Andy Kroll

We can disarm weapons of mass disinformation by logging off in 2023

Andy Kroll: Weapons of Mass Disinformation

Only the other day, the Internet got even darker or perhaps I mean dizzier. And I’m sure you know just what I’m thinking about. Elon Musk, not long ago the richest, and now the second-richest plutocrat on this planet — if only they lived on Pluto — and Mr. Free Speech (unless he doesn’t like it!) got into an imbroglio with various reporters on Twitter.

Of course, in a world where a set of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of our former president as a superhero, astronaut, and Top Gun-style pilot (“amazing ART of my Life & Career”) sold out in a day for $4.5 million, nothing is too strange. And hey, what can possibly go wrong when purchasing those fabulous non-funges (??) for $99 puts you in a lottery to win a dinner at Mar-a-Lago? Travel expenses on you, of course! (Maybe it’s time for me to figure out how to make some NFTs of my life & career, thrilling superhero shots of an old man in a cluttered room sitting in front of a computer screen.)

Anyway, I’m sure you noticed how Elon Musk advanced his free-speech platform by suspending the accounts of technology journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, The Intercept, and other places for violating “Twitter rules” by “doxxing” him — that is, treating him in a way he didn’t like. At least in part, it had to do with a website run, as the Times wrote, by “a 20-year-old college student and flight tracking enthusiast who had used Twitter to post updates about the location of Mr. Musk’s private plane using publicly available information.” All of this led to — you guessed it! — controversy and ever more publicity for that billionaire, including criticism from the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, which he probably loved. (He reinstated most but not all of the accounts only a day later.)

It seems all too appropriate to me to leave the last word on this incident not to some reporter, but to the New Yorker‘s brilliant satirist Andy Borowitz who began his piece on the subject this way:

Shortly after Twitter suspended accounts that were tracking billionaires’ private planes, including Elon Musk’s, a new poll shows that most people who seek Musk’s precise location are doing so to avoid him. The poll, from the University of Minnesota’s Opinion Research Institute, reveals that a visceral fear of encountering Elon Musk is what drives eighty-nine per cent of those who follow his movements.

Now, as the end of this strange year approaches, I’d like to turn you over to Andy Kroll, whose new book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, offers a dazzling and dizzying journey into the darkest, most conspiratorial corners of the Internet. Let him leave Elon Musk in the dust (or do I mean “dox”?) of our world and take you to a planet where darkness truly does reign supreme. Tom

Lessons Learned in the Internet’s Darkest Corners: A Plea for Real Connection in a “Connected” Era

We all do it. Make little snap judgments about everyday strangers as we go about our lives. Without giving it a second’s thought, we sketch minibiographies of the people we pass on the sidewalk, the guy seated across from us on the train, or the woman in line in front of us at the grocery store. We wonder: Who are they? Where are they from? How do they make a living? Lately, though, such passing encounters tend to leave me with a sense of suspicion, a wariness tinged with grim curiosity. I think to myself: Is he or she one of them?

By them, I mean one of the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of “people” I encountered during my many forays into the darkest recesses of the Internet. Despite the staggering amount of time many of us spend online — more than six-and-a-half hours a day, according to recent research — we tend to haunt the same websites and social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, CNN, Reddit, Google) again and again. Not me, though. Over the past five years, I’ve spent more hours than I wish to count exploring the subterranean hideaways and uncensored gathering spaces for some of the most unhinged communities on the Internet.

Call it an occupational hazard. Only recently, I published my first book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, an investigative political thriller that opens with the 2016 street murder of a 27-year-old who had worked for the Democratic National Committee. In the absence of a culprit, Seth Rich’s killing got swept into the fast-flowing conspiratorial currents of that year’s presidential race, a contest that pitted an unabashed conspiracy theorist, Donald Trump, against a candidate, Hillary Clinton, who had been the subject of decades’ worth of elaborately sinister claims (with no basis in reality). For my book, I set out to understand how a senseless crime that took the life of a beloved but hardly famous mid-level political staffer became a national and then international news story, a viral phenomenon of ever more twisted conspiracy theories that reached millions and all too soon became a piece of modern folklore.

To do so, I traced the arc of those Rich conspiracy theories back to their origins. In practical terms, that meant hundreds of late nights spent huddled over my desk, eyes fixed on my computer screen, clicking and scrolling my way through a seemingly endless trail of tweets, memes, posts, and videos. The Internet is, in some ways, like an ancient city, its latest incarnation resting atop the ruins of so many civilizations past. I came to think of myself then as an online archeologist digging my way through the digital eons, sifting through archived websites and seeking out long-vanished posts in search of clues and answers.

Or maybe I was a waste handler, holding my nose as I picked through piles (or do I mean miles?) of toxic detritus that littered old versions of social media sites you’d know like Twitter and Reddit, and others you probably don’t, like 4chan, 8kun, and Telegram. It was there that I encountered so many of them, those faceless users, the ones I might have passed on the street, who, with the promise of anonymity, had felt unburdened to voice their unfiltered, often deeply disturbing selves. It was all id, all the time.

Who were these people? I couldn’t help but wonder whether they actually believed the stuff they wrote. Or was it all about the thrill of saying it? In an unnervingly boundless online world, were they testing the boundaries of the acceptable by one-upping each other with brazen displays of racism, misogyny, or antisemitism (just to start down the list)?

Firing up my laptop and venturing into those noxious places was like entering an inside-out world impervious to logic and critical thinking. They had their own language — losers were “cucks,” loyal foot soldiers “pedes,” and Hillary Clinton was Hillary “Klanton” — and they operated with their own sets of elaborate but twisted rules and hierarchies. After a few hours of studying such “conversations,” a form of vertigo would set in, a spinning sensation that made me get up from my desk and clear my head with a walk or a conversation with a real human being.

Now that the book is published, I don’t spend much time in those disturbing online worlds. Still, every once in a while, I can’t help checking in — old habits die hard — despite the horrors I saw there while gathering material for my book. What nags at me even now — in fact, it haunts me in some way — is the knowledge that there were real people behind those toxic accounts. The same people you might sit next to on a bus without having the slightest suspicion of just how disturbed they were and what a disturbing world they were helping create or elaborate. That knowledge still weighs on me.

Weapons of Mass Disinformation

A confession: on a few of those late nights spent in the online ruins, I caught myself starting to nod along with some of the wild-eyed nonsense I was reading. Maybe I found a particular Reddit thread surprisingly convincing. Maybe the post in question had sprinkled a few verifiable facts amid the nonsense to make me think, Huh? Maybe my sixth cup of coffee and lack of sleep had so weakened my mental safeguards that madness itself began to seem at least faintly reasonable. When I felt such heretical thoughts seep into my stream of consciousness, I took it as a sure sign that I should log off and go to bed.

Thinking back on those moments, I admit that the first feeling I have is pure and utter embarrassment. I’m an investigative reporter. I make a living dealing in facts, data, and vetted information. Heck, my first job in journalism was as a full-time, trained fact-checker. I should be impervious to the demented siren song of conspiracy theories, right?

The correct answer is indeed: right. And yet…

I realize now that, on those disturbing long nights at the computer, I was more than an avid journalistic explorer of online content. I had immersed myself — and immersion is what the Internet does best. It’s the gateway point to a seemingly infinite number of rabbit holes. Who hasn’t clicked on a Wikipedia entry about, say, the making of the atomic bomb only to check the time, realize that two hours had slipped by, and you’re now watching a YouTube video about the greatest comebacks in baseball history with no memory of how you got here in the first place?

That frictionless glide from one post to the next, video after video, tweet upon tweet, plays tricks on the mind. Spend enough time in that realm and even the most absurd theories and narratives start to acquire the patina of logic, the ring of reason. How else to explain the sheer number of QAnon adherents — one in five Americans, according to an analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute — who believe that a secret cabal of pedophile elites, including Tom Hanks and Oprah, run the world, or that the Earth is indeed flat, or that the moon landing more than half a century ago was faked, no matter what news broadcaster Walter Cronkite might have said at the time?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that conspiracy theories weren’t a fixture of American life before the Internet came along. Quite the opposite: for as long as we humans have existed, we’ve dreamt up elaborate theories and fables to explain the inexplicable or, increasingly in our time, the otherwise all too explicable that we refuse to believe. Some of the founders of this country were unashamed conspiracy mongers. What those delirious late nights at the computer led me to believe, however, is that tools for spreading such fantastical theories have never been more powerful than they are today and they’ve entered our politics in an unnerving fashion (as anyone paying attention to the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol knows).

