Mike Rowe’s New Show Is His Slickest Koch Commercial Yet

‘How America Works’ is supposed to venerate the unseen worker, but—like all of Rowe’s content—promotes the interests of the owner.

There was a Reuters headline last June during the Peruvian presidential election that caused a great deal of confusion. It read, “Peru markets and miners fear Castillo.” For anyone with a passing knowledge of Peruvian politics, this was a bizarre claim indeed: Socialist Pedro Castillo was overwhelmingly popular with Peru’s poor miners, running away with the vote in districts heavy in mining industry. But, of course, Reuters didn’t mean “miners” in the sense of those who actually do the mining. The publication meant those who owned the large copper, silver, and zinc mines who—unlike their workers—backed fascist candidate Keiko Fujimori. This sleight-of-hand, this deliberate conflation of owner and worker that Reuters and other financial press routinely engage in, is essentially the entire media career of Mike Rowe. He’s a staggeringly successful TV personality whose schtick is Man Who Cares About the Unsung American Worker but whose funders, ideological content, and manifest political project are about the deliberate conflation of the workers’ needs with that of their bosses.

This formula has reached its most elemental iteration in his latest show, “How America Works,” for Fox Business—a simple, slickly produced love letter to America’s interior industries and their worker bees. I watched the first episode, which premiered Monday night, and was all about “loggers” in Alaska, flattening any distinction between workers and bosses and framing all in this industry as heroically carrying out the necessary but difficult work of providing Americans the wood they desperately need. In this episode, the “loggers” had to meet an arbitrary deadline put forth by their bosses and a vendor for “a last minute order” of “150,000 dollars worth of lumber.” This (possibly made up) deadline gives the episode urgency, like a Chamber of Commerce-produced episode of 24, our men fight the clock to meet the capricious but sacrosanct needs of capital.   

Over and over, Rowe reminds the audience that logging is “the most dangerous job in America.” But rather than asking, “Hum, could this be safer, maybe?” we’re to see this as an immovable fact of nature and something that doesn’t need changing, but venerating. Kind of like how, when we kept sending off our 19 year olds to die in Iraq in the 2000s, the right thing to do was not to question if this was a good idea but, instead, to name high school stadiums after them. 

In a premise that, if the ads are any indication, will see Rowe drill down the various growth segments of Koch Industries Inc.’s 10-K filings, episode one kicks off by focusing exclusively on heroic aforementioned loggers tearing down the Alaskan timber forest to provide, as Rowe puts it on the show, “essential items, from the roof over our heads to the newspaper on our doorsteps, and more often than not the door we walked through to pick it up.” This is the oft-repeated and central ideological premise of the show: These are the necessary and essential industries that the average person takes for granted. They may not be fancy or high status, they may pollute and endanger Bambi, but they are necessary and essential. 

While the company Rowe highlights is Papac Alaska Logging, the episode serves primarily as a commercial for the industry as a whole, which makes sense since Koch Industries owns tree-heavy Georgia-Pacific, which makes tissue, packaging, paper, building products and pulp. Two weeks ago, Koch Industries entered into another “partnership” with Mike Rowe’s foundation to the tune of $1 million. This is in addition to numerous other arrangements Rowe and Koch Industries have engaged in for years, as we documented in our January 2019 Citations Needed episode about their synergistic relationship.  

Rowe literally phones in “How America Works.” Unlike “Dirty Jobs” that would see Rowe performatively dive in mud or haul in a crab bounty—throwing himself into the center of the action (and thus polishing his Working Man image)—“How America Works” sends a local second unit team to film the action while Rowe narrates from a comfortable studio in Los Angeles. Other than this, the aesthetic of the show is unchanged from Rowe’s earlier versions of this schtick: These are manly men doing manly shit, no safe-space-seeking eggheads, no pronouns, no fancy lawyers or women in sight. Just authentic white men with Real Jobs producing Real Shit for Real Americans. And by all accounts, the workers themselves are perfectly earnest and decent. Unfortunately, pesky matters like worker protections, unions, OSHA standards, or any safety regulation at all are ignored entirely. Our heroes work against the clock for the good of the company and this, like all of Rowe’s ideological output, is the holiest of missions. 

Never mind any consideration of the environmental impacts of an industry that expedites climate chaos and endangers wildlife. Like safety regulations, these are of no concern to Charles Koch and thus not to Mike Rowe. What matters, above all, is getting the job done.

This is central to all of Rowe’s media output: lots of vague and noncommittal cultural solidarity but no class or material solidarity. He respects the aesthetic and the pride and abstractions of “working,” but has absolutely nothing to say about class solidarity among the workers, demands of better safety, or—god forbid—higher pay. Rowe’s most infamous anti-worker writ in this vein was his 2013 “SWEAT Pledge,” a brilliant piece of bourgeois propaganda, whose horror has to be read in its eternity: 

This depressingly popular mode of working-class masochism has, to a great extent and particularly among white men, gained momentum. A cursory look at voting patterns, union vote losses, and polling—to say nothing of the comments on Rowe’s massively popular Facebook page—show Rowe’s right-wing brand has garnered a non-trivial amount of authentic working class support.

So what does this all mean? And what are the implications of another pop culture product pushing this sinister mode of faux populism? To put it simply, it's bleak. Rowe and his Koch and Fox News backers know what they’re doing, and they’re very good at it. By taking up the mantle of defender of The Working Stiff by venerating laborers, if only rhetorically, and celebrating their hard work and achievements, they can position themselves as ideological ushers guiding workers through the often hazy space of politics. There is no comparable left alternative, both due to a lack of funding and imagination . Though many in independent Left media try, popular Liberal Hollywood and TV products (e.g. that which can realistically compete with Rowe) largely venerate lawyers, free thinkers, and artists—who are all important in their own right, to be clear. But, after a while, workers who drive garbage trucks, nurse the elderly, and move large beams all day for shit wages want to see themselves championed. Yes, there’s a clear racial and gendered component to Rowe’s appeal, but his successful entryism into the space of class politics should compel self-reflection nevertheless. There is a romantic and epic pop culture product to be made about unseen and unheralded sanitation and infrastructure labor that does, in fact, make America work. It’s just a shame that, for the most part, the only one doing it is a PR surrogate for Koch Industries.