Woke War III: Pence & DeSantis Battle for Cancellation

Mike Pence
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
April 15, 2022

Mike Pence’s slow and grinding campaign to maybe-perhaps-possibly run for president in 2024 took a detour to the University of Virginia this week, where he gave a speech to the Reaganite student group Young Americans for Freedom. But other than winking again at his ambitions (“I’ll keep you posted,” he told a student), the actual content of his remarks—espousement of traditional conservative values, glowing praise of Zelensky, the importance of a G.O.P. House majority in the midterms, and so forth—was less notable than the manner in which his presence on campus unfolded. 

Upon hearing that Pence was coming to town, a cohort of U.V.A. students attempted to halt Pence’s address. “[F]or Pence, gay couples signify a ‘societal collapse,’ Black lives do not matter, transgender individuals and immigrants do not deserve protection and the pandemic should not be taken seriously,” students wrote in an op-ed published in the student paper, the Cavalier Daily, describing his words as “dangerous rhetoric.” So despite his platitudes and throwback staidness, Pence at least checked off one item on an ambitious Republican presidential candidate’s to-do-list: he got canceled! 

And, naturally, the former vice president hammered this home in his remarks, wherein he decried “woke-ism” and “political indoctrination” vis-a-vis critical race theory,  “cancel culture,” and the other usual suspects. “We live in a time when many on the radical left routinely demean the American founding,” he told students, asserting that progressives were trying to rewrite the Constitution through various legal witchcraft. “Every day we see efforts to silence, or cancel, those that dare to disagree with the progressive orthodoxy.” 

Granted, Pence was workshopping his new routine in the safest space possible: Young Americans for Freedom is an affiliate of Young America’s Foundation, where he’s the Ronald Reagan Presidential Scholar and hosts a podcast, creatively titled American Freedom. But Pence’s turn as an anti-woke centerfold is a robust attempt to cover over his various anti-MAGA sins, the very ones that make him a tolerable adult during the post-Trump era—stating that Donald Trump fairly lost the 2020 election; that the vote was constitutionally valid; that Vladimir Putin is a tyrant. (Pence also visited a memorial for an activist killed by a white nationalist during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, nearby his YAF gig.) But that was then. Now, Pence is repositioning himself as the Jimmy Carter of MAGA. His speech was entitled “How to Save America from the Woke Left”.

Is his elder-statesman approach to the culture war going to work in 2024? It depends. Down south, Ron DeSantis is turning his face-off with Disney into a war of mutually-assured destruction, suggesting last month that he would revoke the company’s tax carve outs and “special privileges” in Florida, home of the Happiest (most lucrative) Place on Earth, if Disney continues to oppose him. On the MAGA media air waves, Tucker Carlson is railing against the brown M&M mascot wearing “less sexy” block heels (“M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous”). 

In contrast, Pence’s invocation of the evil progressives viewing the Constitution as a dynamic, living document is the type of applause cue that died alongside Antonin Scalia. But it might endear him to the type of right-leaning voter who would like a less manic version of the culture war: CBS’s Robert Costa, who was watching the speech, noted that the crowd roared when Pence mentioned Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s new Republican governor who scored an upset victory with a MAGA-lite platform focused on C.R.T. while carefully avoiding mentioning Trump.  

Pence’s future may not be in electoral politics, but rather the well-manicured rubber room where one just pretends to campaign, constantly trial-ballooning runs, leaking details and so forth. In truth, Pence never made much money (much to Trump’s chagrin), and he may be more motivated to pass the tin for himself and Mother than the party as he enters his golf cart years. Either way, taping American Freedom from the Reagan Ranch is hardly a bad plan.

An Elegy for Mandel

Earlier this week, I covered Trump’s unconventional decision to endorse celebrity doctor and endocrine Jesus Mehmet Oz over the financial policy whiz and hedge fund C.E.O. David “Dave” McCormick in the upcoming Pennsylvania G.O.P. Senate primary. It seems like he’s about to do it again in Ohio: NBC News reported Thursday that Trump is set to endorse J.D. Vance, a Peter Thiel-molded nationalist-populist with a Netflix series and a New York Times bestseller, over Josh Mandel, a G.O.P. party favorite and Ohio elected official, and Dave Gibbons, an investment banker. ​​(The leak regarding Trump’s intentions could also be an effort to dissuade him from making the endorsement; indeed, Vance’s rivals have now teamed up to persuade Trump to change his mind.)

Though his decision to endorse Oz made some amount of sense, considering he was neck-and-neck with McCormick, the purported Vance nod has consultants scratching their heads. And for good reason: Several previous polls indicate that Gibbons and Mandel are ahead of Vance, and a new internal poll conducted by the Mandel campaign put Vance at a distant third place: 9 percent, tied with Jane Timken. Vance, after all, is still new to the MAGA schtick. Back when he was a New York Times contributor and “Morning Joe” regular, Vance described himself as a “Never Trump guy” who thought the then-president was an “idiot.” More recent political backflips, such as Vance’s wildly fluctuating declarations of support, and then apathy, towards Ukraine also seem to have put him at a disadvantage, both in the Republican Party overall and among Ohio’s 45,000 residents of Ukrainian descent. Voters are typically pretty good at spotting a weathervane. 

It may be the case that Trump is, once again, merely picking winners based on a candidate’s perceived stage qualities rather than political savvy—per Politico, he admired Vance’s performance at a recent debate, in which Gibbons and Mandel nearly got into a fistfight. Vance, unlike Mandel, is also a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson Tonight. But the endorsement, should it come to pass, may also indicate the limits of Trump’s power, post-presidency. Changing his mind about Vance could make him look weak, but backing another losing candidate would raise an even more troubling question: Is Trump losing his juice?