Put simply, we don’t stand a chance against the social media companies. Fueled by highly sophisticated algorithms that maximize “engagement” at all costs by feeding users ever more inflammatory content, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest of them don’t simply entertain, inform, or “connect” us. As New York Times reporter Max Fisher writes in his book The Chaos Machine, “This technology exerts such a powerful pull on our psychology and our identity, and is so pervasive in our lives, that it changes how we think, behave, and relate to one another. The effect, multiplied across billions of users, has been to change society itself.”

Spending so much time burrowing into such websites, I came away with a deep sense of just how addictive they are. More than that, they rewire your mind in real-time. I felt it myself. I fear that there’s no path out of our strange, increasingly conspiratorial moment, filled with viral lies and rampant disinformation, without rewriting the algorithms that increasingly govern our lives.

The Lost Art of Saying Hello

Still, I’m under no illusion that Tweets and memes can adequately explain the schisms in American life and this country’s descent into a more embittered, polarized, us-versus-them cultural moment. Nor can Donald Trump, who is as much a product of the strange Internet world of conspiracies as a cause of it. They are, in fact, the ever-more-virulent symptoms of a country in which it’s not enough to disagree with your opponents. You also have to demonize them as subhuman, criminal, and alien, while, in the process, doing genuine harm to yourself.

In what still passes for the real world, how else to explain the prominence of conspiracy theories like QAnon or the current far-right trend of accusing someone, especially anyone who disagrees with you, of being a “groomer”? Or how do you account for the existence of a seemingly inextinguishable belief now lurking in our world that one of the country’s prominent political families, the Clintons, are also prolific serial killers who have slaughtered dozens, if not hundreds of people? Or the explosion of those baseless claims I spent all that time exploring about the murdered Seth Rich, claims that would haunt his family for years, denying them even the space to grieve for their own son?

No amount of late-night online sleuthing was going to provide an answer to the larger social ills afflicting this country. Indeed, the more time I spent online, the greater the chasm appeared — so vast, in fact, that I began to wonder whether it could ever be bridged. Nor is this a malady that can be dealt with by politicians or governments, important as they are. It runs even deeper than that.

When I think about the root causes of such societal drift, I return to a phrase I read in a 2021 study that described a “national friendship decline.” According to that survey, “Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.” The data wasn’t all grim. More than four in ten respondents said that they had made a new friend during the pandemic. Still, the lockdowns and self-isolation of these Covid years had exacerbated what the survey’s authors called a “loneliness epidemic.”

When I think about those endless Twitter rants and Reddit screeds I encountered, I envision lonely people hunched over their computers in empty apartments, posting and scrolling madly (sometimes in the most literal sense) deep into the night. Loneliness and social isolation, of course, can’t explain away all the mad conspiratorial rants you find on the Internet, nor are they the sole cause of the brittle, increasingly dangerous state of American politics. But it’s so much easier to resent and rage against a perceived enemy if you’ve never met them or anyone like them, so much easier to cast the other side as the out-group or the villain if you’ve never shared a meal or a coffee or a phone call with them.

I mention that “loneliness epidemic” only to underscore my belief that healing the schism in our culture and politics will require something more difficult and yet simpler than major policy reforms or electing a new generation of officials. Don’t get me wrong: both of those are needed, on both sides of the proverbial aisle. Today’s politics too often resemble a race to the bottom, as politicians rush to outflank their rivals and whip up their constituencies (often using social media to do it). All the while, powerful interest groups, their lobbyists, and a growing billionaire class shape (or sink) the kinds of wholesale changes needed to reboot our political system.

Yet our problems run deeper than that — and the solutions can’t be found in Washington, D.C.

One answer is finding ways to knit back together an unbearably frayed nation. Neighborhood groups, book clubs, sports leagues, civic associations, labor unions, religious groups, whatever it is, the surest way out of this stubborn conflict must come through the simplest of gestures — human connection. The lost art of saying hello.

Tech executives love to talk about the value of “connection” and their goals of “connecting” the world. Almost two decades into the social media era, we should know better than to believe those empty paeans used as cover for the relentless pursuit of profits. Now more than ever, it’s time to step away from those weapons of mass disinformation.

I don’t care much for New Year’s resolutions, but if I did, I would say: let’s make 2023 the year of logging off. Get to know your neighbors and colleagues. For my part, I’ll work on not thinking of those everyday strangers, or even those tiny avatars on the Internet, as them. Instead of fearing them, I’ll think I say hello.

Truth on trial: In a world of speed, will the courts go down?

Andy Kroll: Truth on Trial

Alice wouldn’t recognize America’s real-life tea party, which could hardly get madder (or so I say now). Instead of the Queen of Hearts — you know, the character in Alice in Wonderland who ordered the decapitation of the Mad Hatter — you’d have to start with…. hmmm, how would you even decide when the choices include Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Doug Mastriano, Kari Lake, Blake Masters, and… well, why even go on? You get it, don’t you? In fact, you couldn’t live in this country and not “get it” anymore.

Just for a moment — yes, right now — imagine that Walker, Oz, and Masters have actually made it into the U.S. Senate, that Sanders (and believe me, I don’t mean the all-too-sane Bernie), Lake, and Mastriano are the governors of Arkansas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania — and I haven’t even begun to mention potentially crucial state positions like Matthew DePerno as the Michigan attorney general or Jim Marchant (Nevada) and Kristina Karamo (Michigan) becoming secretaries of state, leaving them in possible control of future election ballot counts; and, mind you, all of the above is just to start down a list of the crew of Mad Hatters (or do I mean Mad Haters?) running for key posts in the increasingly (dis)United States of America.

Honestly, if you had told me about all this back in the days before computers, the Internet, or social media, when only birds tweeted and having your face in a book meant reading one, I would have laughed you out of the room. And I haven’t even mentioned something that once would have been beyond laughable and has, of course, already happened: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. In fact, the only reason I can even imagine what it means to be a political reporter in this country today is because I know TomDispatch regular Andy Kroll, author of the new book on a country adrift in a universe of rumors, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy. Now, let him fill you in on what a total laggard the truth is in the world of American politics in 2022. Tom

Your Factoids Against Mine: In a World of Speed, Will the Courts Go Down?

For about a week in the summer of 2018, I caught an early-morning train from Washington, D.C., to the Albert V. Bryan federal courthouse in the suburb of Alexandria. Located a short drive from George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, that courthouse serves the Eastern District of Virginia. It has played host to a wide variety of closely watched cases, from terrorism trials and inscrutable cybersecurity matters to the government’s prosecution of whistleblowers Daniel Hale and Chelsea Manning.

The defendant whose trial I was covering was Paul Manafort, who had been the chairman of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. The special investigation led by former FBI director Robert Mueller probing Russian interference in the 2016 election had led to Manafort’s indictment on multiple charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and other financial crimes. He denied the allegations and decided to take his chances at trial, putting his future in the hands of 12 northern Virginia jurors.

The Eastern District — EDVA, as it’s better known — is notorious for its old-school rules. Unlike most legal venues, reporters and members of the public aren’t allowed to bring electronics of any kind into that courthouse. There are no lockers or storage units on-site. Each morning, I waited in line (along with half of the D.C. press corps) inside a small café across from the courthouse to pay $10 to store my phone and laptop underneath the cash register. Bereft of my devices, I was left to cover the Manafort case the way a reporter would have in the 1960s — with pen and paper, scrawling notes on a pad on my knee and later spending as much time deciphering those jottings as I did writing up the day’s events.

