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Let Me Tell You About the MAGA Oprah
Candace Owens, the future of populism, and a note about what we do here at The Bulwark.
1. Candace for POTUS
I want to open today with a giant excerpt from Tim Miller’s longform piece about Candace Owens:
CANDACE OWENS MAKES A FEW GOOD POINTS. Just not very often about politics.
She thinks young women should appreciate their natural beauty and not feel like they need to resort to surgery to build their self-esteem. She finds the Kardashian culture toxic and gives the boot to some of their more questionable sartorial choices. She thinks it’s hypocritical for people to be anti-marijuana but promote drinking which causes even more societal harm. She doesn’t think yoga pants are appropriate for every occasion and wants the culture to embrace getting dressed up for air travel again because the way a society presents itself “impacts your mind and what kind of person you are.” She does not trust Taylor Swift or Ron DeSantis (same) and describes the latter as “weird and inauthentic” (okay, that one’s about politics). She wants her listeners to lead fulfilled lives where they push themselves to be better.
Those are all pretty okay takes! Some of them are even wise and healthy!
Alas, Candace Owens also makes a lot of bad points. Very, very bad points.
Mostly these are about LGBTs, and vaccines, and Donald Trump. There is also vice signaling about celebs caught up in scandal. She sided with Andrew Tate (accused of trafficking girls), Conor McGregor (accused of sexual assault), and Jonah Hill (accused being an insecure jerk of a boyfriend) during their recent difficulties. Her consistent defense of Kanye West’s rabid antisemitism even caused some ripples with Ben Shapiro, who founded the Daily Wire, the site that hosts her eponymous show.
It is this duality of Candace—the softcore life advice intertwined with hardcore cultural warfare—that makes her more disquieting than your median MAGA podcaster. Her show is not targeted at hyper-attuned political nerds who want to follow the latest poll movements. It’s not for fully formed ideologues who know their way around Hayek. She doesn’t do talking points about the outrage of the day for boomers who want to win arguments on The Facebook. And to my surprise—and I just listened to a lot of Candace—her show isn’t a Trump fanzine: She is free with criticism of the Orange God King, certainly more than most of his primary opponents. Sometimes she goes a full week without mentioning him except in passing.
The Candace Owens show is something unique in the MAGA mediasphere. It’s an unholy gumbo of celebrity gossip, pro-tips for moms and young women, adjudication of right-wing commentator beefs, batshit insane conspiracies, anti-trans hysteria, royalist nostalgia, and comfort food for conservative white folks who want to rest easy knowing that it’s Democrats and Black Lives Matter activists who are the real racists.
You might think of the show as a MAGA National Enquirer for the podcast age: Something that appeals to casuals whose interest is piqued in the grocery store line by the promise of a little tea about the debauched lives of the rich and famous, but find themselves getting dosed with reactionary demagoguery as they sift through the pages.
I spent much of the early summer taking it all in.
LEST THERE BE ANY DOUBT about Candace’s reach and whether she merits the amount of time writing this profile required I spend “with” her, I want to take you on a little journey from Reading to Rio to Rocky Top.
In early 2021, after the insurrection dust had settled, my colleague Sarah Longwell began asking voters in her focus groups about the 2024 election and who should lead the GOP. At a Zoom gathering of MAGA voters in Pennsylvania she posed the question, “Is [Trump] still the leader of the party . . . or are there other people that you think should lead the Republican party going forward?”
At first there’s a bit of crosstalk as a few names are blurted out at once. Longwell turns to a gentleman who gives the most common nominations—Trump and DeSantis—before following up with one of the women whose answer was talked over.
“Traci, you said somebody,” Longwell asks.
Longwell takes a two-beat pause before clarifying, “Like . . . from the Daily Wire?”
Traci: “Yeah. I like Ivanka too, not gonna lie.”
Immediately you see the faces of a couple other women in the group light up the screen and when one of them, Danielle, is asked for her answer, she concurs with Traci, “She said Candace Owens, I just think she’s quick. She is a whip, man.”
This might have been the first time in a Bulwark focus group that Candace was volunteered unprompted as someone who could shatter that highest glass ceiling. But it wasn’t the last. In the next two years of focus groups featuring Trump base voters, Candace’s name was volunteered several times as a party leader, as someone who should be considered for the vice presidency in 2024, and even as someone whom people would like someday to see as president of the United States. (In case you were about to google “Candace Owens age” immediately after hearing her name as a vice presidential possibility, I did that too. She turns 35 next April, making her constitutionally eligible. Sleep tight.)
