What follows is my contribution to the Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter this week. It’s a brief look back at a crystallizing moment in the history of the alt-right. You can sign up to receive the newsletter here.
The Washington, DC offices of Judicial Watch were crowded on the evening of May 8th, 2013. Founded for the sole purpose of filing lawsuits against the Clintons, Judicial Watch had been much quieter during the George W. Bush years, but now they were attacking the Obama administration any way they could.
Among the luminaries present were Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas; retired Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin and Ken Blackwell, both of the hate group Family Research Council; former congressman Allen West; and Frank Gaffney, chief Muslim-basher at the hate group Center for Security Policy.
Then there was the Breitbart team. Future White House strategist Steve Bannon brought his Washington bureau chief Matthew Boyle, his national security editor Sebastian Gorka, and senior editor Mike Flynn.
Calling themselves “Groundswell,” these people wanted “to sync messages and develop action from reports and information exchanged,” as Mother Jones reporter David Corn later wrote. Bringing journalists, activists, and professional hatemongers together in one place, they aimed to wage “a 30-front war” on progressives by adopting each other’s issues and developing a common sent of talking points.
Boykin and Gaffney opened the meeting with a discussion of their congressional lobbying for a special Benghazi committee. Conspiracy-driven narratives about the Islamist attacks on a diplomatic compound had electrified the right, driving a billion page views in the process, and the Groundswell organizers wanted to turn that energy into action at Capitol Hill.
Indeed, if there was one issue that unified everyone in the room, it was the crusading urge to fight a civilizational war between east and west, and against the liberals who held America back.
Jerry Boykin complained that Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation was “a very evil man” for opposing Christian radicalization in the ranks. Gorka, a man of questionable expertise on radicalization, complained that the issue was about more than just “religious freedom.”
For everyone present, America was at war with the ideology of the Qur’an, an existential fight that topped all other agendas. “This topic is a very high priority for us,” Bannon added, citing “a series of articles from Mike Flynn and Matt Boyle” critical of the Obama administration’s tolerance towards Islam.
Shifting gears, Bannon asked everyone to help his staff develop their issues and blast their messages out. “I’m saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I’ll do my best to get the story out there,” he said. “Keep us on offense, them on defense. Even if the idea isn’t perfect, I can help massage it to get there.”
Sitting nearby was Catherine Engelbrecht. A Tea Party activist from Houston, Texas, she had emerged as a leader of the King Street Patriots, which had been charged with intimidating minority voters. By 2010, Engelbrecht had founded True The Vote in hopes of systematizing crowdsourced voter suppression on a nationwide scale. Three years later, TTV was operating exactly like a political action committee even though it was ostensibly a nonprofit organization.
Engelbrecht had long enjoyed easy access to Breitbart, and now she explained that TTV wanted sue the IRS for holding up their nonprofit status application. Which they did 13 days later, kicking off the so-called “IRS targeting scandal” with a media and activism plan hatched that night at Judicial Watch.
Breitbart and other conservative outlets pushed their contrived outrage hard in the months that followed this consequential meeting. Although at least as many liberal groups were “targeted” during the agency’s review of political nonprofits — in fact, the only organization to actually be denied nonprofit status was a progressive one — the coordinated talking points set a narrative of IRS malfeasance in media concrete. Conservatives still react to it as if by reflex.
By contrast, there was little attention to the plain language of federal law, which flatly prohibits 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations from partisan political activity.
Groundswell’s pressure campaign worked, instigating congressional hearings that effectively cowed the IRS. Taken together with the right’s long-running campaign to defang the Federal Elections Commission through litigation like Citizens United, the last restraints on conservative “dark money” were removed.
Today, Steve Bannon can probably get away with campaign finance violations because no one with any power to enforce the laws will dare to do so. Hate groups can become taxpayer-subsidized nonprofit corporations, then behave like super PACs, all with perfect impunity.
No moderating incentives exist anywhere today in the conservative food chain of donors, activists, think tanks, lobbyists, “experts,” and opinion journalism outlets. Once relegated to the media fringes, right wing extremists are now entirely free to monetize their hate.
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