A Trump Troll Faces Trial in New York

Even if Douglass Mackey evades criminal charges, he’s already lost the larger game

A Trump Troll Faces Trial in New York
A bridge with a Trolling Banned sign, via Hugh Venables, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Edited by Sam Thielman

THE CRIMINAL TRIAL of Douglass Mackey is underway in New York, where the ex-finance bro turned pro-Trump shitlord faces charges of election interference stemming from a series of posts he made on Twitter in 2016. Some media and political figures sympathetic to Mackey are already alleging that this trial is a crucible of conservative persecution, which makes it all the more crucial for people in the reality-based community not to lose sight of who Mackey is and exactly what it is he threw his life away to do.

If you know who Mackey is already, it’s probably because you remember his Twitter persona “Ricky Vaughn,” named for Charlie Sheen’s character in Major League. Under that pseudonym, Mackey became an ascendant figure in a then-rising online MAGA movement and its corresponding hate movements—one of which we remember today as the white nationalist “alt-right.”

Behind the mask of a stylized image of Sheen, which he used as his profile picture, Mackey and other people like him sought to saturate the public with venom and confusion as the 2016 election approached. Mackey proved so adept at sowing this sort of chaos that the MIT Media lab named his Rickey Vaughn account as one of the 150 most influential accounts on Twitter that election year.

Luke O’Brien, then a HuffPost investigative reporter, wrote the definitive profile of Mackey, which first outed him as the person behind the persona. In that profile, O’Brien recapped Mackey’s online track record up to that point, and it’s instructive to revisit some of Mackey’s greatest hits:

  • Sharing a drumbeat of antisemitic and racist content
  • Appearing on white supremacists’ podcasts
  • Retweeting a Kremlin-controlled Twitter account hundreds of times
  • Publicly feuding with white nationalists about how to best present racism to a mass audiences
  • Encouraging the false “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that drove a man to open fire in a Washington pizza restaurant

After O’Brien’s piece dropped, Mackey seemed to evaporate for the internet. Two years ago, Mackey faced his first criminal charges from the Department of Justice. In 2016, Mackey targeted Hillary Clinton voters with false claims that they could submit their ballots by posting on Twitter or Facebook, or by sending a text message. According to prosecutors, at least 4,900 people texted the number Mackey and his co-conspirators provided in their scheme to trick Clinton voters. It should be explicitly stated that these memes directly targeted minority voters.

O’Brien and SPLC senior investigative reporter Michael E. Hayden have been covering Mackey’s trial in New York, both sharing vignettes from the courtroom on their respective Twitter accounts. They’ve posted a stew of disgusting, embarrassing, and hilarious details, including that the “neck beard” guy behind the similarly notable “Microchip” account was an FBI informant in the case against Mackey. (I’m sorry, that would be “Mr. Microchip.”)

What is perhaps most clear through the trial so far is the deep personal well of hate and malice that Mackey and his collaborators drew on in their misconduct during the 2016 election, and how coordinated that sense of grievance seemed to be. It was assembled into campaigns and plots and workshopped in group chats, and ultimately, disseminated publicly.

None of this, of course, has stopped the highest profile pro-Trump media stars and political figures from rushing to defend Mackey during his trial. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer, American Conservative writer Pedro Gonzalez, Georgia’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, far-right activist Jack Posobiec, youth activism group Turning Point USA and its president Charlie Kirk are among the rogues gallery of hacks currently running cover for Mackey and the disgusting (and possibly criminal) offenses he is responsible for. A large part of me wonders whether they see some element of themselves in Mackey’s motives.

Whatever a jury ultimately decides, Mackey’s case is a watershed in the long-running campaign to hold people accountable for the social consequences of their online behavior. If the case is successful, it may deter the next generations of bigots who people like Kirk, Posobiec, Hammer and Carlson have worked so hard to recruit. And even if prosecutors fail to land a conviction against him, there is no way Mackey’s life online resumes under the same cover of anonymity and feigned disinterest that allowed him so much leeway in 2016. I’m eager to see what else O’Brien and Hayden report out from the trial in the weeks and months to come.

I’d like to end this section featuring some reflections from Hayden over at his newsletter “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night”:

[T]he punishment [Mackey] has already given to himself by becoming a big league freak in our political freakshow is something I would never want to experience in a million years. We only have one life and it goes by extremely fast. Mackey basically submit himself as a blood bag for Peter Thiel or some other billionaire. You end up mentally and physically destroyed for nothing but a little dopamine. [...] My advice to people like Mackey who haven't totally destroyed their lives yet is to please look at this man. Look at Mackey physically. Witness him at his own trial. Take in those hollow eyes. Then delete your accounts while you still have the chance.

Maybe Mackey ends up beating these charges. If so, I’m sure he’ll enjoy a victory lap in the various conservative media outlets currently trying to manufacture a marginally palatable version of him for their audiences. Maybe he'll earn some temporary praise and fall into a small pot of money. For a few weeks, or even months, he’ll think he fought the law and won, à la Kyle Rittenhouse. But Hayden is right; these stories usually don’t end well in the long run.

What guys like Mackey never realize until it’s too late is that the same interests willing to shower them with money and notoriety ultimately see them as disposable. They are servants of convenience to powers much larger than themselves. Without a little bit of attention from those huge nodes of influence—often billionaires and their foundations, such as the Scaife Family, the Bradley Foundation, Paul Singer, Philip Anschutz, Charles Koch, or Dick Uleihn—they struggle to maintain any semblance of normalcy in their lives. Those lives often buckle and break because the men—usually men—living them don’t have any other means of support. Their stories rarely end with a bang; rather, they slowly fade out. They’ve thrown themselves into the fire on behalf of people who don’t actually care about them, and are left alone to heal.

This trial will be interesting to watch. But let’s be clear: Mackey will have already lost this game so long as the world remembers who he is and what he did.

Speaking of trials…

If you follow politics enough to know about and read this newsletter, you will certainly be aware that a grand jury in New York is expected to decide at some point whether to indict Trump for alleged crimes related to a $130,000 hush-money payment given to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. (The actress has alleged she had a sexual affair with Trump in 2006 and was paid off for her silence in 2016.)

As the rumor mill churns with “will they or won’t they” speculation, I’d like to attempt to level-set some expectations here. There are a lot of anti-Trump media personalities who will attempt to bolster and enrich themselves by forecasting outcomes of this grand jury panel, and there will certainly be more that crawl out of the woodwork if an indictment does, in fact, come down.

At the risk of raining on the rhetorical parade, let me share a few reminders:

  1. It is entirely possible that the grand jury decides not to indict Trump.
  2. If the grand jury does indict Trump, he will likely arrange for his arrest and processing, then proceed to immediately bail himself out of jail until trial.
  3. A criminal trial against Trump would likely last years. He is worth billions of dollars and can afford all the legal representation in the world to gum up the process.
  4. Even after a lengthy trial, it is possible that Trump would not be convicted of the crimes he is alleged of doing.
  5. Again, it is entirely possible that the grand jury decides not to indict Trump at all.
  6. Indicting Trump will not make our political landscape return to “normal.”

I’m as interested to see how this all unfolds as anyone else. But as we encounter all the spin, much of which is already beginning to whirl, it’s important we don’t lose grasp of the bigger picture.

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