How Bill Mitchell Owned The Liberal Media
This self-styled conservative pundit and polls truther was the butt of every liberal's Twitter jokes for over a year. He's also one of the few to get Trump right. So what happens now? Is Bill Mitchell the unofficial voice of the next administration?
Last Thursday, just after 11 a.m., I got a text from Bill Mitchell.
“Hi Charlie. Will BuzzFeed be doing a 'post-truth' follow-up article on me :),” it read. It was unexpected and my heart sank just a little bit. I screenshot his initial text and sent it to my editor with a note: “Ugh, Bill Mitchell just owned me so hard.”
Late Tuesday night, when Trump’s victory became all but certain, Mitchell was the among the first people I thought of. Last month, I’d interviewed him for a profile in which I quoted pollsters and journalists calling him “the dumbest motherfucker on the internet” and “fascist Jack Handey”; I dubbed him “the Trump movement’s post-truth, post-math anti-Nate Silver” and gestured incredulously at his tweets.
Bill Mitchell was home alone, holed up in his makeshift studio, when Donald Trump finally silenced the haters. He’d had been invited to a couple of election night parties, but Mitchell preferred to be alone with his 148,000 Twitter followers to watch the phenomenon that he’d predicted for the last 15 months — with 100% certainty, no less — come to fruition. First, Indiana and Kentucky came in strong. Then, there was a surge in Pinellas County in Florida — Mitchell’s personal bellwether and a heartening sign. Almost all at once, the blue firewall in the northern states began to crumble, revealing a wide Trump path to victory. At 10:51 p.m., the AP called Florida for Trump. Seven minutes later, victory in his sights, Mitchell took to Twitter:
For Mitchell, Trump’s victory was the ultimate vindication. After a year and a half of scornful taunts and mocking retweets from liberal mainstream journalists and pollsters; after constant Twitter arguments and unflattering, condescending stories about his lack of experience and expertise; after 15 months of unfaltering certainty in the face of endless criticism, Bill Mitchell — a strong-jawed, silver-haired executive recruiter from North Carolina with a Twitter account, a gift for “word images,” and no prior political experience — was no longer the butt of anyone’s smug joke.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Trump’s ground game, it appears, was actually in our hearts. And Mitchell was one of the few pundits to get it right. So what happens now? If Trump's win was a victory for everyone who's ever doubted the establishment and the old media and its experts and their numbers, then Mitchell is arguably that movement’s most enthusiastic voice. To hear Mitchell tell it, “new media prevailed,” and he wants a seat near the head of its table.
Mitchell, of course, didn’t have any special access to facts that the liberal media didn’t. Despite his claim of “diving into the internals” of polls — a standard practice of professional pollsters as well — Mitchell’s true success came from his gut: Intuition suggested Trump was the man for the moment and for the movement that captured his own imagination. As he presciently suggested last month in our first interview: "It has nothing to do with audio tapes or Hillary scandals or any of that. Donald Trump will win because this is a change election and Donald Trump is change candidate. At the end of the day that’s all that will matter.” He was right.
Mitchell is far from a professional analyst, which will serve him well as a member of the new right media in Trump’s America. Mitchell’s gut — his intuition as a member of an unseen voting class that came out at the polls for Trump — is what has set him up, perhaps more than anyone else, as the face of this very real mainstream media-refuting world. As a nationalist voice, Mitchell could very well be — no matter how unofficial — the voice of this administration: enthusiastic, unflinchingly loyal, and more pleasant and palatable than its more racially charged alt-right counterparts.
“Even though I expected a win, I’ll admit when Pennsylvania dropped, it was a little surreal,” he told me over the phone Saturday morning. “I felt just so alive — I think it’s a bit like being around when World War II was declared over. I just felt very fortunate to be around to see it.” On the phone, Mitchell took pains not to gloat but was clearly reveling in the win — he’d just bought a 70-inch TV and planned to break it in over the weekend. When I asked what we’d all missed in his Twitter punditry, Mitchell suggested that his haters had made him into a caricature rather than divining the kernel of truth hidden behind his often-bombastic language. Exhibit A: yard signs and rally attendance.
The media mocked him ruthlessly for putting undue weight behind rallies over polling — a fatal error, according to Mitchell. “Rallies equal newly engaged voters,” he said. In 2008 Obama had tens of thousands who stand in line for six hours because they want to experience and taste and feel all this.” Mitchell refers to them as the “monster vote” and suggests that it’s these perhaps previously disenfranchised voters who aren’t on pollster call lists. “And so the big question was, will the 20 million who didn’t vote in 2012 come out for Trump? I kept saying it’s going to happen, no question — it’ll be something like 2008 where the previously quiet black vote came out for Obama. And it did.” It’s also worth noting — while his predictions were overly enthusiastic — that Trump would do better with Latino and black voters, and there'd be a low black voter turnout.
"I’m more interested in trying to become a Sean Hannity type, though ... it would take a long time to reach his excellence.”
As a result of his 15-month loyalty to the #TrumpTrain, election night was good to Mitchell. By his own (unconfirmed) estimate, his Twitter page racked up 80 million impressions and 400,000 retweets that evening. When victory was certain, he claims to have received thankful direct messages from Trump’s two sons, Eric and Donald Jr., as well as campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, thanking him for his enthusiasm and analysis over Twitter. “I won't tell you what they said, but it was very nice and appreciative.”
