Editor's note: The following commentary is excerpted from Kimberley Strassel's new book, "The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech" (Twelve, June 21, 2016). It is reprinted with permission.
Frank VanderSloot woke up on April 21, 2012, from both a nightmare and a dream.
The nightmare had started the day before. VanderSloot, then sixty-three, arrived at work at 7:30, just like he did every day of the week. The morning was as usual, right up until one of VanderSloot’s employees came in with some odd news. A blog post had just gone up, and it contained an ugly smear against the boss. This wasn’t in itself a surprise; VanderSloot had in recent months received some negative attention. The surprise was who had delivered the latest broadside. It had come from the most powerful man on the planet: Barack Obama.
It was an election year, and Obama was already going in heavy against the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The president’s reelection campaign erected a website, called “Keeping GOP Honest,” and had been using it to “truth check” Republican statements. But on that April 20, it broke new territory. In a post entitled “Behind the curtain: a brief history of Romney’s donors,” the president’s team publicly named eight private citizens who had given money to the Republican, accusing them all of being “wealthy individuals with less-than-reputable records.”
The site bluntly claimed that all eight men were “betting against America.” They were then each singled out, subjected to slurs and allegations. Investors Paul Schorr and Sam and Jeffrey Fox were attacked for having “outsourced” jobs. T. Martin Fiorentino was demeaned for his work for a firm that forecloses on homes. Louis Bacon (a hedge fund manager), Kent Burton (a “lobbyist”), and Thomas O’Malley (an energy CEO) were denigrated as oil profiteers. Most astonishing, the site outright accused “quite a few” of the men as having been “on the wrong side of the law” and succeeding at “the expense of so many Americans.”
Nixon’s private “enemies list” was bad. Barack Obama’s public “enemies list” was arguably worse. Obama had used 2010 to alert and sic the IRS on Tea Party groups. But by calling out private citizens by name on his website, he was alerting and siccing every part of his government on Republican donors. The message from the man who controls the Justice Department (which can indict people), the SEC (which can fine people), and the IRS (which can audit people) was clear: Donate money to Romney, and you are fair government game. The posting was also an APB to every liberal group and activist in the country to target those donors.
VanderSloot had for twenty-six years run a successful wellness products company called Melaleuca out of Idaho Falls. He’d been involved in Idaho politics, but had only recently gained an interest in the national scene. He’d met Romney in the mid-2000s, when the former governor spoke at an Idaho Republican convention, and VanderSloot liked him. So when the presidential aspirant later reached out to the Idaho businessman for help with his 2008 campaign in the Gem State, VanderSloot agreed and gave money to a Romney group. He signed up for the second run, too, and in August 2011 made a $1 million donation to a Romney super PAC. Such political organizations must disclose their donors. Obama’s team clearly lifted the eight men out of those public files.
VanderSloot made the Obama list. And the entry against him was particularly vile. It accused the CEO of being “litigious, combative and a bitter foe of the gay rights movement.” The other donors were merely slammed as profiteers. VanderSloot was accused of being a profiteer, a bully, and a gay basher. Obama had only a few months earlier given a national address, in the wake of the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords, on the need for more “civility” in politics.
“And we just got hit. Just blasted,” VanderSloot remembers. “The phones are ringing off the hook in the office, customers calling, so angry, canceling orders. And I was having to answer questions inside our own office, too, from my people saying, ‘Look what you’ve done.’ ”
VanderSloot spent a feverish day trying to put out the fires. He was so overwhelmed by the blowback that by the end of the day he’d called his staff together and abjectly apologized for getting involved in the election. “I ate a whole humble pie,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m really sorry I’ve done this to us, to our company, to all of you—to bring this much pain to everybody and to cause all this ruckus, and I’m just . . . sorry.’ ”
The dream came that night, after VanderSloot had ended that harrowing day. “At least I think it was a dream,” he says. “I just remember waking up, and very clear in my mind was the Declaration of Independence, and those guys who signed. I’d been feeling guilty for the pain to my family, but then I got to thinking.
“Those guys didn’t sign on the spur of the moment. They went home, and they told their wives, ‘I’m gonna sign this thing, honey.’ And their wives said, ‘Don’t you dare! They’ll come after us; they’ll deem us traitors; they’ll kill us.’ And these guys heard their family out, and then they signed anyway.
“Because this is America. That was my thought, laying in bed: This is America. And whatever might happen to me is nothing compared to those guys. So I’m not going to run and cower. I’m going to stand up for what I believe in.”
