A Defense of ‘Barstool’ Conservatives
Traditionalist conservatives could learn a thing or two from Dave Portnoy and his fans.
At college football games across the country the past two weekends, student sections erupted in “F— Joe Biden” chants. Thousands of unruly fans expressing their discontent with the president packed Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, and dozens of other football stadiums. Many conservatives I know found it impossibly crude. Others found it amusing. They all missed the point: The chanting did more to break the progressive narrative on campus than God and Man at Yale ever did.
Well-funded think tanks and decades of conservative activism failed to yield results. But two weekends of college football anarchy and a social media trend popularized by Barstool subsidiary “Old Row” has normalized conservatism on campus again. College administrators accustomed to threatening, brainwashing, and harassing their students finally met their match: ticked-off football fans.
The scenes were perhaps the most visible iteration of a phenomenon identified by TAC contributing editor Matthew Walther as “Barstool conservatism.” Dismissed by progressives as neanderthals and bemoaned by conservatives as the harbinger of the end of traditionalism, Barstool conservatives’ introduction to the American political mind has been widely scorned. While progressives are right to fear the cultural power of these developments, conservatives should reconsider their concerns. Barstool conservatism isn’t just a crude retaliation against political correctness and certainly isn’t an attack on traditional values; it’s a reawakening of long-forgotten conservative impulses to preserve sport and to battle elite threats to little platoons. The broader movement would be wise to heed to lessons.
In addition to democracy, the Greeks gave us in the West a passion for sport. Socrates’ call for fitness, the battle of Marathon, and the first Olympic games created a bedrock of Western culture. Today, millions of Americans love and play sports. They coach little league; they play in company, city, and church leagues; and they gather with their families to watch their favorite teams. It’s a sacred tradition for much of this country.
But today, like so much of the West’s cultural inheritance, sport is under assault. Recess time, once a hallmark of elementary education, has been drastically reduced in recent decades. Schoolyards no longer feature contact and team sports. The Transgender movement threatens to eradicate women’s sports entirely, and the professional sports leagues have become laughably woke shills for progressive corporations. Contemptible figures like LeBron James and Steve Kerr spend their press conferences hawking Chinese communism while Rob Manfred systematically eliminates baseball tradition between issuing edicts on election fraud. Once a cherished prequel of every sporting event, the national anthem has been supplanted by the so-called black national anthem at NFL games.
The conservative response? Largely non-existent. Other than some typically hilarious Trump feuds with Colin Kaepernick, the left steamrolled a touchstone of American common life. Just before the left reached the endzone, however, Barstool Sports blitzed. They fought back against the wokeization of sports: with T-shirts, comedy, and an open mockery of the crony commercialization of sports. When all seemed lost, they reminded us of the value of sport—the ceremony, the community, and the pleasure. Their content refreshed, reminding fans of the days of natural grass and nickel beer at the ballpark. Long-held in contempt by the progressive sports media and the leagues, fans were placed at the forefront of coverage. Barstool’s success was unparalleled, quickly turning the site from a typical sports blog into a populist cultural force. Their influence even prompted ESPN to cut political programming and revert to sports coverage to stay competitive. While traditional conservatives neglected their cultural responsibilities and frittered, Barstool filled their role and set about winning the culture war.
It wasn’t until the onset of Covid-19 that Barstool began to wade into cultural issues outside the sports arena. Founded by Dave Portnoy, a son of the hyper-local and fanatically traditional Boston sports scene, Barstool was a natural fit to speak out for small businesses crushed by Covid-19 lockdowns. A reviewer of local pizza shops and the proprietor of a website catering to dive bars, the threat of lockdowns to America’s middle was evident to him. He sprang into action, raising awareness and money to donate to small businesses forced to close their doors. The Barstool Fund culminated with over $41 million in donations to struggling businesses. The effort transformed Portnoy into the most prominent lockdown critic and small-business advocate in America. With Congressional Republicans busy wallowing in inaction, Barstool conservatism once again filled the void. The effort raised Portnoy’s profile on the right to the point of being invited to the White House by President Trump ahead of the 2020 election. His credibility established, Portnoy is now a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson Tonight and a consistent critic of the left’s cultural assault on the American middle.
In the same year Barstool battled lockdowns, El Presidente continued his war on America’s elite with the retail investment app Robinhood. During the now-infamous Game-stock revolt by small retail stock traders, Robinhood froze trading to protect wealthy hedge funds that shorted “meme stocks.” The move was appalling and exposed heaps of corporate corruption. Still, most lawmakers met it with silence. Portnoy again stepped up to become Robinhood’s most prominent critic, defending small traders that frequent his website. He declared that Robinhood had “killed the little guy.” He was right—and his efforts helped fuel pressure that humiliated Robinhood’s CEO Vlad Tenev. Robinhood lost millions of dollars and apologized, though they escaped from the harsher consequences they deserved. Once again, Barstool had proven its ability to fill a void left by traditional conservatives who ought to have stepped up to defend the main street people they claim to represent.
It’s highly unlikely conservatives will embrace Barstool to the degree they should. Like President Trump, Dave Portnoy’s brash approach blinds observers to obvious lessons. But also, like Trump, elite conservatives won’t have to embrace Barstool. Their voters and their constituents already have. Americans know that their congressmen won’t stand up to Roger Goodell, and they know Republicans are more interested in defending their hedge-fund donors than retail traders. So, they’ve found a new and better champion. Love Barstool conservatives or hate them, they’re standing up and saying what everyone is already thinking.