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Audio Drama

Why Are Republicans So Bad at Podcasting?

Ted Cruz, Matt Gaetz, and Mike Johnson all have podcasts. They’re terrible.

Illustration by Wesley Merritt

For decades, the dullest rite of passage in American politics has been the campaign book. In the months before any presidential election, the country’s presses are jammed up with hackneyed titles like Courage to Stand, American Dreams, and Hard Choices. (Those are all real names, by the way—from Tim Pawlenty, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton, respectively. All lack the verve and courage of my favorite political book title: This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House.) Theoretically, these works are meant to introduce the presidential aspirant to the American voter. In reality, they exist as a pretext to getting them on television—and, later, for being sold in bulk, often at marked-up prices, to donors.

The campaign book is boring by design. The goal is not to settle scores or, for that matter, to produce anything revelatory at all. They are, in many cases, padded out platforms. They’re safe spaces, dry runs to try out anecdotes that will soon be worn out on the trail: Achievements can be exaggerated, but only so much. Controversy must be avoided at any cost. The goal is a glossy cover embossed with the politician’s visage—smiling or stern, depending on the intended themes of the campaign—that can then be used to boost name recognition and familiarize future voters with a set of themes. These too, remain largely unchained: growing the economy, protecting the country, maybe an anecdote or two about a favored bill that was passed or an adversary who was stared down. The choices are hard, sure, but the politician always has the courage to stand when it matters. The dreams are always American.

This is especially true for campaign books, but it is true for nearly all books by politicians. Even as American politics has gotten crazier and more unpredictable, the books have stayed as dull as ever.

In recent years, however, politicians have turned to another, newer format: the podcast. After washing out of the presidential race in 2020, Pete Buttigieg launched The Deciding Decade, which focused on issues like gun violence and the minimum wage. (He abandoned it when he got a real job as secretary of transportation.) Podcasting is especially popular among sitting politicians on the right: Ted Cruz and Matt Gaetz have reasonably popular podcasts, as does their fellow Republican member of Congress, Dan Crenshaw. Mike Johnson, the newly installed speaker of the House, did as well—until unceremoniously abandoning it after being elevated—though his was far, far less trendy. The rise of political podcasting is a reflection of the ongoing blurring of right-wing media and politics: Sitting congressmen not only take cues from bloviators like Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro, they playact as them between votes. The idea is that podcasting rewards authenticity, providing politicians with a direct line to constituents, avoiding pesky filters like the press in the process. In practice, however, these podcasts are dreary and disposable bite-size campaign books.

That Cruz and Gaetz would be attracted to podcasting is hardly surprising. Both have been longtime mainstays of right-wing and far-right media. Both are shameless and unceasing self-promoters who love to be the center of attention. Their podcasts—Cruz’s is Verdict and Gaetz’s is Firebrand—sit more or less easily within the existing ecosystem of right-wing media. Both are bottom-feeding, in terms of subject matter, focusing on the existing preoccupations and bugaboos of the culture war: wokeness, immigration, the “Biden crime family.”

Cruz’s podcast, which he has put out three times a week since 2020, is popular—it is a mainstay in Apple’s top 100 in the “Politics” category. “I’m not interested in being a pundit,” Cruz told The Hill last summer. “But part of fighting successfully is communicating and explaining what the issues are that matter. So, I view the podcast as fulfilling one of the really important responsibilities of representing Texans.” Unsurprisingly, Cruz is wrong on both counts: Verdict is hardly issue-oriented—and Cruz is very much a pundit. The show often has the feel of Cruz, a high school drama geek, cosplaying as Sean Hannity.

