Crowd Control

How Breitbart Unleashes Hate Mobs to Threaten, Dox, and Troll Trump Critics

Seventeen million readers revel in the website’s angry pro-Trump populism and anti-immigration, anti-Muslim message. Is it stoking up dangerous hatred?

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Conservative essayist Bethany S. Mandel, who has been awash in a deluge of social media abuse since she began denouncing Donald Trump, finally purchased a handgun over the weekend.

“It’s a .22 magnum revolver,” says Mandel, the mother of two young children, who applied for a firearms permit at her local suburban police department after absorbing a fusillade of vile, anti-Semitic tweets and Facebook messages in recent months.

“I’m picking it up,” Mandel says about her firearm, “after the shop’s background check comes back.”

Having practiced at a New Jersey firing range, she prefers a revolver to a pistol because “my aim is far better,” she says.

“My husband [New York Post Op-Ed page editor Seth Mandel] isn’t happy about it,” she says about her new acquisition.

The 29-year-old Mandel, who writes for The Federalist, a conservative/libertarian website that often inveighs against Trump, is a pugnacious online presence who frequently crosses swords with self-avowed acolytes of the Republican presidential frontrunner.

She has especially tangled with Breitbart News, the rabble-rousing, Trump-friendly website—named for its late founder, culture warrior Andrew Breitbart—that regularly savages the GOP establishment, the media elite, the Washington consultant class, and the Fox News Channel, which it likes to portray as the willing enabler of all these sinister forces.

“When I went to my local police department and applied for the gun permit, they said, ‘Maybe you should stop writing things that make people angry,’” Mandel recounts. “And I said, ‘OK, I’ll give that some consideration.’

‘You have kids. Why would you do that?’

‘Because I want to leave them a world that is worth living in.’”

Yet one can hardly fault Mandel’s feelings of vulnerability. Typical online insults (screenshots of which she provided to The Daily Beast) included “you deserve the oven,” complete with the image of a Domino’s Pizza oven—this from an apparent Trump fan who goes by the Twitter handle @dinguscout.

After Mandel observed: “Another night blocking all the anti-Semites who are helping Trump make American[sic] great again,” a second apparent Trump supporter, @unusr1, tweeted at her: “Missed one, you slimy Jewess.”

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It is entirely predictable that, among other news outlets—including The Drudge Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post—the Twitter feeds of Mandel’s Trump-fan assailants often include links to stories on Breitbart News, and even to audio clips from Breitbart News Daily, the SiriusXM satellite radio program hosted by Breitbart executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon and Breitbart News editor in chief Alex Marlow.

Nicknamed “Trumpbart” by detractors, the outlet claims 17 million readers, and is widely seen as a credulous purveyor of Trump’s angry populist, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim message, and as an enthusiastic booster of the reality show billionaire’s candidacy.

Thus Mandel—who prefers Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or, as a desperate last resort, even Hillary Clinton to Trump—recently engaged in an online skirmish with Breitbart’s Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle.

The night of last Thursday’s raucous Republican debate in Houston—which the mainstream media reported as the frontrunner’s defensive attempts to fend off sharp attacks by Rubio and Cruz—the 28-year-old Boyle tweeted: “The story of the night: @realDonaldTrump: ‘WE ARE BUILDING A NEW REPUBLICAN PARTY.’”

Mandel retorted: “A dispatch from Trump headquarters, delivered via their secretly paid surrogate.”

“I wish I got paid,” Boyle replied to Mandel, rejecting an oft-denied but persistent rumor that Trump allegedly helps finance the news site. “I don’t [get paid] by anyone other than Breitbart & Breitbart is completely independent of any candidates.”

Mandel has disregarded the recent warning of a Trump fan with the Twitter handle @johnny-nimble.

“Never fuck with Breitbart. Ever,” @johnny-nimble cautioned.

