the friday cover
For a decade, Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence had surfed the wave of populist-right politics like few other people in America. Then came Jan. 6.
Photos by Mark Peterson/Redux for POLITICO Magazine
By DAVID FREEDLANDER
11/19/2021 04:30 AM EST
David Freedlander writes about politics and culture. He lives in New York.
Dustin Stockton stood in a throng of thousands of people near the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., nursing an American Spirit cigarette and a Red Bull. He was talking on the phone (“Don’t worry, I’ll send you bodies”) greeting well-wishers (“A great day for patriots and a terrible day for the fake news”) and fretting about a speech to the crowd he hadn’t yet written.
It was November 2020, and even as the Washington Post’s front page had just announced a second surge of the coronavirus, tens of thousands of people were gathered, mostly maskless, swarming downtown D.C. for a “Stop the Steal” rally. Inside the hotel, two blocks from the White House, Alex Jones was riding the elevator with a female companion and a bodyguard. When the elevators stopped on an upper floor, he prohibited anyone else from getting on. “Sorry, really being Covid-cautious!” he said — clearly a joke, since none of them were wearing masks either, and because in fact to do so would make anyone in this crowd seem ludicrous.
Outside, a man in a preppy popped collar and sunglasses walked around holding out a tampon, asking anyone (for yuks) if they needed a spare mask. The Proud Boys were lined up in formation by the entrance. “Thank you for your service!” a middle-aged woman with a Jersey accent yelled at the group as she walked by with a plastic cocktail cup in her hand.
The mood that day was celebratory — Trump’s motorcade drove by, and he waved to the adoring throng — but still an air of menace hung over the proceedings. A marker was being put down, there on the streets of the nation’s capital: Joe Biden had lost, and Donald Trump had won, and his victory was being unfairly taken away, and something needed to be done about it. The notion that day that a similar crowd would gather again eight weeks later and lay siege to the Capitol would have seemed fanciful, but not ludicrous.
Stockton and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence, left the hotel and pushed their way through the crowd to the stage, where upon arrival, Stockton stepped up to the microphone, gave a massive Ric Flair-style “Whoooooo!” stepped away from the microphone, then stepped back up, and gave another. “Whoooooooooo!”
Stockton was dressed in a blue and white camouflage button-down shirt. Lawrence, who stood beside him clapping and cheering, was wearing red tights, an American flag belly shirt, a red MAGA hat and a Trump flag draped over her like a cape. “If we let them steal the election from President Trump, we will never get it back!” Stockton told the crowd. “Our freedom is not coming back! We must rise up!”
Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence at the first “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington in November 2020. | Courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence
He talked about the liars and the fake news, and the Big Tech oligarchs who wanted to keep everyone at home on the Internet instead of out here, in the streets. He explained how Trump and the whole MAGA movement was an outgrowth of the tea party revolution from a decade ago. He talked about how they needed to gather offline, just like the original American revolutionaries did. He called on the group to march on the Supreme Court. “Our institutions have been corrupted and weaponized against We the People. And that is what Joe Biden’s agenda is! There is no way that senile old fool beat the hardest working and greatest president ever!”
That gathering, a week after Joe Biden had been declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, was put on in part by Stockton and Lawrence. It was the highest-profile of a whole series that the duo threw together in the days after the election, when they got on a bus and went barnstorming around the country for their favorite defeated president. Organized alongside Women for America First, a Trump-aligned political action committee, and featuring a pair of Trump-aligned pastors, their rented bus rolled across America, firing up crowds with claims of fraud in the vote-counting, rolling from South Florida up to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, back to Washington again for a December “Stop the Steal” rally, then back out, making it all the way to the West Coast before turning east again.
Their trip, as they planned it, would culminate in one final rally, to be held at the ellipse in front of the White House. That one would be on Jan. 6.
Stockton and Lawrence at their home in Florida with one of their dogs.
The stories of many of the people who descended on the Capitol that day in January are by now well-known: the millionaires flown in on private planes, the militia members spoiling for a fight, the QAnon cosplayers searching for conspiratorial clues, the celebrities of MAGA America who served as self-appointed spokespeople for the movement. Hundreds more were surprises — middle-class Americans quietly radicalized over the years, pulled as if by gravity toward this one explosive moment.
Then there are Dustin Stockton and Jen Lawrence.
The Jan. 6 rally was, for them, the culmination of work they had been doing for the past decade — work that long predated the election conspiracy, or QAnon, or Donald Trump’s political career. They surfed the waves of a populist tide that grew larger than anyone imagined, one dedicated to tearing down the establishment of both parties and the government itself, replacing it with a government they saw as closer to the people, closer to God, closer to the Constitution.
For years, Stockton and Lawrence had built a career around that movement — as fundraisers, campaign consultants, rally organizers, schemers; engineering ever-more-outlandish media stunts to serve up to an online audience ever more primed to click on them, raising millions in small-dollar donations that relied on Ethernet connections and outrage, taking advantage of loose electioneering laws to give any kind of advantage to favored candidates. They existed on what seemed like the margins of conservative politics until, suddenly, it wasn’t the margins anymore at all.
For years, Stockton and Lawrence had built a career around that movement — as fundraisers, campaign consultants, rally organizers, schemers.
