Yesterday the president retweeted and affirmed a suggestion that podcast host Joe Rogan moderate a presidential debate. “First of all, I’d want no one else in the room– just the three of us– and you’d have to stream it live so no one could edit it, and I’d want them in there for four hours,” Rogan said.
Rogan invited the candidates to “come here in Austin, sit down and have a debate” saying that he would “100 percent do it” but expressed concern that he didn’t think “Biden can handle it.”
This is an excellent development and we all should hope it actually happens.
Joe Rogan’s haters at places like The Atlantic might think of themselves as the arbiters of who gets to be considered respectable media, all while making the case for impeachment, reparations, and trucking in every anti-Trump conspiracy you can find. But the truth is that Rogan is a far more dominant presence than anyone in the ossified and newly woke institutions of the corporate press will acknowledge. Rogan’s over 200 million listeners each month are some of the most dedicated and engaged audience members in existence. His interviews can launch careers and bestsellers. And he authentically represents an informed but perpetually curious everyman better than any interlocutor in the media.
For a few days now I’ve been working on a piece that will be out next week regarding some of the massive changes in media we’ve seen in the past year. As a part of that, I’ve been asking people within this space whether it would be wise for Trump and Biden to go on Joe Rogan before the election. The answer has been universal: Of course. Why would you avoid one of the most dominant and influential members of the media just because he might ask you about Vitamin D, DMT, or how much elk is in their diet?
The only question is whether Rogan himself would be willing to do it, given the way he prefers to interact with politics. The backlash he received for saying he would vote for Bernie Sanders, for instance, was focused on accusations of misogyny, transphobia, and some of his more controversial guests. But the sources of those accusations are the people who would be unhappy with any moderator, and it’s not like the current selections will please them.
Those moderator selections are, in case you forgot, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, and NBC’s Kristen Welker, with USA Today’s Susan Page as the moderator for the vice presidential debate. Regardless of their abilities as moderators, the truth is that Rogan is far more in touch with the cultural moment than any of them – some of them might even admit that. Having a moderator who can speak to the fractured nature of the current wars over identity and wokeness – over cancel culture and the thoughtcrime and what we should expect of our neighbors – would be a welcome break from the pablum that normally emerges from the debate process.
In insisting upon a four hour conversation, Rogan also cuts through one of the absurdities of the television era. Hour-long debates reward soundbites and putdowns. The format actually helps someone like Donald Trump – “you’d be in jail” being his signature debate moment from 2016. A lengthier conversation is where the cracks emerge in any inauthentic persona.
As an interviewer, Rogan is an amalgamation of Johnny Carson and Charlie Rose. He has the capability to let someone ramble when something interesting might emerge, but jump in and query extensively when he senses they’re not getting to the point or being too vague for the audience. He lulls the guest into a sense of comfortable familiarity before he loops back to a nugget of a thing they said an hour earlier, and unpacks it til the whole audience understands.
Rogan didn’t just get to be the most interesting podcaster of all time by accident. He is a professional who takes this work seriously, does his research, knows his subjects, and deep dives on all manner of things. As a moderator, he would be tough on both candidates – perhaps tougher on Trump, given the recency of his record. (Rogan, for example, would probably press Trump heavily on issues like climate.) And unlike the rest of the moderators, he’d actually ask about all this recent UFO stuff that everyone’s been ignoring as if it doesn’t matter, even though it’s reported in the New York Times.
What a Rogan debate would offer the American people is a glimpse of these candidates not as caricatures but as men. If Biden could hold his own in the interview format, not repeating himself or using phrases or bullets, it’d put the whole “he needs a teleprompter for everything” idea down for good. And if you get Trump in that format, who knows what Rogan can extract after all the other failed interviews which produced nothing of substance?
A good moderator presses the candidates on issues beyond the line where their talking points can protect them. That is what Joe Rogan does with every guest. Part of the measure of the length of his interviews is that very few people can remain interesting for more than two hours. What he alone might get out of these two men after more than that amount of time could be amazing.
The president’s acceptance of this offer is another sign that this is the last year in which the Commission on Presidential Debates will be determinative about these things. People are tired of this Boomer format. They’re ready to move on to something for the age of YouTube. And they’re not going to have a bunch of people born in the 1930s and 40s dictate parameters and name their favorite TV hosts to do this in 2024.
Joe Rogan may not get to moderate a debate this time. But eventually, he will.