Saagar Enjeti Rising
Who is this would-be, millennial Tucker Carlson—and what does his swift ascent say about political media today?
It’s about power, man,” Saagar Enjeti relays about an hour into a decathlon, Corona-spring phone call.
It’s May, and I’m scrambling to interview the nationalist co-host of Rising with Krystal & Saagar, presented by the television arm of The Hill. Our conversation takes as many pit stops as Enjeti’s nascent, but impactful career: from Aggie country—he’s a son of Texas A&M faculty—to George Washington University to Georgetown to Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller to celebrated pundit before 30. Like his putative mentor, Enjeti has attracted some rubbernecking by insiders: for shifting his views. I think it’s going around, as you are reading an issue of a magazine titled “What is American Conservatism?” Or as Carlson told Elaina Plott (then of The Atlantic) last December: “I’ve made a complete break mentally with the world I used to live in.”
As for me, I am at least breaking one of my own rules. That is: I am writing a profile of a principal I haven’t seen in person in months. But I’m not going social-distance from a good story.
Because he’s a social conservative who isn’t religious. Because he’s a foreign policy hawk who actually concedes the country’s recent mistakes. Because he’s launched a slightly absurd crusade against cannabis. Because he dresses like Alex P. Keaton, only he’s renounced Reaganism. Because Saagar Enjeti has, indeed, become kind of powerful.
Enjeti forms a duo with Krystal Ball—a former congressional candidate and MSNBC star. At 38, she is—as Jacobin magazine pointed out—the Millennial answer to Rachel Maddow. Therein lies the most glaring distinction between the two, by all appearances close friends. Ball is an antagonist of the liberal pantheon. Enjeti though—while no stenographer—is broadly at peace with the present trajectory of the Right. Ball has bashed Maddow. Enjeti loves Carlson.
Ball’s cri de coeur is for generational change. That’s a project pitifully on hold, as the donkey attempts to install the oldest president on record. She actually preferred an even older model—that traitor to his generation Bernie Sanders—before he withdrew from the race in a blaze of anonymity this spring. That landscape contrasts with the Right, where an outsider president is still dominant and fresh projects seeking to tear down the old religion—such as the Enjeti-aligned American Compass (“great work”) —bloom promiscuously. Enjeti thinks the movement to mint a populism with polish is right on track (and they two have a book to sell seeking to prove that). But Enjeti had tough words for Senator Sanders, who he characterized as a tragically inflexible figure in a chosen profession where to be limber is to live another day.
I actually met Ms. Ball first—10 years ago—when she ran a quixotic campaign for Congress in the district of my alma mater in southern Virginia. The Tea Party juggernaut that year—combined with a frivolous, overhyped personal scandal from Ball’s well-spent youth (there aren’t that many trained accountant pundits)—doomed Ball’s bid in the already salmon-colored first district of the Old Dominion. She hiked over to The Atlantic and NBC cable but was an awkward fit for a liberal establishment licking its chops for a Hillary Clinton presidency. Like many women of our shared generation, she wasn’t quite ready for Hillary even if she was told to be.
The pair’s shared production is genuinely pathbreaking—for several reasons.
It’s an internet television show that works. Rising is actually rising. The dominant media trend when I entered the industry was the vaunted switch to tablets. But that mindset was soon shown the door. It was spring cleaning all around—those middle 2010s, the same time the Republican Party chucked its “libertarian moment”—both utter fads. And America would soon give the heave-ho to much more.
In 2016—as the country anointed its first cable news president—for industry captains, the conclusion was clear: more television—and let’s open new frontiers. For those seeking to court conservatives, streaming, internet television was considered a ruby-red, low-hanging fruit. Harvested right and you could even infringe on the primacy of Fox News. More broadly—especially on the Right—there had been rumors of elaborate new, “new media” ventures for years. The most legendary rumor (a plot which was actually real) was of a motley assembly: Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Roger Ailes, and then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon would open up their own shop. This was still the early days of the Trump administration. But to the haters, a satanic quartet was forming.
But in our desert of the real, only one oasis has been founded. Roger Ailes is dead, and Hill.TV is not.
But it was no fait accompli. Enjeti has a predecessor: the affable Buck Sexton, a CIA alum and a regular on both Fox and the not-so-underground drinking circuit at D.C.’s Trump Hotel. But after a year the organization passed on the Buck and signed Saagar.
Sadly for Sexton, it’s been liftoff ever since. But as with Elon Musk, there have been a few questionable judgment calls. In particular, there was a strange interview a summer ago with Rudolph Giuliani—the president’s personal lawyer—that had nothing to do with that work. Rather, Enjeti interviewed America’s mayor on his work with the deeply controversial National Council for the Resistance of Iran—the American front porch of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or more notoriously, the MEK. Mayor Giuliani has been paid lavishly for his association, as have other leading Republican figures responsible—centrally, former national security advisor John Bolton—for the country’s imprudent war footing toward Iran’s regime. But the interview appears to have been part nine (!) of a series initiated and otherwise hosted by Sexton, as Enjeti was sliding into the job. The series is marked “sponsored content,” which isn’t a nice look. Most of foreign policy journalism has had brushes with the MEK, but it bears repeating the general view is that they’re emphatically fringe.
