Entertainment

The MAGA Icons Are Not OK, According to Vic Berger

We spoke to Berger about his latest creation with VICE News, why he subjects himself to such a mind-melting media diet, and how he clears his head when he's done. 
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
August 9, 2021, 2:25pm
The MAGA Icons Are Not OK, According to Vic Berger
Screenshot from VICE News YouTube

The Trump campaign, while liquifying nearly half a country’s worth of brains, was also a startup incubator for many businesses—from podcasts to supplements to merch. But after Trump lost the 2020 election, many of these entrepreneurs, who previously enjoyed a direct connection to the President, were forced to pivot. While many have returned to the far margins of public consciousness, video editor Vic Berger’s latest creation serves as a crucial reminder that they’re still out there—albeit sadder, and more scared than ever.

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In collaboration with VICE News, Berger has created a new series called Filling the Void. The first installment, released on August 2, is titled “MAGA Icons: Where Are They Now and Are They OK.” It’s a masterfully edited half-hour dedicated to some of the most craven grifters who attached themselves to the Trump campaign—and a useful time capsule for future reference, after these grifters conduct their inevitable next pivot. “MAGA Icons” is a video only he could create: insightful, deranged, and hilarious, leaving the viewer both comically sated and cosmically unsettled.

Berger’s recent collaboration with VICE News began when producer Ben Craw brought him in for a short edit of televangelist and convicted fraudster Jim Bakker, who hawked a “Silver Solution” coronavirus cure and “pantry buckets” of rations, offering 540 meals in exchange for an $850 donation to the church. The first episode of ‘Filling the Void’  similarly corralls a number of fear-based marketing tactics from various Trump-supporting personalities, including citizen journalist Tim Pool, advertising another food bucket product because “the stuff I’m seeing has me worried.” Pool has become one of the biggest YouTubers on the planet while “whitewashing the far right,” as a recent in-depth article from The Daily Beast detailed. 

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Though this video focuses on “MAGA icons”—including Dilbert creator and hypnotist Scott Adams, former Happy Days actor Scott Baio, and the charismatic duo Diamond and Silk—Berger insists it’s not political. “It's more than just being part of this thing that's not good for society in general, or taking advantage of people,” he said. “Ultimately, there's this sadness, because those grifters, for the most part, many of them in MAGA land are a victim themselves.”  In the end, it’s a case study in humanity.

We spoke to Berger about his latest creation with VICE News, why he subjects himself to such a mind-melting media diet, and how he clears his head when he's done. 

VICE: Are the MAGA icons OK?
Vic Berger:
I don't think they ever were OK. They were temporarily on the top of the world during the age of grifters. Trump brought that in, but I don't think they've ever been OK. I'd say they're just gonna keep getting worse. I think it's gonna be a downfall.

How long does a video like this first one take to put together?
It takes years of paying attention to these goons. You're living in the sewers, you're in the muck on Twitter, seeing what they're up to on YouTube. In the past year, I've tried to limit how much of that I'm watching and involved in because it did hurt my brain. It did have an effect on my mindset. Right Wing Watch is a good group, they archive a lot of stuff that's going on. There's an account that just follows Tim Pool, there's Dave Rubin clips. [I’ve been] gathering clips through the years, and just having that memory of what's going on.

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In this video, there's sympathy in the edit. You didn't have to include the remorse these people show. It feels more like a case study in humanity than it is, “These are red people and we are blue people.”
Exactly. I wish there were more of these types on the left—I don't really wish, but for what I'm doing—who are this open about totally fleecing their audience. It's not really there. I would look more unbiased. It's not like I'm going after these guys because they're right wing or because they're supporting Trump. Ultimately, first and foremost, it has to be funny. It's a comedy thing, and that's where the material is. There's so much humor on the right—unintentional humor—that's right there for me. Sometimes I wish there was more on the left that I could have the same treatment with. I just work with what's there.

When I spoke to Chris James, who does all the prank calls, he said left-wing shows just don’t exist on the same level as they do on the right. It shows how the right has their marketing on point.
Yeah, I love him, and I'm a huge fan of his. [The right] have it together. They have their bullet points, they know what works, and they're very good at using fear and outrage to motivate their base into doing what they want, voting for this person, donating to Donald Trump, whatever it is, they have their messaging down.

