The Bulwark: How could it be wrong when it feels so center-right?

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PHILADELPHIA — Sarah Longwell, the publisher of the Bulwark, is backstage before the live show with her fellow performers in early May, trying to figure how to get a bunch of anti-Trump podcast fans excited.

“Is it a secret that you interviewed Josh Shapiro?” Longwell asks Tim Miller, host of “The Bulwark Podcast” and a fellow-traveler in this band of conservative and moderate misfits.

“No, it’s not a secret,” Miller says of his interview with Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s governor — the kind of moderate Democrat whose name this crowd of 300 or so might go gaga for. But Miller wants to tease the Shapiro interview himself, so Longwell has to figure out another way to bring the hype. Jonathan V. Last, the Bulwark’s editor, doesn’t think she should worry.

“You’re going to get a huge pop just from walking on the stage,” Last says. “Everybody’s gonna go crazy just seeing you. All you have to do is recognize them and say, ‘Love you guys all, thanks for being here.’”

Out in the theater, Adam Zurbriggen is feeling grateful. Philadelphia’s deputy city solicitor is tall, bespectacled, salt-and-peppered.

“I have to say, I feel politically pretty lonely in general,” Zurbriggen says later that evening, in the lobby. “Because a lot of my friends, conservative friends that I grew up with, went along with the MAGA movement, Trump.”

That’s not an official comment from the city, he clarifies. Despite the suit he’s wearing, Zurbriggen has come to the Bulwark show in a personal capacity. He was looking for an opportunity to feel less alone, like others here. “I’m a conservative at heart. I have conservative views, but, you know, I don’t believe in what Trump says, and I do think he’s authoritarian,” he says. “So I felt very isolated. And the Bulwark is an outlet for me.”

The Bulwark, a franchise of 11 podcasts and six Substack newsletters, has become an outlet for a lot of people. Not nearly as much so as Trumpism, but, well — that’s kind of the whole idea. It has picked up those that MAGA, and polarization in general, left behind: anti-Trump conservatives hitchhiking with moderate Democrats on the road to the 2024 election and beyond.

And it’s been growing. This spring, the Bulwark added a podcast on Trump’s trials hosted by conservative lawyer George Conway; Adam Kinzinger, the former Illinois Republican congressman who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment, will become a regular contributor and podcast guest. It also hired political scribe Marc Caputo to send dispatches from Florida in a newsletter vertical titled “MAGAville.”

The demand is clear enough from, among other signs, the primary votes that Nikki Haley has continued to receive despite having dropped out of the race due to Trump’s dominance: Earlier this month, Haley pulled 22 percent of the vote in Maryland and 18.2 percent in Nebraska. (She has since said she will vote for Trump.) The political orphans of the center-right are looking for a home — or a bunker.

“To talk of the community that I live in: I dare not mention Trump,” said John Thornton, a 77-year-old veteran from Shippensburg, Pa., who voted for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, at a happy hour the Bulwark held in Washington in February. Thornton’s daughter, who works at a law firm, brought him to the event because her father is, as she puts it, “stuck in Trump country.”

Meanwhile, the anti-Trumpers of the center-left are, as always, looking for conservatives who agree with them. Together with the refugees from the right, it amounts to a market. With 267,000 subscribers — 37,000 of whom pay for a fire hose of additional content and live chats — the Bulwark ranks third among Substack’s political sites. The company counts Kathryn Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter-in-law, among its early investors, and brings in about $5 million a year in gross revenue. Longwell says the venture is close to breaking even.

The Bulwark’s live shows are another way for all those people to know that they’re not alone in their starry-eyed desire to Make Centrism Great Again. A place where people rise to their feet to honor J. Michael Luttig, the former George H.W. Bush-appointed judge who testified in Congress that “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.” A place where Bill Kristol, the founder of the now-defunct Weekly Standard, can call himself a “former conservative” to applause. A place where Miller can ask Kristol and writer Will Saletan to name the people they’d most like to stand in a circle and smoke weed with. (Saletan, admitting he’s a “pot virgin,” named Charles Barkley, the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and a thinker to be named later — possibly Jesus. Kristol named his Bulwark colleagues. Yawn.)

“It’s a little bit like buying tickets to see a band play,” says Matt Yglesias, the ur-blogger and Vox co-founder who now has a popular Substack of his own, Slow Boring. “That’s not the only way to hear songs in the modern world. Even live performances don’t necessarily sound all that good. But it’s an experience that you want to be part of.”

