Earlier today, president Joe Biden announced he will be running again next year. Just hours later, the Republican National Committee (RNC) fired back — with a controversial ad that features AI-generated images, The Verge reports.
The ad, titled “Beat Biden” — which asks the rhetorical question, “What if international tensions escalate?” — features deepfaked images of Taiwan being invaded by China. Other AI-generated images show shuttered banks and borders that were “overrun” by “illegals.”
While a tiny disclaimer in the top left corner admits that the ad was “built entirely with AI imagery,” it’s easily overlooked.
The ad sets a troubling precedent, making use of the tech to illustrate wildly speculative visions of the future that could easily fool viewers who aren’t not clued in.
The RNC told Axios that it’s the first time the committee produced a video that is 100 percent AI.
It’s unclear whether the RNC violated any terms and conditions, The Verge points out, as we don’t know which tools it used to generate the images. Midjourney and DALL-E, for instance, don’t allow for overtly political images to be generated.
During the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Facebook announced it was banning and removing deepfake videos over fears they could mislead viewers. But the company never clarified whether politicians can make use of AI-generated content, as The Washington Post reported earlier this month.
In short, the ad sets the stage for what could become a presidential race deeply mired in AI-facilitated misinformation tactics — a new inflection point in the already-dirty world of political ads.
An atmosphere of conviviality greeted Republican attorneys general arriving in New Orleans for their recent winter conference. It was Mardi Gras, and tourists traipsed through the lobby of the historic Roosevelt Hotel wearing colorful beaded necklaces and clutching cocktails. A few feet from the check-in desk, if any of the attorneys general stopped to notice it, stood a replica of former U.S. Sen.
The operative leading Ron DeSantis’s super PAC is closely associated with conservative activist Leonard Leo, the beneficiary of the largest dark money donation in US history. But Leo’s not putting all his eggs in one basket for the 2024 presidential election.
Conservative activist Leonard Leo’s ties to Florida governor Ron DeSantis are the strongest among the potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)
The Republican operative leading the super PAC backing Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis was closely involved with a record-breaking dark money donation to conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, the architect of the Supreme Court’s rightward swing, according to records obtained by the Lever.
Chris Jankowski, CEO of the pro-DeSantis group Never Back Down, is listed in the documents as the “settlor” — effectively, the creator — of the Marble Freedom Trust, a massive pool of cash Leo is using to finance conservative advocacy groups.
In 2021, the trust received $1.6 billion from the sale of Chicago businessman Barre Seid’s surge-protector empire, constituting the largest known dark money donation in history and leaving Leo in control of an unprecedented political advocacy fund.
The role Jankowski played in developing the Marble Freedom Trust has not previously been reported, though he has for years served as aconsultant for Leo’s dark money network, which played a central role in flipping control of the Supreme Court and building its 6–3 conservative supermajority.
“Mr. Leo has known Chris Jankowski for many years and considers him one of the most effective political strategists in the country,” said a spokesperson at Leo’s consulting firm, CRC Advisors. “Governor DeSantis’s Never Back Down PAC is fortunate to have him there.”
Never Back Down and Jankowski did not respond to the Lever’s requests for comment.
Jankowski’s current role with the DeSantis super PAC is just one place where Leo’s influence will be felt throughout the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Leo, who helped select and install three Supreme Court nominees as President Donald Trump’s top judicial adviser, has used his dark money network to distribute major donations to nonprofits affiliated with several other potential primary contenders, including Mike Pence and Nikki Haley.
Leo’s ties to DeSantis are perhaps the most extensive among the potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders. The Florida Republican’s crusade against “woke capital” and his recent decision to sign a six-week abortion ban seem to be perfectly calibrated to appeal to Leo, a hard-line social conservative who has financed a broader messaging war against “woke capitalism.”
“Lead Consultant to the Judicial Crisis Network”
Jankowski, a longtime conservative operative, is best known for spearheading the Republican State Leadership Committee’s highly successful 2010 Project Redmap campaign — an effort to tip state house elections across the country and then use the redistricting process to help the GOP lock in a long-lasting advantage in congressional and state legislative elections.
Since 2014, Jankowski has been periodically identified as a consultant with the Judicial Crisis Network, a key dark money cog in Leo’s campaign to remake both the federal and state courts.
“In 2016 to 2018, Chris served as a lead consultant to the Judicial Crisis Network’s successful Supreme Court confirmation campaigns,” read Jankowski’s bio on one conservative nonprofit’s website. “These efforts blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland and pushed for confirmation of Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. These unprecedented efforts, with almost $30 million spent, helped create a new conservative majority on the court.”
