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The Far-Right Spammers of Falmouth Bottom

The Far-Right Spammers of Falmouth Bottom
101 and 107 Washington Street, Falmouth, Virginia/Photo by Suzanne Rossi

Meet the Neighbors

By Steve Watkins

The Right-Wing Spammers and Scriveners show up for work in the mornings just like anybody else, pulling off Washington Street in the tiny village of Falmouth, Virginia, squeezing through a narrow opening in a chain link fence, and parking in a gravel lot under a row of ivy-strangled oaks, three of them dying, one already dead. They drive a Toyota Prius with a turtle sticker on the back. Or a black SUV, or an older-model Camry, or any of a dozen other middle-class sedans. Nothing flashy, though one of their bosses, a bearded, balding, political marketer and Shriner potentate named Andrew Coelho keeps a Heritage Shrine Club trailer back there for ferrying around his lodge’s clown cars.

The parking lot is wedged between two weathered wood-frame buildings on a corner that comprises all Falmouth has to offer by way of a downtown: a cafe, a body shop, an open-sided shed that covers half of a yellow school bus, a seafood market with the decidedly un-woke name of Cockeye Cox’s—all tucked away down a short, steep access road off the highway so you hardly notice it from the busy intersection of Routes 1 and 17 just north of the Rappahannock River bridge. Locals call the low-lying parcel “Falmouth Bottom.”

The Scriveners make their way to the west side of the parking lot and the smaller of the two buildings, 107 Washington Street, a converted Pentecostal church that once housed a business called Wine & Design—and was also once owned by former Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell. Now it bears a tiny sign with the prosaic name Digital Communications LLC, which pretty well describes the conservative magazine syndicate inside, every one of whose dozens of online publications is devoted in one way or another to giving liberals the middle finger. 

The Spammers head in the other direction, to the larger, two-story business that occupies 101 Washington Street. With its quaint shop windows and covered front porch, the faded green building is much easier pictured as the old-time Falmouth general store it once was—the colorful subject of a 1918 painting by American Impressionist Gari Melchers—than what it is now: Saber Communications, the under-the-radar fundraising home to a gaggle of archconservative political organizations spewing out hundreds of millions of e-mail solicitations every month for far-right candidates and causes.

Or, as the arch-conservative Washington Times recently described it, “stoking the fears of the less-informed for profit.”

The latest fundraising pitch crafted by the Saber Communications Spammers for the rabid National Association for Gun Rights is a typical example, offering potential donors a chance to win a Jackhammer Semiautomatic Pistol from Standard Manufacturing while invoking the dog-whistle threat of two wealthy Jewish philanthropists taking away good, God-fearing Americans’ guns:

Your National Association for Gun Rights isn’t funded by a handful of BILLIONAIRES like George Soros and Michael Bloomberg like American gun control groups. We’re funded by good folks like YOU – hunterscollectorshobbyistsfirst respondersmilitary vetstarget shootersConstitutionalists and those who just want to be prepared when evil rears its ugly head.

Last year NAGR gave away an armored car

All this and a whole lot more from a couple of nondescript, largely unmarked buildings, hiding in plain sight while flooding the internet with right-wing solicitations and divisive propaganda. “It’s like a war, so to speak,” one longtime insider said to explain the covert locations—and the adamant refusal to speak to the media, including any comment for this story. “Strategically, if you’re going to push your way forward, you’re going to keep your head down.”

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A Jackhammer semiautomatic pistol

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No horses and wagons visiting the old general store are parked in front of 101 Washington Street these days. No armored cars, either (though neighbors say the building once served as headquarters for a motorcycle gang). The covered porch is bare, the doors stay locked, and the shop window blinds are tightly closed so nobody can see what’s going on inside the phallic-sounding Saber Communications LLC, founded 25 years ago by conservative fire-breather Mike Rothfeld, Coelho’s partner and longtime mentor. One publication recently described Rothfeld as a “direct-mail fundraising guru.” Another called him “a wizard.” Yet another dubbed him a “direct-mail prodigy.” Others, including Rothfeld himself, have tended to be less polite. 

“I am a professional junk mailer,” Rothfeld boasted in an often-cited speech several years ago to a group of right-wing juniors called Young Americans for Liberty—posted on YouTube until Rothfeld, or somebody, had it taken down. “I am a professional telemarketer. I’m a professional spammer—like, a hundred million emails a month. And I’m a professional negative campaigner. And I’m damn proud of all four.”

