Dave Portnoy, of Barstool Sports fame, became somewhat of a celebrity to the right during Covid thanks to the Barstool Fund, which helped small businesses stay afloat during lockdowns, and which he promoted through a number of Fox News appearances. Matthew Walther, writing at the Week, went so far as to proclaim him “the future of the conservative movement” in “Rise of the Barstool Conservatives.”
While Walther’s piece correctly captured the Barstool conservatives’, and particularly Portnoy’s, views on abortion and other social matters — very bright lines in the sand between social conservatives and their Barstool brethren — that didn’t stop the idea from gaining steam. Portnoy even interviewed Trump ahead of the 2020 election. Since that time, however, cracks have appeared in the façade.
Enter conservative comedian Alex Stein, a self-proclaimed troll who enjoys finding bridges under which to perform at various public venues such as city council meetings. One such performance, in which Stein lambasted the Las Vegas City Council about the city’s predatory casinos and less-than-forthright escorts, came to the attention of a Barstool employee, who posted the clip. Barstool deleted the video later in the day and a Twitter fight was born.
It seems the opening salvo was launched by Stein, who tagged Portnoy in a tweet mocking Barstool for taking down his video. Portnoy responded that Barstool is owned by a gambling company and, as a result, they’ve “had roughly 9,000 training classes to not post shit like this because regulators don’t like it.” In other words, Portnoy, who founded Barstool, which recently became wholly owned by Penn Entertainment, was being a reasonable businessman. Being publicly traded means playing by some rules.
Of course, as it involved social media, that was not the end of the conversation. Portnoy and Stein continued tweeting at, and about, one another. Fans and detractors on both sides jumped into the scrum. Pictures of private messages were posted. And in the end, one side won and the other lost, depending on your perspective.
My perspective is that it was an online slap fight that no one won, but I’m also of the opinion that protracted battles on social media don’t elevate anyone involved to the title. On the other hand, Portnoy is no stranger to media hitjobs and while Stein’s complaint wasn’t an example of such, El Presidente’s quick and forceful response is an example of why he has been able to avoid cancellation.
His response also opened the gates for other media figures to jump in, with one celebrating the end of Barstool conservatism and another calling him a fraud, despite praising him in the past. Naturally, a coterie of others are getting into the mix, with both sides generally proclaiming victory, though there are some hoping for a fight in which Portnoy and Stein both lose.
The real lesson to take away, though, is the one that Walther proposed in the column which gave rise to the phrase of Barstool conservatism in the first place. Portnoy, despite being somewhat difficult to pin down politically, was never a conservative. His work during the pandemic was noble. His presence and ability to rally people prevented the carnage done to small businesses from being worse than it was. But that doesn’t put him on the right. He’s simply a libertine with a heart, a healthy aversion to heavy-handed interference into people’s businesses and lives and a hatred for modern political correctness. In other words, he’s closer to Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais than he is to the average conservative. The only thing proved by his opinion on Dobbs or his fight with Stein is that people weren’t paying attention.
To now call for Portnoy to be ejected from the conservative movement is to call for him to be barred from a loose group that he never claimed to be a member of in the first place. “Barstool conservatism” isn’t prescriptive, it’s descriptive. And despite the name, it’s always going to be the wobbliest leg of the larger stool.