DeSantis courts the MAGA troll army
Trumpism as a movement is dependent on the extremely online segments of MAGA media that elevated him to cult leader status. DeSantis seeks their defection to his banner.
This past week, Ronna McDaniel was re-elected as chairwoman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in what was a closer vote than many anticipated. The final vote tallies, cast by members of the RNC Committee, saw McDaniel receive 111 votes, with MAGA attorney Harmeet Dhillon receiving 51 and MyPillow conspiracy peddler Mike Lindell receiving 4. A poll conducted by the MAGA-friendly group Rasmussen Reports saw less than 1 in 5 Republican voters preferring McDaniel’s re-election and a whopping 30% wanted Lindell to get the job. As others have pointed out, this is objectively insane, but it makes perfect sense within the framework of MAGA talking points. McDaniel has been consistently blamed for the recent poor performance by the GOP in 2018, 2020 and 2022. There is no appetite for criticizing Donald Trump, the candidates he has endorsed, or the unpopular political positions they hold—stolen election lies being chief among their polarizing stances. No, the blame for all Republican woes, according to MAGA media, rests with Ronna McDaniel. They say this with a straight face while simultaneously amplifying every conspiracy theory Mike Lindell can conjure out of thin air, and he’s thought up plenty.
How was McDaniel able to win a fourth term then? She maintains the support of the ever-shrinking GOP establishment class and the donors that still back them, but theirs is a fight against time and inevitability. Their institutional power is slowly aging out of relevance while younger voters are gravitating towards the abrasive new GOP tactics. Ron DeSantis (or at least his close advisors) seems to understand this, and it helps explain why he endorsed Harmeet Dhillon for the RNC job even while Trump stayed notably ambivalent about the outcome. Whatever happens in the lead up to and the ultimate outcome of the 2024 election, the momentum on the right is moving in an authoritarian or at least an illiberal direction.
DeSantis makes his pitch to MAGA voters
Ron DeSantis did not need to endorse a candidate for RNC chair. He could’ve stayed neutral and no one would’ve thought much of it, but he chose to insert himself into the fight by praising Harmeet Dhillon in an “exclusive interview” with the main architect of Dhillon’s campaign for the RNC chair, Charlie Kirk. As DeSantis said in the interview:
“We’ve had three substandard election cycles in a row, 18, 20 and 22. And I would say of all three of those 22 was probably the worst given the the political environment of a very unpopular president […] That is an environment that’s tailor-made to make big gains in the House and the Senate and state houses across the country,” DeSantis said. “And yet, that didn’t happen.”
“We even lost ground in the U.S. Senate. And so, you know, I think we need a change. I think we need to get some new blood in the RNC. I like what Harmeet Dhillon has said about getting the RNC out of D.C.”
Why do this? Because he’s making his pitch to Trump’s base directly. He’s endorsing the attorney who has represented a plethora of MAGA influencers accused of a nefarious deeds all in the name of new age politics. The fledgling DeSantis 2024 campaign sees the value in the MAGA shitposters and trolls in much the same way Trump 2016 did. By endorsing an attorney who has consistently defended election deniers and inserted herself into MAGA culture wars, DeSantis is in effect signaling to them that their worst behavior can’t just continue under his banner. It can thrive.
As I wrote on this newsletter last month about Dhillon:
[Charlie] Kirk’s answer to this problem of a growing divide between his movement and the more traditional centers of power within the GOP is to put forth a candidate who shares his vision of the future. In steps Harmeet Dhillon. In addition to her work as co-chair of the 2020 election denial group Lawyers for Trump, Dhillon's profile in right-wing circles has been elevated by working as a co-chair of Women for Trump (a group which was involved in planning the official speeches and events that occurred the morning of January 6), her appearances at TPUSA events, her legal representation of right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo and MAGA influencer Logan Cook (also known as Carpedonktum), her legal fights against California governor Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home orders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and her criticism of public mask mandates. Her client list includes other MAGA media figures such as Mike Flynn, Project Veritas, Don Jr., Dan Scavino, Robby Starbuck, The Daily Wire and Seb Gorka. She’s even recently represented Trump himself. A partner at Dhillon's firm is Ron Coleman, a troll lawyer of some note who has himself represented Gavin McInnes, Alt-Right Twitter alternative Gab and filed various dubious claims with a heavy focus on winning the culture war, not winning actual cases. These forays into overlapping political and culture war flash points has earned Dhillon plaudits from a variety of right-wing media figures, perhaps most notably Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham who have publicly supported her bid for the RNC chairmanship.
Even though she didn’t win, DeSantis’s endorsement of Dhillon in the interview with Kirk shows his awareness of the shifting landscape. Not only is this a tacit endorsement of figures who have pushed election denialism into the mainstream, it’s another way in which he seems interested in peeling off MAGA’s support for Donald Trump by becoming the man himself, only a younger, smarter, more respectable version which donors will be willing to throw their support behind.
It’s no secret that most Republicans, particularly in the establishment and donor class, want to be rid of Donald Trump. What they may fail to grasp is that Trumpism as a movement is dependent on the extremely online segments of MAGA media which echo the talking points Trump has espoused for the last seven years of his political relevance. These ideas have taken hold in such a way that DeSantis will increasingly have to embrace issues like the anti-vaccine movement, or he will be metaphorically cut off at the knees by the pro-Trump figures who personally embrace anti-vaccine positions. DeSantis is probably going to end up losing anyway, but he and his advisors see this as the only viable shot he has of supplanting Trump as the leader of the GOP’s cult of personality.
