Who is Ricky Vaughn? That was one of the big questions for anyone following far-right politics during the 2016 presidential election. The Twitter troll who took his name and avatar from Charlie Sheen’s character in “Major League” was everywhere on social media, an indefatigable circulator of edgy memes and rah-rah Donald Trump boosterism.
And anti-Semitism and white nationalism:
There was no mistaking Ricky Vaughn’s influence. He had tens of thousands of followers, and his talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the “alt-right” white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails. The MIT Media Lab named him to its list of top 150 influencers on the election, based on news appearances and social media impact. He finished ahead of NBC News, Drudge Report and Stephen Colbert. Mainstream conservatives didn’t know they were retweeting an avowed racist and anti-Semite, but they liked what Ricky Vaughn had to say.
“He did this thing that people connected to organized white nationalism have not been able to do ― walk both sides of the extremist line in the sand,” said Keegan Hankes, a data intelligence expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Ricky Vaughn also played an important role in amplifying disinformation injected into American politics by the Russian government. HuffPost and a team of data scientists known as Susan Bourbaki Anthony that tracks online propaganda analyzed who was retweeting the now infamous Kremlin-controlled Twitter account @TEN_GOP, which consistently praised Trump, attacked Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and churned out a vile medley of racism, Islamophobia and “fake news.”
In the data set of significant accounts we looked at, Ricky Vaughn retweeted @TEN_GOP the most, by far. Although Twitter shut down his @Ricky_Vaughn99 handle in October 2016, another handle he possibly used, @RapinBill, took over and retweeted @TEN_GOP at least 162 times between early March and late August 2017. (@RapinBill also retweeted @Pamela_Moore13, another Kremlin-controlled account, at least 37 times during this period.)
Some far-right sources suggest that @RapinBill might be an account run by another anonymous bad actor, an assertion for which there is no proof, but the account has nevertheless capitalized on the Ricky Vaughn brand of far-right intolerance and fake news. We will update this story as we learn more.
Curiously, @RapinBill, which is still active and followed by Donald Trump Jr., does not appear to have received a single reciprocal retweet from @TEN_GOP during the time period we looked at, perhaps indicating an attempt to conceal the connection. @RapinBill retweeted @TEN_GOP until the end. When Twitter finally shut down @TEN_GOP last August, after having ignored numerous complaints about the Russian account, Ricky Vaughn did not take it well. He groused that @TEN_GOP had been “banned for supporting our president.” Within hours, he was steering traffic to the Kremlin’s backup account:
Ricky Vaughn was able to remain anonymous ― until this week.
On Monday, white nationalist Republican candidate Paul Nehlen, who is running against House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, grew upset about criticism directed at him ― and seemingly not disavowed by Ricky Vaughn ― as the alt-right fragments under the weight of infighting, lawsuits and anti-fascist opposition. Two main camps have emerged: the real-world extremists who want to continue holding rallies and mixing it up in the streets, and the “optics cucks” who think the best approach to the mainstream is to keep pushing alt-right ideas through better propaganda. Ricky Vaughn is in the latter camp. And he hasn’t been shy about it.
“I’m dividing the movement between effective people and dumb losers,” he wrote on Gab, a social media platform overrun by white supremacists.
Amid all this infighting, an angry Nehlen dropped Ricky Vaughn’s real name:
The name ― with the double-s ― checked out. So did many other details. In October, I’d spoken with Loren Feldman, a filmmaker in Los Angeles who interviewed “Ricky Vaughn” in 2016 for a documentary project. Feldman agreed not to show the far-right troll’s face on camera and never learned his full name. But Ricky Vaughn, whom Feldman described to me as a nervous, slightly built blond man in his mid- to late 20s, had introduced himself as “Doug.” He told Feldman that he was from New England and had gone to a private school and worked in “consulting or finance” in New York. He was smart and well-heeled, an urbane cosmopolitan elite. “You would never ever in a million years think that was Ricky Vaughn,” Feldman said.
