9 Ways MAGA’s Leaders Grifted Their Audience This Year

9 Ways MAGA’s Leaders Grifted Their Audience This Year
Trump supporters rally in Washington, DC on Nov. 14, 2020. (Photo: Olivier Douliery / AFP, Getty Images)

We may be blessedly done with the phase of the Donald Trump era in which he actually occupies office — at least until 2025 — but make no mistake, Trumpism is at no risk of short-term extinction within the ranks of the U.S. Republican Party.

At its core, Trumpism is two things: an incoherent nationalist ideology of anger, resentment, and cruelty, and an excuse for its most prominent adherents to enrich themselves and bask in the attention of some of the most gullible people in the world. The Make America Great Crowd is only doubling down on both. Here’s an overview of some of the biggest advancements in scam science, grift physics, and attention stunt innovations so far in 2021.

MAGACOIN

A MAGACOIN promotional logo. (Screenshot: magacoin.io, Fair Use) A MAGACOIN promotional logo. (Screenshot: magacoin.io, Fair Use)

Trumpworld is a cabal of vampire-like grifters that exists for the sole purpose of feeding on the bank accounts of the angry and easily taken in, so it’s actually sort of surprising that it’s taken until 2021 for a cryptocurrency called MAGACOIN to launch.

In July, Input Mag reported, a group calling themselves “America First Conservatives” generated 75 million units of cryptocurrency they called MAGACOINs — that number selected because it is approximately the number of people who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 elections. (Many right-wingers have trumpeted those 75 million voters as having been disenfranchised by Joe Biden’s victory, as opposed to, you know, just having voted for the loser.) Some 10 million of these coins have already gone to a super PAC called the MAGACOIN Victory Fund, with the crypto’s creators writing on their website that “The greater the value of each MAGACOIN, the more resources the MAGACOIN Victory Fund will have to support and elect MAGA candidates nationwide.”

Instead of holding an auction referred to as an initial coin offer, the creators have offered 100 MAGACOINs to anyone who signs up. In the first week, roughly 1,000 Trump supporters did so, the vast majority of whom did nothing but take the free offer. A handful of others appear to have taken advantage of a promotional campaign offering 1,000 of the coins to approved right-wing personalities in exchange for spreading the word about MAGACOIN — something we know because embarrassingly terrible security measures on the crypto’s website allowed a self-declared hacktivist to leak its entire user database to the Guardian.

The Guardian identified the owner of one account with 1,500 MAGACOINS as John Rush, a right-wing broadcaster in Denver who has played host to Marc Zelinka, who supposedly created the cryptocurrency and also happens to be a literal used car salesman.

The Daily Dot also examined business records for a newly registered company bearing the cryptocurrency’s name and identified it as being controlled by infamous North Carolina political operative Reilly O’Neal. He’s at the centre of a sprawling web of political action committees and other groups, some of which have been the subject of ethics complaints and accusations they collect donations without materially contributing to conservative causes. (O’Neal has disputed those accusations and complaints.) The address listed on the MAGACOIN Victory Fund’s Federal Election Commission records is also tied to other companies controlled by O’Neal, such as email vendor Rightside Lists LLC and Mustard Seed Media, the owner of far-right blog Big League Politics. As the Guardian noted, Big League Politics has eagerly promoted MAGACOIN to readers.

It’s just called Frank

MyPillow gremlin Mike Lindell outside the White House on Jan. 15, 2021. (Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images) MyPillow gremlin Mike Lindell outside the White House on Jan. 15, 2021. (Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images)

Mike Lindell, the hobgoblin founder of MyPillow and conspiracy theorist, may go down in history as the pillow magnate closest to helping pull off a presidential coup d’etat. OK, it wasn’t that close — he was merely one of a hodgepodge of random pro-Trump CEOs and other business ghouls that reportedly met with then-president Trump to urge him to stage a Reichstag moment. Beyond that, he’s known for producing hoax documentaries promoting the election fraud myth like Absolute Proof and the ongoing $US1.6 ($2) billion defamation lawsuit being brought against him by an election tech manufacturer he falsely accused of working with foreign governments to put Biden in office.

One thing that Lindell will likely not be remembered for is his contributions to the social media sphere. In March 2021, after managing to get himself banned from Twitter, Lindell began promoting a new web project he claimed would become the “platform for Americans who want to defend life, liberty, and all the freedoms that have marked America as the longest-running Constitutional Republic in the history of the world.” It’s called… Frank Speech, or just Frank for short.

Frank, Lindell claimed, would have millions of users, combine the functionality of Twitter and YouTube, and be a censorship-free haven for free speech (or at least freedom for any speech not in violation of the Ten Commandments or “biblical principles,” which he said he would ban immediately). None of this came to pass, because when Frank eventually did launch in April, it was a half-coded mess that appeared to have no social functionality whatsoever. Instead, the only content on Frank appears to be auto-playing livestreams of Lindell and other conspiracy theorists continuing to lie about the elections.