Trump was the latest, and most powerful, vehicle for their politics and ambition, and he was what brought them to Washington on Jan. 6 — although you could almost as accurately say they are what brought him there, since they were the ones who helped organize much of the rally. Their story is the story of American politics since the Great Recession, when anger against existing institutions became the great motivator, when the bar to entry for candidates hit the floor, when social media fame became the coin of the realm, and money, gobs and gobs of it, went washing through the political system. Their story, as I’ve been able to pull it together here, is based on dozens of hours of interviews in person and on the phone, news reports in which they’ve appeared as central or marginal characters, and, where possible, the corroborating accounts of others who were there. They had a knack for being in the room with some of the biggest boldface names of the populist right — but also for never quite getting vaulted into the limelight.
“If we let them steal the election from President Trump, we will never get it back!”
Dustin Stockton last November
The Jan. 6 rally, Stockton told me later that November, was supposed to be big, huge, between four and five million showing up. Congress would be meeting to certify the election; the rally would be the final chance for Trump to lay out the evidence of why the vote was a fraud. We were talking by phone, Stockton sitting in the “March for Trump” tour bus, parked in front of one of the Trump hotels in Las Vegas, waiting for Lawrence to pick up a prescription from CVS. He seemed his usual low-key self, even as the chaos swirled around him. His life, as he described it, was lived on the fly; they’d scarcely pack up from one rally before figuring out how to make the next stop on the tour happen. He told me Eric Trump had just called to make sure everything was going okay; that he’d just gotten off the phone with Kanye West to arrange for the 2020 candidate and hip-hop star to appear at the rally the first week of January; that they also expected Kid Rock, the country music duo Big & Rich, the talk radio host Leo Terrell. (None of them appeared.)
In late December, though, as Trump began searching more and more desperately for some election officials who would do his bidding, Stockton and Lawrence’s project began to shift and metastasize. Rivals in the MAGA movement, they said, derided what they had been up to as mere “tea party-type rallies” and said it was now time for something a little sharper, a little more on point. By late December, the pair had lost control of the rally on the 6th, and had instead been left in charge of organizing a smaller rally the day before, featuring mostly B-team players from the MAGA universe, while Trumpworld figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle and Rudy Giuliani took center stage on the 6th.
Their version of Jan. 6 seems an unlikely story — going back to their hotel, annoyed at MAGA world’s self-dealing celebrities, instead of joining the out-of-control march they helped set into motion. | Getty Images
I talked to Stockton again on Jan. 5, and he sounded both exuberant and exhausted, never mind that some of the stars had never in fact signed on, and that the crowd was looking to top out at 30,000, max. Trump had been hyping up the rally on Twitter, writing, “Be there, will be wild!” and retweeting Lawrence’s announcement of it, a tweet that would later be shown on the Senate floor and entered into as evidence for Trump’s second impeachment trial. (Lawrence sued the House impeachment managers for defamation.) They were told that the word from the White House was to be prepared to be around all day and all night if need be. “We are going to keep it going until there is some kind of resolution,” Stockton told me.
By the next day, though, Stockton and Lawrence, going on one hour of sleep, and after squabbling with conservative influencers who thought they deserved better seating, and sitting in the freezing cold for hours during the various warm-up acts, decided to leave and go back to the hotel just as Trump was speaking, to rest up for the long night ahead. “I had Fox News on, I woke up, and it was breaking news,” Stockton told me later.
“‘They have taken over the Capitol.’ And my first thought was, ‘’Oh my God, what kind of idiots are these?’ It was my worst nightmare. Instead of it being Patriots Day, where we prove the election fraud, my thought was: We are about to get roasted.”
“Instead of it being Patriots Day, where we prove the election fraud, my thought was: We are about to get roasted.”
Dustin Stockton after January 6
Their version of Jan. 6 seems an unlikely story — going back to their hotel, annoyed at MAGA world’s self-dealing celebrities, instead of joining the out-of-control march they helped set into motion. But so far there’s been no proof otherwise: As the Capitol that day became the most scrutinized crime scene in America, no charges were ever filed against them; Stockton says he was interviewed by federal authorities once, in the spring, but never heard anything more about it.
And the sense of frustration, betrayal, disgust they’ve developed since Jan. 6 — that is incontestably real.
They were already let down by what they saw as a lack of gratitude from the Trump administration: Their hoped-for administration jobs, possibly an overseas posting, never arrived. They had ties to Steve Bannon, and hoped to use his connections to become high-dollar fundraisers, but he never really made those introductions. They wanted Fox News appearances, and social media clout, but had trouble locking down both. Their highest-profile effort, the We Build the Wall fundraising campaign, ended in charges and recrimination. And in the months after the Jan. 6 rally, they came to feel betrayed by a movement they helped build.
“If you go work for Trump,” Stockton said to me last week, over a year after we had met up in D.C., “you eventually become the focus of the attack, and when you do, they just dump you.”
They are, they know, now political actors without a country, reviled on the left for being associated with insurrectionists, and on the right for now willing to talk about what actually went down that day in Washington. They can make for difficult, even unsympathetic, subjects, figures who perpetrated a decade’s worth of hijinks and dirty tricks who at last pulled off a stunt so big and outrageous they lost control of it.