According to Mitchell, Conway and the Trump sons had been in “very casual, infrequent communication” with Mitchell during the last month of the campaign. “I would update them on my take on polling and they'd get back to me and maybe they'd say how they felt about it,” he said. He stressed that his relationship to the Trump campaign was at arm’s length and mostly just cordial, mutual admiration: “If I were to describe Trump’s kids, I’d say they’re just really nice and pleasant normal folks, which is remarkable considering how rich they are.”
When asked if he’d take a job in a Trump administration, if offered, he said he’d decline, denying the world a glimpse at White House press secretary Bill Mitchell. “I don't want to be a politician. I’m more interested in trying to become a Sean Hannity type — though to be anywhere near that level would be a miracle since it would take a long time to reach his excellence.”
Starting Monday, Mitchell’s going to set out to make his dreams of professional punditry a reality. He’s hopeful that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner will start up a Trump TV and would be interested to find a role in that. For now, he’s successfully raised over $10,000 for his radio and YouTube show, which is syndicated on an AM radio station in Cleveland, and he hopes to grow that out across the country, like conservative media scions Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones. He says he’d be willing to move from his home in suburban Charlotte to DC or maybe even New York for the right kind of job in broadcasting.
"I think the wall will become the next new great American monument. Like the Statue of Liberty, the wall is a monument to our sovereignty."
Whatever his role, Mitchell would like it to be part of an insurgent, new media movement. Like many Trump supporters, Mitchell felt betrayed by the spin of the CNNs and legacy outlets of the world and wants to usher in a new era of media for the swath of voters the mainstream media didn’t see coming. “It’s been so gratifying to get messages and tweets saying, 'You got me through this — you were my lifeline,'” he said, adding, “I don't think Trump could’ve won without social media and our movement.”
Now, as one of many self-proclaimed leaders of that movement, Mitchell hopes to help its voice grow louder, and doesn’t see much of a home for the mainstream. “If I got my news only from CNN I’d have hated Trump, too,” he said, noting that CNN was spin and that people are craving “the facts” more than ever. “I don't think the media can come back from this. They don’t learn their lesson and a tiger doesn't change its stripes,” he lectured. “The only way the majority of media gets it right in the future is if they get replaced by the new media.”
Though we’re just days in, Mitchell is energized by President-elect Trump. And talking to Mitchell, you get a sense for the type of punditry to expect from Mitchell and even a new media. Odds are it will be fawning (“Trump just wins — trust his judgment”); suspect of so-called political correctness (“CNN sees racism EVERYWHERE. It gets pretty damned old”); and confident (“This win feels like a cool breeze across my heart on a hot day”).
On Trump’s suggestion that he’ll keep certain tenets of Obamacare: “Trump realizes life isn't black and white — it's always a shade of gray. Obamacare is a crap sandwich camouflaged in a nice bun. He’ll keep the bun and get rid of the crap.”
On "the wall": "I think the wall will become the next new great American monument. Like the Statue of Liberty, the wall is a monument to our sovereignty. That's what I'd say if I were on his marketing team.”
On bringing aboard legacy politicians to "drain the swamp": "History will look back to the Trump presidency as the Era of Good Ideas. They’ll realize this was a ‘good idea presidency’ as opposed to the Obama era of ideology. If Dems present good ideas to President Trump he'd put them in the mix. You have a good idea, you’ve got a seat at the table.”
His bet paid off, but still I wondered how he’d been able to be so certain in the face of withering criticism. As usual, Mitchell had a saying to describe his strategy.
“My philosophy is that fortune favors the bold,” he said, practically smiling through the receiver. “If you're going to predict, do it 100%. Think about it — you're right and they’ll never forget you. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But if you make your prediction and say, ‘Oh, I’m only 60% certain,' then nobody’s going to remember.” So Mitchell trusted his gut and went all in. As for the haters and the trolls? Mitchell described it like a war video game. “If you’re walking around and nobody is shooting at you then you're not going the right way. The closer you get to the goal, the more intense the fire becomes,” he said. “The media always attacks the people they're the most afraid of — so they must be afraid of my message.”
Still, it’s unclear, even after being blindsided by the Trump’s victory, what to make of the liberal media’s response to Mitchell’s analysis. As Ezra Klein — by his own admission, a conventional liberal pundit the likes of which Mitchell now holds gloating rights over — wrote for Vox following my profile, Mitchell’s influence was less about any kind of fear and more about identity-confirming. “Mitchell makes liberals look good, and he confirms their worst stereotypes about anti-science conservatives. Mitchell makes the press look good, and he confirms their worst stereotypes about blind partisans believing whatever they want to believe,” he wrote. Looking back in hindsight now, there may be more to it than that; as one reporter put it to me, “It feels like we were all making fun of him for weaknesses present in our side, too.”
It’s possible that Mitchell then didn’t just confirm his detractors’ worst stereotypes but also acted as a blank Twitter avatar on which to project our worries about partisan group-think and confident, data-free punditry. Which is why, in the wake of Trump’s victory, reckoning with Mitchell’s accurate prediction cuts deep. Sure, Mitchell saw a silent voting class and an enthusiasm few deigned to recognize, but margins were slim and what feels like a monumental defeat for many could have easily been a win if 1 out of 100 voters shifted their vote to Clinton. It might be less that Mitchell is an oracle and knew what we didn’t and more that nobody really knows anything, despite everyone thinking they did.