The Right Stuff: Oz’s Agony, How Elon Ripped Trump, Shapironomics

Mehmet Oz
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty
Tina Nguyen
April 4, 2022

Yeah, sure, David McCormick, the former army vet, Bush-era appointee, Bridgewater C.E.O., and barrel-chested Dina Powell arm candy may seem like an up-from-the-bootstraps Mitt Romney, Reagan-Republican type, who can barely keep track of his country club memberships or garage elevators. But McCormick, ever the dextrous optionality-preserving finance genius, has spent the past few months reorienting his image as a MAGA-friendly Pennsylvanian in pursuit of the state’s vacant Senate seat. In recent months, he resigned from Bridgewater, moved back to the Pittsburgh burbs, slapped on a barn jacket, began tweeting Bible verses, and (presumably juiced by his wife’s old White House contacts) engaged a slew of former Trump staffers—Hope Hicks, Stephen Miller and Cliff Sims among them—to whip up some deplorable enthusiasm around his candidacy. 

It has worked swimmingly. Ted Cruz loves McCormick. So does Elise Stefanik, Trump’s staunch defender during his (first) impeachment, who is now the number three Republican in the House. And so does Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and even Sean Parnell, the Trump-endorsed former front-runner in the Pennsylvania race who was forced to drop out last year after domestic abuse allegations. The hedge fund billionaire has since beefed up his staff with nearly every former Trump campaign staffer under the sun and as many high-profile MAGA validators as possible, trying to convince ordinary Pennsylvanians that he’s one of them. 

McCormick’s competitor for the Republican nomination, of course, is the heart surgeon-turned-supermarket-checkout magazine coverboy mega-millionaire, Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is undergoing his own post-Covid-science, trans rights-scrutinizing MAGA star turn. Rick Perry has thrown his Stetson in the ring for Oz, as has Sean Hannity and, reportedly, Melania Trump. Oz is running with a smaller staff, leaning heavily into the image of the nice television doctor that everybody knows already. 

In the post-Trump political landscape, the former president’s legions of old advisers and hangers-on have found steady consulting work in helping Republican candidates speak the native tongue of the far right without having to appear at Wrestlemania. The downside: a lot of these advisors have their own beefs with their former colleagues (don’t forget the swift revolving door of Trump’s campaign and within his administration). And the McCormick-Oz primary race has turned into essentially a Trump alumni proxy battle. One recent example of a cafeteria fight? Last month, Radar Online published a piece alleging that Oz was dropping out, which Oz immediately and firmly denied. Oz swung back with a multimillion ad buy, with one ad depicting McCormick as the preferred candidate of the despicable vest-wearing, hard seltzer-and-Red Bull-swilling, Midtown Manhattan finance class. 

Nothing I’ve seen in the Republican primaries, already hot messes of MAGA-on-MAGA violence, has matched the surreal vitriol of the McCormick-Oz television proxy war, made even weirder by the fact that both of them are .001-percenters who moved to Pennsylvania for the sole purpose of this race. (A recent candidate forum made this dynamic instantly clear, with Jeff Bartos, an actual lifelong Pennsylvanian, complaining about the television fight. “They’ve come in and they’re spending tens of millions of dollars on television, and we’ve been on the roads, grassroots—for me, over five years,” said Bartos.) Oz, despite his lack of government experience is very, very daytime-television famous—a candidate profile which would have once been laughable, until 2016 rolled around and proved that a charismatic network star with decades of name recognition can do quite well in an election. McCormick has years of high-level government experience, years of experience running the world’s biggest hedge fund, a dragon’s hoard of campaign funds, and even more people willing to spend money on his campaign—advantages that can also be severe disadvantages during these anti-elite populist times. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article encapsulated the best of the state’s skepticism: thanks to the timeline of his filing, McCormick and the PAC backing him will conveniently not have to disclose how much they’ve spent until mid-April—three months after he launched his campaign. 

At the moment, money and fame are neck-and-neck: according to a recent poll from The Hill/Emerson, Oz has 14.4 percent, McCormick has 14.3 percent, and 50.5 percent of Pennsylvania G.O.P. voters remain undecided. (The remaining twentyish percent are divided amongst seven candidates.) People I’ve talked to in both camps acknowledge that the race is going to be close, and the only thing that would truly break it for either candidate is a Trump endorsement. But the same problem I’ve laid out above applies here: McCormick has, essentially, hired as much of the Trump campaign and West Wing as he possibly can. Oz has known the entire Trump family for decades via the Hamptons magazine party hopping scene—the kind of relationship money can’t buy—and his overlap with Hannity takes him one step closer to Trump’s heart. But as a Republican watching the race closely told me, there’s a larger calculus at play, too: “Liking [Oz supporter] Sean Hannity doesn’t mean you should risk the Senate because you like Sean Hannity.” One would assume that the logic goes the other way around, too.

