The video was exceptionally violent even for a pro-Trump meme. With his face superimposed over that of Colin Firth from the 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, Donald Trump strides through the “Church of Fake News” and plunges a spear into the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He holds Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) hostage while blasting away at BuzzFeed and NBC. Trump sets Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on fire before impaling CNN on a pole. Throughout, blood splatters graphically across the screen. The video might have simply languished in the backwaters of YouTube among millions of other Trump memes except that in October 2019, it was played on a big screen on auto-loop at the president’s own Trump National Doral resort in Miami during the far-right American Priority conference.
A host of MAGA luminaries had convened at the president’s struggling resort for a three-day extravaganza headlined by Donald Trump, Jr. and showcasing people like Trump confidante Roger Stone, former White House press secretary and now Arkansas governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). Panel discussions about voter fraud and “unmasking the Russian hoax” filled the time between the golf tournament and the yacht party. Simona Mangiante, wife of George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, staged a swimsuit fashion show.
First launched in DC in 2018, the conference was later rebranded as AMPFest. It was conceived as a MAGA-friendly venue for controversial far-right figures who had been shut out of more conventional Republican confabs like the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) since Trump’s election. The convention for “deplorables” became an annual event that inspired many imitators as the world of far-right conferences has exploded over the past five years.
In hindsight, AMPFests turned out to be an underappreciated incubator for the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol: It provided a platform (and speaking fees) for a melting pot of prominent far-right agitators, former Trump administration officials, and disgraced MAGA politicians, not to mention a networking opportunity for disparate elements of Trumpism that previously existed mostly online. And AMPFest was perhaps the first big conference of the Trump era to offer a safe space for QAnon believers and other conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, election deniers, anti-vaxxers, the alt-right, Christian nationalist pastors, and political criminals pardoned by Trump all while giving them a chance to rub shoulders with establishment Republican politicians.
“In 2019, [AMPFest] was kind of dismissed as a meeting of the fringe,” says Kristen Doerer, managing editor of Right Wing Watch—from the liberal nonprofit People for the American Way—who attended the event. “But there were also a number of MAGA Republicans who had close ties to the White House, like Don. Jr., or were in the White House itself. It really lent this conference legitimacy and also empowered these far-right figures to keep on doing what they were doing. A lot of the same characters that we saw at AMPFest in 2019 are the same ones that came together in 2020 for ‘Stop the Steal.’”
American Priority president Alex Phillips rejects the notion that his conferences had anything to do with what happened on January 6. He says they were an attempt to encourage free speech, not violence, which he opposes. “I don’t agree with everything everyone who has spoken at AMPFest says,” he told me in an email. “However, that is kinda the point. If we all agree with everything everyone says to us, what is the point of listening? I want to have my views challenged, as should most of us, including yourself. So much of society today parrots what they read or heard in some form of media. What about listening to people who you may not always agree with?”
The gruesome Trump Kingsman video was an entry in the 2019 AMPFest “meme contest” sponsored by Logan Cook, a.k.a. Carpe Donktum, one of Trump’s favorite meme-makers who had attended the White House social media summit three months earlier. When the New York Times broke the news about the video, both the White House Correspondents Association and the Trump White House harshly condemned it. Phillips issued a statement distancing his organization from the “unauthorized” video while complaining that the New York Times had overlooked all the other great “sanctioned events” at the conference, including one specifically addressing political violence. (It was about Antifa.) “This video was not approved, seen, or sanctioned” by the event’s organizers, Phillips said. Cook insisted it was obviously satirical.