Rita Dunaway, a conservative commentator writing in right-wing provocateur Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media a few years ago, said she for one didn’t see much for Rothfeld to be proud about—despite their shared Republican credentials. In an opinion piece headlined “How This ‘Gun Rights Group’ Is Profoundly Damaging Your Second Amendment Rights,” Dunaway dismissed Rothfeld as “squirrelly,” and compared his fundraising and media operations to the Thénardiers in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: “the greedy and unscrupulous characters who defraud, loot, and pilfer their way through life, apparently untouched by the finer aspects of human nature.”

Not that Rothfeld likely cares. Somebody’s gotta do the dirty work, and it might as well be him. 

Only the volunteer is pure?” he asked sarcastically in another speech several years back, as reported by journalist David Weigel for an article in Slate. “You better be darn glad there’s professionals doing it. It’s hard work. It’s unpleasant work sometimes. And yeah, we didn’t take a vow of poverty, most of us. We’re free market guys. If we’re really good at what we do, we want to be paid more for it.”

Which Rothfeld has been. According to Weigel, of the $40.6 million raised for Libertarian Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, nearly $7.7 million went to Rothfeld and Saber. And they don’t appear to have slowed down since.

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Hiding in plain sight. The only outside identification at 101 Washington Street. Photo by Suzanne Rossi.

For the past quarter of a century, Saber has handled fundraising and in some cases been headquarters for a slew of right-wing fringe and not-so-fringe outfits, including but not limited to operations that include the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership, the Campaign for Liberty, the National Council for Freedom and Enterprise, the anti-union National Right to Work, the anti-abortion National Pro-Life Alliance, and the National Association for Gun Rights, which is so far out there that even the National Rifle Association hates them.

Conservative critic Dunaway calls the organization an NRA “ankle-biter.” Mother Jones magazine recently included NAGR in an article on “7 Gun Groups That Make the NRA Look Reasonable.” 

Rothfeld’s gun group—supporters and insiders refer to it as “Nagger”—was founded in 2000 by him and a pal, Colorado gun activist Dudley Brown, who has an abiding fondness for videos of guys, including himself, blasting away with machine guns and blowing shit up with cannons. From the start, Rothfeld and Brown sold NAGR as a Second Amendment absolutist, pushing “Constitutional Carry” and aggressively opposing magazine restrictions, an assault-weapons ban, gun-free zones, and most red flag laws. NAGR has direct-mail fundraised millions out of 101 Washington Street—often with the endorsement of once-ascendant Kentucky Senator Rand Paul—and they claim in some years to have outspent the NRA on lobbying. In a recent talk posted on the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership website, Rothfeld said he himself owns 10 or 15 guns, a home arsenal he averred that Brown, NAGR’s president, considers “an eighth-grade girl’s collection.” 

The born-again Rothfeld, raised Jewish in Silver Spring, Maryland, talks and posts a lot on social media about the Blood of Christ, replete with an artist’s rendition of a suffering White Jesus nailed to the cross. Anybody not Christian, he refers to as “heathens.” It’s hard to tell if he’s kidding. His ex-wife, Diana, says Rothfeld’s parents were “nominal Jews,” and he converted to Christianity not long after he and Diana met in college at the University of Dallas, a tiny Catholic school that Rothfeld attended because she says he wanted an experience “totally different” from the D.C. suburbs where he’d grown up. Diana Rodriguez, her name then, was a political philosophy major and already deep into conservative politics when they got together. By her account, they were just a few months into their relationship when Mike Rothfeld, a “pot-smoking, bleeding-heart liberal,” experienced a political conversion as well.

“He took over my identity,” she said in a recent interview. “He became me. He mirrored everything about me. That’s probably why I fell in love with him.” 

The Rothfelds eventually moved to Virginia, and after a peripatetic several years in conservative fundraising and Republican political campaigning, bought a house on a rural lot outside Fredericksburg, chosen because they’d be halfway between Richmond and D.C., still close to the two seats of political power but not stuck in—or publicly visible from—either one. They home-schooled their four children there, joined Berea Baptist Church, and launched their own fundraising operation in the basement, which was where the Rothfelds’ daughter Jen and a then-teenage Andrew Coelho got their start in the business—and where Saber Communications LLC was born. 

The devout Baptist Rothfelds got divorced a few years ago, a still-painful subject for Diana Rothfeld. She says she hates even saying the word and can only bring herself to refer to her ex-husband by his initials, M.I.R.—Michael Irving Rothfeld. Mike Rothfeld left the area not long after the split. He moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, married again, and now makes monthly trips from a barrier island condo back to Virginia to keep an eye on his conservative fiefdom.

