The Republican podcast taking a shot at making conservatism cool

<span>Photograph: aleksandr Lychagin/Alamy</span>
Photograph: aleksandr Lychagin/Alamy

An increasingly prominent Republican podcast is emerging as a conservative alternative to the type of political media progressives have had a monopoly on for years: the partisan, edgy-oftentimes-irreverent entertainment show that nevertheless attracts powerful newsmakers.

The podcast, called Ruthless, is hosted by Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Michael Duncan, one of Holmes’s colleagues at the consulting firm they work for, and the lawyer pseudonymously known by his Twitter handle Comfortably Smug.

Related: 'The Voice of the Dirtbag Left': socialist US comics Chapo Trap House

The podcast started shortly before the 2020 presidential elections and the hosts from the beginning have hoped to offer right-leaning listeners an alternative to wildly popular leftwing podcasts like Chapo Trap House or Pod Save America.

Ruthless is nowhere near as prominent as either podcast but in the seven months since the first episode the show has hosted eight senators, three members of the House of Representatives, one governor and a handful of prominent Republican operatives. Four prospective Republican presidential candidates have joined the show at timely moments – Ted Cruz came on around the time he was embroiled in a scandal over a trip to Cancún while Texas suffered a power crisis.

Many of the host interviews have broken news which resulted in Ruthless being cited by the Washington Post, the Hill, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and Politico. They have lined up a queue of more guests, including likely 2024 presidential candidates in the coming weeks.

This is not a podcast for liberals Democrats looking for comfort. Nor is it a venue for anti-Trump Republicans or media types looking for praise.

The hosts love to ding establishment media outlets and prominent reporters and they revel in bashing leaders of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and energetically cheer when Democratic officials suffer misfortune.

There are other more widely listened to conservative podcasts but Ruthless is the only one whose emergence so closely resembles the ones at the left that young activists and voters love.

Ruthless’s emergence comes at a time when Republicans are back in the political wilderness having lost control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. There’s an ongoing question of what exactly the Republican party stands for and who its actual leaders are. Longtime Republican media figures are gone as well – Rush Limbaugh is dead and the more reliable broadcast journalists like Shepard Smith have left Fox News.

Enter two Republican consultants and a popular antagonistic Twitter user.

They saw an opening for a podcast that wasn’t hosted by bowtie-wearing thinktank conservatives who want to recite the Federalist Papers or pontificate on Edmund Burke and William F Buckley. The 51st episode of the show on 1 April started out with Smug reading the papers and then joining the two other hosts saying April fools.

“You get a yelling Federalist Papers brief on the conservative side or a rant about what’s happening at the border, but you don’t get a lot of attention to things that actually matter now. HR 1 is not something you can find on Fox prime time,” Holmes said, referring to Democrats’ voting rights bill.

Senator Ted Cruz let bygones be bygones to appear with Josh Holmes on the Ruthless podcast.
Senator Ted Cruz let bygones be bygones to appear with Josh Holmes on the Ruthless podcast. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Ruthless wants to host a range of Republicans within the party, even when they don’t necessarily see eye to eye.

“The party’s still a really big tent. And there are people that resonate with whole different segments,” Holmes said in an interview. “At least me personally I don’t think it makes any sense to get pigeonholed into one sect of the party. I think it makes a ton of sense to have a range of voices come in to make their pitch. Because ultimately what those interviews are all about are not litmus test questions about where you stand and the five things that voters care about, it’s your personality. That’s the only thing we aim to get out of it. It’s your personality.”

Years ago Holmes and Cruz were on opposite sides of a vicious intra-party Republican civil war. In 2021 they found themselves in a Republican-friendly podcast.

“If we were to jump into say a hot tub time machine and go back to 2013 and you were to tell the 2013 Josh Holmes ‘you’re going to be asking Ted Cruz to go on your podcast’ what would you say to that?” Cruz asked in one episode.

“I would’ve strangled him to death,” Holmes said, chuckling.

They say an ardently anti-Trump Republican politician is welcome on the program as well as ones who have defended him – like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

For Republicans, Ruthless is trying to offer the same partisan content that popular political podcasts or comedic TV shows have done for independents and Democrats for years – something the right always struggled to offer. For everyone else, the show is a window into part of the pugnacious base – not the fringe right or the anti-Trump sects. They aren’t always defending Donald Trump but they aren’t regular critics of him or his supporters either.

The controversial Georgia voting law has been a popular subject recently and the Ruthless hosts have been outspoken defenders of it, arguing that it actually expands secure voting rather than limiting it or that it is intended to hinder voting among Black voters. They have warned about the consequences of passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act – and usually refer to it by its more opaque legislative moniker “SR1” or “HR1”. They say Washington DC statehood is a nefarious attempt by Democrats to cheat the system to gain more Senate seats.

They are particularly proud of a special episode in which they did a dramatic reading of an Axios story on one of the most unusual and heated meetings of the Trump presidency.

The Ruthless hosts are not sympathetic to the QAnon conspiracy movement or Trump amping up his supporters to storm the Capitol. The episode before the 6 January mob riot, was titled A Serious Talk and a big chunk of it was devoted to how Trump did indeed lose the election. Two days after the attack on the Capitol the hosts produced an episode titled Nobody’s Happy.

“We don’t have a difference of opinion about what happened with the storming of the Capitol yesterday. I’m just going to say flat out from my standpoint it was terrible,” Holmes said in that episode. “It’s unhelpful. It was embarrassing to conservatives, to Republicans, to the country, to basically everything. I felt like it was a really serious moment.”

Again, though, these are not the Republicans who want a massive overhaul of the party. They are the ones who see the Lincoln Project Republicans as equally fair game as Democrats.

“I know we give the Lincoln Project people a lot of shit on this podcast, but the oldest grift in politics is a Republican who hates on other Republicans on cable news,” Duncan said in one episode. “I mean, it’s permanent employment.”