I’ll never forget the experience of covering that trial. Joining me in the courtroom gallery most days were a dozen or so self-described “trial tourists,” people who had taken a day off from work to sit in on the case. A few silver-haired retirees had traveled from other states to hear expert witnesses testify about Manafort’s money-laundering operation or his taste in lavish ostrich-skin coats and luxury real estate. But what stays with me most is the way that all the usual noise, chatter, tweets, and din of this bizarre American moment seemed to stop at the courthouse doors. Stepping into Room 900, I felt like some celestial being had pressed the “Mute” button on the outside world.

The jury would ultimately convict Manafort on eight counts of financial fraud. Afterward, one juror, a Donald Trump supporter, told Fox News that she had wanted to find Manafort innocent, “but he wasn’t. That’s the part of a juror,” she explained, “you have to have due diligence and deliberate and look at the evidence and come up with an informed and intelligent decision, which I did.”

I remember her comments because they seemed to confirm what I had observed covering the case — in that courtroom, it didn’t matter whose tweet got the most “likes” or whose video tallied the most views. It felt, strangely enough, like a refuge from the modern mania of social media and Trumpism, an old-fashioned bastion of facts, rationality, and truth.

My mind flashed back to Paul Manafort as I watched the two recent trials of Alex Jones, the prominent conspiracy theorist and founder of the website Infowars. He faced lawsuits in Texas and Connecticut filed by parents whose children had died in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. Jones had spent years spreading cruel lies about that mass killing, calling it a “hoax” and a “false flag” operation, while also accusing those parents of being “crisis actors” whose children were never actually killed.

In both cases, a judge had already ruled against Jones; the question before the two juries was how much he should pay to those Sandy Hook families. In the end, they would together award the families more than $1 billion in damages — money that Jones promptly claimed he didn’t have and couldn’t pay. The Jones trials also marked one of the few times that he faced any sort of accountability for his years of conspiracy theories. Unlike on his show or on social media, in court he couldn’t say whatever he wanted regardless of whether it was true. “You believe everything you say is true, but it isn’t,” Judge Maya Guerra Gamble admonished him. “That is what we’re doing here…Things must actually be true when you say them.”

The Loudest Voice in the Room

We live in an era when the truth can feel like whatever the loudest voices claim it is, whether the most extreme version of events or the one that feels right (even if it isn’t). I’ve covered scores, if not hundreds, of campaign rallies and stump speeches in my 15 years as a journalist. I tend to find my conversations with people in those crowds far more revealing than anything uttered by the candidate onstage, including, of course, that ultimate on-stager Donald Trump.

Lately, I’ve noticed a familiar refrain in those interviews. Once upon a time, rival politicians or competing media pundits normally agreed on at least a modest set of shared basic facts — humans are warming the planet to dangerous levels, say, or democracy works best when everyone participates — and then competed for votes based on how they interpreted and acted upon those facts.

Nowadays, though, rallygoers tell me that it’s ever harder to know what’s true and what’s false, to sift out right from wrong. Today’s politicians and pundits — particularly, though not exclusively, on the Trumpian right — seem not only to have their own opinions but their own “facts” to go with them. In their eyes, it’s increasingly difficult to know who’s being honest anymore. And the response, all too often, is a rhetorical and sometimes literal throwing up of the hands, an acceptance that no one can be trusted, that the facts are simply unknowable.

Surveys measuring the American public’s trust in its institutions capture this phenomenon strikingly. Trust in Congress, the presidency, the news media, and — once inconceivable — even the military is steadily eroding, as fear, suspicion, and resentment become the currency of American politics in this century. But if there was one institution that, until recent years, seemed to withstand this trend, it was the third branch of government, the judicial system.

Of all the institutions vital to American democracy, the courts have held remarkably steady, even during the turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency. This was, after all, a man who believed himself above the law, viewed the justice system as a tool to pardon his friends and punish his enemies, and lashed out whenever a judge constrained his executive actions. From one of Trump’s earliest moves as president — a ban on citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries entering the U.S. — to the 62 lawsuits that he and his supporters filed attempting to overturn the 2020 election results, the courts proved resilient in the face of unrelenting attacks.

An independent judiciary is more essential than ever when facts are under assault. As they did in the Manafort case I covered and the more recent Alex Jones trials, the courts can act as a firewall for the truth, a last resort for sifting real from fake, nonsense from reality.

There is, of course, a long and sordid history of courts dealing setbacks to the cause of progress. Look no further than the Supreme Court’s infamous decisions in Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, or far more recently Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in a truth-challenged era, the courts long remained one of the last holdouts where people could trust that they would at least get a reasonably fair hearing based on the facts, whatever their views or politics.

Or at least that’s how it looked until recently.

According to Gallup, at any given moment over nearly the last five decades, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans claimed to have a “great deal” or at least a “fair amount” of trust in the judicial branch. As recently as 2019, 69% of those surveyed expressed confidence in the nation’s courts, including the Supreme Court. And yet in the three years since then — as Donald Trump (with a big helping hand from Mitch McConnell) stacked the Supreme Court — support has plummeted to a dismal 47% this year. At the same time, a record number of Americans (58%) said they disapproved of the Supreme Court’s performance, while just 40% approved.

That steep drop in trust has no doubt been shaped by recent controversies. At the top of that list is the decision by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade, a decades-old precedent to which many of the justices who struck it down had previously paid lip service as settled law.

But the dwindling faith in the courts isn’t purely a reflection of the decision to strike down Roe. It’s now all too common to see federal judges described in news stories and on TV as “Obama judges” or “Trump judges,” “Bush judges” or “Clinton judges,” as if that somehow will help the audience make sense of the decision in question. Not only does that moniker too often prove misleading, but it fuels the notion that judges are nothing more than “politicians in robes,” as the saying goes.

It’s one thing to critique the current crop of Supreme Court justices for decisions that fly in the face of longstanding precedents, especially when those same judges vowed to respect precedent during their confirmation hearings. But the trend toward describing all judges in political terms undoubtedly leaves the impression that the judicial system is little more than a dressed-up political body, just another place where the ever fiercer partisan battle lines and tribal loyalties come into play.

Admittedly, there have indeed been recent non-Supreme Court decisions, too, that seem to suggest former President Trump succeeded in creating a more political judicial system when he pushed through over 200 judicial confirmations — some of them deemed by the American Bar Association unqualified for the bench, nearly all of them deemed loyal to the conservative doctrine of originalism — in the hope that they would rule favorably for him. (“If it’s my judges, you know how they’re gonna decide,” was Trump’s classic comment during the 2016 presidential campaign.) In Florida, for instance, Trump-appointed Judge Aileen Cannon has handed down one mystifying ruling after another in the ongoing litigation over the ex-president’s refusal to hand over all the classified and non-classified documents he took with him to his Mar-a-Lago estate. But there are far more Trump-appointed judges who have reviewed and dismissed legal challenges to the 2020 election or presided fairly over the criminal prosecution of various January 6th rioters. “There was nothing patriotic about what happened that day — far from it,” Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, said in August. “It was a national disgrace.”

The Speed of Truth

Thinking back to that courtroom in Alexandria in 2018, I learned a lesson: The truth moves slowly. Far more slowly than the velocity of a viral tweet or an infuriating Facebook post. The first story you encounter online about a major world event or a breaking-news story may not be the most accurate version of what happened, if it’s accurate at all. Truth takes time to reveal itself. That time can feel longer than ever in a world where we’ve become conditioned to believe that we can have all the facts at our fingerprints in an instant. Make us wait and we lose interest.

The five years I spent reporting for my just-published book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, put this lesson about truth into greater relief. The book chronicles one of the most searing truth crises of the last five years — the story of a young man, Seth Rich, whose death became a global conspiracy theory, a partisan talking point, and a Fox News rallying cry. The false and fantastical theories about Rich, a 27-year-old staffer for the Democratic Party who was gunned down on a Washington street in 2016, began spreading mere hours after his murder had been publicly announced. The amplification of those lies happened almost instantaneously, faster than anyone could keep track of them, let alone stop them.

When Rich’s family exhausted their options to correct the record through media interviews and other public statements, they decided their only remaining choice was to seek accountability in a court of law. The Riches sued Fox News and people in Fox’s orbit, and ultimately reached settlements that helped protect the truth and restore Seth’s reputation and memory.