“What they’re doing is providing Republicans a safe space to go if they hit that button on the ejector seat and decide to leave, where they can feel like, ‘Okay, there are people like me, who think some of the things I do, feel some of the ways I do,’ but have decided they just can’t vote for a Trump-led Republican Party,” says Tommy Vietor, a co-host of “Pod Save America,” a liberal redoubt peopled with young guns from the Obama administration. “It’s a way you don’t feel alone, you don’t feel ostracized.”

Bro. Let me break it down for you,” says Mike Valiant, 32, of New Jersey.

He’s standing near the exit in a pinstripe button-down shirt, white Air Force Ones and a too-small straw hat — a souvenir from a Guatemalan Independence Day celebration in Trenton — and he’s holding a Yuengling in his hand and a protein blender bottle in the crook of his arm.

Valiant, who says he listens to the Bulwark pods while doing cardio at the gym, has been feeling turned off by both political parties. “So I came here with nothing better to do on a Wednesday,” He’d just met Zurbriggen, the city official. “You have literally half a beer, and you’re talking to people like you’ve known them from last Tuesday.”

So maybe just being here is enough for Longwell and company to get people excited. She steps out onstage, wearing a white blazer over a shirt that says “THESE ARE DIFFICULT TIMES.”

And the people do cheer. They might not have the party, but at least they have this.

It was April, a month before the Philly show, and Longwell was sitting in a conference room at the headquarters for her many enterprises, which include a comms firm and Republican Voters Against Trump, a political action committee that runs anti-Trump ads. When Longwell talks to voters, it’s often in a more staid environment than podcasts and stage shows: Her thing is focus groups. She’s conducted some 250 of them since August 2017, trying to get a handle on the psychology of voters in the Trump era. (Audio clips from those focus groups are featured on her “Focus Group” podcast, another Bulwark offering.)

Here’s something Longwell thinks people still don’t get about the former president: that he’s a prescription for loneliness, too.

“He makes them feel like there’s an in-group, right? ‘We’re all in this,’” she says.

After all, what better way to feel a part of a crowd than to go to a Trump rally, drape yourself in merch and chant “Let’s go Brandon!” at the nonbelievers?

“That’s why people buy the Bibles and do all that,” Longwell says. “Like, the level of loneliness that you see — I think for people with a level of detachment or people who are looking for community, it’s just everywhere.”

Longwell, 44, had worked for Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — a firebrand Christian who was about as far right as Washington Republicans got, back then — while Santorum was on tour trying to sell his book “It Takes a Family,” which preached conservative social mores and argued that allowing gay couples to wed was “the latest liberal assault on our marriage tradition.” Santorum’s talks would attract protesters. At one of them, Longwell recalled, a young girl was holding a sign that read, “My two moms take me bowling.” “And I was like, ‘I’m out of here. I’m out of here,’” she says. Longwell moved to D.C., and came out as a lesbian.

By the time Trump was mounting his White House run, she’d become a senior vice president at Republican consultant and lobbyist Richard Berman’s communications firm and the first female board chair of the Log Cabin Republicans, the right’s most prominent pro-LGBTQ group. “And I just wanted us to not endorse him,” she recalls. “Which was tough, actually, because he was the most pro-gay Republican who had ever run. Right? He waved the gay flag and, I don’t know, he’s friends with gay celebrities.”

These days, she says she’d even be willing to stomach Ron DeSantis — the Florida governor who, among other things, signed bills limiting the teaching of gender and sexuality in schools and levying penalties on transgender people who use restrooms that align with their gender identity in government buildings — if it meant keeping Trump from being commander in chief. “Right now, there’s a war in Europe‚” Longwell said at a May 2023 live show in New York, explaining why she considered Trump more dangerous, despite seeming less antagonistic toward gay people. “Look, I— trans kids, LGBT community, my people, great. This guy’s gonna pull us out of NATO. He’s going to take Putin’s side in the war in Europe.”

The Bulwark started out as a news aggregator in 2018, and launched on Substack in 2020. It runs on political commentary — pieces with headlines like “Haley Shivs The ‘Haley Republicans,’” “TradWives, TradLives” and “GOP Govs: Fake Meat, Fake Meetings.” It also dabbles in more classic long-form reporting, like a feature on the crumbling of the DeSantis-supporting “Never Back Down” super PAC and a 112-page examination of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) journey into MAGA world. It has journalists covering the White House and Congress.

