The Influencer Insurrection
The revolution will be funded by dark money PACs and used for clout. Like and subscribe for more attempted coups.
This week marked the 2nd anniversary since the January 6 insurrection. It was a real quiet affair for those who observe.
Any meditation on exactly where American politics has gone since that day in January, 2021 when a deranged crew of fervent Donald Trump fans tried to install their man as president really wasn’t in the cards. Republicans, who have rebranded the assault on the capitol as “legitimate political discourse,” managed to create a rather effective diversion as they tried to topple their own leader in the House of Representatives. The power struggle inside the Republican conference actually used the completely illegitimate and anti-democratic effort to deny Joe Biden his duly-elected government as a litmus test for who to support in the race for speaker. Admonishing the assault is now a political liability on the right.
But, of course, there is a huge reason to keep focus on the events of two years ago. In mid-December, the January 6 committee adopted its final report and took the extraordinary step of referring the case against Trump for prosecution. What’s more, it recommended Congressional sanctions against McCarthy for ignoring committee subpoenas — as well key Freedom Caucus agitators Jim Jordan, Scott Perry, and Andy Biggs. It identified huge gaps in the narrative of those who plotted the protests, left open because crucial witnesses either defied subpoenas or pled the fifth. The report made clear: January 6 was not just a momentary act of madness, but a crescendo in a concerted effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election by any means necessary.
You can (and should) read the whole report here, or read through the New York Times’ annotated summary.
Because the committee dropped volumes of documents throughout December, they never quite got the airing that they probably deserved, particularly the thousands of pages of deposition transcripts. There were lots of recaps and highlights, some lists of notable moments and a few thematic narratives about what came out in the depositions.
But I want to — in this very exclusive, subscribers-only dispatch — talk about some of the influencers who were hauled in front of the committee. Some, like Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander, get a lot more timid when faced with actual scrutiny. Others are still relative nobodies. Some, like Infowars’ Alex Jones, get pretty nervous and fidgety when faced with actual consequences for their actions.
I think understanding more about who these people are actually are, not just who they play on TV and Twitter, might be rather illuminating.
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While some of the January 6 bigwigs have become household names, the alliterative Ali Alexander, founder of Stop the Steal, is not exactly a headliner.
A somewhat salacious 2012 book about Alexander sums up his origin story thus: “In 2007 he broke into a van, stole a debit card and tried to use it. He was caught, arrested and convicted on felony charges. Yet, somehow, by May 2012, he had ‘taken over’ the right wing blogosphere.”
Alexander later graduated from being a minor blogger to being a not-particularly-successful operative for the Republican right. Alexander was part of that pond scum of the political class that puts political chicanery above policy or service. He dealt in leaked recordings and astroturf campaigns to take down the other guy. And he got it back in spades: A homophobic whisper campaign suggested he was selling sex to Karl Rove for political patronage. (He probably was working with Rove for awhile, however.) Even if his campaign record in Texas and Louisiana was spotty, Alexander at least knew his way around an election campaign.
When Donald Trump came around, Alexander was, like many others, trying to use social media to manoeuvre himself into a position of power — his only real claim to fame was sending out a tweet, shared by Donald Trump Jr., claiming that Kamala Harris is “not an American Black.” His MAGA-boosting earned him 100,000 followers on Twitter and some guest spots on Infowars, but he was never more than a bit player.
He only became a name worth mentioning because he decided to steal an idea from Roger Stone. In 2016, ahead of the vote that most people expected Trump to lose, Stone had registered a website named “Stop the Steal” to solicit donations. Around the 2020 election, Alexander picked up the branding from Stone — even getting the Nixon trickster to endorse it.
Alexander registered StoptheSteal.us and had it live the day after the election: “This election isn't over. Sign up to be part of our team that helps save our country,” it read. By mid-November it was organizing a rally in D.C. featuring big names like pillowking Mike Lindell and Representatives Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Paul Gosar, and Mike Kelly. But they weren’t even the headliners. The real big names were the far-right influencers — the same ones that would later show up to the capitol again on January 6, as Alexander would explain to the committee:
Influencers made up what Stop the Steal Coalition was.
