Ron Filipkowski, a former Marine and state and federal prosecutor, is a criminal defense attorney in private practice. He served on Florida’s Judicial Nominating Commission from 2009 to 2020.
Not quite a year ago, on Dec. 19, 2020, Donald Trump lit a match. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he tweeted. “Be there, will be wild!” That night, on the social network Parler, a user posted, “Build the gallows.”
No one can draw a straight line from Trump’s tweet to the storming of the U.S. Capitol, but the events of Jan. 6 were born on social media — which makes it a good place to discover what the activists, influencers and organizers of the MAGA movement are up to on the ground. Then, they were charting a course to “stop the steal” on a national stage. Now, they have taken their disparate causes and motives to the local level, refocusing on softer, more vulnerable targets such as local government agencies, because, according to the new motto of one of their ubiquitous leaders, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, “Local action has a national impact.”
I began using social media several months before the election to monitor the extremist elements that were taking control of the Republican Party - a party I had spent my life in but no longer recognized. My goal at first was to share what I observed with moderate Republicans who may have been persuaded to vote for Joe Biden and not Trump. I wanted to show them that what was once a fringe element of the party was now on full display and spreading. After the election, however, it became clear that much of the MAGA movement was not going to accept the outcome - not with all of the conspiracy theories and the constant sentiment of mistrust in our institutions coming from its leaders.
At first, the most commonly expressed views were that the courts, local election officials loyal to the cause, the military or Trump himself would keep the president in power. But after Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet, the reaction of those I was monitoring cannot be understated. They viewed it as an order, a call to arms. They began planning, and I began documenting how these groups were organizing, preparing for, threatening and intending to engage in violence. On Dec. 30, a week before the “wild” protest, a leading figure of the Proud Boys, Joe Biggs, posted his group’s intent on Parler: “Attn: DC ANTIFA. We will not be attending DC in colors. We will be blending in as one of you. You won’t see us. You’ll even think we are you. We are going to smell like you. Move like you and look like you. The only thing we will do that’s us! Is think like us! Jan 6th is gonna be epic.”
Two researchers offered to help me anonymously. I’ve been a criminal lawyer for almost three decades, first as a federal and state prosecutor and now as a defense attorney. My background, combined with the research skills of my team, has allowed us to monitor and track right-wing groups across a wide array of platforms. We watch obscure livestream events and listen to podcasts and radio broadcasts, and I have attended events in person. We follow influencers and organizations wherever they are on social media - Facebook, Twitter, Parler, Gab, Telegram, YouTube, Gettr, Rumble, Frank Speech and other, darker places.
What we’re seeing is that many of the activists and influencers who promoted and attended the rally that became the violent attempt to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election have now turned their attention to three primary targets: school boards, city and county commissions, and secretaries of state and supervisors of elections. The new endeavors give the appearance of grass-roots efforts but feature familiar characters teaming up with organizations long involved with financing and leading disruptions, protests and disinformation campaigns on a variety of issues - organizations like Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute, the Council for National Policy, Turning Point USA, the Heritage Foundation’s Action branch and Liberty Counsel. What’s more, some of these activists have harnessed the anger, fear and resentment they have helped churn up and are using it for their personal and financial benefit. We began noticing this shift between February and March, as these leaders launched new websites, created new business entities, and restarted their events and rallies.
Figures like Stephen K. Bannon, Roger Stone, Alex Jones, Charlie Kirk and Flynn are regulars on the circuit mobilizing people to take on local governments. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast has promoted and featured potential candidates who have visited and trained on the Precinct Strategy website, which provides information and tools for becoming voting precinct captains and committeemen. People in these roles, although not often talked about, can be powerful decision-makers in local and state elections. As The Washington Post recently reported, Trump supporters are using similar strategies to replace officials in a multitude of local and state offices, “including volunteer poll watchers, paid precinct judges, elected county clerks and state attorneys general.”
Stone, for his part, travels around for speaking engagements, rallies and boat parades. Ever the provocateur, he positions himself as a kingmaker, especially in Florida politics, endorsing candidates and sending his groomed Young Republicans on influence operations. One such protege, Jacob Engels, recently appeared at an Orange County School Board meeting, blending in with concerned parents, to discuss sex education books. When Engels took the mic, he read aloud an explicit passage from “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” The provocateurs stir up the right-wing media and fundraise off the attention. Stone himself frequents Jones’s “Infowars” as they solicit donations and play out the political landscape they see for 2022 and 2024.
