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From RaTmasTer to kingmaker: How Jonathan Stickland trolled his way to Texas GOP power

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

From RaTmasTer to kingmaker: How Jonathan Stickland trolled his way to Texas GOP power” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Before his unlikely rise to becoming one of Texas’ most influential conservative powerbrokers, Jonathan Stickland was RaTTy — short for “RaTmasTer,” the moniker by which he’d torment his many online friends and enemies.

He was barely a teenager when he first started lurking on World of Warcraft and fantasy football forums, dipping his adolescent toe into the internet’s hate-filled, primordial soup. By the mid-2000s — and after dropping out of high school, briefly following a girlfriend to Illinois and moving back to North Texas to smoke weed and work in pest control — Stickland had gained minor infamy for his vicious insults and provocations.

“The entire scene was pretty toxic back then,” said Adam Whitmer, who started playing World of Warcraft with Stickland under the name “MaDrAv” two decades ago. “Racial, homophobic and xenophobic slurs were the insults of the era. However, we tended to either instigate it or take it too far. Our team’s reputation was only surpassed by RaTTy’s individual reputation.”

Stickland was in his 20s and struggling financially, with a new baby and a young wife. He was a troll. But instead of growing out of it, as many do, Stickland would go on to make a career of it — one that would later put him on the map in Texas politics and eventually help ignite a civil war between the Texas GOP’s far-right and more moderate wings.

Stickland served four antagonizing terms in the Texas House, passing just one bill but garnering constant headlines for his stunts and behavior. His antics only endeared him to Texas’ Tea Party movement and its ultrarich funders, who by then had coalesced around an intense hatred of government and the “gum-it-up-at-all-costs” approach to legislating that Stickland helped normalize among broad swaths of today’s Republican Party.

By the time he announced his retirement from the Legislature in 2019, Stickland was a folk hero among the state’s grassroots conservatives, and quickly parlayed his acclaim into a job leading a prolific political action committee, Defend Texas Liberty, that has sought to purge the Texas GOP of moderates and push the party toward more hardline anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-immigration stances.

With Stickland at the helm, Defend Texas Liberty has unapologetically courted controversy, elevating a stable of far-right activists while doling out $3 million to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before he presided over the impeachment trial of their longtime ally, Attorney General Ken Paxton. In the wake of Paxton’s acquittal, Stickland vowed scorched-earth primary campaigns against House Speaker Dade Phelan and other Republicans, and prepared to cleanse the party of anyone not in lockstep with his hardline, far-right vision.

“You and your band of RINOs are now on notice,” Stickland tweeted at Phelan amid Paxton’s acquittal in September. “You will be held accountable for this entire sham. We will never stop.”

Stickland was still gearing up for retribution three weeks later, when The Texas Tribune reported that he had hosted notorious white supremacist and antisemitic internet provocateur Nick Fuentes at his office for nearly seven hours — a major scandal that rapidly escalated Republican infighting, raised concerns about the party’s proximity to neo-Nazis, led to new revelations about racist trolls in Stickland’s orbit and prompted unsuccessful attempts to drive him from the party.

[Influential Texas activist Jonathan Stickland hosted white supremacist Nick Fuentes at office near Fort Worth]

Four months later, neither Stickland nor his group has explained the meeting with Fuentes. Stickland declined multiple interview requests and did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story.

On the forums that Stickland once trolled, though, the reaction was feigned shock. Whitmer — who’d followed Stickland’s meteoric rise to power — said he was similarly unsurprised where life took his old Warcraft teammate.

“Once I saw how he acted and carried himself, how he spoke, the waves he caused, I knew that was just the adult version of RaTTy,” Whitmer said. “He may have grown up, but he never really changed.”

“I AM A LEGEND” 

Stickland was born in Plano in 1983 and raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. At 14, he began visiting online fantasy football boards, quickly adapting to the casual misogyny, homophobia and racism that were often characteristic of early forum culture.

