Rogan, Pence, and the Closing of the Conservative Mind

Joe Rogan
Photo by Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
February 11, 2022

Last month, as Spotify was first grappling with the fallout over Joe Rogan hosting vaccine skeptics on his immensely popular podcast, I mused that Rogan was certain to become a new G.O.P. martyr—and, perhaps, an imperfect vessel for the right to continue an apparently winning avenue of the culture wars. It didn’t matter that Rogan, an irreverent comedian and mixed martial arts commentator, was also an enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter, or that Rogan appeared to be genuinely contrite after Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulled their music from Spotify in protest. He acquiesced to hosting more mainstream scientific experts to counterbalance the quacks, and later offered a heartfelt apology when horrific old clips of him saying the n-word resurfaced online. Indeed, Rogan himself appeared perfectly willing to genuflect to Spotify, which licensed The Joe Rogan Experience for more than $100 million in 2020. 

But Rogan’s growing right-wing fanbase didn’t lose sleep over these details. Instead, they were outraged on his behalf, dubbing him their patron saint of cancellation. Ted Cruz swiped at mainstream critics of Rogan, pointing out that his audience of 100 million dwarfed that of cable news; popular commentator and right-wing media investor Dan Bongino somehow vociferously defended Rogan’s right to say the n-word, ignoring Rogan’s own expressions of regret; Fox News commentators praised him as “very smart reporter” on Covid. 

Rogan, after all, is an avatar of precisely the type of man (and some women) that is key to returning the Republican Party to power in the post-Trump era: a funny, often well-meaning and quasi-curious meathead who is as fascinated with the concept of a universal basic income and the inner world of Bari Weiss as he is with pregaming UFC 271 and learning how to field-dress a moose using only a Leatherman multitool. “There’s something soothing about listening to Joe Rogan,” a G.O.P. pollster admitted to me, observing that millions of Americans, burned out on partisanship and cable news, will happily listen to three hours of Rogan and his guests shooting the shit rather than think too self-seriously about the news of the day. 

Rogan is no fan of Donald Trump (“fucking dangerous”) or his supporters (“morons”), and bluntly said on Tuesday during a standup routine that his listeners should not be taking vaccine advice from him. (“What dumb shit were you about to do when my stupid idea sounded better? ‘You know that dude who made people eat animal dicks on TV? How does he feel about medicine?’”) But Republicans aren’t wrong that his podcast, if not his political outlook, is a potential red pill for everyday people fed up with censorious elites. “I don’t think it actually is a political play from those folks, I think people on the right are very much aware of Rogan’s politics and are defending him in spite of that,” a G.O.P. consultant told me over text, describing the argument thusly: “If they censor Rogan[,] who is left of center but not a full on ideological leftist, then where does it stop?”

That tension, and the political opportunity, was well articulated last week by none other than Donald Trump himself. “Joe Rogan is an interesting and popular guy, but he’s got to stop apologizing to the Fake News and Radical Left maniacs and lunatics,” Trump said in a statement. “Joe, just go about what you do so well and don’t let them make you look weak and frightened. That’s not you and it never will be!”

Many on the right hope that Rogan’s “cancellation”—if that’s what you can call an ironclad $100 million licensing deal and the full-throated support of Spotify C.E.O. Daniel Ek—will be a radicalizing event for some portion of his followers. But it’s highly unlikely that the right will win many new converts, in my view. Rogan’s audience is a bro-y confederation of amateur philosophers, MMA enthusiasts, psychonauts, Elon Musk fanboys, and politically incorrect comedy nerds. (His early podcasts were sponsored by famous sex toy brands.) Most of them tune in for Rogan himself—his meandering interviews and gabfests—and not his pseudo-libertarian ideology, and will easily brush off any guest whom they personally disagree with. “I don’t know of any Joe Rogan supporters who would care that Trump is in his corner. That’s not really the position they’d take,” the Republican pollster told me. 

Still, the pollster argued, the Rogan saga is a huge facet of the broader narrative surrounding our present culture wars over critical race theory, deplatforming, and so on. “There definitely is a lot of crossover, you can’t deny that,” he said. “The reason why is because the cancel culture is out of control for a lot of Americans who are not progressive. I think what they’re doing to Joe Rogan, it only inflames conservatives who are told that because of their opinions, they have to lose their jobs.” 

