The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dan Bongino isn’t just taking over where Rush Limbaugh left off — he’s building a conservative media universe

Conservative podcaster Dan Bongino says that “creating a parallel media economy is not a good idea — it’s a necessary idea.” (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

One day in the waning months of the 2020 presidential campaign, Dan Bongino — a former Secret Service agent turned serial congressional candidate turned podcasting star — walked into the Oval Office for a sit-down with the president.

He’d stood outside the locus of American power during his days on the protection detail for President Barack Obama, but he’d never entered for a personal meeting until Donald Trump was elected. The president, trailing in the polls and hapless in his response to the coronavirus, had invited him to discuss campaign strategy, Bongino recalled in an interview from his home in Stuart, Fla.

Bongino was uniquely positioned to offer insights. In America’s siloed mediascape, he was barely a blip to liberals; on much of the political left, he was the powerhouse no one recognized. But in the separate universe of conservative media, he’d become a thing.

He was the fulminating, one-man conglomerate presiding over a mini-empire of words that included a booming website, a highly rated podcast, a regular Fox News gig, a Facebook page that routinely registered an astonishing slice of the top 10 shared posts, best-selling books and a thriving YouTube channel. He was doing more than raging against Democrats and the mainstream media. He was also setting in motion his grand aspiration to create a parallel digital economy in which the right wing builds its own digital infrastructure, separate from large tech companies he believes are anti-conservative, by acquiring its own “pipes” that ferry information on the Internet.

Bongino’s advice to Trump in the run-up to the 2020 election — one suggestion among a smattering he’d offered — was straightforward: seize the campaign narrative and the attention of the country by holding outdoor rallies at airports, where the threat of spreading the virus would be minimized.

“Whether I was the one person who suggested it to him that made him do it — I’m not going to say that,” says Bongino, a former New York police officer who speaks in the blunt, unvarnished, last-syllable-chopping tone of his Queens upbringing. “But I know I was one of the primary voices.”

Bongino had been helpful to the White House as an early adopter of pro-Trump story lines, including pecking relentlessly at questions related to the origins of the federal investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian election interference. He’d also pumped up the portrayal, denied by Democrats, of expansive spying on Trump’s campaign by the Obama administration. Bongino later had something to boast about when an FBI agent pleaded guilty to falsifying records used for a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign official.

Since the election, he’s become one of the more energetic promoters of dubious assertions about the 2020 presidential contest. Despite rulings by more than 80 judges, including Trump appointees, rejecting cases alleging fraud and election-law manipulation, he says that “the fact that the Supreme Court doesn’t want to hear a lot of these cases and provide clarity and give a definitive answer, I think is a controversy in and of itself.”

He’s called continued restrictions recommended by health officials, even as more and more people are vaccinated, “witch-doctorism,” and blasted experts who say vaccinated people should wear masks outside, a stance that has lately been taken up by some on the left. He’s described masks as “face diapers” and accused liberals of taking advantage of the coronavirus to enact Soviet-style government control. And he’s engaged in a classic strategy of “what-aboutism,” condemning the use of political violence in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack but quickly pivoting to comparisons with violent demonstrations by the political left, including groups such as antifa, following the killing of George Floyd, the Black man whose neck was pinned to the ground by a White policeman in Minneapolis.

“He doesn’t just talk to his audience, he leads his audience,” says Michael Caputo, a Trump 2016 campaign media strategist who departed from his administration communications job last year amid allegations, which he’s rebutted, of manipulating publicly released information to downplay the coronavirus. “Bongino’s not just reacting to the news of the day. He’s actually creating the news of the day.”

Bongino’s counsel before the 2020 election obviously wasn’t enough to undo the downward trajectory of Trump’s reelection hopes. But while so many others left the Trump era gravely wounded — indicted, entering guilty pleas or convicted (then pardoned with tarnished reputations), or mocked or marginalized or disappeared (think Fox Business stalwart Lou Dobbs, who’d once been patched into White House meetings by Trump) — Bongino has emerged better positioned than ever to shape the contours of the right wing.