Throughout the 2000s, Stickland was a bombastic and committed member of the forums, using his more than 3,300 posts to troll his detractors and regale his fellow fantasy footballers with demeaning stories about “dumb focking Asians” and “half naked wimmens” with “sensational knockers” or, in one instance, give a play-by-play of his panicked attempt to pass a drug test for a job via an over-the-counter detox drink that gave him a blue tongue and “bunghole in disarray.”

In World of Warcraft circles, he was a persistent antagonist, said Whitmer, who provided a link to one 2006 outburst in which Stickland appears to tell his “homosexual,” “euro trash” and “terrorist” opponents to slit their wrists before adding his signature sign-off: “I AM A LEGEND.”

“That was Jonathan,” Whitmer said. “Everyone knew that if you played RaTTy, you were in for a barrage of insults.”

Meanwhile, on the fantasy football forums, Stickland continued to provide his online compatriots with mundane life updates that showed a different side of him: That of a new husband and father, struggling to save money for the down payment on a modest home while making two-hour, roundtrip drives between his pest control job and the apartment he shared with his new wife, infant child and dog. It was a rough stretch, but Stickland seemed content.

“I do enjoy it quite a bit,” he said of his job in September 2007, before then advising other fantasy football users on how to combat pest infestations or use fox urine to scare away skunks.

Then, in December 2007, Stickland tumbled down a fateful rabbit hole. “I decided yesterday after some research and watching some clips on YouTube that I am now voting for Ron Paul 08! Just in case anyone gives a shiat,” he wrote about the Republican congressman from Texas who had previously run for president as a Libertarian.

Two days later, Stickland was back to his old habits, bragging about infiltrating an unsuspecting forum of insect hobbyists, where he posted a link to Lemon Party, a graphic porn website that was a favorite of 2000-era internet trolls.

A few weeks later, Stickland returned to the forums to announce that he had given his first political donation — to Paul — and volunteered to canvas for his presidential campaign. Stickland was hooked by Paul’s promises to, in Stickland’s words, “abolish the IRS,” “build a fence and shoot anyone who crosses it,” “end abortion rights” and “limit government by cutting almost every single board we could name.”

As Paul’s longshot bid faltered in the months after, Stickland grew increasingly angry about the two-party system that he believed existed only to protect establishment politicians and encroach on civil liberties.

“We will not hand you the White House when you attempt to shove ###### down my throat in the form of a John McCain,” he wrote in one heated, February 2008 argument with a fellow fantasy footballer. “Piss off and give me my party back.”

His rage only grew over the next two years, as was clear from his occasional, all-caps rants about government surveillance or his warnings of a coming apocalypse for which Americans must prepare to defend themselves.

Then, in 2011, Stickland attended a town hall in Tarrant County with U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, and, in a move that would change his life, decided to confront the Republican congressman over his recent vote to raise the debt limit. Also in the crowd that day was Julie McCarty, then-leader of Tarrant County’s nascent Tea Party. A few days after, Stickland later recalled, he was eating a midnight bowl of ice cream when he received an email from McCarty, asking if he’d consider running for office.

“My wife was leaning over me and started laughing,” he later told the Austin American-Statesman. “Then she said, ‘Crap, you might be able to do that.’”

Stickland prayed on it, agreed to throw his hat in the ring and started knocking on more than 7,000 doors — losing 50 pounds along the way. Backed by McCarty and other Tea Party-aligned groups, he cruised to victory in the Republican primary and then trounced his opponent, a Libertarian Party candidate, in the 2012 general election for Texas House District 92.

Even he was surprised by his fast rise, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he had never imagined “writing bills and amendments and all that stuff,” and was “watching quite a bit of video to see what a state representative actually does.”

He was 29, and headed to Austin with a promise to leave with the chamber’s most conservative voting record.

