The Red Scare podcast brings a downtown dissident edge to the table.
Friends and Enemies
The regime isn’t embarrassed by its violation of cherished liberal principles.
German jurist Carl Schmitt identified what he considered to be the real foundation of all political behavior. In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt wrote that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”
It’s this master rule of political behavior, the ability to distinguish properly between friend and enemy, that has come to mind repeatedly over the past few weeks regarding the ongoing saga of Douglass Mackey, a.k.a. “Ricky Vaughn,” a former Twitter poster who is now being pursued by the DOJ for interference in the 2016 election. While there can be no doubt that his persecution is, indeed, outrageous, it’s easy to lose sight, amid the outrage, of a simple fact: that his tormentors are doing politics a whole lot better than anybody on our side has for quite some time. As much as we might hate to admit it, our enemies know how to win. And they are winning.
In case you haven’t heard, Mackey’s crime was producing memes on Twitter. Really. Even worse, he could face up to ten years in prison for doing so. Really.
The memes in question encouraged Hillary voters, especially African American and Latino voters, to register their votes by text or by Twitter and Facebook hashtags, voting methods that weren’t possible in an American election. One of the memes Mackey posted from his anonymous Ricky Vaughn Twitter account featured an African American woman next to a banner saying, “African Americans for Hillary”: “Avoid the line. Vote from home. Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925. Vote for Hillary and be part of history.”
There can be no doubt that Vaughn was an influential pro-Trump account during 2016. In addition to having a great many followers of his own, his memes were regularly retweeted by mainstream conservative figures. As with most social media accounts, though, it’s hard to quantify exactly how much power Vaughn really had beyond numbers of likes, replies, and retweets. It’s certainly unclear whether his “Avoid the line” meme, or any other, actually diverted anyone from voting in the normal way.
This uncertainty about how to weigh influence in the social media age didn’t stop Vaughn from being identified as one of the key players in Trump’s victory in 2016. The MIT Media Lab, for instance, named him ahead of NBC News, Stephen Colbert, and the Drudge Report in its list of the top 150 influencers of the election.
For the crime of so visibly helping Trump get elected, Vaughn could not be forgotten or forgiven by his political opponents, and the liberal media, just as Alex Jones and Steve Bannon, two rather more obvious key figures in Trump’s victory, can’t be forgotten or forgiven either. The media continued to pursue Vaughn until, in 2018, his real identity was confirmed in a Huffington Post exposé, after congressional candidate Paul Nehlen revealed it on Twitter. Nehlen, who was running against House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, was angry about criticism that had been directed at him by Vaughn. After further investigation, the Post was able to confirm Nehlen’s claim that Douglass Mackey was indeed the man behind the Ricky Vaughn account and gleefully posted the receipts for all to see.
“There was no mistaking Ricky Vaughn’s influence,” the HuffPo piece stated. “He had tens of thousands of followers, and his talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the ‘alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails.” And just in case we weren’t convinced enough that Vaughn was the big bad boogieman the Huffers wanted him to be, we’re also told that he was responsible for—shock horror!—“amplifying disinformation injected into American politics by the Russian government.”
After the doxxing, the Vaughn persona was retired, and Mackey moved to Florida hoping to avoid further attention. But the regime wasn’t going to let him get off that easily. The unmasking was just the beginning. Mackey could now be a stand-in for the legion of anonymous Twitter and 4Chan posters who had energized the Trump campaign. No anonymous poster should ever feel safe again to tweet about the Clinton Body Count or the contents of Anthony Weiner’s laptop—or any other laptop, for that matter. In January 2021, just a few days after Biden took office, Mackey was arrested in West Palm Beach on federal election interference charges.
The initial complaint states that Mackey “together with others, conspired to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate persons in the free exercise and enjoyment of a right and privilege secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States, to wit, the right to vote, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 241.” Four co-conspirators were listed in the initial complaint, all of whom were referred to by their Twitter IDs. They included a user known as “Microchip” and also “Baked Alaska,” otherwise known as Anthime Gionet, who was sentenced in January to 60 days in prison for his part in the events of January 6.
What is now Title 18, USC Section 241 was one of a number of statutes passed in response to the Ku Klux Klan’s violent attempts to suppress black votes in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1871, passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act led to nine counties in South Carolina being placed under martial law. Thousands were arrested. The Act itself was declared unconstitutional in 1882, but by that time it had done its work, and the threat from the Klan had largely subsided. A hundred years later, Title 18 USC Section 241 and others were used again during the Civil Rights era, with new additions such as Section 245, to provide remedy against attempts to prevent the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights.
Anti-Klan measures have been used more widely against Trump supporters, and even the former president himself, in the wake of January 6. Not long after the complaint against Mackey was filed, for instance, a federal suit citing the Klan Act was brought by House member Bennie Thompson, who alleged that Trump, Rudy Giuliani, the Oath Keepers, and the Proud Boys “conspired to prevent, by force, intimidation and threats, the Plaintiff, as a Member of Congress, from discharging his official duties to approve the count of votes case by members of the Electoral College following the presidential election held in November 2020.”
