“I have been living with a proverbial boot on my neck for going on years now.”
On a recent spring day, Steven Crowder, the star MAGA commentator who broadcasts with a gun on his desk, opened his show on the right-wing digital platform Rumble with a confessional monologue about his failed marriage and impending divorce. Crowder said he was addressing tawdry Internet rumors but soon pivoted to a policy-adjacent lament, depicting his wife’s ability to divorce him as an abridgment of his rights.
“No, this was not my choice,” Crowder said. “My then-wife decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore, and in the state of Texas, that’s permitted.”
The lonely-dude soliloquy then broke off, and business resumed with more standard culture-war fare. “Now on with the reason you’re all actually here,” Crowder said, introducing a segment mocking a queer family.
Welcome to the world of Rumble, the anything-goes digital outpost of right-leaning discourse and disputation, where the personal and the political weave in and out of focus in an orgy of branding for tinnitus relief, Fortnite, and deals on gold. The site serves as an all-purpose video forum for MAGA-era grievances, bringing together conspiracy-minded influencers, Christian nationalists, anti-vax activists, and fervent Trump apologists under the pretext of defying political correctness and “cancel culture.”
Crowder’s down-on-his-luck trad-guy shtick got him an initial burst of puzzled virality, but it soon went even more haywire. A video cropped up showing Crowder verbally berating his wife, Hilary, who at the time was eight months pregnant with twins. “I don’t love you, that’s the big problem,” he told her, after his wife said she didn’t want to handle dog medication that might be toxic to her unborn children. Hilary Crowder’s family released a statement calling her husband “mentally and emotionally abusive.” Former employees of Louder With Crowder—the show Crowder had hosted at The Blaze—also came forward to talk about how the rigidly Christian family man was controlling and abusive and had exposed himself to staffers.
Crowder devoted more airtime to denying the reports and dismissing the video as misleadingly edited. The ploy seems to have placated his core audience; Louder With Crowder, which the histrionic host moved to Rumble after claiming that he’d turned down a $50 million contract offer from The Daily Wire, continues to attract millions of views at its new home. Rumble didn’t respond to questions about Crowder’s allegedly abusive behavior—or about a range of other issues—but the company seems pleased with the traffic brought in by his sweaty mixture of the personal and the political, bragging on Twitter about the size of his audience.
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Donald Trump’s Latest Threats Really Are About the Violence
Donald Trump’s Latest Threats Really Are About the Violence
But the digital lords of Rumble are gambling on a lot more than Crowder’s online clout. With the older monopoly platforms of Silicon Valley facing a battery of new challenges from regulators, and with mainstream news networks like Fox and CNN floundering between legal or personnel crises, they’re reckoning that this could be the ideal time to sell suggestible tech investors on a moderation-resistant media platform. If site producers can somehow manage to play down the explicit ideological messaging of its lead content creators and promote controversy for its own sake, they can continue harvesting clicks and views, while stolidly shrugging off any criticism or calls for moderation as digital censorship. The recent recruitment of the conspiracist, anti-vax Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to the platform helps superficially bolster this pitch, particularly in view of Kennedy’s wide support among the tech industry’s power elite.
Yet like other such ostensibly high-minded launches—Bari Weiss’s Free Press site, and a cluster of high-profile Substacks from cancel-culture baiters like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald—Rumble turns out, on closer examination, to be firmly in the MAGA mold of reactionary politics. That’s no doubt a big reason why the Republican National Committee announced that the platform would be the streaming partner for next month’s GOP presidential debate, the first of the 2024 campaign cycle.
That lurch into establishment respectability is a bit hard to square with the gladiatorial appeal of the emerging Rumble brand, which extends well beyond its stable of melodramatic MAGA pundits. Take, for example, its entertainment series Power Slap. Hosted by Ultimate Fighting Championship honcho Dana White, Power Slap is a reality fighting show with a familiar script: Some aspiring celebrity fighters move into a house, train, shit-talk, and slap the hell out of each other in professionally staged matches. The fighters move on up through successive elimination rounds to compete for cash prizes (reportedly, match-victory awards are as low as $2,000). The challenge is to remain standing—and conscious—while also averting, as much as possible, the onset of direct brain damage.
The matches are short, violent, and irritatingly well produced, as one fighter, after a painfully slow choreographed windup, slaps the other, who then has 30 seconds to regroup in time to slap back. Competitors have hokey stage names like Slap Jesus, tragic backstories, and a reliable complement of personal demons to exorcise. A single powerful slap often leads to a knockout—which is then replayed in ultra high-def slow motion, over and over again, so that you can see the facial flesh rippling and the disorientation setting in. Victorious fighters are ushered back to the Slap House, while losing fighters sometimes have to be attended to by a doctor before being carted off, perhaps to be rendered into glue.