But it took three years of litigation to achieve those outcomes in court. Put another way, it took three long years for the facts and realities of Rich’s life and death to catch up with the fantasies, memes, and conspiracy theories spread about him. Still, at least there remained a venue for Rich’s family to receive a fair hearing, a protected space for an honest accounting of what was true and what wasn’t.

And yet today, that space seems increasingly under threat.

At stake in this year’s midterm elections is control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Much has been written about what a Republican majority might do with its newfound subpoena power should the GOP retake control of the House. But when it comes to the courts, the Senate is crucial, since it controls the judicial confirmation process, approving or blocking nominees to fill dozens of openings across the federal court system. If Mitch McConnell returns to his position as Senate majority leader, it’s a good bet that he’ll thwart President Biden’s attempts to fill those vacancies before the 2024 election.

And if that next presidential contest were to usher in a Republican president (especially you know who), McConnell and his fellow Republicans will again have the power to usher onto the federal bench the next generation of Samuel Alitos and Clarence Thomases. And then, watch out!

The Supreme Court excepted, the judicial system has largely stood firm in the face of a half-decade of Trumpian attacks and a surge in conspiratorial politics. Our judicial branch still remains a refuge for the facts. The question is: How much longer can they hold on?

Laying down our digital arms: Ending America's newest forever war

Andy Kroll, Digital Soldiers in an Online Forever War

Yes, we live in an ever more frightening country. During the pandemic years, Americans went wild buying guns, nearly 20 million of them yearly (and, mind you, such weaponry has only gotten ever more destructive). Meanwhile — thank you, Donald Trump and the other Trumpublicans out there! — threats, whether to future elections or simply our future, only seem to be multiplying. Put down some of it to the way so many Americans now think about this country. A majority of us, especially Republicans, fear and expect (or, in some cases, undoubtedly desire) an actual civil war relatively soon. Meanwhile, somewhere between 20% and 40% of us would, it seems, like to see a “strongman,” assumedly of a Trumpian sort, leading this country into the future. And the threats only continue to multiply. Just last week, for instance, Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that, were the former president indicted for taking classified documents to Mar-a-Lago, “there will be riots in the street.”

Meanwhile, ever more state election landscapes have been turned into gerrymandered nightmares, while ever more Republicans, claiming the last presidential election was stolen, are running for crucial state offices this November. If some of them win, they might indeed control the local results of a national election. In fact, as the Washington Postreported recently, “Across the battleground states that decided the 2020 vote, candidates who deny the legitimacy of that election have claimed nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with authority over elections.”

In such a world, it’s hard not to wonder how we Americans arrived at such a moment of chaos, confusion, and danger first class. Fortunately, journalist Andy Kroll has some thoughts on how the “last superpower” on Planet Earth ended up in such a state of disturbed and disturbing chaos. In his just-published book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, and today at TomDispatch, he explores the pathways we’ve taken from our disastrous war on terror abroad to wildly disturbed and conspiratorial thinking right here at home through the life of one (murdered) young man.

Honestly, as someone who once ate a pizza at the very Washington, D.C., pizzeria that became the focus of the crazed Pizzagate conspiracy theory, I can’t help but think that I’m truly living through the increasingly disturbing decline of that last superpower. Tom

America’s Forever Wars Go Viral A Foundational Conspiracy Theory for the Twenty-First Century

The three men and three women stood with their right arms raised. Behind them the remains of the daylight hued the sky a bluish gray. As a fire danced at their feet, they gazed straight ahead at a camera recording their words. The square-jawed man in the middle, retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, spoke first. The others, including members of his family, repeated after him.

“I do solemnly swear…”

I…do solemnly swear…

“That I will support and defend…”

That I will support and defend…

“The Constitution of the United States…”

The Constitution of the United States…

The setting for this oath-taking ceremony wasn’t West Point or a U.S. military base. It looked like someone’s backyard, and instead of formal military uniforms, the six participants wore khaki shorts, hoodies, and, in the case of one woman, a white dress decorated with political catchphrases such as “crooked Hillary,” “sleepy Joe,” and “rocket man.” After they had finished reciting the Army’s oath of office, Flynn added a final line: “Where we go one, we go all.”

Where we go one, we go all!

On July 4, 2020, Flynn uploaded this video and the hashtag “#TakeTheOath” to his Twitter account and shared it with his 781,000 followers.

His video quickly went viral and triggered a wave of news coverage. Those seven words Flynn tacked onto the end of the officer’s oath — “Where we go one, we go all” — had first appeared in a mediocre 1990s movie, White Squall, starring Jeff Bridges. More recently, though, the phrase and its acronym, WWG1WGA, had become a rallying cry associated with QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy theory about a supposed cabal of pedophile elites in the Democratic Party and Hollywood who secretly run the world, while harvesting the adrenal glands of children in order to live forever. The Flynn family insisted that the oath was a family tradition having nothing to do with QAnon. (Flynn’s relatives even sued media outlets that claimed a connection.)

In the two years since that moment, what strikes me about that video isn’t the possibility of a QAnon connection, which, to be clear, the Flynn family has unequivocally denied. What stays with me is the pseudo-oath itself and what it catches about this moment in our history.

As you’ll undoubtedly recall, in 2017, Flynn briefly served as President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, a post he held until it emerged that he had misled the FBI and Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 election campaign. Before that, Flynn had served as a top intelligence officer in Iraq and then Afghanistan, where he worked closely with General Stanley McChrystal who commanded American forces there in 2009 and 2010.

After that perjury scandal drove him out of the Trump administration — don’t cry for Flynn; the president would later pardon him — Flynn returned to civilian life. And yet, to hear him tell it, he never left the battlefield. Where once he had led intelligence officers and trained soldiers in the Middle East, he began speaking about a different kind of battle space. Now, Flynn talks about armies of “digital soldiers” who’ve led an “insurgency” against the political establishment not abroad but right here in America. Flynn has even trademarked the phrase “digital soldiers” and has been listed as a speaker at a Digital Soldiers Conference.

“This was not an election,” he assured the attendees of a Young Americans for Freedom conference. “This was a revolution.”

It’s become common enough to talk about all the ways our wars have “come home.” By this, however, what’s usually meant is the way the veterans of this century’s all-American conflicts continue to grapple with physical disabilities or mental trauma; or perhaps the military-grade vehicles and weaponry the Pentagon has, in these years, handed out to police departments nationwide; or even the way Pentagon budgets continue to soar while lawmakers so often have trimmed federal funding for education, health care, and other safety-net activities.

But after spending the last five years writing a book about conspiracy theories, online cultures, and the real-world harm of digital disinformation, I’ve noticed another way our forever wars have come home. America’s war-making mindset now dominates basic aspects of our domestic political landscape, transforming what once were civil disagreements into a form of partisan or ideological combat. Michael Flynn and his digital soldiers are just symptoms of a country in which members of rival parties or tribes view each other as subhuman, as nothing short of the enemy. And the online spaces where those parties increasingly meet — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms — feel ever less like the proverbial public square and ever more like so many war zones.

In this online battlespace, victory is fleeting and defeat never final, but the casualties are all too real — of fact and truth, memory and reality. I know this because I’ve spent half a decade walking the trenches of those digital forever wars as I pieced together the story of one of their casualties. I was seeking to understand how we got here and whether there’s a way out.

His Name Was Seth Rich

In the early morning hours of July 10, 2016, 27-year-old Seth Rich was walking home from a bar in northwest Washington, D.C. He worked for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), that party’s central organizing hub, and was on the cusp of accepting a job with Hillary Clinton’s campaign and so fulfilling a childhood dream of working on a presidential run. Rich was two blocks from his house when he was shot and killed in what police believe was an attempted armed robbery.

In the months to come, however, his murder would reverberate all too eerily through Washington and across the country. It was hard not to feel grief upon learning that such a bright light had been extinguished so cruelly and suddenly. As it happened, Rich and I even had friends in common. We had played on the same weekend recreational soccer team. In fact, our biographies weren’t all that different — two Midwestern guys, him from Nebraska, me from Michigan, who had moved to Washington after college to try to leave our marks on the world, him in politics and me in journalism. When I learned about his murder, I felt a profound sadness. I also couldn’t shake a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I feeling that it could’ve been me after a late night out with friends.