Jan. 6 was supposed to be the culmination of their careers. Instead, it felt like the end.
Stockton, who calls himself an Instagram boyfriend, takes a photo of Lawrence.
I first met Stockton and Lawrence nearly a decade ago. I needed a quote for a story, and searched around for someone affiliated with the tea party who could comment. Stockton was listed as the head of something called “Western Representation PAC,” one of the many such groups that had begun up during Barack Obama’s first term.
A few months later, I went to meet them at a divey Irish bar near my New York City office on a Friday afternoon. They looked like they had just blown in from Hazzard County; she in cut-offs and a T-shirt, he in torn jeans and sunglasses. If they were really political operatives, they were nothing like the pleated-khaki version I had previously known. After a couple of beers, Stockton leaned across the table with a proposal for me. Neither of us, he said, had anything like the social media following we deserved. We should get into some kind of epic Twitter battle, one that would get a lot of attention and boost both of our visibility. I demurred, in part because I was almost certain that James O’Keefe or some similar figure was secretly recording this conversation.
If they were really political operatives, Stockton and Lawrence were nothing like the pleated-khaki version.
We kept in touch over the years, as the conservative populist movement evolved and they became players in it. Not stars, mind you, in a world that minted them all the time. They were not “thought leaders” like Ben Shapiro, nor impresarios like Steve Bannon, militia flashpoints like the Bundys, flamboyant provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, organization builders like Charlie Kirk.
But they were, in a constant and grassroots way, there — at rallies, on campaigns; their names were behind websites and Facebook pages. Stockton and Lawrence made a living almost as mercenary soldiers in the decade-long war against the Republican establishment. For the past 10 years, Stockton and Lawrence have lived a life one part Zelig, two parts Bonnie and Clyde. The two of them have, for all intents and purposes, no fixed address — living out of an RV, out of fancy hotels, out of roadside motels, forever strivers in the attention economy. At one point, over the course of our conversations over the past year, Stockton asked if I wanted semi-nude photos of Lawrence by the wall along the Texas-Mexican border that they helped construct for art for this story. I demurred.
“A lot of honest people are shunned and not allowed to be in the spotlights because the uppity-ups … say that you are not good enough for us.”
“I’m never going to fit into your social norms,” Lawrence told me recently in her thick New Yorkese. “I might dress a little more slutty than I should to certain events, or say over-the-top things, or look at someone point blank in the face and say, ‘Wow, you’re kind of a dick,’ if they are being kind of a dick. A lot of honest people are shunned and not allowed to be in the spotlights because the uppity-ups, the Harvard-educated, Ivy Leagues assholes say that you are not good enough for us.”
As much as this excludes them from the Beltway cocktail circuit, it gives them an easy connection to the people crowding the disenchanted edges of populist America. “They are fearless,” said one associate of Bannon’s. “They have this f–k-you spirit which I think people in the MAGA world appreciate.”
Lawrence’s custom-embroidered jacket from the bus tour.
Stockton and Lawrence met through a presidential campaign — not Trump’s, but the 2012 campaign of the late Herman Cain, the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. Though Cain didn’t make it to Iowa, his presidential run, with its scarcity of policy, sexual harassment scandals and ability to excite the don’t-give-a-damn portion of the Republican base, now reads as a transparently clear preview of Trump.
Stockton was 30 years old at the time, going through a bad divorce, moving out of the “dream home” he shared with four small children in Austin, Texas. Lawrence had grown up around Republican politics in New York; her father runs in conservative donor circles in the city and served on the board of the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank that has been accused of anti-Muslim bias. (The CSP has warned of creeping Sharia in the United States, and accused the Obama administration of having secret ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.) Lawrence went to the New York Military Academy for high school — Trump’s alma mater — and then followed a boyfriend out to the University of Colorado Boulder. In a fit of teenage rebellion, she majored in gender studies, where, she says, students were taught how to accuse someone of sexual harassment without cause. Her father, she said, introduced her to Cain at a fundraiser, and — presumably unlike most of her gender studies classmates — she became a Republican field organizer.
Stockton had been discharged from the Army and dropped out of community college, and while trying to make money playing online poker was working a string of nowhere jobs — the graveyard shift at a plumbing supply warehouse, a water-skiing store, in the back office of a payday loan place. Like many Americans, he had developed some big questions about the economy: why he kept getting laid off; why his home in Reno, which his parents and in-laws helped buy, was suddenly worth less than he paid for it. Stockton had grown up listening to Rush Limbaugh, but he came to see that the problem was bigger than either the Republican or Democratic Party. “They were bailing out the very people who robbed me,” he said.
Lawrence is a true believer, someone raised in right-wing circles, and can stay relentlessly on message.
He saw Obama as trying to take the country into full socialism, and so Stockton and his father started a PAC. They were against liberals, but also against Republicans rigging the economy for their corporate benefactors; their PAC promised to fight for reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, reimposing the Depression-era regulations on banks that a bipartisan majority had repealed in the late 1990s. Stockton began a long investigation of their senator, the Nevada power broker Harry Reid, who also happened to be the Senate majority leader, painstakingly posting online what he saw as shady ties between the Democrat and his donors. No one paid much attention.
