The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the MyPillow guy the future of the Republican Party, or is he just dreaming?

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell walks out ahead of President Trump to speak with members of the coronavirus task force and reporters during a briefing in response to the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic from the Rose Garden at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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In these times of social isolation, Mike Lindell keeps appearing, unannounced, inside your home.

The CEO and founder of MyPillow pops up on your television with his Tom Selleck mustache and Minnesooota accent to sell you on the wonders of his machine-washable cushions or “Giza cotton” sheets. For millions of Americans he has something of an open invitation into their living rooms, beamed in by Fox News or Newsmax to gush about President Trump. For the rest of the country, he’s like the unwanted guest at the garden party — which in these uncomfortable times means he’s popping up at a coronavirus briefing broadcast live from the Rose Garden.

“Boy, do you sell those pillows,” Trump said, introducing him to the press at an appearance in late March. “It’s unbelievable what you do.”

Republicans have had more than three years to get comfortable with the type of player Trump tends to welcome into elite GOP circles — pitchmen, B-list TV stars, castaways who have no reservations about fluffing the president’s ego for a seat at the table. Seeing the “MyPillow Guy” play a role in a Trump crisis or Trump campaign seems almost inevitable.

On the day of the Rose Garden briefing, Lindell had been welcomed to the White House as a member of the business community to discuss the private sector’s role combating the spread of covid-19. And speaking from the lectern, his voice gravelly and his hair whipping around his forehead, the bedding magnate used his pulpit to pitch the public on a different kind of awakening.

“God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on,” he said about Trump’s election. Now, he said, with a little more prayer and the help of the president and his team, it wouldn’t be long before America returned to its rightful spot as the greatest nation on earth.

His visit quickly became another predictable pillow fight in the culture wars, with critics calling it a PR stunt and Trump’s foot soldiers denouncing the left for denouncing a patriot who had promised to retrofit his factories to manufacture face masks even if it cost him money to do so.

“It was all very surreal,” Lindell said in a recent video interview from an undisclosed location, for “safety” reasons. “But I said what I said because I was led by God to say it. If I get attacked, so be it.”

The daily press briefing at the White House: It’s 5 o’clock. Do you know where your president is?

The blowback couldn’t have been a complete surprise for Lindell. As an early supporter of the president he’s faced backlash since 2016. He’s now more than just a friend of Trump’s: he’s a donor, a rally opening act, and the recently named Minnesota chairman to the 2020 reelection campaign. As for his own political future, Lindell denies reports that Trump has been egging him on to run for governor in 2022, but admits he’s giving the idea serious consideration.

“It’s sure steering me in that direction, to run,” he said about the coronavirus pandemic. “I believe that things could be done a lot better . . . and I’m beginning to think I’m the guy to do that.”

In the past, it might have been easier to distinguish the scam artists from the genuine power players, but now the distinction is blurrier than ever. Which means it’s fair to ask: Is Mike Lindell the future of the Republican Party, or is he just dreaming?

Mike Lindell is what you might get if you took the political personalities of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, shred them down in a hammer mill, mixed the aggregate together, stuffed it in a linen case and sold the product between segments on Fox News.

He’s a serial As-Seen-On-TV entrepreneur and an evangelical Christian who travels the country preaching the Gospel. He’s also a mile-a-minute talker who used to own and tend a bar and is quite comfortable swapping stories for hours with anyone who will listen.

“When you hang out with Mike, he has that kind of hyperkinetic energy,” said Matt Schlapp, who runs the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, at which Lindell has spoken. “You might wonder, ‘Did this guy take too much cold medicine?’ ”

But Lindell swears he’s not on anything. Not anymore. He’s a former crack addict, a retired card counter with a history of bad debts, near-death experiences and soured marriages before fully accepting God into his heart. Such a past might be a liability for someone thinking about moving into a life of politics.

“I always advise people before they get into politics that they are going to get run through the washer and dryer,” said former senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who thinks if Lindell does decide to run for governor he’d be a formidable candidate.