Once Rich’s family had laid him to rest in his native Omaha, I expected, like so many others, that the brief frenzy of attention his death had brought would simply vanish. The nosy reporters and TV cameramen would move on to their next story. Rich’s family would receive the space they needed to grieve. They and his friends would gather to remember him on the anniversary of his death or his birthday. They’d tell stories about the head-to-toe Stars-and-Stripes outfits he sometimes wore or his obsession with The West Wing TV show. Perhaps they’d even toast his memory with pints of his favorite beer, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale.

But that isn’t what happened. Not faintly.

As the police search for Rich’s killer or killers dragged on, a howling mob began to fill the void. Wild speculation and fantastical theories about his death started to appear online with viral hashtags — #IAmSethRich, #HisNameWasSethRich, #SethRich — while memes surfaced on political message boards leading, eventually, to elaborate conspiracy theories that would spread globally. Those theories initially originated on the far left, with claims (lacking a shred of evidence) that Rich had been killed by the Clinton family for trying to blow the whistle on or expose wrongdoing by the DNC.

And then, like a virus jumping from host to host, a new version of that conspiracy theory took a firm hold on the far right, its promoters insisting — again, without a scintilla of evidence — that Rich, not Russian-affiliated hackers (as concluded by cybersecurityexperts, federal law enforcement, and the U.S. intelligence community), had hacked the DNC and stolen tens of thousands of its emails and other records, later providing those pilfered documents to the radical transparency group WikiLeaks. After WikiLeaks published those stolen DNC documents at the height of the 2016 campaign, its founder Julian Assange, in an apparent attempt to obfuscate the source of those records, dangled Rich’s name in a way that suggested he, not Russia, might have been the source.

In the hands of onlinecommenters, political operatives like Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone, crowdfunded MAGA influencers, and primetime Fox News hosts including Sean Hannity, the story of Seth Rich’s life and death would then be warped into something altogether different: a foundational conspiracy theory for the twenty-first century.

Casualty of a Culture War

My book about the Rich saga, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, began when I asked myself a simple question: How could that young man’s death have grown into something so vast and hideous? And what did it say about this increasingly strange country, our ever more perverse politics, and what may lie in our future? Put another way, I wanted to know how a regular guy, someone not so different from me, could become the fixation of millions, his name and face strewn across the Internet, his life story exploited and contorted until it became unrecog­nizable to those who knew him.

With time, I came to see Rich’s life and death as a genuine, if grim, parable for twenty-first-century America — a “skeleton key” potentially capable of unlocking so many doors leading toward a clearer understanding of how we ended up here. By here, of course, I mean a nation millions of whose citizens believe that the last election was stolen or fraudulent, that Covid vaccines can’t be trusted, and that only Donald Trump can defeat the secret cabal of pedophile elites and “deep state” operatives who supposedly pull all the strings in America.

As I write in my new book, we now live in:

a time when it feels like truth is what­ever the loudest and most extreme voices say it is, not where the evi­dence leads, what the data show, or what the facts reveal. A moment when people can say whatever they want about anyone else, dead or alive, famous or obscure, and in the wrong hands, that information can take on a life of its own.

But it wasn’t until I rewatched Michael Flynn’s 2020 #TakeTheOath video that I saw the connection between America’s disastrous forever wars and its fractured political system at home.

A vicious conspiracy theory such as QAnon or Pizzagate, a dark and disturbing fiction about a supposed child-trafficking operation run by Democratic Party leaders out of a D.C. pizzeria, does more than advance some fantastical and wildly implausible claim about a group of people. It dehumanizes them. By accusing someone of the most evil acts imaginable, you rob him or her of humanity and dignity. In the simplest yet most warlike terms imaginable, you cast them as the enemy, as someone to be defeated — if not with real weapons, then with cruel tweets and deceptive videos.

And of course, there’s no shortage of evidence that digital soldiering can lead to actual violence. In December 2016, a North Carolina man who had watched Pizzagate videos online drove to that D.C. pizza joint targeted by conspiracy theories, walked inside armed with an AR-15 rifle, and fired three shots into a closet. He believed himself on a mission to save the children. Instead, he received a four-year prison sentence. And it’s only gotten worse since. The January 6, 2021, insurrection might have been the starkest evidence that Internet-fueled fantasies — in that case, of a stolen presidential election — could have grave consequences in the actual world.

The casualties of such conspiracy theories are all too real. Four Trump supporters died on January 6th during the insurrection, while multiple police officers at the Capitol that day would die in the weeks that followed. And even though Seth Rich was killed by an unknown assailant — the investigation into his homicide remains ongoing — you could say that he, too, was a casualty of our online wars. His name and memory were twisted and weaponized into something wholly unrecognizable, then harnessed for causes he would never have endorsed by people he would have been unlikely to agree with. Seth’s mother, Mary, once described to an interviewer what all this felt like to her: “Your son is murdered again and this time it’s worse than the first time. We lost his body the first time and the second time we lost his soul.”

Lay Down Your Digital Arms

What, if anything, can be done to demobilize those armies of digital soldiers? What could convince people to lay down their “arms” and treat so many of the rest of us with humanity, even if they disagreed with us?

I’ve thought a lot about such questions in the past several years. The spread of online disinformation has been deemed a crisis by experts and watchdogs — in 2020, former president Barack Obama called it “the single biggest threat to our democracy” — but what to do about it is an especially thorny question in a country with strong protections for free speech.

There are any number of ideas floating around about how to combat disinformation and conspiracy theories, while putting facts and truth back at the heart of our political system. Those include forcing Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to rework their algorithms to deemphasize hyperbolic content and using “prebunks” before such deceptive information appears to inoculate people against it rather than having to debunk it later.

I have a few ideas of my own after spending five years on a book significantly about the conspiracy theories spreading ever more widely and wildly in our world. But let me here just offer a couple of modest suggestions for each of us in our daily lives.

The first is simple enough: Think before you post. (Or tweet, or TikTok, or whatever.) Disinformation spreads because people — and occasionally bots — spread it, sometimes on purpose, but often enough remarkably unwittingly. Before you retweet that spicy takedown tweet or share a friend’s fiery Facebook post, read it again and think twice. Check that it’s real. And take a moment to ponder whether adding your voice to a growing din of outrage is really what this world of ours needs right now.

The second suggestion is something of a throwback: Put down your devices. Talk to a neighbor. Talk to a stranger. In person. It’s a lot harder to demonize or dehumanize someone you disagree with if you meet them face to face. It’s an old-school solution to a decidedly postmodern problem. Still, it may, in the end, be the only reasonable way to defuse this fraught political moment — one where, in a distinctly over-armed country, all too many Americans are dreaming about a future civil war — and find our way back to something approaching common ground.

How a secretive billionaire handed his fortune to the architect of the right-wing takeover of the courts

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

An elderly, ultra-secretive Chicago businessman has given the largest known donation to a political advocacy group in U.S. history — worth $1.6 billion — and the recipient is one of the prime architects of conservatives’ efforts to reshape the American judicial system, including the Supreme Court.

Through a series of opaque transactions over the past two years, Barre Seid, a 90-year-old manufacturing magnate, gave the massive sum to a nonprofit run by Leonard Leo, who co-chairs the conservative legal group the Federalist Society.

The donation was first reported by The New York Times on Monday. The Lever and ProPublica confirmed the information from documents received independently by the news organizations.

Our reporting sheds additional light on how the two men, one a judicial kingmaker and the other a mysterious but prolific donor to conservative causes, came together to create a political war chest that will likely supercharge efforts to further shift American politics to the right.

As President Donald Trump’s adviser on judicial nominations, Leo helped build the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, which recently eliminated Constitutional protections for abortion rights and has made a series of sweeping pro-business decisions. Leo, a conservative Catholic, has both helped select judges to nominate to the Supreme Court and directed multimillion dollar media campaigns to confirm them.

Leo derives immense political power through his ability to raise huge sums of money and distribute those funds throughout the conservative movement to influence elections, judicial appointments and policy battles. Yet the biggest funders of Leo’s operation have long been a mystery.

