DeSantis Is Scheming to Steal the Right-Wing Influencer Vote From Trump

desantis-influencers.jpg Ron DeSantis,Seth Dillon,Babylon Bee - Credit: AP

The Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis teams are fighting each other for donors, endorsements, and staff. But behind the scenes, the Republican rivals are competing on a different, unconventional playing field: the scramble to secure online influencers.

Trump has for years had an army of extremely online supporters only too happy to engage in meme wars on behalf of the former reality-show host. But sources tell Rolling Stone that Team DeSantis has tried to peel off influencers from the MAGA camp, offering access and (in one case) a job to buttress the governor’s online army.

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One of the bigger prizes in this social media contest between the Trump and DeSantis camps is The Babylon Bee, a satirical news site that positions itself as a conservative answer to The Onion. During his presidency, Trump had approvingly retweeted the site’s stories (at times appearing unaware they were fake), and the Bee reciprocated the affection with shots at the president’s enemies.

But in February, the relationship between Trumpworld and the Bee soured when anti-Muslim activist and far-right Trump backer Laura Loomer noticed a $21,500 payment from the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC to the Bee made during the governor’s race and tweeted that Seth Dillon — owner of The Babylon Bee — had claimed to her that the money was for “joke/speechwriting.” In text messages reviewed by Rolling Stone, Dillon claimed to Loomer that the payments were about helping DeSantis fight Democrats, not Trump.

“You could consider us speech writing consultants,” Dillon texted Loomer in one message. “We help him find funny angles on Democrats. We don’t attack Trump for him. That’s silly and false. They have never suggested that we write anything about Trump.”

Behind the scenes, the revelation prompted fury from Trump. A source familiar with the situation tells Rolling Stone that Loomer flagged the payments to Trump during a private dinner. Shortly after, Trump took to his Truth Social account to blast both DeSantis and The Babylon Bee.

“You don’t spend that much money on The Babylon Bee if you’re running for Governor, in fact, you don’t spend money on The Babylon Bee if you’re running for anything!” he wrote.

Some Trump supporters had already been suspicious of the relationship between Dillon and DeSantis. The Bee owner contributed roughly $40,000 to the Florida-based pro-DeSantis Empower Parents PAC shortly before the governor’s reelection in November 2022. DeSantis also invited Dillon to speak at his February press conference rolling out a “Digital Bill of Rights” after the exchange with Loomer, where the Bee executive said he was “thankful to have leadership here in Florida” that was “willing to take action to ensure we all have the right to speak and, yes, to even make jokes in the public square.”

Dillon declined to comment when asked by Rolling Stone. But in a Twitter Spaces conversation recorded last week, he rebutted allegations from Trump supporters that either he or the Bee were pulling for any presidential candidate.

“If a campaign pays you for a specific task or a specific email rental or whatever it is, that doesn’t mean you’re in their pocket and you’re gonna do what they say. Nobody from the DeSantis team has ever given me an order or implied such or ever will give me an order that I will comply with,” he said.

As to the payments cited by Loomer, he said the money was for the DeSantis campaign’s email list rentals, a service often provided by conservative media outlets, and accused her of cropping the 2021 date on them to mislead readers into thinking they were more recent. “We sent emails on his behalf,” Dillon said. “And those dates were cut off.”

“I voted for Trump multiple times. The country was better off when he was running it,” Dillon said after being pressed on his views of the two GOP frontrunners. “I’m good friends with people in the Trump family and so you know this idea that I view MAGA as a whole as a cult and I’m on DeSantis’ team is just silly. I’m not bought and paid by DeSantis.”

The Bee, he added, was a satirical news site and would not be making endorsements.

Dillon’s friendship with another prominent pro-DeSantis voice — Elon Musk —  has also rankled some Trump supporters and raised questions about the publication’s allegiances. Musk has repeatedly signaled his support of DeSantis’ presidential ambitions and offered Twitter as the launchpad for the governor’s campaign announcement during a glitchy Twitter Spaces audio event moderated by the billionaire.

The two also appeared alongside each other in a Twitter exclusive interview on May 31, featuring the Bee’s leadership in conversation with Musk at Twitter’s headquarters. “You made me buy the company,” Musk joked in the interview, a reference to how Twitter’s suspension of the Bee over an anti-trans joke may have motivated Musk’s interest in acquiring the company and eliminating most of its moderation practices.