This episode shone a rare spotlight on AMPFest’s creator, a bearded, 57-year-old businessman originally from Richmond, Virginia. A relative newcomer to right-wing politics, Phillips owns a small wireless internet service provider in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that has gotten contracts with the USDA to develop rural internet. He was long active in the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents independent wireless companies and lobbies the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Phillips served as the group’s president, credentials that made him prominent enough to be quoted as an expert on rural broadband in the Washington Post and appointed twice by the FCC to serve on a consumer advisory committee. Phillips has even spoken at the National Defense University and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
Joseph Beauchamp, a Democrat who lives in Richmond, has known Phillips for more than 25 years and was a close friend until about five years ago when he says Phillips went all in with the Trump crowd. “The Alex of today is not the guy I knew,” he told me.
The rise of Donald Trump coincided with a change in the industry Phillips had been part of since the mid-1990s, when wireless was far less regulated and had low barriers to entry. Former colleagues say he chafed at revolving-door conflicts at the FCC and changes that had brought more consolidation, often to the detriment of small companies like his. He was primed for Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp,” and with the 2016 election, friends say Phillips went down the MAGA rabbit hole along with much of the country.
He started buying guns. His Facebook page featured rants about the “Deep State.” He brought politics to the office and alienated others with his often-crass tirades against the FCC. One former colleague recalls him showing slides of the FCC “with its head up its ass.” Phillips told me he liked to add humor to his presentations, and he dismissed his friends’ concerns about his gun collection. He says he is an amateur gunsmith, a hobby no different from “gardening and canning,” which he also took up a few years ago.
In 2017, Phillips made what appears to be his first ever federal political contribution to an individual campaign, that of neo-Confederate Corey Stewart, a popular figure with white nationalists who served as the Virginia state chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign and ran against Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). Phillips also donated to the failed Wisconsin congressional campaign of white nationalist and antisemite Paul Nehlen. Phillips told me they seemed like good people when he met them, but that he has not contributed to them since. In 2018, he gave $7500 to a pro-Trump super PAC founded by Amy Kremer, the chair of Women for American First, the group that organized the rally on January 6 that kicked off the march on the US Capitol.
Phillips didn’t just throw money from the sidelines; he took his skills from organizing conferences for the wireless industry association to Trumpworld. In 2018, he founded a for-profit company called ALX Inc., which is the entity behind American Priority. His partner, according to Virginia corporate records, was Ali Alexander, one of the key figures behind the “Stop the Steal” movement whom Phillips says he first met at the Trump Hotel in DC during a “Trump-centric event gathering.”
Alexander’s real name is Ali Abdul-Razaq Akbar, and he is a felon, having been convicted of theft and credit card fraud in Texas in 2007. Well-connected in Republican circles, he started out as a staffer for the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and networked his way through a variety of jobs in the Republican campaign ecosystem. By 2018, he was cavorting with people like Roger Stone, Pizzagate promoter Jack Posobiec, and the violent extremist group the Proud Boys—all of whom would appear at American Priority conferences, which Phillips and Alexander first organized in 2018.
“The movement doesn’t have a conference anymore,” Alexander said in a Periscope broadcast covered by Right Wing Watch. “So we need one.” But with only 88 attendees, the first conference was by most standards a flop. Even with headliners like Stone and former Trump press secretary Anthony Scaramucci, reporters tweeted photos of speakers addressing near-empty rooms.
For Phillips, however, the event was a success. He later told Indy News Media that one of its highlights came when former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos gave his first interview after coming out of prison. “We had CNN, NBC, ABC—we had all the fake news there—and they had to take the feed with [internet provocateur] Mike Cernovich, probably their most hated person in the universe, giving the interview,” Phillips said. “It was kind of surreal, but it was very exciting.”
A year later, AMPFest was back, but this time Phillips made the savvy decision to move the event to the Trump Doral in Miami, whose revenues had tanked since Trump first ran for president. About 1,000 people paid to attend the conference. “This is pretty much a half-a-million-dollar event,” Phillips told ProPublica. “Our next one probably will be a million-dollar event.” The change in venue netted American Priority an all-star lineup, and a major sponsor, the private prison company GEO Group, which Trump had showered with federal contracts. In addition to golf, there was gun raffle, a Robert Davi musical showcase, a poker tournament—and activism training by the Leadership Institute, a venerable conservative outfit founded in 1979 by Barry Goldwater acolyte and longtime Republican National Committee member Morton Blackwell.