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Lately, Parler — the Twitter alternative site that was stripped from the Apple app store after the short-lived Jan. 6 pro-Trump insurrection — has become Bongino’s central talking point in his campaign against big tech companies. Parler, which also lost technical support from Amazon and Google, had been painted early on as the communications nexus for the insurrectionists. But in the months since, investigations have shown that sites including Facebook were used as much, or more. Bongino has a potent case to make that Parler, in which he says he has an equity stake, has been unfairly singled out.

Now, leveraging his personal wealth, growing fame and connections, Bongino’s been eyeing more tech acquisitions.

“When I think about his power, it’s not so much that he’s flexing it or using it on a regular basis; it’s that what he’s doing, unlike others, is investing in infrastructure, communications infrastructure, that can actually be pretty quickly converted into power and influence,” said Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog that has been a frequent Bongino antagonist and regularly accuses him of spreading misinformation about, among other things, the 2020 presidential election.

Just this month, Bongino’s footprint expanded significantly as he was selected to fill the national daytime radio spot once occupied by Rush Limbaugh, the legendary broadcaster who died in February. The show is set to debut in late May, probably airing on only a fraction of Limbaugh’s 600 former stations.

Longtime conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh succumbed to terminal, stage four lung cancer on Feb. 17. He was 70 years old. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

The radio program is just a piece of what could lie ahead, making one wonder whether Bongino’s ultimate impact could be as an entrepreneur even more than as a commentator. In the interview, the 46-year-old Bongino says he recently invested in a payment processing service, adding to equity positions he says he’s taken in a YouTube-competitor video streaming service called Rumble, as well as Parler.

“Creating a parallel media economy is not a good idea — it’s a necessary idea,” says Bongino. “I want to be crystal clear, and that distinction has gotta be, gotta be, lucid in your heart.” He insists that tech companies repress conservative voices, though that assertion has been questioned by recent academic research.

His aspirations are far from easily achievable. Others have tried to reinvent American media without success. But Bongino, with his ideological constituency well established, sees the almost 75 million people who voted for Donald Trump as a ripe market. If he can pull off even a portion of his goal, a large chunk of the American right won’t just be living in a parallel information world — they’ll be living in Dan Bongino’s world.

Runs for office in Maryland

Dan Bongino is trying to remember when it began.

“Paula! How long we been doin’ the show? You remember?” Bongino, on the phone, can be heard calling out to his wife at their waterfront home.

After years in Maryland, they now live in Stuart, a midsized city on Florida’s east coast, an hour north of Palm Beach, with their two daughters, ages 17 and 9, a goldendoodle puppy and Bongino’s weapons arsenal that includes his favorite Sig P365 pistol and rifles made by BCM, one of his show’s sponsors. They moved to Stuart from nearby Palm City because of threats prompted by his commentary. “I can’t emphasize enough, I’m not a victim, so please, I don’t want any sob stories, but we’re probably going to have to move again for that very same reason.”

Bongino’s podcast began in February 2015.

It was not a happy time.

He was coming off his second campaign loss in three years. He’d brought a unique profile to his entry into elective politics. To run, he’d left behind the security of a 12-year Secret Service career that included working with three presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, including time on first daughter Jenna Bush’s detail, and Obama.

Before joining the Secret Service he’d been a New York policeman, inspired in part by the officers he’d seen come to the aid of his mother, while he was growing up in an apartment above his grandfather’s bar in Queens. His stepfather was a “grizzled dockworker” who was abusive when he drank, Bongino wrote in a memoir, “Life Inside the Bubble: Why a Top-ranked Secret Service Agent Walked Away From It All.” The young Bongino resolved to “never be physically intimidated again.”

He began a lifelong physical regimen that’s apparent to this day when he wears his signature tight T-shirts, revealing bulging biceps, while streaming his podcast on YouTube and Rumble. He rigorously follows a routine that includes weightlifting and high-intensity interval training; he takes jujitsu lessons in his garage and once owned a mixed martial arts footwear company that produced something called “Grapple Socks.”