Out of frustration with all of his work seeming irrelevant, he told me, he wrote simply on Facebook, “HARRY REID IS AN ASSHOLE.” Tens of thousands of engagements poured in.
(To be clear, this is a slightly inflated version of what Stockton wrote in his self-published memoir, Community Organizer: A Tea Party Story: “I spent weeks pouring over Harry Reid’s FEC filing and did a long analysis about how little of his money was being raised in Nevada, earning me a few hard-won likes. Then I posted ‘Harry Reid is a Disgrace’ and I got hundreds of likes.”)
Bluster, he came to realize, brought attention, and attention was the coin of the new digital political realm. They traveled to Massachusetts, hosting a press conference targeting Congressman Barney Frank and pledging $10 million to defeat him. The money didn’t exist, but who cared? They got play out of the story anyway.
His work helped attract the attention of the Tea Party Express, a new group that was hoping to capitalize on right-wing populist anger roiling the nation in the wake of the election of Obama. The group hired Stockton as its in-house blogger, and he and the group’s leaders traveled by bus with the movement’s newest stars like Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart and ex-Saturday Night Live star Victoria Jackson. He started running events at their stops, figuring out how to corral the stars and limit their speaking time, and handling the ever-increasing demands of the C-list musical acts that joined along the tour.
There is a video on C-SPAN of Stockton from just at the end of the Tea Party tour, speaking to a crowd at the National Press Club. He is unrecognizable as the Stockton of today, clean-shaven and wearing a button-down shirt, with a buzz cut and the wide-eyed look of some kid from Nevada addressing the National Press Club for the first time.
A year and a half after they first met, Stockton called Lawrence and invited her to Las Vegas. The two have scarcely been separated since. Clockwise: Them with Michael Flynn in New York in 2016; in Texas the same year; and at the inauguration in 2017. | Courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence
“I’m so honored to be a part of this,” Stockton said, telling the audience earnestly about the pregnant wife and two young daughters he had left home in Nevada. There were no “Whoooooos,” no camouflage or Proud Boys in the crowd. “Each and every one of us has a responsibility to make sure that we do something to fight for our great nation. … It is not just enough to stand against something and protest and rally. We need to start having a political impact.”
When Stockton met Lawrence during the Cain campaign, they hit it off, smoking a joint together backstage at a rally. A year and a half later, he was divorced, and Stockton called Lawrence and invited her to Las Vegas. Lawrence was living on Staten Island at the time, waitressing and working as an intern at the London Center, a far-right think tank in New York that Michael Flynn and Sebastian Gorka were associated with.
Stockton was already in Vegas. He took her out to dinner at the restaurant at the Paris casino, they went to go see a show, and afterwards, Stockton says, he went on a run like he had never had in his life, winning thousands of dollars at a clip. When the weekend was over, and Lawrence was back in New York, Stockton called her up and told her she needed to come right back out. She did, and the two have scarcely been separated since.
Stockton and Lawrence’s coffee table, featuring a murder mystery game and what looks like a photo album.
In their first two years together, they drove tens of thousands of miles around the country, developing a tool bag of tricks to boost a rising conservative populist movement. They became, in their words, political gypsies, traveling around the country, working on races for a couple of weeks at a time, helping them sharpen their messages and boost their fundraising before moving on to the next.
They liked stunts that crossed the line between what was aboveboard and what was not. When the Obamacare exchanges launched in 2013, Stockton recruited some of his online followers to swarm the online exchanges, gumming up the works on the first day of the rollout.
A lot of what they did, however, was connect campaigns with the vast array of grassroots tea party groups, tea party-inflected media and tea party donors that had arisen after 2010. They lost a lot of races, but didn’t care. “We love lost causes. We love grassroots-style people,” Stockton told me in December, pausing for a moment to take a rip off his bong to cure his hiccups. (“Legal in Nevada!” Lawrence yelled into the phone.)
“I never got along well with most political consultants or really wanted to. We take the jobs no one else will,” he said. “What, Mitch McConnell is going to threaten us? We really don’t care.”
“What, Mitch McConnell is going to threaten us? We really don’t care.”
They started working for Gun Owners of America, a group formed on the belief that the National Rifle Association was filled with a bunch of compromising squishes when it came to firearms. Stockton had become one of the right’s many prolific Facebook content generators, with hundreds of thousands of engagements for every one of his increasingly incendiary posts, and a leading digital fundraiser, with his solicitations garnering hundreds of thousands of dollars for whatever cause or candidate he was shilling for. But his time with Cain in 2012, and before that with the Newt Gingrich campaign, gave him a glimpse into a bigger, richer world — one they both wanted a way into.
“It goes to the anti-establishment thing,” he said. “I could never lock down, like, a quarter-of-a-million-dollar contribution. The only time I was on Fox was on Huckabee’s show at 2 o’clock in the morning. There were people who were doing a fraction of the work who were getting all of the attention.”
They became, in their words, political gypsies, travelling around the country, working on races for a couple of weeks at a time, helping them sharpen their messages and boost their fundraising before moving on to the next.