The bloody Trump video may have grabbed the headlines, but the main stage had plenty of disturbing content that in retrospect could be seen as foreshadowing things to come. Pastor Mark Burns, a failed South Carolina congressional candidate who had given a fiery endorsement of Trump at the 2016 Republican National Committee, appeared beneath the glittering crystal chandeliers of the Donald J. Trump ballroom. According to audio obtained by ProPublica, Burns shouted. “We’ve come to declare war! Do I have anybody who is ready to go to war for Donald J. Trump, for this nation? I can’t hear you? Anybody? Ready to go to war! Because we’re citizens of the greatest country in the world!” The fired-up audience chanted “War! War!”
Burns would later become a fixture of “Stop the Steal” rallies that led up to the insurrection. On January 6, he watched the violence unfold from a “war room” at the Willard Hotel along with Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, and others who’d pushed the myth of the stolen election in the weeks after November 3. Stone received a warm embrace at AMPFest in 2019, even though he was just about to go on trial for obstruction of justice and lying to Congress during its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He spent some time backstage lobbying Rep. Matt Gaetz to help him procure a pardon from Trump, a conversation caught on video. He was convicted a month after the conference and sentenced to more than three years in prison, but Trump commuted his sentence and then pardoned him shortly before leaving office.
A group photo from that 2019 conference features a number of people who’d become major figures in the events of January 6—and one who wasn’t there but had his own involvement. There’s Enrique Tarrio, a felon and chairman of the Proud Boys who was not in DC on January 6 because he’d been arrested two days earlier for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a DC black church. (On his release, a judge banned him from being inside the city limits.) But he’s now on trial for seditious conspiracy, along with four other members of the group, for his alleged role in planning and directing the insurrection. Next to him is Ali Alexander, who organized the “Wild Protest” on the Capitol lawn in response to Trump’s December 2020 tweet summoning his supporters to Washington on January 6, saying “Be there, will be wild!”
American Priority Conference (AmpFest)
Trump National Doral Miami
Ali Alexander with Scott Presler, Enrique Tarrio, Mike Cernovich, Logan Cook, and several Stop the Steal accomplices. pic.twitter.com/LOIfULviNY
— anita 🍀 (@meidas_anita) March 16, 2022
Towering over the group on the wing is Scott Presler, a 6’5″ gentle giant with Fabio locks who got his start organizing a “March Against Sharia” for an anti-Muslim group in Virginia in 2017. Part of Gays for Trump, Presler earned his MAGA cred by organizing a trash cleanup in Baltimore to troll the libs after Trump tweeted that the city was a “rodent-infested mess.” With more than a million Twitter followers, Presler was an underappreciated influencer in the “Stop the Steal” movement—important enough that he was able to procure VIP seats for his parents during Trump’s speech at the Ellipse, according to records released by US House investigators. He was scheduled to speak on January 6 at Alexander’s Wild Protest but that event was canceled during the chaos. Instead, Presler tweeted a video of himself walking near the Capitol calling the day’s events the “largest civil rights protest in American history.”(He did not enter the building.)
Others in that prescient photo include Jeremy Oliver, a former One America News Network producer and QAnon promoter who attended the riot outside the Capitol with failed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate and election-denier Doug Mastriano. (The House committee investigating January 6 subpoenaed Mastriano and planned to ask him many questions about his involvement, but when he appeared for his deposition with investigators, he refused to answer any of their questions.)
“It’s not a coincidence at all that the gang was all there,” says Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. She wrote a report last year on the growth in right-wing conferences that she says have played a role in “mainstreaming extremism. These conferences are bringing in people who were once in government or elected officials and make it seem like it’s acceptable.”
