Before Dan Bongino was one of the loudest voices in Trump-era conservative media, he was a congressional candidate. With a background as a Secret Service agent who protected Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he tried in vain to use that bipartisan glow to win over Maryland voters in a U.S. Senate race.

“The president was a wonderful guy,” Bongino said of Obama in 2011. “From what I saw he was a wonderful father and a wonderful man and he was very, very nice and very kind to me.”

Two years later — before he lost another run to represent Maryland, this time in the U.S. House — he wrote in a memoir that Obama was “one of a group of men I would have gladly sacrificed my life for.” 

How things have changed. Bongino is now one of the country’s most prominent conspiracy theorists, railing against a “deep state,” mask mandates, and spreading false information about voting systems used in the 2020 presidential election. Videos of his combative talk show, on which he recently called Obama “the most corrupt president in U.S. history,” are routinely shared by the most popular pages on Facebook. And he’s taken a stab at media moguldom by buying stakes in alternative social media companies geared toward the right, including Parler, the Rebekah Mercer-funded Twitter lookalike that’s surged in popularity since the election. 

Bongino’s transformation into a peddler of conspiracy theories didn’t happen overnight. In 2017, after his failed Senate run, he built a brand and audience at NRATV, a short-lived and little-watched streaming network once billed as “the voice of the NRA.” He’s one of a group of new conservative stars whose careers have been shaped by the defunct network. Although it went offline last year — and is at the center of a bitter court battle between the National Rifle Association and its former ad agency — it presaged the upstart channels like NewsMax and One America that have gained popularity with an extreme us-vs-them media strategy borrowed from the gun group. Now, former NRATV personalities like Bongino, Grant Stinchfield, and Dana Loesch are among the most influential conspiracy theorists fueling distrust in the 2020 election. 

Dawn R. Gilpin, an associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University who is writing a book about the NRA’s media operations, said the group “has been involved in culture wars stuff for a long time. That didn’t start with NRATV.” Compared to its legacy publications like American Rifleman, she said, “it was much more relentless, it was more pervasive — if you were aware of it.”

By the time NRATV stopped streaming, the gun group had sunk around $40 million into it, only to have garnered an audience in the low tens of thousands, according to documents filed in court by the NRA. Not only was it a financial boondoggle, the NRA claims its own board members were turned off by how divisive the content had become. 

Born out of NRA News, a sleepy streaming channel focused on gun issues that started in 2004, NRATV was something of a cross between glossy prime time Fox News opinion shows and low-stakes lifestyle content on HDTV. Viewers could stream shows about country music and antiques, watch programs geared toward women like “Love at First Shot,” and then watch the NRA’s executive vice president Wayne LaPierre go on lavish hunting trips. The strategy, according to court documents, was to bring in a broader group of dues-paying members beyond the hardcore. 

The channel was “trying to say we’re also a lifestyle brand, but with guns,” said A.J. Bauer, an assistant media professor at New York University and co-editor of News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures

That latitude allowed NRATV to make content that was ancillary, at best, to the issues around the Second Amendment, he said. It also gave its explicitly political hosts a platform to fulminate about a wide range of issues including media bias, identity politics, and Democratic politicians. NRATV certainly wasn’t the first conservative outlet to air outrageous material from the political fringe. But where it presaged the rest of the conservative media landscape was in creating what Gilpin calls a “counter-public, an oppositional public to mainstream media,” she said. “If you can set yourself up as the enemy, then they might cover you. In fact, it happened on a couple of occasions.”

Even without a big, traditional audience, clips from NRATV would soon find a second life online. Loesch was featured in several ads complaining about coverage in The New York Times, including one in which she said “we’re coming for you.” In another bizarre ad, after Bongino had criticized CNN host Don Lemon for his coverage of antifa, Bongino put whole lemons into a blender, and then drank a glass of “Don Lemon-aide” . That vaguely threatening material even made its way to “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver’s comedy news show, which dedicated an entire episode to NRATV’s content. 

The provocative, viral-focused strategy may have gone too far — even for the NRA. In its lawsuit, the NRA went so far as to call its own programming a “dystopian cultural rant” and “distasteful and racist.”

“Another thing about NRATV that’s worth noting is whoever was in charge of talent scouting for them did a pretty amazing job,” Bauer said. 

Bongino’s rise has been particularly meteoric. The former New York City police officer started podcasting around 2015, and would soon be contributing and guest hosting for radio hosts like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and Inforwars’ Alex Jones. Despite his proximity to big names, he was still trying to distinguish himself among conservative commentators and struggling to grow his audience. He would dedicate some of his early shows to gun issues, but he was mostly focused on economics, which he’d studied in college. His podcast was produced by CRTV, the management company for Levin, which later merged with The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s media company. His rise was slow, and by the time he joined NRATV, his podcast had garnered about 10 to 20,000 downloads, according to the former producer. 

When asked to comment for this story, Bongino wrote back: “Lol. Pee-pee tape pushers writing about ‘false stories,’ absolutely hilarious.” (He often criticizes journalists by referring to reports about the partially discredited dossier on Donald Trump that mentioned such a tape. The Trace didn’t write about the tape, but has reported on the NRA’s connections to Russia and the impeachment investigation.)

Bongino had also been appearing on NRATV, and in February 2017, he was given a show of his own, “We Stand.” A former producer for his podcast said the increased budget gave him the resources to hone his polarizing craft. “It afforded him [the opportunity] to buy new equipment, to try out new technology, to have another platform, to have to do another show. He got a lot of reps in there, a lot of practice on their dime,” one former Bongino producer told The Trace. “In many respects, it is a jumping-off point.”