On Monday, I sent photos I’d found of Douglass Mackey online to Feldman. I did not mention Mackey’s name or any identifying details. I simply asked Feldman if he recognized the man.
“That’s him,” Feldman said.
On Tuesday, Christopher Cantwell, another white nationalist who is feuding with Ricky Vaughn, posted a more recent photo of the propagandist to Gab that wasn’t readily available online. It appeared to be an older, heavier Mackey.
“Several photos have been showing up in several different mediums by which I communicate with my audience,” Cantwell said. “I don’t remember who gave it to me, but it matched the face I’ve seen in several other photos purporting to be him. I know people who have met Doug, and nobody who knows him has bothered to correct me, so I’m operating under the assumption that it’s authentic.”
The voice checked out too. Ricky Vaughn has done numerous white supremacist podcasts, and his calm, distinctive voice was identical to the voice of “Doug” that Feldman recorded for his film and to which I listened. A former colleague of Mackey’s who listened to one of Ricky Vaughn’s podcasts also deemed the voices a match. “That does sound like Doug,” he told me. I asked him how certain he was. “I don’t think you’re wrong,” he said. “It’s him.”
Another source, one who worked for the Trump campaign and is friendly with Ricky Vaughn, told me on Monday that the troll was desperately trying to get Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, to remove the information about him that Nehlen had posted. Torba denies this. “I have not been contacted by Ricky, anyone representing Ricky, or anyone by the name that has been listed,” Torba wrote on Gab shortly after this story was published.
Nehlen was banned from Gab on Thursday for violating the platform’s community guidelines about publishing private information about a user without their consent, Torba added. All of which would seem to further confirm Ricky Vaughn’s identity as Douglass Mackey.
So who is Doug Mackey?
The 28-year-old has done a good job keeping information about himself off the internet. Either before or immediately after Nehlen published his name, Mackey, who did not respond to requests to comment, removed all his personal social media accounts, traces of which remain online. But here’s what we know so far. (We will update the story as more information becomes available.)
Mackey is from Waterbury, Vermont, a small town of around 5,000 people in the middle of the state. His father, Scott, a lobbyist who focuses on tax policy affecting wireless communications and the digital economy, was a former legislative aide to the late U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, who was a Republican at the time. When contacted by email, Mackey’s parents, Scott and Kathy Mackey, told HuffPost that “we were devastated to learn this week of Doug’s beliefs and on-line activities as reported in the Huffington Post. They are antithetical to the values we hold and with which he was raised. We are still trying to understand how he could have done something like this and hope he will find some way to make amends for the harm he has caused.”
Growing up in Vermont, Mackey went to Harwood Union High School, then nearby Middlebury College, where he competed on the track and field team for one season, running mainly the 800-meter distance. He graduated in 2011 with an economics degree.
After college, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, and took a job as an economist at John Dunham & Associates, an economic consulting firm that uses data to help clients “respond to threats and opportunities in the policy arena.” When reached by phone on Wednesday, the president of the company, John Dunham, confirmed that Mackey had been an employee there from April 2012 to July 2016, when he was terminated for reasons that Dunham could not reveal under New York labor laws. (A month earlier, the @RapinBill Twitter account was registered.)
Mackey appears to have moved that year into a two-bedroom apartment on Lexington Avenue in the Carnegie Hill neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That was certainly his residence by the time he voted, as a Republican, in the 2016 election, according to New York voter registration information.
By then, his apparent alter ego Ricky Vaughn had become a mighty pusher of propaganda, teaming up with other far-right operatives, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, to spread racist lies and dangerous conspiracy theories.
Ricky Vaughn had also by then gone public with the history of his political metamorphosis into a white nationalist, which began, as it did for many members of the alt-right around his age, with Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. Paul’s conspiratorial libertarianism and racist ideas were attractive to many young white men with hard-right leanings. For some, though, Paul wasn’t radical enough. He was merely a gateway.