Seid, who led the surge protector and data-center equipment maker Tripp Lite for more than half a century, has been almost unknown outside a small circle of political and cultural recipients. The gift immediately vaults him into the ranks of major funders like the Koch brothers and George Soros.

In practical terms, there are few limitations on how Leo’s new group, the Marble Freedom Trust, can spend the enormous donation. The structure of the donation allowed Seid to avoid as much as $400 million in taxes. Thus, he maximized the amount of money at Leo’s disposal.

Now, Leo, 56, is positioned to finance his already sprawling network with one of the largest pools of political capital in American history. Seid has left his legacy to Leo.

“To my knowledge, it is entirely without precedent for a political operative to be given control of such an astonishing amount of money,” said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance lawyer at the nonpartisan watchdog group Documented. “Leonard Leo is already incredibly powerful, and now he is going to have over a billion dollars at his disposal to continue upending our country’s institutions.”

In a statement to the Times, Leo said it was “high time for the conservative movement to be among the ranks of George Soros, Hansjörg Wyss, Arabella Advisors and other left-wing philanthropists, going toe-to-toe in the fight to defend our constitution and its ideals.” Leo and representatives for Seid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Marble Freedom Trust is a so-called dark money group that is not required to publicly disclose its donors. It has wide latitude to spend directly on elections as well as on ideological projects such as funding issue-advocacy groups, think tanks, universities, religious institutions and organizing efforts.

The creators of the Marble Freedom Trust shrouded their project in secrecy for more than two years.

The group’s name does not appear in any public database of business, tax or securities records. The Marble Freedom Trust is organized for legal purposes as a trust, rather than as a corporation. That means it did not have to publicly disclose basic details like its name, directors and address.

The trust was formed in Utah. Its address is a house in North Salt Lake owned by Tyler Green, a lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Green is listed in the trust’s tax return as an administrative trustee. The donation does not appear to violate any laws.

Seid’s $1.6 billion donation is a landmark in the era of deregulated political spending ushered in by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. That case, along with subsequent changes and weak federal oversight, empowered a tiny group of the super rich in both parties to fund groups that can spend unlimited sums to support candidates and political causes. In the last decade, donations in the millions and sometimes tens of millions of dollars have become common.

Individuals could give unlimited amounts of money to nonprofit groups prior to Citizens United, but the decision allowed those nonprofits to more directly influence elections. A handful of billionaires such as the Koch family and Soros have spent billions to achieve epochal political influence by bankrolling networks of nonprofits.

Even in this money-drenched world, Seid’s $1.6 billion gift exceeds all publicly known one-time donations to a politically oriented group.

The Silent Donor

One day in November 2015, the employees of Tripp Lite, a manufacturer of power strips and other electrical equipment, gathered for a celebration at the company’s headquarters on the South Side of Chicago. Cupcakes frosted in blue and white spelled out the numbers “56.” An easel held up a sign hailing Tripp Lite’s longtime leader: “Congratulations Barre!”

A small, balding man with a white goatee and a ruddy complexion took the microphone. Barre Seid was known as someone who preferred to keep a low profile, but on the 56th anniversary of his leadership of Tripp Lite, he couldn’t resist the chance to address his employees. Later, as he bit into a cupcake, Seid posed for a company photographer, who later uploaded the photo to the company’s Facebook page.

Even this semipublic glimpse of Seid was rare.

For several decades, a select group of political activists, academics and fundraisers was ushered to Tripp Lite headquarters to pitch Seid at his office. Despite his status as one of the country’s most prolific funders of conservative causes, and despite his decades as the president and sole owner of one of the country’s most successful electronics makers, Seid has spent most of his 90 years painstakingly guarding his privacy.

There are no art galleries, opera companies, or theaters or university buildings emblazoned with his name in his hometown of Chicago. There’s even some confusion over how to pronounce his last name. (People who’ve dealt with him say it’s “side.”)

The Lever and ProPublica pieced together the details of his life and his motivations for his extensive donations through interviews, court records and other documents obtained through public-records requests.

One of the only photos of Seid that The Lever and ProPublica could find shows him as a 14-year-old walking in a small group across a college campus. Born in 1932 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Seid grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the oldest of two brothers, according to Census records. A precocious child, he was chosen for a special bachelor’s degree program at the University of Chicago, not far from his childhood home.

Seid attended the University of Chicago in the early years of the “Chicago school,” a group of professors and researchers who would reimagine the field of economics, assailing massive government interventions in the economy and emphasizing the importance of human liberty and free markets. After college, Seid served two years in the Army and eventually returned home to Chicago, according to testimony given decades later in a court case. He took a job as an assistant to an investor and businessman named Graham Trippe, whose company made headlights and would produce the rotating warning lights used by police cars, tow trucks and other emergency response vehicles.

By the mid-1960s, Seid had taken over as Trippe Manufacturing’s president. In the decades to come, the company, now called Tripp Lite, became a pick-and-shovel business of the digital gold rush. The company sells the power strips that supply electricity to computers and the server racks, cooling equipment and network switches that make data centers run. Business surged with the shift to cloud computing and the proliferation of vast data centers.

That boom vaulted him from the ranks of merely rich to the superrich. Seid was making around $30 million per year by the mid-1990s, tax records obtained by ProPublica show. His annual income, the vast majority of which came from Tripp Lite’s profits, took off in the mid-2000s and steadily rose, hitting around $157 million in 2018. Tripp Lite, which was 100% owned by Seid, contributed $136 million to his total income that year.

Even as Seid built a billion-plus dollar business, he drew scant public attention; Forbes never put him on its list of the wealthiest Americans, and business and political press rarely mentioned him.

Yet he was becoming a major donor. He gave at least $775 million in charitable donations between 1996 and 2018, a period in which he reported $1.7 billion in income, according to his tax records. Seid parceled out a small portion of those donations to Chicago-area universities, religious organizations, medical research and dozens of civic-focused groups.

While Seid has never spoken to the press about his ideology, evidence of his worldview has emerged here and there. His family foundation has supported the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics, named after two of the Chicago school’s intellectual leaders, Gary Becker and Milton Friedman. He has also donated to the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has a history of using inflammatory rhetoric and misleading tactics to undermine climate science.

Seid appeared to be the donor (listed as “Barry Seid”) who gave $17 million to fund the distribution during the 2008 presidential campaign of millions of copies of a DVD of the film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War With the West.” The DVDs, which were sent specifically to households in presidential election battleground states, were criticized as virulently anti-Muslim.

Seid’s personality can be glimpsed in exchanges with George Mason University officials from the late 2000s to mid-2010s that came out in response to a public-records request by the activist group UnKoch My Campus. In the emails, Seid comes across as an intellectually probing figure, asking the dean of the law school to respond to news stories about the value of a law-school degree or the workings of higher education’s accreditation system. Seid drily addressed several administrators for the university, whose law school and economics department are known for their alignment with conservative, free-market principles, as “Fellow Members of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.”

Seid appears to have continually sought new vehicles for dispensing his money and maintaining as much anonymity as possible. The GMU emails also show a redacted donor — who activists believed to be Seid based on other unredacted materials — routing donations to the school through DonorsTrust or the Donors Capital Fund, two donor-advised funds that provide an additional level of anonymity.

While the roots of Seid and Leo’s professional relationship aren’t clear, the two worked together at a small foundation Seid formed in 2009 called the Chicago Freedom Trust, a charity that gave out small grants to nonpolitical groups. Leo later joined the foundation’s board.

The GMU emails provide an inkling of the relationship between the two men. In early 2016, Seid emailed the dean of GMU’s law school and the head of a prominent American Jewish organization to urge them to work together. The dean, Henry Butler, forwarded Seid’s message to Leo seeking to better understand Seid’s intentions.

“Do you have any insight?” Butler wrote.

“I do not, but will find out,” Leo replied.

The Money

Billionaires tend to craft intricate estate plans to pass the family business to the next generation, fortified from taxation and protective of their vision. The apparently childless Seid didn’t have that option, but starting in April 2020, he set in motion a plan to make sure his fortune would go toward his favored causes.