Like all reality TV, Power Slap feels bad to consume, a fatty indulgence. It also has some unpleasant real-world resonance: On New Year’s Eve last year, Dana White was filmed slapping his wife. Shamelessly exploiting its participants’ desperate hunger for fame, it might be the most original thing on Rumble, which says a lot about a platform that has spent tens of millions courting perpetually red-faced millionaire MAGA influencers like Steven Crowder.
What allows content like Power Slap to thrive in Rumble’s house of punditry is the same cultural logic that helped elevate former WWE host and reality TV star Donald Trump to the American presidency: a canny ability to market standard white-guy belligerence and personal dysfunction as rebellious, novel, and brash. For all the platform’s high-flown invocations of the noble traditions of free speech in the face of the “woke” censorship now practiced by monopoly digital platforms, Rumble is little more than a digital version of the marriage of convenience that GOP leaders endorsed when they made Trump the head of the Republican Party. Indeed, you don’t have to dig very deep into Rumble’s rapid ascension on the right to see that the tech/MAGA alliance is baked into the company’s business model.
It’s a top-line entry in the site’s investor pitches: One such presentation from 2021 highlighted “increasing adoption from top creators,” including Donald Trump, who has 1.9 million followers on the platform, along with support from conservative media firebrands like Dave Rubin and Dan Bongino. Next to Elon Musk’s Twitter, Rumble has become perhaps the most successful social media company catering to the political right, and in the past few years, it’s become deeply enmeshed in Trumpworld, from video talent to investment to its management and board.
With a claimed audience of 48 million monthly users and several hundred million dollars in cash on hand, Rumble has the potential to be both an instrument and a shaper of conservative politics. That viewership has made Rumble a top stop for MAGA celebrities (or those willing to play one online) seeking a lucrative content deal. Numerous Republican politicians have folded it into their social media strategy, maintaining accounts on the site. “I was not kidding when I said the #RumbleTakeover has begun,” tweeted Chris Pavlovski, Rumble’s founder and CEO, after the site announced its plan to broadcast the first GOP presidential debate. “I’m not finished, either.”
The problem is that #RumbleTakeover will yield decidedly diminishing returns if it deviates from the standard playbook of right-wing culture warfare. Rumble is morphing into something interesting and politically significant, but it’s not the free-speech haven that its promoters claim. Besides business and talent deals that link it closely to the political right, Rumble maintains content policies that read like they were written by a Tucker Carlson intern. The platform forbids material that “promotes, supports or incites individuals and/or groups which engage in violence or unlawful acts, including but not limited to Antifa groups and persons affiliated with Antifa, the KKK and white supremacist groups and/or persons affiliated with these groups.” The effort to equate antifa with the Klan is a classic both-sides feint of right-leaning media in the Trump age—a bid to collapse sharp moral distinctions into a plague-on-both-your-houses stance that conceals the actual alignment of Rumble with the extremely online white nationalist right.
The company’s disingenuous view of politics also sits alongside a less-than-forthright business model. While Rumble gives 60 percent of its ad earnings to video creators, the site also grants itself broad latitude to copyright much of the content it airs, claim ownership of it, and pay creators a maximum of $1,000 in compensation. In other words, if your video goes viral on Rumble, the company suits might decide that it should be theirs. As on other platforms, the company is sovereign: “Rumble reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to terminate your access to the Rumble Service, with or without notice, for any reason….” So much for protecting freedom of speech.
When I signed up for a Rumble account recently, my own user-generated content was not at risk—I just planned to lurk. Once I logged in, the site wasted no time in prodding me into the fever swamps of Trumpian grievance. I was invited to subscribe to Bannon’s War Room, where the concentrically shirted former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon regularly holds forth. On the home page, a QAnon livestream promised a new dispatch about the movement’s ever-shifting prophecy of a fast-encroaching political apocalypse. A few dozen people were watching Mike Lindell, the election-denying pillow impresario, rant from the far side of the conspiratorial moon. Rounding it out were some gaming videos, extreme sports highlights, Covid denialist footage, and endless bigoted riffs on the latest object of viral outrage. If Power Slap comes across as a particularly unsettling form of gladiator theater, the main run of Rumble punditry suggests a National Review cruise hijacked by QAnon pirates.
