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Opinion | Meet the GOP Insiders Rebranding as Bad Boys of Conservative Talk

Ruthless, available to stream on all major podcast services, has garnered a cult of self-proclaimed “minions” as the clear right-leaning alternative to Pod Save America and its brethren. But is it any good?

More than 100 episodes into its run, the show has demonstrated some real strengths — two out of its three hosts being public relations professionals, they know the pressure points and hypocrisies of political media all too well, and pounce on them with righteousness — but its flaws make the overall product deeply unsatisfying.

For one thing, its very success in penetrating D.C.’s conservative halls of power reveals the immensely awkward contradiction at its core: For a podcast that stakes its brand on a bad-boy image and willingness to slander sacred cows, it’s tied inextricably to the establishment that former President Donald Trump railed against, and that its hosts almost literally embody.

But worse than that, it commits the cardinal sin of any cultural endeavor that prides itself on puffing out and beating its chest as the standard-bearer for a new, totally-in-your-face generation. It’s often simply, as the kids would say, cringe, its geriatric-millennial hosts combining a too-online, weirdly hostile digital patois with a slew of outdated cultural references — the “Fame” soundtrack, more than one reference to Milli Vanilli — leaving them sounding like the self-proclaimed “cool” teachers trying to have a “rap session” with their students.

Of course, making an unfunny podcast isn’t a sin, and those who eagerly listen to Ruthless each week will be satisfied as long as they deem the aforementioned libs owned. But more than the awkwardness of what the hosts do say, it’s ultimately revealing what they don’t say about the GOP’s uneasy post-Trump status quo.

Holmes and Duncan being company men to the core, sore spots around the pandemic, the Jan. 6 riots and false election fraud claims are assiduously avoided in their interviews with Republican hopefuls in favor of providing a united front ahead of 2022; the banter that comprises the rest of the show is no more introspective. Explicitly, the podcast asks the question of how Republicans can regain power amid a liberal-dominated 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 a slapped-on, anti-establishment coat of paint?

No partisans worth their salt, and certainly not those who are paid handsomely for their work, are going to turn their platform into some kind of never-ending Maoist struggle session. But the overall effect of Ruthless is to house Republicans in a sort of rhetorical Potemkin village, its view changing for each guest, ‘22 race and real-world contingency, with Democrats’ unwavering, weirdly omnipotent perfidy the only constant. It’s red meat for the faithful, and probably an effective Alka-Seltzer for cosseted, mainstream conservatives in liberal geographic bubbles (such as the show’s hosts). For anyone else, it’s a disorienting, frankly unpleasant listening experience — and, fatally, one that seems almost comically timid in the face of reality compared to its conservative-media rivals.

Conservatives have a special connection to talk radio. There’s the late Rush Limbaugh, of course, who remade the right’s media landscape in his own image, and followers like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck who timed their rise with that of Fox News to wild success; in the modern era, roughly half of the top 20 American political podcasts on Apple’s podcast service, according to industry tracker Chartable, lean conservative. (Ruthless, as of this writing, stands at number 40. During a recent episode, its hosts complained of unfair promotional treatment from Apple on ideological grounds, despite the fact the number two and three shows on the same chart are hosted by the decidedly non-liberal Steves Crowder and Bannon, respectively.)

The movement and the format suit each other well, the latter offering hours of blank space to be filled by whichever mad-as-hell, had-it-up-to-here truth-teller is ready to step up and challenge the liberal establishment. Which must have made it all the more galling when liberals, after years of failed attempts — Air America, anyone? — finally cracked the code. Pod Save America, led by a group of former Obama staffers that was, and remains, a #Resistance-flavored cultural phenomenon. Its appeal to beleaguered, apocalyptic-minded liberals over the past four years was easy to understand, borne (like Ruthless) of the easy rapport between its hosts and a parade of quasi-newsy pep talks with their party’s top brass.

