September 22, 2023 - 1:00pm

In the tempestuous landscape of American political journalism, few organisations stirred up as much controversy as Project Veritas. Founded in 2010 by James O’Keefe, the group rose to prominence for its undercover investigations, notably the 2009 video recordings involving ACORN workers which were edited to imply they were giving advice on how to engage in criminal activities.

Yet the once-thriving media enterprise is now in a state of freefall, suspending all operations this week after another round of layoffs. Contained within this news is a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of organisations too closely tied to a singular, polarising founder.

O’Keefe announced his departure from Project Veritas in a video in February of this year, saying that he had been stripped of all decision-making authority. According to a subsequent board statement, he was accused of misusing donor funds for personal extravagances, including a $14,000 chartered flight and more than $150,000 on chauffeured transportation. 

This came after allegations concerning O’Keefe’s treatment of staff and a reported suspension from his role as chairman. David Reaboi, a conservative commentator accused by some of playing a role in the coup, summed up the contretemps back in May: “To think the board would take this step unless they felt they had to is silly. Wait for info before spinning out.” In other words, removing O’Keefe — the beating heart of the organisation — was an absolute last resort. His financial malfeasance seems significant, as he remains under investigation for allegedly mismanaging donor funds. 

In the months following O’Keefe’s exit, Project Veritas disintegrated. Now the organisation has ceased all its investigative work, citing “financial ruin”. Following mass staff layoffs, the remaining employees were relegated to fundraising duties that obviously failed to bear sufficient fruit. 

What transpired at Project Veritas highlights a persistent problem in modern American political organisations, particularly on the Right. Namely, an over-reliance on charismatic yet mercurial leaders, without a succession plan in place. Much as the Maga wing of the Republican Party will soon struggle to identify a successor to 77-year-old Donald Trump, Project Veritas found itself adrift without O’Keefe’s guiding hand.

Many supporters have taken to social media with the rallying cry “James O’Keefe IS Project Veritas”, demonstrating the organisation’s inextricable link to its founder. Veritas’s claim that it would persist in its mission, irrespective of O’Keefe’s involvement, hasn’t held up, and this absence of long-term strategies is far from unique within the younger element of the American Right-wing ecosystem. 

Post-2016, activists like Chris Rufo have emerged, who may offer some semblance of a lasting influence in areas like public and higher education. Yet even Rufo’s future is intertwined with the political fortunes of Ron DeSantis, another onetime rising star whose long-term prospects are far from certain.

O’Keefe himself has yet to make a significant mark following his exit. His most notable achievement since has been the release of a dance video with “based” trans influencer Pariah the Doll. While it’s premature to dismiss O’Keefe, who is only 39, as a spent force, his cultural impact seems to have peaked in the previous decade. Project Veritas has become rudderless without its talismanic leader, showing the need for both emerging and established groups to develop contingency plans and foster an internal culture that can outlive its founder.

Whether one viewed Project Veritas as a crusade against media bias or a purveyor of selectively edited sting operations, its decline serves as a case study in the dangers of failing to plan beyond the immediate future. This is something that may afflict many of the personality-driven operations that sprung up during the half-decade efflorescence of the “post-Left” and “populist Right”. O’Keefe’s exit. The organisation’s subsequent implosion suggest that a compelling personality may start the fire, but it takes more than charisma to keep the flames burning.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work