On his show, Bongino inveighed against familiar conservative targets like the mainstream media and Robert Mueller, then investigating Trump’s relationship with Russia. In late 2018, Bongino said his “entire life is about owning the libs.” Gilpin, who has archived much of the NRA’s contents, said Bongino was a fixture on the channel’s big-ticket shows, and was almost always cross-promoted on the NRA’s main webpage. 

At least one of Bongino’s producers at CRTV, however, was skeptical of the relationship with NRATV. “When you become the gun guy or the gun lady, then you’re destroying your sellability in the marketplace,” the producer, who asked not to be named, recently told The Trace, noting that conservative hosts who don’t just talk about gun issues bring in a wider array of advertisers. “That’s just too narrow, and too negative, and too hard of a burden, because when the advertisers and other people start bailing out, that’s exactly the kind of thing that becomes hard to defend.” (Bongino’s podcast sponsors now include a men’s underwear company and a company that obscures users’ internet browsing history). 

By the end of 2018, Bongino’s show was cancelled. The Daily Beast reported that he had been dropped by NRATV, something Bongino has disputed and unsuccessfully sued the outlet for. (The Trace and the Daily Beast are represented by the same law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, on some legal matters). 

Since then, Bongino’s brand of confrontational conservative commentary has caught fire on social media and among podcast listeners. During the election, he tacked to extreme right positions, sermonizing about Hunter Biden’s laptop. Later, he made evidence-free assertions that fraud had tainted vote counts. His audience lapped it up. His podcast soon eclipsed The Joe Rogan Experience on iTunes, and his YouTube views routinely rose above 200,000 a day. He’s also touted his investments in Parler and a conservative-focused video site, which have exploded in popularity since the election.

Meanwhile, the square-jawed and sometimes jocular Grant Stinchfield has also used NRATV as a career stepping stone. An Emmy-winning TV and radio personality who ran unsuccessfully for the House seat representing Dallas, Stinchfield started his broadcast career in 1995 at KECI, a local news station in Missoula, Montana. He later hosted shows for NBC affiliates about cold cases and identity theft before starting his own talk show on KLIF, a radio station in Dallas. He also owned a handful of small businesses, including a Kwik Kar Lube & Auto Repair and a tree-trimming company, according to LinkedIn

Stinchfield joined NRATV in 2016, hosting a politics and news show on which he warned in 2017 that Black Lives Matter protests would soon make race relations as bad as in South Africa. In another episode, he claimed without evidence that “white families are being tortured and killed almost every day in racist violence,” according to a transcript by Media Matters. He also starred in an ad wearing a T-shirt that said “Socialist Tears” on it, while he swung a sledgehammer into a TV airing mainstream news. He appears to have left NRATV when it went off the air in June 2019. (Stinchfield, who didn’t return a request for comment through NewsMax TV, is currently in separate litigation with Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s former public relations firm which sued him last year for making allegedly inflated comments about viewership).

In August, Stinchfield joined NewsMax TV, where he hosts an eponymous news show that takes a broad approach to the news. Like Bongino, Stinchfield’s shows have focused less on guns and Second Amendment issues, and his Twitter feed has few mentions of guns since he left the NRA. Instead, he’s latched on to the false story that the 2020 election was stolen, and been rewarded. The far-right cable channel was recently a backwater for conservative news, capturing around 25,000 viewers on average, but its ratings have exploded 400-fold since the election, according to CNN. Though Stinchfield once wrote an op-ed expressing his regret for voting for Trump, in late November Trump even promoted on his Twitter feed a clip of Stinchfield on NewsMax TV making fun of Biden’s halting speech. On December 2, he tweeted that Trump and attorney Victoria Toensing were “Warriors!” for not giving up on the election. 

Loesch is probably the host most defined by her relationship with the NRA, though she has distanced herself from the group since her departure in 2019. She started her career in local media in St. Louis, writing for a local magazine and newspaper. Soon after, she started “The Dana Show” on local radio, on which by her own description she tried to emulate Howard Stern and Jon Stewart. In 2009, she co-founded a local chapter of the Tea Party and would soon attract the attention of other conservative stars, filling in for right-wing radio host Michael Savage, getting hired by Andrew Breitbart to write and edit for his site, and in 2013 having her show picked up by Beck’s BlazeTV, though it was dropped four years later. 

In 2016, NRA hired Loesch as an adviser and a host for NRATV, where she ended up hosting two shows, contributing often on Stinchfield’s time, and cutting the confrontational ads that helped usher in the new media era for the NRA. The next year, the NRA made her a spokesperson. Her extremely confrontational style was integral to the NRATV tone, and while some of her statements verged on the baroque — she was ridiculed for saying that the NRA will fight “lies with the clenched fist of truth” — they were indelible and were widely spread by media figures like Oliver. Her rhetoric, however, went too far, even for the NRA board. She once showed a graphic of Thomas the Tank Engine in Ku Klux Klan hood after the show’s creators added a Kenyan character, a segment too radioactive even for the NRA, according to legal filings.

Unlike some other NRATV alums, Loesch, who didn’t return a request for comment, hasn’t soared in the last two years of the Trump era. But she has maintained her already considerable following. She hosts a show on “The First” — which is now home to Bill O’Reilly — and her daily radio show has an audience of as much as 7.25 million, making her one of the most-listened to conservative voices in the country. 

As upstart right-wing media companies continue to embrace baseless conspiracies — and a growing audience — NRATV’s broader legacy may be in the way it appealed to viewers. “When I first started looking at all this, I was like, ‘Man, not very much of this is actually about guns,’” Gilpin said. “It’s about creating a gun owner identity, but [also] showing that you belong to something bigger, that this is not just about guns. It’s about freedom. It’s about your rights. It’s about being an American — a conservative American.”