This is part of Trump Slump, a series of stories checking in on how things are going now for the people and products that were riding high during the last administration.
Before he started citing Newsmax guests for lampshade “seam violations,” Claude Taylor was known for his billboards. The former Democratic campaign staffer is the founder of Mad Dog PAC, which he launched in 2017 to mount incendiary highway advertisements—including one that labeled the NRA a “terrorist organization”—funded by the sale of anti-Trump tchotchkes.
But in the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Taylor found a new calling: the Room Rater Twitter account, a goofy diversion for TV-news addicts who’d gotten a window into the living rooms of homebound talking heads during the pandemic. Taylor now splits his time between trolling Republican officials with billboards in their home districts and judging the mise-en-scène of MSNBC. We checked in with Taylor in late April to find out how he managed to parlay two consecutive sociopolitical phenomena—the demand for “cool #Resistance gear” and politics nerds’ appetite for aesthetic criticism of an ex-senator’s kitchen—into successful fundraising pursuits, where all the money goes, and whether he’s prepared for the era of anti-Trump resistance (and televised Zoom interviews) to end. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christina Cauterucci: Let me just start with this: Have you felt any kind of slump post-Trump?
Claude Taylor: On the PAC side of things, it’s always sort of cyclical. When we’re right around the corner from an election, things tend to heat up, and in the months after an election, things tend to quiet down. But we’re still pretty focused on—we have our folks that we like to go after, like Matt Gaetz. We now have two billboards up in Matt Gaetz’s district, saying that Matt Gaetz wants to “date,” in quotes, your child. We just got the second one up right near the Navy base in the middle of Pensacola. They’ve been out for two weeks, and they’ve just got an enormous amount of press. It’s, I believe, the most press we’ve ever gotten from a single billboard.
So what you’re saying is that Trump wasn’t necessarily the only, or even main focus, of Mad Dog PAC?
It was very much a large focus, if not a primary focus. But if you look at what we’ve done with our billboard campaigns, we spent a lot of time and effort going after Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan. This morning, I just got approval for a Ron DeSantis billboard that I’m sure is going to get quite a bit of attention.
Did you personally feel any kind of—I don’t want to say letdown, but did you feel any sense of purposelessness, or anti-climacticism, when Trump left office?
I didn’t feel any sense of letdown. I mean, the importance of beating Trump, just helping or just being part of the reality that Trump was no longer going to be president was so important that it’s far outweighed any personal feelings of, “OK, my life’s going to change a little bit because I’ve been in the anti-Trump business for four years.” That was just so insignificant. My little organizations, I think, have always been quick to adapt and constantly evolving, so we will continue to evolve. So we’re focusing on [Marco] Rubio and Ron Johnson and Rand Paul, and we have our favorite House candidates like Matt Gaetz. Our primary activity on Mad Dog PAC has been putting up billboards. Since the election, we put up billboards against Ted Cruz and against Josh Hawley. We’ve got plenty to do that doesn’t involve Trump.
What were you doing before you started Mad Dog PAC?
I’m 57. When I was a young man, I worked in politics more directly. I worked in the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign. That brought me to D.C., where I was a low-level, midlevel on a good day, White House staffer. So I spent about five years in the Clinton/Gore universe. I pretty much got out of politics after that. I had developed an interest in photography, I opened up a retail photography gallery, which I operated in D.C. for near 18 years. I still sell online, but I earned a living as a travel photographer. I maintained an interest in politics and I was a donor. I did fundraisers for Obama. But I didn’t really get fully reengaged until Trump came along.
Was there a specific turning point for you?
Not really. Like many people, I was just so aghast that Trump could be elected and the implications of what was going to happen because he was elected, and my business was winding down and I was ready to try to do something else, so I threw myself back to politics and it ended up being what I consider a small boutique PAC. We’re not the Lincoln Project. It’s just me and a few friends and volunteers.
What made you decide to focus on these inflammatory billboards?
It’s been remarked upon that something like 15 percent, or 20 percent on a good day, of the U.S. is on Twitter, and I was active on Twitter. But I wanted to talk to red-state America. I wanted to reach people who weren’t on Twitter. I can assure you, most of the people driving by billboards in Pensacola are not on Twitter, and I wanted to talk to them.
Billboards are probably one of the most democratic forms of advertising there is.
I’m an analog sort of guy. I’m very low-tech, even though the billboards are sometimes digital. But I just liked having a traditional form of advertising. I like having a highway with a 12-by-36-foot sheet of vinyl that says something.
How did you get started?
I used some of my previous experience, some of it in merchandising, and I started developing an online shop, which helped us raise quite a bit of money by selling “Fuck Trump” coffee cups. And also Nancy Pelosi coffee cups and T-shirts. Back in the day, on the Clinton campaign—you know, campaigns have a chief of staff? I was the chief of stuff. I made the lawn signs and the buttons and the bumper stickers and stuff. I still had contacts in the printing unions. So I started making a lot of anti-Trump merch, which is good for fundraising, but they’re also nice ways to deliver a message.
So how much time were you spending on the PAC, let’s say during its most busy period?
It can be very much a full-time job. And a lot of it, frankly, is creating content for my Twitter account, so it’s pretty involving. And then Rate My Skype Room came along and now I just have no time at all.
