Old Ratf*ckers Never Die. They Adapt and Weaponize New Technologies.

Charles P. Pierce
Photo credit: C-SPAN

From Esquire

One of the longest-lasting symptoms of the prion disease that has destroyed the higher functions of the Republican Party ever since Ronald Reagan first fed it the monkeybrains of movement conservatism in the early 1980s is the idée fixe element of advanced Atwater Syndrome. There is always something, somewhere about your political opponent that remains just out of reach. So, therefore, it is permissible to just make it up on your own. Because of this parasitical agent, old ratfcking never really dies. It just goes on manifesting itself in different ways. For example, there's David Bossie.

In the early days of the Whitewater ratfcking—which, of course, included things far beyond a failed real-estate deal pitched by crooks and grifters—Bossie began in 1992 as one of the first gumshoes to embark on The Great Penis Hunt. Once, he invaded a hospital room of a man recovering from a stroke to question his wife about whether their daughter had killed herself because she was carrying Bill Clinton's lovechild. Bossie went on to become a congressional staffer after Clinton was elected, and was so unprincipled in that capacity that he was dismissed at the behest of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, who considered Bossie's tactics to be counterproductive. Being too much of a ratfcker for Gingrich is not a concept on which I wish to dwell.

Photo credit: Darren McCollester - Getty Images

Bossie, as it happens, began his career in ratfcking for an organization called...drumroll, please...Citizens United, the brainchild of a ratfcker of even longer standing named Floyd Brown. (It was Brown who had concocted the now-legendary race-baiting Willie Horton ad aimed at 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.) By 1991, Bossie was running CU and producing vicious and meretricious "documentaries," including one called, Hillary: The Movie, the purpose of which was to torpedo Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Certain television stations refused to run ads for the movie and the Federal Election Commission ruled that the movie violated the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. CU fought the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which, in 2010, ruled in its favor, legalizing influence-peddling throughout the land in the process.

But what of Floyd Brown, the man who brought David Bossie, as well as Willie Horton and a whole brigade of Arkansas grifters, into our politics? The New York Times is glad you asked.

In the America presented on their news and opinion website, WesternJournal.com, tradition-minded patriots face ceaseless assault by anti-Christian bigots, diseased migrants and race hustlers concocting hate crimes. Danger and outrages loom. A Mexican politician threatens the “takeover” of several American states. Police officers are kicked out of an Arizona Starbucks. Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate, proposes a “$100 billion handout” for black families.

The Western Journal is not quite a household name. Until recently, some of its most prolific writers used pseudonyms. Though it publishes scores of stories each week about national politics, the company has no Washington bureau, or any other bureaus. Indeed, it rarely dispatches reporters into the world to gather news firsthand. In the parallel universe of Facebook, though, The Western Journal has been among the most popular and influential publications in America, shaping the political beliefs of more than 36 million deeply loyal readers and followers. In the three years ending in March, according to a New York Times analysis, Western Journal’s Facebook posts earned three-quarters of a billion shares, likes and comments, almost as many as the combined tally of 10 leading American news organizations that together employ thousands of reporters and editors.

The NYT story is hung primarily on the efforts of big tech companies to rein in sites like Western Journal and, thus, to stop being platforms from which ratfcking can be launched into the political ecosystem, which is an interesting enough story, especially since it is an article of paranoid faith on the right these days that they are being oppressed by The Man in Silicon Valley. (Google already has "blacklisted" WJ.) But it's the involvement of Floyd Brown that most interests me. Evidently, he's brought his son into the family ratfcking business as well.

Patrick Brown presents as an unlikely merchant of outrage. He is six-foot-three, but stoop-shouldered and soft-spoken. When expressing a thought that might draw dispute, he often shrugs uncomfortably and spreads his hands, as if to cushion the blow. Mr. Brown attended a small Christian college in Pennsylvania, and his first company, a site called Liftable.com, featured viral, often religious-themed stories meant to inspire readers rather than enrage them: Good Samaritans who saved the life of an accident victim, for example, or the actor Johnny Depp visiting a children’s hospital.

Photo credit: THUMMA - AP

His exposure to politics came through his father, a larger-than-life veteran of Washington’s partisan wars. Floyd G. Brown reveled in the infamy surrounding his successful Horton ads, which featured mug shots of a black convicted murderer to stoke fears that the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, was soft on crime. Over the following decades, Mr. Brown would start political organizations employing the same basic formula: Apocalyptic direct-mail appeals to raise money, innuendo-laden ads to thrash Democrats and outrageous claims to draw mainstream news interest.

Apparently, young Patrick has designs on making WJ into something akin to those "respectable" conservative news sites that only hint that jihadis are storming the southern border in pick-up trucks full of gay-married opioid smugglers. He insists that Papa Floyd is largely in the background now.

"I would never want to do what he did,” Mr. Brown said. “When you make an ad or something, you are — your whole goal is to just convince someone of something, right? I mean, our goal is not that. Our No. 1 goal is to inform — truthfully.”

And I am the Tsar of all the Russias.

In March 2018, Floyd Brown declared on Fox News that Facebook had been “optimized to the thought police.” The same month, The Western Journal published an in-house study concluding that Facebook’s algorithm changes disproportionately favored liberal news outlets. (Cameron Hickey, a disinformation researcher at Harvard, told The Times he considered the study’s methodology flawed, since it did not assess the quality or reliability of the news sources, merely their purported ideological tilt.)

It should not be necessary to point out that nothing like this exists on the political left—not with this kind of depth and not with this kind of longevity. The extreme right has engaged in ratfcking across all the platforms that have emerged since Floyd Brown first encountered Willie Horton. It has shown a remarkable—if malignant—ability to adapt and to weaponize new technologies. Old ratfckers never die. They just go digital.

Respond to this post on the Esquire Politics Facebook page here.

You Might Also Like