Answering questions from his co-host—the bellowing, Memphis-based radio broadcaster Ben Ferguson—Cruz opines on the latest in the Hunter Biden “scandal” and the outrageous “wokeness” that is crushing Disney. Above all, he shills for Ted Cruz, pushing his new book (Unwoke: How to Defeat Cultural Marxism in America, which touches on many of the same subjects covered in his podcast) and his cameo appearance in the anti-trans “satire” Lady Ballers. Cruz’s ostensible day job factors in—there has been discussion of Democratic efforts to condition aid to Israel or subpoena Clarence Thomas, to give two recent examples— but only occasionally and when it fits the show’s abiding focus, which is giving Ted Cruz a platform to opine on whatever Fox News is thrilling to at that moment.

The most campaign book-y of the political podcasts, Verdict is an exercise in a new type of box-checking and a reminder of just how central cultural issues are in contemporary Republican politics. If the campaign book of yore was a steady march through a laundry list of rote accomplishments, Verdict exists as an unceasing reminder that Cruz is on the front lines of the culture war on a daily basis. Unlike the right-wing podcasts and television shows it emulates, it exists not to generate and stoke outrage but to ride it. As slick as ever, Cruz is careful never to be too controversial—he entertains plenty of vile and conspiratorial beliefs about, say, the 2020 election or Joe Biden’s authoritarianism without ever quite explicitly endorsing them.

You may learn, for instance, that Joe Biden is in danger of dropping out—and being replaced by Michelle Obama!—or that Disney’s financial woes are the result of its promotion of LGBTQ rights (as opposed to its dismal entrance into streaming). A font of inane cultural commentary, Verdict exists to keep Ted Cruz in the news and—gulp—to lay a runway for a potential presidential run.

Gaetz’s Firebrand—which also appears as a YouTube video, where he stares directly into the camera for 30 minutes or more—is unsurprisingly less restrained. In April, for instance, the Florida congressman garnered controversy for insisting that a mass shooting in Louisville, Kentucky, was the result of Big Pharma pushing “mind-altering” medications that were turning Americans into cold-blooded killing machines. In late October, he implied that Jason Smith, a fellow Republican who had been critical of Gaetz’s successful efforts to undermine Kevin McCarthy’s speakership, was gay. Firebrand is, to an extent, a reflection of Gaetz’s own pugilistic and chaotic approach to politics: It is a tool in his ongoing war against Republican leaders whom he sees as insufficiently committed to pushing right-wing ideas. It is also, to a large extent, an audition tape for the career he seems to actually want: cable news host.

If that’s the case, he shouldn’t quit his day job. Occasionally mildly offbeat—he has a fixation on unidentified flying objects and regularly touts Congress’s ongoing hearings about them—most episodes of Firebrand aren’t so different from Verdict: lamentations about government spending mixed in with commentary on whatever is animating the culture wars at that moment. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few minutes in which the congressman hits back at one of his critics (usually Kevin McCarthy or one of his allies). The key difference is that Gaetz centers himself: He’s a ceaseless self-promoter, and most episodes of the podcast recall the junk mail that representatives send to their constituents. More than anything, Gaetz has organized Firebrand around what Matt Gaetz is up to.

In one episode from early November, Gaetz plays a video of himself being interviewed on CNN about the midterm elections and the looming government shutdown. That interview features the chyron “REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL) RESPONDS TO OHIO ABORTION RIGHTS VICTORY,” but, seemingly in an effort to distance himself from pro-lifers’ catastrophic defeat in that state, Gaetz has also added his own: “MATT GAETZ DISCUSSES THE LADDER CR APPROACH TO FUNDING.” For several minutes, the episode revolves around this exact concept—a so-called ladder continuing resolution that involves passing multiple funding bills with different deadlines.

Government spending has been a mainstay of right-wing media for decades. But Gaetz isn’t ranting about waste in a wide-eyed, apoplectic fury like Rush Limbaugh or discussing the deficit in smug, staccato disbelief like Ben Shapiro. He discusses it like a congressman, not a broadcaster, laying out the circumstances in which he would and would not support such a deal. It is a somewhat detailed, if not exactly wonky, discussion about a goofy mechanism to fund the government and Gaetz’s larger goal of taking a scythe to federal spending. It is also dreadfully boring—an episode that wouldn’t even garner a footnote in the dullest of campaign books.