That month, the Marble Freedom Trust was created, and Seid subsequently transferred his 100% ownership stake in Tripp Lite to the trust, according to the documents reviewed by The Lever and ProPublica.

In February 2021, Tripp Lite filed its annualreports with the state of Illinois as it had done for decades. But this time, Seid’s typewritten name had been crossed out as an officer of the company. Added as an officer, written in by hand, was Leonard Leo.

A Tripp Lite subsidiary in Nova Scotia, Canada, similarly removed Seid as a director and added Leo as a director in March 2021, according to disclosure filings.

Then, later that same month, Eaton Corporation, a large publicly traded company, acquired Tripp Lite for $1.65 billion.

The transactions appear to have been carefully sequenced to reap massive tax savings. Selling a company that has grown in value after decades of ownership is treated the same way for tax purposes as a person selling a share of stock. If the property has grown in value, capital gains taxes are due when it is sold.

But Seid transferred Tripp Lite to the Marble Freedom Trust, a nonprofit that is exempt from income tax, before the electronics company was sold. As a result, lawyers say, Seid avoided up to $400 million in state and federal income tax, preserving those funds for Leo’s operation.

“If the person who had owned the stock had sold the stock himself, he would’ve been taxed on the appreciation in the stock,” said Ellen Aprill, a tax law professor at Loyola Marymount University. “Whereas if you give it to the 501(c)(4), there’s no charitable deduction for giving the money, but you avoid the tax on all of that appreciation.”

Political advocacy nonprofits like the Marble Freedom Trust are formally called 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, after the section of the tax code. Informally, they are known as dark-money groups because donors can remain secret, in contrast to the public disclosures required of gifts to political campaigns or super PACs. While they can spend money directly advocating for or against candidates in political campaigns, such spending cannot be their primary purpose.

In giving to such a dark money group, Seid also avoided another federal levy, the gift tax, thanks to a change signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015.

There’s a reason why giving money specifically to a trust might have been attractive for an older and ideological donor such as Seid. The founding documents that lay out how the trust will spend money can be harder to change than the governing documents of a corporation, according to Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School.

Mayer added that while corporations usually have at least three directors, trusts can have just a single trustee in charge of the organization’s activities.

Leo is the trustee and chairman of the Marble Freedom Trust. In other words, Leo is now in charge of the massive sum of money.

The Rainmaker

For decades, Leo had served as a top executive at the Federalist Society, helping lead the influential Washington-based conservative lawyers group that serves as a launching pad for careers on the right.

But in early 2020, Leo made an announcement that suggested he was taking his successful model for reshaping the courts to remake American politics at every level: local, state and federal. In an interview with Axios, Leo said he was stepping away from his day-to-day role with the Federalist Society to take a more active role steering a network of conservative dark money groups.

The plan was to expand the network’s scope to “funnel tens of millions of dollars into conservative fights around the country,” according to Axios. What Leo did not mention in the interview was the imminent creation of the Marble Freedom Trust, his biggest-ever war chest.

Leo’s long career as both a legal activist and a prodigious fundraiser for conservative causes shows a steady march toward becoming a central figure in the Republican Party’s successful strategy to fill as many judicial vacancies as possible with young, conservative judges skeptical of the federal government’s power. He served as an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, helping the candidate take a step no other major presidential candidate had ever taken: releasing a list of names he would draw on to nominate to the Supreme Court.

Coming at a moment when conservatives were wary of Trump’s past leanings, the move bolstered his support among social conservatives. Leo stayed on as a judicial adviser during Trump’s four years in office. During that time, Leo helped the president appoint and confirm more than 200 nominees to the federal bench, most famously Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Leo’s efforts to reshape the country’s judicial system began long before Trump’s political ascent. In 1991, he joined the Federalist Society, which was then in its early years and only beginning to build a pipeline for conservative jurists.

In the view of Leo and his allies, the U.S. legal system had drifted dangerously far from its roots, establishing privileged classes and doctrines that were not enumerated in the Constitution and would be unrecognizable to the Founders. Those same courts had also empowered a class of unelected bureaucrats dubbed the “administrative state” to impose needless regulations and to endow the federal government with too much power. Like his close friend Justice Antonin Scalia, Leo argued for an originalist view of the Constitution — namely, that the country’s founding document should be interpreted strictly based on how its 18th century authors understood its words at the time.

In 2005, Leo and his allies formed a dark money network to rally support for George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. But if Leo wanted to turn back the tide of what he saw as unchecked judicial activism, he needed to build something bigger, more lasting.

Leo set out to create a network of interlocking groups that could each play a part in returning the country to what he saw as its roots, whether by training future generations of Scalias, funding scholarship that made the case for originalism or bankrolling efforts to install conservative judges on the bench.

Between 2005 and mid-2021, Leo and his associates raised at least $460 million (not including the Marble Freedom Trust’s funds).

According to tax records, Leo’s network has funneled those hundreds of millions into ad campaigns and right-leaning groups. The Judicial Crisis Network — which is now called the Concord Fund and is headed by a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and Leo associate named Carrie Severino — has spent tens of millions airing ads during Supreme Court confirmation fights.

The group’s fundraising took off in 2016, when it led a campaign to block Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland’s confirmation. That year, Leo’s network received a $28 million infusion from a single anonymous donor. Leo and his network long refused to say who is paying for their advocacy campaigns.

Leo’s network has worked closely with Senate Republicans and has showered them with cash as well, recently donating $9 million to a dark money group affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

While Leo is best known for his influence on the Supreme Court, he and his network have also worked to shift the balance of power throughout the judiciary — in federal district and appellate courts, and state supreme courts, too.

At the state level, the network funds groups supporting conservative gubernatorial and legislative candidates. Leo’s nonprofits and their subsidiaries have recently pushed states to tighten voting laws, opposed the teaching of critical race theory in schools and financed organizations pressing states to remove millions of Americans from the Medicaid rolls.

But now, with Seid’s largesse, Leo has nearly four times the amount he raised over 16 years at his disposal and ambitions to match.

“I have a very simple rule, which is, I’m engaged in the battle of ideas, and I care very deeply about our Constitution and the role of courts in our society,” Leo told The Washington Post in 2019 when asked about his donors. “And I don’t waste my time on stories that involve money and politics because what I care about is ideas.”

Meet the Powerful Billionaire Family Hell Bent on Imposing Their Right-Wing Agenda and Defunding the Left

The following article first appeared in Mother Jones.  For more great content, subscribe here. 

Despite declining membership, nearly 20 percent of Michigan's workforce belonged to unions and, as in other union-heavy states, right-to-work had long been a right-wing fantasy. For decades, the lone voice on the issue was the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a state-level think tank founded in 1987 to spread free-market ideas and antagonize the unions. (In a June 2011 email obtained byProgress Michigan, a Mackinac Center staffer told a state lawmaker: "Our goal is [to] outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA.") The DeVoses are among the center's biggest financial backers, and Dick served on its board of directors. Still, despite a flurry of policy briefs and op-eds produced by the Mackinac Center, the issue remained a nonstarter. "We never had the sense that the votes were there to get it done," John Engler, the former governor, told the National Review in 2012. "A lot of Republicans weren't ready to deal with the issue. Labor was too strong."

Studying McInturff's polling numbers, DeVos and Weiser saw a shift in the political winds. Early in 2008, they dined in Washington, DC, with former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who in 2001 became the first governor in nearly a decade to sign a right-to-work bill into law. He knew just how fierce the fight could be. Keating advised DeVos and Weiser to hold off on right-to-work until they'd elected a Republican governor and, ideally, taken full control of the Legislature. (Democrats controlled the state House at the time.) "That resonated hugely with Dick," says one friend. "He said, 'I'm for this, but until we have a governor who's going to champion it, we need to bide our time.' So it went on the shelf."

In 2009, with DeVos' help, Weiser was elected as the state GOP chair, and he led the party to a landslide in 2010, winning every state-level race. But the new Republican governor, Rick Snyder, resisted right-to-work, saying repeatedly it was "not on my agenda." Watching his fellow Class of '10 governors—especially Scott Walker in neighboring Wisconsin—clash with organized labor dampened Snyder's enthusiasm for the "very divisive" issue.