As Ricky Vaughn has explained in various podcasts and interviews for white nationalist platforms, after about three years of toying with libertarian ideas, he started growing more extreme. First, he became a critic of feminism. Then he went full racist “after the Trayvon Martin thing” in 2012 (when George Zimmerman fatally shot Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Florida). “Why were they trying to make this racial narrative?” Ricky Vaughn told white nationalist Richard Spencer in a podcast. He elaborated in a separate interview on the website for Spencer’s Radix Journal:
At that time I realized what a con job the media was playing on all of us, and how the mainstream race propaganda was all bullshit. So from there I began to explore the different facets of cultural Marxism. The Jewish role in subversion, homosexuality, et cetera.
During Gamergate, a 2014 online harassment campaign waged by misogynists and racists online against women and minorities in the video game industry, Ricky Vaughn linked up with Yiannopoulos and Cernovich, who were ringleaders in the harassment and would both go on to even greater notoriety with their attempts to contaminate American political discourse with conspiracy theories.
“I owe a lot to them,” Ricky Vaughn said on a recent podcast.
By the beginning of 2016, he was clearly an open “alt-right” white nationalist. He talked about how “the good people are siding with nationalism and the Shabbos goyim shills and the neocohens are siding with the globalists.” He talked about how he wanted to “introduce ideas of racial consciousness into the mix so that patriotic American conservatives don’t feel bad about creating all-White communities and shunning mixed-marriages and that sort of thing, because we need racial separatism in order to maintain our unique culture and racial heritage.”
He tweeted anti-Semitic imagery:
Although Ricky Vaughn would later try to distance himself from white supremacy ― one reason it was easy for some neo-Nazis to celebrate his doxing this week ― he never could. “I still call myself alt-right,” he said on a recent podcast.
He still engaged in the trolling and harassment that conveys status within the far-right. After the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school in February, Ricky Vaughn, true to form, used another one of his Twitter accounts to attack Cameron Kasky, one of the survivors, after Kasky advocated for gun control. In a tweet that he has since deleted, he wrote:
“You’re a crass, craven, disgusting worm. Smiling and laughing and taking selfies in the wake of a massacre. Why? Because you’ve punched your ticket now. You’re famous, just like you always wanted to be. A little theatre whore. Dance for the cameras, monkey.”
But his desire ― or need ― to be all things to all racists no longer worked. The opportunism that gave him mass appeal when the far-right was unified during the Trump campaign and for several months after the election also spelled his doom after last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The deadly rally was a disaster for the alt-right. The infighting began soon after. And Ricky Vaughn was a target.
“That same strategy of one foot in the mainstream camp and one foot in the white nationalist camp didn’t hold up after Charlottesville,” Hankes from the SPLC said. “You saw him getting attacked pretty viciously by the hard right in the post-Charlottesville moment where a large part of the alt-right was black-pilled (i.e. soured) on Trump. That mainstream strategy kind of crumbled and ruined his credibility.”
He was too soft, many other white nationalists said. Too much of a sellout. Many denounced him. But Ricky Vaughn kept fighting for relevance. A month ago, in the debut of his own “Ricky Vaughncast” podcast, he described his new approach, which was softer even still. He felt the alt-right should move away from trying to publicly convert people to white nationalism with brute-force propaganda and instead seduce them secretly in private.
“I view it strictly from the standpoint of what’s effective,” he said.
Secrecy will no longer be effective for Ricky Vaughn.
UPDATE: After the publication of this story, Twitter suspended the @RapinBill account. This story has been updated to include more details about that account, as well as comments from Andrew Torba and a new statement from Scott and Kathleen Mackey.
Clarification: This article originally included a Ricky Vaughn tweet that generally referenced Nazis. It has been replaced with another tweet that demonstrates the account’s use of anti-Semitic imagery.