In 1992, Stanford University censured a law student named Keith Rabois for shouting at a university lecturer, in front of the man's house, "Faggot! Faggot! Hope you die of aids." The incident became a cause célèbre for the group of students who, a few years earlier, had founded the proudly right-wing Stanford Review. Having bonded as a conservative shock troop in the culture wars, many of them would go on to cofound the company that became PayPal, where employees often kept Bibles in their cubicles and held workplace prayer sessions. "That was a little unique for Silicon Valley," notes Rod Martin, a Southern Baptist who was a top lawyer at PayPal. "But that was exactly the way they would want it to be."
PayPal staffers dreamed big: They hoped to establish an alternative electronic currency to bypass national fiscal policies, in much the same way a previous generation of conservatives had advocated reviving the gold standard. But that vision was stymied after PayPal was sold to eBay, and its group of believers dispersed across the think-tank and media landscapes. Cofounder Peter Thiel joined the board of the Hoover Institution, another exec became a research fellow at the conservative Independent Institute and was a producer of last year's Hollywood hit Thank You for Smoking, while a third launched a conservative publishing company.
All that, though, felt a little old media, and as Martin and his cohorts watched the success of MoveOn.org, founded in 1998 by fellow techies just up the freeway in Berkeley, they grew jealous. "Nobody on the conservative side was doing anything like it," says Martin, who left PayPal in 2002 and became a full-time activist in 2004. "There were several of us who just looked at each other one day and said, 'You know, somebody needs to do this, and I guess we're it.'" Their answer to MoveOn is slated to debut this summer under the name TheVanguard.org, a wry riff on Vladimir Lenin's description of the Communist Party.
Martin acknowledges that TheVanguard faces a tough road ahead. The only existing conservative organization vaguely resembling MoveOn, RightMarch.com, counts 1 million members compared with its rival's 3.3 million, and its activities are largely limited to emailing elected officials. Conservatives are just too busy to participate in MoveOn-style virtual town halls, social networks, and marches on Washington, says RightMarch founder Bill Greene: "Most of them are just hardworking, everyday patriotic Americans that have families and kids and dogs and cats and jobs."
Ever since YouTube sold out to "those evil guys at Google," says Charlie Gerow, conservatives such as himself have been convinced the site's managers have a clear liberal bent, plugging anti-Bush spoofs on the home page and occasionally pulling conservative videos, such as pundit Michelle Malkin's anti-Muslim "First They Came." (Even the New York Times faulted the site for a "slippery slope of censorship"; YouTube denies any bias.) But YouTube's outcasts are now Gerow's insurgents: In March he launched QubeTV, a video-sharing site for the "conservative army with cameras."
More than 100,000 people visit QubeTV daily for user-generated videos such as "Redneck Judge" (a Bud-swilling peta foe), clips of Ronald Reagan, grainy posts from Newt Gingrich, and slick fare from the Heritage Foundation. Short of nudity and death threats, almost anything goes. "If you have a better mousetrap," Gerow says, "they will beat a path to your door." (That's the hope, at least. In May, OURcountry, a conservative video site put together by the creator of George Bush Sr.'s infamous Willie Horton ad, Floyd Brown, suddenly went offline.)
Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of a conservative haven on the Net. "I don't think we need to be building gardens and digging moats," says David All, a Republican online political consultant who'd rather see conservatives influence YouTube from within. "I think we need to plop right down among the group of people singing 'Kumbaya' and tell them why they're wrong."
Martin believes he can leapfrog MoveOn by outfitting TheVanguard with the latest online video and social-networking tools. Mobilizing such virtual communities for real-world activism "is really the Holy Grail for everybody," he says. So far, TheVanguard's achievements have been more modest: an email list of 100,000, online fundraising (via PayPal, of course), and a beta site that includes blogs and a connection to a Vanguard interest group on LinkedIn, a career-networking site founded by yet another former PayPal exec. The operation's board members include ex-Apple ceo Gil Amelio, antitax lobbyist Grover Norquist, and Marvin Olasky, the Bush adviser credited with mainstreaming the term "compassionate conservative"; its 10 staffers are led by Jerome Corsi, coauthor of the anti-John Kerry book Unfit for Command, and, until recently, Richard Poe, a former editor of the conservative magazine Front Page.
Martin believes TheVanguard's platform (flat tax, missile defense, and Social Security privatization) will galvanize a conservative consensus he believes remains strong beneath a fracturing gop coalition. Beyond the presidential campaign, he aims to target members of Congress considered rinos (Republicans In Name Only), seeking to pull the gop rightward just as MoveOn, in his view, has pushed the Democrats to the left.
To skeptics, though, the PayPal crew is the right-wing equivalent of Lower East Side communists. "None of those guys are relevant," says a prominent Republican consultant who asks not to be named. And MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser, who lurks on TheVanguard's email list, says the operation looks too top-down to work on the Net: "TheVanguard folks are spending a lot of time thinking about what they want," he notes, "and then figuring out how to spin it to their members." Martin insists, though, that command and control will yield to collaboration once conservatives finally catch on. "It's going to be a wonderful thing," he insists, "and it's going to be good for everybody."