A little known Democratic group called MeidasTouch posted a video on Twitter less than two weeks ago that began with Kellyanne Conway, President Donald Trump’s longtime aide, lashing out at presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The former vice president had made “a lot of really creepy statements” in the past, Conway said, “that make me very uncomfortable, certainly as a mother but as a person who breathes air and exercises brain capacity.”
But Biden’s name is never mentioned, and what follows in the video is a mashup of Trump’s own words – from when he suggested, on “The View,” that if “Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her,” to his speculating in another old interview about daughter Tiffany’s future physical appearance.
By Tuesday afternoon, the so-called “Creepy Trump” video had more than 6.3 million views on Twitter.
From their respective pandemic lockdowns in New York and Los Angeles earlier this year, the three brothers who founded MeidasTouch began to turn over an idea – and an opportunity. Ben, 35, Brett, 30, and 27-year-old Jordan Meiselas had been captive audiences to Trump’s coronavirus press conferences and, feeling frustrated and angry with time on their hands, started a blog. Opinion and aggregation soon turned into the rapid production of political videos.
New York natives, the brothers decided that their experiences across different professions – Ben is a lawyer; Brett a video editor; and Jordan a marketing supervisor – could be folded together to successfully launch an online media and advocacy operation. With an election approaching and liberals’ appetite for anti-Trump content peaking, their audience was already in place.
The most direct line into the national presidential media narrative in 2020 runs through the Washington, DC, media market. It is there that Trump consumes, for hours on end, cable news programming from the White House – including the commercial breaks. Last Tuesday, MeidasTouch announced a five-figure ad buy that has seen the spot air across cable news, with a focus on some of Trump’s favorite Fox News programs.
When an ad from the Lincoln Project, a Never-Trump Republican super PAC, caught his attention back in May, setting off an after-hours tweetstorm, it succeeded not only in the further upsetting the perpetually mad President, but in generating a news cycle around his pique.
The freakout secured the group’s status as heroic turncoat provocateurs in the minds of many liberals thirsty for catharsis after nearly four years of Trump’s presidency. Though its practical electoral upside remains a point of debate on the left, the market is ripe for media-makers who can channel liberal frustrations while, if the timing lines up, triggering Trump in the process.
For MeidasTouch, the breakthrough came in late April, with an assist from George Conway. Brett Meiselas, the brother who cuts the videos, tweeted one at Conway, the Republican lawyer husband of Kellyanne Conway and a Lincoln Project co-founder. One retweet later, MeidasTouch was on the map and in the game.
“It got over a million views very quickly. Suddenly we had people paying attention to us. We had followers,” said Brett, the former head of post production for the digital department on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” of their viral breakout.
Trump vs. Trump
The slick spot follows a theme the brothers, who now operate MeidasTouch as a super PAC – with more than $300,000 in contributions to date, they said – have sharpened over months: using Trump’s own words, and those of his aides and allies, against him. The spot that caught Conway’s eye featured President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 debate line – “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” – over quick cuts showing contemporary images of bare shelves, coronavirus testing lines, headlines reporting unemployment numbers and, in the finale, Trump being laughed at during his 2018 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
The Trump campaign did not comment on the ads.
“A lot of what (Trump and his team) are saying is projection,” Ben Meiselas, a civil rights lawyer who represented Colin Kaepernick in his lawsuit against the NFL, told CNN. “They’re blaming the things that they’re doing on Biden and on others.”
That insight has become a commonplace in liberal spaces online, which helps explain why the MeidasTouch ads have touched a nerve – and repeated their viral success. Similar digital videos targeting Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump have combined for more than 14 million views on Twitter.
In a spot attached to the hashtag, “ByeDonJr,” the President’s son is seen on Fox News railing against an unnamed figure.
“The guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s gross negligence and honestly it’s worse. It’s just sheer incompetence,” Trump Jr. says, as video cuts in showing his father walking around confusedly and then, also on Fox News, talking up the White House response to the coronavirus and making his infamous prediction that it would “at some point just disappear.”
“In 2016, the thing that Trump was also so successful in was, he could say something, he could label his opponent any way he wants to label his opponent and that would kind of stick, very quickly. He’s a good branding guy,” Brett Meiselas said.