Benny Johnson’s Exploding Arsenal

In the past few days, I’ve heard that the wheels are falling off at Arsenal Media Group, the buzzy right-wing digital marketing firm founded by former BuzzFeed writer-turned-MAGA memelord Benny Johnson. Staffers are leaving in droves or applying to other comms firms, I’m told, because some are not getting paid on a consistent basis. (The exodus has been so notable that Ned Ryun, the C.E.O. of a MAGA grassroots activist training group, American Majority, tweeted about it.) And some political clients of Arsenal are considering lawsuits, I’m told, questioning the return on the investment in  the digital fundraising campaigns Arsenal is supposed to be running.

Arsenal Media, which Johnson co-founded in 2020 with Jason Cole, a former Bush staffer, is known within the G.O.P. as an extremely Gen-Z comms firm, leveraging influencer campaigns, viral video, and meme-making as a form of political outreach. In concept, it’s a powerful promise: memes and viral videos, after all, have been the lingua franca of right-wing activism since the beginning of the Trump era. (Think: Pepe the Frog, QAnon, and all those images you’ve seen of Trump dressed as Rambo or riding a tank.) And Johnson, a former writer famously fired for numerous examples of plagiarism in 2014, is considered one of the biggest O.G. celebrity meme makers within the movement. 

Yes, that’s a legitimate social status among right-wing activists, and Johnson, who’s enjoyed a MAGA bildungsroman-like rise through conservative media in the past few years, has earned it, though not without a few high-profile stumbles on the way. After leaving BuzzFeed, he was Digital Director at  National Review, then became creative content director for the now-defunct Independent Journalism Review (before getting demoted for breaching company ethical standards, then let go during an editorial reset), followed by a stint as reporter-at-large at the Daily Caller, then leapt to Chief Content Officer at right-wing student group Turning Point USA (where yes,  he oversaw their meme content). He now serves as a contributor to TPUSA and hosts a show on Newsmax TV. 

Arsenal’s website highlights the successful digital campaigns they’ve run for MAGA firebrand-turned-alleged cocaine orgy whistleblower Rep. Madison Cawthorn, and touts a 2020 book campaign for former Trump administration spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, who is currently running for governor in Arkansas. A source familiar told me that Don Jr. has hired Arsenal to run his Facebook content, as did MAGA podcaster Jack Posobiec (though neither of their accounts are monetized). 

Arsenal is obviously a tiny business, but its popularity is indicative of where things are headed on the right. According to F.E.C. filings, Arsenal made more than $1.27 million running digital campaigns for a wide variety of candidates, from congressional stalwarts like Darrell Issa to populists like Dan Crenshaw and Lauren Boebert, to viral MAGA candidates like Kim Klacick, Dan Rodimer and Ken Buck. Boebert, for instance, paid Arsenal $20,000 for “digital media consulting,” and the company took credit for her famous ad where she promised to carry a Glock through the U.S. Capitol. Cawthorn’s campaign has paid Arsenal $122,539, according to F.E.C. filings, for media and fundraising commissions since 2020 and through the end of last year. Klacik famously raised $2 million off of an Arsenal-produced ad—only to have to pay most of it in fees to Arsenal and the firm that promoted the video. Helping candidates to go viral is a high-margin game, where fundraising fees on a donor’s first contribution can exceed 90 percent. 

The Arsenal crisis is still very much in the finger-pointing stage, to be sure, but many candidates, PACs and clients who’ve hired the firm hoping to replicate a Klacik-style success story are pissed. Several people have told me that they’ve placed expensive fundraising monetization campaigns with Arsenal with only underwhelming results in return. J.R. Majewski, an Ohio Congressional candidate, told me that he had hired Arsenal to run a $25,000 digital ad campaign for him—shooting a video, pushing it out on Facebook via their purported “influencer” network, and monetizing the video to raise money for the campaign—for a return, at least according to his math, of $200 in contributions. “I mean, that’s the whole intent of paying them to do these videos, is that they have the ability to get them out in front of a bunch of people and raise money off it,” said Majewski, whose primary election is on May 3rd. 

Cole, Arsenal’s co-founder and Managing Partner, did not return a request for comment. Johnson initially did not respond either. Shortly after this story was published, he removed language from his website in which he described himself as Arsenal’s cofounder. A spokesperson later sent me a statement claiming that Johnson “is not now, nor has he ever been, an officer at Arsenal Media Group, nor has he ever been an employee of Arsenal Media Group.” The spokesperson further claimed that while Johnson had “helped get Arsenal Media Group off the ground with a couple of friends,” he has only worked for Arsenal in a creative capacity and “has not been paid a red cent from Arsenal for over a year, nor has he done any work for the company in that time.”

At the very least, Arsenal’s dysfunctional inner workings reveal another endemic trend with the MAGA outrage-industrial complex: despite their sharp political instincts, the biggest players in this world are, too often, horrible at running businesses and handling money. Milo Yiannopoulous, one of the first mainstream MAGA enfant terribles, burned $10 million from Rebekah Mercer on a failed production company and was once $4 million in the hole. The 2020 Trump campaign somehow burned through $800 million (via lavish spending, poorly timed media campaigns, and enormous legal bills and finders’ fees) leaving them at a severe cash disadvantage against Joe Biden by the end of the year. A little financial discipline, across the board, would go a long way.