When Phillips relocated AMPFest to the Trump Doral in 2019, he also took on some new business partners. Ali Alexander was at the conference, but only as an attendee. “He and I, as well as his ownership [in ALX], separated in 2018 and that is all I am going to say about that,” Phillips told me. In his stead, Phillips installed two other officers. One was often identified at conferences as the American Priority Vice President of Operations “Tom Shadilay.”
I first encountered Shadilay in early 2019. I was working on a story on how the original AMPFest was training young activists in meme warfare, back when the deplorables and Pepe the Frog were seen as the secret sauce of Trump’s improbable 2016 victory. Shadilay had conducted the 2018 training. We traded emails about the science of “memetics” for a while, and then I asked him a basic question: Is that really your name?
After that, he ghosted me.
I had realized that “Shadilay” is not a person but a convoluted meme based on a 1986 disco song by the Italian band P.E.P.E, whose cover art for its “Shadilay” single featured a green frog, which went on to unexpected notoriety for its resemblance to the Pepe the Frog that populated racist and antisemitic memes online. #Shadilay was a popular hashtag on Gab, the social media site popular with white nationalists. “Tom Shadilay” is actually a man named Brandon Akerill, who once worked as a producer for Cernovich. In March 2019, he told a podcaster that he’d moved on from Cernovich’s empire to run a conservative talent management company, where he represented clients like MAGA rocker Ricky Rebel and Trumpy fashion designer Andre Soriano, both staples of AmpFests. (True fact: Akerill was also one of the dads from Season 2 of the MTV show “16 & Pregnant.”) Akerill did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several months.
Joining Phillips and Akerill as a corporate officer of ALX was a woman known as Kotcha Lee. As “Deplorable Kotcha,” Lee once had a burgeoning social media following with tens of thousands of followers. She co-hosted a podcast with Trump superfan Bill Mitchell, and in 2016, identified herself on Twitter as a regional coordinator for Trump’s campaign in Ohio where, she said in a radio interview, she met Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski was later cast out of Trump’s orbit for allegedly groping a donor, but he spoke at the first American Priority conference in DC in 2018 “as a favor” to Lee, she said told radio host Wayne Allyn Root, and he has been a staple of the conferences ever since.
Before January 6, Kotcha Lee had long been cozy with Amy Kremer and her daughter Kylie Kremer, the Women for America First organizers of the rally that preceded the insurrection who have both appeared at AMPFest. Phillips says it was Lee who introduced him to Kremer and got him involved in their work. The Kremers’ group tweeted photos of Kylie, Amy, and Kotcha Lee all delivering donated Christmas toys to DC’s Children’s National Hospital not long after the 2018 American Priority conference in DC.
#WomenForTrump delivers toys collected at our Christmas party to @childrenshealth in DC. Thankful to have the opportunity to give back to those in need, especially children. #MAGA #AmericaFirst #AmericanPriority pic.twitter.com/bVDhrUQNbW
— Women for Trump (@WomenforTrump) December 18, 2018
Lee had ties to other key MAGA figures, notably Roger Stone. In late November 2020, Stone, wrote a blog post noting that “I have privately conversed with Kotcha Lee of American Priorities [sic], sponsor of AmpFest” about strategies for overturning the presidential election.
Kotcha Lee is actually a woman named Amy Lynn Jones, who once ran a wedding and event planning company in Joplin, Missouri. She is also a fugitive.
In 2013, the city of Joplin hired Jones to help with its Route 66 festival, including collecting checks vendors had written to the city for the event. Instead of handing over a couple of the checks, Jones allegedly changed the payee and deposited them in her personal account. She was arrested on felony forgery charges and released—and then jumped bail and disappeared. In 2014, a judge in Jasper County, Missouri, issued a warrant for her arrest, which is still outstanding according to the court clerk’s office.
