufacturer of military-style rifles and accessories, which promotes itself with a Latin motto that translates as “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” Hunched over the microphone, Bongino stared into the camera. “We are descending at an increasingly rapid rate into fascism,” he said. “Chaos. You’re seeing the evaporation of civil liberties in live time, the Bill of Rights being used like toilet paper, the Constitution being thrown out, the rapid spread of insane deadly ideas, like the defunding of the police and the abolition of our military.”
The monologue, a snippet of a podcast episode first released in April, centered on his usual complaints about Silicon Valley—YouTube had removed a video of scholars who advised children not to wear masks—but Bongino had elevated it to a larger showdown with opponents whom he called “pieces of human filth.”
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” he said. “There are people now openly silencing and attacking conservatives, trying to have them jailed, trying to have them sanctioned, bankrupted financially, fired from their jobs. This is all happening right now! And it’s all happening because of the Democrat Party and the liberals.” He was shouting now, waving a hand in front of the lens. “They are fascists! That’s not in dispute!”
He seemed to catch himself. “My apologies,” he said. “I don’t mean this to sound rambling.” But, he explained, his experience with cancer had heightened his sense of the stakes. It “put horse blinders on me to see what really matters,” he said. “The fight is all that matters, and it’s all that should matter to you.”
He reached what he presented as an encouraging conclusion: “The only good news about the rapid descent is we’re going to hit a bottom soon. And I promise you. . . . ” He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists. “I promise you! I know it—the Lord will not let this country go down like that.” He stared into the camera again. “There will be an ascent just as fast, where freedom and liberty will reëmerge, and these people on the other side of it, the Big Tech tyrant totalitarian fascists, their liberal buddies, the Biden Administration, they will all—all—have to answer for this.”
In the next three weeks, Bongino’s video was watched on Facebook nearly six million times. It attracted comments from fans around the country, who heard in his words a case for belief and an argument to take action. A woman from Texas—whom Facebook had rewarded with a “Top Fan” badge, identifying her as one of Bongino’s most active supporters—wrote, “I wonder when we will put our phones down and get out, face to face and shoulder to shoulder to stand against this?” Another follower celebrated the campaign against vaccine mandates and gloried in the prospect of vindication. “Seeing a rise in people turning to NOT getting so many jabs, quitting jobs, and telling govt. to screw off is the first sign of a revolt,” she wrote, and added, “Let the revolt happen.”
Published in the print edition of the January 3 & 10, 2022, issue, with the headline “Maga-Phone.”
Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His most recent book is “ Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury.”