Ben Meiselas & Brett Meiselas
Saving Democracy, One Tweet at a Time
Air Date: January 25, 2021
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, I’m honored to welcome our guests today, Ben Meiselas and Brett Meiselas. They are the co-founders of the MeidasTouch. Welcome gentlemen, it’s really an honor to host you today.
BEN MEISELAS: Thanks for having us.
BRETT MEISELAS: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: For those who don’t know, MeidasTouch, like the Lincoln Project was one of the groundbreaking ventures in pursuing informed education on the election, to really make sure that the American public was aware of the transgressions against our democracy: the corruption, and now even what appears to be the treason and sedition and insurrection that we haven’t seen since the Civil War. It’s hard to contextualize this as it has all these moving parts and we feel like our very Republic is under siege, but many of us and on this program for four years, have been talking about Donald Trump as an authoritarian, not as a bully, not as a blabbermouth or asinine person, but as an autocrat. And I think Ben, in our original conversations, you identified just how much of Donald Trump is an aberration from our American history. And you wanted to highlight that for the American people in so many of your really poignant ads.
BEN MEISELAS: Correct. And this was, as we saw at a fight for democracy. We totally agree that Trump is an existential threat to democracy and the anti-democratic pro-fascist radical right movement that he’s created is similar to the fascist movements historically that you can see whether it’s with Mussolini in Italy or Hitler in Germany and touching upon those same kind of topics to energize people to view democratic forces as the other, from racism to antisemitism and to otherization of people who support democracy and freedom. Trump embraced those tactics. And so, we wanted to push back on that at first on digital platforms where MeidasTouch essentially began as a digital platform on Twitter and TikTok and Facebook and YouTube, but then we became very quickly a grassroots movement and immersed ourselves within communities, whether it was in Georgia, whether it was Allegheny County during the generals, whether it was in Detroit, whether it was in Maricopa, and really connecting with people with a pro-democratic message.
HEFFNER: Brett, let me ask you this, in Georgia, what do you think was most effective in your messaging? Was it about the preservation of democracy or was it about the corruption of Loeffler and Purdue or a combination of the two?
BRETT MEISELAS: I think it was definitely a combination of the two, but one of the things that I’m most proud of is what we did was when we went into Georgia with our canvassers and we did a bus tour through Georgia the main thing that we pushed on those efforts were positive messages about Warnock and Ossoff. And so we had a bus tour, for example, a billboard bus that hit about 15 cities throughout Georgia. And we just came up with a simple message that we hadn’t heard expressed this way before. And we called it the “Vote Your Raise Tour.” We were telling people that if you vote for Warnock and Ossoff, you are literally voting yourself a raise because these are two candidates who will support raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour. And in Georgia, if you’re a small business, the minimum wage is just $5 dollars and change. So think about the lives that would be changed if you’re able to increase it by nearly three times. And so we thought that was a very powerful message. Obviously, as we got closer to the end, the $2,000 dollar checks became a very compelling and powerful message that we wanted to push. And we brought just, you know, everything about health, jobs, racial justice, that this, this is what these are issues, that our canvassers were speaking with voters at the doors. And we think that message and that just connecting with people on a human-to-human basis, I think that was so crucial, because while they’re out there, while you have Loeffler and Purdue, and they’re just trying to paint, you know, Democrats as these radical leftists and, you know, liberal whatever, meanwhile, we show up at the doors, everyone’s very respectful, it’s conversations. And whether you’re on our side or you’re not, you could acknowledge, oh, these are good people who care about this country. And I think that is what kind of took us to the next level. While they were complaining and spewing hate and trying to get people to, you know, worry about overthrowing the government on the sixth, which is, happens to be the date that we’re recording this right now in the midst of all the chaos, they were so focused on January 6th, January 6th, January 6th. Our eyes were on January 5th, January 5th, get out the vote. And I think that made all the difference.
HEFFNER: You guys did something really amazing. When I hosted you on the podcast, I asked you how you were going to translate brilliant animation and language in your advertisements, in your educational campaign, into votes. And you found a way to do it, specifically in Georgia and some of the other places Ben, that you mentioned as well, Michigan and Arizona. What was the trick to translating what our digital ads that I know you also paid to air on TV, what was the trick, what was most instrumental in materializing support in voters who were Voting by Mail or on Election Day, Ben?
