It may not come as a total surprise that James O’Keefe, the Project Veritas co-founder who left the activist group on Monday after a power struggle with its board, is not being widely condemned on the right.
Project Veritas is known for publishing misinformation-laden and context-twisting hidden camera “investigations” into progressive groups, news media, Planned Parenthood, and pharmaceutical companies. It had a faithful audience of conservative donors and followers who were eager for dirt on their enemies. O’Keefe was the face of that brand, so it makes some sense that those loyal followers would not jump to attack him, even after allegations of misusing donor funds for extravagant personal expenses and fostering an abusive workplace culture.
But the group’s followers didn’t just turn a blind eye to the allegations. Instead, they launched an entire campaign to cancel Project Veritas itself. The narrative quickly emerged on social media: The company, which was founded to humiliate people and get them canceled for being corrupt and/or too liberal, was itself corrupt and/or too liberal.
“They sold out to the cabal,” one person wrote on Twitter.
“Veritas has succumbed to the neocon wokism that destroyed National Review,” wrote another.
“Don’t be surprised if PV turns a bit more WOKE in years to come,” wrote a third. “Seems like they’ve been infiltrated.”
On Twitter, users promoted the hashtags #UnfollowingVeritas, #StandWithJamesOKeefe, and #BoycottProjectVeritas. Accounts gleefully celebrated the hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers the official Project Veritas account was losing. (O’Keefe now has 1.3 million followers to Project Veritas’ 1.1 million, in a near swap of follower numbers.) And influential right-wing accounts stoked the backlash.
“We must stand with James!” declared Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk. Newsmax’s Benny Johnson, a noted plagiarist, called Project Veritas “the new Lincoln Project.” The provocateur Laura Loomer described the board that ousted O’Keefe as “frauds, grifters, and backstabbing miscreants” seeking “likes, clicks, fame & fortune.” Steve Bannon declared “war” on O’Keefe’s rivals.
Why, given that the dispute that ousted O’Keefe was a matter of internal politics and potential liability issues and workplace allegations rather than anything political, would there be such a strong response? Part of it is O’Keefe’s popularity, and conservatives’ tendency to trust loud and proudly lib-shaming personalities above anything institutional, even if that institution is one that is dedicated to conservative causes. Another part of it likely has to do with the impulse to distrust accusers (especially abuse accusers) targeting right-wing heroes and to defend those heroes no matter what. But the main factor is probably the tendency toward conspiratorial thinking, a tendency at the root of Project Veritas’ popularity from the beginning.
In January, Project Veritas put out a video that appeared to show a Pfizer researcher saying the company was going to mutate the COVID virus through “directed evolution.” The story blew up in conservative media—Tucker Carlson treated it as a bombshell—but failed to gain traction outside the right-wing ecosystem because of its dubious origins, questionable editing, lack of context, and logic-jumping conclusions. O’Keefe called it the “biggest story in our organization’s history.”
So when, in early February, 16 Project Veritas employees signed a letter sent to the board accusing O’Keefe of being a “power drunk tyrant” who misused donor funds and demeaned and humiliated his employees—to the point of spitting on one over a tweet—some of O’Keefe’s allies immediately connected the two events. When, two days later, it was reported that O’Keefe was on paid leave, many more of O’Keefe’s allies began to complain about the timing.
If you look at responses to comments and developments on Twitter, where much of this conversation is happening, a solid majority of O’Keefe’s supporters seem to believe that Pfizer is behind his ouster. There is no evidence of that. But some believe Pfizer paid off the board. Others believe that Pfizer intimidated them into it. The details don’t really matter. What matters is that in this scenario, O’Keefe is not a bad boss but a hero who spoke truth to power and was felled by it.
O’Keefe himself promoted the martyrdom idea. In a video posted online, apparently filmed Monday, O’Keefe complained that “none of this makes any sense.” “Why is this happening right now?” he asked. He didn’t explicitly say his firing was because of Pfizer, but he did bring up the sting video. “That is the only thing that has changed,” he said. “And then, suddenly, an unusual emergency happened just a few days after that.”
Supporters said they sensed a “coordinated coup,” noted the “suspicious” timing, and labeled the company’s board members as “shills.”
With that reasoning, any allegations seemed like petty falsehoods. The lawsuits—claiming that Project Veritas had a “highly sexualized” workplace culture, that O’Keefe had once played for employees an audio file of him and his girlfriend discussing “sexual activities,” and that drinking and drug use were “rampant”—were simply the lies of a disgruntled former employee. And even if those claims were true, then his detractors were simply too “woke,” getting worked up over small matters.
But the Pfizer narrative wasn’t the only alternative explanation. “It’s abundantly clear there are forces attempting to split MAGA right now,” wrote the conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. “What happened to James isn’t isolated. There is a treacherous plot afoot, and we are going to see more and more of this as we head into 2024. They are trying to ignite a civil war.”
Others pointed to other conservative internal feuds as evidence of a trend, implying some sort of coordinated infiltration. Some people concluded that the board members must be “simping for establishment sweetheart Ron Desantis.” The far-right activist Lauren Witzke was of this camp. “It’s all coming together now, it appears the DeSantis clan […] all banded together to oust James O’keefe,” she wrote. “They have, and will continue to target others in the MAGA movement in order to dismantle it before the 2024 Presidential campaign.”
Regardless of their theories, O’Keefe’s supporters rushed to justify those allegations they didn’t dismiss as false. The claim that he was so paranoid he made his employees talk to private investigators and take a lie detector test? Simply prudent behavior when going up against such giant foes. The claim he was a “brutal taskmaster”? A man who simply had high standards for his employees. The claim that he had spent $150,000 on black cars or $60,000 on dance events or $14,000 chartering a flight to have his boat fixed? Just part of doing business. And the claim he once, while in court, took an eight-months pregnant woman’s sandwich? No big deal.
“I think the sandwich story is BS,” Laura Loomer wrote on Twitter. “But even if it is true, who cares? Legends need to eat too.”
And already, his supporters are rallying Project Veritas donors to come to his defense. “I am a donor, and I do not care that James O’Keefe takes black cars,” Candace Owens said.
His defenders generally didn’t discuss the IRS filing showing Project Veritas had spent $20,512 to send staff to see O’Keefe star in an outdoor production of the play Oklahoma!, possibly because musical theater doesn’t mesh with the hypermasculine hero supporters were imagining in their discussions.
It remains to be seen if O’Keefe’s ouster will, as so many predict, kill off Project Veritas. O’Keefe has suggested he will start his own venture, under a new name. But he is coming out of this saga as the early winner, a symbol of truth-telling in a corrupt world. Matt Gaetz has called O’Keefe a “hero.” And perhaps the best summation of the whole campaign came from Donald Trump Jr. and his sense of conservative victimhood:
“Not sure what PV does without James. We need to continue the mission of exposing the left. The radicle left has entire trillion dollar enterprises running cover for them. We had James.”