Okay. So who are these influencers…that made up the Stop the Steal Coalition?
Scott Presler, one. S. Brandon Straka, myself, Michael Coudrey, CJ Pearson, Alexander Bruesewitz, Rose Tennent, you know, we all had — well, not all of us that I mentioned. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned some of this, but we had large accounts and we would retweet each other.
Even I had to look up those names. Their reach is pretty staggering. And it’s grown significantly since January 6.
Scott Presler had 884,000 followers on Twitter in November 2020. Straka had 650,000; Pearson, 380,000; Coudrey, 290,000. Other featured speakers, like The Gay Who Strayed (a.k.a Jaimee Michell) and Ashley St-Clair, boasted hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. Alexander’s website even assigned influencers to be responsible for spreading the word in states that had been called for Biden, or which were still counting.
Between them, these influencers masterfully took to the internet to promote not just the idea that the election had been stolen, but that patriots had to descend on state capitols across the country — and at the Capitol in D.C. — to stop the ongoing theft.
At the time, players like Alex Jones and Roger Stone had their wings clipped. They were banned from most major social media platforms. Taylor-Green, who was elected in that supposedly-fraudulent election, hadn’t even opened a Twitter yet.
This dozen-odd list of influencers who came out to that first rally, on November 14 commanded a following of millions across various social media platforms. They hosted Youtube shows, narrated podcasts, connected directly with their subscribers in a way that Paul Gosar wouldn’t even know how to.
When the rally happened, it was an ominous foreshadowing of January 6: Election conspiracy theories were aired, and largely dismissed by the media; the Proud Boys showed up; counter-protesters pushed back.
"Next week we will start lobbying the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia,” Alexander told the crowd. “We are going to tell them to ignore the election and send Republican electors to our electoral college. [The audio cuts out] Or send it to the House of Representatives where Donald J. Trump will win." Then he starts chanting "Trump won." He finishes his speech: "Let's terrify this town."
Stop the Steal had the secret sauce: A memorable name, a well-versed leader, popular backers, institutional support, and an ambitious plan to take their show on the road. What’s more: The influencers who had popularized it were, mostly, political neophytes. Young people, mostly — some still in high school — who had amassed huge followings by saying outlandish things for which they were never held accountable. Those who were filling out the in-person rallies at state capitols across the country were, increasingly, QAnon adherents, Proud Boys, III%ers, and other radical groups.
At the helm was Alexander, whose movement had gained a life of its own. His planned January 6 rally had been taken over by bigger powers: Jones, Stone, even Trump himself.
Alexander had tweeted on January 6 that the events of the day would be the “first official day of the rebellion." So committee investigators asked him about that. This is how he explained it:
If I sent this at 3:13 a.m., so before I was going to sleep on the 6th, then, you know, it's color. I'm a political personality. It's legally permissible speech. And it certainly, you know, would not be illegal activity that I would publicly be tweeting about prior to legally permitted events.
Alexander says he doesn’t even remember the tweet, blaming it on a lack of sleep, but then went on to say that he was emulating “colorful language that you find on MSNBC or Fox News,” parroting Alex Jones, and emulating “Patrick Henry, the Magna Carta, Harriet Tubman's own words, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, our Founding Fathers and Mothers.”
Alexander, for all of his many faults, left the capitol on January 6 and generally denounced the violence that cropped up. But he fills an incredibly interesting and under-analyzed role in this whole mess. While Trump was sulking in the White House, and Alex Jones was doing his usual purple-faced shtick, and Roger Stone was trying to pull levers behind the scenes — Ali Alexander was actually pulling in a team of popular personalities and putting together an energetic, ambitious, quickly-moving set of protests and events that built momentum, right up to January 6.