BEN MEISELAS: The focus was building a movement. And part of that movement were the ads that live digitally and went viral. Most of our videos did millions of views. I think since we began in April, May, we’ve had over 544 million views of our videos on Twitter alone, but it was then once people were impassioned and having the conversations that were started by these digital videos, it was then utilizing that momentum to get the groundwork done. And once people started to care again, we had to turn that care and concern into action on the ground. And that’s where we were able to implement these incredible canvassing efforts with, you know, knocking on doors. That’s how we were able to do these mailing efforts, where we spent basically a half a million dollars and sent in bilingual mailers across the state of Georgia. But see when someone would get our mailers or see our billboards, the marketing strategies we used were less of traditional political thinking and more along the lines of like a Hollywood blockbuster movie, because there were so many data points where we connect to a potential voter or to someone who’s engaged, that when they get the mailer or when they see the billboard or when they even see a commercial on TV, it has an extra meaning because they’ve been on the journey with us and they’ve seen all of the content. And so that’s how we’re able to turn a digital product into a grassroots ground movement. And the main focus and whether you call it a trick or really what our true motivation was, is utilizing the videos to accomplish our real task, which is get out the vote.
HEFFNER: Right. Right. I think you’re describing an element of kind of not reality TV, reality Twitter that you were able to harness the constructive civic energies of young people in particular. And Brett, I want to ask you about the young people on Twitter that you’re engaging with and that you engaged with in Georgia because it appeared across all of your social platforms that you were galvanizing grassroots organizers, as we remember in 2008, President Obama did for his original presidential campaign. How many of the people that you interact with Meidas on Twitter are the same people that were canvassing in person?
BRETT MEISELAS: You know, I think they were probably, you know, slightly different groups, the canvassers on the ground versus the people who we’re actually speaking to online. But I think, you know, they both share a passion for democracy and for the country. And I think the common through line through everybody who supports us, whether you’re a young person or whether you’re a little older, is a lot of these people are people who weren’t particularly active in politics before us. And that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. And I think I could, I think we’re responsible for that because that’s a little bit the way we approached all this in the first place, we were always into politics and invested in politics, you know, intellectually, but we were never activists. We never worked in politics in any meaningful way. And so the fact that we were these three outsider brothers coming in, who were angry at the system, and were trying to, you know, launch this sort of pro-democracy movement, we were able to build around us a group of like-minded people who were sitting on the sidelines and said, hey, if these brothers could do it, you know, sitting in their houses in quarantine, what could I do to help? You know? And so, then you started getting people saying, hey guys, I know how to draw. Could I do some drawings for you? And, you know, someone created a Meidas graphics account where they do rapid response graphics, things that are going on, hey guys, I could write songs, hey guys, I could host a little mini show for you guys. And we built up this team of people. And I think that was really one of the keys to our strategy in that respect, and I can’t go without speaking about our Meidas University program, which we recently launched as well, which is essentially an affiliate program across America. I think we have around 15 chapters currently. So, you have something like Meidas ASU on Twitter, Meidas USC, and it goes on, and these are students who are running independently from us, with our advice, they’re running their own Meidas accounts and we’re encouraging them. You know, we want you to speak to issues of young people. We want you to get all your friends at your school involved. We want you to build a movement that’s local to you the same way we built the movement, national to the country.
HEFFNER: You were very successful in the architecture of that strategy and in those various constituencies that you just articulated. I want to ask you Ben for your legal insight now about accountability, we’re recording on what will become an infamous day, and hopefully it’s only a day in American history where the tweeted coup attempts to overturn the election manifest in domestic terrorism against our Capitol, against our senators, our representative bodies. Now you devised a brilliant political strategy to help electorally renew the country, but that is separate from this question of all of those folks who just were involved in the domestic terrorist act, just as anyone looting during Black Lives Matter or you know, arsonists during protests of Black Lives Matter should be punished by the law, so, should of course these domestic terrorists that Trump incited and from the perspective of legal accountability where does Meidas go from here? Because it’s not about messaging anymore. It’s about the law and restoring the law.
