On Election Day, filmmaker Mikki Willis was deep in prayer. The director of the anti-lockdown, COVID-denying pseudo-documentary Plandemic was in a group of New Age luminaries who’d gathered together to pray for President Trump at the Austin, Texas home of a filmmaker and event producer named Stephen Huntsman. According to social media posts, the large crowd gathered at Huntsman’s house included Donald Trump’s second wife Marla Maples, anti-vaccine heavyweight Del Bigtree, and a well-known New Age comedian and podcaster named JP Sears.
A few things were on the agenda, as the podcast Conspirituality noted: making an implicit protest against COVID safety guidelines by meeting together indoors and apparently maskless, and sending a combined positive energy in the direction of the then-president. “Use this vessel to enact the divine will,” a man named Joyous Heart, who bills himself as a “transformation architect,” prayed. A few moments later, he added, “It doesn’t matter who’s in the Oval Office, at the end of the day. Trump is here to win the day.” (Willis, Sears, Huntsman, and Bigtree did not respond to two requests for comment from VICE News. An assistant to Maples wrote, “ Although she enjoys praying, she isn't familiar with that name you mentioned in your email.” The assistant did not specify which name they were referring to. Maples was tagged in a photo on Facebook at the event; additionally, Mikki Willis has been a guest on her podcast. The assistant did not respond to a request for clarification.)
A sceenshot of a Facebook comment posted by S. Stephen Huntsman shows a group of people sitting together at the Election Day gathering; they are tagged as fimmaker Mikki Willis, his wife and business partner Nadia Salamanca, Del Bigtree and his wife Lee, and Marla Maples.
The group had also gathered to hear about Willis’s new movie, a screed against George Soros and his supposed plot to destroy the American family. (It’s apparently set to be titled American Family.) And, finally, they were there to discuss a new plan to create a new, heavily-secured housing complex and “eco-resort” on a man-made lagoon on the shores of Austin’s Lake Travis, in order to protect themselves and their families against the tyrannical threats they see encroaching on their freedom.
Willis described the project, which will apparently be called Home Ranch and Gold Star Oasis, as “a giant residential paradise” that would be “in support of our families, our freedom, and our sovereignty.” Gold Star Oasis LLC was incorporated as a business in Texas in November, soon after the meeting, and a bare-bones website offering to make interested parties into “founders” was created. “Welcome home,” the nascent project’s website reads.
A little while into his remarks, Willis read a lengthy poem, making use of the same, loaded word.
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“The time is now to reclaim sovereignty,” he told the crowd, which oohed and applauded in response. “And co-create our world the way it was meant to be.”
Joyous Heart, who was promoting Gold Star Oasis alongside Willis, said that the people supporting the housing development were facing threats on their lives due to their beliefs. Backers of the project, who he said included both Bigtree and Sears, “are choosing to boldly, courageously, despite threats on their life, to embody truth.” They would be protected, he said, by ex-members of the military: “Four ex-Delta Force members [will be] living on site—there’s no one getting on here.”
If the crowd seems unusual and the agenda even more so, it’s par for the course in a certain part of the “personal development’ scene, where New Age mantras run breathlessly into broadly libertarian “don’t tell me what to do” ideals (especially when it comes to health, medicine, and vaccines), and, increasingly, politically right-wing talking points. This broad intersection has become especially noticeable in Austin, where a growing number of “freedom”-minded New Age influencers are flocking.
The prayer meeting and the planned community were first reported in November by Conspirituality, which casts a critical eye on the growing convergence between New Age “wellness” circles and far-right conspiracy theories. Co-host Derek Beres has watched those convergences grow much stronger during the COVID-19 pandemic, he told VICE News.