Many of the most popular shows on Rumble fall into the crudely produced genre of angry-dude-in-front-of-a-mic. On a recent livestream, Dan Bongino, who regularly tops Facebook’s roster of high-performing political commentators and had 2.78 million followers on Rumble as of late June, told 51,000 live viewers that an economic crisis was coming. He also counseled viewers to “be very, very careful about narratives coming out in the coming days about this Tucker Carlson thing,” referring to the former Fox News personality’s abrupt firing. Bongino paused dramatically to point to his eyes and then the camera: “There’s something going on here behind the scenes.”
Then came another pause for Bongino to introduce the episode’s first sponsor, a nutritional supplement that, he promised, wasn’t based on junk science—it had helped him recover from a surgery. Below his video was a banner ad for easy concealed-carry gun permits. After finishing his endorsement, Bongino returned to his warning about an “orchestrated campaign…to destroy and decimate Tucker Carlson’s credibility.”
These streams, which can run for hours and feature running text commentary from viewers, are staples of MAGA video. They are now core Rumble offerings. They don’t include much in the way of polished entertainment or analysis—actual news or reporting is a rare event. They might best be described as rambling struggle sessions, providing company for alienated conservative men as they drive to work, exercise in the gym, or putter around the house—conspiratorial Muzak for reactionary misogynists. They veer between odd confessions of masculine insecurity, outright bigotry, deep-state paranoia, bad jokes, and right-wing bromides about wokeness.
Pavlovski, Rumble’s CEO, is a Canadian serial tech entrepreneur in his early 30s. In 2011, he founded an IT start-up called Cosmic Development. The company became a success, establishing offices in Canada, Serbia, and Macedonia, where Pavlovski’s parents are from. In a 2016 tech conference speech, Pavlovski talked about learning from his failed start-ups, including a financial services firm he established in India that he called a “big mistake,” admitting he knew nothing about financial services or Indian law and business. Like many entrepreneurs steeped in Silicon Valley pop philosophy, he practically celebrates market failure—it’s a chance to move on to the next new thing, something that delivers the holy trinity of clicks, brand identity, and buzz.
That, as much as anything, appears to be the aspiration powering Rumble. In 2013, Pavlovski launched the company as a video platform designed to be a YouTube alternative that would focus on monetizing video on terms favorable to creators. Ryan Milnes, Pavlovski’s cofounder at Cosmic, joined the company’s board.
Rumble puttered along until 2020, when it started attracting interest from MAGA World. The narrative of Big Tech as a tool of state censors began to gain real steam, as well as a degree of mangled credibility. Tech platforms started enforcing content policies against Covid-19 misinformation, the New York Post’s thinly sourced Hunter Biden laptop story, and, after the January 6 riot, the president himself. With the same platforms adding new policies against anti-trans bigotry and hateful language, many conservative social media users found that their political expression was running up against the buzz saw of content moderation.
For years, leading figures in conservative media maintained a dual identity, leveraging the existing tech platforms—and developing huge, profitable audiences in the process—while also claiming to be victims of their policies. There had always been a nascent “alt-tech movement,” which fostered social networks and hosting services with overtly libertarian or right-wing policies. But establishment Big Tech firms like Facebook employed plenty of Republicans, and their lobbying was bipartisan. Many tech CEOs retained their chummy relations with the Trump White House, sometimes privately so. Still, as conservative influencers and politicians saw themselves banned from YouTube and Twitter, the need for safe digital spaces—where free speech might be allowed to veer into hate speech—became a matter of strategic political importance.
This was Rumble’s big opening. In 2020, Devin Nunes, then a member of the House of Representatives, went over to Rumble, as did longtime libertarian icon Ron Paul. Bongino also bought an equity stake, giving the platform the imprimatur of the MAGA pundit-industrial complex. As the company stockpiled right-wing talent and board members, Pavlovski began promoting Rumble as a studiously “neutral” platform: a bulwark against Big Tech’s encroachment on free speech.
And sure enough, the site took off, going from 1 million monthly users in early 2020 to more than 36 million a year later. For many conservatives, it remained a sort of backup outlet—a place to syndicate content that was still allowed on YouTube and elsewhere, as well as a possible future refuge should the “woke” Silicon Valley authorities ban the accounts they relied on. Pavlovski began telling interviewers that the site was creating digital infrastructure that would be “immune to cancel culture.” Regardless of the pitch that drew users in, the site’s rapid growth in the year of political reckoning for the Trump movement showed potential.
