Half a decade ago, the originally Boston-based site and its community of rabid fans would not have been considered “political” at all. But now his proudly Neanderthal and reactionary ethics align perfectly with the side of our political binary that Trump has reconfigured: one whose common denominator is tooth and nail reluctance, a middle finger to accept liberal social norms.
If you watch Portnoy circa 2010 – a budding entrepreneur brother, popping champagne with models at cheesy photoshoots – you’ll have to squint to see a potential Republican flag bearer. If you look at it now, it’s hard not to. It is now common to observe that the Trump presidency “changed everything” for Republicans, from conventional wisdom on politics to how their domestic politics are conducted. But above all, it changed the face the party presented to the world. Where one-off candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain have tried unsuccessfully to subordinate cultural grievances to a more professionalized and inclusive political style, Trump has succeeded by putting them right on the front of the box. And when he casually dismantled that old fusion of free-market economic fervor and country-club traditionalism, Barstool was ready.
The rise of the “Barstool Republican” to invent a phenotype does not necessarily explain Trump. Yet it is a useful way to understand what happened to American politics without constantly invoking the name of the former president. The Portnoy devotees are not MAGA fanatics or Q fans who live to torment liberals, and they are certainly not part of the GOP evangelical base. (One would imagine that the last thing they would want is a Supreme Court that invalidates Roe deer.) But the Barstool Republican now largely defines the Republican coalition because of its willingness to dispense with his party’s conventional political wisdom on anything – the social safety net, the drug laws, the access to abortion – as long as it means one thing: it doesn’t. must vote for an arrogant Democrat and, by proxy, the lousy elders caste who support the politically correct cultural regime of the left.
The backlash of liberal pop culture dominance and the transformation of norms of expression over the past decade created the Barstool Republican long before Portnoy’s name was jokingly brandished as a political candidate. And if you’ve paid attention, their Cultural Revolution dates back to a time when such antics were more likely to get you kicked out of Mar-a-Lago than being installed as its “El Presidente” for life.
Lost in the annals of a time when the culture wars were not so central to our national politics is a nomenclature that now seems almost picturesque: the so-called “South Park Republican.”
As early as 2001, conservative gadfly blogger Andrew Sullivan used the term to describe members of his political tribe who shared the anti-PC and socially libertarian views of “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Stone and Parker, faithful to their habit, strongly protested against their hatred of the two big parties. Still, the label stuck, inspiring sparring New York Times columns and even a book-length exploration of the concept by conservative writer Brian C. Anderson.
In the political climate of the mid-2000s, the appeal of the concept was evident: as Gen Xers and young baby boomers entered the ranks of the political elite, it made sense that they would pass from the smothering of blue blood and the social conservatism of the Reagan-Bush imperium in favor of vaguely counter-cultural, post-60 tolerance. W traded his father’s country-club affect for a pair of cowboy boots, but he wasn’t fooling anyone: the cultural energy of the Republican Party, to the extent that he had it, was in its libertarian wing. hair-raising, whose influence would soon reach its peak with the self-proclaimed Ron Paul Revolution. But like so many potential revolutions, this one has been denied – or at least delayed and transferred.
Paul’s 2012 bid to become the presidential flag bearer for the Republican Party failed dramatically, failing to convert the internet hype into significant mainstay. Romney won the nomination and invited young Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan to participate (whose rad workout gear and the politically impenetrable love of Rage Against the Machine, alas, failed to inspire a Romney-Ryan youth movement).
Crashing onto the rocks of Barack Obama’s megawatt cultural stardom and impending coronation of Jeb Bush as the post-“autopsy” face of the GOP, the crass Republican cohort was at their wit’s end – until an unlikely salute comes in the form of a 6 “3” reality host and Howard Stern’s frequent guest descends his golden escalator in the first paragraph of 21st century American history.