Group of State Representatives from both parties gather on February 21st, 2013 including Mark Strama D-Austin, Yvonne Davis D-Dallas, Byron Cook R-Corsicana, Jonathan Stickland R-Bedford and Kenneth Sheets R-Dallas
A group of state representatives, including Stickland, gather on the House floor on Feb. 21, 2013. Stickland, who has since left the Legislature, passed one bill into law over four terms in office. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Bridge builder, bomb thrower

In the first weeks of the 2013 session, Stickland cast himself as a bridge builder, unwavering in his opposition to abortion or government expansion but still committed to bipartisanship. He collaborated with liberal, pro-abortion rights Sen. Wendy Davis on legislation to increase excused absences for schoolchildren with military parents; and in an interview at the time, he said Rep. Mary González — an El Paso Democrat and the House’s first openly-LGBTQ+ woman — was one of his “best friends.”

“I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in some of the political stuff,” Stickland said on his first day as a lawmaker. “Right now, I’m just focused on making a lot of friends, trying not to make any enemies, and talking to people about my legislative agenda and building coalitions.”

In a recent interview, González acknowledged she was once friendly with Stickland, and that the two bonded as young newcomers to the statehouse. A decade later, she sees their relationship much differently.

“He capitalized on bipartisanship back then, but now attacks anyone who works towards bipartisanship,” she said.

As he reached across the aisle, Stickland also quickly showed his conservative bona fides, proving unafraid to critique veteran Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Joe Straus. Stickland proposed legislation to give state tax breaks to “religiously-based businesses,” including Hobby Lobby, that faced fines for not providing contraception to workers under the Affordable Care Act. He joined dozens of GOP lawmakers in demanding that the Boy Scouts of America uphold its ban on gay members. He slammed his fellow Republican lawmakers as hypocrites after they sought a new law that’d allow them, but not everyday citizens, to carry handguns into hospitals, churches and bars. To the applause of civil liberty groups, Stickland successfully pushed for an amendment that tightened law enforcement’s access to private citizens’ emails.

And he hired as his chief of staff Tony McDonald, a recent University of Texas at Austin graduate who’d spent his college career trolling campus liberals with stunts such as an “affirmative action bake sale” that charged white students more for goods. Stickland stuck with McDonald amid criticism for blog posts in which he called for “literacy tests” for Black Obama voters, among other posts that were criticized as racist or homophobic, but described by McDonald as “hilariously awesome conservative things.”

By the end of his first session, Stickland had delivered on his promise to be the chamber’s most conservative member. He’d carved out his reputation as a sterling libertarian, eager to kill anything that didn’t align with the “liberty factory” that he nicknamed his office.

And, perhaps more importantly, he decided he preferred bomb-throwing to bridge-building.

“I didn’t come down here to make a ton of friends,” Stickland said as the 2013 session winded down. “I came down here to fight for what I believe in.”

Rep. Jonathan Stickland R-Bedford
Former Rep. Jonathan Stickland on the House floor in 2015. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Big money

The next year, Stickland again cruised to reelection despite strong opposition from the state’s largest law enforcement groups, one of which labeled him “one of the worst state representatives in Texas history” over his opposition to a ban on the sale of the hallucinogen salvia, and to a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for an adult to “knowingly cause physical contact with a child that a reasonable person would regard as offensive and sexual in nature.”

He returned to Austin in 2015 ready to outrage and battle. That session, Stickland was the lone vote opposed to a bill that made “revenge porn” a felony. He was removed from a committee meeting and later investigated by the Texas Rangers for listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his bill to ban red light cameras. When Planned Parenthood supporters rallied at the Capitol and tried to lobby lawmakers against cuts to a program that provided free breast and cervical cancer screenings to low-income women, Stickland hung a sign outside his office that proclaimed him a “FORMER FETUS.” And, to the ire of both sides of the aisle, he used the House floor to grandstand and prod lawmakers, later pushing video clips of those exchanges out to his social media followers.

