The video quickly catches your eye, with bold, flashing numbers against a bloodred background. As sinister music charges toward a dramatic finish, a warning about thousands of “foreign Islamists” roaming freely about the country creeps across the screen.
Marine Le Pen, the right-wing candidate who in May lost her bid for president in France, closed her campaign with this message, seen by more than 1.5 million Facebook users. The ad had a theatrical look and feel unusual to European politics, but one quite familiar to Americans.
And that’s because Americans made it.
Vincent Harris, whose namesake Austin, Texas–based firm has deep ties to US Republicans, has positioned himself as a digital guru for Le Pen and other far-right leaders overseas against a backdrop of spiking nationalism, ethnic division, and anti-globalism. It’s an odd trajectory for someone who once seemed on his way to being the GOP’s super-consultant of the future.
Harris taught Mike Huckabee how to talk to bloggers. Sharpened tea party–insurgent Ted Cruz into a national brand. Created memes for Mitch McConnell, the dullest of senators. Evangelized for the phone over television. Along the way he became, in the words of one publication, “The Man Who Invented the Republican Internet.” And he did it all before his 27th birthday.
But now, as he approaches 30, Harris has fallen into a bit of a slump at home. He bet on the wrong 2016 presidential candidate. Pissed off one of his top clients. Disappeared from Donald Trump’s campaign within days for reasons no one seems to understand. As 2017 ends, his highlights are accounts that make even some of his friends and admirers uncomfortable.
Far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen answers to journalists at the Federation of Vaucluse during a press conference on Oct. 8, 2017, in Carpentras in southern France.
Anne-christine Poujoulat / AFP / Getty Images
With Harris Media’s assistance, Le Pen’s National Front — a party that has struggled to distance itself from Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitism — has ridden anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments to more mainstream success. More recently, and most alarmingly to many who respect Harris’ talents, the firm’s efforts for Alternative für Deutschland helped nationalists win seats in Germany’s parliament for the first time in more than half a century. It’s a party that can’t seem to shake its Nazi roots. At one rally earlier this year in support of AfD, attendees chanted that they would “build a subway” to Auschwitz for political opponents.
“I doubt,” one former Harris Media employee told BuzzFeed News, “that many people started working there to work for neo-Nazis.”
German voters had never seen a campaign quite like the one Harris Media took online for AfD. One piece branded Chancellor Angela Merkel as the “oathbreaker” for accepting refugees. Another involved a Facebook post with stark, bloody tire tracks charging that Merkel’s policies have resulted in Islamic terrorist attacks across Europe. By using social media–targeting tactics that have been standard in recent US campaigns, the firm found an audience receptive to AfD’s message. AfD cultivated an alliance of like-minded voters and created a safe, comfortable place to indulge in right-wing nationalism that had long been treated as taboo in the country. Merkel’s party prevailed in the September elections, but AfD won enough votes to become Germany’s third most popular party.
“I doubt,” one former employee said, “that many people started working there to work for neo-Nazis.”
How did Harris go from The Man Who Invented the Republican Internet to The Man Who Helped the Radical Fringe Find Its Voice Overseas? It’s a question that the man who once gladly submitted himself to such publicity seems uneager to answer. He declined repeated requests to be interviewed on the record for this story, agreeing only to review questions submitted by email. He responded to those questions with an emailed statement.
“Harris Media’s domestic client work is stronger than ever; during the past 24 months, we have served American candidates at every level and won numerous awards for groundbreaking efforts,” Harris wrote. “Our continued success in the US has led to opportunities around the world in the some of the world’s largest and most important democracies, where we have assisted a diverse set of candidates and parties across the political spectrum. As we grow both domestically and internationally, we remain focused on providing creative digital approaches to reaching and persuading distracted voters in today’s digital-first media environment.”
Harris’ friends see a young entrepreneur who is fascinated by international affairs and recognizes an opportunity to grow his business in countries where political leaders see value in US-style digital tactics. “I think he’s genuinely committed to serving the conservative movement in the US and countries around the world,” said William McBeath, director of training and marketing at the Manning Centre, a Canadian organization that promotes conservative politics and counts Harris among the featured speakers at its annual networking conference.