BEN MEISELAS: One of the things with the looting and arsonists and some BLM protests, one of the things that I think has been uncovered is that a lot of that was kind of staged actually from a lot of the same groups that we see at the Capitol Building to try to create tensions from people and protestors, but we’ve had a lot of politicized, not a lot complete politicization of the Department of Justice, of the Pentagon, of entities within our government that were supposed to be independent entities that call balls and strikes and protect and follow the Constitution. We have, we have not had actual government, big or small, whether you’re believe in big government or small government, we’ve had no government for the past four years, other than having Donald Trump tweet things out. That’s been the way America has been run. You can trust that a 747 in the hands of a toddler who’s never flown a plane before and certainly, you can press autopilot for a little bit, but, you know, we are on a path that we’re crashing and had we not prevailed in this election, we would have totally combusted, you know, either internally or just by crashing. So, what Meidas becomes also is in addition to the electoral process, it is going after Trump-ism and its various forms and manifestations. There’s, look, we’re not a billion-dollar enterprise, so, there’s only a certain amount of three brothers and a group, our size can accomplish. But if we pick and choose our battles, we can obtain very significant results. One of the most examples recently was exposing one of the private lawyers who was involved in the Trump treasonous seditious phone call with rapid Raffensperger in Georgia. And we were able to expose the private law firms that were involved and Cleta Mitchell, the lawyer had to resign and the law firm took a lot of public pressure. We did the same thing with Jones Day public- a big law firm, when they were involved in a case in Pennsylvania that went to overthrow electoral results in Pennsylvania. So, we’re able to use our platform to publicly expose when more mainstream organizations think they want to profit off of Trumpism. We’ve been effective at exposing that, and we’ll continue to expose Trumpism for what it is, which is a death cult. Certainly we’re not going to be able to convince all members of Trumpism who carry these Trump flags with these ridiculous photographs of Donald Trump with a six pack instead of the American flag, it’s going to be hard to convert those people into believers of a democracy and QAnon, but I think what we can appeal to though is a base of people who will know they were misled by this Trump cult and show that the Democratic Party is the only major party that’s pro-democracy.
HEFFNER: Right. We had an authoritarian party and its accomplices and a Republican or Democratic party, right, I mean, we, we should understand it that way. And I think these misnomers contribute greatly to a misinformed media and misinformed electorate.
BRETT MEISELAS: Let me just say, I appreciate the fact that you’ve been calling this out from day one, because I’ve read your writings that you’ve sent me, I’ve listened to your podcast, and you’re one of the few people who’s actually able to call it authoritarianism who was able to call it fascism. And I don’t know why it is so hard for folks in the media to use these words. I was watching even CNN and MSNBC today, and I’m not somebody who’s always like, oh, the media is terrible, you know, but here they are calling, and remember today, we’re recording this, it is January 6th, there’s currently an insurrection at the Capitol inspired by Donald Trump himself. And they’re in the Capitol, they’re being violent and you have the media currently still referring to them as protestors. And I think it is so beyond the pale to call these people protesters right now, given what they’re doing. These are armed insurrectionists. These are seditionists. We need to start using language that fits to what’s happening in the moment, or we’re going to have a misinformed electorate.
HEFFNER: Right. I appreciate you saying that. I mean, now is not really the time for folks to watch Designated Survivor and yet it is, you know, if you want to find it on Netflix, commercial free, the plot against America over these last four years has been in plain sight and it’s been in-bred, home-bred terrorism, as you’re saying, Brett, let me ask you though a follow-up to that question on the legal side for both of you to weigh in on. I think, you know, depending upon how controlled this domestic terrorism is and how much scrutiny and legal accountability there is from now forward, I don’t know that every attorney general that Biden would appoint, and we hear that it will be Merrick Garland most likely, would be poised to take the steps necessary to ensure the legal accountability. So, I’m wondering Ben, when you talk about people you’re not going to be able to reach, I think we need to be able to reach those who would enforce the legal accountability that may be absent and may, you know, be out of memory if, if things are controlled. I mean, your definition of controlled is as subjective as mine, but the point is not every Biden Attorney General is going to act the same way. So, will Meidas be pressuring, you know, legal bodies in this country to finally take all these crimes seriously that have been committed these last hours and days?
BEN MEISELAS: The short answer is yes. And one of the ways we can expose that is to use our massive social media platform to literally expose the individuals who are involved in it and apply the pressure. You know, we have, we’re not afraid to tag public officials or private officials to put pressure on people to take action. But the broader question here though, is, is that it’s not just the appointment of a Merrick Garland though. It’s also that Merrick Garland would get to have selected with Biden, attorney, United States attorneys throughout the United States of America who will approach things like prosecutors are supposed to approach things and then hire AUSAs who report to them, who approach things the way they’re supposed to be approached. And in the past, under past regimes, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, you know, domestic terrorists are investigated robustly by the FBI and they’re prosecuted. And under Trump, they’ve been celebrated with parades and with Trump’s encouragement. So, I think we’ll see a noticeable shift there.
HEFFNER: Right. My concern is the idea of, you know, having a repeat of the Mueller probe, you know, because we all discovered, you know, many of us had the right instincts that Mueller was a figurehead and his job there was not to perform the legal task that needed to be performed when it came to, you know, both the malfeasance in 2016 and investigating Donald Trump personally, and how he was benefiting from the office of presidency and violating the Emoluments Clause. I mean, we learned from Andrew Weissmann that Mueller was not doing the job that many would expect from a department level official who has the kind of stature you’re describing. So again, I’m just concerned, Ben, and you can speak to this with insight as a lawyer by trade and, you know, I think that there are these figurehead type people, who, they, they are rewarded with favorable press coverage and respect and honor even though they’re not doing their job. And I’m just wondering if we have to be watchful of that.