“None of this would have happened if we didn’t have a pandemic,” he said. “Not to this level.” The holistic wellness world—largely white, well-off, and unused to being subject to any kind of restrictions—has been violently seized by increasingly heightened discussions about the ways they believe their freedoms are being restricted during the pandemic, and a fear that vaccines, which many of them oppose, will become mandatory. (This prospect is, in reality, deeply unlikely.) In the process, they’re increasingly drawn to what seem, at first, to be radically new ideologies, producing the head-spinning visual of a group of New Age health and wellness gurus gathering to pray for the victory and safety of a right-wing and intensely xenophobic president.
Besides being a Conspirituality co-host, Beres has moved in similar circles to Willis for many years. He’s been a movement and yoga instructor and is an expert on the use of psychedelics, and he and Willis met a few times, he said, when Beres first moved to Los Angeles in 2011. Beres was the creative director of a large yoga festival in Santa Monica where Willis was a speaker, he said, and the two were in communication, but haven’t seen each other since 2012. In the meantime, he’s watched the politics of Willis and his circles drift in curious new directions.
“This is a community that generally was checked out of politics and always has been,” Beres said. “If you live a middle class or above life as a white person in America, you don’t really need to engage in politics.” Nor are they particularly well-equipped, as a community, to seek out good sources of information, he said, relying largely on their social media circles, which are all gripped by the same growing paranoia about oppression, tyranny, and social control.
“All of a sudden you’re seeing this indoctrination process. It would’ve never taken hold without these conditions. It really was a perfect storm.”
“If you’ve never paid attention to politics and a virus comes through and all of a sudden there are these restrictions, you don't have the wherewithal to look at good news sources,” Beres said. “All you have is your social media sources. You turn to them and you spend more time on them because you can’t go out. All of a sudden you’re seeing this indoctrination process. It would’ve never taken hold without these conditions. It really was a perfect storm.”
The meeting was a living embodiment of that convergence between New Age thought and right-wing paranoia. First, the room celebrated the success of Plandemic, a viral phenomenon directed by Willis, which promoted bizarre and discredited COVID conspiracy theories; its star was Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist who’s become a star in the anti-vaccine world.
“The president saw Plandemic on the 7th,” Willis claimed, to thunderous applause from the room. “And he announced to the world that he will not allow a mandated vaccine.” The applause and cheers grew louder. The “next breakthrough movie,” he said, would expose what Willis called a “wicked plan” to “expose and indoctrinate our children.” The tenets of that wicked plan involve claiming that “anyone of any age can identify as the sex of their choice,” Willis said, and that “America was never great.”
Willis revealed that his new movie would focus particularly on the ways that billionaire philanthropist George Soros—a target of especially poisonous and anti-Semitic right-wing conspiracy theories—is supposedly seeking to dismantle the American family. The discussion about Soros also veered into the many other ways “Communists” are seeking to disrupt and destroy American society, a talking point that would seem more at home in Ted Cruz’s mouth than in a living room filled with glittering, well-heeled yoga fans.
It’s also a sign of the company Willis has been keeping. He’s long been comfortable in conspiratorial circles: In October, both he and Bigtree appeared at the so-called Red Pill Expo, a conference hosted by famed and extremely old-school conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin, which featured, among others, bleach-drinking enthusiast Kerri Rivera and David Icke, famous for his contention that most powerful people on earth are secretly members of a race of large alien lizards.
Willis also said at the gathering that he is working with Pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood, whom he called a “hero” in a podcast appearance with Mike Adams, the “Health Ranger,” another enthusiastic promoter of increasingly right-wing and pro-Trump conspiracy theories. Wood has recently made headlines for promoting increasingly extreme pro-QAnon conspiracy theories. Among other things, Willis and Wood worked on a video together that showed the ways they said the media had unfairly portrayed Nicholas Sandmann, one of the Covington Catholic school students previously accused of harassing Nathan Phillips, a Native American man, during a charged encounter in D.C. (Sandmann won an undisclosed settlement in a lawsuit against the Washington Post; the settlement did not require the Post to admit wrongdoing. More recently, Sandmann fired Wood from his legal team.) Willis also told Adams that he is forming a new media company with Ben Swann, an ex-Fox News and RT anchor, and Lara Logan, an ex-CBS anchor who joined the conservative conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting in 2019.