What’s worrying about the use of Section 241 to prosecute Mackey is that this appears to be the first time the Section has been used against somebody acting purely in the realm of speech rather than physical action, for instance violence and intimidation. As legal scholar Eugene Volokh noted, not long after Vaughn’s arrest, this has the potential to have serious chilling effects on free speech, not least of all because it’s unclear whether protected speech should fall under the Section at all. There’s no reason to believe that it’s constitutional to prosecute lies that prevent people from voting. After all, political candidates, activists, and operatives lie throughout political campaigns all the time. Why should somebody who lied about the mechanisms of voting during an election be punished and not, say, a candidate found to have been lying about their plans for the economy, education, crime, or military intervention overseas? Or for saying that a candidate’s son’s laptop detailing his personal degeneracy and his family’s political corruption was a hoax when they knew it wasn’t?
Even worse, the potential applications of the Section, if the Ricky Vaughn case succeeds, are limitless. Virtually any kind of idea identified as a “lie,” if the government decided it could somehow affect voting, could now be subject to punishment. Did you just retweet some Russian dezinformatsiya about NATO expansion after the Cold War? Or maybe some unflattering statistics about the COVID response? Perhaps you just made a few speculations about what was really going on in Paul Pelosi’s kitchen that fateful night (“Why was the broken glass on the outside of the door?”)…Well, it’s off to jail for ten years for you—you’re meddling in the election process!
Why are prosecutors singling out Mackey, when others, including Democrat supporters, also posted similar memes during the 2016 election. Why aren’t they being prosecuted too? Isn’t this just another case of liberal hypocrisy?
Kristina Wong is one Democrat supporter who posted a Ricky Vaughn-style meme in 2016. On August 11 of that year, she tweeted: “Hey Trump Supporters! Skip poll lines at #Election2016 and TEXT in your vote! Text votes are legit. Or vote tomorrow on Super Wednesday!” The tweet was accompanied by a two minute video of Wong, wearing a MAGA hat and surrounded by Trump banners, in which she spoke of her desire to remind “Chinese Americans for Trump and people of color for Trump” to vote by text.
Nearly seven years later, her tweets are still there for all to see. “So why hasn’t Wong been arrested for election interference?” asked one Twitter commentator. We can choose to frame the matter as one of double standards, of liberals failing to live up to their high principles—equality, impartiality, respect for the law and due process, and so on—if we wish, and many undoubtedly will. Doing so, of course, implies that things would all be so much better if only there were somehow a level playing field. This may be so, but this attitude betrays a naïve understanding of what our enemies are actually doing, of why they are doing it, and of how we might counter them effectively.
As conservatives and patriots, we see this attitude again and again. These are supposed to be “BOOM!” moments, when our opponents are caught in a trap of their own making, unable to escape. You mean liberals support segregation in American universities? BOOM! The libs are the real racists! You mean liberals don’t care about women being sexually assaulted by men in their own bathrooms? BOOM! The libs are the real sexists!
It’s not hard to picture a moment, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, when the last American conservative is lined up against a blood-stained and bullet-ridden wall, and in a final moment of satisfied revelation proclaims, “You mean liberals are okay with murdering their political enemies?” BOOM!—but the sound is another gunshot.
This is not what victory looks like. This is futility, plain and simple. Our opponents aren’t concerned with principles. What they’re concerned with is the acquisition and exercise of power and that means the questions posed by Carl Schmitt: Who are my friends? Who are my enemies? That’s why Douglass Mackey is on trial and not Kristina Wong. The regime is simply punishing its enemies and rewarding its friends, as successful political groupings do. The sooner we understand that, the better.
One of President Trump’s obvious strengths was his status as an outsider, but it was also perhaps his greatest weakness. He didn’t realize who his friends and enemies were. He didn’t realize the extent to which the latter were established in every meaningful political and legal institution in the land, not to mention the mainstream media. Nor, when this finally did start to become clear, was he able to find a way to deal with these deeply entrenched adversaries effectively.
Trump recently vowed to “destroy the deep state” if he’s re-elected. This is a welcome declaration of intent, suggesting that the notoriously stubborn former president has actually learned some lessons from his four years in office. But it also rather belies the fundamental nature of the problem, which is to create a situation where an America First president can truly reward his friends and punish his enemies—who are also, as if it needs saying, not just his personal enemies but also the enemies of a strong independent America which puts its own interests first.
This should be the primary goal of political organization on the Right today: not to hold our enemies to account for violating principles they don’t really believe in, but to take power and consolidate it—without remorse—so that we can do things that are meaningful, things that will change the nation in the ways we want it to change. Although we might not be able to save Douglass Mackey from a nakedly political prosecution, we can prevent others from suffering the same fate. But we can only do so if we understand the game we are playing, and most of all how to win.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.
The Left’s support for civil liberties has always been contingent on its own relative strength or weakness.
How Trump voters formed an ugly—and accurate—view of America’s ruling regime.