Inside the Troll Army Waging Trump’s Online Campaign

The video, called “Let’s Get Ready to Bumble,” is a slick mash-up of President Biden’s verbal slip-ups and his stumbles set to a thumping 1990s dance track. And when it was played on a big screen at Trump rallies late last year, it consistently drew laughs and jeers from the crowd.

But Donald J. Trump thought he could improve it.

So the former president asked an adviser to pass along a few notes to one of the video’s creators: It should include a clip of the president falling off a bicycle, he suggested, and another of him flubbing a line in a recent speech.

The video’s co-creator — Bryan Heestand, a product engineer in Ohio who goes by the anonymous handle C3PMeme — rushed to incorporate the former president’s edits. He was delighted, he said later in a podcast interview, to see Mr. Trump play the new version at his final rally before the midterm elections, pausing his speech to watch it with well over a thousand supporters gathered at Dayton International Airport.

“He had some suggestions. We made it happen,” Mr. Heestand said.

Mr. Heestand doesn’t work for Mr. Trump, but he belongs to a small circle of video meme-makers who have effectively served as a shadow online ad agency for his presidential campaign. Led by a little-known podcaster and life coach, this meme team has spent much of the year flooding social media with content that lionizes the former president, promotes his White House bid and brutally denigrates his opponents.

Much of the group, which refers to itself as Trump’s Online War Machine, operates anonymously, adopting the cartoonish aesthetic and unrelenting cruelty of internet trolls.

Cheered on by Mr. Trump, the group traffics freely in misinformation, artificial intelligence and digital forgeries known as deepfakes. Its memes are riddled with racist stereotypes, demeaning tropes about L.G.B.T.Q. people and broad scatological humor.

Their most vulgar invectives are often aimed at women, particularly those seen as enemies of Mr. Trump. In one video, the former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley’s face is pasted on the body of a nearly naked woman, who kicks a man with the face of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in the groin. Another depicts Casey DeSantis, the governor’s wife, as a porn star. Women with ties to Mr. DeSantis are often shown with red knees, suggesting they have performed a sex act.

The former president and his inner circle have celebrated the group’s work and helped it reach millions. Dan Scavino, Mr. Trump’s social media adviser; Steven Cheung, the campaign’s spokesman; and Donald Trump Jr. frequently share the memes on their social media accounts.

Since March, Mr. Trump has posted videos made by the team to his Truth Social and Instagram accounts — which have more than 30 million followers combined — at least two dozen times. He tends to share the group’s less crude content, favoring memes that feature him in a positive light.

But Mr. Trump and his campaign have also taken a more active role in the group’s activities, a New York Times review found. Over the past year, he and his campaign have privately communicated with members of the meme team, giving them access and making specific requests for content. In at least one instance, the campaign shared behind-the-scenes footage to be used in videos, according to members of the team.

Late last month, Mr. Trump sent personalized notes to several of the group’s members, thanking them for their work. In September, Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser, posted that the meme team was “single-handedly changing the landscape of politics and social media.”

Asked by The Times about the group, the Trump campaign on Tuesday cast them as mere volunteers.

“Every campaign in politics has volunteers and shows appreciation to their volunteers,” said Mr. Cheung, the campaign spokesman, adding that the group had done a “masterful job” highlighting Mr. DeSantis’s “insecurities and blunders.”

Viral memes have played a role in presidential races since Barack Obama’s first run for the White House in 2008. But the meme team’s work — blessed by Mr. Trump, polished and substantially scaled up — represents an evolution with the potential to transform campaigning online.

In an age of social media, the power of memes is rising as the influence of traditional television ads fades. Cheap to make and free to distribute, they are largely unconstrained by regulations about accuracy, fairness and transparency that apply to television and radio advertising. And they are proliferating just as fewer internet platforms try to police political content.

“It’s ominous,” said Saurav Ghosh, a former Federal Election Commission lawyer who now works at the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog nonprofit.

Mr. Ghosh said the meme team’s activities appeared to fit the definition of a super PAC — an entity that can raise and spend unlimited sums to support a candidate or issue but must report its donors and spending. Yet because the group operates outside the campaign finance system, its finances and funders remain unknown.

The lack of transparency “creates an avenue for lots of money to be spent in coordination with a campaign and having a serious impact on races without the public having any sense of what’s really going on,” Mr. Ghosh said.

At the center of Mr. Trump’s meme militia is Brenden Dilley, a 41-year-old podcaster, failed congressional candidate and self-described social media and political influencer. Mr. Dilley doesn’t create the memes himself, but he provides the organizing force and smash-mouth ethos driving the crew.