In 2016, Stickland again won reelection, despite some of his past catching up to him. During the campaign, his opponent, local pastor Scott Fisher, unearthed some of Stickland’s old forum posts — including one in which the 25-year-old Stickland said “rape is non existent in marriage.” Fisher’s campaign also sought to link Stickland’s comments to his votes against expanding the rights of sexual assault survivors, which Stickland called “ludicrous.”

Stickland apologized for the posts, saying he had “been a different person for a very long time” and that it was “difficult to look back at how careless I was on the fantasy forums.”

The scandal did not shake his support among the grassroots and McCarty, who criticized Fisher for “attacking a brother in Christ for his past sins.”

By then, Stickland had already cemented his standing among grassroots conservatives, said Zachary Maxwell, who met Stickland around 2014 while working on the campaign of Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville.

“He was seen as a uniter — somebody who’d been in the trenches for a long time, who knew the ins and outs and could aggregate information and donations,” recalled Maxwell, who later worked for Rep. Mike Lang, the then-leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “I don’t think all that was true, but he certainly made people believe that.”

Rep. Jonathan Stickland R-Bedford and Rep. Jeff Leach R-Plano stand just outside the Senate press room during a press conference by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and members of the Sunset Commission on May 28, 2017
Stickland stands just outside the Senate press room during a press conference by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and members of the Sunset Commission on May 28, 2017. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune
Rep. Jonathan Stickland R-Bedford asks a question at the back mic on May 12, 2017.
Stickland, R-Bedford, asks a question at the back mic towards Speaker Joe Straus, on May 12, 2017. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

One of Stickland’s appeals, Maxwell said, was his mastery of “moneybombs” in which a handful of megadonors would match — or sometimes triple — the amount of money donated by smaller donors in one-day fundraising blitzes. The strategy helped Stickland raise gobs of money while touting himself as a grassroots, small-donor-supported outsider, Maxwell said.

Take, for example, an Oct. 14, 2016, “moneybomb” for Stickland: Ahead of the fundraiser, Stickland promoted the one-day drive by posting videos of him arguing against an ethics reform bill in the House that had been opposed by megadonors and dark money groups during the previous legislative session. After the 24-hour “moneybomb” ended, Stickland touted on Facebook that his campaign had raised $299,000 from 367 donors — no doubt an impressive haul, but less so upon closer examination. Campaign finance disclosures from that day show that roughly two-thirds of the funds came from just five ultrarich businessmen and conservative donors, led by Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks — the two West Texas oil billionaires who now fund Defend Texas Liberty.

Dunn, Wilks and the other three donors were at the time bankrolling a different political action committee, Empower Texans, that by 2015 had emerged as a major force in the Texas Legislature, donating millions of dollars to ultraconservative candidates — including Paxton as he successfully ran for attorney general — and pressing lawmakers to attack House leadership, namely then-Speaker Straus, from the right.

Stickland was Empower Texans’ man in the House: During his first two years as a legislator, he received just $3,700 from the group and its funders. That number climbed to nearly $200,000 between 2013 and 2014. And from 2016 through 2018, they gave Stickland more than $850,000 — compared to $508,000 from all other donors combined. By the end of his career, Empower Texans and its main financiers gave Stickland $1.15 million — nearly half of the total contributions he received over his time as a lawmaker.

Maxwell, who later worked for Empower Texans, recalled a shift in Stickland as his ties to the group deepened. Both publicly and behind the scenes, Maxwell said, Stickland became a “total nuisance,” far more concerned with garnering outrage and annoying fellow legislators than he was with helping grassroots conservatives.

“At some point he realized this is a game,” Maxwell said. “He found that there was money in it as long as you keep your head down and beat the drum.”

In 2019, Stickland passed his very first bill — a ban on red light cameras — and soon after announced that he would not seek reelection, saying that he had “determined it is not in the Lord’s will.”

“Instead,” he told supporters in an email, “I intend to dedicate more time to my family, my church, and my business.”