Lindell, who markets his pillows as being able to go through the laundry and still maintain their shape, says this isn’t a cause for concern for him. He’s open about his past; so open that he wrote a memoir, paid to preprint 3 million copies out of his own pocket, and has just begun marketing it nonstop on television. It’s called: “What are the odds? From Crack Addict to CEO.”

“Who doesn’t like salvation?” he said, when asked whether the book could be a political liability. “Who doesn’t like a redemption story? Who doesn’t like the American Dream?”

His memoir is just that: the story of a kid who grew up in a trailer park and after various run-ins with knife-wielding drug dealers and angry bookies, went on to start a company that he says has sold 47 million pillows. The idea to get into the cushion game, he said, came to him in his sleep, divine intervention from a God who he was coming to realize had allowed him to walk away from car wrecks, seven-day drug benders and violence-backed loans from his bookies.

Now if parts of Lindell’s story seem like hyperbole (did his drug dealers really stage an intervention to get him to stop using?), you should know that he’s been accused of exaggeration before. In 2016, he agreed to pay $1 million after 10 district attorneys from California sued his company for engaging in deceptive and false advertisements, by implying their pillows could prevent sleep loss associated with insomnia, restless leg syndrome, neck pain, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea and migraines. And in 2017 the Better Business Bureau gave MyPillow an “F” rating, after a “pattern of complaint” from users.

“It was a political hit job,” Lindell said. “It was for sure because I went all in for Donald Trump.”

Before Lindell ever met Trump in person, he met him in a dream. Naturally.

“I had a very weird, very vivid dream,” he writes in his book. “Donald Trump and I were in some kind of room. It was an office with pictures on the wall behind us, and we were standing next to each other posing for a picture.”

Later, in the real world, he would snag an invite from a friend to the 2016 Republican convention to take in the proceedings near the Trump family VIP section and hit it off with Ben Carson before receiving an invitation to talk business and politics with the candidate himself in Trump Tower.

They talked about religion, about the need to build a wall and bring manufacturing jobs back to America. Lindell says he’d never really been all that political before, but everything this businessman-turned-candidate said made perfect sense to him.

“I knew right away I’d be supporting him,” he said. At first it meant writing a news release announcing his support. Then, it meant traveling to the third presidential debate, on the heels of the “Access Hollywood” tape scandal, taking a go in the media spin room even as members of Trump’s party had begun distancing themselves from the candidate.

“I was a crack cocaine addict for years,” he remembers telling one journalist. “Then by the grace of God, I quit overnight. . . . Recently I met Donald Trump. He was so different from the man in that video.”

For a president who prizes loyalty above all else, he was bound to like Lindell, who would go on to open for him at rallies, travel with him to Iowa and New Hampshire during his reelection push and accept the role of campaign chair for Minnesota, a state that Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning in 2016 and which he’s told associates he expects to win this time around.

For now, Lindell says his campaign job is mostly dormant. There’s just too much else to do: His company has made hundreds of thousands of masks and donated them to hospitals and first responders, he said, at a personal loss of $1.5 million. He’s been in touch with Peter Navarro, Trump’s national Defense Production Act policy coordinator, to coordinate, and he wholly supports a president who he believes is doing “the best job that any president in history could have ever done.”

Sure, there have been problems. Lindell attributes them to Trump being up against a power-crazy doctor who is keeping the public awake at night with unjust fears: “Fauci? Are you kidding me? Who is he to decide what we should be able to do?”

And, Lindell says the president’s got Democrats trying at every move to make him look bad: “They want to keep everyone locked down so they can have mail-in voting and steal the election.”

This is why, even in the midst of a worldwide crisis, Lindell isn’t about to forget about the importance of politics. After giving his speech in the Rose Garden in March, Lindell returned to the Oval Office. He and the CEOs from Honeywell, Jockey, Procter & Gamble and United Technologies had been invited back to get their photos taken with the president after the event, but only Lindell took him up on it.

“Maybe they had a schedule to keep or something,” Lindell recalled. “So I got my picture with him and he said: ‘You can use this when you go on the campaign.’ ”

Some see the pandemic and Trump’s self-promotion and campaigning — even in the midst of the crisis — as a national nightmare. But in that moment for Lindell, it was a dream come true.