Q & A

Former Republican Stalwart Ron Filipkowski Is Using Twitter to Shine a Light on the Far Right

Filipkowski used to be the president of the Republican Club of South Sarasota County. Now he monitors extremists and conspiracy theorists and posts what he finds to his nearly 500,000 followers.

By Kim Doleatto August 22, 2022

Ron Filipkowski in an office.

Ron Filipkowski is launching a new political podcast called Context.

National news organizations have put Sarasota in the spotlight because of the area's far-right politics, but if you follow Ron Filipkowski on Twitter, you're probably already aware of what's been happening. A criminal defense attorney in Sarasota, Filipkowski is a former longtime Republican who ran for public defender in 2008 as a member of the GOP. These days, he works with two anonymous researchers to monitor live-streamed events, podcasts, radio shows, social media and chat rooms, and then posts what they find on Twitter, where he has nearly half a million followers.

For more than a decade, Filipkowski served on Florida's 12th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, which recommends judges to fill vacancies on the bench in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. Reappointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019, the next year he resigned in protest over the treatment of former state data scientist Rebekah Jones, who claimed she was fired for refusing to manipulate Covid-19 data. Addressed to the governor's office, Filipkowski's pinned tweet is his resignation letter.

Filipkowski is launching a new podcast, called Context, this week. He recently spoke with Sarasota Magazine about his political evolution and his work. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you call Sarasota a right-wing hub?

"It’s not just the right. It’s the far right.

"An unlimited number of Trump people seem to be moving here all the time. Trump Media & Technology Group just moved in on Cattlemen Road. Patrick Byrne from Cyber Ninjas [the Flor­ida company that was hired to audit Arizona's 2020 election results] moved here. Scott Baio just bought a house here, too. Sarasota is being transformed, for sure.

"Sidney Powell [a far-right conspiracy theorist] was here for a bit and, of course, the Flynns [Michael Flynn was Trump's national security adviser]. Moms for Liberty started here.

"I think a possible theory as to why is Joe Gruters, who was Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016 and was rewarded for that. Before that, Joe and I were fairly close, but I was so disappointed in him for doing that, because it didn't seem he believed in the same things. All I could do was chalk it up to ambition, because he's a smart guy. It paid off for him, but he’ll have to live with the results of that bargain. That was the beginning of my drift away from the Republican Party. I supported Rubio in 2016 in the presidential primary."

How did Twitter become a platform for you?

"I was watching the Covid briefings during Trump’s presidency during the lockdowns, and I got infuriated at the disinformation. I saw a lot of the people I respected leave and start The Lincoln Project, and then Sarah Longwell, Jonathan V. Last and Charlie Sykes started The Bulwark. I'd known these people for a long time, and it intrigued me.

"I made a video for Republican voters against Trump. It blew up on Twitter and I was asked to do more, because I was a loyal longtime Republican. So, 75 days before the election, I got on there—it was my first time on social media—and I made it a countdown for myself and planned to end it after that time. I wanted to provide material to people with evidence they could share to vote for Biden instead of Trump.

"With three weeks left, I tweeted that Trump wouldn't leave voluntarily. There was blowback and people didn't believe me. What caused me to stay [on Twitter] was the Rudy Giuliani and Hugo Chávez press conference. [In 2020, Giuliani claimed, falsely, that the voting machine vendor Dominion Voting Systems is a Venezuelan company with ties to former Venezuelan president Chávez, who died in 2013, and helped rig American election results.]

"I started taking notes. I was just so stunned. I dove in and started following the QAnons, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers in their chat rooms on Parlor. I predicted the Jan. 6 event. At that time, I had no followers, and I was accused of being an alarmist. Then it happened and I blew up on Twitter. So I stayed with it, because they didn't go away."

You were a longtime Republican. What prompted you to leave the party?

"Politically, the party is unrecognizable to me now compared to six or seven years ago. In 2009 and '10, I was elected president of the Republican Club of South Sarasota County–the biggest one. But I started to notice things making me uncomfortable. The Tea Party movement morphed into MAGA. The birtherism stuff was happening, and people were claiming Obama was Muslim. A lot of anti-immigration stuff started surfacing.

"I didn't see Obama as being radical or dangerous. You compare him to Trump, with three wives, mistresses and paying off escorts... In every way, [Trump has] lived his life the opposite of what I believed was the Republican ideal.

"I got the feeling they weren’t just opposing [Obama] because he was a Democrat, and it made me question whether it was a racism component. There was more racism in the party than I was aware of—or maybe I didn't want to see it. The Obama stuff brought that to the surface, and Trump made it permissible to say so out loud. People started using the term 'RINO' [an acronym for 'Republican in Name Only'] and it was said of me.

"When people would run for local offices, they would change their party affiliation to Republican. That used to be a RINO. Now it's someone who disagrees with Donald Trump. Dissent wasn't tolerated anymore. We used to complain about Mitt Romney or George Bush, but I started noticing you couldn’t criticize Trump or you would get venom for being a traitor. I thought that was crazy. It started looking like a cult. Now they hate Mike Pence, and he's probably the most loyal Republican you can find.

"My intention was to become an independent. But I decided I can't be in the middle after Jan. 6. I didn't become a Democrat because I agree with everything Biden says. It's because I believe it’s the party that will save the country from an autocratic takeover."

What made you initially conservative? 

"I had no political views until I was 18. Before that, it was sports and girls.