To boost the movement’s power in local politics, a new nonprofit, County Citizens Defending Freedom USA (CCDFUSA), took shape early this summer and partnered with a number of groups, including Kirk’s Turning Point USA and America’s Future, a long-standing right-wing nonprofit where Flynn was appointed chairman in May. CCDFUSA hosts action trainings, meetings, candidate meet-and-greets and protests, which focus on mask mandates, vaccine requirements and critical race theory. This organization has grown quickly and quietly, and already has had an impact in Florida. CCDFUSA takes Bannon’s “precinct strategy” and applies those lessons and others to mobilize its local activists. Stone attends its anti-mandate rallies. The group’s presence across social media, local events across the country and nightly news programs helps it advance its goal of replacing traditional Republican politicians with MAGA-minded operatives.
Here is a sampling from our monitoring efforts over the last several months, featuring subjects such as the tyranny of masks, the glory of guns and the “big lie.”
“Pastors, you can talk about the Constitution from the pulpit.” In an Oct. 29 episode of “His Glory” on pro-Trump Brighteon.tv hosted by pastor David Scarlett, Flynn sounded a frequent theme: urging pastors to bring politics into churches, even though such activity is largely prohibited by the tax code.
“No one can convince me that Georgia’s a blue state.” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) is most likely going to be the GOP nominee for Georgia secretary of state, and if he wins the office he will be in charge of regulating and certifying the 2024 election. In a Sept. 28 appearance on the Real America’s Voice network, host John Fredericks asked him, “Do you think Trump won Georgia?” Hice responded, “Yeah, I mean, obviously the audit is going to show that.” He went on to say, “I don’t believe, not for one moment, that Georgia is blue, but for election irregularities and fraudulent activity.”
“I’m going in with 20 strong men.” Pennsylvania Republican Steve Lynch, during his losing campaign for Northampton County executive, made threats toward state school board officials who supported mask mandates: “Forget going into these school boards with freaking data,” he said at an Aug. 29 rally. “You go in to these school boards to remove them. . . . I’m going in with 20 strong men . . . and I’m going to give them an option — they can leave or they can be removed.”
“When do we get to use the guns?” At an October stop in Idaho on Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA tour, an audience member cut to the chase in a Q&A session: “When do we get to use the guns? . . . How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” Kirk responded, “I’m going to denounce that,” adding, “You’re playing into all their plans.”
“Trump is the president.” At an April 24 rally featuring Stone and Flynn in Bradenton, Fla., Flynn nodded to the “big lie” that Trump won the election. Flynn was introduced as “the future 47th president of the United States.”
“Where the lines are drawn can determine the outcome of elections before anyone even votes.” Republicans are counting on voter suppression laws and gerrymandering to give them minority rule in the next decade. In a video from Sept. 16, Pam Kirby, first vice chair of the Arizona Republican Party, said the quiet part out loud in her call for people to show up at public hearings on redistricting and “let your voices be heard.”
“The health tyranny that we’re facing in this country.” A Sept. 12 event in Sarasota, Fla., featured a doctor mass-signing medical exemptions for people who did not want to comply with mask mandates. In footage from the event, Flynn talks about those attending and says, “What everybody is looking at is why all of this imposition by the federal government into our health conditions here as American citizens is totally unconstitutional and it is immoral.”
“I’m thankful that today is ‘Free Kyle Rittenhouse Day’!” Martin Hyde, a British expat running for Congress, made this statement before the Sarasota School Board on Nov. 16. Hyde hired Stone as a campaign consultant and is endorsed by Flynn, who posted approvingly on Gettr about comments Hyde made before the board in August, saying that his son was “100 percent not going to” wear a mandated mask to school and that “this is America, not North Korea.”
“We’re going back to the Capitol.” Matt Braynard, who briefly worked for Trump’s first campaign, appeared on Bannon’s “War Room” show in July to announce a Sept. 18 rally to “push back against the phony narrative” that Jan. 6 was an insurrection. “It’s going to be huge,” he said. This event, at least, was basically a bust.
“Civil war is coming, people, get your guns.” At an anti-mask protest in Santa Monica on Aug. 29, ahead of a Los Angeles City Council vote on mandates, activist Jason Lefkowitz displayed the addresses of council members and promised that whomever of them voted yes on the mask mandate, “we’re coming for you now.”
Taylor Kennedy, a social media researcher, contributed to this article. Originally published in The Washington Post.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.