San Antonio, Texas June 14, 2018:  Evening Reception action at the first day of the Texas Republican Convention, including Texas Freedom Caucus event with State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, speaking.
Stickland speaks at an event with the Texas Freedom Caucus on the first day of the Texas Republican Convention, on June 14, 2018, in San Antonio. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Defend Texas Liberty

His retirement from the Legislature came at a pivotal moment for the state’s ultraconservative movement, which by then had been plagued by infighting and minor scandals. In 2019, McCarty was heavily criticized for Facebook posts in which she said she could “certainly understand” the motives of the racist gunman who murdered 22 people at an El Paso Walmart that year. Her group rebranded as the True Texas Project around the same time, and continues to work closely with Stickland.

In 2020, McDonald — the former Stickland chief of staff who went on to work for Empower Texans — was roundly criticized after the accidental release of unedited podcast audio in which he and Empower Texans vice president Cary Cheshire mocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of a wheelchair. Both were suspended. Not long after, Empower Texans was officially dissolved and its media website, Texas Scorecard, was spun off into a separate entity.

In March 2020, Defend Texas Liberty was registered with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Since then, Defend Texas Liberty and Stickland have functioned as the north star in a constellation of groups, movements and political offices that have received tens of millions of dollars from Dunn and Wilks, two West Texas oil tycoons who were key funders of Empower Texans. In 2022, Stickland also founded a consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, which has since received more than $830,000 from Defend Texas Liberty.

With Stickland at the helm, the state’s far right has vowed scorched-earth campaigns against those in the Texas GOP who they claim are RINOs — including sterling conservatives and one-time allies who’ve publicly defied Defend Texas Liberty, such as Reps. Briscoe Cain and Jeff Leach.

Chief among their enemies has been House Speaker Dade Phelan, who Stickland and his allies have perpetually accused of working with Democrats to hurt fellow Republicans. At the same time that he’s lobbed such accusations, Stickland has done exactly that — repeatedly trying to enlist a 20-year-old abortion rights activist, Olivia Julianna, to “collab” or amplify attacks against Phelan to her more than 1 million followers on various social media platforms.

“Thought we might both be able to appreciate Phelan stinks,” Stickland wrote in a message to Julianna along with a link to a video that claimed the speaker was drunk while presiding over House business in May.

“Get bent,” she replied, according to screenshots of direct messages she provided the Tribune.

Meanwhile, Stickland has continued to place a preeminence on outrage and trolling: He still works closely with McDonald; and gave a bonus to Shelby Griesinger, the current Defend Texas Liberty treasurer who has shared QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories, after some of her social media posts were criticized as racist.

“Anytime progressive leftists are losing their minds I know you’ve done well,” Stickland wrote in an email to Griesinger, a screenshot of which she included on her TikTok. “Keep kicking the hornets next… Your Christmas bonus just got bigger.”

Stickland was similarly pleased after Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, posted a series of openly antisemitic screeds on X in 2022 that ended with him promising to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

[What to know about Nick Fuentes, the white supremacist who was just hosted by a major Texas PAC leader]

“The left is freaking out, will overreact, and make things worse. Thankful for those ‘challenging authority,’ by asking questions,” Stickland wrote in a post the same day that tagged Ye and Elon Musk, who at the time was being criticized for X’s failure to combat skyrocketing antisemitism.

Stickland’s behavior continued through the end of last year: He and his allies recruited Kyle Rittenhouse, the gunman who fatally shot two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, to work for Pale Horse Strategies; hired two far-right activists with documented histories of antisemitic and white nationalist views; controversially partnered with a shadowy company that pays Gen Z influencers to do undisclosed political marketing; and supported anti-immigration activists who sent fortune cookies to lawmakers amid debate over a bill to ban Chinese dual citizens from owning property in Texas and, in December, sent mailers to voters in Phelan’s district that shamed him for associating with Muslims.