His first try to win office, in 2012, was stunningly quixotic, and he lost badly to the incumbent Maryland Democratic senator, Ben Cardin, after a surprise victory in a large Republican primary field. His second was even more stunning, as he nearly defeated incumbent Democrat John Delaney, a future presidential candidate, in a Maryland congressional race.

He later cobbled together $10,000 and built a makeshift podcasting studio using mover’s blankets in a basement closet at his Severna Park, Md., home. He’d been motivated by an article he’d read about young people shifting from radio to podcasts.

His rise as a conservative talker had been given an early bump on in the murkier fringes of the Internet: He’d appeared on the conspiracy site Infowars, and his memoir had been originally published by the books division of WorldNetDaily, a website that was a crucial promoter of the debunked “birtherism” theory that Obama was an illegitimate president. (The book is now published by Post Hill Press and distributed by Simon and Schuster.)

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But he’d also caught the attention of big names, including Fox News superstar Sean Hannity, who featured Bongino on his top-rated program. Square-jawed with an intimidating glare, he was a natural fit to express outrage. Radio powerhouse Mark Levin became a friend and Bongino sometimes guest-hosted his show.

With his podcast starting to build an audience, Bongino moved his family to Florida the next year so that his wife — who’d emigrated to the United States from Colombia at age 9, not speaking a word of English — could be closer to her mother.

Once again he decided to run for national office, jumping into an open congressional race. Bongino had almost no election infrastructure, mainly tooling around the Southwest Florida district with a single aide, fueled by prodigious quantities of Five Guys burgers.

“We had no business being in that race,” says Maria Pycha, who’d marveled at Bongino’s retail political skills and assembling of a volunteer network in his first two races and served as his campaign manager in the Florida contest.

The Florida race would seal a reputation as a hothead that he has continued to deepen with podcast rants and impassioned television appearances. In a recorded phone call with a Politico reporter who was asking about opaque small campaign donations, Bongino exploded in a torrent of profanities, dropping multiple F-bombs.

“I think he likes to see his name on the front page of Politico if it says, ‘Dan Bongino berates reporter,’ because his followers see that as ‘Dan Bongino owns the fake news,’ ” says Aidan McLaughlin, editor in chief of Mediaite, a site that has also been the subject of profane Bongino outbursts.

In the Bongino worldview, the media is complicit in a strangling of American values, useful idiots in league with liberal politicians who “love communism and socialism,” are bent on gun confiscation and “worship the golden calf” of Chinese-style authoritarianism.

Every mainstream media basher needs a bête noire, and though he has many targets, Bongino has found a favorite in Brian Stelter, the host of the CNN program “Reliable Sources.” In 2019, Bongino went off on Stelter, whom he calls “Mr. Potato Head,” for not criticizing CNN for hiring as a contributor Andrew McCabe, the former acting FBI director who authorized an investigation of Trump and had been accused by the Justice Department’s inspector general of lying during a media leak probe (an accusation he denied).

In barely a minute of one of his video-streamed podcasts, Bongino, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “No quarter given,” managed to call Stelter “a clown,” then “a clown” again, then “a total joker,” “a clown” for a third time, a “moron” and “a doofus of the highest order.”

During his Stelter harangue, Bongino — in typical, stream-of-consciousness mode — occasionally had to interrupt himself.

He was laughing so hard he could barely speak.

Stelter, who occasionally bantered on social media in years past with Bongino, says the former Secret Service agent is engaging in “performative masculinity” to appeal to a largely White, male audience.

“These anti-media entertainers target media figures in order to get attention; and it has worked for Dan Bongino,” Stelter, between bouts of laughter, says in an interview.

A while back, someone sent Stelter a Mr. Potato Head toy, and he sometimes uses it in the background of his live shots as “a wink” to the audience: “My kids love playing with it.”