GETTR

An ad for the GETTR mobile app on the GETTR website. An ad for the GETTR mobile app on the GETTR website.

After Trump got suspended from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and virtually every other major platform after he incited the deadly Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, Team Trump reportedly strained itself looking for some kind of place he could register an account without getting banned.

Trump never joined Parler, a supposedly censorship-free network for conservatives that has not yet recovered from reports many of its users took part in the Capitol assault, nor did he join Gab, a site popular with far-right extremists such as violent neo-Nazis. Eventually, Trump launched a blog titled From the Desk of Donald J. Trump, which he promptly shuttered weeks later after it attracted humiliatingly little attention. Longtime aide Jason Miller quit his team in June, teasing some kind of next-generation social media project for conservatives with the clear implication Trump would join up.

That turned out to be GETTR, which holds the distinction of being almost as horribly broken and incompetent as Frank. GETTR is bankrolled by a fugitive Chinese billionaire who has worked to build a cult of personality and ingratiate himself with prominent figures on the U.S. right, Guo Wengui, and prior to its launch in July seemed to serve mostly as a vehicle for Guo’s fans on social media.

Its code was full of bugs and security holes, and it was promptly hacked on its official launch day of July 4, compromising the profiles of MAGA personalities including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former White House chief strategist, and Breitbart executive chairman CEO Steve Bannon, QAnon-loving Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene, pundit Harlan Hill, and Miller himself.

At the same time, it was flooded with trolls posting anime porn and pictures of men in diapers, which site management appeared either unwilling or unable to control. (Miller claimed the situation was quickly rectified.)

Last we checked, GETTR was primarily in the news courtesy of a Politico report that found Islamic State supporters had registered hundreds of accounts to post propaganda and beheading videos. (In response to their report, Miller told POLITICO that ISIS was attacking the MAGA movement because Trump had destroyed the group militarily.) Trump never registered an account, instead choosing Rumble as his platform — a former clearinghouse for licensing viral videos that has since rebranded as a sort of YouTube knockoff for conservatives.

Trump’s PACs

What’s a one-term, twice-impeached president with a massive fanbase to do but… suck it dry for every last penny?

Typically, party leaders use their influence and fundraising prowess not just to fund their own ambitions but to spread money to other candidates. But instead of helping Republicans win the 2022 midterms, Trump seems more interested in raking in as much cash as possible and keeping it in his own war chest in a bid to make other GOP politicians financially dependent on him.

As of Aug. 3, Politico reported various PACs and fundraising committees affiliated with Trump have accumulated $US102 ($138) million six months after he left office, but reviews of FEC filings show they have spent precisely zero dollars on his efforts to overturn the 2020 elections or on other Republican candidates as promised.

The documents show that Make America Great Again PAC, Save America PAC, and the Save America Joint Fundraising Committee aren’t contributing to the midterm elections, but Trump has spent millions of dollars “on things like salaries for aides and political advisers, as well as events, travel expenses and fundraising outreach to supporters,” and $US8 ($11) million on legal fees.

According to Politico, the only money any of the groups donated to outside organisations was $US1 ($1) million to America First Policy Institute, which is staffed with former Trump administration officials.

The Washington Post reported has raised the Save America PAC has raised the vast majority of the money, with Trump telling advisers he thinks keeping an inflated account for himself will show strength for the 2024 elections. Other advisers have told Trump that he could spend it on rallies featuring himself during the midterms, according to the Post.

Former U.S. Federal Election Commission associate general counsel and current Campaign Legal Centre chief of staff Adav Noti told the Guardian the PAC’s history of advertising that it would contest the election and then stockpiling money or using it to pay off unrelated debts was “dangerously close to fraud” and any normal person who did so would “face a serious risk of prosecution.” CNN and Business Insider reported there’s little stopping Trump from spending the PAC’s funds to throw rallies, employ his horrible children, or throw events at Trump-owned or operated properties where the cash will flow back into his own pocket.

The Save America PAC has used so-called “dark patterns” to trick supporters into donating more money than they may have intended to, such as setting donations to recurring by default. It was more recently in the news for pitching supporters on the idea of buying $US20 ($27)-50 membership cards with a graphic of an eagle that looks a hell of a lot like a Reichsadler, with one version bearing the misspelled phrase “Trump Offical Card”.