Stockton says he met Steve Bannon at CPAC in 2012. Stockton hosted a party in his suite, a party that became infamous when a bunch of protesters from Occupy Wall Street showed up to heckle Andrew Breitbart, who responded by yelling back, “Behave yourself! You are filthy filthy freaks! Stop raping people!” It was all caught on video. Later Bannon invited Stockton to the Breitbart Embassy, the Capitol Hill townhouse he used as his headquarters, as he convened various figures in the tea party movement in the run-up during the 2012 election to tell them they needed to get behind Mitt Romney or the tea party would die. (“A bunch of kumbaya bullshit,” Stockton recalls.) At Bannon’s behest, Stockton organized a “Unity Rally” before the GOP convention — a piece of political theater in which assorted tea party groups agreed to put aside their differences.
Bannon later hired them both as community liaisons for Breitbart. (Bannon did not return several requests for comment on this story.) They spent six weeks staying at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South and “infiltrating” a bunch of left-wing activist groups that wanted to disrupt a GOP gala in Manhattan before they were found out. Afterwards, Bannon sent the two to cover Bernie Sanders, who was challenging Hillary Clinton, with the idea that they could find and write about the fissures in the Democratic coalition. They convinced Bruce Carter, a Black supporter of Bernie Sanders, to channel his anti-Clinton energy into a new group called Trump for Urban Communities, which had a Twitter account that Carter didn’t control and was funded by people he never met or solicited. After getting blackout drunk and having a messy fight at the Trump inauguration — “We are kind of famous for our fights,” Lawrence said — they were sent by Bannon to babysit Milo Yiannopoulos, the far-right provocateur, on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour, where they tried to keep the peace between Yiannopoulos and his hangers-on and the security detail assigned to guard them.
They grew tired of the life, the constant travel, the never really having a home.
For all that work, they expected some kind of ticket into the big time. Stockton and Lawrence had hoped if Trump lost, Bannon would be able to hook them up with their own show on whatever television station Trump was going to start in defeat. When that didn’t happen, they thought they might get a job with the administration, or at least the campaign. When that didn’t happen, they went back to working on political campaigns. They worked for Kelli Ward, a far-right conspiracy theorist running for the Senate in Arizona, but left after a dispute with some of her consultants. They went to Alabama, where they found a 12-year-old girl to interview Roy Moore, the judge and Senate candidate who had multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with underaged girls against him. The interview ricocheted around the internet, even landing on late-night talk shows.
“It is easier to influence events than it is to understand them,” said Stockton, a philosophy he says he borrowed from George Soros. “And so if you find yourself in a controversy, it is better to just create your own controversy so that you know what the next moves are.”
“Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?”
But they grew tired of the life, the constant travel, the never really having a home. They scarcely saw Stockton’s three kids. They said they went to Jamaica and tried to start a cannabis festival, but it fell through. They hoped to start an international cannabis business as more countries embraced legalization. They were done, they thought, with politics.
“Everybody’s always trying to screw everybody else,” Stockton told me. “Politicians let you down 100 percent of the time. It gets hard, and after 10 years of it I was like, you know, is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?”
Lawrence wears a camouflage MAGA hat.
Politics, however, kept reeling them back. The barriers to entry kept getting lower; the prospect of viral renown, if you could hit the right marks, only increased.
They were living in upstate New York, on an estate belonging to Lawrence’s family, when an associate connected them to Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee Iraq War vet who had started a coffee company called Military Grade Coffee. The coffee company had a very familiar playbook: Kolfage found his customers in part by spreading inflammatory news stories online, then harvesting the email addresses of people who engaged. By the time they met Kolfage, his company had just been kicked off of Facebook for misinformation. Stockton tapped his own email list on Kolfage’s behalf, telling them about the triple amputee who was being censored by Big Tech. The coffee business quickly did more business than ever before. Stockton, who was at the time just trying to make some quick Christmas cash, set up a GoFundMe to help Kolfage sue Facebook for kicking him off, and the campaign raised nearly $40,000 in a matter of a few weeks. (Kolfage told me he was talked out of it after meeting with lawyers.)
Kolfage was thrilled, and he called Stockton up about setting up another GoFundMe, this time to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico. At the time, the federal government had been shut down for 35 days because Trump insisted on a wall and couldn’t convince the Democratic-controlled Congress to pay for it; this was a direct appeal to ordinary citizens who might be willing to pay for it themselves. Stockton was skeptical: Immigration posts could generate big numbers on his Facebook pages but he didn’t believe the issue was a way to get grassroots donors to give money. Plus, the actual logistics of their project — raising money and giving it to the federal government — seemed like it would be a nightmare.
Politics kept reeling them back. The barriers to entry kept getting lower; the prospect of viral renown, if you could hit the right marks, only increased.
Kolfage wrote a GoFundMe appeal that played on his status as a war vet and as a free-speech fighter against Facebook. He anticipated that the mainstream media would call it a scam, and leaned into that in advance — the triple-amputee veteran versus the critics. “It was defiantly sympathetic,” Stockton said. “People figured, ‘Look if the one-armed dude is going to take my 50 bucks, so be it.’”
At the end of four days, leveraging Stockton’s email list and affiliated social media networks, they had raised $20 million.