Joplin resident Charlie Brown worked for Jones for five years and had known her for a decade before she went on the lam—and stiffed him on his paycheck. “She was taking money from at least two dozen people whose weddings got destroyed when she got busted,” he told me. Even before her arrest, he says, her clients had been complaining. “My wife and I got a large chunk of our wedding budget stolen in 2014,” one of Jones’s clients, Michael Barnes, told me. “We were never able to recover anything and had to end up planning a different wedding event.” Brown and others spent years tracking Jones around the country in the hopes of getting their money back. In 2016, they located her in Ohio, where she was working in a doctor’s office—and on the Trump campaign. When they called Jones at work, Brown says she fled again and he lost track of her. Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Phillips, Jones, and Akerill became regulars at pro-Trump events, often latching on to the MAGA moment du jour, like the Trump boat parades or more recently, the trucker convoy protests. During the peak of the Covid lockdowns in 2020, American Priority sponsored an AMPFest in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at the same time Trump was there to watch the fireworks display he’d demanded over Mount Rushmore.
The emcee was DeAnna Lorraine, a QAnon believer and AMPFest regular who ran an unsuccessful GOP primary campaign in 2020 in Nancy Pelosi’s California House district. Lorraine’s congressional campaign paid Phillips’ company ALX more than $20,000 for political consulting and email fundraising.
After the assault on the Capitol, where she’d been on the ground, Lorraine made a video shaming conservatives for criticizing the rioters. “For those wussies that are sitting at home right now, that are watching their Fox News and CNN and watching their social media, and you pretend like you’re a conservative, you pretend like you’re Republican, and you’re pretending like you’re fighting the commies,” she ranted. “You were never a real patriot. You should be ashamed of yourself.” (Later she changed her tune and decided that the insurrection had actually been a false-flag operation.)
After Trump’s defeat, American Priority co-sponsored the “March for 45” in DC, an event organized by Amy Kremer’s Women for America First in November. The event drew Proud Boys in bulletproof vests. Afterward, three members of the Proud Boys, including Enrique Tarrio, the group’s leader, were stabbed. Police confiscated a number of guns—a harbinger of what would come a few months later.
In December 2020, American Priority was back in DC with Kremer and her group, organizing another rally protesting the results of the presidential election. On the day of the rally, tweeting as @TomShadilay, Akerill declared, “We will fight until our last breath!” Once again, violence broke out. Dozens of people were arrested on assault and weapons charges; four were stabbed. The violence stood in stark contrast to the Christmas-themed events and “liberty brunch” that American Priority had advertised for the weekend of the rally.
On the night of January 5, “Stop the Steal” activists organized a sort of runner-up event at DC’s Freedom Plaza where speakers shut out of the Trump speech the next day at the Ellipse could have their three minutes. The lineup could have been ripped from an AMPFest program. Phillips was listed on the permit for the event as a speaker, though he didn’t end up addressing the crowd. There were a host of other AMPFest regulars, however, who did. On stage, MAGA rapper Bryson Gray serenaded Roger Stone with a rap song called “Roger Stone did nothing wrong.” Pastor Mark Burns renewed his war cries, exclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
1st speech of today in DC. GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH!!! #TrumpMarch #Patriots #1776 pic.twitter.com/lfMK4Zpkkf
— Pastor Mark Burns (@pastormarkburns) January 5, 2021
On the morning of January 6, Phillips was a block away from where a joint session of Congress was underway to certify the results of the presidential election. He had just given a speech at an event put on by Latinos for America First, a PAC founded by Bianca Gracia, a close associate of the Proud Boys’ Enrique Tarrio, when he was interviewed by a YouTuber. “I think there’s been overwhelming evidence provided in so many formats that any congressman or senator that doesn’t think there was some kind of irregularity in the seven states in question is just not paying attention or corrupt,” he told the interviewer, as Trump’s speech at the Ellipse played over the loudspeaker in the background.
