McKay Coppins a senior political writer for BuzzFeed and the author of the new book, “The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House,” from which this essay is adapted.
Early one evening in January 2014, I sat in a darkened den with walnut-paneled walls and baroque furniture, trying desperately to get Donald Trump to stop telling me about his Barack Obama conspiracy theories. “And to this day,” my billionaire host bellowed, “we haven’t seen those records!”
Our interview had started out fine, but now Trump kept veering off on long, excited tangents about forged birth certificates and presidential coverups. No matter what questions I asked, I couldn’t get him off the subject. “We have seen a book of [Obama’s] as a young man that said he was from Kenya, okay?” Trump said, connecting the dots for me like a crazy uncle who has cornered his nephew at Thanksgiving dinner. “The publisher of the book said at first, ‘Well, that’s what he told us.’ But then they said, ‘No, that was a typographical error.’ . . . I have a whole theory on it, and I’m pretty sure it was right.”
Trump’s effort to expose Obama as a fraudulent foreigner had routinely hijacked national news cycles and riled up right-wing voters in 2012, turning him into a political celebrity courted by top Republican presidential candidates. But by the time I approached him more than a year later, the shtick had worn thin. The GOP was sick of him, and the press had mostly moved on. For attention, Trump had turned to the conservative fringes, where his torch-juggling act was still cheered at grass-roots gatherings and his musings about impeachment still went viral in far-right corners of the Web. My purpose in interviewing him was to find out why he was still bothering with politics at all. At the time, it seemed like his glory days were behind him — the commanding ringmaster busted down to the vaudeville circuit. But as it would turn out, Trump’s performance for the fever swamps was more than frivolous ego-feeding.
Trump’s dominance in this year’s presidential primary race has often been described as a mysterious natural phenomenon: the Donald riding a wild, unpredictable tsunami of conservative populist anger that just now happens to be crashing down on the Republican establishment. But in fact, Trump spent years methodically building and buying support for himself in a vast, right-wing counter-establishment — one that exists entirely outside the old party infrastructure and is quickly becoming just as powerful.
These forces have asserted themselves repeatedly in the fight over the future of the Republican Party. But Trump came to understand their power earlier than most. When no one was watching, he was assuming command of this Fringe Establishment, building an army of activists and avatars that he would eventually deploy in his scorched-earth assault on the GOP’s old guard, on his rivals in the primary field — and, as an early test case in the winter of 2014, on me.
The American right has always contained a combative, nativist fringe, where radicals and kooks bend world events to fit their conspiracy theories. There were the John Birch Society newsletters of the 1970s and ’80s; the AM talk-radio shows of the ’90s; the world-government chat rooms and e-mail chain letters around the turn of the millennium; and the vibrant, frenzied blogosphere of amateur muckrakers of the mid-2000s. (Anyone wondering whether the phenomenon is ideologically exclusive need look no further than George W. Bush’s presidency, when the left-wing Web teemed with crazed speculation that the White House had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.)
But in the Obama era, the reach and power of this segment has increased dramatically. The fringe has swelled with new Web sites, radio stations, confabs, causes, pressure groups, celebrities and profit-making businesses noisily pitching themselves to the tea party. An entire right-wing media ecosystem has sprung up, where journalist-warriors flood social media with rumors of sharia law coming to suburbia and hype a fast-approaching “race war” in America targeting whites. The Republican establishment — a loose coalition of party committees, moderate donors and business interests — once hoped to harness this tremendous new energy to recapture the White House.
Instead, the Fringe Establishment is the one doing the harnessing. In 2013, for example, a fierce conservative backlash organized by lobbying groups and right-wing media torpedoed a bipartisan immigration bill, in part with a campaign of misinformation, and sent its Republican champion, Sen. Marco Rubio, scrambling to the right on the issue. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Rhodes scholar once hailed as a conservative brainiac, ran for president this year by attacking nonexistent Muslim “no-go zones” in Britain and touting endorsements from “Duck Dynasty” stars. Right-wing support transformed an icon of African American achievement, Ben Carson, into a leading presidential candidate whose stump routine has included Nazi analogies and suggestions that Muslims are unfit for the presidency.
Some Republicans have made their careers by mastering the new machinery of the movement. When a group of conservative elites quietly huddled with lawmakers one evening in 2013 to lay out their “defund Obamacare” plan, Sen. Ted Cruz positioned himself as the public face of the campaign. It hardly mattered whether he believed that their government-shutdown would actually gut the health-care law; few, if any, of the architects did. (“I don’t think you could find a single person in that room who really believed the plan would work,” one of the meeting’s attendees confessed to me. Several days into the shutdown, a Cruz aide told me with jarring candor that the senator had stuck to the “defund” rallying cry because “a more complicated message” wouldn’t “make for a good hashtag.”) When the dust settled, Obamacare was still fully funded and GOP officials were panicking — but Cruz was a newly minted conservative superstar, and the organizations that backed him had raised millions of dollars. The senator’s staff did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
Skirmishes between the Grand Old Party and far-right populists are as old as lever-operated voting machines, and the old guard usually comes out on top. But in this era of democratized media and deregulated political money, the fringe owns a much greater share of the cash and the clout. Trump was among the first players to realize that. (His staff, too, did not respond to requests to comment for this story.)
The insight appears to have struck him during the run-up to the last presidential election, when his “birther” antics briefly propelled him to the top of pre-campaign polls. Trump, a masterful marketer, has taken care since then to make his right-wing cheering section look huge and wholly organic, habitually retweeting typo-laden messages of support from sycophantic accounts. But this year’s groundswell wasn’t totally spontaneous. Over the past four years, Trump has been laying its foundations with a careful campaign of cultivation. In this, he was far ahead of most of his presidential opponents.