Records obtained by the Lever show that Jankowski helped Leo establish the Marble Freedom Trust, his $1.6 billion landmark dark money fund. Jankowski was the trust’s settlor — which generally means a trust’s creator or donor.
The donation for the trust came from Seid, who, as part of his “attack philanthropy” strategy, gifted the entirety of his electronics business to the trust, which then sold it.
Now Jankowski is helming Never Back Down, a super PAC that’s preparing to help perform core campaign operations to boost DeSantis, despite the fact that such outside groups cannot directly coordinate with candidates.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that officials at Never Back Down have “been telling donors they intend to push the bounds of what an independent effort can do in presidential years” and are planning “a major push into the sort of organizing in early states that has historically been undertaken by candidates themselves.”
The Post added that “Never Back Down could receive a transfer of the more than $85 million that DeSantis has in a state fundraising account if he becomes a candidate.”
DeSantis’s Leo-World Ties
In recent years, Jankowski was listed on the board of advisers at N2 America, a dark money group designed to boost the GOP’s image in the suburbs. The organization campaigned for schools to resume in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic and boosted the confirmation of Trump’s 2020 Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.
Tax records show N2 America was primarily funded by Leo’s Concord Fund, which donated at least $1 million to N2 America between 2020 and 2021. The organization reported raising $1.5 million during that time.
DeSantis’s nascent campaign operation includes several other N2 America alumni.
Generra Peck, the organization’s vice president, is reportedly expected to serve as DeSantis’s 2024 campaign manager if he runs, and is currently working as a consultant for his Florida-level political committee.
Phil Cox, who served on N2 America’s board of advisers, is serving as a senior adviser to Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC led by Jankowski.
Peck and Cox helped lead DeSantis’s 2022 gubernatorial reelection campaign. Peck previouslyworked at Cox’s consulting firms.
The DeSantis super PAC’s leadership team also includes Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and Trump administration official.
Since 2021, Cuccinelli has been the national chairman of the Election Transparency Initiative — an effort designed to protect Republican voter suppression laws around the country — which is part of the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion advocacy group.
Leo’s network donated $2.3 million to the Susan B. Anthony List between July 2020 and June 2021.
Hedging His Bets
DeSantis isn’t the only potential GOP presidential contender with significant ties to Leo.
Leo’s Concord Fund contributed $1 million in 2020–21 to Advancing American Freedom, a nonprofit chaired by former vice president Mike Pence that is serving as a “campaign-in-waiting,” according to Politico.
Since 2018, the Leo networkhasdonated $1.5 million to Stand for America, a dark money group founded by Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump United Nations ambassador.
“I’m running for president to renew an America that’s proud and strong, not weak and woke,” Haley said in a speech last month to conservative activists. “Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”
You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.
Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has until Friday to sign a bill that would create a separate police force and court system for Jackson, the state’s capital city. The bill is controversial for its subversion of local control and for its construction of a system in which white state officials will appoint the people in charge of the criminal justice system in a majority-Black city.
Hinds County, which includes Jackson, would become the only municipality in the state that doesn’t elect its own prosecutors and judges.
“We are finding ourselves jumping back to days of Jim Crow, days of apartheid.”
The bill is an extension of efforts to control and undermine the voices of the Black people who live in Jackson, said Rukia Lumumba, co-director of the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project and a candidate in the upcoming Democratic primary for a state House seat just north of Jackson.
“We are finding ourselves jumping back to days of Jim Crow, days of apartheid,” she said, “where we’re seeing this theory that Black people can’t govern, that Black people can’t make decisions for themselves around who is best suited to represent them in governing processes, and that Black people can’t create their own safety.”
The bill was written by Republican state Rep. Trey Lamar, who represents a district just under 200 miles away from Jackson. Lamar has framed the bill as an effort to make Jackson “safer” and to help its residents. “My constituents want to feel safe when they come here,” Lamar said during state House deliberations on the bill earlier this year.
Hinds County elected civil rights attorney Jody Owens as district attorney in 2019. The city of Jackson has a history of Black radical mayors, including Rukia’s father, Chokwe Lumumba, and brother, current Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who won reelection in 2021. There have been attempts to pass similar bills targeting Jackson since at least 2012, Lumumba said.
The backlash is also playing out in national politics, where another reformist Mississippi prosecutor and federal court nominee is facing Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate because of his progressive politics. The effort to create a special justice system around Jackson should be seen as part of this national backlash to the elections of progressive and reform-minded officials, said Lumumba.
“We’re seeing attacks in so many places where we saw so many wins,” she said, pointing to efforts in Missouri to restrict the power of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.
Since 2020, states and municipalities across the country elected reform-minded district attorneys, passed criminal justice reforms, and continued efforts to improve equity in policing, housing, and health care.