The MeidasTouch videos, he added, fit into a broader effort among similar groups determined to “take the oxygen out of the news cycle from (Trump) almost immediately.”
“So when Don Jr. goes on Fox News and he tries to set this tone, like the Bidens are this corrupt family enterprise, we could hit back almost instantaneously and take the air out of that message,” Brett said, “which I think is super important to get out in front of.”
Brett Meiselas had never made a political ad before this year, but he credited his time working on DeGeneres’ show with helping to develop the chops for fast-paced, movie trailer-style videos that grab the viewer off the top.
“Working on a daily talk show on a daily grind like that, it’s high pressure,” he said. “You need to get things out at a certain level of quality and you need to be able to get a clear message across, and whether it’s a comedic message in two minutes, or a political ad in 30 seconds, 60 seconds.”
The brothers view their role as closing the online gap between conservative media and meme-making and what exists – or existed during the last election – on the Democratic side. In 2016, Brett Meiselas said, the Trump campaign were “content kings.”
“It had an impact. Facebook obviously had a tangible impact on the election cycle. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “Digital has a tangible impact.”
Looking outside the Beltway
The group has also made digital videos in support of Biden, though those have been more narrowly targeted, with titles including “Dear Michigan” and “Dear Pennsylvania.”
“These videos are not just anti-Trump ads, they’re pro-Joe Biden ads and show why we think he’s the right person for those specific states, utilizing speeches that he’s made,” Ben Meiselas said.
The Biden ads haven’t gained the same traction as the videos trolling Trump. Ben acknowledged that, like with Hillary Clinton four years ago, there is an enthusiasm gap among Democrats for their own nominee, pointing to the different political cultures that surround Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost out in the primaries again this year.
But even if the Biden videos don’t pop the way Trump-focused ones do, he added, it’s worth the time.
“I think it is important, as a progressive group, not just to say, ‘Hey, we’re progressive, we’re liberals, we’re Democrats,’” Ben said. “But also to say, ‘We stand behind Biden.’”
The MeidasTouch videos have yet to catch Trump’s eye, or ire, but right wing media giant Breitbart has taken notice. After the group posted a video lampooning Ivanka Trump, who posted an online commencement speech after her live talk was canceled by Wichita State University in early June, Breitbart covered it with the headline, “Colin Kaepernick Attorney’s Political Action Committee Attacks Ivanka Trump over Virtual Commencement Address.”
The write-up is a fairly straight-forward description of the video, explaining that it “splices footage of Ivanka Trump’s online commencement speech with footage of protesters in the streets meeting with violent interactions with police.” Despite its fealty to Trump, even Breitbart couldn’t resist claiming a piece of the video’s viral power.
“You have your low hanging fruit of, ‘Creepy Trump’ or ‘Bye Don Jr.’ But it’s also critical for us that, as Trump has tried to monopolize digital spaces, and he so successfully captured that in 2016, that now his voice is being drowned out in those same digital spaces in 2020,” Brett Meiselas said.
The brothers’ group is still, in the universe of super PACs, relatively small. It’s pulled in only a fraction of the funding that others, like the Lincoln Project, have received. But their ambitions are growing they hope to buy ad time in television markets in potential swing states, like Iowa, where the Biden campaign and other Democratic groups might not choose to heavily invest.
They took a first step in that direction this week, announcing on Tuesday plans for new five-figure buys in Texas, where Biden launched an ad last week, Alaska and Montana.
“Weak President,” a spot that begins with Trump’s oddly cautious descent from a stage following his recent commencement speech at West Point and concludes with a clip, from the same event, of the President using two hands to lift a small cup of water, will air on cable for a week in Houston and on broadcast stations in Missoula, Montana, and Anchorage, Alaska.
“I think you see an excited, motivated (Democratic) electorate out there, and I see a deflated Trump grasping for people to be at his rallies while no one’s showing up, and just withering away at these ridiculous press conferences he’s holding,” Ben Meiselas said. “Do I think MeidasTouch is responsible for all of that? No. Do I think for most of that? No. But do I think MeidasTouch is playing a small part, as three brothers can, in impacting this election cycle? Yes.”