Disgruntled ex-employees and dissatisfied ex-clients are less charitable. Success, these critics say, went to Harris’ head. They describe a transformation into a bro CEO, the kind who would rather be at Burning Man than in the trenches of a big race. (One senator, unhappy that Harris was dumping too much high-level work on inexperienced staff, fired Harris Media less than three months before Election Day last year.) And they believe that, though Harris initially pursued foreign campaigns as a lucrative niche to fill, the more objectionable accounts might be increasingly necessary to the firm’s survival.
“Some of us did question these campaigns, these candidates, and what they stand for,” said one former Harris Media employee, who, like many of the more than 12 ex-staffers and former clients interviewed for this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly about their experiences. “I think this latest adaptation is all of these foreign campaigns. I don’t think their reputation in the United States is favorable. They’ve burned so many bridges.”
Others believe that Harris, as one of the best in a practice area with few established specialists, remains influential and in demand in US politics. But there are questions about how long he can maintain that status the deeper he gets involved overseas. Some point to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who disappeared from the domestic political scene for years while making millions working for authoritarian figures in Eastern Europe.
“Manafort got very wealthy offering those services, so far be it from me to predict whether someone like Vincent who takes on these types of clients will suffer consequences or not — that remains to be seen,” Tim Miller, a Republican communications consultant who was active last year in anti-Trump efforts, told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a reason that Manafort wasn’t involved in US politics for decades before somebody with no standards and no interest in vetting like Donald Trump came around. Candidates who want to make sure their image and their advisers are in line with their values weren’t hiring.”
Delegates of the right-wing AfD vote ‘No’ during the AfD federal congress at the Hannover Congress Centrum on Dec. 2, 2017, in Hanover, Germany.
Alexander Koerner / Getty Images
The full scope of Harris’ work abroad — what countries, how much, or how little on behalf of one party or another — isn’t clear.
Harris, in an email and on a résumé he posted online, has said he’s done work (though with little elaboration on what kind of work) for candidates in Madagascar and training projects in Belgium, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Canada. Some of the efforts were on behalf of the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy group in the US chaired by Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Several former employees said certain foreign accounts exist under nondisclosure agreements, while others — like Le Pen in France — are proudly described on Harris Media’s website.
Regardless, the work abroad started more than five years ago. The Arab Spring unleashed political revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa — it also opened Harris’ eyes to international expansion opportunities.
After the fall of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Harris traveled to Egypt to assist with election training. As he tells it, his work with persecuted Coptic Christians reinforced to him the power of the internet as a democratic equalizer. “This group of people in Egypt,” Harris said during a September presentation at the Asian Conference for Political Communication in Singapore, “can coordinate now through Facebook and actually build a strong political alliance, whereas before their power was dissolved amongst the larger majoritarian populations.”
The projects for Le Pen and AfD have pushed Harris Media’s work deeper into Euroscepticism and the hardcore nativism often associated with it.
From there, he began jumping into more foreign efforts. In 2015, he signed on with Israel’s Likud Party and the reelection campaign for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a move that fit Harris’ evangelical conservative politics, in which Israel’s importance is deeply ingrained. The timing of his hiring fueled speculation that he was a favor from some of his conservative clients back home. “I have not spoken to Senator Cruz or to Mitch McConnell about my job here,” he told the Jerusalem Post at the time. “My Israeli work is completely separate from my work in the US, so what is being reported is not true. I love Israel, and I am excited to be here to help the Likud and the prime minister use digital media in an effective and forward-looking manner.”
The firm also hooked up briefly in 2014 with the UK Independence Party, right-wing populists who, two years later, would back the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union. Harris Media notes the former client prominently on its website, and its involvement with UKIP has been lumped in with its more recent efforts in France and Germany, though Harris describes it today as minor development work. (Officials with UKIP and its former leader, Nigel Farage, told BuzzFeed News they had never heard of Harris or the firm.)