This pseudonymous tweeter had earlier answered Mandel’s observation—“I never received so many anti-Semitic tweets since Trump’s rise. Not even when I tweeted about Israel during wars”—with the vow: “Ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Both Bannon and Marlow disown such malevolence.

“It has nothing to do with Breitbart—we don’t direct people on social media,” Marlow tells The Daily Beast. “I think this is more about what it’s like in the Twitterverse. It’s toxic the way we talk to one another in that place.”

Bannon, meanwhile, calls the notion that his news site is stoking the ugliness “absurd.”

But, he adds, “If a guy comes after our audience—starts calling working-class people vulgarians and brownshirts and Nazis and post-literate—we’re going to leave a mark. We’re not shy about it at all. We’ve got some lads that like to mix it up.”

Trump naysayer and Breitbart critic John Podhoretz, editor of the neoconservative journal Commentary, received the Breitbart treatment in an article that derided him as a “boorish” establishment pundit who “likes to throw hissy fits” and “believes the ‘unwashed masses’ should not know about the cozy and incestuous relationships in the permanent political and media class that Trump is exposing.”

Podhoretz compares Breitbart News to a fanzine. “They’re like a Tiger Beat for Trump, a Sixteen magazine for Trump. It’s kind of a nonsense fan site,” he says.

Without asserting a cause-and-effect relationship, Podhoretz says that in the months since being featured on Breitbart he’s traded Twitter insults daily with “literally neo-Nazi White supremacists, all anonymous… and there is some overlap here [with Breitbart and Trump]. Something happened in 2015 with the emergence of Trump—who I’m loath to admit has millions of people who are going to end up voting for him, and it looks like he’ll be the Republican nominee for president.

“I don’t think I can attribute being a supporter of Trump to being a validator or an expresser of these opinions,” Podhoretz continues, “but something was let loose by him. This code language—‘It’s time to stop being politically correct’—is something he never defines. One can presume what he meant by it is that before you were not allowed to say Mexicans should be deported, Muslims should be arrested or to talk about the terrorism problem or the Muslim problem. It’s liberating, but there’s no limiting factor, and somehow he has let loose this dark force and turned over these rocks.”

Podhoretz adds: “I feel no compunction about insulting and making fun of these anti-Semites on Twitter, which makes my wife nervous. She thinks I should stop it.”

Radio host and conservative activist Erick Erickson, another prominent Trump detractor, has been the target of unpleasant and occasionally threatening communications from anonymous Trump enthusiasts.

Erickson says that in the wake of Breitbart News stories concerning his anti-Trump statements and actions, he and his family have been victimized by a torrent of abuse from anonymous strangers—not only online, but via letters in his mailbox, phone calls to his home, and worse, prompting the occasional complaint to law enforcement authorities.

“There have been a couple of staff-reporter pieces on Breitbart, and Trump himself has come after me on Twitter,” says the Georgia-based Erickson, the former chief executive of the conservative site RedState, who famously disinvited Trump from a RedState gathering last August after the candidate attacked Fox News’s Megyn Kelly with an apparently misogynistic reference to her menstrual cycle. (Erickson is a Fox News contributor.)

Shortly after Erickson issued his condemnation of the candidate, he was featured in an Aug. 11 Breitbart story that led with Trump’s tweet calling him “a major sleaze and buffoon who has saved me time and money.”

“The Donald may be on to something,” opined Breitbart News’s Kevin Scholla, adding that Erickson is a hypocrite and a “RINO on steroids.”

“Somehow or other, our address got out there,” Erickson says, “and for awhile, my wife and I have had to have our mail screened and won’t let the kids get the mail. It’s pretty nasty, angry mail, more unhinged than I expected, with vulgarities written on the outside of the envelope. ‘Fuck you,’ ‘Go to hell,’ that kind of thing.”

Erickson says that as a result of his dustup with Trump, “some of my advertisers on my radio show were harassed by clearly organized phone calls to get them to ditch me as an advertiser. All of them very graciously stood by me.”

