Donald Trump’s political ascension scrambled the right-wing media ecosystem more than any event in generations. Conservative figures who wanted to maintain conservative audiences needed to declare at least nominal backing for Trump and his agenda, with few exceptions. He and his supporters effectively drove his “Never Trump” critics from a movement that some of them had inhabited for decades. Meanwhile, his biggest sycophants saw their profiles and paychecks grow, with some garnering unprecedented power as official or unofficial advisers in the Trump White House.
No one rode Trump’s coattails quite as effectively as Dan Bongino, whose new three-hour radio show taking over Rush Limbaugh’s storied time slot debuts on Monday and will feature an interview with the former president. The commentator’s dogged devotion to Trump made him one of the biggest stars in right-wing media, and his ongoing rise following Trump’s 2020 defeat shows the hold the former president still has over his base and the right-wing universe whose content it consumes.
Bongino, a former New York Police Department and Secret Service officer, was a right-wing media nobody at the dawn of the Trump administration. He had started podcasting in 2015 and had written two books, one for the conspiracy theory website WND’s publishing arm. Bongino occasionally subbed for radio hosts like Sean Hannity and showed up on Fox, but he also frequently appeared on the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars show. He had just lost his third consecutive congressional race, after making headlines for an unhinged meltdown at a reporter.
He’s come a long way in less than five years -- and done it without being associated with any new idea or insight. But Bongino’s brand of smash-mouth rants, marrying unswerving fealty to Trump with incandescent denunciations of the left, was uniquely suited to the moment.
Building a brand by attacking the Mueller probe
Bongino carved out a niche as one of Fox’s foremost opponents of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, making regular appearances to discuss the investigation and other issues on some of the network’s highest-rated shows. A Media Matters review found that between August 1, 2017, and July 5, 2018, Bongino was the fourth most frequent guest on Fox News.
By 2018, that heightened profile snagged Bongino a regular gig as a host for the National Rifle Association’s far-right streaming network, NRATV. The show, titled We Stand, was announced with a widely ridiculed video in which Bongino, clad in a “Socialist Tears” T-shirt, places unpeeled lemons in a blender and then is seen drinking the juice.
This is not how you make lemonade:
We Stand was often slapdash and incoherent, with Bongino combining unscripted and unplanned introductions with unhinged rants about Trump’s enemies. But it was a ready vehicle for Bongino to test out his attack lines against Mueller (“fire this guy now”) and his probe (“the biggest scandal in American history”) while defending the Trump team, who he claimed had been “set up.”
Bongino also offered similar commentary in his ongoing appearances on Fox, which started to capture Trump’s attention. The then-president began live-tweeting quotes from Bongino’s Fox interviews in May 2018, highlighting the commentator’s on-air declarations over the course of the year that the Mueller probe was “a political hit job” conducted by a team “stacked with anti-Trumpers” and that it was actually Hillary Clinton and the Democrats who had engaged in “very real” collusion with Russia.
When Fox’s Tucker Carlson promoted Bongino’s then-forthcoming book attacking the Russia probe during an August 2018 interview, Trump tweeted less than an hour later highlighting the book’s title, thanking Bongino, and wishing him “good luck.”
Bongino’s rising profile as a pro-Trump Mueller foe left him in a strong position when NRATV canceled his show as it started to collapse in December of that year. By the end of the following month, he had signed a deal as a Fox contributor.
But like many other Fox personalities at the time, Bongino’s loyalty was to Trump first, not the network. As the 2020 election approached, he violated Fox’s purported standards by appearing in a Trump campaign video and also claims to have advised the then-president on his campaign strategy.
Bongino’s sycophantic support for Trump, his slashing attacks on Trump’s foes, and his willingness to baselessly question the results of the 2020 election helped build the audience for his podcast and boost his Facebook presence to new heights. It paved the way for his forthcoming radio show, which will also stream on Fox Nation, and a weekend Fox show which debuts next month.
Bongino isn’t just tapping into the existing, mature right-wing institutions. He’s trying to take advantage of the desire among Republicans for safe spaces free from anti-Trump sentiment by creating new infrastructure. He leveraged his rising media stardom to back Parler, a far-right Facebook analogue, and Rumble, which fills a similar role for video, and to create the Bongino Report, a Drudge Report knock-off which sought to take advantage of Matt Drudge’s skepticism of Trump.
“Owning the libs” while standing with Trump
You can sum up Bongino’s commentary in two clips.
On his NRATV show in 2018, he declared that “my entire life right now is about owning the libs” because liberals are “pure unadulterated evil.”
And responding to the first presidential debate in September 2020, he explained to Fox's audience that Trump’s “strategy tonight was executed brilliantly” because he “is an apex predator. He's the lion king.”
What Bongino has to offer his audience is “owning the libs” and adulation for Trump. And that’s all they want right now.