Stockton says they really did try to deliver the money to the Treasury, though their idea also had an underlying problem: There’s no legal vehicle for citizens to earmark funds for their own government projects. They reached out to everyone they knew in the administration, and allies in Congress like Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). They went to Washington and met with Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mark Meadows. Though Steve Bannon was by that point on the outs with the administration, with Trump making fun of his penchant for wearing multiple shirts at a time, Stockton and Lawrence started gathering people in Bannon’s basement and, using Bannon’s Rolodex, got a bunch of right-wing figures, like former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and former Milwaukee sheriff Dave Clarke, to sign on as board members of the nonprofit they would soon register: We Build the Wall.
“People figured, ‘Look if the one-armed dude is going to take my 50 bucks, so be it.’”
Getting land to actually build the thing proved more difficult. They ran into regulations about building near waterways and borders. They didn’t want to build in the middle of nowhere, where no migrants crossed. Many landowners they contacted had heard about the $20 million in their bank account and wanted big chunks of it for themselves. With the media and protesters tracking their every move, over Memorial Day weekend in 2019 the group found a half-mile stretch of land along the Rio Grande and built a portion of the wall essentially in the dark of night, before anyone knew what they were doing, only to be forced to stop when the local government issued a stop-work order.
Their campaign started to get attention in corners of the MAGA world, but Bannon thought they needed bigger names, so he invited Kris Kobach, the former hardline anti-immigrant Kansas secretary of state, to join the group, figuring that if he became Trump’s Homeland Security secretary — a job he was in the running for — it would mean their wall project would get the government’s blessing.
The portion of a border wall the We Build the Wall campaign helped build. | Courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence
Kobach was supposed to be the project’s liaison to Trump, but according to Stockton and Lawrence, he seemed to want to use it mainly to boost his own profile. The pair spent months negotiating an exclusive interview with Kolfage and CBS News, and Kobach stepped on their plans by scheduling his own interview with Fox. Kobach and Bannon also wanted to push out some of the longtime board members in favor of more “respectable” conservatives. Stockton and Lawrence decided they had had enough. They left on a road trip with Stockton’s kids, and while they were gone, Bannon and others remaining behind arranged to host a three-day symposium at the wall with political celebrities like Donald Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle.
Stockton and Lawrence returned to the symposium in a rage, in part because of what they say were the funds lavished on the influencers on the program. Stockton, who had been bounced from a speaking slot at the event in favor of the influencers, grabbed the mic anyway and started speaking his piece, praising the work of Kolfage and early founders like themselves. Everyone was mad at everyone, and as they decamped to the desert for dinner that night, Lawrence made hamburgers for everyone. One of the boyfriends of one of the influencers, an angel mom who had been brought on board for the event, complained that it was cold, and so Lawrence told him — in her words — that he was a f—ing asshole and could shove that hamburger up his ass. Stockton tried to get her to calm down, which led to a big fight between the two of them, and the two of them saying they were breaking up.
Stockton has always struck me as someone in on the joke, willing to give the necessary quote, well aware that he was playing a role in the national narrative.
Soon afterward, they decided to leave the organization for good. They were sleeping in their RV, outside of a cheap motel in Mesquite, Nevada, one night when they heard a loud knock on their door. Stockton, who said he had been twice arrested by the Las Vegas police in recent years (once because he had failed to heed police warnings to disperse when he was filming a George Floyd protest, and once when he was falsely accused of failing to return a rental car), figured that is who it was, or else, “some kind of crackhead.” He grabbed his gun, and ran to the front of the RV, where out the window he saw a half-dozen federal agents with guns.
They turned out to be armed agents with the U.S. Postal Service, and they handed Stockton and Lawrence a subpoena and seized their computers and phones. Later, they found out that Bannon had been arrested on a yacht off the coast of Connecticut that belonged to a Chinese billionaire. (The charges against Bannon were later dropped after Trump pardoned him.) Kolfage had been arrested as well. Federal prosecutors in New York alleged that We Build the Wall was a fake nonprofit, a scam meant to funnel money to its founders. The agents ended up keeping Lawrence’s and Stockton’s phones, but not their computers, and the two were never formally charged. The case is ongoing.
Stockton in his car in a parking lot in Florida.
The 2020 campaign was the first in a decade that Stockton and Lawrence hadn’t played a role in. That changed on election night. They were in their home in the town of Pahrump, Nevada, and Stockton didn’t like what he was seeing as the returns came in. It was just as Trump had said: The Democrats were trying to steal the election in the middle of the night, “dumping” thousands of ballots from Democratic precincts in swing states. Never mind that this was a normal pattern that election experts had expected; urban areas frequently report late and come in with huge margins for Democrats. Stockton had followed elections before, but there just couldn’t be margins and numbers that big, he thought. “It was just as Trump said it would go,” he said.
He says they didn’t want to get involved, but Amy Kremer, the head of Women for America First, and the original head of the Tea Party Express, called, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. (Kremer did not return multiple requests for her account of the events; since Jan. 6 they had a falling out, a not uncommon occurrence among figures of the MAGA right.) They were, she told them, the only ones who could pull off what needed to be pulled off. A big rally in D.C. next week, and who knows what would come next. There was a measure of self-interest, as well: With their legal position still ambiguous — they had not been formally charged in the We Build the Wall case, but thought they might be soon — running around the country saying the election had been stolen seemed like a good way to attract the president’s favor should he start handing out pardons.