“It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to go viral,” he has said on his podcast.

The group’s more than two dozen members, posting under the hashtag #DilleyMemeTeam, convene in a private Telegram channel to share ideas and pick targets. Many also faithfully tune into Mr. Dilley’s daily podcast, where he talks at length about the group’s activities, interacts with a small but devoted audience and promotes his 2013 self-help book, “Still Breathin’: The Wisdom and Teachings of a Perfectly Flawed Man.”

Most of the meme-makers post anonymously. The Times used podcast transcripts, photographs, news footage and public records to identify Mr. Heestand, who declined to comment.

While some members have sizable followings, they have also been amplified by high-profile right-wing figures. Roger Stone, a longtime friend and adviser to Mr. Trump, hosted Mr. Dilley on his podcast last week, saying that he had “changed the course of history in this country.” The right-wing podcaster Jack Posobiec and the internet troll known as Catturd, who each have more than two million followers on X, regularly share the group’s work.

But the team’s content isn’t just niche entertainment for the profoundly online; many memes have broken through to the mainstream.

A video calling President Biden a “puppet candidate” and filled with conspiracy theories about election fraud went viral in July after Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, posted his criticism, calling it “the most alarming political ad I’ve seen this year.”

In an interview, Mr. Luntz said he worried that such spots would soon become commonplace. “They have figured out how to manipulate the public,” Mr. Luntz said, “and they frankly don’t care about the consequences.”

In August, when Mr. Trump was indicted on conspiracy charges related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, several team members produced a music video targeting the Fulton County district attorney, Fani T. Willis. A Kanye West parody, it used artificial intelligence to mimic Mr. Trump’s voice rapping lyrics that were peppered with racist dog whistles.

The initial posting on social media, by the meme team member Ramble_Rants, logged 1.4 million views on X and was widely shared on other platforms.

Nobody has borne the brunt of the group’s attacks more than Mr. DeSantis.

The meme team has produced hundreds of derisive posts attacking the Florida governor’s masculinity, demeanor, marriage and parenting, and his height.

The group’s members have described the onslaught as part guerrilla messaging aimed at shaping coverage of the race and part psy-op aimed at the candidate himself. They take credit for catapulting “bootgate” — the unproven rumor that Mr. DeSantis wears lifts in his cowboy boots — into the mainstream media. (Politico published a 1,400-word investigation into the candidate’s footwear in October.) They also claim its barrage of mockery is the reason Mr. DeSantis wears the boots in the first place.

“They all went straight to his head,” Ramble_Rants posted last month.

The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Dilley has sworn to “destroy” the governor’s career and make him “unelectable,” even if he drops out of the 2024 race. A recent Christmas-themed meme directed at Mr. DeSantis ended with: “Forever you will be mocked.”

Mr. Dilley declined to be interviewed for this article, and the team subsequently produced a video mocking The New York Times. Mr. Dilley told his podcast listeners that he planned to hang a copy of this article next to a signed letter from Mr. Trump.

“Thanks to your efforts,” that letter reads, according to photos posted to social media, “we exposed Joe Biden’s failures and lies for the whole country to see.”

Mr. Dilley has been a supporter of Mr. Trump for years, and in 2018 he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Arizona as a “staunch believer in the Make America Great Again movement.” But until recently, his devotion always came from a distance.

Today, Mr. Dilley, who now lives north of Atlanta, says he has visited Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort three times in the past year. He and his team have posted numerous photos of themselves posing with Mr. Trump, spending time with his advisers and attending events at Trump properties.

During an episode of his show just before Thanksgiving, Mr. Dilley claimed to be texting one of those advisers, asking if he could join the former president at a football game at the University of South Carolina. That weekend, he and his wife were photographed by Mr. Miller in the governor’s box at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., along with Mr. Trump.

A video that Mr. Dilley’s wife, Reanna, shot of Mr. Trump walking on the field at halftime was subsequently viewed millions of times online and reposted by the former president on Truth Social.

Like many other influencers, Mr. Dilley appears to receive talking points from the campaign. He also claims more exclusive access, describing phone calls from advisers to Mr. Trump to discuss memes his team is producing and whether they strike the desired tone.

In July, one of the group’s most prolific contributors — a musician from outside San Diego named Michael Beatty, who goes by the handle Miguelifornia — mentioned that Mr. Scavino and Mr. Miller “gave us tons of great video” shot at a Trump rally in South Carolina.