Most recently, on January 6, Willis was seen in the crowd of violent rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol. (There is no evidence that he himself committed any acts of violence.) Willis, as Conspirituality reported, could be seen holding a cell phone and filming into the building as the crowd around him chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” Willis later reportedly said on Facebook that “The media is lying” about violence at the Capitol, adding, “The people showed powerful solidarity and respect. More on this later.”
The same day as the riot—literally moments, in fact, after he left the entrance to the Capitol—Willis spoke at the so-called MAGA Freedom rally near the Capitol, which also billed legally-imperiled Trump advisor Roger Stone. (Stone does not appear to have actually attended the rally. Commenting on a separate story, Stone told VICE News he “never left my hotel room at all on January 6” and was not at the Capitol.)
“I’m a little out of breath because I was part of this situation that just happened,” Willis told the crowd. “Our proud patriots just pushed through a line of riot police, peacefully—as peacefully as that could happen—and are now at the doors of the Capitol. It was a beautiful thing to see. Finally, the human organism steps up, rises up, and understands this is far from a partisan issue … We are born free and we will die free.”
Willis told the audience that he had once been “part of the far left” until he “saw behind the curtain” while traveling with presidential candidates. (Willis did some work as a videographer for both Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential campaigns, according to the L.A. Times.) Now that his eyes had been opened, he said, he knew that “the cabal” running the country “must be completely dissolved.”
The speech was short on specifics—Willis spoke repeatedly of God, love, children, family, the need to unite and fight for freedom—but the context was obvious. Willis later told the New York Times, however, that his presence at the Capitol had been misinterpreted, writing in an email that the rally he’d spoken at had been billed as a “health freedom” event, and that he’d only found out later it featured a MAGA tagline. He told the paper he did not support any political party and had only come to D.C because he was “deeply concerned about the loss of our civil liberties.” He also continued to insist he’d seen no violence at the Capitol.
The natural health world has become increasingly MAGA-fied, funneled into those worlds through a concern for “health freedom” and “personal liberty” around health issues, including what they see as a right not to wear a mask or engage in any recommended social distancing practices to slow the spread of COVID.
“He has been moving in that direction,” said Beres. He and his co-hosts have kept a close eye on the ways that the natural health world has become increasingly MAGA-fied, funneled into those worlds through a concern for “health freedom” and “personal liberty” around health issues, including what they see as a right not to wear a mask or engage in any recommended social distancing practices to slow the spread of COVID. (The “health freedom” movement is a longstanding one in the United States, with roots in libertarian groups who began advocating in the 1970s for the right to use unapproved and non-traditional treatments. Chief among them was laetrile, a debunked cancer “treatment” which has no proven ability to fight cancer and carries the risk of cyanide poisoning.)
A strong seam of COVID denalism runs through this particular world. Willis, of course, is best known for creating Plandemic. Meanwhile, a friend of his, the self-help coach Jordan Maurice Bowditch, who has gone by the handle “conscious.bro” on social media, said on Instagram in late December that he’d been diagnosed with COVID after participating in a wealth of in-person bonding events with other like-minded men. As Jezebel and Conspirituality both reported, Bowditch wrote that he’d hugged “dozens of people” and had “ZERO regrets.”
“Human connection is not dangerous and doesn’t warrant tyrannical restriction,” he also wrote. “I choose dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” (Bowditch also speculated he had a mild case of COVID because he treats his body “like a sacred temple,” he added in the Instagram caption. “We are extremely healthy, so that probably influences our first-hand experience.”) Bowditch’s cheerful commentary on potentially spreading a deadly disease caused such a firestorm that he made his Instagram account private, announcing that he’s “taking a little siesta from social media for a season.”