Suddenly, VanderSloot was the focus of every left-wing journalist in America, who went back to those episodes to smear the Romney donor. In early February, the liberal Mother Jones posted an article under the headline “Pyramid-Like Company Ponies Up $1 Million for Mitt Romney.” It railed that the donation was what Citizens United had wrought. It bashed Melaleuca’s business model, and trashed VanderSloot on the gay issue.
The then and now infamous Glenn Greenwald subsequently wrote a hit piece in Salon, in which he variously talked about “Melaleuca’s get-rich pitches” and derided VanderSloot as “bullying,” “a litigious billionaire,” and guilty of “virulent anti-gay activism.” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow went on air to repeat Greenwald’s claims. In March, the Human Rights Campaign started its own online “action,” calling on supporters to sign a letter demanding that Romney fire VanderSloot from his finance committee. They labeled VanderSloot “viciously anti-LGBT.” Bloggers started harassing his children, stalking their social media accounts.
A column I wrote about VanderSloot’s travails caused quite a stir, and he ended up going on a lot of TV shows. One was Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” On the show, the CEO worried out loud about who was “supposed to receive the message? Is it only the liberal press that’s supposed to go after these folks? Or is it also the agencies that he runs . . . that he’s in charge of and who report to him and want to please him? The FTC, the FDA, the USDA?”
Turns out that was a very legitimate worry. In a letter dated June 21, he’d been informed that his tax records had been “selected for examination” by the Internal Revenue Service. The audit also encompassed VanderSloot’s wife, and not one but two years of past filings (2008 and 2009).
Two weeks after receiving the IRS letter, VanderSloot received another, this one from the Department of Labor. He was informed it would be doing an audit of workers he employed on his cattle ranch under the federal visa program for temporary agriculture workers.
In September, the IRS informed him of a second audit, of one of his businesses. The CEO, never audited before, had suddenly been subjected to three in the four months after Mr. Obama teed him up for such scrutiny. And he was audited by the Labor Department again. The last of his IRS audits didn’t conclude until May 2013. Not one resulted in a fine or penalty.
VanderSloot had known all the way back when the post came out that what Obama had done was like “taping a target on my back.” And, again, Obama hadn’t had to pick up the phone to order an attack. All he’d had to do was put out the web post.
Here’s the truly sad part of the VanderSloot story. He was largely alone. The Obama website listed eight donors. After VanderSloot got in touch, I tried calling all seven others. One, investor and conservationist Louis Bacon, called me back with a quote for a column: “It is un-American and irresponsible for a president to target individual, law-abiding citizens for political retribution, and it is inconceivable that any U.S. agency would stoop to do the bidding for this campaign’s silliness.”
The others either didn't return calls, or didn't want to go on the record. VanderSloot didn't blame them. "It isn't much different than the Middle Ages, really," he says. "They had the stocks, or a beheading. It's done in public They put you out there, so that everyone can see what happens when you do something they don't like."
Public humiliation only works if you let it. VanderSloot had his dream. And from that moment, he didn’t waver. He called me. He went on O’Reilly. While he was on that show—even before all the audits and abuse—he publicly announced that he was writing a check for another $100,000 to the Romney campaign. That was his response to the intimidation.
VanderSloot went on a slew of other TV and radio shows—Greta Van Susteren, Neil Cavuto, Megyn Kelly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck—to tell his story. And the phones went wild again. Americans were appalled by his tale, and they wanted to show support. “‘What does Melaleuca sell? We want to buy some,’” was the new message, VanderSloot remembers. The episode sparked a tremendous resurgence in Melaleuca’s sales, a boom that hasn’t let up. The company’s revenues have increased by $400 million annually. And 2015 was its best year ever. VanderSloot sees it as more inspiring evidence that it is always worth speaking out.
He’s now embraced a national role. Obama didn’t shut him out of politics; he created a new national player. He’s fully committed in 2016, with money and support. In the Republican primary election season of 2015, he had national candidates flying out to see him to try to get his blessing. “We’ve been getting three or four media calls every week—asking, ‘Who are you supporting, who are you going to back?’ ” says VanderSloot. “Because we will back someone.”
He finishes, “My bottom line is this. I decided I could not run and cower from this, that I’d be setting a bad example. And I feel my voice—for whatever that voice is worth—is maybe worth a little bit more. Because I didn’t run away.”