When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.
Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.
I met Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, in the recording studio that occupies the basement of Steve Bannon’s stately Capitol Hill townhouse, a few blocks from the Supreme Court—the same Supreme Court that will, according to Lindell, decide “9–0” in favor of reinstating Donald Trump to the presidency sometime in August, or possibly September. I made it through the entirety of the Trump presidency without once having to meet Bannon but here he was, recording his War Room podcast with Lindell. Bannon has been decomposing in front of our eyes for some years now, and I can report that this process continues to take its course. I walked in during a break and the two men immediately gestured to me to join the conversation, sit at the table with them, listen in on headphones. I demurred. “Anne Applebaum … hmm,” Bannon said. “Should’ve stuck to writing books. Gulag was a great book. How long did it take you to write it?”
In the room adjacent to the basement studio, an extra-large image of a New York Times front page hung on the wall, featuring a picture of Bannon and the headline “The Provocateur.” A bottle of Bio-Active Silver Hydrosol, whatever that is, sat on the desk. The big-screen TV was tuned to MSNBC. This wasn’t surprising: In his podcasts, Bannon carries on a kind of dialogue with Rachel Maddow, playing her sound bites and then offering his own critique. Later, Lindell told me that if it weren’t for attacks by “the left”—by which he means Politico, the Daily Beast, and, presumably, me—his message would never get out, because Fox News ignores him.
Bannon, too, lives outside the Fox bubble these days. Instead, he inhabits an alternate universe in which every minute of every day seems to be entirely devoted to the discussion and analysis of “electoral fraud,” with just a little time devoted to selling wellness products and vitamins that, despite his claims, won’t actually cure COVID-19. Bannon’s podcast, which he says has millions of listeners (it is ranked 59th on Apple Podcasts, so he might be right), is populated by full-time conspiracy theorists, some of whom you have heard of and some of whom you probably haven’t: Peter “Trump Won in a Freakin’ Landslide” Navarro, Rudy Giuliani, Garland Favorito, Willis @treekiller35, Sonny Borrelli, the Pizzagate propagator Jack Posobiec, and, of course, Lindell. Bannon calls them up one by one to report on the current status of the Trump-reinstatement campaign and related fake scandals. There are daily updates. The guests talk fast and loud. It is very exciting. On the day I was at the studio, Bannon was gloating about how President Joe Biden was now “defending his own legitimacy”: “We are going to spring the trap around you, sir!” He kept telling people to “lawyer up.”
Even in this group, Lindell stands out. Not only is he presumably much richer than Garland Favorito and Willis @treekiller35; he is willing to spend his money on the cause. MyPillow has long been an important advertiser on Fox News, so much so that even Trump noticed Lindell (“That guy is on TV more than I am”), but has since widened its net. MyPillow spent tens of thousands of dollars advertising on Newsmax just in the week following the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
And now Lindell is spending on more than just advertising. Last January—on the 9th, he says carefully, placing the date after the 6th—a group of still-unidentified concerned citizens brought him some computer data. These were, allegedly, packet captures, intercepted data proving that the Chinese Communist Party altered electoral results … in all 50 states. This is a conspiracy theory more elaborate than the purported Venezuelan manipulation of voting machines, more improbable than the allegation that millions of supposedly fake ballots were mailed in, more baroque than the belief that thousands of dead people voted. This one has potentially profound geopolitical implications.
That’s why Lindell has spent money—a lot of it, “tens of millions,” he told me—“validating” the packets, and it’s why he is planning to spend a lot more. Starting on August 10, he is holding a three-day symposium in Sioux Falls (because he admires South Dakota’s gun-toting governor, Kristi Noem), where the validators, whoever they may be, will present their results publicly. He has invited all interested computer scientists, university professors, elected federal officials, foreign officials, reporters, and editors to the symposium. He has booked, he says variously, “1,000 hotel rooms” or “all the hotel rooms in the city” to accommodate them. (As of Wednesday, Booking.com was still showing plenty of rooms available in Sioux Falls.)
Wacky though it seems for a businessman to invest so much in a conspiracy theory, there are important historical precedents. Think of Olof Aschberg, the Swedish banker who helped finance the Bolshevik revolution, allegedly melting down the bars of gold that Lenin’s comrades stole in train robberies and reselling them, unmarked, on European exchanges. Or Henry Ford, whose infamous anti-Semitic tract, The International Jew, was widely read in Nazi Germany, including by Hitler himself. Plenty of successful, wealthy people think that their knowledge of production technology or private equity gives them clairvoyant insight into politics. But Aschberg, Ford, and Lindell represent the extreme edge of that phenomenon: Their business success gives them the confidence to promote malevolent conspiracy theories, and the means to reach wide audiences.
In the cases of Aschberg and Ford, this had tragic, real-world consequences. Lindell hasn’t created Ford-level havoc yet, but the potential is there. Along with Bannon, Giuliani, and the rest of the conspiracy posse, he is helping create profound distrust in the American electoral system, in the American political system, in the American public-health system, and ultimately in American democracy. The eventual consequences of their actions may well be a genuinely stolen or disputed election in 2024, and political violence on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. You can mock Lindell, dismiss him, or call him a crackhead, but none of this will seem particularly funny when we truly have an illegitimate president in the White House and a total breakdown of law and order.
Lindell had agreed to have lunch with me after the taping. But where to go? I didn’t think it would be much fun to take someone inclined to shout about rigged voting machines and fake COVID-19 cures to a crowded bistro on Capitol Hill. Because Lindell is famously worried about Chinese Communist influence, I thought he would like to pay homage to the victims of Chinese oppression. I booked a Uyghur restaurant.
This proved a mistake. For one thing, the restaurant—the excellent Dolan Uyghur, in D.C.’s Cleveland Park neighborhood—was not at all close to Bannon’s townhouse. Getting there required a long and rather uncomfortable drive, in Lindell’s rented black SUV; he talked at me about packet captures the whole way, one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding up a phone showing Google Maps. Once we got there, he didn’t much like the food. He picked at his chicken kebabs and didn’t touch his spicy fried green beans. More to the point, he didn’t understand why we were there. He had never heard of the Uyghurs. I told him they were Muslims who are being persecuted by Chinese Communists. Oh, he said, “like Christians.” Yes,…
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