A Bridge Between the Elite and the Chaos: Conservative Influencers and the Meso-Layer of Right-Wing Media

This is the first of a new series of blog posts produced as I write my doctoral thesis-slash-book about conservative media influencers, technology, and nationalism. See the second.

Danielle Lee Tomson
8 min readDec 6, 2019
Conservative Media Activists at CPAC | Source: Twitter

“A Night for Freedom.” Symposium at the Wall. CPAC. Turning Point USA. The New York Young Republicans Club. Though far from compromising an exhaustive list, these are conservative events, organizations, and clubs who host quasi-celebrities on the Right. These include famous authors, media stars, and political icons most have heard of like Ann Coulter, Justice Jeanine Pirro, and Steve Bannon. Yet this also includes a brand unique to the Right: more accessible media “influencers,” basically the Republican equivalent to B-List celebrities. These include the likes of former White House advisor slash pundit Sebastian Gorka, #BLEXIT leader Candace Owens, and radio host Buck Sexton. Surrounding them are a flurry of Instagram personalities with quirky noms de plume like Fog City Midge, Fleccas, and The Typical Liberal. There are also the celebs who have been deplatformed or kicked off of major social media platforms like Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopoulos. They might be “cancelled,” but both are far from irrelevant given they still manage to get headlines written about them — even if just for controversy.

These events can be freebies with a happy hour vibe, others are larger summits that cost hundreds of dollars. Unlike waiting in line for days at a Trump rally, a MAGA-lyte can rub shoulders with someone who knows, has met, or has worked with the President — or is friends with someone who has. These conservative media influencers are not untouchable celebs behind Comic Con booths that are pay-per-autograph. Fans can talk and “hang-out” with these influencers, fulfilling parasocial relationships with celebrities they’ve been watching or listening to every day on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or the radio.

So what? In the never-ending culture wars, having bountiful, networked, and accessible media starlets as foot soldiers is the Right’s secret and unique weapon.

Sure, the Left has “mainstream” support from big celebrity names like Katy Perry and Chrissy Teigan. But these are celebrities who are political, not political celebrities. Unlike the Left, the Right has a richly networked and deeply engaged community of conservative media influencers. These are not major media celebrities like Rachel Maddow on the Left and Tucker Carlson on the Right — though he has many of these influencers on his show. They also are not grassroots leaders in their local communities. These are folks who occupy a space in between, what I call “the meso-layer” of influence. (“Meso-” is social science speak for middle — still thinking of changing the term.) They are unique in that they borrow from both self-branded “Influencer” culture online, but also a rich history of alternative conservative independent media going back to the New Deal.

From the Facebook page of One America News host, Jack Posobiec, at a MAGA meet-up in DC


Conservative media can be divided into a pyramid with three layers. At the top are television hosts and politicians who belong to powerful institutions. At the bottom, is the endless churn of digital chatter produced by both fans, trolls, and bots — all amplified by algorithms that favor shocking, blunt, and emotional content. But in the middle is a unique and well-networked body of conservative media influencers rotating through media organizations, advocacy groups, and fellowships you’ve never heard of. This meso-layer acts as a mediator between the mainstream and the masses, between the most powerful voices and the reactions of a single fan — some who are fringe. This meso-layer is full of Fox News and OAN one-off pundits, self-described journalists, and social media celebrities who often know each other in real life. They comprise a community that passively and sometimes actively coordinates the elevation or amplification of trends. They know each other well-enough to have friendships and frenemies. Unlike the unreachable Elite or the pseudonymous masses, the meso-layer is accessible on- and offline, on Twitter and conferences, Instagram and meet-ups.

Conservative Media Influencers and the “Meso-layer.” Excuse the lo-fi representation.

Importantly, they are not self-described White Supremacists or Anti-Semites that occupy dark parts of our cultural or internet — many have explicitly denied types like avowed White Nationalist and “punched Nazi” Richard Spencer. (I must note to academic colleagues that what is described as structural or cultural white supremacy in social science or Left culture is not the same as organized white supremacy). Instead they are gatekeepers between chaotic elements and public opinion, finding ways to keep allegations of white-supremacy, conspiracy, and violence an arm’s length away — but they are far from ignorant of those dynamics in their midst and so say those elements are not engaged would be naive. Flirting with controversy can magnify attention and attention is the greatest currency of the conservative media influencer — or any digital influencer. However, the proximity to power, resourcing, cohesion, and consolidation of this meso-layer is unique to the right.

This layer is important because it constitutes a cohesive echo chamber that can direct attention of its audience to specific conservative viewpoints, particularly by trend-hacking Twitter. Let me explain trend-hacking. A news event that has nothing to do with the Right can quickly be turned into one thanks to the desire of conservative media influencers trying to stay on top of Twitter hashtag trends by inserting themselves and a conservative talking point into the conversation using the hashtag and responding to one another in turn. This is an incredibly powerful tool that allows the average consumer to tap into a community of influencers who will do the digital equivalent of autograph signing and actually respond to them on Twitter.