Trump was initially a difficult fit for both the more culturally sophisticated and libertarian-inclined members of the Republican coalition as well as their staid religious counterparts. But at the same time as it chased republican culture and pushed it to the limits of street legality, anti-PC critics saw another revolution take place within liberal politics – and, through transitive ownership, the pop culture at large. In their eyes, Hillary Clinton’s campaign represented the triumph of a pro-establishment cultural nurturing state that rejected Obama’s attempt to de-escalate culture wars in favor of a rigid new label of social justice: a rainbow flag. rainbow, in fact, over the Kennebunkport compound of Bushes.
One of Trump’s early adopters perfectly articulated the mindset in August 2015, when Jeb! was still his closest main threat: “I’m voting for Donald Trump. I don’t care if it’s a joke. I don’t care if he’s racist. I don’t care if he’s sexist. I do not care. I hope he stays in the race and I hope he wins. Why? Because I love that he makes other politicians squirm. I love that he says bullshit that no one else will, no matter how ridiculous that is.
No points for guessing the author: Dave Portnoy, giving birth to the Barstool Republican with a single 200 word blog post. Trump transformed the political landscape by tapping into a powerful desire to be free from criticism or censorship – a desire Portnoy shared and which has only intensified and spread as the panopticon of social media is becoming the main stage not only of national politics, but civic life at all levels.
In a column in February for The week, social-conservative Catholic writer Matthew Walther called “bar stool conservatives” primarily sharing a “disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the harassing and scholarly attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the rise of risk aversion to the level of a first-rate principle by our professional classes. In other words: cultural war issues.
Oddly enough, despite the inherent thirst for conflict it brings, Barstool-ism’s rise in the Republican Party can be attributed to the ideological diversity within the GOP. What could unite free market libertarians, revenge Catholics, evangelicals from the South and Reagan Democrats of the working class, if not their common hatred of… true democrats?
With that as a guiding principle of the party, and no clear political agenda to speak of – the RNC 2020 literally had no new political platform – those who are willing to trash the democratic cultural regime most loudly and consistently are firmly in the driver’s seat, with more relaxed Republicans. forced at least to provide cover, if not to actively follow their signals.
They are forced to defend North Carolina freshman Madison Cawthorn over his attention-seeking tweets and allegations of sexual harassment from his (very recent) days at college, as he ranks among the top 10 members of Congress in terms of missed votes. They are forced to defend Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz as he faces his own allegations of sexual impropriety – not to mention his frat-boy antics, like running to Congress with a gas mask in the early days. of the coronavirus pandemic. They are forced to defend Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert as she pushes back complaints from voters about her “embarrassing” freshman tenure in Congress, after winning the primary and general election largely thanks to her ownership. bar.
So just like the anti-PC bar stool, vaguely amoral can be a strength, it can also be a weakness. In a media environment designed to reinforce and intensify one’s ideological convictions, being constantly on the attack can leave you in a constant exhausting state of defense. Yes, it can galvanize – nearly 75 million people voted to re-elect Donald Trump, the chief stool – but it can also exasperate and infuriate in turn – a record 81 million Americans voted for the opponent voluntarily less pugilist than Trump, Joe Biden. It also runs the risk of anything new: that people will get bored of it. The provocation of yesterday becomes the status quo of today, and in turn the epic of tomorrow.
When Republican voters made Trump their presidential candidate in 2016, they chose the glove-less culture war over the serious compromise of Jeb Bush or the imitations of a careerist provocateur like Senator Ted Cruz. Trump exploited a very real dissatisfaction in the American electorate with the liberal status quo around speech and culture, and reaped both the rewards and the backlash that came with it. Someone like Dave Portnoy is, if not a viable presidential candidate, at least a credible successor to the role of the last Republican occupier of the office: Trump, Gaetz, Boebert, Cawthorn and their ilk all share Portnoy’s staunch obsession with scoring the big guys. titles and assert the cultural identity of their constituents at all costs.
In a media-obsessed world, this is a powerful and intoxicating skill. And now that it has proven to be a viable path to electoral success, Republicans – perhaps wisely – are hanging on for life. As the creation of Judd Apatow, the great 21st century dorm comedy writer, once said, “Pandora doesn’t fit in the box, it only comes out.