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Not My Party: Are Barstool Republicans the Future?

An irreverent style isn't enough to cement a durable political alliance.
June 24, 2021
Tim Miller's Not My Party: Are Barstool Republicans The Future?

This is a transcript. Watch Not My Party every Thursday on Snapchat.

Are Dave Portnoy and his Barstool bros the future of the Republican party? You probably know Dave Portnoy, or as he calls himself, El Presidente. He’s the pizza-loving frat star who founded the extremely popular digital media empire Barstool Sports. Now, GOP bigwigs are inviting him to appear at Republican conferences, hoping he can bring some cultural cachet to the party.

And Politico even wrote that the Grand Old Party is becoming the Barstool Party. But will the Stoolies go for that?

The Barstool Republican narrative dates back to 2016, when the parallels between the site, and the rise of the populist Donald Trump were unavoidable.

First, you got the irreverent language:

“Get that son of a b*tch off the field.” [Trump]

“Sam Ponder you f*cking sl*t.” [Barstool]

And then you have the mocking of the elite media:

“Mainstream media. Poop. Poop.” [Portnoy]

“They are the fake, fake, disgusting news.” [Trump]

“Not going to let Mickey Mouse push us around.” [Portnoy]

And of course, a shared hatred for political correctness. In 2016, Portnoy laid all this out, telling CBS, “there’s a sentiment among frat guys, lacrosse players, and middle-class, affluent, white kids that they’re getting kind of persecuted. Trump’s an ‘F you’ to a society who’s telling us we’re a bad guy, because we like hooking up with girls on Spring Break.”

So it seems like Trump and Portnoy were a match made in heaven. But will that love connection have staying power?

“If you were to ask me who I think is like the biggest right wing social icon in America right now, I think it’s Dave Portnoy. It’s called rise of the Barstool conservatives.” [Saagar Enjeti]

Now, I get why some Republicans want this bond to be forever. Barstool is culturally relevant and Republicans have tended to well. . . not be. Consider the bands we used to get at Republican conventions. Here’s the problem: Barstool has always been intentionally nonpolitical. They have a lot of personalities who draw a broad audience, not just right-wingers, so getting co-opted by the GOP’s Model UN super nerds like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz doesn’t work for their brand at all.

Consider the internal blowback when Portnoy secretly decided to go interview Trump. Here’s “Pardon My Take” superstar Big Cat sounding off” “This f*****g sucks. . . I do not want to talk about politics but I’m thrust in the situation.”

And when El Prez interviewed Trump, you could sense a rift emerging. When Portnoy confessed, “Kneeling and things like that seems like such a small concession” the tangerine tyrant doubled down.

“Yeah. I don’t like the kneeling, I must be honest with you.” [Trump]

“I know, yeah.” [Portnoy]

“I don’t like the kneeling.” [Trump]

Then during COVID, Portnoy seem to beat Trump at his own populist game. When he started the Barstool Fund for small business owners who are struggling due to the COVID lock downs.

“What can we do to make sure you stay in business till this pandemic is over?” [Portnoy]

The more accurate reflection of the changing GOP is a different sports talk show host: Clay Travis.

“This woke virus keeps spreading in the world of sports.” [Travis]

Travis is a former Al-Gore/Barack-Obama-voting liberal turned reactionary GOP troll when he saw the market for sports talk that took Barstool‘s irreverence—”I like boobs and the first amendment!”—and added on a dollop of race baiting.

“[NBA commissioner] Adam Silver knows that having ‘Black Lives Matter’ written on the basketball court is devastating to the overall NBA brand.” [Travis]

And COVID denialism.

“You don’t need to be worried about the coronavirus. You need to check yourself into an insane asylum.” [Travis]

Here’s Portnoy and his podcast distinguishing himself from Travis: “He is more political, because I think he does play that race card in, right on the edge of race baiting, which I do not do.”

So it should be no surprise that this week it’s Travis, not Portnoy who’s taking over Rush Limbaugh’s old radio slot. He’s teaming up with a more traditional conservative named Buck Sexton. (I swear that’s real, not a porn name.)

So here’s the political bottom line: While it’s true that anti-PC country-club bros have affixed themselves more firmly into the GOP, the notion that this nonpolitical Barstool set will stick with the Republicans en masse after Trump is gone might be more wishful thinking than reality. In fact, in 2020, the group that Trump lost the most ground with was college-educated white bros—the Barstool demo. Not that you’ll hear the Democrats bragging about that.

Political alliances that are based on style over policy are ephemeral and don’t always have staying power—kind of like a one night stand. (Barstool bros might know a little something about that.) The Republicans are actively courting the Stoolies, and in politics that can be half the battle. If Democrats were smart, they’d try to do the same thing and compete for a demo that actually, Biden does pretty well with.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.