Though Likud and UKIP are complicated, involvement in British and Israeli politics isn’t necessarily so unusual for American political operatives. But work in other parts of Europe and in other parts of the world is less common.
Two former employees said the firm recently assisted Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who last month was sworn in for a second term after a disputed election and election do-over marred by violent clashes. Harris would not confirm or deny that Kenyatta was a client.
The projects for Le Pen and AfD have pushed Harris Media’s work deeper into Euroscepticism and the hardcore nativism and hostility to foreigners that’s often associated with it. Right-wing groups once on the fringes of political activity now are feeding off increasingly mainstream fears surrounding an influx of migrant refugees from war-torn nations across the Mediterranean Sea — and off anger over EU policies addressing the crisis.
There also are public safety concerns, amplified by anti-Islamic sentiment that Harris Media seems OK with stoking, as the firm did in the Facebook video for Le Pen. And in Harris, AfD found a partner for a provocative campaign that also pushed boundaries on the print side. One poster, highlighting the backsides of two women at the beach, called for bikinis over burqas. Another, featuring a pregnant woman, asked: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.” Harris Media’s anti-Merkel messaging online was just as attention grabbing, though the firm’s pitch to use a “Germany for Germans” campaign reportedly was too much for the client, mindful of the Nazi echo.
“To me, this is bigger than personal attacks. To me, the internet spreads democracy. To me, the internet gives democracy.”
While Le Pen lost the presidential election in France, her National Front asserted its growing political presence. AfD made historic gains. For Harris, both were opportunities to show how, with his expertise, fringe movements and minority parties can compete with the establishment. In a way it was as fundamentally simple as herding people together on social media and making them feel comfortable confessing their unpopular opinions. But this is a potential gold rush for enterprising US consultants. Antiestablishment leaders looking for an edge will pay good money for Americanized tactics. “They didn’t have contacts at Facebook, Twitter, or Google before we came in,” Josh Canter, a Harris Media operative who was based in Berlin for the German elections, told Bloomberg Businessweek in September.
At the Singapore conference in September, several weeks before the German elections, Harris acknowledged the mean and divisive political culture that feasts online. “But to me, this is bigger than feelings,” he said. “To me, this is bigger than personal attacks. To me, the internet spreads democracy. To me, the internet gives democracy.”
A few moments later in the speech, a video of which Harris posted to his personal website, he mused, “Do we remember how it was before the internet, y’all?”
Vincent Harris in his office.
Drew Anthony Smith
Harris was an early adopter of the internet as a political tool.
As a high school student in Northern Virginia, he launched TooConservative.com to chronicle happenings in local politics. At first, he published anonymously. “He had to,” said Sean Connaughton, who at the time was a Prince William County supervisor. “I think if anyone knew it was a 16-year-old putting this stuff up, no one would have paid attention to it.”
Even after Harris outed himself, Connaughton said, some suspected he was merely a front for Connaughton or for Rep. Tom Davis, then the area congressman. Harris had volunteered for both, even climbing into a smelly old elephant costume to represent his Republican patrons at parades. (TooConservative.com remains live after all these years, but the most recent post is from March. The content has become more of a self-promotional vehicle for Harris, and links to early entries lead to error pages.)
Harris went pro in college, at Baylor University, where he was known among classmates as a devout Christian conservative — the kind of kid who asked you to share a favorite Bible passage. From Waco, Texas, he signed on to 2008 campaigns for the state’s then-junior senator, John Cornyn, and for presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. He sold both on a unique strategy: talking to political bloggers like him. For Huckabee, who lacked the money to wage a big ad campaign, such exposure was valuable. The former Arkansas governor staged a surprise win in the Iowa caucuses that year. Cornyn cruised to a second term.
“We called him Blogger Boy,” said John Drogin, a Republican strategist who worked for Cornyn’s reelection campaign at the time. “Back in 2008, it was a slightly different digital landscape.”
“Vincent was really a pioneer of his craft and found his voice in the midst of a field that was unknown.”
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