As MAGA World began to discover Rumble, so did its allies in tech and finance. Elite Wall Street firms like Guggenheim Securities offered their consulting services. Rumble signed tech and video deals with Trump Media & Technology Group, the ex-president’s newly established company, which was led by Nunes. In May 2021, Rumble announced a round of investment led by J.D. Vance’s Narya Capital and Vance’s financial angel, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel. Ethan Fallang, a partner at Narya, joined Rumble’s board. Rumble made its first acquisition: Locals, a Substack-like subscription blog service with a conservative user base. Rumble also established a US headquarters in Longboat Key, Fla.
Another Trump-connected mogul became a Rumble investor: Darren Blanton, a Texas horse semen collector (he breeds the animals for racing) who runs an investment firm called Colt Ventures. Blanton is an established name among the moneyed MAGA political elite: an associate of Peter Thiel, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon. Blanton and Bannon were both directors of GTV, a media venture started by longtime Bannon crony Guo Wengui, a now-indicted fraudster and rumored Chinese intelligence asset who became enmeshed in Trumpworld. During the 2016 campaign, Blanton, along with Flynn and one of his associates, participated in an alleged voter suppression campaign targeting Black voters. He was later paid $200,000 by the Trump campaign.
By the end of 2021, Rumble was ready to go public in a proposed IPO navigated through a special purpose acquisition company. The deal valued the new public company at more than $2 billion. In a signal of the firm’s rising stature—and access to mainstream financing—Rumble was merging with a shell company run by Howard Lutnick, the billionaire CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald. On September 19, 2022, Rumble began publicly trading its stock on Wall Street, making Pavlovski a paper billionaire and reaping huge windfalls for the company’s investors and executives. A few days later, Pavlovski rang the opening bell at NASDAQ. After Cantor Fitzgerald, Rumble’s top shareholders included investment colossus the Vanguard Group and David Sacks, a venture capitalist, friend of Thiel, Twitter war-room consigliere to Elon Musk, and major Republican donor. (Rumble would later buy Callin, Sacks’s podcasting start-up, and add him to the company board.)
Buoyed by new financing, Rumble turned on the money spigot, signing creators, influencers, pundits, gamers, rappers, and assorted online personalities to six- and seven-figure deals—people who, the company claimed, “challenge the status quo.” Journalist Glenn Greenwald, a fierce critic of liberal groupthink on cable news, agreed to do a cable-news-style evening show. Anti-vax celebrity Russell Brand, the louche comedian and actor, became a featured attraction as a contrarian political commentator. Donald Trump Jr. was brought aboard to do a show called Triggered. Kimberly Guilfoyle, Trump Jr.’s fiancée, signed on as well. After men’s rights cultist Andrew Tate was banned from platforms like YouTube that supplied most of his revenue, he agreed to a deal with Rumble for $9 million a year, according to CNN. Soon after, Tate was arrested in Romania for crimes including rape and human trafficking. Rumble hasn’t flinched in its support for the popular misogynist: In June, the site hosted a livestream special for Tate, now under house arrest, that attracted several hundred thousand simultaneous viewers. Pavlovski celebrated the event as a technological triumph for a site that doesn’t depend on Amazon’s digital infrastructure.
The rapid ascent of Rumble has provoked some skepticism in the finance and tech worlds. In late April, a short-selling firm called Culper Research released a report on the company, saying it was “short Rumble”—meaning that it was betting that Rumble’s stock price would fall. According to the report, Rumble had inflated its traffic numbers, and its actual growth has been stagnant. The Culper team further noted that Rumble was relying on bad ad technology (hence the ads for weight-loss hacks and shady supplements). The report estimated that 37 percent of Rumble traffic was malware-driven—essentially fake traffic directed to the site via pop-up ads and the like.
Rumble’s not the first right-aligned digital platform to try to crash its way past the Big Tech cartel, which with the notable exception of TikTok has effectively kept out upstarts, either by buying them outright or kicking them out of app stores for tolerating extreme content. Other social media challengers have fallen apart on their own. Gettr, headed by Trump adviser Jason Miller, who in February returned to work for the former president’s 2024 campaign, was hacked the day it launched and can barely be counted as a going concern. Truth Social still exists—exiled “Twitter Files” journalist Matt Taibbi recently signed up—and is nominally Trump’s digital home base. But the full-stack tech and social media company promised in Trump’s original pitch is nowhere near materializing.
Other right-leaning digital properties are either already dead or circling the cemetery; 4chan and 8chan—the cesspool discussion boards that have launched as many harassment campaigns and mass shooters as they have Pepe the Frog memes—have been challenged by activists, with the latter forced offline entirely. Gab, a social network run by a Christian nationalist who refuses to talk to Jewish reporters, continues to build out its own tech infrastructure (a payments system, an AI chatbot, etc.) in service of the CEO’s vision for a separate, parallel economy. But given that Gab is flooded with racists and QAnon believers, it seems unlikely to scale.