That is, in itself, notable. Perhaps more than any other member of Congress, Gaetz embodies the extent to which right-wing media has merged with the Republican Party—fueled by outrage and grievance, he is a bomb-throwing nihilist who is willing to blow up anything to get his way. And yet Firebrand serves as a reminder of how incompatible that approach to politics is with actually governing—even when you only do it occasionally.

If Verdict and Firebrand function as flawed efforts of self-promotion, Mike Johnson’s Truth Be Told, a podcast focused on politics and evangelical Christianity that he co-hosted with his wife until early October, has the feel of a more personal project. It was far, far duller than the other two. It was significantly less popular. It has also proved to be significantly more controversial—in large part because, unlike Cruz and Gaetz, Johnson consistently provided a clear presentation of his deeply held theocratic worldview.

It is not clear how much of a listenership Truth Be Told had—the show never even hit the top 100 in Apple’s “Religion & Spirituality” chart during the 18 months it was in production from March of 2022 until shortly before Johnson was elected speaker. Like Gaetz and Cruz, Johnson routinely rails against a familiar set of villains: “woke corporations” like Disney, the Jewish billionaire and Democratic donor George Soros, President Biden. Most episodes revolve around political questions—including Johnson’s role as the legal architect of Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election—but are heavily informed by the hosts’ deep religious faith.

Truth Be Told is most notable in that Johnson never seems to be couching his beliefs—he’s not playing politics or aiming for high office or even attempting to get on television. He was a backbencher with little prior national name recognition, and it seems highly unlikely that he ever expected to come under the spotlight as he did after ascending to the speakership. And so, again and again, he makes the case that the United States is a Christian country—and that Christians are being oppressed by liberals.

In one episode, he refers to the “so-called separation of church and state,” adding that “the founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.”

“If anybody tries to convince you that your biblical beliefs or your religious viewpoint needs to [be] separated from public affairs, you should politely remind them to review their history and you should not back down,” he added.

In another episode, he insists that liberals have successfully blocked religion from “the public square,” adding that they established a dichotomy between the “religious” and “real life” that was “never intended by the Founding Fathers.”

The Johnsons pulled the podcast from their (subsequently completely deleted) personal website shortly after he became speaker, but it was too late. Revelations from Truth Be Told poured out—along with many other comments about abortion and homosexuality from interviews—after he became speaker in late October, generating controversy throughout the fall. It is rare for a prominent politician to speak so openly in this way, but—then again—Johnson wasn’t a prominent politician when he recorded it. Still, Truth Be Told is notable in that it contains real candor—not the political version offered by Cruz and Gaetz. The fallout also serves as a reminder of why there isn’t more candor in political podcasting.

Still, Truth Be Told raises another question: Why would any politician have a podcast in the first place? It’s true, of course, that podcasts provide a means of addressing voters directly. For Republicans, in particular, this is appealing, and this is one reason podcasting has taken hold to the extent that it has on the right: Conservatives are skeptical of the media, and podcasting allows them to bypass the press altogether. In a post-Trump era, moreover, Republican voters have shown that they value pugilism and authenticity—or at least a version of it.

And yet these podcasts are hardly revelatory. For the most part, they’re just more chum: either half-baked takes on culture war topics or mundane “insights” into lawmakers’ work on the Hill. When you break the mold, as Johnson did, you’re punished. As Derek Robertson wrote in a piece on political podcasts for Politico, the pablum is by design. The best podcasts give listeners the illusion of a personal relationship with hosts, whom you think you know simply by listening to them be themselves. But “be themselves” is exactly what politicians aren’t allowed to do. “They are precluded from the level of candor and personality necessary to forge that bond by the demands of their office,” Robertson writes.

And so, we have a weird subgenre: something between a podcast, a stump speech, and a cable TV hit. It almost makes you want to pick up a campaign book.