The 2020 campaign was the first in a decade that Stockton and Lawrence hadn’t played a role in. That changed on election night.
Stockton set up a “Stop the Steal” Facebook page, and within 24 hours it had 350,000 members, with several million more in the queue waiting for approval. After some digging by NBC investigative reporter Brandy Zadrozny, however, the page got taken down by Facebook for spreading misinformation. Stockton accused her of playing with a powder keg. “You really should try writing things that aren’t designed to marginalize people by having them silenced. You are creating extremely dangerous situations where these people feel like they have no real outlet,” he says he wrote to Zadrozny when she asked for comment.
With Facebook shutting them down, Stockton and Lawrence figured the only thing they could do was to go all-in. The first rally they put together, the one on Nov. 14, was bigger than they had imagined. Stockton left the main stage to go speak before the Supreme Court, and so many protesters had surrounded the front of the building that he could barely make it to the microphone there. The group decided to go on a bus tour of swing states — North Carolina, Florida, Michigan — before heading back to D.C. for another December rally. Everywhere they went the crowds were energized, enthusiastic. They were back.
“If we allow them to blatantly lie to take control of our government, there is no future.”
Dustin Stockton before January 6
The bus tour was, by many accounts, ugly. Stop after stop was filled with speakers talking about what was happening with the vote count in the most apocalyptic terms, warning, or some would say threatening, violence. Stockton himself told the crowd that “if we allow them to blatantly lie to take control of our government, there is no future” and that “we have to remember the people who betrayed us.”
After the riots of the 6th, outlets like BuzzFeed and the New York Times unearthed footage of these events, blaming the rhetoric used on the tour for fanning the flames that engulfed the Capitol later. Stockton didn’t mind the stories. “I thought we came out pretty well in them, actually,” he said. “That kind of language — some of it is political hyperbole. And a big chunk of it is more generic than it seems to probably a lot of people. Nothing that we asked for or preach for is anything different than what you find in our founding documents.”
Nothing that Stockton or Lawrence said, they noted, went beyond anything the president of the United States was saying.
They went on a bus tour of swing states before heading back to Washington for another December rally. The crowds were energized, enthusiastic. They were back. | Courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence
As much as they operate as a team, Stockton and Lawrence are different people and they play different roles. Lawrence is a true believer, someone raised in right-wing circles, and can stay relentlessly on message. Her official title for We Build the Wall was communications director. When I first spoke to her days after the riots of Jan. 6, she said it may have been antifa and brought up Black Lives Matter. Stockton is different: He has always struck me as someone in on the joke, willing to give the necessary quote, well aware that he was playing a role in the national narrative.
I’ve spoken with Lawrence and Stockton for hours and hours, both before the election and after. As far as I can tell, they both really believed at the time that Trump had won, and that the election was fraudulent. In part, because Trump said it was, and in part, I suspect, out of a belief that when you have spent a decade monkeying with politics, you assume more powerful forces are monkeying with the system even more effectively. But also because of the way the world seemed rigged against them — the way they were constantly getting kicked off of Facebook, the way the “Russia hoaxers” and anti-Trumpers in the national media all seemed to know each other.
When the 6th arrived, they say they thought this would be the moment — Trump would lay out the evidence and the courts or Congress or someone would see the light. Instead, Trump spewed the same stuff he always had. “It was just the same f—ing speech. It was really disheartening,” Stockton said.
Get POLITICO Magazine’s newsletter featuring the best stories of the week and our Friday Cover delivered to your inbox.
Was he really that surprised? In the days after the election, Stockton spoke about the fraud as a true believer, no winking or arched eyebrows. Trump had won, and it was only a matter of time before the courts and various secretaries of state sorted it all out. He maintained that pulling off a scam to deliver hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes would actually be relatively easy. When I asked him why he was so confident, he’d unspool obscure bits of information about recently discovered boxes of fake ballots as if it were widely accepted fact. Like a lot of people in MAGA world, he had a sense of the news that seemed to come from a hermetically sealed bubble.
But their frustration was also out of personal spite. They had put together “March for Trump” rallies all over the country and on the fly, while other MAGA-world figures like Ali Alexander and Alex Jones had co-opted their original “Stop the Steal” name but, in Stockton’s estimation, “couldn’t organize shit.” Stockton and Lawrence had been trying to keep them and their cohort away from their efforts, and say a deal was ultimately brokered to allow Alexander and Jones to speak at the rally on the 5th so long as there was no rally at the Capitol on the 6th. But Alexander and Jones planned one anyway — and when Trump mentioned walking over to the Capitol in his speech, it meant to Stockton and Lawrence that someone from the other side had gotten to him.
Even so, the notion that Stockton and Lawrence, after having spent the months leading up to Jan. 6 on a “Stop the Steal” bus tour, came to Washington and then, just as the steal could be stopped, shrugged and went back to their hotel, and looked on shocked — shocked! — at what had transpired, seems frankly, like horseshit. I have told them as much. And they get it, and agree that their story doesn’t sound very believable. But as investigators have pored through the evidence of the day, nothing has yet pointed to Stockton and Lawrence being at the Capitol.