Ben Shapiro’s $100M Culture War Bet

I’ve covered the astronomical growth of The Daily Wire for quite some time now, watching as this project of political commentator Ben Shapiro and producer Jeremy Boreing found surprising success in the late-2010s podcast space. Mere years later, the company announced that it was pouring a staggering $100 million into children’s television programming—an eyeball-popping sum that, on the surface, seemed to be a clever announcement piggybacking off the right’s current hatred of Disney as a culture war target. But, trust me, this is real money, and it’s a real symbol of where the Wire plans to go next. 

Over the past year—and under the cover of their biggest personalities, like Shapiro, Michael Knowles and Candace Owens—the Wire has been building out a serious newsroom, one that’s getting scoops from Disney executives griping about the baby wokes overrunning the corporation, and sending correspondents to report on the humanitarian crisis on the Ukrainian-Polish border. They’ve financed a movie starring Gina Carano, the actress fired from The Mandalorian over an anti-Semitic tweet, purchased a film out of the Venice Film Festival and, I’ve been told, were looking at acquiring films from the Cannes Film Festival. And in a rebuke to losing one of their original sponsors, Harry’s Razors, over their political content, the Wire has poured meaningful money into developing and marketing their own luxury-quality razor kit, Jeremy’s Razors. (Tagline: “Stop giving your money to woke corporations that hate you. Give it to me instead.”) And, of course, they have the aforementioned children’s programming, developed under the supervision of Eric Branscum and Ethan Nicolle, VeggieTales and Babylon Bee alumni. (Nicolle also created the legendary webcomic Axe Cop, which was adapted into an animated Fox show starring Nick Offerman.) 

I’ve always considered the Wire to be ahead of the curve of their right-wing media competitors for one primary reason: it might have an ideological agenda, but it’s absolutely a media company. Last year, apparently, they made $100 million in revenue, making them about the same size as Axios, which recently secured fundraising at a nearly $500 million valuation.

Can the culture war be lucrative? Duh. That’s why we have three cable channels worth billions of dollars. There’s already a case to be made that a niche, right-leaning lifestyle brand can be a viable major corporation. Black Rifle Coffee, which started as a company targeting military veterans and their fanboys, and is now a publicly traded company worth $5.5 billion. The concept of “wokeness” is already unpopular for a growing segment of the American public. The idea that a corporation can be bent into promoting a certain agenda thanks to internal lobbying from its employees is even more unpopular. If that corporation is part of the entertainment industry, institutionalized wokeness becomes a culture war issue. And the fallout from the war between Disney employees and Ron DeSantis’s recent bill, targeting trans students and sex ed in elementary school, has surfaced a real fear among parents about the lessons that Disney programming actually might be teaching their children under the guise of tolerance and diversity. Shapiro is hoping to capitalize on the discontent.

The Sad Truth About Truth Social

The problem with trying to profit off the corporate culture wars, however, is that free-market economics still apply: some might dislike Nike for supporting Colin Kaepernick, but they probably can’t find a better pair of running shoes produced by a corporation sharing their political values. And Truth Social, the Twitter alternative founded by a deplatformed Donald Trump, which was supposed to be fully operational by March 31st, is learning this lesson the hard way.

The app’s downloads have cratered by 93 percent on Apple’s App Store. (They have yet to launch an Android version of Truth Social, despite the fact that the Trump audience does not seem to fully overlap with the iOS crowd.) The market cap of Digital World Acquisition Corp, the SPAC that brought this innovation into the public markets, has dropped by 31 percent since the I.P.O., and its value threatens to erode further thanks to the S.E.C. announcement that they will implement more rigorous rules for SPAC disclosures. Truth Social has lost two of their top executives over the weekend, per Reuters, and it’s still run by Devin Nunes, hardly one of the great business minds of his generation, even by media industry standards. And from personal experience, I’ve seen no positive movement indicating that they’ve tried to grow at all in the past month and a half: I was only approved to join Truth Social this afternoon, after sitting at #1,147,370 on the waiting list for weeks.

The thing that might truly bury Truth Social, however, is the fact that they now have viable competitors in the free-speech social media domain. GETTR, the social network founded by former Trump communications director Jason Miller, and financed by Steve Bannon ally Miles Guo, grew its audience by 34 percent in March—one of its best months since the launch of the company in May 2021. I’m told that GETTR had a much better first month in terms of signups than Truth Social did. And Twitter, the company Trump loathes the most, now has a new minority stakeholder: Elon Musk, who’s openly criticized the company in the past for allegedly suppressing free speech, announced this morning that he bought 9.2 percent of the company, making him its largest shareholder. 

Ironically, depending on how much influence Musk decides to exert on Twitter—joining the board, perhaps—this might offer Trump a face-saving exit ramp from the hot mess known as Truth Social. I asked a Trump advisor if the former president would come back onto Twitter if Musk somehow engineered it. “In a heartbeat,” the advisor texted back immediately. “In 2016, he basically won the election with his twitter account and his plane. It’s his megaphone. It’s his direct connection to the people. And we can all agree he was a lot of fun when he was on Twitter.”