DeSantis has already been building his troll army
As Jake Lahut wrote last week for The Daily Beast in an article titled ‘Ron DeSantis’ Secret Twitter Army of Far-Right Influencers’:
As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis soaked up the crowd’s adulation during a surprise appearance at last Sunday’s NFL playoff game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs, a lesser-known team was on hand to run a very different kind of play.
By the time the governor took his seat at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, video of his smile-and-wave routine—smoothly filmed in vertical mode, perfect for sharing—was already circulating online.
But the most important plank of DeSantis’ play was executed on a much different field: the arena of social media. Promptly after the clip was posted, right-wing Twitter accounts with thousands of followers amplified it and caused it to spread like wildfire among a DeSantis-loving audience. The clip would end up racking up over over 2 million views on Twitter.
That was no accident. It was—and is—a core element of the DeSantis team’s political strategy as he gears up for a possible run for the presidency in 2024. According to five Republicans familiar with the discussions, the governor’s top lieutenants have quietly recruited a network of conservative social media influencers as part of a broader attempt to circumvent the mainstream press and appeal directly to GOP primary voters nationwide.
The very online right-wing troll movement believed Trump could win in 2016, even as he was consistently given no chance by media pundits, polling experts and establishment Republicans who wanted him to lose. There was some commentary on this phenomenon in 2017 (some of it overblown and exaggerated, frankly), yet it remains a walled off ecosystem to many on the left or in the mainstream media. Nevertheless, I’ve seen how MAGA media can take once unpopular positions into the mainstream of right-wing discourse. How is this done? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Loyalty to the narrative above all else.
Their strategy to cast Trump as an almost mythical figure is why it is now so difficult to make him go away. He could do no wrong among his extremely online groupies while he was President. Some of them legitimately never criticized any action he took. Trump returned their support for him in the form of retweets on Twitter which vastly expanded these influencer’s reach (and thus boosted their fledgling careers) and right-wing troll summit at the White House. It didn’t require much of him really, but it reinforced their sense of loyalty to him personally. Thus these influencers increased their efforts to support Trump, and it gave those on the outside looking in a blueprint for success and a potential career path. If you tweeted, blogged, memed and streamed enough praise for Donald Trump over a long enough period of time, the man himself eventually noticed. From this, entire careers could be made.
DeSantis isn’t Trump. He doesn’t have the same ability to cast himself as an outsider to politics. He can’t claim to be a self-made man (not that Trump was, but he sold that story until enough people bought it). He’s not a billionaire who can self-fund any projects the government won’t help him fund (Trump didn’t do this either, but people believe he did!). Still, Ron knows that in order to have any chance of winning the 2024 primary or any future presidential primary for that matter, he’ll need the same sort of online enthusiasm behind him. He needs cheerleaders who will take even rather mundane speeches and bills he signs into law and extol the virtues of this act for forty-five minutes on their YouTube or Rumble channel.
Anyone who cannot command this sort of support does not have a future in national Republican politics for the foreseeable future. A party which cannot or will not govern leaves itself to the whims of culture wars and manufactured outrage. If they stopped doing this, their voters might actually realize they’re not getting anything of value done.
What this means for the GOP establishment candidates
As the Daily Beast article points out, the figures involved in the DeSantis “troll army” are primarily pro-Trump figures who have defected to the DeSantis 2024 camp. They see Trump as a spent force who either betrayed their own interests or for whatever reason—in some cases monetary reasons—they now say Don simply isn’t up to the task anymore at the age of seventy-six. To date, most of these figures are avoiding direct criticisms of Trump. They prefer more muted complaints or to simply frame the argument in terms such as, “Trump was great, but it’s Ron’s turn now”.
These figures know the cult of personality that was built up around Trump. Many of them were partly responsible for its creation! So, they’re smart enough to know that to go against The Donald too hard and too fast runs the risk of alienating these voters from defecting to the DeSantis camp. It’s unclear if this strategy will really work. Replacing a cult leader with a new figurehead all while avoiding massive infighting and dissent seems like a tall order! Some of them are already not having any of it.
If there’s to be any chance of success, perhaps caution is their wisest strategy, but Trump won’t make this easy on them. We know he’s not one to play by anyone else’s set of rules.
What made Trump’s trolling tactics so successful is that he made them fun and not just for his intended audience. It was fun for the people creating the content. Was it terrible, hateful, offensive, anti-democratic content? Yes, without a doubt, but they enjoyed it anyway. Those who have turned creating this content into lucrative careers aren’t interested in pivoting to uncontroversial boomer memes. They want to keep doing what they’ve been doing. They want to keep creating the content they’ve been creating. Importantly, they’re not qualified to go work on Wall Street, get picked up by a hedge fund or even become another nameless staffer on some small time political campaign. Trump’s favorite meme creator, Logan Cook a/k/a @Carpedonktum, is just some guy from Kansas. What else is he supposed to go do now?
The GOP donors may hope for a future where Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley or Mike Pence are the future of the Republican Party, but the people who drive the conversation have no interest in policies or proposals put forward by old school, out of touch Republican nobodies. They want to keep doing what they’ve been doing for the past six years—attacking real and perceived enemies, defending their glorious leader and spreading whatever conspiracy nonsense suits them that week. DeSantis gave them his consent. There’s a future for them in his Republican Party.
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I could go point by point but I'm late on getting started on the first stages of my spring garden. Hopefully I'll get to it later because there's a lot to unpack in this one.
Briefly, *ANYONE* who wins the 2024 general election will have to draw some of Trump's voters into voting for him/her. Start there. Later, taters. :-)