Stockton and Lawrence left D.C. a few days later and went down to “hide out” in North Carolina. (They have, they said, hideaways run by “patriots” all over the country where they can stay undetected if need be.) When we spoke a few days after the 6th, Stockton sounded done, depressed even. He was expecting something to happen, and it didn’t.
Stockton and Lawrence on their phones.
To bounce back, at first they tried to rally their energy and run the old playbook. They started a “MAGA Sellout” tour to take down Republicans who had certified Biden’s election or supported Trump’s impeachment; Stockton talked ambitiously about a series of massive cookouts and a “Tea Party 8.0.” But something was also changing for them. Stockton says he now believes that in fact Joe Biden is the legitimately elected president of the United States. It can seem odd, trying to punish politicians who believe the exact same thing they believe, until you remember that this is actually safer ground for them: politics as a prank, eyebrows arched. And besides, what did it matter who was right? If your goal is to remake the Republican Party, tossing out politicians with last names like Cheney and Murkowski and Romney, you take any opportunity you can.
In any event, even that version didn’t work out. They failed to recruit candidates and no one came to the big barbecue. Stockton and Lawrence talk darkly about why they’ve been laying low since then: They say that they are being targeted again, and see a shadowy conspiracy keeping them on the sidelines. They say that they’ve faced face extra scrutiny at the airport when they try to travel, that they have been unable to bank. Worse, Stockton says, somebody — maybe their newsletter platform, maybe their internet service provider — labeled the email list that he spent millions of dollars building and years cultivating a kind of spam, and so his open rate went from 20 or 30 percent to 2 percent. Without being able to reach people, he has no way to raise money. “We tried soft-ask emails, no-ask emails … and nothing is getting through,” he says. “We finally just gave up.”
Broke, unable to afford lawyers, and forced to turn off the hot water in their RV in Nevada to save on money, Lawrence and Stockton are, in a word, furious. They say the money they were owed for the “Stop the Steal” bus tour never came through. Investigative reports from outlets like ProPublica and others have lumped them in with the crowds who stormed the Capitol. Never having been introduced to the top money people, never having been pardoned, never even paid properly and, now, left holding the bag as others led the assault on the Capitol, they are ready to tell what they know. POLITICO has already reported that Stockton talked to the Jan. 6 committee. They no doubt spoke to me for this story, in large part, because they thought they could vindicate themselves.
“There are a lot of grifters in our space … and we know a lot about that, and we are ready to share.”
They still stand by their beliefs about America, and still stand by what they have done: They say there was never any violence at any of their rallies; Stockton says everyone who asked for a refund from We Build the Wall got one, and no one donor has said they were defrauded, even as Bannon was arrested and the media labeled them grifters and con artists. A portion of the wall was built, and it still stands.
But they now feel a growing sense of alienation from their own side, as well as from the elites they’ve been fighting for years. Who gets the pardons, who gets the Fox News hits, and who gets to hobnob with the donor class? Not them. “We are just tired of watching people take advantage of other people and then us being forced to bear the consequences of it. There are a lot of grifters in our space, a lot of people who are not acting in good faith, and we know a lot about that, and we are ready to share,” he said.
Stockton and Lawrence see a shadowy conspiracy keeping them on the sidelines. They now feel a growing sense of alienation from their own side, as well as from the elites they’ve been fighting for years.
Without money to pay attorneys, they say they reached out to the House Jan. 6 committee, and would like to voluntarily testify. “This is our chance to tell our side of the story. We are going to be labeled with the crazies unless we do. We are in no-man’s land right now. The right thinks we are collaborators and the left wants our heads on pikes because we organized rallies in D.C. I don’t know what we do,” Stockton continued. “And so f— everyone. We are not afraid to tell people what happened. We don’t want to be known as an insurrectionist or any other dumb-f— influencer on the right who just echoes the same talking points everybody else says.”
Stockton and Lawrence are not, to be clear, brave dissidents coming in from the cold of the right-wing fever swamps. Their own version of their story and their epiphany can seem a little too cute; they’re people who grabbed a tiger’s tail and eventually the tiger bit them. They have political ideas that many readers will find abhorrent. Stockton believes, for example, not only that a well-armed militia is constitutionally enshrined but that it is also necessary for safety, and that trained civilians carrying semi-automatic rifles keep people safer. They filmed a Facebook video of themselves at a gun range with a far-right YouTuber in the days before the riot on the 6th. Stockton uses the word “globalist,” often seen as an antisemitic dog whistle, insisting that it is about open borders and trade and foreign military intervention, and in his defense points to Lawrence’s father’s friendship with Bibi Netanyahu. There is video of Lawrence heckling migrants as they cross the southern border, but they also forcibly remove people who carry Confederate flags to their rallies. Stockton says he wants people to participate in politics, in the legitimate political sphere, and he sees the charge on the Capitol as a violation of that.
When Stockton spoke at that first rally, back in November of 2020, he called Donald Trump and all the patriots gathered there the natural outgrowth of the tea party — the next step in the movement that they gave much of the last 10 years to. Now that movement seems dead, and Trump lives on.
“The Trump world is clearly the worst of it,” Stockton said. “He has raised $200 million-plus since the election. What is that being used for? Is it being used for what they are telling people it is being used for? I know it is not, because I am out here starving.”
© 2021 POLITICO LLC