Oftentimes the focus groupers proposing Candace for national leadership roles were like Ivanka-loving Traci—culturally in tune with MAGA but not necessarily ideologues. Some worried that she might be too polarizing—one brought up her ties to Kanye as something that could harm her political prospects—but what was most important was that they saw her in a category completely separate from Washington politicians. She was someone they trusted. Someone who might be able to upend the status quo in D.C. and liven up the stodgy boys’ club that didn’t really represent them.
As caught off guard as I was to initially hear Candace’s name in May 2021, I comforted myself that at least this seemingly crazy idea was coming from some likely suspects, given that they were white, rural Pennsylvanians who watched Newsmax.
Then someone mentioned her to me while I was at Heaven, a gay club in Rio de Janeiro.
It gets better—wait until you read the part about how the Tennessee state legislature issued a joint resolution congratulating Candace on moving to the state!
Go read the entire thing. It’s magisterial, just as a piece of writing. But it also excavates a very deep idea: That the true heir to the movement Donald Trump unleashed probably won’t be a politician wearing a Trump skin suit, like Ron DeSantis. It will be someone from outside of electoral politics who is a cultural force.
And if you don’t think Candace Owens would have a shot at winning the 2028 Republican presidential nomination, then you are whistling past the graveyard.
But this piece says something about what we do at The Bulwark, too.
First off, there’s a reason that Charlie wrote about TPUSA today, and Sarah’s done a thousand focus groups, and Tim spent months listening to Candace Owens: We’re not nut-picking—we’re trying to get a genuine read on where this movement is.
In 2015 maybe you understood the populist wave that was crashing into our country. I did not. And I’m determined not to get caught looking again.
Second: You will notice that this is a giant, longform essay by a star writer—yet there is no paywall. There are no ads in it.
We’re able to make Tim’s work free for everyone because our members support us. Our members make it possible for his insights and observations to be out in the world, helping everyone think through what comes next.
So two asks:
(1) If you’re signed up for our free list, that’s wonderful and we’re glad to have you. But if you’re in a position to take the next step and become a Bulwark+ member, Tim’s piece is a fine example of what you’d be supporting. You wouldn’t just be getting some premium stuff (like my newsletter and the secret podcasts) for yourself—you’d be helping to put quality journalism out into the world where, hopefully, it can do some good.
(2) If you’re already a Bulwark+ member, please share Tim’s piece with someone you think would get value from it.
Actually, I have one more ask:
(3) Today, use the comments as a book club to talk about Tim’s piece. And my prompt is that I don’t want you dunking on Candace Owens. I want you to think through two specific aspects:
How Owens’ blend of cultural talk and political talk grows her audience. Do you think normies listen to her for the Lizzo takes and then find themselves pulled into the anti-vax stuff? How does that work? Does this parallel the way in which Q-anon spread through YouTubers and Instagram, where yoga moms suddenly started getting WWG1WGA and Mayfair conspiracies in their feeds?
Are Tim and I right that the next populist champion is likely to be a figure from outside of electoral politics? Maybe we are wrong! For one thing, realistically there are only a handful of figures who might fit the bill—Candace, Tucker, etc.—and one of them would have to decide to do it. That’s not a lock. Maybe Occam’s Razor is a better predictor here and the future of the GOP will be a normie Republican in a Trump skin suit? Or maybe even a quasi-normie Republican, period? (Fingers crossed!)
You guys hold to a high standard in the comments and I want you to be your best selves today. Remember, all comments should meet at least two of the three golden criteria: Kind, necessary, true.
I’ll be in there with you because I have a lot of thoughts about Tim’s piece.
2. Third Time a Charm
Indictment #3 may be coming today. We’ve gotten to the point where I’m so despairing about the state of The People that I don’t even register how bad it is that a former and possibly future president has been credibly accused of the crimes that we all watched him commit in real time.
Just . . . keep an eye on it.
3. Fork it, we’ll do it live.
Tim, Will, and I are going to watch Jake Tapper interview Ol’ Puddin’ Fingers this afternoon and then hop onto YouTube to talk about it live at 6pm in the East.
Come hang with us! Click here to set a reminder on Youtube.