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Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Virtually every one of the 70 or so speakers at Michael Flynn’s ReAwaken America tour last weekend in Manheim, Pennsylvania, had something to sell, and Gene Ho was no exception. There was his book, TRUMPography: How Biblical Principles Paved the Way to the American Presidency, a memoir of sorts about Ho’s time as Trump’s personal photographer during the 2016 campaign. There was his new weekly show on AmericanMediaPeriscope, an online news outlet sponsored by—who else?—My Pillow’s Mike Lindell. And then there was his exciting new magazine, George, with Ho as the new editor-in-chief. “They turned on the website just for you guys today,” he told the several thousand people who’d gathered for the event and promised a print edition soon. “Starting next week, you can start buying copies of George.” The crowd cheered.
When Ho first mentioned his new project at the conference, I thought he was referring to some sort of Founding Fathers’ fanzine. The ReAwaken tour was being held inside an enormous warehouse sports complex called Spooky Nook Sports that was filled with American flag garb, “We the People” banners, and other patriotic regalia. Surely this couldn’t be a revival of the glossy George political magazine created by the late, liberal John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1995, I thought. But then on Saturday, as I walked around the exhibit hall full of booths hawking “Kingdom Fuel” protein powder for Christian meatheads, or nano silver toothpaste, I spotted a woman at a booth wearing a T-shirt with the cover of Ho’s “new” George on it.
It looked exactly like the old George, except that it had Trump on the cover, dressed as Paul Revere in a tricorn hat, instead of the iconic model Cindy Crawford as George Washington. Even the logo was the same. The woman in the T-shirt readily acknowledged that the new magazine was supposed to be a reprise of Kennedy’s, except, she told me, “We obviously hope it will bring people to God.”
After getting over the shock of seeing George among the quack cancer cures and anti-vax promoters of the ReAwaken tour, I realized that (duh) I am at a conference full of QAnon believers. Of course, this is an imitation JFK Jr. magazine!
QAnon, for the uninitiated, is the cult-like following of the anonymous message board user known as Q, a mysterious leader in the fight against a global cabal that supposedly reaches into the “deep state,” and includes politicians and celebrities like Hillary Clinton who torture and abuse children in a Satanic pedophile ring. One subgenre of the conspiracy theory holds that John Jr. never really died in that fateful 1999 plane crash. What happened instead? Well, he faked his death to team up with Donald Trump to take on the Satanic pedophiles. Some of this conspiracy’s adherents even believe a man named Vincent Fusca, a rather short and swarthy middle-aged man who favors fedoras, is Kennedy in disguise. (Fusca was at the convention this weekend.)
The ReAwaken America tour was co-founded after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol by the country’s most prominent QAnon promoter: Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian diplomat during the 2016 presidential election. (Trump pardoned him shortly before leaving office.) Flynn took the QAnon “oath” on video in 2020, sold Q merch, and attended Q conventions before starting his own event. The ReAwaken tour is one long parade of QAnon conspiracy theorists, notably Ho himself, a man who used to sell T-shirts online emblazoned with “Trump/Kennedy 2020.”
I had missed the news about the George revival in July, when Will Sommer, a Daily Beast reporter writing a book on QAnon, reported on the appearance of a billboard in Times Square announcing its imminent arrival. But Georgeonline.com didn’t go live until Ho announced it at the ReAwaken American event that weekend. “GEORGE is BACK!” declared the website, which provided some history on how the famous son and namesake of the assassinated president had started the magazine to “simplify and humanize politics.” It claims many of the original magazine articles on current events have “led many to wonder if John F. Kennedy Jr. was some sort of time traveler! This is why so many people are excited about ‘George 2.0!’”
The home page featured a story slugged, “God I miss Rudy Giuliani.” The cover of the forthcoming print edition promised an exclusive interview with Scott McKay, the “patriot streetfighter” and tomahawk-wielding former bodybuilder who last year spent some time rallying his online fans to menace school board meetings across the country. (He’d also been a popular selfie target at the conference.) The site sells George trucker hats, which alone would disqualify it from any association with the original. And in true Q fashion, the magazine promises its covers will contain “hidden messages” all while carrying on the George legacy.
“Oh God that is awful,” said Lisa DePaulo, an original George staffer, told me when I sent her the link. “This is so offensive. It makes me sick, as a former member of George, to see something like this.”
Despite all the madness on display at the ReAwaken event, it was the resurrection of George that really got under my skin. I had once written a short piece for George, in 1997, about DC government dysfunction, and as a journalist, I felt weirdly possessive of the long-gone publication that had been so much the rage early in my career. After I got home from the ReAwaken conference, I dug out that old issue and realized why George 2.0 had upset me so much.
The magazine I unearthed was an incredible period piece—the ultimate Gen X nostalgia trigger and the type of general interest magazine that could not happen today. A young George Clooney in a powdered wig graced the cover for a profile of the star written by Carrie Fisher. (Apparently, Princess Leia could write!) Harvard historian and liberal icon Arthur Schlesinger Jr. contributed “Top 10 Hunks in History.” Southern historian Curtis Wilkie looked at the “secret history” of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and improbably, anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly even bylined a first-person account of “Beating the Bra Burners.” What’s not to love there?
The magazine wasn’t Camelot, but in my mid-1990s world, it’s where all the cool kids were or wanted to be, trying to achieve Kennedy’s goal of blending politics and pop culture. George had been this fun, shiny new thing we didn’t realize at the time would end so tragically, and not just because it didn’t survive the death of its founder, at age 38, in a plane crash over Martha’s Vineyard in 1999.