Meanwhile, the comedian JP Sears, one of the reported backers of the Gold Star Oasis, according to Joyous Heart, has undergone a similar shift. Sears was once known for lighthearted videos making fun of the pieties and pretensions of the New Age world; he played a character in YouTube videos who was “ultra spiritual,” very into yoga and deeply insufferable; in character, he also did interviews with outlets like Yoga Journal.
But Sears, too, appears increasingly redpilled, producing harder-edged videos mocking lockdowns and other COVID restrictions and increasingly implying those lockdowns are just a pretext to limit human freedom. McGill's Office for Science and Society noted the shift in November:
Since the pandemic began, the object of JP Sears’s sarcasm has abruptly shifted. He calls masks “face suffocators.” He sows distrust in journalists. He mentions 5G in the context of the coronavirus and ironically wishes he could get two microchips instead of just the one. (He has escaped YouTube’s haphazard crackdown on COVID-19 misinformation, he thinks, because the artificial intelligence that scans video transcripts can’t detect sarcasm yet.) And when he soberly comments on the public health measures against the pandemic, his language is loaded with war imagery. He talks of people wanting to be “on the battlefield,” frequently makes comparisons to Braveheart, and calls his freedom-touting friends “warriors” and “crusaders,” friends like Mikki Willis, the director of the conspiracy-mongering Plandemic, and Brian Rose, the London Real founder whose own freedom-of-speech crusade has led him to interview über conspiracy theorist David Icke not just once but five times so far.
On November 18, Sears did a podcast about why he’d bought a gun and begun training in how to use it. “I hope and would suspect I’ll never need to use the gun in a combative way,” he said. “But I am stoked to have my inner warrior activated.” (In the previous episode, his very first podcast after the election, Sears had opined that there’d been potential voter fraud, and expressed a fear that there were the “makings of a civil war” if the election was called for Trump, since people had been misled by the media to believe that Biden had won, and would lapse into “emotional hysteria” when the truth was made apparent. This did not happen.)
Sears also acknowledged in the November 18 show that his life’s purpose had changed. “I think the mission has just clearly changed to crusading for freedom, and hopefully still having some laughs along the way,” he said. “But I’m just acutely aware there’s been a mission change… And it’s a mission worth fighting for: freedom.”
And so, even before the Capitol riot laid bare these new alliances, these people gathered together in a living room on Election Day to swap certain kinds of fear, apocalyptic predictions, and their own curious solutions. Conspirituality called the meeting “this ultimate reveal of the conspirituality grift: predict the apocalypse, then sell off-grid cribs on a five-acre manmade lagoon.”
In a certain light, it almost looks as though Willis’s movie itself—about the societal and familial destruction wrought by George Soros—is as much an ad for Gold Star Oasis as it is a film. “The residential community that we’re creating together will be one of the economic solutions” featured in the movie, Willis told his Election Day audience.
Joyous Heart, the “Transformation Architect” who spoke at the meeting, is another member of the Austin holistic health and wellness crowd, who bills himself as a founder, CEO, and strategist for a host of “evolved enterprises,” as he puts it on LinkedIn. In a Youtube video from 2013, he appears to express an interest in sovereign citizen conspiracy theories, which falsely hold that certain pseudo-legal maneuvers can be used to get out of paying taxes. He claims that "many taxes are fictitious," and refers to the process of "burning your strawman." "Strawmen" are a reference to a sovereign citizen theory, which claims that every U.S. citizen has a legal "strawman" identity worth a large amount of money, which the government improperly holds in their name. Reclaiming or burning a strawman, the theory wrongly holds, will allow citizens to get the money the government holds in their name and be freed from the imprisonment of federal taxation.
More recently, Joyous Heart’s company, IAMWEARE, created the Gold Star Oasis website, and it was he who put in the most aggressive sales pitch for the project on Election Day.
“What we’re talking about is a venture for those seeking home. Heaven on Mother Earth.”