Pod Save America demonstrated in real-time how a common enemy in the Trump administration unified Democrats’ fractious big tent, giving the Pod Save crew and their followers a scrappy esprit de corps the splintering conservative media sorely lacked. Ruthless does not do this, and its many flaws stem from its half-hearted attempts to mend those threads.

Its hosts embrace the die-hard Trumpist right’s mindless partisanship without fully bear-hugging Trump himself; they acknowledge the Republican Party’s need to “evolve,” but not the trade-offs involved in adopting the ideas presented by their reformist peers; they lob PG-13, “Let’s Go Brandon”-style insults without embracing the gleeful crudity of the internet-native right. It leaves the show feeling oddly neither fish nor fowl, avoiding both Claremont-ian erudition and fever-swamp rage in a triangulation that it’s hard to imagine pleasing the often-inflexible, irascible conservative media consumer.

This dynamic becomes most apparent in the show’s interviews with the handful of Republican leaders who are almost synonymous with intra-right controversy, like the aforementioned VP. Conducted in front of a chuckle-happy audience celebrating the launch of Pence’s new nonprofit, Holmes kicks off the interview with a variation on the same obsequious, “Good Morning America”-level non-question with which the show opens most of its interviews with elected officials: “Four years, worked as hard as you could possibly work, you get to the back end of that, you’ve got a nice life, you’ve got nice friends … you just keep driving into this, you started this particular group, you have a podcast, you’ve got, traveling all over the country, still right in the game.”

Pence gamely offers some boilerplate about duty, calling and the work still to be done for the conservative movement. The rest of the interview mostly follows that formula, but for one brief, fleeting moment it threatens to veer into something actually compelling when the pseudonymous Smug asks Pence how often he’s spoken with his former boss since they left office. Pence, whose literal execution the Jan. 6 crowd called for, describes the end of the Trump presidency and that day’s events as “difficult” and “dark,” but a moment the Republican Party has “moved past.” About which, of course, he’s correct — the GOP strategy that the Ruthless hosts aim to execute, Trump’s own erratic appearances notwithstanding, is to avoid its standard-bearer’s anti-democratic excesses like an unpleasant drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.

That’s understandable, but it makes for extremely boring conversation. You don’t have to be an alarm-bell-happy, fascism-around-every-corner #Resistance sentinel to acknowledge that Jan. 6 was a singular moment in American history, and for the conservative movement especially, as the Trump era’s conspiratorial “dreampolitik” spilled over into violent reality. Ruthless is fundamentally dull because — by its very nature as an all-but-official GOP campaign arm — it can’t discuss any of the things that give today’s conservative intellectual and political world its tumultuous, unexpectedly radical character.

That absence of either candor or heft makes it all the more fatal for the show to be as excruciatingly unfunny as it is. Rush Limbaugh was no intellectual heavyweight, but when he said his talent was “on loan from God,” even his fiercest opponents had to acknowledge his skill as a broadcaster. Holmes, Duncan and Smug, moonlighters as they are, aren’t exactly bringing the same heat. Despite the superficial similarities to Pod Save, the show’s combination of avoidance-based politicking and clumsy faux-edginess makes it difficult to imagine who it’s actually for — and nearly impossible to imagine it serving the same function its liberal counterpart did as the media engine of an organizing juggernaut.

It’s a missed opportunity, really: if you squint, you can see an outline of the post-Trump Barstool Republican in the show’s smarmy, frat-boy ethos. But when its hosts, consummate insiders all, spend significant portions of their runtime carping on Bill Kristol or Jen Rubin columns, or work themselves into a lather decrying the evils of the capital gains tax, as they did on a recent episode, it strains credulity to imagine them as populist champions.

Ultimately, “Ruthless” is a deeply of-its-time product, merging as it does an explicit political message with a prefab cultural attitude for its audience to adopt. There’s an unsavory, propagandistic flavor to that phenomenon, whichever side of the aisle it’s done on, and however well or poorly. Ruthless just happens to do it very, very poorly.

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