As a glossy print magazine, George arrived with great fanfare just as the internet was about to destroy journalism as we knew it. Flipping through my old copy also brought me back to a better time, when a third of the country had not completely lost its mind. When there were no ReAwaken America tours stoking demented conspiracy theories and edging fringe fanatics into the mainstream and even elected office. When the likes of Phyllis Schlafly would talk to, even work with, John F. Kennedy Jr. George was like the Titanic—luxurious, sought after, and doomed. That’s why I felt some existential horror to find its QAnon knock-off in a Manheim sports complex among the quack cancer cures and My Pillow dog beds.
George 2.0 rose from the ashes in a physical space where Roger Stone collected cash for his legal defense fund in a trash bag. Stella Emmanuel, a doctor who thinks some reproductive health problems are caused by having sex with demons, gave a bizarre doomsday sermon about demonic satellites and called on people to send some “Holy Spirit virus” into those computers to help with the election. The Kennedys are famously Irish Catholic, but George 2.0 materialized in a venue where Pastor Greg Locke called the Pope “a pimp.“ The anti-vaccine activist and JFK, Jr.’s first cousin Robert Kennedy Jr. may have appeared on the ReAwaken tour last year, but there was just nothing in that building in Manehim that suggested, “John F. Kennedy Jr. would totally dig this!” QAnon had appropriated Kennedy’s signature achievement and turned it into a weapon for trolling the do-gooding liberal elites his family dynasty represents.
“John created George Magazine to heal partisan divisions and to make politics fun, especially for young people, while also building public trust in government,” Steven Gillon, a historian and close friend of Kennedy’s, told me in an email. “It is repulsive to learn that QAnon plans to use the magazine to spread its loony conspiracy theories. Their mission to pit Americans against each other and spread disinformation that corrodes democratic institution is antithetical to the founding mission of the magazine.”
The feelings of former George writers and staffers, or the Kennedy family, were of no interest to Ho when he touted his new magazine to the 5,000 or so people attending the ReAwaken event. Like the tour itself, the magazine was apparently part of his recent salvation.
Until 2015, Ho had been just another wedding photographer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he’d moved from Kings Park, New York, at the age of 18 to attend college. After spending a few years as a reporter at a local paper, Ho started a photography business taking pictures at local dance and gymnastics schools, and eventually working up to professional athletes. But in 2015, the father of four became a mini-celebrity the way so many MAGA stars did: by latching on to Donald Trump early in his first presidential campaign and fashioning himself as Trump’s “personal” photographer.
During his ReAwaken speech, Ho lamented that when he went to work for Trump, he lost almost all of his former clients who’d contributed to his $750,000 annual income. Trump rewarded his loyalty by declining to make him the official White House photographer. Ho said after leaving the Trump campaign, he was “flat broke,” a situation only remedied when he got onto the ReAwaken tour. Last year, he ran for mayor in Myrtle Beach. After scrubbing his merch website, Patriot Forty-Five, of QAnon gear, he came in second.
It’s not hard to see why Ho might want to resurrect George. Copies of the original magazine are a hot commodity among his JFK-obsessed crowd. The February 1997 issue, headlined “Survival Guide to the Future,” especially hits the far-right sweet spot. In it, Kennedy interviews Bill Gates, a popular villain in QAnon conspiracy theories that posit that because he gave a 2015 TED talk on the threat of infectious diseases, Gates planned to use the pandemic to achieve global domination. One feature in the issue sketches out one worst-case prediction for the year 2020 in which “an overpopulated planet choked to extinction by a lung-attacking virus.” Copies now sell for nearly $5,000 on eBay.
Did you know JFK Jr himself started the rumor that he’d be back? He put it in his George magazine. Gene Ho, Trump’s photographer will be involved in continuing the magazine. He said he doesn’t want to talk about whether JFK Jr will also be involved. 🤔 pic.twitter.com/L8ZvV5h5c1
— Brooke Storm ⛈️ (@Janetb172) October 25, 2022
The February/March 2000 issue, published after Kennedy’s death, actually has Trump on the cover, with the headline, “The Secret Behind Trump’s Political Fling.” I found one selling on Amazon for more than $1,100. With those sorts of prices, it’s only natural that someone might try to bring back the original magazine to tap into the demand. The commemorative issue of the new George sells for $175.
DePaulo hopes the new publication is designed for such a fringe audience that no one will buy it. “Nobody with half a brain is going to think this is a real George,” she said. “I just can’t believe they can get away with using the original logo.”
In fact, it’s possible that while George 2.0 may not bring anyone to God, it might bring on a lawsuit. It’s not entirely clear whether Ho and company have George’s intellectual property rights. Hachette owned the original magazine rights and assets after Kennedy died, but Hearst bought out Hachette in 2011, and no one at Hearst responded to questions about what happened to them. DePaulo is convinced that Caroline Kennedy, John’s sister, owns them. Gillon, Kennedy’s friend, recently wrote a book about him entitled America’s Reluctant Prince. He too thought Caroline, now US ambassador to Australia, controlled the magazine rights, but she did not respond to questions I submitted through the State Department.
George Online is apparently the product of a web development company run by a man named Dave Blaze, who is also the magazine’s managing editor and who has appeared on Ho’s podcast to talk about it. When I called the company, Blaze himself answered the phone and was very cordial, until I told him I wanted to talk about George. He asked if he could call me back later because he had “some people waiting on him.” He never did.
Last Saturday afternoon, I found Ho at the booth in the exhibit hall, selling T-shirts with a weird chemical formula on them whose meaning, he cryptically promised customers, would “soon be revealed.” I asked him directly whether he had the intellectual property rights or other licensing permissions for JFK Jr.’s old magazine. He declined to answer. When I pressed him for a referral to someone who could discuss those things, he got testy and went back to selling T-shirts. “Respectfully,” the former journalist and current George editor-in-chief responded, “I don’t talk to any media.”