Rothfeld’s serfs, meanwhile—the Spammers toiling for Saber Communications at 101 Washington Street—crowd into a tight ground-floor workspace to start their day. Either that or they negotiate a steep, rickety set of covered outside stairs on the back of the building to a second-story entrance and a sprawling room filled with desks and computers and servers, because those millions of dollars filling the coffers of NAGR, and National Right to Work, and Rand Paul Inc., aren’t going to hustle up themselves.

One wall inside the building is taken up with a giant mural of one of Rothfeld’s heroes, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, painted by local artist Judi Wigglesworth. Rothfeld has long admired the Lost Cause image of the swashbuckling Stuart astride his horse in battle, waving his trademark saber, even though historians generally blame Stuart’s scouting blunders for the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. Nonetheless, Diana Rothfeld says that the romanticized image of Stuart with his flashing saber was where her husband came up with the company name.

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Mike Rothfeld. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Flikr

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The Spammers and Scriveners are a mixed bag of folks. Coelho, who’s worked for Rothfeld almost nonstop since he was a teen, did a brief stint in the Marines and is a devoted Shriner, judging by his social media posts. Kristin McCook, Rothfeld’s personal assistant—a job long held by Diana Rothfeld until the divorce—regularly advertises a side gig selling tchotchkes and decorations and faux antique Americana. Deb Hopper, a Saber Applied Leadership events planner, skews paleolibertarian. There’s a “content producer,” Robert Mourad, who’s deep into fantasy fiction, and a content editor, the Rothfelds’ daughter Jen, who does hair. A guy named Dustin Curtis, at one time executive director of the Fredericksburg, Virginia-based Students for Life, jumped ship or was let go from the anti-abortion group back in October 2023 and is now director of state affairs for NAGR. In his spare time, Curtis is or was president of the Spotsylvania County Republican Committee, and he serves as chair of the Spotsy Electoral Board. 

Most of their political views and public attitudes are about what you’d expect. Unfettered access to guns. Anti-LGBTQ+. Anti-vax. Back the Blue. Own the libs. Home-school your kids. Ban books with so much as a whiff of sexual content. And don’t even get them started on CRT. One posted on social media recently that the problem with rape-victim exceptions in anti-abortion laws is that some women who want an abortion will lie about how they got pregnant just so they can get one. Another—the pugnacious Rothfeld—posted an aphorism bastardized from Nietzsche: “You may judge a man’s goodness by the quality of his friends. You may judge a man’s effectiveness by the quantity of his enemies.” Former Virginia Congressman Scott Rigell, a Republican, would no doubt count himself among the latter. When NAGR publicly lambasted him for being open to modest gun safety legislation—along with other insufficiently gun-nut Republicans like then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Maine Senator Susan Collins—a disgusted Rigell denounced Rothfeld and the NAGR crew as “a corrupt, detestable outfit” and called on Rand Paul, who still shills for the organization, to distance himself from it.

That hasn’t happened, though Saber’s political influence and prominence took a considerable hit when Paul’s career—bankrolled through Rothfeld and Co.’s fundraising—peaked and fell during an aborted run for the 2016 Republican nomination for president. Hard as it is to remember now, for quite a while Paul was considered a front-runner in that race until Trump gutted him and everybody else in the field. 

We all know how that turned out.

Nowadays, the Saberistas are as MAGA as anybody on the right, and with the NRA tanking financially for the past several years, according to a recent report in The Washington Post, NAGR and other far-right gun organizations are gaining more and more clout—though Rothfeld’s NAGR pal Dudley Brown fumes about what he derides as Trump’s soft stance on guns, and as recently as January 2024 was posting memes on X and calling Trump out as “the worst of any GOP president in history” on Second Amendment issues.

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A Saberista or visitor slipping in the side door. Photo by Suzanne Rossi

Not everything the Saberistas do is nationally focused. Several, including Dustin Curtis and a Saber “senior policy consultant” named Tony Goodwin, have worked on campaigns for hard-right area politicians over the years, including Stafford’s Paul Milde, who was recently elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and Culpeper’s Nick Freitas, who left the House and then returned. NAGR pumped a few thousand dollars into Freitas campaigns, and Curtis did a stint as Milde’s campaign manager. The photo you’ll find of 101 Washington Street on Google Maps still features a “Milde for Delegate” sign planted in the foreground.

Rothfeld himself sought Republican nomination to the Virginia State Senate 20 years ago, only to have his ass handed to him in the primary by the then-incumbent John Chichester, despite endorsements from a number of Rothfeld’s well-known pals who said Chichester wasn’t anti-abortion enough, anti-tax enough, anti-gun-control enough, and anti-gay enough. Rothfeld also dropped a quarter of a million dollars three years before that in a losing bid for the Republican nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives in Virginia’s 1st District.