Bongino's cancer diagnosis

Dan Bongino is trying to remember when he got cancer.

“Paula!” he calls out. “When was I diagnosed with the cancer?”

Turns out it was sometime last fall. An oncology nurse who watches Bongino’s show contacted him after noticing a lump on his neck that was later diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was a time in his life when everything had seemed to be going his way. His show was a hit. Money was pouring in from ads on his podcast — over the years he’s had sponsors that sell health supplements, survivalist meals and Internet privacy software — and other business ventures to such an extent that he says he’s “set for life.”

Moments before he was about to go into surgery at Sloan Kettering in New York, Bongino says, his phone rang with a blocked number.

It was Trump, who has since moved to Florida, as well.

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“Is there anything we can do for you?” Bongino recalls Trump asking. “Do you need anything when you’re up there?”

Over the years their relationship had become symbiotic and somewhat personal. Trump tweeted about Bongino’s books and helped expand his audience by appearing on his podcast.

“Bongino is Trump through and through to his genetic code,” says Caputo, the former Trump communications official.

Bongino had become a fervent dissector of the impeachment case against the president, his critiques earning him more adoring fans as they were amplified on Fox and elsewhere. He’d written a book with two co-authors titled “Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump,” which posits connections between the Hillary Clinton campaign and foreign entities to undermine Trump’s 2016 election chances.

When Bongino took an equity stake in Parler, according to another investor, Jeffrey Wernick, his notoriety drew users to the site.

“Parler before Bongino joined was this little app that was making squeaky noises, but it was hard to convince people to move over because there was not that big name to give it credibility,” Wernick said in an interview. “Without Bongino, we might never have scaled [up]. He became the face of Parler.”

With his empire expanding, Bongino had a larger reach during one of the defining periods of his career: the aftermath of the 2020 election. Even as signs were pointing to a victory by President Biden, Bongino was furiously pushing theories about supposed vote-counting anomalies and possible manipulation of tallies.

Two days after Biden was declared the victor by the Associated Press, Bongino was telling his listeners that “there is nothing to concede. Concession speech? Concede what?”

A popular misconception about this period is that Bongino was unequivocally saying the election was stolen. In fact, he leavened his accusations by saying that if no fraud was found, he’d accept that conclusion, and that once electors met and the “votes are counted, maybe that story changes.” Still, his repeated suggestions that something untoward did happen or might have happened helped keep the stolen-election narrative alive.

Early on, after the election, he urged resistance, saying “my listeners are fighters,” while cautioning that Trump had only a slim chance of prevailing. But he chafes at the suggestion that he could have played a role in stoking the anger among Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, the day that the election outcome was finalized. Today he says he remains convinced the election was “rigged,” even though he won’t go so far as to say it was “stolen.”

“We’re in a really dangerous spot,” Bongino says. “When people start accusing others of heresy and Hester Pryne-ing them, putting the scarlet letter on them because they dared to ask a question . . . at the time they were very legitimate questions. There are still legitimate questions. I’m not suggesting this means Trump won.”

Bongino says he wouldn’t rule out running for office a fourth time. The cancer diagnosis changed his thinking, he says, making him wonder whether he could make a mark beyond being a political tastemaker. It seems like a remote possibility, though, especially when he’s busy building what could be called Dan Bongino’s world.

He’s sure his audience has the same mind-set he does, including supporting school choice, expansive gun rights and minimal government regulation: “It’s really just an eagerness to preserve the prosperity of the present. People just want to be left alone.”

In the meantime, he’s advocating on his program for Trump to run for president again.

“He is the conservative movement,” Bongino says in the interview. “Is there anyone with a bigger political bank account right now than Donald Trump? The answer is, ‘No.’ ”

The other day, Bongino’s phone rang. He was waiting for a phone call from a lawyer on one of those deals he says he’s always pursuing. He declined the call.

When he checked his voice mail, a familiar voice rang out — Donald Trump’s.

“I heard you beat cancer,” Bongino recalls Trump saying.

Trump wished him well.