Florida Republican political consultant Rick Wilson, an ardent supporter of Rubio—whom Breitbart’s writers continually portray as a liar who favors amnesty for illegals—has become a favorite Breitbart target since Trump’s rise in public opinion polls.

During a confrontational CNN appearance opposite Breitbart’s Marlow in August, Wilson derided the news site as Trump’s “Pravda” and referred to Trump fans as “low-information supporters.”

The next day, Bannon used his radio show to essentially declare war on the Rubio backer. He referred to Wilson as “a Republican paid consultant [who] viciously attacked the grass roots.”

The bald, bespectacled Wilson, who has written for The Daily Beast, quickly became a Breitbart whipping boy in a series of articles that variously described him as “Republican establishment cheerleader” and “Gollum-in-glasses” (Breitbart columnist John Nolte’s epithet is a reference to the slimy, power-mad character in Lord of the Rings.)

“It was a planned deployment,” Wilson says. “After I criticized Breitbart and criticized Trump, they decided they were going to weaponize themselves and go after me.”

Around the same time, Wilson says, strange and alarming incidents began befalling him and members of his family.

Internal emails obtained by The Daily Beast indicate that Bannon and Breitbart’s Boyle worked to obtain a comprehensive list of Wilson’s political clients (with the intention of making them feel uncomfortable about hiring him, Wilson believes).

Around the same time, Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh “made repeated calls to the press office of my U.S. Senate candidate [Rubio ally Carlos Lopez Cantera], asking, ‘When will you fire Rick Wilson?’” he says.

A list of questions emailed by a Breitbart reporter to the Cantera campaign cited Wilson’s retweeting of blog post in which Breitbart News was criticized as “racist,” and demanded, “Why are you employing someone who is calling conservatives racists?’” (Breitbart editor in chief Marlow defended the tone of the inquiry. “When a staffer/consultant voluntarily puts opinions into the public domain,” he emailed, “it is absolutely appropriate to ask the people he represents if that viewpoint is a reflection of how they feel as well. If they don’t like that, maybe they should instruct their consultants to be more guarded about their personal opinions. We will aggressively pursue stories like this in the future.”)

Meanwhile, Wilson says he learned that his credit report had been ordered by an unknown third party, and anonymous trolls—some apparently active on an online forum associated with white supremacists—posted photoshopped sexual images of his college-age daughter, claimed she’d had a child with an African American, threatened gang-rape, and claimed Wilson’s teenage son was a pimp.

When Wilson tweeted complaints about the online abuse, Breitbart’s Nolte accused him of “us[ing] a threat of rape against his own daughter as a political talking point to attack Breitbart News.” The situation got even more heated when Trump backer Ann Coulter tweeted: “Hilarious public meltdown: THEY’RE THREATENING TO RAPE MY DAUGHTER! #RickWilsonIsAGirlInAPinkPartyDress”—and Wilson replied to Coulter, “Does Trump pay you more for anal?”

Prompted by his wife, Molly, who was less than thrilled with her spouse’s crude riposte, Wilson deleted the offending tweet and apologized, but not to Coulter.

“My comment was shocking to many of you,” he tweeted to his followers, “and for that I offer a sincere apology. I’m more sorry for the people this impacted in my family, and my circle of friends.” (Breitbart News, of course, covered Wilson’s angry outburst in excruciating detail.)

Meanwhile, according to Molly Wilson, an art gallery owner, the “targeted harassment” against her family, as she calls it, has included deliveries of unordered pizzas, packing boxes, Qurans and various religious tracts, incessant prank phone calls and, last month, a bogus Craigslist ad for a yard sale at their home.

“It said we were selling and giving away the entire contents of our house because we were going to Africa for mission work,” she says. “People were coming up to the house and driving into our yard.”

Early one morning, Rick, an avid gun enthusiast, “almost killed a guy on the back porch who was looking in with a flashlight,” Molly Wilson says.