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In the video, multiple “MAGA icons” are shown hawking various products, from gold to food rations. They’re all selling things that are fear-based in some way, except maybe Roger Stone's skincare line. It's "buy gold” and “buy food” because it's coming, whatever that is.
The undertone is, “You better be panicking because of the people on the left that are out there.” 

I'm sure you came into this project with a vision, but wading through all of this stuff, were there any new realizations?
I found that Tim Pool might be the most dangerous of them all. Even more than Alex Jones, because Alex Jones is just playing a character. So is Tim Pool, but Alex Jones, I think he's gonna go back to more of his insane conspiracy theories and be on the fringe again. But Tim Pool, he knows what he's doing. He knows how to pretend that he's this impartial guy, but he's clearly not. He's an evil guy. I knew he was evil and all that before, but I didn't think he was that big of a deal, more fringe, but now he's on Fox News multiple times a month and he's becoming this 'legitimate' person that people trust. 

The other end of it, the saddest realization is someone like Terrence K. Williams, who I legit feel bad for. Clearly not that bad, because I'm still making fun of him, but it's also his choice to do what he's doing. He had a rough upbringing. He lived in foster homes his whole life, probably looking for acceptance and looking for somebody, some group to accept him and he accidentally found it by posting videos promoting Donald Trump. But Trump totally abandoned him. Unless Don Jr. goes back and runs, his career is probably on the way out. Or maybe he can position himself where it's all about Biden. But I don't know how it's gonna work out for him.

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I think once Trump is no longer a financially viable shtick, they're going to find something else that if you don't understand the genesis of it, you'll get tricked all over again. Where do you see this going?
That's partly why I document stuff like this. Because in the day-to-day news cycle, a lot of these people, they're under the radar. If you're watching this, and you don't know who most people are, you're very lucky. But having a little taste of this, to know what makes up the MAGA machine and where these people come from, they do rebrand. They just keep evolving. The smarter ones do that. And then they try to erase their past. Down the line, you could be voting for a Mike Cernovich if you don't know their past. So I think it's good to be at least aware of who they are and who they're tied to at the moment.

Depending on your media diet, you might not see any of these people at all. What have you learned from seeing these people become minor characters to people who affect the news, to their current, less-powerful state?
A lot of them will have eventually hit a peak. I feel and I hope that they eventually have a big fall. Because they deserve it. You know, they deserve it for all the hate that they're spreading and the division that they're sowing. There's this guy who was a Pizzagater, Jack Posobiec. That guy is another one of these dangerous people, he's fudged his resume over the years. He used to claim that he worked at CBS News, which he never did. He's just a liar and I've watched him from the beginning. He's a large part of why somebody went to Comet Pizza to shoot up the pizza place. He drummed up all this outrage and somebody went there and, you know, shot it up, and thankfully nobody died. Since then, he has millions of Twitter followers. He was on OAN News with the President watching him. The President was getting his news from Jack Posobiec. That is terrifying. Thankfully, he was fired from OAN recently and he's starting to fade away.

It's the worst when you see these goons held up and amplified by powerful people, as if they're normal people. As if they mean well. That's the terrifying thing to me.

I’ve seen people online get fooled by your posts, especially the photoshops of Trump. What do you think about when you unintentionally trick people?
It all comes back to context. If it's coming from me, generally, you should hopefully be able to tell that it's a joke. The problem with when I do those photoshops of Trump, where he's just looking 5% worse, you know? [laughs] It's just a little bit off, but it's still believable, because he's just this horrible creature. People that follow me know it's a joke. It's the people that save the image and then post it themselves, that's where the context changes. That's when you have Snopes stepping in to sniff it out, or Gizmodo fact checks my goofy photoshop.

I've been tricked by fake news a lot of times. You have to be careful. I don't know what to say about it, other than just don't believe everything, be a little more skeptical. 

On a slightly brighter note, how do you counter all of your exposure to this stuff?
Lately, at night, I just try to put on some Brian Eno or some nice ethereal synth music, and then fall asleep to that. That's been helping. In the morning, I've been jogging. That's been really helping. I make sure not to listen to political podcasts. I love Behind the Bastards, but I make sure not to listen to that, it goes so much in the muck. I try to listen to more positive things. I try to try to log off as much as possible. I try not to have Twitter on my phone. I don't put the app on my phone, because that website is a hell site. I try to remember the more important things like my kids, my family. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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