Besides his monthly trips back to Falmouth, where insiders say he keeps an upstairs apartment above Digital Communications, the very busy Rothfeld travels around the country giving speeches for one of his moneymaking enterprises, the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership—like NAGR, another Rothfeld brainchild. The Foundation is a sort of pyramid business that operates by sucking more and more money from conservative activists wanting to attend more and more exclusive training sessions and receptions to gain more and more right-wing political celebrity access and learn more and more inside political dope. 

Mike Rothfeld has also made numerous trips overseas to spread the Applied Conservative Leadership gospel, according to Diana Rothfeld, who said she accompanied him on some of these trips—most significantly, and disturbingly, repeated visits to Poland, where Mike Rothfeld has been engaged in activist training through a far-right international Catholic organization called Tradition, Family, Property, or TFP, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “virulently anti-LGBT.”

From the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, Property website

“The American TFP has opposed: contraception; abortion; euthanasia; human cloning; the social acceptance of homosexual practice; anti-discrimination laws that give homosexuals a privileged status; the lifting of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in our military; homosexual adoption; domestic partnerships, civil unions, and same-sex ‘marriage’; transgenderism; homosexual films, theater plays, events, and pro-homosexual clubs on Catholic college campuses; public blasphemy; nudism; socialist childcare; socialist healthcare; socialist allocation of federal waters; death taxes; self-managing socialism; international communism; President Carter’s human rights policy; the policy of détente with communist regimes pursued by the American and Western governments; progressivism; liberation theology; the Vatican’s policy of Ostpolitik with communist governments; the retroactive lifting of statutes of limitations for civil cases involving sexual abuse; the enactment of State laws forcing clergy to violate the seal of Confession in cases of child abuse; the removal of beauty from and the democratization of the Catholic Church; ‘frenetic intemperance’ in the economy; the ecological movement; pacifism; imprudent nuclear disarmament; and the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

Not surprisingly, the registered agent for Saber and Digital Communications, David Warrington—the agent of record for a number of Rothfeld’s and Coelho’s dozens of LLCs under the Saber and Digital Communications umbrellas—has ties to Donald Trump and others on the far right. Warrington represented Trump and a dozen administration figures and “Stop the Steal” rally organizers before the House of Representatives’ January 6 Committee. He was also Trump’s lead attorney at the 2016 Republican National Convention, served as General Counsel for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, and sits as chairman of the board of Rothfeld’s and Dudley Brown’s National Association for Gun Rights.

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Meanwhile, at 107 Washington Street…. 

While the Spammers are blasting out those hundreds of millions of direct-mail fundraising pitches from 101 Washington, the Scriveners next door at 107 Washington—conservative content creators crammed into an open floor plan they call The Pit—are hard at it, too, churning out specialty “news” copy for dozens of online publications. Among them, past and/or present: American Patriot Daily, Conservative Revival, Great American Daily, Right Wing Report, Mommy Underground, Black Eye Politics, Proud American Living, Christian Life Daily, Deepstate Watch, Liberal Propaganda Exposed, Swamp Digest, Great American Wildlife, DC Swamp Tales, Better Change Project, Reliable News Now, and something called 2020 Dirt Sheet. The multiple publishers of these sites are a dizzying array of Rothfeld and Coelho LLCs that include American Patriot News, Off the Wire, Conservative Alternative, and, chiefly, Rising Media News Network.

The websites and marketing companies are all registered to the same address: 101 Washington Street, Falmouth, Virginia, with David Warrington as the registered agent.

Check out a few and you’ll notice several things in common. All have a deep conservative slant, none of the stories carry bylines, few have any direct attribution, many cite articles from other Rothfeld and Coelho online publications likely written by the same content producer, many are cribbed from thinly sourced reports pirated off of other conservative news outlets such as Fox News and the New York Post, some are taken verbatim from other publications, apparently without permission. Readers, inundated with solicitations, are constantly urged to subscribe for updates.

“Tucker Carlson accuses former Attorney General Bill Barr of covering up the truth about Jeffrey Epstein’s death.”

“Megyn Kelly obliterated Hillary Clinton for getting away with this crime.”

“Nikki Haley can’t answer if a man can become a woman.”

“The abortion industry is gunning for our children like we’ve never seen in our lifetime.”

“Ex-teenage witch has an important message all of us must take to heart.”

“The latest casualty: Hallmark jumps on the LGBT Bandwagon.”

