In this edition, we’re focused on the Republican side of the presidential race: The rise of the 2024͏ ͏ ͏ ͏ ͏ ͏
with David Weigel
In this edition, we’re focused on the Republican side of the presidential race: The rise of the 2024 conservative influencer, the good news for Donald Trump in a new primary poll, and an interview with GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy after a week where his crusade against “woke capitalism” became especially relevant.
|David Weigel and Shelby Talcott|
The 2024 right-wing influencer primary heats up
The first time Donald Trump retweeted him, Alex Bruesewitz was sitting in his high school study hall. It was early in 2016, and Bruesewitz had dashed off a post about how good the TRUMP logo on the future president’s Chicago tower would look on the White House.
Seven years later, Bruesewitz has more than 307,000 followers on Twitter, more than 30,000 on Trump’s Truth Social network, and a full-time hobby of promoting the ex-president and dunking on supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. At this year’s CPAC, the feud came to life, with sometimes pro-DeSantis influencer John Cardillo (309,000+ Twitter followers) calling the 26-year old a “child soldier” and making fun of a tweet in which he’d mocked the governor’s high-heeled boots.
“I’ve garnered a reputation of being a guy who fights for the MAGA movement, and fights for President Trump,” Brusewitz told Semafor this week. “I’m just a fighter, period.”
Republican voters, caring less about the mainstream media’s political coverage than ever before, are paying more attention to how it’s filtered through conservative influencers. Over the last month, as DeSantis made more moves toward a 2024 bid, the highest-output, highest-reach commentators started to take sides. To tweet, or not to tweet, gossip about DeSantis’s eating habits? To share, or not to share, polls that show Trump building a primary lead?
“I think any pressure is coming from the Trump side,” Cardillo told Semafor. “They've pretty much made it known that if you don't pledge absolute fealty, you're going to be personally viciously attacked.”
It’s becoming clear that the voices that shape conservative conversation are increasingly outside what DeSantis calls “legacy media.” It's an environment where an account named "CatTurd2" has the ear of the world's richest man, and posts by Libs of TikTok about drag shows and transgender issues help drive real-world legislation.
Any doubt about that vanished in the Fox New chat trove that surfaced in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit, which found even its most well-established hosts rushing to play catch-up with their viewers.
So, Shelby Talcott and I asked dozens of GOP strategists to identify who had the most clout with Republican voters. The list was short, with a few names popping up repeatedly.
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The most-cited influencer, by far: Jack Posobiec, who progressives mostly associate with the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and Republicans identify as a powerful, narrative-shaping voice. He has more than 2 million followers on Twitter, nearly six times as many as National Review, and more than 1 million on Truth Social. Two operatives made the very same prediction, that Posobiec will matter as much to future GOP voters as Washington Post columnist George Will did to Republicans a generation ago.
“I'm Trump all the way,” Posobiec told Semafor. “I think he's gonna win. I don't think the primary’s honestly going to be that tough of a contest.”
Cardillo was frequently named as a voice who could push back against anti-DeSantis narratives, a role he played last month after pro-Trump influencer and failed congressional candidate Laura Loomer posted video of MAGA flag-fliers being told not to bring that gear into a DeSantis book-signing.
Most strategists cited Steve Bannon’s ability to drive stories, and to identify Trump’s enemies, from his “War Room” podcast on Real America’s Voice. The Colorado-based channel was repeatedly named as a source that highly active GOP voters watched closely. Like Newsmax, which many Republicans are backing in its fight with DirectTV, it benefited from anger at Fox News’s early, risky, and accurate call that Joe Biden would carry Arizona in 2020.
The arrest of Bannon benefactor Guo Wengui, which the host hasn’t talked about, never came up. What did was Bannon’s CPAC speech this month, sharing the widespread Trump influencer view that Fox News was out to beat the former president and didn’t deserve attention from conservatives.
“[Rupert] Murdoch, you've deemed Trump's not going to be president,” Bannon said. “Well, we've deemed that you're not going to have a network.”
Both Trump and DeSantis have courted the influencers. After a Washington Post profile revealed that Chaya Raichik was behind the ultra-popular Libs of Tik Tok Twitter account, DeSantis personally offered her a bed in his governor’s mansion. Trump later had her over for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. This week, she called out Twitter to her 2 million-plus followers after it added a content warning to a DeSantis tweet that said practitioners of gender-affirming medicine “make money off mutilating” children.