Not fringe: the show’s appeal with younger, online-first audiences. America’s anchor—the popular podcaster Joe Rogan—said on air that he follows Saagar and Krystal for his news. For the uninitiated, Rogan gets 190 million downloads per month and between 5-7 million listeners per day, which on some days is double even Tucker Carlson’s formidable traffic.
“I just cover whatever I want,” Enjeti told me. That omnivorous attitude suits the clientele, who favor outside-the-box politicians with sweeping societal criticisms. The audience loves Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, maybe Donald Trump, and apparently no one else. As my fellow guest Colin Rogero—of The Hill’s infamous “Most Beautiful” list, and who could honestly pass for Colin Farrell—learned when I appeared with him on the program in January: sorry, no one likes Pete Buttigieg.
The show’s butterfly knife approach can produce a viewer experience as oscillatory as the 2020 campaign itself. Which is the point. In a news cycle that’s now truly unyielding—a depression, a pandemic, and mass rioting—Rising rises above. Like Kissigner and 50 Cent, Enjeti says he’s a stone-cold realist in a grinding turf war. “It’s about power, man,” Enjeti says. “This is about the fact that there’s actually a heterodox TV thing that exists, that is watched by actual people—and that’s the most important part. The donors don’t control this.” Enjeti gives away the secret sauce—telling me essentially that on YouTube it’s kingmaking to be what Jeff Bezos almost named Amazon but should have: relentless. Constant content must be produced or the axe falls from the hard-hearted algorithm.
Enjeti denies to me what I assumed was his goal: get this baby bought. In an era of the Frightful Five on America’s technology coast, the operating procedure of most new businesses is mere ambition to get sold. But Enjeti says he’s not waiting for a call up to the majors. He’s starting his own league. Television habits have been convulsed in the era of the smartphone—especially among the young (“our age is the number one demographic for the show, 25-35”)—and the thinking goes that cable news is the province of yesterday’s men, though that includes the sitting president of the United States. If the media short-sellers like Enjeti are right that cable news is at its peak, next up could be one giant, Boomer supernova.
I agree,” Enjeti says as I rant about how the Middle East is no longer relevant to this country’s national interest. He and I got into foreign policy for a shared reason before Trump’s ascension: “Domestic politics was just boring. Second term Obama, there was just nothing happening.”
There are signs of Enjeti’s true sympathies. For instance, Jake Mercier—the research assistant for his and Ball’s book (The Populist’s Guide to 2020) worked for Gabbard, perhaps the most restraint-minded Democratic presidential candidate in a generation. But he picks his spots. In January, for instance, he took an equivocal tone toward the risky assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a figure in Iran perhaps only second in prestige to the theocracy’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. On the third day of the decade, the guest Ball and Enjeti summoned to Monday morning quarterback the move was an official from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the home of D.C.’s most effective operatives for regime change. Enjeti countered that perhaps it would have been wiser to have taken Soleimani out earlier, in 2007—not firmly the stuff of a restrainer who sees de-escalation with a third-rate power in a tortured part of the planet as imperative.
But despite that Blob-y national security degree from Georgetown, Enjeti shows he’s not uncomfortable thinking for himself. His ascent has been astonishing—and facilitated by outsider outfits. It was as White House correspondent at the Daily Caller that Enjeti got his break, but also where he began enterprising his way into the limelight.
It was at the Caller that Enjeti first met the president, who he described to me as entertainer par excellence. But Enjeti began cutting away from the sometimes derivatively conservative nature of the site—he cultivated a more intellectual online persona and went all in on the age of realignment. That’s what he’s named his podcast—“The Realignment”—hosted by the Hudson Institute, a cornerstone of conservative Washington.
Enjeti is an unabashed champion of anti-monopoly politics—he thinks the American state should step in to guarantee a baseline level of hard industry in this country, and he thinks gratuitous economic concentration is unstable. With his roots in foreign policy, he has his eye on rising China. Of South Asian descent, he lends powerful credibility to the argument that the United States should consider a cool-down period in immigration for reasons of national cohesion. In this regard, he joins the esteemed company of Reihan Salam, president of the Manhattan Institute, as well as the centrist writer Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times.
Other views are more eclectic. He’s issued a semi-facetious fatwa against cannabis. He’s joined other figures with a right-wing audience—such as Ann Coulter, Peter Hitchens, and the ex-New York Times writer Alex Berenson—in slamming the assumption of the age that pot is harmless. Mr. Enjeti’s pronounced social conservatism is perhaps more interesting because he’s openly irreligious, something he shares with a constituency lacking belief in the Holy Spirit but suffering from spiritual ennui.
“They cheered on rioting—and looting—and crime,” an indignant Enjeti told Carlson on his show in early June, as heinous riots swept America. It’s the only show he likes to do besides his own. “I think you put it together perfectly earlier today on your show…the first uprising against the working class.”
What is American conservatism? Well, you could certainly do worse than tuning into the talented Mr. Enjeti in the morning to try to find out.