That suspicion has only heightened over the past week after Dillon fired a Bee employee following a Twitter feud with Christina Pushaw, a top DeSantis flack. Gavin Wax, the Bee’s vice president of marketing and a Trump supporter, tweeted “what’s your fucking problem?” at Pushaw and accused her of liking a tweet accusing him of fraud. Dillon fired Wax publicly after the tweet. In his Twitter Spaces conversation, Dillon said that he made the decision because it was “a pattern of a person who spends his entire day attacking people online with a vile and vulgar language and with the Babylon Bee in his bio.”

Wax remains skeptical. “A lot of Trump supporters have serious questions about the Bee and their leadership’s political leanings,” Wax told Rolling Stone after the incident. “Trump and MAGA diehard supporters were there for the Bee when they were banned on Twitter. Over the last several months many people have become increasingly dismayed. A satire site is now attempting to turn itself into a political outlet.”

Aside from the Bee, the DeSantis campaign has sought to court influencers by offering access to the governor. In January 2022, the governor invited a small crowd of conservative media influencers for a visit with the governor in Tallahassee. Included in the gathering were Josh Hammer, a right-wing Newsweek columnist; BlazeTV’s Dave Rubin; Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson; Lisa Boothe of Fox News; and New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz, along with conservative pundits David Reaboi, John Cardillo, and Jordan Schachtel.

Pushaw has also courted influencers away from the cameras. According to written messages reviewed by Rolling Stone, the DeSantis aide has quietly discussed bringing on at least one notable conservative influencer to make memes for Team DeSantis this year. In February, The Daily Beast also reported that the DeSantis campaign has for months pursued the support of conservative influencers like Christian Walker, the son of failed Georgia Republican senate candidate Herschel Walker, in an effort to appeal directly to potential primary voters.

The idea that the ecosystem of right-wing shitposters has become a significant proxy conflict in the DeSantis-Trump battle for the Republican nomination may seem odd, if not surreal, to some political observers. But for these GOP presidential campaigns, getting enough of these influencers in your tent in 2023 is akin to getting major Fox News or talk-radio hosts in your corner in 2015.

For months, both the Trump and DeSantis camps have viewed the conservative influencer space as important terrain on which to outflank the other candidate during the primary, and have actively strategized to do so. Both Trump and DeSantis have, in the recent past, been presented with lists of influencers who are firmly on their side. The lists include those influencers who are winnable, and those who are lost causes or have even shown signs of defecting, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

“With the decline of the credibility of the mainstream media, credible influencers in conservative social media are very important. Voters are looking for facts and truth. Influencers with credibility are very helpful [for any serious GOP presidential campaign],” John McLaughlin, a longtime pollster for Trump, tells Rolling Stone. “Although Trump, with his Facebook, Twitter, and Truth followers, is the greatest influencer in the world.”

This year, Trump has on several occasions solicited and received updates from aides and other allies on which extremely online right-wing personalities have drifted from him and toward his foe DeSantis. “I, personally, have briefed him on how he’s lost Bill Mitchell, The Babylon Bee, John Cardillo, and some others,” says a person close to Trump. “The [former] president’s reaction is usually, ‘Well, that’s too bad,’ or just saying that they’ll be back soon enough.”

Trump and DeSantis supporters have accused the other camp of paying online supporters. Indeed, when reached for comment on this story, Trump’s spokesman Steven Cheung simply replied on Wednesday, “When an embarrassingly low polling candidate like Ron DeSantis has to pay for both influencers and out-of-state door knockers, it’s very apparent that his campaign is one giant astroturf.” Pushaw did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.

“I don’t understand these people that abandon [Trump]. And you know a lot of them are just getting paid. Well, we know who they are out there,” Catturd2, a prominent pro-Trump influencer said in an appearance on Donald Trump Jr.’s Triggered podcast in April.

Asked whether he’d ever been offered money to switch to walk away from his Trump support, Catturd2 replied that he’d been offered “everything and everything under the sun you can imagine for the last two years.”

Former Trump pundits who do switch to Team Ron may face a backlash, not just from their colleagues in Trumpworld, but their own followers.

“I think I lost about 40 or 50,000 followers on Twitter,” says Bill Mitchell, a former pro-Trump pundit who has since thrown his support to DeSantis. Mitchell was one of the earliest and most influential pro-Trump voices on social media in 2016, according to an MIT study, with a follower count of roughly 418,000 today. “I was expecting that because my base was the true Trump faithful. But I’ve also been adding a lot of DeSantis supporters.”

While the campaigns battle it out over influencers, Mitchell remains less convinced that he and his colleagues are the critical terrain others believe them to be. “To people on social media, it’s important. But if I go out to a local restaurant tonight and poll people — ‘How many of you are on Twitter?’ Nobody is. The average person just isn’t super engaged right now.”

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