But the consensus was that the new media environment, right now, had more pro-Trump voices than pro-DeSantis voices.
"We have CatTurd, they have Cardillo,” said Bruesewitz. “We have Jack Posobiec, they have Bill Mitchell. I think we’re okay."
- The Daily Mail’s Nikki Schwab reports on the DeSantis influencer romance and how a top presidential contender is actively courting some of the above names.
- NBC News looks at how Trump has wined and dined some of the same rising stars.
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Chicago mayoral contenders Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson met for their second debate on Thursday, hours after Sen. Bernie Sanders followed most progressive groups in endorsing Johnson. (Sanders got 45% of Chicago’s vote in the 2016 primary, and 42% in 2020.) “I'm basically debating with someone who has never managed a budget,” said Vallas, who repeatedly attacked Johnson for supporting a smaller police force. “Here's what I know about budgets: Paul is not good at it,” Johnson shot back. They’ll meet four more times before the election; Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who placed fourth in the Feb. 28 primary, endorsed Johnson on Friday.
Protect Women Ohio, “Fear the Worst.” Last year’s campaign to stop Michigan from enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution tried to change the subject, warning that the ballot language would allow children to get puberty blockers and sex changes. The amendment passed by 14 points, but the new group trying to stop a similar effort in Ohio is using the same approach, warning that passage would mean parents couldn’t protect a girl being “pushed to change her sex” (a topic that is not mentioned in the text of the Ohio proposal).
Janet for Justice, “Social Security.” Wisconsin’s state supreme court race is unfolding like a standard red-versus-blue campaign, as Democrat-backed Janet Protasiewciz portrays Republican-backed Dan Kelly as a right-winger. That has meant a lot of messaging warning that Kelly would ban abortion, but this spot pivots to the safety net, spotlighting a ten year-old Kelly blog post that called Social Security a handout to retirees who weren’t responsible enough to build nest eggs.
Commonwealth PAC, “Kentucky Deserves a Real Conservative.” The PAC backing ex-U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft for governor of Kentucky went negative against Attorney Gen. Daniel Cameron this month, replacing his photo with a teddy bear to portray him as soft. His crime: Not joining an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by Texas and Missouri attorneys general that would have forced President Biden to keep building the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
DeSantis, who’s slipped in some primary polls, is competitive with Trump here. But he has some surprising disadvantages. One is that Republicans aren’t concerned with electability; 59% say they prioritize a candidate agreeing with them over a candidate with a better shot at defeating Joe Biden. Another is that 59% of Republicans say they want to keep Medicare and Social Security “as they are.” Both DeSantis, as a congressman, and Haley, as a candidate, have been open to raising the eligibility age and reducing benefits for younger workers.
The first national, public poll on whether TikTok should be banned finds a sizable generation gap. Voters under 35 oppose the idea by a 2-1 margin. Voters between 35 and 50 are split. Older voters, more likely to turn out, are overwhelmingly in favor of a foreign technology/TikTok ban, with just one in five retirement-age voters against it. Among Republicans, it’s a slam dunk, with 65% favoring a ban — three years after Donald Trump first proposed it, and after growing concerns, among conservatives, that the app is a vector for ideas about gender and race that are ruining young minds. Democrats aren’t as convinced, but 39% still support a ban.
“I know that I lost some major donor support over the weekend over this,” said Vivek Ramswamy. “I don't care.”
The author of “Woke, Inc.,” a multimillionaire entrepreneur who entered the GOP presidential race on Feb. 21, had been on a nonstop tear about Silicon Valley Bank’s failure. He criticized the bailout that depositors got from the bank-funded federal insurance fund, as well as the tantrum by VC investors that made it happen. He also called out banks for lobbying for looser regulations around systemic risks — only to turn around and claim bailouts on that basis.
“This is part of a necessary and overdue financial disciplining of a culture of excess in Silicon Valley,” Ramaswamy told Semafor this week. “It was fed, in part, by the Federal Reserve raining money from on high, like manna from heaven, for 15 years.”
Shelby Talcott: You seem to have a pretty nuanced view of this fallout and collapse that I would argue some other Republicans don't have. For example, we saw Ron DeSantis tell Fox that SVB was too concerned with DEI and politics and that that diverted from them focusing on their core mission.