Phillips told me he never went beyond the designated barriers around the Capitol and that he left the area not long after the violence started. “I, nor did our organization participate in any of the illegal activities on 6th,” he said in an email. “I spoke at a stage that was not at the Capitol and all I spoke about was the importance of free speech in our country. I was not in any way involved in what happened on that day that resulted in violence.”
As rioters breached the Capitol, American Priority’s official AMPFest Twitter account crowed, “Today marks another day of peaceful protests in Washington DC where @realDonaldTrump supporters are fighting to count ALL LEGAL VOTES in the 2020 election and secure the integrity of future elections. #StopTheSteal!”
As @KotchatheGreat, Jones retweeted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) giving a speech on the Senate floor in which he’d come out forcefully in defense of the peaceful transfer of power. “Me and millions of Americans are going to impeach you!” Jones wrote. “We will have patriots on the ground tomorrow collecting signatures in KY. We ain’t kidding!” When comedian Tim Young tweeted that perhaps MAGA supporters should not harass Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in the airport, Jones responded just a few hours after Romney had fled the mob in the halls of Congress, “They will all be harassed and called out for their treason. We are not playing games anymore.” Akerill took to Twitter to call Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)—once a hero to the movement—a “lying traitor” with a photo of two tweets: one of Cruz repeating election lies and then, 12 hours later, decrying the violence at the Capitol.
Many of the key players in the “Stop the Steal” effort seemed shocked by the brief spasm of sanity from the Republican leadership that occurred after the Capitol breach. As the full scope of the violence became apparent and the FBI started rounding up insurrectionists, Akerill and Jones deleted their social media accounts and tweets from American Priority’s official Twitter account around January 6 vanished. But as the months went by, Congress failed to impeach Trump, the GOP reverted to its previous pro-Trump unity, and AMPFest went on as planned at the Trump Doral in October 2021.
The conference served as something of a reunion for the “stop the steal” agitators and a vehicle for keeping the Big Lie alive. Panel discussions on the mainstage featured one about January 6, where conspiracy theorists Jack Posobiec and Darren Beattie asserted that the Capitol riot was an “intel setup” by the FBI. The event’s biggest headliner was Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who’d pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in 2017 about his contacts with a Russian operative during the presidential campaign. Flynn had become a cult figure in MAGA world as an election denier and QAnon promoter who had spoken at “Stop the Steal” rallies after the election.
Roger Stone came back for his fourth AMPFest appearance. Members of Congress Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) were there, along with a host of Republican political candidates. Elijah Schaffer, the former Blaze reporter who’d tweeted photos from inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office during the Capitol riot got a key speaking slot. MAGA rapper Bryson Gray, who the FBI had visited because of his social media posts from the riot provided the entertainment.
Yet there were signs that the glory days of this particular MAGA convention might be coming to an end. The FBI had arrested hundreds of people who’d been involved in the Capitol riot. Congress had voted to create a committee to investigate the events of January 6 and its runup. As part of that investigation, in August 2021, the committee sent a request to the National Archives asking for documents, and many of the people for whom the committee requested records were staples of AMPFest events, including Phillips himself.
The committee subpoenaed Amy and Kylie Kremer of Women for America First and deposed them for hours, along with Ali Alexander, Phillips’ former business partner who’d become a central figure in the investigation. “I want to be crystal clear at the outset,” Alexander said in his deposition. “I had nothing to do with any violence or lawbreaking that happened on January 6th…Anyone who suggests that I had anything to do with the unlawful activities of January 6th is wrong. They are either mistaken or lying. Period.” (Neither the Kremers nor Alexander have been charged with any crimes related to January 6.)