Trump came to operate the levers of this new right-wing apparatus slowly. He accumulated key allies at niche media outlets and headlined far-flung fundraisers for conservative candidates and county parties. He privately schmoozed anti-establishment icons such as Sarah Palin and publicly went to bat for her in the media.
Last year, he told me his philosophy of how to treat fans. He said that Michael Jordan (“a friend of mine”) was often dismissive when people approached him asking for autographs. Not Trump. “You know, it’s a lot of work to smile for an hour and a half,” he said, recalling how people surround him after events asking for pictures and autographs. “At the same time, I always say to myself, ‘How would it be if I stood there and there was nobody wanting it?’ That wouldn’t be so nice, either.”
He spent his birthday in 2013 speaking at a gathering of conservative Christians and has contributed generously to a variety of right-wing outfits — particularly organizations that host political conferences populated by TV cameras.
This support bought him new opportunities. When some organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference opposed inviting Trump back to speak in 2014, arguing that he was “not a serious movement leader,” the billionaire invited Al Cardenas, then the chief organizer of the high-profile event, to his Mar-a-Lago club and estate in Florida and wrote the group a $50,000 check. When the conference came, he had a plum speaking slot. (Cardenas confirmed the donation to me but denied that the money bought Trump a spot in the lineup. “He’s entertaining,” he said.)
Trump also worked to win over Breitbart, a crusading right-wing Web site that wields tremendous influence within a certain hyper-aggrieved class of conservative activists. (Its unofficial mission statement: #WAR.) Trump turned the site into a source of loyal coverage by showering it with access and possibly more. Employees there have privately complained to me that management is turning the outlet into a Donald Trump fan site, with some even speculating that the billionaire has an undisclosed financial interest in the company that explains the fawning coverage. Breitbart, which is privately held, doesn’t make the sources of its financial backing public, and the company’s chairman, Steve Bannon, denies that it has any financial relationship with Trump.
In either case, there’s no questioning the authenticity of the hordes of right-wing readers the site has transformed into Trump die-hards. I learned about this first-hand.
I had arranged to interview Trump in January 2014 aboard his private plane en route from New Hampshire to New York. But on our way to the airstrip in Manchester, the pilot called to report that a blizzard was shutting down LaGuardia Airport. Schedules were rearranged, flight plans rerouted, and before I had time to think it through, I was wrapped in a gold-plated seat belt in Trump’s 757 as we soared toward Palm Beach, Fla., home to Mar-a-Lago, the billionaire’s sprawling beachside compound. I spent two surreal days there, and the next month BuzzFeed published my profile, “36 Hours on the Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump.”
Trump was displeased with the story, which mused about the “journalistic indignity” suffered by political reporters made to cover him seriously, called his 25-year flirtation with running for office as “a long con” (oops) and quoted him blowing off his wedding anniversary to fly to Florida. (“There are a lot of good-looking women here,” he leaned in and told me during a poolside lunch.)
Trump’s crusade against me started out simply enough, with tweets denouncing me as a “slimebag reporter” and “true garbage with no credibility.” Soon, his followers were also hurling angry, all-caps insults my way. In one admirably economical missive, Carl Paladino, the Republican nominee in New York’s 2010 gubernatorial race, e-mailed me: “Big joke. F--- you, a--hole.” Every political reporter has felt the online wrath of a candidate’s angered supporters. But Trump added a nice touch by sending me an addendum to the $850 bill BuzzFeed had already paid for my stay at Mar-a-Lago, claiming that he neglected to tack on the cost of the flight: $10,000.
Then Trump turned to the Fringe Establishment, and I got a glimpse of what would eventually propel his candidacy. First, a Buffalo-based public relations pro with ties to Trump named Michael Caputo began circulating an e-mail to Republican press secretaries, accusing me of being a “partisan flibbertigibbet” and warning that I was not to be trusted. Then Trump went to Breitbart, which began publishing stories about me, including a 2,100-word alternate-reality version of our trip to Mar-a-Lago: “Exclusive — Trump: ‘Scumbag’ BuzzFeed blogger ogled women while he ate bison at my resort.” In one particularly colorful passage, a hostess at Trump’s club identified as “Bianka Pop” recounted my efforts to seduce her. “He was looking at me like I was yummy . . . [like he wanted] a cup of me or something,” she said.
In another story, Palin (whom I had never met) joined Trump’s crusade, telling Breitbart: “This nervous geek isn’t fit to tie the Donald’s wing tips. Don’t ever give him attention again.” Nevertheless, Breitbart continued to publish stories about me for days.
The most disquieting episode occurred late one night when I was working in my apartment. A notorious right-wing blogger and opposition researcher popped up in my Gchat with a brief, cryptic note reporting that someone had tried to enlist him for a “project” in which I was the target. He had turned down the offer, he said, but he knew there were “others.” The goal was to dig into my personal life until they unearthed something scandalous enough to “finish” me. He logged off.
The #WAR soon expanded into real life. Two months later, I was turned away at the door of a conservative conference in New Hampshire I’d come to cover. Trump would be speaking, I was told, and he didn’t want me there. The episode repeated itself nine months later at another confab, in Iowa. When I asked a Republican source to intervene on my behalf, the organizer resisted. “Did you see that stuff on Breitbart about him?” he asked, referring to the site’s less-than-accurate portrait of me as a nefarious left-wing hack. Trump’s fantastical perspective was being accepted as reality in the Fringe Establishment, and the consequences were real.
It was a foretaste of how the fables Trump repeats on the campaign trail — about Muslims, Mexican immigrants, African Americans — become accepted truths in certain corners of the right.