Left Analogues?

The Left has plenty of celebrity support, but not a roster of politically networked social media celebrities who make their entire livelihoods off of some combination of Patreon donations, article-writing, fellowships backed by a wealthy donor, institutional associations, book sales, speaking fees, some online advertising, media hits, and sometimes an old-fashioned day job. These are figures like Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, and Raheem Kassam. You might say, that the Left has media celebrities that visited the Obama White House or had MSNBC gigs, but how networked are they and with what frequency? Take for example DeRay McKesson, a #BlackLivesMatter activist who rose to national attention during the Ferguson protests. He might be an analogous figure who makes a living on the Left as a political influencer and podcaster, but who is he networked with? What institutions is he affiliated with? Who is he trying to get elected? What other influencers does he engage with on social media regularly? How many TV shows is he on as a pundit? How often? Does he regularly see Progressive or Democratic influencers at political roadshow events on a monthly basis? Can I go to a casual meet-up and maybe have a beer near him? Is he an avowed Democrat in the way these other influencers are MAGA-loving Republicans? How many similar “DeRay” types are there and do they hang out?

Of course “liberals” have institutions, foundations, academics, media and culture mavens (to what extent they are actually “Left” or “Progressive” is a whole different question). The ubiquity of so-called “left” culture in many powerful cultural institutions such as Hollywood, fashion, music or the news is both a huge strength, but does not lend itself to narrative cohesion. Many liberals will admit their “team” is more diffuse and not nearly as consolidated or coordinated. This is a blessing and a curse. Progressives bemoan that they are under-resourced in fighting an uphill battle against both establishment liberals and the Right. While a different dissertation can explore the institutional and personnel structure of mainstream versus “left” media in America, for now let us concentrate on the Right. Studying the Right’s institutional media history and culture can give clues to why the networked conservative media influencer exists.

Institutional History

Conservative media influencers have the added benefit of a rich history of alternative, independent media in the United States, which has habituated conservative audiences to both seeking and supporting it. In her book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, Nicole Hemmer describes this mediating impact of what she calls “conservative media activists” in Republican political culture. Importantly, Hemmer describes these conservative media activists engaged in what she called “elite populism” where media activists could speak as members of an “oppressed” grassroots base, while also managing access to elite sources of economic, social and political power. In this sense, they act as mediators between the base’s “flights of fancy” and the realities of two-party politics.

The seeds can be found in the 1940s, when “America First” was coined as a conservative rallying point during World War II. Frustrated by the New Deal and political consensus surrounding it, self-described conservatives (and later Southern Democrats) who felt abandoned or disenfranchised by the political party system built a robust network of subscription-based publishers, radio programs, magazines, and book clubs offering an alternative view to the “mainstream media.” Think of the radio program The Manion Forum, a program started in the 1950s which featured conservative rising stars, Human Events, Reagan’s “favorite magazine” published by the Regnery family but now owned by a digital-first conservative media influencer Will Chamberlain, or Yale-wunderkind William F. Buckley’s National Review. On the more extreme side, think the John Birch Society, which was a vociferously anti-Communist to the point of conspiracy. These media activists also formed Political Action Committees (PACs) and used their media platforms to get candidates elected. Later, the American Conservative Union and the famed Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) would be born out of these networks. These media activists performed a vital service to the Republican party in developing and selling long lists of paying subscribers, which became very valuable for campaign advertising (the Netflix show Mrs. America about anti-abortion activist and newsletter writer, Phyllis Schlafly, is an instructive and entertaining account of this in action). These personality-driven political media outlets created communities of conservatives rallying around quasi-celebrity thinkers, writers, and activists rebelling against “mainstream media,” “rigged” political systems, bureaucracies filled with communists, and “liberal” dominance. Sound familiar?

The institutional, financial, and cultural history of the Right makes the conservative media influencers in the “meso-layer” we see today possible. This was not built overnight or an invention of the Internet — even if technological systems have aided the Cambrian explosion of such influencers.

Through my digital and IRL ethnographic research, I’ve found myself bearing witness to the meso-layer in action, seeing networks manifest in real space, but how its cultural habits and philosophies impact the structure. More Medium posts will be published with more evidence to this framework as I write chapters, analyze networks, and react to other scholars. As always, if you have questions or comments, reach out. Also happy to provide citations — though blog posts cease to become blog posts when every sentence has an academic citatiton.

This post was updated March 2021.

See the next one in the series here.



Danielle Lee Tomson

Personal Musings of a Scholar and Strategist Navigating Propaganda, Tech, and Power