Austin Petersen: GIFs, Tweets, and Senate Seats
“You’re taking the lead on this,” my boss told me as we went into the office to interview potential employees for our company. Our working relationship was excellent; with him as the manager and myself operations supervisor the facility had gone from worst to first in a matter of weeks in our regional analytics. Looking for new employees was an important next step in keeping the momentum going and further ingraining the change of culture that was fueling it. The candidates had already been screened for qualifications, and regional HR gave much of the final decision to local discretion. In other words, these candidates were all mostly equal on paper. They all had minimum experience, their required licenses, similar education, and most had similar backgrounds.
It was going to come down to how the candidates presented themselves in the room.
The third candidate that day was an interview that I have never forgotten. This individual was the favorite going in, on paper everything we were looking for: recommendation from someone we respected and trusted, said all the right things, had taken the time learn the terminology and verbiage for the programs we were implementing. Walked into building early, dressed sharply, and made a fine appearance. Introductions were made, hands shaken, and all seemed to be going well. But when the prospective employee entered the office for the interview, all the build-up, perceptions, and preparations went away in a moment.
He flopped himself down into the chair and made himself comfortable.
Flopped is not hyperbole here; the chair scooted several inches to the side from the momentum, and despite being an athletic younger man the body language and presentation of effort presented more like an elderly person relieved to be off their feet. His mannerisms made it perfectly clear this was a intentional thing, as he was quite proud of himself, taking the liberty that he was now an equal and able to be at ease. It was a jarring display from what had, to that point, been a picture perfect candidate. Not making a scene of it, I pressed ahead and keep the interview on track, but each answer seemed to show more blemishes to the pretty picture we had imagined while prepping. It was barely 10 minutes later that my boss slid the note across to my attention: “Wrap it up, he was done when he sat down.”
Said all the right things. Offered a polished appearance. Flopped the interview. Those few seconds of lack of awareness and self-control, though small, told the story. Maybe we had been fooled all along by appearances, or maybe the moment was too big for the man. Either way, the hard truth of a job needing to be done and position to be filled demanded a swift judgement on the information available. His bearing contradicted his words.
I’ve come to treat people campaigning for high office like I would someone interviewing for that position. You want to be president, I measure you against that standard. Want to be in Congress, what are you showing me in your biography that tells me you will function and succeed there? Want to be a senator, show me something that tells me you belong in a place that styles itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” even if it mostly fails to live up to that standard.
Missouri being the “Show Me” state, let us a consider for a moment a candidate for senate there, Austin Petersen.
Before rising to a bit of notoriety as the runner-up candidate for the Libertarian nomination in 2016, Petersen was mostly known within the internet Libertarian community. He modulated to Republican to run for Senate, joining a crowded field against vulnerable Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill.
The dynamics of the race leading up to the Aug 7 primary are such that Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has a commanding lead; no one in “the field” has broken double digits in polling. This lead to the Republican Party taking the unusual step of releasing funds before the primary to Hawley to begin the general election campaign. President Trump endorsed Hawley both in word and in person, and the party has clearly changed focus to November.
So what’s a long shot candidate to do? If you are Austin Petersen, you get creative. To his credit, Petersen and his team have maintained a constant presence on social media. He has campaigned relentlessly, doing events, and scoring some media attention both locally and nationally, including multiple appearances on Glenn Beck’s program.
Smartly, Petersen has locked on to 2A as the dominant theme of his campaign. As a passion stirrer, gun rights is second only to maybe abortion on the right. If you are a rebranded libertarian trying to gain inroads to a skeptical GOP, the common ground of guns will get many of your sins forgiven. Early in the campaign, a fundraising effort built around the potential of winning a AR-15 brought attention. In the last few days, Petersen went back to the 2A well, making waves by announcing the giveaway of a 3-D printer-like machine to self-manufacture weapon parts with plans recently declared legal by the courts. This latest piece of strategic synergy between headlines, left-wing angst, and right-wing pressure points again brought attention. In the fundraising letter announcing the giveaway, Petersen stated, “I think the new prize may trigger a few more liberals and mainstream media than it did last time.” Let’s be generous here and assume when you are one of eleven candidates with almost no hope of winning, seeking attention and trolling can circumstantially brush up against each other in the course of events.
But with a résumé that is very thin on anything other than campaigning and punditry on the internet and elsewhere, all we have to judge the man on is his current actions and words.
If you are on the right politically, Petersen says a lot of the right things and presents well both in media and in person. Having spent most of the last 3 years campaigning in one regard or another, you would expect that kind of polish. But there are signs that polished façade might harbor some issues. In fact, the façade hides a whole lot of ugly. Setting aside the ideological and political arguments of a self-professed hardcore libertarian deciding to seek a GOP nomination for another time, there are more practical concerns.