“What we’re seeing is opponents to those successes figuring out how to tap into municipal control and county control and use the legislature as a source to literally deprive municipalities and counties of the power that they have to govern,” Lumumba said, “to engage in systems that are more accountable to the people.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Aug. 5, 2022.
Photo: Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Under the Jackson bill, H.B. 1020, state officials would appoint 11 positions that were previously elected, including judges, prosecutors, and public defenders in a newly created district that includes the city’s wealthy white residents.
“It’s dangerous because it creates a narrative of racial divide,” Lumumba said. “It creates a narrative that continues to perpetuate these stereotypes that Black people are not intelligent enough to do the job, that we are not capable.”
The proposed law would also expand the jurisdiction and size of the Capitol Police force, which was originally created to patrol state buildings and has recently expanded its control throughout an area dubbed the “Capitol Complex Improvement Zone.”
In a February opinion article, Mississippi civil rights advocates opposing the bill said it would create an apartheid system. “Imagine all-white juries in a city that’s nearly 83 percent Black, within a state where lynchingsstill occur,” they wrote.
The bill is part of a response to Jackson’s murder rate, which spiked in 2020 along with murder rates in cities and rural areas across the country. When a journalist asked about H.B. 1020 during a February press conference, Reeves, the governor, who is up for reelection this year, described Jackson as the “murder capital of the world.”
While gun violence and certain crimes like robbery and gun theft increased in 2021, overall crime in Jackson was down.
“The anecdotal data that the legislature is pushing through does not match the real data,” Lumumba said.
“What people don’t understand is that Mississippi is not the state where residents don’t care about progress.”
Though public safety is offered as a rationale for the bill, it focuses primarily on exempting the city’s wealthy white residents from local control, Lumumba said: “It focuses and centers its efforts around creating safety for a wealthier, predominantly white population in Jackson that is concentrated in a specific area.”
While state officials advance legislation to revoke local control in Jackson, Republicans are also working to pass bills to suppress voting rights in the state, Lumumba said.
“One thing that’s not understood is that these bills are being introduced because Jackson leadership, specifically the mayoral leadership, has been effective in moving the needle on water, moving the needle on public safety,” she said, noting Jackson’s recent creation of Mississippi’s first ever office of violent prevention and trauma recovery. “What people don’t understand is that Mississippi is not the state where residents don’t care about progress.”
Carlson then asked the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire to expand on the idea.
“Why is that? I mean, the urge to have sex and to procreate is – after breathing and eating – the most basic urge. How has it been subverted?” said Carlson.
“Well, it’s just, in the past we could rely upon, you know, simple limbic system rewards in order to procreate. But once you have birth control and abortions and whatnot, now you can still satisfy limbic instinct, but not procreate,” Musk replied.
Musk then went on to claim humans haven’t yet evolved to deal with that because abortion and birth control are fairly recent developments.
“I’m sort of worried that hey, civilization, if we don’t make enough people to at least sustain our numbers, perhaps increase a little bit, then civilization’s going to crumble,” Musk added.
“The old question of like, will civilization end with a bang or a whimper? Well, it’s currently trying to end with a whimper in adult diapers, which is depressing as hell.”
They agreed that it was a “depressing” situation.
Musk has long claimed that population decline poses a grave threat to civilization, tweeting in 2022 that “population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming.”
A Florida Republican lawmaker compared transgender people to “mutants” from the X-Men while debating yet another bill that would curtail LGBTQ rights.
During a debate Monday about House Bill 1421, which would ban gender-affirming care for minors and prohibit trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender, Republican Representative Webster Barnaby went on a strange and vitriolic rant.
“I’m looking at society today, and it’s like I’m watching an X-Men movie,” he said. “It’s like we have mutants living among us on planet Earth.”
“This is the planet Earth, where God created men, male, and women, female!” he continued. “The Lord rebuke you Satan, and all of your demons and all of your imps who come and parade before us.”
Barnaby ended his rant by urging his colleagues to vote for HB 1421, which would also make it a third-degree felony for doctors to provide gender-affirming care to trans kids.
Republicans across the country have introduced bills targeting a variety of LGBTQ rights, particularly health care for trans and nonbinary people. Most insist they are protecting children by doing so, but Barnaby went right ahead and said the quiet part out loud: they don’t see trans people as human and worthy of care.
If Republicans really wanted to protect children, they would leave gender-affirming care alone. Such treatments decrease the amount of depression and anxiety that trans and nonbinary teenagers feel, and it makes them less likely to consider suicide. But by passing legislation targeting LGBTQ people, lawmakers demonize the community and put people at risk of real harm.