Days later, the team released a clip that appeared to use behind-the-scenes footage of Mr. Trump at a rally. The moody meme, cast in blue monochrome and set to a Phil Collins song, cast Mr. Trump as a serious, heroic leader and concluded with information on how to text a donation to the campaign.

“This is a campaign ad if I’ve ever seen one,” one team member, who goes by MAGADevilDog, wrote on X.

Because the Dilley Meme Team’s content is shared on the internet, rather than on television or radio, it generally isn’t subject to laws requiring ads to include disclosure about who paid for them.

“If it goes on the internet, there’s essentially no regulation,” said Richard L. Hasen, an elections law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. And without regulation, he added, it’s impossible to know who is paying for the content.

But campaign finance experts pointed to two other unknowns about the Dilley Meme Team’s operations: coordination and compensation.

If a group is receiving compensation to help a candidate get elected, then it could be considered a super PAC and should be registered and reporting its donors and spending.

If it is not compensated but is coordinating with the campaign, then it may run afoul of strict limits on in-kind contributions, said Paul S. Ryan, who serves as deputy executive director of the pro-democracy group Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation.

Mr. Ryan said receiving video footage that was not publicly available could be considered coordination.

Memes created with input from the campaign, he said, “are just as good as a direct contribution to the campaign” and may be worth far more than the $6,600 individual limit per election cycle.

Mr. Dilley and other members of the meme team often claim they receive no financial compensation for their efforts.

“Everything they do, they do it for free and out of love of country,” said Alex Bruesewitz, a Republican strategist close to Mr. Trump, who frequently shares Dilley Meme Team posts.

Mr. Dilley, who in 2019 was found to have failed to pay more than $24,000 in child support and interest, says he now makes “multiple six figures” a year. That income, he said on his podcast last month, comes from a combination of sources: podcast subscriptions and sponsors, sales of apparel, his life-coaching business and streaming revenue from the video platform Rumble, where the Dilley Show has more than 12,000 subscribers.

“There’s nothing here that’s mysterious,” he said. “It’s all transparent.”

Federal Election Commission records show no payments from any political committee to Mr. Dilley or other members of the meme team.

Mr. Dilley has claimed to have received gifts from Mr. Trump. Last March, he posted video of a box filled with 28 Make America Great Again hats, each signed by the former president. The package was sent by the campaign in thanks for assisting with “rapid response” during President Biden’s State of the Union address, Mr. Dilley said.

Signed MAGA hats can sell for as much as $1,000 on the secondary market.

Mr. Dilley also said he got access to dozens of V.I.P. tickets to a Trump rally in Hialeah, Fla., on Nov. 8, which he gave to supporters of his show. It is unclear how much the tickets were worth, but tickets for other rallies have sold for as much as $1,500 apiece.

Mr. Dilley has been clear that he is looking for more than just thank-you gifts.

In October, he told his podcast audience that he wanted to use limited liability companies to receive money from Trump donors to fund his team’s work. The idea, he said, is to avoid “a ton of red tape” and “a ton of oversight” that come with operating as a super PAC or being paid by the campaign.

“If you go super PAC or official campaign, you can get paid, but the problem is a lawyer has to watch every single thing you put out, and we don’t want that,” Mr. Dilley said on his podcast in October. “What we need is people that were going to give huge dollar amounts to the super PACs and the campaigns to just give directly to us.”

“We already have L.L.C.s formed,” he added. “We’re ready to rock ’n’ roll.”

Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer who advises both Democrats and Republicans, described that plan as “problematic” because it implies a clear goal of circumventing public disclosure as required by the F.E.C.

“People can take advantage of those failures of the regulatory system to promote the interests of a candidate without the public ever being aware of it,” Mr. Kappel said. In that landscape, he added, “L.L.C.s have become the tool of choice” because they can be layered to obscure both the source and recipient of payments.

The Dilley Meme Team was registered as a business in July, using the address of a UPS store outside Tampa, according to Florida business records. Mr. Dilley acknowledged being involved in its parent company, Counter Productions Digital Media L.L.C., which was registered at the same address in early 2022. He denies having said he set up any L.L.C.s to avoid campaign finance rules.

On his podcast, Mr. Dilley has laid out his vision for his team, saying he hopes to hire all 27 meme team members full time through the 2024 election. “We need 12 months of everyone full time working to meme Donald Trump back into the White House while destroying Joe Biden,” he said.

Jaymin Patel contributed research.

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