Realistically, Rogan’s unwillingness to love his Trump fans back suggests his turn in the barrel will be fleeting. He’s too happy (and well compensated) to give it all up for martyrdom in the culture war. But that doesn’t mean that his earnest apologies isolate him from it, either. “If Joe Rogan came out tomorrow and said ‘I do not like conservatives and Republicans. They should not listen to my show,’ I [still] think lefties will still try to cancel him,” another G.O.P. strategist told me. The culture wars, after all, are everywhere—on social media, in business, in schools and, right now, on the border of Canada—and the current Rogan saga, a seeming fight between free speech and Big Tech wokeism, is further evidence that they have become inescapable. 

Meanwhile in Washington, I’ve been watching with fascination the increasingly awkward way that Republicans are dancing around the topic of January 6th. Since that day, the G.O.P. has settled on a consensus of sorts that yes, the riot was awful, but Democratic efforts to capitalize politically—including the formation of the House Select Committee to investigate the attack—are somehow worse. At the very least, they agree, it’s time for Republicans to stop fighting Republicans and for the party to move on. 

If only Donald Trump, or his most vociferous defenders at the Republican National Committee, would let them. Instead, the former president continues to derail public discourse with his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him and that the rioters who sacked the Capitol were patriots. During a speech last month in Texas, Trump said he would consider pardons for the Jan. 6 defendants if he is reelected. A growing number of more establishment Republicans, forced to answer questions about Trump’s conspiracy mongering, have reluctantly denounced his violent rhetoric, further escalating the cycle of recriminations between Mar-a-Lago and Washington.  

The latest round of infighting was set off by the R.N.C. passing a resolution last week that described the events of January 6th as “legitimate political discourse” and denounced G.O.P. Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for participating in the Democrat-led congressional commission that is investigating it. The language was beyond the pale, even in some Trump friendly circles, and was swiftly denounced by everyone from Mitt Romney to Mitch McConnell.  Shortly afterward, former vice president Mike Pence delivered a speech in which he said Trump was “wrong” to push the lie that the vice president had the power to overturn Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6. “Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election,” he told the Federalist Society. 

Nobody in the leadership of the Republican Party wants to have either of these fights, or to be airing their dirty laundry on cable news. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, asked during a Fox interview about Pence’s commentary, could only reply that she’s “not a fan of Republicans going against Republicans.” Pence, I am told by a close ally of his, had initially hoped to wait until the publication of his forthcoming memoir to more formally set the record straight regarding his constitutional duties on Jan. 6, but felt forced to distance himself from Trump’s ceaseless peddling of election-day fictions. (It was notable that he delivered his blunt statement at an event hosted by the Federalist Society, the powerful legal organization whose very existence is predicated on defending a strict, textualist interpretation of the Constitution.) The R.N.C., too, seemed to regret lighting this particular fuse. Or at least the story behind its use of the words “legitimate political discourse” was more complicated than it first seemed. The Washington Post later suggested that the offending phrase was not in the original draft of the resolution as written by former Trump advisor David Bossie, and was not read by members before it was passed. I’m not sure if I buy that explanation, or if it’s just more post-hoc ass-covering, but it would help to explain R.N.C. chairwoman Ronna McDaniel’s contradictory statements afterward, in which she inartfully attempted to separate the Cheney-Kinzinger issue from the horrific reality of January 6th. (As McDaniel reminded her readers, someone did try to bomb the R.N.C. headquarters that day, too.)

The mental contortions by Republicans asked to speak about the Jan. 6 riot—especially the ones who were there, blockading their office doors against the mob—is truly a thing to behold. But for midterm-minded Republicans, throwing that day down the memory hole is an optimal strategy: Don’t talk about it, don’t entertain Trump’s most deluded conspiracy theories, but don’t legitimize the January 6th commission, either. At the end of the day, the last thing that any G.O.P. lawmaker wants is for the average American voter to associate the party with MAGA protesters beating police officers or smearing feces on the walls of the Capitol. More cynically, McConnell, Haley, and Pence are all aligned in their belief that, in the hierarchy of midterm voters’ priorities—inflation, Covid mandates, cancel culture, critical race theory—the fringe-right question of whether Pence had the power to overturn the 2020 election, or who is responsible for Capitol riot body count, rank near the bottom. “Trust me: if 1/6 was a big issue, would Virginia have happened?” a G.O.P. pollster asked me rhetorically, referring to Glenn Youngkin’s recent gubernatorial victory in Virginia. But the effort to change the conversation to more prosaic issues, and to leave the 2020 election behind, strikes me as a futile exercise in establishment wishcasting. The past week’s post-election conflagration is, once again, a reminder that neither Trump nor his loyalists will let that bone go.