The 42-year-old Miller — with his punchy/crunchy vibe and trademark pearl necklaces he started wearing during the pandemic because “the TikTok kids” were doing it — joined later. The most natural entertainer of the group, he’d been hired by Longwell in 2006 to the firm where she worked, and the two became friends, going out to the gay bars together. He was the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, but he left Washington after getting sick of seeing his Republican friends board the Trump train. Since February, he’s been hosting the outlet’s flagship interview show, which, according to internal figures, is averaging a million plays a week this year.

The Bulwark is a little bit like if you invited the socially liberal, fiscally conservative kids you knew in college to a dinner party with your erstwhile #Resistance relatives who still make jokes about Trump’s tan. It’s a motley ideological crew, but they’re united in their anxiety for a second Trump term.

Lately, the Bulwark isn’t just an anti-Trump soapbox or a cocoon for neocons. Unlike the many Republican professionals who can’t stand Trump but plan to back him anyway, the crew seems protective of the Democratic incumbent as Biden and whatever remains of his 2020 coalition head gingerly toward November.

“I think campus protests have been a pretty big — unintentionally, I think it’s not their fault, but still, in reality, in practice — pretty big in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign,” Kristol said at the Bulwark’s live show in Philadelphia.

“When you’re saying that I’m listening to these people and their complaints are valid and that Donald Trump is listening to them, what you are doing is echoing Donald Trump’s talking points,” Miller said to Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) in February, back when Phillips was running a primary campaign against Biden.

“Can I just say very quickly here: anybody who participates in this No Labels malarkey should have their lives ruined,” Last said on another Bulwark pod, “The Next Level,” in late December. At the time, that group of bipartisan moderates — who, in theory, share a lot in common with the Bulwark crew — was threatening to field a third-party presidential candidate that many people worried would siphon votes from Biden.

“I don’t mean that like, you know, they should have violence visited upon them,” Last continued. “But I mean that they should become social pariahs. They should lose whatever jobs they might have. They should be kicked off of corporate boards.” (No Labels cited Last’s commentary in a letter to the Justice Department complaining of a conspiracy to undermine its efforts. In the end, the group decided not to field a candidate.)

If Trump prevails, the Bulwarkers still see a role for their publication. “People will still want somebody to walk them through what is happening that they trust,” Longwell says. And if he doesn’t win, “Trump’s not going back to Texas to paint,” Miller says, alluding to George W. Bush’s quiet post-presidency. He’ll still be around, if not as a candidate then as a touchstone for the inheritors of his movement. The young Republicans of today are “very different from the young Republicans of my age,” Miller says. “They don’t know a world besides Trump. They’re not interested in going back to something before Trump even if Trump loses.”

Longwell isn’t sure what a future GOP might look like beyond Trump — maybe a blend of economic populists and anti-woke crusaders. “It looks more like something between Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance and Candace Owens,” she says, “than it does anything that resembles Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio.”

She adds: “I just know that the broad appetite is not going in the direction of limited government, free markets and American leadership in the world. It is going toward an isolationism where America is much more closed off from the world.”

After the Philly show, people stand in photo lines snaking through the lobby to meet Longwell and the others. One woman says she owns a winter jacket with a patch that reads, “Sarah Is Always Right.” Another woman goes up to Longwell and exclaims, “I never thought I’d actually see you in person!”

Lauren McConnell is also excited to meet Longwell. The 34-year-old Indiana native, who grew up in a conservative family, had been feeling “really disenchanted with being an American.” But now, living in Philly, she listens to the Bulwark podcasts in the morning, reads the articles on the train, puts the podcasts back on if she’s just doing mindless tasks at her medical research job. Then she gets home to cook dinner, listens to them again.

And every now and then, she sends Bulwark content to her relatives, because she thinks they might find it more credible than other media. And it might hold a unique kind of power to persuade conservatives to go against Trump, “because they’re like, ‘Okay, well, if they did it, then it’s okay if I do it, because they also believe what I believe.’”

Then again, in a politics dominated by in-groups and out-groups, many Republicans might not be convinced by an outlet that is rooting for four more years of Democratic rule.

Alex Spataro, 36, was also standing in line to meet one of the Bulwark personalities. He, too, sends the publication’s content to the Republicans in his life. But he doesn’t think the Bulwark stuff really changes many minds.

“I wish it did more,” he says. “I feel like the Bulwark has done better at garnering that coalition on the center-left than they have with converting people on the right — which I hope changes in the next eight months.”

Otherwise it’ll be a lonely four years. Maybe more.

clarification

This article has been revised to clarify that Sarah Longwell worked for Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) while he was on book tour but was not on his official staff.

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