Michael Flynn, QAnon, and the Kraken

Former General Michael Flynn, centre, protesting the outcome of the 2020 elections outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 12, 2020. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images) Former General Michael Flynn, centre, protesting the outcome of the 2020 elections outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 12, 2020. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images)

Michael Flynn was a high-ranking general and Donald Trump’s national security adviser, at least before he resigned, and was later prosecuted for lying to the FBI in the course of an investigation into whether he was acting as an unregistered foreign agent. So it’s a little strange that after receiving his pardon from Trump, Flynn appeared to pledge allegiance to QAnon, a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that claims Trump is secretly fighting an Underworld-style war against a cabal of Democratic pedophiles with the aid of the U.S. military. One would think that if the whole Satanic liberal conspiracy thing was true, Flynn would have been privy to some inside information.

Since then, Flynn has become a sort of QAnon celebrity. Some adherents theorise he might be the real-life identity of or at least closely connected to “Q”, the pseudonymous individual or individuals whose rambling internet posts claiming to be a high-ranking military or intelligence official inspired QAnon in the first place.

At a QAnon conference in Dallas in May, Flynn suggested that the U.S. military should stage a coup like the one which occurred in Myanmar earlier this year. (The military of Myanmar is committing ongoing genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, and the nonprofit Human Rights Watch has compiled numerous instances of human rights abuses and atrocities since it took power.) Flynn also suggested efforts to purge QAnon content from social media websites was tantamount to war, telling attendees, “We’ve been getting picked off from the social media tech titans left and right… We are fighting for an information beachhead right now.”

Flynn has taken advantage of his popularity by selling QAnon-themed merchandise emblazoned with the phrase “Digital Soldiers,” a term he used while in the military to describe cyberwarfare units that has since been understood by conspiracy theorists to refer to themselves. An Intercept investigation showed that Flynn and those close to him have cashed in via a network of conspiracy-friendly companies, defence funds, and at least one tax-exempt organisation, though many of the online enterprises have since become inactive.

Former Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who had previously invigorated QAnon supporters during the time when Trump was actively contesting the 2020 election results in court by promising to unleash the “Kraken,” disappointed some at the conference by admitting no coup was coming. Instead, according to Texas Monthly, she suggested that QAnon supporters take matters into their own hands.

“There are no military tribunals that are going to solve this problem for us,” Powell told attendees, next to her own merch table. “It’s going to take every one of us rolling up their sleeves.”

In related news, the FBI warned in June that it believed QAnon supporters would likely grow more violent as they rolled up their sleeves and took matters into their own hands.

The 8chan guy

Members of the National Guard remain deployed in Washington, DC in March following deadly riots involving scores of QAnon conspiracy theorists at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Members of the National Guard remain deployed in Washington, DC in March following deadly riots involving scores of QAnon conspiracy theorists at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Ron Watkins is the former administrator of 8chan, a knockoff of Japanese imageboard 4chan notorious for playing host to boards filled with hardcore neo-Nazis and white supremacists, several of whom posted manifestos to the site before going on shooting rampages that killed dozens of people. He’s also widely suspected to be the individual who operated the Q account as it was surging on the conspiracy web.

QAnon exploded on mainstream social networks like Facebook and Twitter, growing to the point where its adherents hold considerable sway within the Republican Party. However, when the election and Biden’s inauguration came and went without Trump launching a prophesied coup d’etat known to Q aficionados as “The Storm,” many of his followers lost faith. Watkins was also the subject of an HBO documentary in which he appeared to screw up and admit he was Q.

Watkins has since tried to rebrand as an election security expert, as well as a… leading authority on UFOs. In May, he launched a site called “AlienLeaks,” telling his considerable number of followers that it would be a repository of never-before-seen documents and disclosures around extraterrestrial life. In what could only euphemistically be deemed a press release, Watkins announced the site would be focused on “collecting, curating, and publishing leaked documents regarding extraterrestrial technology, biology, and communications” and urged any scientists or researchers in contact with or having access to information on aliens to reach out.

While the U.S. government has made several major disclosures in the last year more or less admitting that UFOs (or as it calls them, “unidentified aerial phenomena”) are real — at least in the sense that military pilots and naval crews have encountered unidentified objects in the skies — Watkins has not, beyond a blurry video he conveniently claims depicts such a craft he personally witnessed. As the Daily Dot noted, many of his followers on messaging app Telegram accused him of trying to distract from his past support of election conspiracy theories.

Matt Gaetz and MTG’s failed fundraising tour

QAnon-loving Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, left, far-right Representative Louie Gohmert, centre, and possible sex trafficking suspect Representative Matt Gaetz, right, at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on July 29, 2021. (Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images) QAnon-loving Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, left, far-right Representative Louie Gohmert, centre, and possible sex trafficking suspect Representative Matt Gaetz, right, at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on July 29, 2021. (Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

Matt Gaetz, the disgraced Florida representative who is at serious risk of prosecution in a sex trafficking scheme, and his QAnon-loving colleague Representative Majorie Taylor-Greene bet big on a joint nationwide fundraising tour this summer to fund their grandiose political ambitions. It really didn’t go so well.