“Trump declares war on the radical left’s gender theory.”

“Hospital develops plan to murder children without parental consent.”

Something else you can’t help but notice is that all the sites are choked with pop-up ads, few of them pitching anything you’ve ever heard of. “The ads appear to be geared toward collecting potential voter email addresses and directing people to questionable news sites,” the online technology publication Engadget wrote in their own deep dive a few years ago into ad practices by Saber/Digital Communications and other sketchy right-wing publishers. “The emails people receive after signing up are either miracle health cures, secret new ways to boost your income or scary news about savings and the latest socialist coming to take them.”

Many of the pop-ups on Digital Communications sites also lead to polls and surveys that are ploys to collect contact information that, along with subscription data, is shipped over to the Saber Spammers who add it to their ever-growing direct-mail fundraising lists.

“Emails are not only useful to be sold to campaigns or companies for direct email targeting,” Engadget noted. “They’re also useful for groups looking to advertise online. Once a company has your email address or any personal information that can identify you online, it can continue to target you again and again. For instance, if a company knows you’re a bit of a swing voter (having shown affinity to candidates on either side of the aisle) and that you care a lot about animal rights or gun laws, with your email address, it can target custom ads at you about why a particular candidate or political party is the best when it comes to animal rights or the worst when it comes to gun laws.”

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Falmouth Bottom. A view from the highway. Photo by Suzanne Rossi

Rothfeld’s corporate hydra has more profit points than a car dealership, and there’s at least one more. The investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica recently reported that Saber/Digital Communications and other conservative media sites have also been running scam ads featuring phony celebrity pitches generated by a mysterious company called AdStyle.

The ProPublica report, from July 2023, begins with a detailed description of a bogus article in Rothfeld’s and Coelho’s DC Swamp Tales featuring a pirated likeness of Oprah Winfrey along with her fabricated endorsement of a product the ad promises will “reverse dementia instantly & for good”–but which is actually cannabis gummies.

“Such scam ads have proliferated on right-wing websites worldwide in the past eight months,” the ProPublica investigators wrote. “They use fake endorsements from celebrities including Winfrey, country music singers Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, Twitter and Tesla owner Elon Musk, actor Ryan Reynolds, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder to promote dubious medicines and cryptocurrency frauds. Conservative publishers make money from each click on a deceptive ad, exploiting their like-minded readers.”

Warrington, Rothfeld’s and Coelho’s attorney, did his best to downplay Saber and Digital Communications’ use of the ads, saying in a written statement to investigators that AdStyle is “by far our least active ad service, delivering less than 3% of total banner impressions on the sites we manage.” But he didn’t deny it.

From ProPublica’s report: “The prevalence of scam ads on AdStyle and its many partnerships with right-wing sites around the world exemplify how conservative publishers, politicians, and operatives profit from fleecing their fellow right-wingers—and how some players take the strategy global. Even the editorially conservative National Review has acknowledged ‘the right’s grifter problem’.”

There are a lot of Ground Zeroes for the practices. Trump’s Truth Social is one, according to ProPublica, along with anything that touches Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon. 

Look closely as you drive down little Washington Street in tiny Falmouth, Virginia, and you’ll see another. 

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THEN. Gari Melchers, Nelson Berry’s Store, Courtesy of Gari Melchers Home & Studio

101 Washington Street wasn’t just any general store back in the day. For decades before and after the turn of the 19th century it was N.N. Berry’s Retail and Merchandise, made kind of famous by the American Impressionist Gari Melchers, who painted it in 1918 with a couple of farmers and a two-horse wagon out front, plus two chickens and a scruffy dog scrounging around in the dirt road that back then was known as Warrenton Highway. 

The story goes that Melchers, not long after repatriating from France, threw on some overalls one afternoon and walked a quarter mile from his wife’s Falmouth estate down the road to Berry’s Store to rub elbows with the locals. Somebody asked him what he did for a living and Melchers said he was a painter, to which a customer replied, “Well, mister, you won’t get much work ’round here, ’cause we jist whitewash,”

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AND NOW. Photo by Suzanne Rossi

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Steve Watkins is co-founder and editor of PIE & CHAI, a professor emeritus of English, a longtime tree steward with Tree Fredericksburg, an inveterate dog walker, a recovering yoga teacher and co-founder of two yoga businesses, father of four daughters, grandfather of four grandsons, and author of 15 books, two of which are forthcoming in 2024. His author website is http://www.stevewatkinsbooks.com/

Suzanne Rossi, who grew up in Stafford, Virginia, was a longtime award-winning photographer for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg.