What’s the hottest spot to debut your 2020 election conspiracy film? Mar-a-Lago, of course.
On a warm evening in May, a small galaxy of MAGA stars in tuxedos and floor length sparkling gowns stood around a pool sipping cocktails, eating plates of risotto and clinking champagne glasses under perfect palm trees.
They had gathered there, at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, not for a campaign fundraiser or a holiday affair; but, rather, for a glitzy film premiere.
Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative provocateur, was releasing his documentary, “2000 Mules,” the most recent addition to the cannon of right wing conspiracy flicks questioning the well-established outcome of the 2020 election. And for the first formal viewing, he had chosen the site dubbed by the 45th president as the “Winter White House.” In doing so, D’Souza joined a growing list of those dabbling in MAGA film noir to turn to Mar-a-Lago for their coming out party.
Trump’s private club has become the Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the Hollywood-hating crowd. Just weeks before D’Souza’s debut, a slew of Trump allies, friends, and conservative figures flew down to Palm Beach estate for the showing of a documentary, “Rigged,” on the 2020 election. The film starred Trump himself, and was produced by David Bossie, the president of the conservative group Citizens United. Shortly after, Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, debuted his own documentary, “Culture Killers: the Woke Wars” on cancel culture poolside at Trump’s club.
Mar-a-Lago has become such a destination for MAGA-world film premieres that those who attend such events scoff at the notion that there could possibly be another place to choose.
“I mean, if you’re going to do a movie about the 2020 election, I don’t think you’re going to do it at the Javits Center in New York,” said conservative activist Charlie Kirk, one of the main figures in the D’Souza documentary.
The transformation of a Palm Beach club into a MAGA movie destination is yet another way in which Trump has managed to keep himself at the epicenter of modern conservatism. Barack Obama may have joined Netflix to help produce documentaries about climate change and the planet. Trump is convincing the documentarians to cover his election gripes and to come to him.
It’s not just movies. Almost every night at Mar-a-Lago, there’s a new event — fundraisers, book party, or social confab — usually marked by Trump descending from a stairwell, or through grand double doors, to be met with cheers.
The steady parade of events earns the president’s club some cash; though how much it costs to premiere a movie there is unclear and the Trump Organization did not respond to a question about the cost of these private events.
On a larger level, it also underscores how Trumpism itself is the fusion of politics and culture. Whereas Trump once promoted steaks and wines and neck ties as symbols of business status, he now touts social media platforms, picture books, documentary films and streaming services as demonstrations of one’s — for lack of a better term — MAGA-ness. And nothing demonstrates that quite like being there, in the flesh, at Mar-a-Lago.
“I think a lot of people on the right felt like they had to keep their voices and opinions quiet and Trump allowed them to know they’re not alone and they have others that support them,” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary turned Newsmax host, who was invited to the event but unable to attend in person.
For the “2000 Mules” premiere, there was a sea of famous faces: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) chatted with former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, holding an American flag-bedazzled clutch. Conservative commentator Dan Bongino huddled with Devin Nunes, the CEO of Truth Social. A few yards away Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen-turned-conservative icon who was acquitted for killing two men during 2020 protests, was circled by excited guests, among them former 60 Minutes correspondent turned ousted Fox News contributor Lara Logan.
And on the sidelines, Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder and champion of some of the more outlandish election fraud theories, gave an animated interview to a conservative media outlet.
Several of the other VIPs in attendance have been subpoenaed by the House Committee investigating Jan. 6, including former Trump adviser turned QAnon conspiracy folk hero Michael Flynn, former NYPD police commissioner Bernie Kerik, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who smiled for selfies with fans.
They grabbed food from a steaming mini-buffet of hors d’oeuvres and sipped on their drinks. At one point a blonde guest exclaimed, “She was in a movie!” as a woman walked by the red carpet. It was in fact a real life actress, Kristy Swanson, who is most famous for starring in the 1992 “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” flick and has since spoken out about anti-conservative bias in Hollywood.
Another 90s star, Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules on TV, was given a prime spot for the screening behind the faces of D’Souza’s documentary, Dennis Prager and Sebastian Gorka.
Guests mingled before Trump was ushered from one chandeliered ballroom, where he posed for photos with VIPS, to the next. When he finally walked into the room, they craned their necks and held out their phones to take photos. Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American” blasted over speakers.
Inside the club’s largest ballroom, where gold chairs were set up in neat rows for the screening, Trump spoke to the crowd, ticking off a list of false claims about the election, bashing his former vice president, criticizing President Joe Biden and rattling off his thoughts on the latest culture war battles. At one point Trump called out the New York Times, after hearing a reporter was in the room and pointed to an empty, roped off group of seats where no reporters sat. Guests sat in rapture, and munched on popcorn in theater style red and white boxes.
Trump, it appears, loves the movie, and has played a central role in promoting it in statements, interviews and at MAGA rallies. Its dubious claims have become a main talking point among those on the right who continue to claim the election wasn’t lost but “stolen.”
The documentary hangs on cell phone geolocation data, bought by Texas-based nonprofit True the Vote. D’Souza claims that the data shows thousands of so-called mules coordinated in states Trump lost in 2020, like Georgia, Arizona and Michigan, to drop off thousands of legitimate ballots in a practice called “ballot harvesting.” At the end, it concludes that Trump lost because of these operations.
But there is no indication the geolocation data was actually tracking people dropping off ballots. The film provided no concrete evidence of any one who was paid or coordinated the ballot collecting scheme. And it’s entirely unclear that the ballots were all for Biden, among many other fact checked claims. The movie itself has come under criticism from conservative crowds too, prompting friction between D’Souza and Fox News, with the former accusing the latter of trying to silence his work.
But at Mar-a-Lago, the audience seemed thoroughly convinced by the film’s content. And as he stood in a Mar-a-Lago breezeway as guests waited for rides home, D’Souza seemed pleased by the response.
“Typically in my earlier films, people would stand up and clap at the end. But in this one I think the reaction is more sober, it’s an emotionally different tone, and a documentary is really aimed at throwing light on something, not resolving issues,” he said.
The crowd at Trump’s club eventually filtered out in the warm spring breeze off the Palm Beach coast. They were in high spirits, agitated by the film but comforted from their evening among the MAGA set.
“When you’ve been to Mar-a-Lago more than once, you know it kind of feels like home,” explained Rob Smith, a Black, gay, conservative influencer who’d come to watch the film. “It’s a place where people that are in this movement feel comfortable to be themselves. And I think that’s the most special thing about it … being around a lot of like minded people, it’s electric.”