Opinion | Meet the GOP Insiders rebranding as Bad Boys of Conservative Talk
Ruthless, which can be streamed on all major podcast services, has acquired a cult of self-proclaimed “minions” as a clear right-wing alternative to Pod Save America and its brothers. But is it good?
In more than 100 episodes, the show has shown some real strengths – two of its three presenters are PR professionals, they know the pressure points and hypocrisies of the political media all too well and pounce on them with righteousness – but it’s flaws that make the overall product deeply unsatisfactory.
On the one hand, his success in penetrating the conservative powerhouse of DC shows the immensely unpleasant contradiction at its core: For a podcast that puts its brand on a bad boy image and the willingness to slander sacred cows, it is inseparable from the Connected to the establishment, ex-President Donald Trump railed against it, and this is almost literally embodied by his hosts.
But worse, it commits the cardinal sin of any cultural endeavor that prides itself on puffing itself up and beating itself on the chest as standard-bearers for a new, completely outspoken generation. It’s often easy, as the kids would say, shrug, its geriatric millennial hosts combine an overly online, strangely hostile digital patois with a series of outdated cultural references – the “Fame” soundtrack, more than a reference to Milli Vanilli – they sound like the self-proclaimed “cool” teachers trying to have a “rap session” with their students.
Of course, there is no sin in doing an uncomfortable podcast, and those who eagerly listen to Ruthless every week will be satisfied as long as they think the libs above are owned. But more than the awkwardness of what the hosts say, it ultimately reveals what they are not saying about the GOP’s uncomfortable post-Trump status quo.
Holmes and Duncan are corporate men to the core, sores surrounding the pandemic, January 6 riots and false claims of election fraud are eagerly avoided in their interviews with Republican hopefuls to form a united front before 2022; the banter that makes up the rest of the show is no longer introspective. The podcast explicitly asks how Republicans can regain power in the midst of liberal politics and media. But the implicit question it raises is far more difficult to answer: is it possible for the conservative establishment to reassert itself with little more than an anti-establishment slick?
No partisans who are worth their money, and certainly not those who are well paid for their work, will turn their platform into some kind of endless Maoist struggle session. But the overall effect of Ruthless is to place the Republicans in some sort of rhetorical Potemkin village whose view changes for each guest, Race 22 and real world contingency, with the unwavering, strangely almighty perfidy of the Democrats being the only constant . It’s red meat for the devout and likely an effective alka-seltzer for spoiled mainstream conservatives in liberal geographic bubbles (like the show’s hosts). For everyone else, it’s a disorienting, honestly uncomfortable listening experience – and fatally one that, in view of the reality, seems almost comically shy compared to its competitors from the conservative media.
Conservatives have a special connection with talk radio. There is, of course, the late Rush Limbaugh, who reshaped the right-wing media landscape to his own image, and followers like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, who have made their ascent to great success with that of Fox News; In modern times, about half of the top 20 American political podcasts on Apple’s podcast service are slim conservative, according to the industry tracker Chartable. (Reckless is currently at number 40. During a recent episode, moderators complained about Apple’s unfair advertising treatment for ideological reasons, even though numbers two and three on the same chart are decidedly not moderated by the liberal Steves Crowder and Bannon, respectively. )
The movement and format go well together, the latter providing hours of blank space that any insane truth-teller ready to step up and challenge the liberal establishment can fill. Which must have made it all the more annoying when Liberals after years of failed attempts – Air America, anyone? – finally cracked the code. Pod Save America, led by a group of former Obama employees who have been and will remain a #resistible taste cultural phenomenon. His appeal to beleaguered, apocalyptic-minded liberals over the past four years has been easy to understand, sustained (like Ruthless) by the simple relationship between his hosts and a parade of quasi-news-ops-mouth talks with their party’s top figures.
Pod Save America demonstrated in real time how a common enemy in the Trump administration unified the divided large tent of the Democrats and gave the Pod Save crew and their supporters a worn-out corps spirit that the fragmented conservative media sorely lacked. Ruthless doesn’t, and its many faults stem from its half-hearted attempts to mend these threads.
His hosts applaud the mindless partisanship of the die-hard Trumpist right without fully embracing Trump himself; they recognize the need for the Republican Party to “develop” but not the compromises involved in adopting the ideas of their reformist counterparts; they praise PG-13-style insults, “Let’s Go Brandon,” without accepting the cheerful rudeness of the internet native right. It leaves the show weird with neither fish nor poultry, and avoids both Claremontian scholarship and feverish anger in a triangulation difficult to imagine pleasing the often inflexible, irascible conservative media consumer.
This dynamic is most evident in the show’s interviews with a handful of Republican leaders who are almost synonymous with intra-right controversy, like the VP mentioned above. Performed in front of a giggling audience celebrating the launch of Pence’s new nonprofit, Holmes begins the interview with a variation on the same submissive, “Good Morning America” -level no-question that the show opens most of its elected officials with : “Worked for four years, worked as hard as possible, you get to the end, you have a nice life, you have nice friends… you just keep going in, you started with a certain group, you have a podcast, you travel through the whole country and you are still in the middle of the game. ”
In a playful way, Pence offers a lot about duty, calling and the work still to be done for the conservative movement. The rest of the interview follows that formula for the most part, but for a brief, fleeting moment it threatens to slip into something truly compelling when the pseudonymous Smug Pence asks how many times he’s spoken to his former boss since they left office. Pence, whose literal execution the crowd demanded on January 6, describes the end of the Trump presidency and events of that day as “difficult” and “dark”, but for a moment the Republican Party is “over.” Which he is right about, of course – the GOP strategy the Ruthless hosts want to implement, regardless of Trump’s own erratic demeanor, is to avoid the anti-democratic excesses of his standard-bearer like an uncomfortable drunk uncle on Thanksgiving.
This is understandable, but it leads to an extremely boring conversation. You don’t have to be an alarm bell-happy, fascist #resistance guard to acknowledge that the 6th “dream politics” has turned into a violent reality. Reckless is basically boring because – by nature an almost official GOP campaign arm – it cannot discuss any of the things that give today’s conservative intellectual and political world its turbulent, unexpectedly radical character.
The lack of openness or weight makes it all the more fatal that the show is as excruciatingly uncomfortable as it is. Rush Limbaugh was not an intellectual heavyweight, but when he said his talent was “God borrowed,” even his fiercest opponents had to acknowledge his ability as a broadcaster. Holmes, Duncan and Smug, moonlights as they are, don’t exactly bring the same heat. Despite the superficial similarities to Pod Save, the combination of avoidance policies and clumsy faux-edginess of the show makes it hard to imagine who it’s actually intended for – and almost impossible to imagine it fulfilling the same function as its liberal counterpart as the media machine of an organizing juggernaut.
It’s really a missed opportunity: if you screw up your eyes, you can see an outline of the post-Trump barstool Republican in the show’s sleazy lad-boy ethos. But when his hosts, all of them accomplished insiders, spend a considerable amount of their time nagging about Bill Kristol or Jen Rubin columns, or, as in a recent episode, sit in a foam denouncing the ills of capital gains tax, that burdens the gullibility of imagining them as populist champions.
Ultimately, “Ruthless” is a deeply contemporary product that combines an explicit political message with a ready-made cultural stance that audiences can embrace. This phenomenon has an unsavory, propagandistic aftertaste, no matter which side of the aisle, and how good or bad it is. Inconsiderate just makes it very, very bad.