Let’s talk about Brandon Straka.
Straka become a minor (minor) political celebrity around 2018 when he became president of the Walkaway Foundation: Ostensibly a home for Democrats who walked away from the party (get it?) and found Trump.
The Walkaway Foundation is perhaps a perfect example of how to create a modern political grift. Straka set up the tax-exempt organization, per its IRS filings, alongside two women: Maria Albanese, a.k.a The Citizen Pundit, a minor far-right influencer and former QAnon follower; and Tracy Diaz, a.k.a. Tracy Beans, an early and prominent Q adherent. (Who also spoke at Alexander’s November 16 rally.)
Straka’s story is that he recorded a video in 2018, explaining why he decided to leave liberalism. It went so viral that he decided to set up a foundation to advance the important humanitarian work of converting people to Republicans. According to voter registration records, Straka registered to vote in New York City in 2004, and is listed as a Republican. As The Daily Beast reported at the time, his narrative about a recent come-to-Jesus moment doesn’t quite add up. His #WalkAway hashtag later got hijacked by Russian bots to pump Trump.
Whatever the backstory, Straka and his QAnon sidekicks has done well for themselves. According to IRS filings the Foundation, which gained tax-exempt status in 2019, already had nearly $100,000 in contributions on-hand before it even began operations. The next year they reported nearly $650,000 in contributions and income. While the Foundation reported it paid no compensation to Straka, who apparently works 60 hours per week for the Foundation; nor the other two, who are listed as working an hour per week each, it did pay out more than $100,000 in public relations consultants and professional fees.
On their IRS page, the link that should contain the Walkaway Foundation’s 2020 tax filing contains their 2019 form. Go figure.
Look up the #Walkaway Foundation Corporation, however, and you’ll find a whack of different addresses — one, however, corresponds to the Virginia HQ of PAC Management Services, the innocuous sounding LLC run by veteran conservative operative Dan Backer, who was worked for decades to thwart campaign finance transparency in America. A small handful of PACs tied to Backer have spent massively on local races across the U.S, and he is now gearing up to actively supporting Ron DeSantis. (The Walkaway Campaign PAC, with a relatively small budget, isn’t much of a player — yet?)
Straka proved pretty successful online — he’s well-dressed, has a chiseled jaw, and plays well on camera. His “once upon a time, I was a liberal” shtick has earned him hundreds of thousands of subscribers across Youtube, Tiktok, and Facebook, in addition to nearly 700,000 on Twitter.
Invited by Alexander to that November 16 hodgepodge of influencers, Straka started aggressively marketing his role in the Stop the Steal movement and warning that the “civil war” had already begun. He was in a groupchat of Stop the Steal organizers. He began promoting Wildprotest.com, the name Alexander had started using for the January 6 rally. Alexander’s event — featuring his merry band of influencers, a smattering of GOP elected officials, and, perplexingly, Phyllis Schlafly’s gay son.
At one point, the committee asked Straka about Alexander’s plan to set up Stop the Steal LLC, a corporation to manage their conspiratorial campaign. And Straka is blunt: “My personal opinion was that it was probably done with the intention of personal gain.” (Straka also incorporate #Walkaway Campaign LLC)
On January 6, Straka spoke for all of five minutes, where he repeatedly called for a “revolution.” Once the speeches wrapped, in time for Trump to take the podium, Alexander’s movement instructed its followers to get ready to head to the capital, “whipping the vote up, with patriots in the Congress.” We know how that turned out.
In the melee was Straka, who uploaded a video to his Twitter from the Capitol steps, shouting “go! go!” and “we’re going in” to the hundreds of insurrections around him, and to his hundreds of thousands of followers. He tweeted: “I’m completely confused. For 6-8 weeks everybody on the right has been saying ‘1776!’ & that if congress moves forward it will mean a revolution! So congress moves forward. Patriots storm the Capitol – now everybody is virtual signaling [sic] their embarrassment that this happened.”