According to the Daily Beast, between May 7 and July 23, the gruesome twosome’s campaigns and joint fundraising committees posted cumulative losses of $US342,000 ($463,273). The committee raised only $US59,345.54 ($80,389) in contributions at a spending cost of $US287,036.19 ($388,819), meaning it alone was over $US225,000 ($304,785) in the red. (These numbers don’t count the $US150,000 ($203,190) that both Gaetz and Taylor-Greene contributed from their own campaigns.)

The Daily Beast reported, Gaetz’s and Greene’s respective campaigns did raise a relatively impressive $US1.34 million ($1.8 million) and $US1.31 million ($1.8 million) through the second quarter of 2021, but that these numbers were actually far lower than the totals they raised prior to the announcement of the fundraising campaign. Several venues cancelled events related to the tour, with one citing security issues.

Fox News and vaccines

A screenshot of one of Tucker Carlson's many insipid segments about coronavirus vaccines. (Screenshot: Fox News) A screenshot of one of Tucker Carlson’s many insipid segments about coronavirus vaccines. (Screenshot: Fox News)

Right-wing network Fox News spent months pandering to antivaxxers, pushing misinformation and false claims about coronavirus vaccines in a way that almost certainly helped reinforce high levels of vaccine refusal among conservatives.

Host Sean Hannity has brought conspiracy theorists onto his radio show to blame vaccines for new variants of the virus and falsely claim they are no longer effective, while Tucker Carlson has portrayed vaccination as authoritarian (totalitarian, actually) and distorted Centres for Disease Control and Prevention data that shows vaccines are safe to argue they are actually very dangerous. Coverage on Fox has referred to “unvaccinated Americans” as though they are a vulnerable minority group and attacked vaccination campaigns as Orwellian government overreach. In general, the tenor of Fox coverage has been to consistently deny that anyone at the network is against vaccines while undermining the science behind them, claiming they violate civil liberties, and a Big Government boondoggle that won’t help fight the virus.

It should come as little surprise that, as CNN reported last month, Fox Corporation has implemented a “vaccine passport” system in which vaccinated employees who can provide a card proving they’ve had the shot can bypass otherwise mandatory health checks on entering its facilities.

The Cyber Ninjas

A contractor for Cyber Ninjas transporting ballots from Maricopa County's 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona, in May 2021. (Photo: Courtney Pedroza, Getty Images) A contractor for Cyber Ninjas transporting ballots from Maricopa County’s 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona, in May 2021. (Photo: Courtney Pedroza, Getty Images)

As far as embarrassing con jobs go, the Arizona Senate GOP’s ongoing “audit” of the vote in Maricopa County in the 2020 elections is cream of the crop.

Republicans are obsessed with somehow proving Trump was robbed of a second term by fraud, and Trump himself has been particularly focused on baseless claims of massive irregularities in the Arizona vote count. His minions have happily obliged him by waging war on Maricopa County election officials, who have repeatedly shown the county’s results to be accurate. In March 2021, Republicans in the state Senate contracted with a previously little-known outfit called “Cyber Ninjas” to recount the county’s votes.

Cyber Ninjas is run by a conspiracy theorist, Doug Logan, who believes the true margin of Trump’s victory in the state may have been as wide as 200,000 votes. The audit they are carrying out is an obvious farce; Cyber Ninjas has employed untrained Trump supporters as volunteers to comb ballots for traces of nefarious Chinese bamboo, deploy junk science to prove the way certain ballots were folded should invalidate them, and hunt for hidden watermarks that don’t exist. Observers looking into the audit have reported Cyber Ninjas operating with no clear procedures and a near-total disregard for the security of either voters’ personal data or the ballots themselves.

The Senate GOP has responded to these claims by threatening election officials with subpoenas for access to even more information, such as county router logs and direct access to voting machines. According to Vice, the GOP official overseeing the audit, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, seems to have had some kind of falling out with Fann over leaks and was shut out of the building where it is occurring. Bennett expressed concern that if proper controls were not in place Cyber Ninjas might “force balance” their numbers, which is an accounting term for practices that amount to cooking the books.

The eventual cost to the state of Arizona might amount to a whopping $US9 ($12) million to replace any voting machines and routers that might land in Cyber Ninjas’s hands, as Maricopa County officials won’t be able to have confidence the firm didn’t expose the equipment to dangerous malware. Meanwhile, in late July, Cyber Ninjas disclosed it had pulled in a cool $US5.7 ($8) million from private donors, including $US3.25 ($4) million from former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, and $US605,000 ($819,533) from a group established by One America News propagandist Christina Bobb. Wonder what the profit margin on that is.