In 2015, Petersen got into a shouting match with a particularly vile internet provocateur named Christopher Cantwell. If you really must hear it for yourself you can find the video here (language and content warning), but the part that has garnered attention was a back in forth in which, among other vulgarities, Petersen declares when discussing relationships with women, “You couldn’t even approach one quarter of the pyramid pile of p**** that I swim in, on a regular basis.” He has since declared that he has “settled down” in the time since, but the horridness of his comment, and why he would take time out to argue with that type of person in the first place, is questionable judgement, and that is probably being too generous. Cantwell would go on to do jail time over his involvement in violence during the infamous “Unite the Right” Charlottesville debacle. That isn’t Petersen’s fault, the above clip being from years earlier, but choosing to get into a debate with someone of that ilk in the first place is still poor decision making at best. During the interview, he states he “Isn’t afraid of a debate” as a reason for appearing, but this is thin logic. The bravest of men are not afraid of pig pens, it is just that the wise understand all that will be accomplished is getting yourself dirty without affecting the pig much at all.
More recently, Petersen made some news by being suspended for 12 hours from Twitter. This isn’t a new occurrence, as the AR-15 giveaway garnered a Facebook ban for Terms of Service violation, but this time it was over GIFs sent out on Petersen’s @ap4liberty account. Caroline Orr, a freelance writer, behavioral scientist, and ShareBlue activist, tweeted about Petersen’s campaign. At issue was Team AP’s open embrace of bitcoin donations and insinuated was a link between that and the DOJ indictments showing Russians using the cryptocurrencies and also being interested in the Missouri Senate race. For a bit of context, Orr has been relentlessly writing and covering Russia social media influence in politics for a while now, publishing multiple deep dives into the subject. If I were to sit across the table from Caroline Orr, we would have very few points of agreement politically, but the open-source information and data she uses in a lot of her work has held up and proven accurate. To be clear, this was not a hard data assertion by Orr, but speculation, which was enough to get Petersen’s attention.
Petersen responded by tweeting a GIF of Stalin waving, captioned “off to the Gulag now.” Orr and others reported Petersen to Twitter, he was hit with a 12 hour suspension, and here we are. Petersen immediately spun it as Twitter trying to shut down a right leaning candidate, playing into the platform’s current woes of being accused of “shadowbanning” and their very uneven leveling of content discipline. It’s fair to say some overreacted to the GIF. Petersen played it off as a joke and replied in a statement:
Responding to the attack with a humorous photo of Stalin waving, Democrats seized on this as if it were a credible threat, mass reporting my account and having it restricted for 12 hours. This action is deeply troubling and deserves national attention now, with the Missouri primary 7 days away, having a candidate silenced is a threat to American democracy.”
Let us leave the debate over whether or not the republic can endure 12 hours of Twitter silence from Austin Petersen for a moment, and deal with what this incident shows us about the man. I have no doubt it was meant as sarcastic humor and not an actual threat. “It was a joke” is an explanation we have all probably used when misunderstood or something did not go over the way we intended. Not a big deal, many will say, and usually they are correct.
But with Petersen, all we have to go on are his words and actions in his stated desire to be a US Senator from the great state of Missouri.
A long shot candidate fighting for attention can do certain things without notice. This episode with Orr and the GIF made a bit of a ripple, mostly among those currently crusading against Twitter’s practices. But let’s play this out as if it was Senator Petersen in the same situation. A sitting US Senator, especially one with an “R” beside their name, tweets that same GIF, and it’s the lead story for the media cycle. Every other politician of note will be asked to comment, and if they don’t condemn it outright, they will be barraged with questions of why they think it’s ok. Pundits, panels, and writers will spend countless time and characters on the matter. What works for attention on an outsider campaign potentially is a nightmare for a senator; it’s a distraction at best, and a self-inflicted scandal that grinds your party’s agenda to a halt at worst. Some might shout “Good,” but the problem of being an agent of change is at some point you can’t just say what you are for and against, you actually have to govern and accomplish something. Hard enough to do for the best of people on the best of days. With a situation like our hypothetical hung around your neck, it is impossible.
Humor is what you do when you get comfortable, or as a way to deal with something you are not sure how to answer. Humor during a job interview is a dicey proposition. Being so at ease, or momentarily losing sense and/or impulse control, as to make such a joke comes off very poorly, and contradicts all the other things you’ve said about your ability to serve in the office you seek. Bearing matters. When it counted here, Austin Petersen went with what was comfortable and natural. He went with biting humor. In the days following, he granted an on-air interview to InfoWars, and resorted to retweeting news stories of his twitter suspense from RT. RT — as in Russia Today, which is a neat and tidy way to tie up this tempest in a tea cup that began over offense that Russians might see his campaign as a disruption point.
In his big moment, Austin Petersen flopped down in the chair.
Forget the polish and rhetoric: apply the Angelou Principle that when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.