His bravery disappeared in the days after, and he deleted all evidence of his presence in the capitol building.
Straka’s own family and friends forwarded those videos to investigators, who charged Straka with a half-dozen criminal charges. Never one to pass up a branding opportunity, Straka started doing the rounds of right-wing media, lamenting how he had been railroaded. He went on Tucker Carlson, who did his normal shtick: “You won’t believe what’s happening to an American citizen in his own country!” Carlson bloviated.
Even if you don’t recognize Straka’s name, but you may have seen a role he played at the Conservative Political Action Committee last summer as a jailbird.
In court, Straka was a lot less glowing. “I think January 6th is nothing more than an incredibly shameful day that had absolutely no positive attributes whatsoever,” he wrote in a letter to the court.
And then, despite his big words about the poor January 6 defendants, Straka flipped. He pled guilty and provided information about Alexander, who “may have had direct contact with the Executive Branch of government,” a sentencing memorandum reads; as well as providing critical information about insurrections who had that point been unidentified; and even supplied text conversations.
He continued to be forthcoming as the January 6 committee hauled him in to testify. He recounted how he was in a group Twitter DM, full of “MAGA verified” accounts — users with blue checkmarks who wanted to sow doubt about the election. That’s where Alexander first put together his all-star panel of election deniers with huge reaches.
The committee, sagely, understood the role these influencers played in the lead-up to January 6 and dug into it with Straka. They asked for names of other influencers, details on group chats and conference calls, and built up to a very interesting line of enquiry: “What role did Rep. Gosar play in any planning for January 6?”
Gosar is one of the most extreme members of the House of Representatives. He worked with Alexander to promote the Stop the Steal movement and was a frequent speaker at the events. He led the charge with Senator Ted Cruz to deny the election results. The idea that he was on conference calls with a whack of loose cannon influencers, including some QAnon types, seems wild — but possible.
Straka recalled that it was Kylie Kremer who spearheaded a conference call to start setting up these Stop the Steal rallies — her dark-money PAC, Women for America First, obtained the permit for the January 6 rally.
“So I remember in one of the very first conversations we ever had, like, literally 3 days after the election, Kylie Kremer was on a group call with several of us that you just described as influencers,” Straka said. He recalled chewing out Kremer for failing to actually prepare and plan for the series of rallies. After the call ended, Straka said, he got a call from a fellow influencer, telling him: “Oh, my God, do you know that Representative Gosar was on that call?”
For the past two years, we’ve been understanding more and more about this incredibly suspicious relationship between Republican politicians, far-right influencers, and dark-money PACs. Interviews like this expose just how tightly meshed those relationships are.
Straka told the committee he was all about “bringing civility back to political discourse and trying to unify people.” When they pressed him about promoted debunked claims of voter fraud, and whether he still believes those things, he answered: “I don't think about it anymore. I just moved forward. I am looking to the future.“
Those nice words didn’t mean much. On his social media, Straka still spreads election conspiracy theories. In late December he tweeted that the U.S. intel committee invented Russian interference in American elections “to engage in the very election interference they ascribed to the Russians. After the midterms he promoted the idea that failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake had actually won. For months, even after the Club Q shooting, Straka has been calling everyone who disagrees with him a “groomer.” (Straka, worth noting, is gay.) Most recently, he’s been holding self-pitying Twitter Spaces with fellow insurrectionists.
Anything for social media clout, I guess.
The Old Guard
While the influencers sniped at each other, feigned remorse, and snitched to save their hides — the conspiratorial bigwigs pled the fifth.
Michael Flynn, national security advisor-turned-QAnon hero, declined to answer any questions as they could incriminate him. Roger Stone, who is a pretty good candidate for being one of the advisors working behind Alexander, refused to answer questions as well. Peter Navarro, a senior Trump official, didn’t even show up.