But some of the Legislature's Republican members wanted this fight. A small but vocal group of them had campaigned on right-to-work and agitated for the issue as soon as the 2011-12 session convened. "It was kind of like the kid on the way to Disney World saying, 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'" recalled Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck.

As the chorus grew louder, the unions decided to launch a preemptive strike. In July 2012, they got an amendment on the ballot that would enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. Known as Proposition 2, the ballot measure sent labor's enemies into overdrive. "The minute that thing got on the ballot, we knew we needed to mobilize quickly," says Greg McNeilly, Dick and Betsy's longtime political adviser.

That summer, a group of GOP lawmakers and business leaders—McNeilly won't say who—asked DeVos and Weiser (who served as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee in 2012) to lead the charge to defeat Proposition 2. They gladly took on the job—DeVos called Prop. 2 "a head-shot at Michigan's recovery"—but they had bigger things in mind: With McNeilly, who managed the anti-Prop. 2 campaign, DeVos and Weiser sketched out a strategy to defeat the measure, then use the political momentum to pass right-to-work immediately afterward. They also strategized about every other possible obstacle: defending the law from a possible legal challenge, beating a constitutional amendment to repeal it, and protecting Republican lawmakers from recall elections.

They began the anti-Prop. 2 effort in September. Polls showed that 60 percent of voters supported the measure, but DeVos and Weiser tapped their national donor networks, hauling in millions from Las Vegas gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, Texas investor Harold Simmons, and a slew of Michigan business groups. Ten DeVos family members pitched in with a combined $2 million. The DeVos-backed campaign ran hundreds of ads in the two months before the vote, claiming the measure would give unions far too much power, cost the state more than $1.6 billion, and imperil student safety by making it impossible to fire negligent teachers.

By Election Day, the two sides had spent a total of $47 million, making it the most expensive ballot measure in Michigan history. Voters defeated Prop. 2 by a 15-point margin. DeVos and Weiser wasted no time moving to the next phase of their plan.
 

DESPITE THE DEFEAT of Prop. 2, the unions believed all was not lost. Most Republican lawmakers seemed to have no stomach for another battle with organized labor. Days after the November elections, Mike Jackson, the carpenters' union head, dined in Lansing with a handful of Republican state senators who assured him they didn't support right-to-work. Other Republicans worried that a right-to-work push could lead to recalls. "At the time, I thought it was the dumbest thing we could've done politically," says one GOP legislative aide.

In public, Snyder insisted that right-to-work was still not on his agenda. Privately, his aides met with labor and suggested that concessions on other issues would keep the bill off the table. All the while, though, DeVos and his team were furiously whipping the vote. In the weeks before the start of the lame-duck session, DeVos personally called dozens of state lawmakers, pledging his support if the unions threatened recalls or primary challenges.

A week before the lame duck began, on November 20, 2012, DeVos and Weiser met with members of the Republican leadership, business bigwigs, and the top legislative aide to Gov. Snyder to pitch their plan. Snyder and the GOP leadership were still queasy, fearing a Wisconsin-style revolt; where the protesters in Madison had ultimately failed, in Michigan, a labor stronghold, they just might prevail. "There was all this hemming and hawing," says one attendee.

"What do you guys need to hear?" DeVos asked. "What can we do to help?"

A plan, came the reply. A plan showing that they wouldn't be committing political suicide.

McNeilly, DeVos' political adviser, took the floor. He had recently formed a nonprofit group called the Michigan Freedom Fund. It planned to raise millions from the DeVos family and other donors. McNeilly's pollster was testing DeVos' "freedom-to-work" message statewide. And the group was plotting a statewide ad blitz to give air cover to Republican lawmakers. By the time McNeilly finished talking, the mood in the room had shifted from apprehensive to optimistic. "Sitting around that table we felt like a rag-tag grouping of Davids, in the historic Biblical story," DeVos told me in an email. "But we left the table committed to doing our best to change Michigan's future for the better."

By now it was down to a few Republicans on the fence, and the heavy artillery came in. According to labor lobbyists and House and Senate Republican staffers, several undecided GOP lawmakers received threats of primary challenges from Team DeVos if they opposed right-to-work. One House Republican told me that Weiser called him up to suggest he'd have difficulties in the future if he voted no. The message, according to another wavering lawmaker's aide, was clear: "We will run you out of town."

In early December, the Michigan Freedom Fund unleashed itsfreedom-to-work ad campaign. The group also enlisted GOP pollster and communications guru Frank Luntz to help craft a message "bible" that was distributed to every Republican state lawmaker for use during the right-to-work push; it included prepackaged answers to potential questions from constituents and reporters. ("Q. Isn't this really just about trying to break unions? A. Freedom-to-work is about restoring workplace fairness and equality, not curtailing unions.") The Freedom Fund even brought Luntz to Lansing to rally lawmakers. This is your chance to make history, Luntz exhorted them. It's now or never.

On December 6, Snyder shocked the state by announcing that lawmakers would vote on right-to-work that day and that he would sign the legislation when it got to his desk. DeVos worked the phones all the way to the end, even calling several lawmakers on their cellphones as they prepared to cast their votes.

The state legislators who led the right-to-work fight say it was the strategy crafted by DeVos and his allies that convinced hesitant Republicans, not least of them the governor himself, to pull off what DeVos called "the largest shift in public policy in Michigan in a generation."

"[Snyder] needed to see the win plan," recalled Rep. Mike Shirkey—it was what swayed him from "'not on my agenda right now' to 'it just moved to the agenda.'"
 

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2013, hundreds of Republican lawmakers, political operatives, and activists gathered at picturesque Mackinac Island in northern Michigan for the state party'sbiannual leadership conference. The gathering is always held at the Grand Hotel, an extravagant, 126-year-old landmark with sweeping views of Lake Huron. The 2013 guest list was packed with prominent names and 2016 hopefuls: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Karl Rove all had keynote speaking slots.

One of the main attractions was a Saturday morning panel on the right-to-work victory. The panelists included DeVos adviser Greg McNeilly and two Republican lawmakers who were instrumental in the bill's passage. Dick and Betsy DeVos watched from the front row.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck told the crowd that he'd spoken with allies in Illinois, Missouri, and New Hampshire who were interested in passing right-to-work bills of their own. But, he added, conservatives in those states were waiting to see if Michigan Republicans could hold on to their law—and their majority—in 2014. "If we demonstrate that we can defend the high ground, just like Gov. Scott Walker did in Wisconsin, you give courage pills to every state legislator and every state legislature across the country."

"This is the election that seals the deal," said McNeilly. With a GOP victory, "freedom-to-work becomes the new norm."

DeVos and his allies had long since started working toward that goal. Their Michigan Freedom Fund is now a conglomerate of political vehicles, including a charitable foundation, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, and a 527 political committee. "We're not the Chamber of Commerce; we're not the Republican Party," he says. The groups, McNeilly notes, will steer clear of social issues like abortion and gay rights, and instead promote a "freedom agenda" of lowering taxes, slashing regulations, and privatizing public education. The fund will recruit and groom candidates and campaign to send those politicians to Lansing.

The ambitious project is more than a state-level power play: DeVos is part of a wave of superwealthy political activists—think the Koch brothers on the right, the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer on the left—who are operating outside the traditional party system. They are financing their own political infrastructure and setting their own agenda.

And it seems to be working. By pulling off the unthinkable, DeVos and his allies have emboldened conservatives around the country to go on the offensive. Following the passage of right-to-work, DeVos has opened his playbook to lawmakers, activists, and donors nationwide who are interested in following Michigan's lead. "As is often the case in politics generally, timing is critical," DeVos told me. "So the lesson to others is: Be prepared. Invest in the infrastructure necessary to leverage an opportunity when it presents itself." He says other conservatives "are hoping for an opportunity to bring freedom-to-work to their home states" and "have voiced their appreciation for the example Michigan provided." As he told an audience at the annual conference of the conservative State Policy Network in September, "If we can do it in Michigan, you can do it anywhere."

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