Vivek Ramaswamy: One of the patterns we've noticed over the last three years, even over the last three weeks since I declared, is that when I say something, we'll get an entire GOP movement, quickly, saying the same things. That includes the frontrunners in this presidential campaign. Part of me is grateful for it. Part of me finds it frustrating.
Anyone wants their ideas to be advanced. The frustrating part is that these issues, they're not simple. They're complicated. If you're just a billiard ball that's going in whatever direction you’re rolled in, you don't actually hit the target. I think that characterizes the state of most Republican politicians today. I think it characterizes most of the people in the Republican field.
I think we need a leader in the White House who isn't just a follower. There's a time and place for political candidates who can take the football and run with a 9-9-9 plan or a social security reform package. But if you're talking about reviving a national identity, in the face of cultural challenges that go beyond those just strictly posed by government — I think you need somebody who can understand those challenges deeply.
Shelby: I'm wondering if you think the DeSantis answer on all of this is too simplistic. Is he right?
Vivek Ramaswamy: This was a complicated situation. The essence of this goes far deeper than DEI, and I say this as probably the single greatest critic of woke capitalism in America over the last three years. I'm grateful that the foot soldiers like Ron DeSantis have taken on this battle, and executed.
But if you really want to address the root cause here, this is a story about cronyism. This is a story about corruption. This is a story about the relationship between Silicon Valley donors, some of whom donate to the very Republican Party — even the Republican field we’re talking about. That's a complicated story. It requires piercing through the artifice that this wasn't a bailout. It wasn't a bailout of a bank. That's true. But it was a bailout of Silicon Valley depositors in that bank. You have to be able to understand the essence of what's happening.
I think there are moments in American history where having an implementer is fine. I think implementers make for great governors, I think implementers can make for great congressmen and senators. There are times in history where implementers can make for good presidents, too. But I think there's times in history where you have to be both the visionary and the implementer, the person who can actually execute it to get the job done. You need somebody whose first personal understanding of it is bone deep enough that just parroting someone else's vision is not going to get the job done.
David Weigel: In your 2022 op-ed with Jed Rubenfeld, you write that “religion and gender identity” can both be matters of choice. Is there such a thing as an immutable gender identity, separate from the sex assigned at birth? Is it something you choose?
Vivek Ramaswamy: I didn't claim that legally. I was making a point, in the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Religion is the best example though, right? Because you choose your religion, you choose your political beliefs — those aren’t immutable characteristics. I think the case law, as it stands today post-Bostock, is that “sex,” in a plain reading, includes sexual orientation. I do not think it should be included. But I believe that legally, under that precedent, it is included.
David Weigel: In “Woke, Inc” you called January 6, a “deplorable, disgraceful assault on our democratic process by misguided rioters.” Tucker Carlson called it “mostly peaceful chaos,” showing video clips of less violent moments inside the Capitol. Was it mostly peaceful chaos, or a riot?
Vivek Ramswamy: I have been alarmed by how much of that footage was suppressed, and I think that my views have moved on it a little bit. But the biggest way my views have moved is my sense of concern for defendants who have been either convicted or have pled, and are serving in prison, without having had the opportunity to review that potentially exculpatory evidence.
I think it's a constitutional problem. It's the Brady rule. I don't care if you're on the left or right — and by the way, I was one of the weirdos back in the 2000s, believing that, even if you're in Guantanamo, even if it's for the most heinous of crimes, you have due process. Well, this isn't Guantanamo, this isn't 9/11 — the analogies that many on the left have tried to draw. The principle has to matter. And I think that I'm disappointed that the very people who were standing with me back then don't have a peep to say about Brady violations when it comes to January 6 prisoners.
So I think those convictions should be vacated, and the President has the power to do that, and if necessary, set a retrial to at least make sure any defendant has all exculpatory evidence available to protect themselves.
David Weigel: But you're not promising a blanket pardon.
Vivek Ramaswamy: I'm waiting for the facts. My position is generally if somebody was entrapped by the government — I don't care if that's a police officer or the Capitol Police, there's no bureaucratic distinction with the government — that can be a basis for pardon. I don't think anybody should be led with a red carpet to their jail cell by the government itself. But I would only trust what we're able to see publicly, unfiltered.
- 18 days until Chicago’s mayoral runoff and Wisconsin's state Supreme Court election
- 60 days until primaries in Kentucky
- 233 days until elections in Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Virginia
- 599 days until the 2024 presidential election
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