Parler had a decent run of viral attention, but it was kneecapped by Google and Apple, which removed it from their app stores for its rampant bigotry and association with the January 6 riot. After the artist formerly known as Kanye West failed to execute a promised purchase of Parler, the company was sold to another tech firm, which then shut down the social network and began pillaging the company for parts (or user data). “No reasonable person believes that a Twitter clone just for conservatives is a viable business any more,” read a note from Parler’s new owner on its now-defunct website.
The recent dark horse entrant in the race for MAGA attention and cash is Elon Musk’s Twitter. Laden with debt, its value and revenue plummeting, and besieged by frequent technical snafus,Twitter seems like a rolling disaster. The company may be headed for bankruptcy, and Musk’s reputation sinks lower daily as he’s tweeted misinformation about the assault on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, mocked a disabled employee, and embraced far-right conspiracy theories about vaccines.
Musk has succeeded in one sense: By giving reactionaries, transphobes, and Nazis the run of the place, he has ideologically aligned Twitter with the online right. There’s no pretense, nothing hidden. Musk can often be seen tweeting with some of the site’s most obnoxious right-wing influencers, acknowledging their complaints or seemingly banning accounts at their request. His florid warnings about “the woke mind virus” appear to be in earnest.
Rumble is taking a different path toward similar political ends. The company is politically connected and well financed, as well as suitably bold in its stated ambitions. By throwing money at a long roster of influencers, podcast hosts, journalists, actors, DJs, and professional bigots, Rumble seems to hope that it can summon the kind of mass audience that has eluded other right-wing platforms.
It also helps that Rumble’s lingua franca is video, the Internet’s most monetizable medium. Rumble is not an “anti-woke” bank or dating app—two other failed Thiel-sponsored ventures. Its reliance on video means that it can be anything its owners want it to be. And right now, they seem to want it to become the locus of entertainment and viral political commentary for the online MAGA set.
As Rumble grew, Pavlovski and some of his original executive team remained in charge, but they were augmented by new arrivals. One key appointment, in the role of general counsel and corporate secretary, was Michael Ellis, a former Devin Nunes aide and Republican political operative. Ellis had formerly worked on the House Intelligence Committee and the National Security Council. Late in his administration, Trump attempted to install Ellis—an administration loyalist closely aligned with Defense Department official (and future Trump Media & Technology Group board member) Kash Patel—as general counsel of the National Security Agency. Ellis was poised to assume a civil service posting, which would make him more difficult to remove—a MAGA tick latching itself onto the heart of the deep state. The battle over Ellis’s nomination soon devolved into a farrago of bureaucratic and political bickering about his qualifications, whether he had mishandled classified documents, the appointment process itself, and Ellis’s Trumpworld dealings on behalf of Nunes. In the midst of a Department of Defense Inspector General investigation, Ellis nominally became the NSA’s general counsel, but he was put on administrative leave at the start of the Biden administration and soon resigned. Within months, Rumble scooped him up and made him a millionaire.
Politics may make strange bedfellows, but the quest for a movement-driven digital media fortune has upgraded those raw alliances of convenience into something like a lavishly appointed honeymoon suite at Mar-a-Lago. Rumble may still be fine-tuning its brand as a woke-resistant media platform for the right, but it has already proved itself as a ready-made dispenser of MAGA World cachet. Thus it has brought together Glenn Greenwald, whose journalistic reputation rests on helping to break the Edward Snowden surveillance story, with Ellis, who helped produce the 2016 House Intelligence Committee report on the Snowden leaks. Meanwhile, Palantir, a company founded by early Rumble funder Peter Thiel, had once plotted to sabotage Greenwald’s career for his support of WikiLeaks. And financial backer Darren Blanton is a purveyor of voter suppression schemes against Black voters. Somewhere in there, self-styled revolutionary anarchist Russell Brand enlisted alongside enthusiastic MAGA autocrats like Dan Bongino and Steve Bannon. All are feverishly recording and posting their political wisdom, vying for ever-greater margins of online clout—or just to be seen above the Sean Hannity ads imploring Rumble’s users to buy silver.
It’s no wonder, in short, that Rumble has been entrusted with the streaming rights for the first GOP presidential debate of the 2024 cycle. This is what big-tent politics on the right looks like in the age of Trump. Who knows—if Rumble keeps evolving into a legitimate source of revenue and influence on the right, the 2028 primary debates might include a round of Power Slap.