"I joined the Marines and I was in Okinawa, Japan, for six months. There wasn’t a lot to do there, and I wasn't into playing cards in the barracks. They had this tiny library with 50-year-old books and I started reading them daily, along with magazines. I read about both sides. They were mostly about political philosophy and history. I read The Atlantic and The Nation.

"That library immersion made me coalesce around the conservative side. Churchill’s biography had a huge impact on me. But back then, being a conservative was very different than what it means today. This was 1987. But that 'up by the bootstraps' rugged individualism and low taxes appealed to me. I felt like it was more about individualism versus collectivism. I viewed liberalism as government assistance and intervention in your life. And Republicans wanted the government to leave people alone. That appealed to me then.

"Being a Marine probably had something to do with it, too. Everyone around me was Republican. I remember there was one guy of the 120 of us who went to the Democrat line to pick up his absentee ballot when it was time to vote."

How did you end up in Sarasota?

"I was a poor kid from a small town, and my plan was to get the G.I. Bill and go to school. When I was 21, I was done with the military, and by 22, I had a bachelor’s degree because I never took a break from school.

"I was living in San Diego, but Cape Cod is where I grew up. I was working at a furniture store and applying to law schools, and I met the U.S. attorney for San Diego. I told him I wanted to become a prosecutor. He said I should get out of San Diego. He told me I’d never be able to afford a home there. So I went to Florida because my family had moved here from Massachusetts, but I chose Sarasota randomly. I just drove up and down the state with my wife and our first child."

What prompted you run for public defender in 2008? 

"I ran against Larry Eger. I often say I'm the Al Gore of Sarasota. I lost by just 300 votes out of 50,000. I won Sarasota and DeSoto but lost Manatee. Afterward, I was spent. I was my own campaign manager and did it by myself. I was only 38 at the time. I spent all my money and it took so much out of me that I resolved not to run for anything again.

"After losing that election, Joe Gruters sent me to a Republican manager school in his place, and I formally learned how to be a campaign manager and how campaigning really works. He asked me to run for president of the South Sarasota Republican club and apply to the Judicial Nominating Commission, which I held for 11 years. I was appointed twice by Gov. Rick Scott and once by DeSantis."

Which groups or people do you think echo the Trump platform locally?

"Michael Flynn and the Zieglers [Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler and her husband, Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler]. I’m most locally worried about the school board, because they want to destroy public education.

"I used to be a teacher and taught high school at Sarasota Military Academy for a couple of years. I grew up a poor kid with a single mom. My only hope for upward mobility was public education. They want to privatize it. They're driving teachers out by villainizing them. They're accused of being groomers and indoctrinators. Who wants to be berated by lunatics? They have conferences to tell people to homeschool and not go to college. I think they don't want independent thinkers. They want dumbed-down, uneducated people, because they're easier to control. If you convince enough parents schools will make their children trans and Marxists, you're seeking to wreck the school system.

"I don’t focus on local stuff as much as national, but my main concern is South County, with The Hollow. Flynn is part of it; his partner owns the land. Oath Keepers with AR-15s are out there. They were signing all the vaccine exemption cards there. What they have going on down there is unsettling. I have concerns about law enforcement here. I was a police academy director from 2001 to 2004, and I’m concerned that the sheriff's office here has become intertwined with them."

If the Republicans take back the House in 2022, what do you expect will happen? 

"They've already said it. It's going to be investigations against every cabinet member, Alejandro Mayorkas, Merrick Garland, Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They'll try to prosecute them as revenge for the Jan. 6 hearings."

What do you think the Democratic Party is getting wrong?

"They're aware of the problem, but they don't know how to deal with it.

"The traditional way to deal is not to amplify their message and ignore it until it goes away. In the '90s, that worked. But people don't know these extremists have their own TV channels and echo chambers. For CNN to ignore that and not give them oxygen won’t work, because they supply their own oxygen and they don’t need the media anymore.

"Sooner or later, the Democratic Party needs a team of people like me, who are monitoring the right and fighting back. I'm just doing it in my spare time. If the Democratic National Committee had five full-time people doing what I do, we could crush it. Part of the problem is they’re run by people stuck in a time warp from 1995. The younger ones like [California Congresswoman] Katie Porter and [Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services] Nikki Fried get it, but the older ones don't.

"You can package truth in a simple way. No one will read a 14-page dissertation on why gas prices are up vs. 'They won’t let us drill!'"

Will you keep doing the work you do?

"Yes. Even though I get threats locally—letters, voicemails or calls—daily. You get special vitriol when you used to be a Republican."

Has delving into all this taken a toll? 

"Yes. There are three of us, and you have no idea how much we watch that we can’t post because it’s so bad. We post the tip of the iceberg of what we see. So, multiply what ends up on my Twitter account by 20.

"It’s violent rhetoric and conspiracy theories, like, ‘100,000 people have died from the vaccine and the bodies are being liquified and used as fertilizer.’ Or, 'Michelle Obama is a man and their kids are adopted.’ We have to sift and find what’s important.

"You question how many people out there really believe that nonsense. You tend to think it’s everywhere when you’re steeped in it like we are. But I try to check myself with, ‘Do most Republicans truly think that teachers are grooming kids for sex trafficking?’ Probably not. I try not to post fringe content, because the people creating it don’t deserve a platform with half a million viewers seeing their stuff. I try to focus on elected officials, members of the media and people with massive followings—that's it."

Did you really name one of your kids Ronald Reagan?

"Yes, which is funny because I get called a 'woke Marxist' just because I don't support Trump. I'm a conservative Democrat. And there are more of us washing up on the shores who are refugees from the Republican wreckage. There's many of us out there."

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