BEN MEISELAS: I think you do. But I think Mueller was a special situation because he was appointed under a very specific legislative statute to be a special prosecutor in a situation where he was concerned that he was going to be fired. It was in the midst of, ultimately he still reported to the Trump administration, even though technically it was supposed to be an independent investigation. And so, he did have limitations attached to him, and he could have pushed and pressed forward. But I think ultimately he leaned in a very, you know, and I thought it was a very weak report. I thought he had all the evidence he needed, and he could have pushed forward, but ultimately, you know, he shied away from confronting authoritarianism, I think out of fear, he didn’t want, and a lot of these people were just afraid of the bullying and the Trump tweets, but let’s not forget the stature that comes with the office of the presidency. George Washington was the president. Abraham Lincoln was the president, FDR and Truman and JFK were presidents. It’s the most powerful position in the world. And having a president turn that power with authoritarian instincts onto private individuals to have private families get death threats, you know, and to turn that scared people, you know, and one of the things might as touch was coming to save too, was like, you don’t need to be scared of it. You know, he’s all talk, you know, you know, let’s, let’s call out what Trump, what he is. He’s a clown. And push back on that. And when you push back on the, which is why we would do things on Twitter. Sometimes that would seem outlandish, like we would call him “Diaper Don” you know, or “Smelly Trump” or all of those names which would sound childish at first. But what it did was it actually got under his skin and he would then tweet out crazy things, like I want to repeal section 230 of the Communications Decency Act because “Diaper Don” is… and it exposes the bully for being a complete fraud and a fake.
HEFFNER: And so, right, right, Brett, you know, we we’ve discovered now as we’re discussing that the bully turned domestic terrorist and your project is evidence that, you know, if you think that clicks can’t start sort of a counter offensive to something egregious, and like we were just discussing unlawful, then you’re sorely mistaken because MeidasTouch is evidence of the clicks turning into something, like you said, that is a profound movement…
BRETT MEISELAS: And by the way, counter point is that Trump is evidence that clicks can turn into something for the complete opposite cause.
HEFFNER: Right. So, let me ask you that question as the digital impresario that you are, what is, what is it most effective now to ensure that presumptive AG, Merrick Garland, and other officials like that, do their job and that we can undertake successful digital campaigns as citizens, whether it’s on Twitter or other ways you recommend, to ensure that that, that kind of law enforcement happens now?
BRETT MEISELAS: Well, I think one of the key things with that is viewing MeidasTouch, not as a democratic movement, per se, as far as big D Democratic, but as a democratic small d movement. And we are going to fight for democracy at every turn. And by the way, our vision for that isn’t just in America, our vision for that is worldwide. We want to be a force for pro-democracy movements worldwide. And so, as we see fit, we’re going to hold officials accountable to make sure that they’re protecting our democracy at all costs. And if that involves us holding, you know, folks who are on our side accountable for that, we’ll do that because we think it’s important. I think one of the things that gets a little muddied in all of this is there are so many institutionalists in power.
BRETT MEISELAS: Who abide by precedent and you can’t lock up a president. You can’t, you know, go down a legal road like that. But the fact of the matter is we’ve never had a situation quite like this before. There is no precedent for this. And if we let it go unchecked, what’s to stop it from happening again, whether in two years from now, or in 20 years from now. We need to come down on this hard and make sure that stuff like this is not happening in this country. Again, we have to hold people accountable for their actions. And that is from the representative who wants to join the coup, up to the president who is starting the coup, up to the person who right now is in Nancy Pelosi’s office, smashing her computers. We need to be holding all these people accountable.
HEFFNER: Final question, just to you, Brett, would you say that you demonstrate in MeidasTouch and Lincoln Project that that Change.org is too soft an approach? I mean, like, there are ways that clicktivists, if you will, can engage in civil society, but they hadn’t been working and they didn’t seem to work over these last four years. I mean, I just think of you and the Lincoln Project as more successful than something like a Change.org to be frank.
BRETT MEISELAS: Well, I mean, when have you ever seen a Change.org position be adopted? I mean, I’ve never seen that happen.
HEFFNER: Thank you for your candor. And thank you, Brett and Ben for joining me today. It’s a pleasure. Keep on Patriots.
BRETT: MEISELAS: Thank you so much for having us.
BEN MEISELAS: Thank you.
BRETT MEISALAS: We really appreciate it.
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