“This is the beginning of a model … that can propagate around the world,” he told the audience. “It can inspire governments to retool existing urban-scapes into a lifestyle where all can thrive.” It is not a “housing development," he said. “Those are fractured. What we’re talking about is a venture for those seeking home. Heaven on Mother Earth.”
It will be a place of “family, safety and sovereignty,” Joyous Heart added, things that are “under great attack from well-versed forces of dissidence that seek use to words that endear us [sic] through empathy and fear to give up our liberty, our sovereignty. Everyone remembers V for Vendetta, 10 years ago, set in 2020 around a plandemic.”
Home, Joyous Heart said, is about “reconnecting with our core purpose," and making sure that “our tribe is secure, independent of any external provider. And now more than ever, people are seeking home… They’re leaving the cities, they’re displaced, they’re disconnected, they’re scared. They’re ready to take the leap of faith.”
“It’s all marketing,” Beres, the Conspirituality host, said dryly. “People are seizing on this moment of uncertainty to step up their marketing. It’s all marketing. Everything around this is a big marketing scheme on every level.”
“A spiritual community,” he said, “gathered around a spiritual political idea is grounds for some sort of standoff.”
But he has bigger concerns, given the increasingly paranoid, even militarized, tenor of the conversations among this group of people, the weapons training, the denunciations of tyranny.
“A spiritual community,” he said, “gathered around a spiritual political idea is grounds for some sort of standoff.”
Arie Kruglanski is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park and a fellow in the American Psychological Association. He’s spent his career studying extremism and the radicalization process. In Kruglanski’s view—speaking generally, as he has not studied Willis or his social ilk, and could not offer an opinion specifically on their actions—one thing that often drives increasingly radicalized or extreme views is what he calls “the quest for significance,” the human drive for dignity, respect, and purpose. It’s something that motivates all of us, he pointed out to VICE News, not just extremists.
“In my view, it’s the single most important social motivation,” he said. In radicalized groups, the quest for significance is joined by a “narrative,” which links the quest for significance with the need for a pattern of action.
“It affirms the fact that your significance may have been compromised,” Kruglanski explained. “You were humiliated or endangered or threatened. And now what you need to do is act: You need to protect yourself. You need to get together and risk your life and fight because this force is going to shame you and humiliate you further. So that’s what the narrative does.”
The third driving force, Kruglanski said, is “network,” or the support of like-minded people for an idea. “Humans are social beings and our beliefs are firmly anchored in the beliefs of our in-group,” he said, “people whose respect and good opinion we seek. So our views are not ours alone. The narrative has to be validated by people who we respect. So the social network element is critical.”
Kruglanski said that in many groups whose beliefs are dissonant from the mainstream—cults, for instance—physical seclusion becomes necessary. “To preserve that kind of ideology or narrative, you need seclusion from alternative influences,” he said. “In sociology, it’s called renunciation.” It serves, he said to protect a given ideology “from contamination.”
Among the groups he has studied, Kruglanski has also seen that a “need for closure,” for narrative certainty, can drive people to fascinating places—for instance, taking up viewpoints that seem diametrically opposed to the ones they’ve held before. “People who are high on this need for closure and creating certainty can be attracted to quite diametrically opposed narratives as long as they afford certainty,” he said, and it’s quite often something that promotes what he calls a “black-and-white, Manichean ideology of ‘us-versus-them.’”
In that context, it makes sense that defining who is us and who is them has become an increasingly tangled matter, with the bedfellows ever more surprising, and the ideas pipeline from the radical right wing to the seeming New Age left ever more efficient.
Beyond their psychological and personal motivations, Beres sees a wealth of new business opportunities for the people Conspirituality is tracking. “Mikki is also starting a media network,” he said a little wearily, referencing the one with Ben Swann and Lara Logan. “That’s going to be a platform for all these characters.” Whatever “right-wing liberatarian talking points'' become popular, he said, “they’ll be feeding it to their audience. If they have a platform of millions of people, they’ll keep monetizing it.”
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