The tactics have consistently been criticized by fellow conservatives, who say that Stickland and his allies care far less about advancing conservative policy than they do creating chaos and bringing in “yes men” such as Bryan Slaton, the former Royse City representative who was removed from the House last year after getting a 19-year-old aide drunk and having sex with her.

“They do not want people that are actually effective,” said Sheena Rodriguez, founder of Alliance for a Safe Texas, which advocates for stronger border security. “The people that they put forward all look the same. They all sound the same. They’re all nuts. They’re not serious people.”

Rodgriguez first got involved with the state’s grassroots movement around 2020, when she attended a training held by True Texas Project. She eventually spun off her own group and, in late 2021, said she was recruited by Defend Texas Liberty to endorse Don Huffines, the former state senator and businessman who was challenging Abbott in the Republican primary. Rodriguez said she initially planned to endorse Huffines’ hardline anti-immigration campaign, but decided to stay neutral. Not long after, she said, she received a phone call from someone in the Defend Texas Liberty orbit, who told her that she’d been branded as “uncontrollable” by Stickland.

A few months later, she said, she was in the exhibit hall at the Texas GOP convention when she stumbled upon a booth with promotional materials and talking points that were noticeably similar to her group’s. Confused, Rodriguez said she introduced herself to the young, bearded man there, who identified himself as Chris Russo, founder of a new organization called Texans For Strong Borders.

“‘Who is funding this?’” she recalled asking Russo. “He was like, ‘The same people behind” Empower Texans.

Russo did not respond to a request for comment.

Nick Fuentes (middle) is seen exiting the offices of Pale Horse strategies with Chris Russo, founder and president of Texans for Strong Borders (right) in Fort Worth on Oct. 6, 2023.
Nick Fuentes exits the offices of Pale Horse strategies with Chris Russo, founder and president of Texans for Strong Borders in Fort Worth on Oct. 6, 2023. Credit: Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune

“RATMSTR”

On a sunny Friday morning a year and a half after that Texas GOP convention, Russo steered his pickup truck into the parking lot of Pale Horse Strategies’ remote Tarrant County office. His passenger seat was empty; in the back seat, a scandalous passenger: Nick Fuentes.

[Leader of anti-immigration group Texans for Strong Borders also runs anonymous, hate-filled social media accounts]

By then, six years had passed since Fuentes attended the deadly “Unite the Right” rally at which tiki torch-waving neo-Nazis and fascists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and leaving several counterprotesters maimed and bloodied. Soon after, Fuentes dropped out of Boston University to focus full time on his racist YouTube show, intermixing his antisemitic screeds with irony and humor that quickly drew a large following of young, far-right hatemongers united by their disdain for women and Jews.

Mirroring the Defend Texas Liberty playbook, Fuentes soon focused his energy on those within the GOP, hoping to pull the party and mainstream acceptability further to his views by attacking others from the right.

The strategy was “a hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” to quote Laura Loomer, a prominent white nationalist conspiracy theorist and Fuentes collaborator who Stickland praised in December.

When Fuentes arrived in Texas in October, he was greeted by old friends and young followers embedded in the Defend Texas Liberty orbit. Among them: Russo, who ran anonymous, bigoted social media accounts as his group helped push anti-immigration policies that were adopted by Texas lawmakers last year; and Ella Maulding, a die-hard Fuentes fan who’d recently parlayed her far-right online celebrity into a job coordinating social media for Pale Horse clients.

There, at the Pale Horse offices, Maulding stood in the parking lot making videos for Texans For Strong Borders while Rittenhouse and others unloaded furniture from a U-Haul and Fuentes and Russo sat inside. Later in the day, Stickland emerged from the building’s side door and climbed into his truck. His hair was grown long and and beard disheveled — preparation for an upcoming role as the Jewish narrator in a local play depicting the life of Jesus Christ — and Stickland was almost unrecognizable as he steered past a car with a reporter inside.

The truck’s license plate left no doubt who was driving.

“RATMSTR,” it read.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/10/jonathan-stickland-texas-conservative/.

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