Out of all the blogs on the pro-Trump internet, The Conservative Treehouse might be the strangest and most underappreciated in terms of its influence.
Its fans describe the comment section as “branches,” where they hang out to discuss the latest twist in the “Russiagate” saga or speculate feverishly about Donald Trump’s critics. The site’s owner, who has previously been identified as Florida resident Mark Bradman, rose to prominence during the George Zimmerman trial, outing an anonymous witness and declaring that Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager Zimmerman shot, was an “undisciplined punk thug, drug dealing, thief and wannabe gangsta.”
Since then, the site has been Patient Zero for a number of hoaxes that have percolated through right-wing media ecosystem, claiming that Puerto Rican truck drivers were withholding hurricane relief, or that a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was “weaponizing” the coronavirus to hurt Trump. Despite those hoaxes being quickly debunked, however, The Conservative Treehouse now ranks at roughly the 4,000th most-visited website in the United States, according to Alexa analytics.
Its zeal for the conspiratorial is so pronounced that even some of Donald Trump’s staunchest allies in right-wing media find the site’s devoted commenters and its pseudonymous operator, “Sundance,” bizarre. Talk radio host Mark Levin has called it a “kook site.” Former Breitbart reporter Lee Stranahan dubbed the site’s owner an “egocentric lunatic” with “cult-like followers.”
And yet, despite its reputation (or, perhaps, because of it) The Conservative Treehouse has the president’s ear.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted a conspiracy theory that originated on the site about Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old New York man who bled from his head after he was shoved down by Buffalo police officers while attending a protest. Trump claimed that Gugino, who remains in the hospital in serious but stable condition, wasn’t the peaceful protester he appeared to be but rather a potential “antifa provocateur” trying to “scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.”
“I watched, he fell harder than was pushed,” Trump tweeted. “Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”
The tweet was sparked by a segment on the Trump-fawning cable news network OAN, which was based on a blog post from The Conservative Treehouse. And it represented yet another instance of how the president’s penchant for uncritically amplifying those willing to flatter or absolve his views has vaulted the dregs of the Internet’s conspiracy theorists into national prominence.
The OAN segment was reported by Kristian Rouz, a Russian journalist who pulled double duty working for the Russian state propaganda channel Sputnik as well as OAN. In it, Rouz claimed Gugino was using “common antifa tactics” and that the incident was "a false flag provocation by far-left group antifa." He cited The Conservative Treehouse as evidence that Gugino was using a “police tracker” on his phone during the encounter.
The Conservative Treehouse post had, indeed, falsely claimed that Gugino used a sophisticated communications device to “scan the mic” of one policeman. “Once the frequency is captured (ie cloned) you can track the device, duplicate the signal and/or listen to a transmission,” the post reads.
And a Twitter thread preceding the article, The Conservative Treehouse’s Twitter account, @TheLastRefuge2, warned its nearly 180,000 followers that the same technology is used by “trackers” who use it to “electronically rob you without ever going in your house.”
There are plenty of holes in the theory that Gugino was committing high-tech espionage for antifa. For one thing, Gugino is not a member of antifa, but rather a longtime activist with the Catholic Worker movement and other community-based social justice activist groups. And the supposed “scanning” he is accused of conducting is technological gibberish, unsupported by evidence.
That context, naturally, never made it into The Conservative Treehouse post. And Trump’s amplification of their claims only underscored the payoff that can come with the spreading of disinformation aimed at undermining liberals and firing up the right. The website and Bradman, its purported owner, didn’t return requests for comment.
The Conservative Treehouse gained prominence during the Tea Party movement and the Zimmerman trial, with Zimmerman’s father praising its commenters’ research as “astonishing.” During the racially-charged trial, The Conservative Treehouse owner “Sundance” went by “Sundance Cracker,” an alias he later dropped.
During the Zimmerman trial, The Conservative Treehouse’s unusually intense commenting community, which drives much of the narratives eventually featured on the site, began to emerge. The amateur-sleuth commenters had such an outsized influence that Zimmerman’s defense attorney corresponded with one of the commenters, who referred to themselves as a member of the “the treehouse think tank.”
Since the trial, The Conservative Treehouse has embraced a wide variety of right-wing causes, including Republican investigations in the 2012 attack on an American compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the Bundy family’s Malheur wildlife refuge takeover in Oregon. In the Trump era, The Conservative Treehouse became a hub for the conspiracy theory that the Russia investigation was cooked up to undermine Trump by nefarious members of the deep-state, with Sundance and his commenters weaving elaborate stories about then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller or, later, the Ukraine impeachment.
The Conservative Treehouse has long been a fan of Trump and the president has returned the favor, dating back to Trump’s days as a Republican presidential hopeful in 2015.
As Trump’s campaign moved from sideshow to frontrunner status, The Conservative Treehouse’s Twitter account trumpeted poll after poll showing the former real estate mogul besting the other candidates in the race for the nomination—earning retweets and shoutouts from the candidate himself. Trump took particular pleasure in citing the author’s attacks on his rivals in Florida: former Governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
The Conservative Treehouse’s operator and loyal audience have frequently clashed with other conservative personalities. Stranahan has tweeted that Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart would have hated the site’s pseudonymous operator, “Sundance,” even though the late conservative provocateur’s image tops The Conservative Treehouse’s website banner.
The site has also been slammed by Levin, the conservative talk radio host. After The Conservative Treehouse published stories suggesting the talk radio host was in the tank for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) during the 2016 Republican primary, Levin taunted Bradman, a former Publix supermarket employee, calling him a “disgruntled former grocery clerk” in Facebook posts.
“The more we learn about Bradman and his ‘Conservative Treehouse’ site, the more you wonder what this kook is up to,” Levin wrote.
Despite the opposition, though, The Conservative Treehouse has made inroads into more mainstream right-wing media outlets. It’s been praised on-air by Fox Business Network anchor Lou Dobbs, who urged his viewers to check out the site’s blog posts about the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.
"I want to give a shout-out to TheConservativeTreehouse.com,” Dobbs said. “They have done an amazing job of chronicling, cataloguing the content — just a terrific job."