Tell me about why you started the Room Rater account. You were already spending a lot of time on the PAC, and it was the year leading up to the election. Did you feel like you still had too much free time?
What we’re really talking about here is the beginning of the pandemic. And it was more of a response to that than anything. We were mostly stuck at home. People were developing this whole new way to do TV appearances, and I was on the phone a lot with my girlfriend, and we’re both news junkies. We’re watching everyone do their TV hits. This is April last year, a month into things. And we just said, “What do you think of this room?” Like, “Well, it’s not that good. He needs to add a plant or some art or something.” And then one day it was just like, “Well, let’s make a Twitter account. Let’s start rating people’s rooms.”
Around the same time on the PAC side, because of the pandemic, I had shifted, because everyone was at home. No one’s going to be driving past billboards. So I pivoted and we started putting all of the money we were raising into buying PPE for hospitals that were really hard hit in March of last year. Because of my contacts with sourcing products, I kind of had a supply chain set up already. So I just used it to get surgical masks and plastic face shields instead of “Fuck Trump” coffee mugs. I figured if I could just get 20 or 30,000 masks we’d call it a day.
A month or two later, Native American communities sort of jumped out as being particularly in need and particularly hard hit for a lot of historic reasons involving poverty and lack of access to health care. So we shifted our focus from hospitals in the East—which began to get their own PPE—to supplying PPE to Native American communities. This was the same time that Room Rater was taking off. I basically use Room Rater as a fundraising platform for what became our focus, which was assisting Native American communities with PPE.
After some months, we had some communication with one of the Sioux tribes in South Dakota. They were like, “You know what? We have quite a bit of PPE, but our teachers really need help.” We developed this idea that what we were going to do is try to send art kits to specific native tribes. It was sort of a mental health thing and an education thing, because the kids are all at home and they’ve got nothing to do. We found a vendor who made these backpacks that they could stuff with notebooks, colored pencils, and basic art supplies. We developed this art kit and we just sent another thousand to Navajo nation last week. I do get a sense of accomplishment that we’re actually doing something of value.
How do you raise the money? Do you tweet out fundraising links?
Yeah. We sell stuff. I developed a Room Rater shop. The first thing we had back at the beginning of Room Rater was this competition between John Heilemann, Steve Schmidt, and Claire McCaskill competing over who has the better room. I designed and sold Team Schmidt, Team Heilemann, Team McCaskill T-shirts. The Navajo Nation had reached out to us and asked us if we could supply them with a cloth reusable face mask for each citizen of Navajo Nation. We were like, “How many is that?” and they said, “It’s about 175,000 [masks].” So we did the T-shirts. The T-shirts worked, and we bought $140,000 in cloth face masks and sent them to Navajo Nation. That’s what Rate My Skype Room does. In my mind, at least at this point, it’s why it’s there.
Did you see a decline in donations after the election?
No, we haven’t. A month or two ago, well after the election, we had a coffee cup that we sold, like a thousand coffee cups in a week. That allowed us to send $14,000 in art kits to South Dakota.
What mug was it?
It’s a Room Rater 10 out of 10 mug.
Wow. But on the PAC side, for the Trump merch and the anti-Trump or anti-GOP donations—has that cash flow changed at all?
Well, we closed off the Trump merchandise. We’re not silly. We had a sale on that remaining Trump stuff.
Do you ever accidentally tweet from the wrong account?
Oh God, like twice a day. I mean, doesn’t everybody who has more than one account? Still, to this moment, I am constantly going back and forth between the two accounts and trying to keep them separate.
Was Room Rater like a decompression valve for you during those really stressful months leading up to the election?
Very much so. When it was clear [Room Rater] was going to get big, I was definitely looking at it as a fundraising vehicle because I had this real interest and what has sort of become a passion to try to support Native American communities. But at its inception, we’re all kind of stressed, and we’re all hunkered down, and we’re all counting our rolls of toilet paper. It very much was intended to be just some lighthearted content for the pandemic lockdown period.
I have to ask: Is it stressful to watch so much cable news and broadcast news in general? Is your blood pressure just through the roof?
Well, I actually do take pills for that, but I was a news junkie before. I watched too much cable television before I had a Twitter account documenting it. So I can’t complain too much, because I watch more MSNBC and CNN than is healthy, but I did before this.
So how much time would you say you spend on it every day?
Well, again, it’s hard to separate the two accounts because I’m going back and forth, but no more than about 16 hours.
Seems healthy. So from my perspective, it seems like you are one of the few people who were really going full speed for the resistance, who also prepared yourself for post-Trump life by finding this new, extremely zeitgeisty thing to throw yourself into. Would you agree with that?
I would. The degree to which this has resonated with people does continue to surprise me.
How do you keep finding these weird things to devote your time to that become so successful?
I’m not sure I have a ready answer for that. A lot of what I do is kind of performance art. Billboards are a form of performance art. They’re not just “vote for so-and-so.” You have to have a certain message, and we work really hard trying to come up with creative, ironic, offbeat, edgy stuff. I think that’s why Matt Gaetz billboard got so much attention, because we were willing to go there.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.