“If there’s one guy on earth I wouldn’t fuck with, it’s a guy who builds AR-15’s as a hobby,” says Wilson’s close friend, fellow Rubio backer and Republican consultant Jacob Perry (also a Breitbart target, who says he sustained a sore thumb from the repetitive stress of blocking hundreds of nasty tweeters, and also fielded half a dozen abusive phone calls and voicemail messages from anonymous apparent Trump supporters, after the news site profiled him as a member of “The Consultant Class” experiencing a “serial-meltdown over the rise of Donald Trump”).

Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks didn’t respond to a detailed email requesting comment, though Trump acolyte Roger Stone, a longtime operative famous for his hardball tactics, speculates that whatever trouble Wilson has experienced “is probably the handiwork of overzealous and misguided supporters of Trump. The idea that Trump himself or his people would do this is absurd. They have bigger fish to fry. When you go on social media and say controversial things, you’re going to have consequences. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

In an interview, Bannon claimed zero knowledge of the misery allegedly being visited upon Wilson and his family. Referring to how Boyle and McHugh tried to track down Wilson’s clients, Breitbart’s publicist, Kurt Bardella, wrote in a follow-up email: “Bannon wanted to make sure you knew and had in the story that the direction on Rick Wilson came from him specifically.”

Bannon revels in what he likes to call a Fight Club ethos. A Breitbart insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that “they’re the kind of people who, if you accidentally brushed against their shopping cart in the supermarket, their response is to burn down your house.”

Asked about this characterization, Bannon didn’t deny it. Quite the opposite, he laughed uproariously.

This never-back-down philosophy was reflected in the way top editor Marlow responded when presented with a series of tweets by Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh that many people would find highly offensive. Among them: “It’s important to keep families together. We must deport anchor babies along with their illegal alien parents”; “Mexicans wrecked Mexico & think invading the USA will magically cure them of their retarded dysfunction. LOL”; and “Indian tribes never bothered to build any kind of civilization. They killed each other and chased bison. Yawn~”.

Marlow’s reaction: “Neither Steve nor I are big fans of Twitter, but after reviewing these tweets, we’re considering giving Katie a weekly column.”

Perhaps such a column could elaborate on a McHugh tweet from last September: “British settlers built the USA. “Slaves” built the country much as cows “built” McDonald’s. Amateur…”

The site has been especially disparaging of Florida Sen. Rubio, the reality show billionaire’s most persistent antagonist in the recent days, and a declared enemy of Breitbart during an appearance a week ago Saturday on the Fox News Channel.

Rubio condemned the news site, claiming “they’re basically conspiracy theories and oftentimes manipulated.” He added, “We don’t even credential them for our events.” fired back a few hours later with a story by Washington political editor Boyle under the headline: “Full Panic Mode: Rubio Caught Lying…” and pointing out that Rubio had given an interview only a few days earlier to Breitbart reporter Charlie Spierling.

“We’re going to be relentless on Rubio,” Bannon promises. “Every time he opens his mouth he virtually has a misrepresentation, and if Fox is not going to hold him accountable, and the rest of the Republican media establishment who depends on Fox, if they’re not going to correct him, then we’re going to be guardians of truth. We’ve never had to retract one thing we’ve written about Rubio. They’ve never asked for a correction. Trust me, brother, we’re coming. We’re not backing off.”

“I don’t have anything to add to what Marco said on FOX,” Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant said in an email to The Daily Beast.

As for Matthew Boyle, jaws dropped during a recent dinner attended by political journalists—around the time of the Iowa caucuses, according to a witness—when he was heard boasting that he will be named White House press secretary in the incoming Trump administration.

It wasn’t clear if Boyle was joking, says the witness, when he announced that one of his first acts on behalf of President Trump will be to ban Fox News from the White House press room. “I talk a lot of trash at private dinners over beers—just like any guy from Boston,” Boyle said by email to The Daily Beast when asked about these comments. “Deal with it.”