Alex Jones, whose Infowars network relentlessly promoted Alexander and the whole Stop the Steal movement, tried to refuse to answer questions out of fear that his answers could incriminate himself. But being the hothead he is, he sometimes spoke up over his lawyer’s caution. (He even had trouble spelling his own name.)
When committee staff told Jones that they had reason to believe that he had personal knowledge about the sources of funding for January 6, they assumed he’s decline to answer to those questions on advice of counsel. But, instead, he offered this non-sequitur: “Because Adam Schiff forges documents.” Jones’ lawyer then objects — ostensibly to his client’s own answer — but Jones doubled down: “I don't trust Congressman Schiff. He'll forge stuff.”
Congressional staff tried to coax Jones into a conversation: “I appreciate that, Mr. Jones, this is a stressful situation,” they offered. They reiterated: Do you intend on pleading the fifth with respect to all these questions about planning and funding the events of January 6?
Jones, again, went back to Schiff: “I want to tell you guys everything, but I don't trust Congressman Schiff. So, I mean, I—” his lawyer interrupted again and asks for a minute with his client, then offers to go off the record. “I don't want to go off the record,” Jones says. Eventually, his lawyer convinced him to step out of the room and chat. When they come back, Jones’ lawyer explained that his client’s real problem is with “the partisan nature of this examination,” and with that, Jones went back to dutifully invoking the fifth.
While the committee’s work is technically done, it may not be the end of the story for these sad sacks. Jones’ texts were turned over to the committee last summer, but haven’t been released. Navarro has been indicted for refusing to testify. Stone will continue selling his brand of slimy, yet generally ineffective, tactics. If a criminal prosecution of Trump goes forward, these details could be incredibly important.
Two Years On
The disinformation machine in America is a much more complicated engine than we really appreciate.
We tend to focus a lot on the names we recognize: Donald Trump, Alex Jones, Roger Stone. And, without a doubt, they are the big names that can make or break a movement. But these influencers, like Straka, who are MAGA rockstars but who rarely garner headlines, are a critical part of this ecosystem. They pull in millions in fundraising, they do the grassroots mobilization work, they gin up the disinformation that feeds conspiracy media system, they deal with the rank-and-file of this movement.
And, by the way, they’re helping run a complex network of dark-money PACs that are transforming local, state, and national races.
We’d be smart to keep an eye on this influencer class. Social media celebrities have helped create the anti-vaccine bulwark that we’re still grappling with, and were crucial in putting momentum behind the trucker convoys of last year. If we’re going to see another far-right movement in the near future, you can bet this class of social media C-listers who you’ve never heard of are going to be in the centre of it.
That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and subscribing. If you know someone who enjoys Bug-eyed and Shameless, you can always give away a subscription.
WildProtest (the site created by Alexander) also ran a crowdfunding campaign - receiving over $180k worth of donations from ~2000 individual donors in advance of Jan 6th.
I have no idea why I'm optimistic about this one; probably because no continent could have been bombarded with more right-wing propaganda for four generations, than Latin America, and that area also has awful experiences with communists and Chavez-istas...and yet, the "pink tide" has basically won a huge majority of those nations, recently.
So I think populations can resist this stuff, at least in majority. And 2020-2022 says that that American majority is already large enough to beat out out their unbalanced electoral system. In Canada, polling today: https://mstdn.ca/@CanadianPolling/109682566446419026
..has not budged more than a few percent from numbers late LAST January, for all their bloviation about it. A hypothetical "Convoy Party" would be crushed in Canadian elections. So, what I'd challenge is whether this, ahem, messaging, can *grow* their adherents, or just gather people already disposed to go nuts when somebody says "they're going to come for your stove".
Also, the way they hoover money out of supporters has got to stop passing a smell test with those supporters, at some point. People like results.
It's really great you dug into this, though, Justin, I was riveted, because we didn't get this already, despite the oceans of January 6 coverage. Which is odd.