Other AMPFesters were not just being subpoenaed but prosecuted. In March 2022, a grand jury in DC handed down the first set of indictments of members of the Proud Boys, including Tarrio. In 2019, former New York hairdresser Brandon Straka had been the beneficiary of the AMPFest golf tournament, which was a fundraiser for the Walk Away Campaign he founded to convince Democrats to leave the party. Straka spoke at the rally on January 5 and was scheduled to appear at the aborted Wild Protest organized by Ali Alexander on the 6th. Instead, he filmed himself outside the Capitol yelling “Take it! Take it!” to the mob trying to wrest a riot shield away from a police officer. In October 2021, he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, and in January 2022, a judge sentenced him to three months of home confinement and three years of probation.
It looked like the fallout might be taking its toll on American Priority when I arrived at the Esmerelda Renaissance Hotel in Palm Springs for a new event launched in early June 2022 called AMPFest West. It was billed as a mash-up between CPAC and Coachella, with MAGA rappers of the insurrection like Bryson Gray, who’d been at the Capitol on January 6, and panels like “School Choice and Parental Rights in an era of Wokeness.” Phillips had clearly overestimated the appeal of “Let’s Go Brandon!” raps and their performers. The lobby was deserted.
There was a circus night, complete with a Ferris wheel, and enough food to feed a small army but no big names to draw a crowd—no large adult Trump sons, no Michael Flynn and his legion of QAnon devotees, or even Roger Stone. I wondered whether “deplorables” just don’t golf. But as it turned out, Phillips’ vision of a MAGA convention was, in fact, a very good and potentially profitable idea—so good that the people who’d once headlined AMPFest decided to start their own events—notably Michael Flynn.
In April 2021, a few months after Trump pardoned him, Flynn hooked up with a former wedding DJ and businessman, Clay Clark, and launched the ReAwaken America tour that has taken place every month, sometimes twice a month for the past year and a half. Like AMPFest, it’s a farrago of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine activists, Trump prophets, election deniers, and former Trump administration officials. But instead of inviting all of those people to descend upon a tony resort with black-tie galas and yacht parties, Flynn took his show on the road. He brought Eric Trump, My Pillow Guy Mike Lindell, Roger Stone, Pastor Mark Burns, and other big names to where the audience is: places like Branson, Missouri; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Instead of pool parties, there are mass baptisms in portable tubs.
The one I attended in October in Pennsylvania had 70 speakers over two days. More than 5,000 attendees paid at least $250 for the privilege of sitting on a folding chair inside a massive sports complex with all the charm of an airport hangar. People ate lunch out of coolers in the back of their vans in the parking lot.
If AMPFest had trouble getting some big names for its more recent events, it may be because those stars are busy on the ReAwaken America tour promoting conspiracies, spreading election lies, and lionizing people like anti-vaccine doctor and January 6 insurrectionist Simone Gold, who was feted with a “welcome home from prison” party at the October event. Still, the American Priority organizers seemed determined to press on. AMPFest 2022 was once again planned for the Trump Doral in October, but with a new focus on artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency along with the usual culture war favorites like transgender puberty blockers.
But what the insurrection and competition did not accomplish, Hurricane Ian did. The event was canceled at the last minute as the category 4 storm headed towards Florida. There are no plans to revive it. “We are shelving the AMPFest brand for now,” Phillips told me in an email, and his company “will be focusing on industry-based events and partnering with non-profits to host fundraisers going forward.”
The trio behind AMPFest has also splintered; Amy Jones and Brandon Akerill are no longer officers in Phillips’ company, he says. But the legacy of AMPFest is likely to live on, in the multitude of imitators and the merger of the far-right fringe into the Republican party.
Correction, January 17: An earlier version of this article misquoted the speaker’s description of the slide about the FCC. An earlier version of this story also incorrectly described an event at the 2019 AMPFest. It was a raffle for a bolt-action rifle, not an assault-weapon auction.
Images from left: Alex Edelman/AFP; Getty, Samuel Corum/Getty (2), Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty; The Great American Patriot Project; Youtube; Carol Guzy/Zuma; Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty, Roberto Schmidt/Getty, Win McNamee/Getty, Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty