Why you should care
Because whatever happens with the Donald, there are likely to be names to watch.
Seth Weathers looks like he just jumped off a Mad Men set. He’s got the pressed navy blazer, light blue button-down and slicked-back black hair; in one hand is a glass of Jack, neat, and sitting close by is a pack of Camel cigs, which he lights with a flashy chrome Zippo. Putting his cigarette down, the political strategist leans across the table. He flashes his iPhone screen at me: It shows him, his wife and their 3-year-old son standing next to Weathers’ favorite presidential candidate. “Everyone says they have the same hair,” Weathers says of his little boy, with some enthusiasm. “The kid is literally obsessed with Donald Trump.”
Like father, like son. Since the Donald first announced his candidacy last summer, an onset of Trump madness has bred a generation of rabid fans, people who previously might never have identified as political junkies but who today are coming out of the woodwork to back the man with the world’s most famous hair — and least PC mouth. Weathers, until recently the director of Trump’s Georgia campaign, has been no different. He hounded the campaign, he tells us, sending off strategy packets, networking through allies, even memorizing the bios of known Trump insiders. Getting the job was brutally competitive, recalls Weathers — “like The Apprentice.”
But this 31-year-old Southerner with a classic bootstrap tale isn’t satisfied being just another Trump groupie. One month into the job, he quit, and he’s about to make news as early as this week by forming a new super PAC, Will Not Bend. Weathers, distancing himself from the Donald, says its focus will be to merely “bring out unconventional Republican voters” against Hillary. But really, whose supporters are less traditional than Trump’s? And the money from this committee could be the final touch to push Trump over the finish line. “This is going to be great for Trump,” a person close to the Trump campaign told OZY under condition of anonymity.
Super PACs are not allowed to give funds directly to a candidate — not since the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled that super PACs can spend unlimited money on strategy, advocacy and all other elements of the giant machine required to power someone into office, except handing the dough directly to a Hillary or a Jeb. But it’s no secret which super PACs are putting millions of dollars into whom; indeed, nearly all of the presidential candidates today have one or more super PACs supporting them — except for Trump, who has bragged in just about every Republican presidential debate about funding his own way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When OZY reached out, Trump press secretary Hope Hicks reiterated that the billionaire has denounced all existing super PACs “that were claiming to support” him. (The campaign declined to return messages seeking comment on Weathers.)
But Weathers has his own plans, ones that are not limited to landing Trump in the Oval Office. He’s going national — far from this dimly lit, leather-cushioned Alpharetta cigar bar, which he describes as “where you go if you’re a 30- or 40-something Republican and want to bite into a bloody steak.” This is an easy fiefdom to rule, comfortably conservative, friendly and local in a red state. Weathers wants more. Months away from a primary, almost a year to the general, he isn’t willing to admit what he’s dreaming of — a job in the administration? A career as a Washington strategist? “If I say it out loud,” he says, “it won’t come true.”
Trump is everywhere — unabashed press conferences, booming voice and all, not to mention his 33 percent hold in the national polls, according to a Real Clear Politics average. Still, he can’t take the early momentum for granted, especially since, notes University of Virginia political scientist Sidney Milkis, his voters may not be as reliable in primaries. And to some degree, the cracks in Trump’s seeming invincibility have already started to show: A recent poll put him behind Ted Cruz in Iowa. Still, this is the Donald, who continues to mobilize the populace with a thrill-ride story of roguish, freewheeling business fame and fortune — and with a lone-ranger appeal that people seem to love to map onto their own identity.
Which Weathers does too. I see this in full flush as he tells me his own story over the course of five hours shooting the shit. He wants me to know that he is also a business bootstrapper, foulmouthed and more in love with the scent of victory than cold cash (or so he claims). Exhibit A: Weathers says he charges his candidates a lower hourly rate for his strategic services, while factoring in a bigger win bonus. This is all sharp, moneyed talk, and early on, one might mistake him for just that — a strapping 6-foot-5 businessman turned politico. But eventually talk turns to his background. Weathers tells me he grew up in small-town Norcross, Georgia, north of Atlanta. When he was a toddler, Weathers says, he and his brothers passed the time by placing pennies on the railroad tracks that ran by their home, just for fun, to see the coins get crushed. When that bored them, they upgraded to bricks.
That was when they went outside, though. After playing coy about his childhood for two hours, Weathers finally tells me about growing up in a strict household, where religious meetings were held in the living room and home schooling was the rule. Still, he says, he managed some exposure to the outside world, like reading Ronald Reagan’s biography and secretly downloading episodes of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. He also found out he had a knack for the Web; Dreamweaver, a site-building software suite, and Fireworks, for image editing, replaced friends.
As the years rolled on, Weathers, the back-talking, rebellious middle child, made plans, and at 18, he left home for good. That was also around the time he read Trump’s The Art of the Deal, and it stuck with him. Weathers took a night job stocking shelves at OfficeMax and rented a room from a friend of his grandparents. It was 2002, and his digital skills proved useful, especially in politics: At age 18, with no college degree, Weathers landed a paid gig running Web design for Fair Tax maven John Linder’s successful U.S. House campaign. By 23, he says, he had hundreds of clients, both corporate and political.
Today, his company, Weathers Corp., specializes in digital branding and waging campaigns online. Last year, Weathers got his biggest political scalp yet by upsetting a longtime state senator; the winning candidate dropped $300,000 on Weathers’ various services. He is ruthlessly practical. With the campaign he runs on me, for one, the message is clear — he’s a tough gunner, hungry for blood, unafraid of any competition. More than once he tells me that he “can’t wait to see” what his political rivals say as he hands me their contact info. State Rep. Buzz Brockway, who has worked with and against Weathers, says he is “a talented guy, but I wish he wouldn’t go scorched-earth politics so much.” Other state politicos — some of whom were involved in races against Weathers’ candidates — were blunter when allowed to speak anonymously: One called him “a slimeball,” another labeled him “sleazy,” willing to say and do anything to get his backer elected.
Like someone else we know, Weathers doesn’t do apologies; in response to those criticisms, he tells me, “Politics is a tough business,” then adds, “If you believe you have the best candidate that’s going to do the greatest good, why wouldn’t you do everything you can to get him elected?” He delights in the haters and delights in electing the underdogs who get trampled by the press, by the establishment candidate, by all conventional wisdom. Because then, revenge is sweet. “I love the counterpunch,” he says, with more than a whiff of Trump.
In politics, strategists’ careers are made on the backs of other people — you ride their wins, their losses. Imagine the career hiccups of so many lives tied up with any given campaign nightmare, those who might curse Howard Dean’s fist pump, for instance, or Hillary crying the first time around. This post could be lucrative for Weathers’ career. If he does make it, glory — a big-time lobbying job, a White House adviser gig and clout as a national strategist — might await. Then again, he may not be the exact right fit, green as he is. Speaking generally, you have to “have the experience and stature to be able to ask someone for a lot of money, and have their trust that you will spend it in an impactful way,” says Phil Cox, executive director of the pro–Chris Christie super PAC America Leads.
The great irony is that even as Weathers bets on Trump, he takes a few giant steps away from his former boss. After all, a 120-day no-play window still exists. It may seem sordid to some that such a clear fanboy can start a corporation that, while unaffiliated, will likely aid his chosen candidate, but it’s well within the law, says Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., as long as Weathers doesn’t make any expenditures clearly touting Trump during that cooling-off period. “There are plenty of ways to be helpful,” Ryan says, “without engaging in coordination.”
With his lone-ranger narrative, it’s not surprising that Weathers’ biggest idol is, in fact, John Wayne, whose films a young Weathers could watch only after sneaking over to his grandparents’ home. When asked which Wayne scene is his favorite, Weathers agonizes, and after much hand-wringing, finally chooses one. In the epic Western Chisum, Wayne, on horseback, approaches a man who has stolen a herd of the Duke’s horses. The bandit gleams with power and demands payment: “So, if you want these horses, I sell them to you. Did you bring some gold with you?” “No,” Wayne says, steely-eyed and in control despite his obvious lack of power. “Silver?” the bandit asks.
“Just lead,” Wayne replies. The bandit reaches for his gun. Wayne is too fast and shoots him dead. Consider that a counterpunch.