‘I Don’t Get Off On It’: Meet Will Stancil, the MN Man Caught In a Perpetual Twitter Fight
Seemingly out of nowhere, Stancil has become a national political pundit on Twitter. We spent 1.5 hours trying to get to know him.
9:37 AM CST on February 2, 2024
Will Stancil strikes a curious internet-age duality: the pugnacious punching bag, eager to scrap yet immune to the counter-attacks that barrage his Twitter timeline day and night.
Stancil didn't always tweet this way. About nine months ago, however, the U of M researcher began a daily assault on the so-called "vibecession," a belief that doomer economic sentiments are overshadowing promising indicators in the U.S. economy. Centrists agreed in great numbers that President Joe Biden's economy is indeed booming, while the left fancied Stancil a water-carrying shill for the Democratic establishment.
Those competing forces have propelled Stancil's account—which churns out takes at a staggering rate—from 63,000 followers to over 73,000 in just the past month. Love him or hate him, he's become a ubiquitous online political pundit, one who's just as likely to feud with neo-lib commentators like Matthew Yglesias as he is with socialist thinkers like Matt Bruenig. (Lately, Stancil has focused his crosshairs on far-right "race science" creeps like Steve Sailer and Chris Rufo, which seems to form a broader coalition of supporters.)
Crucially, for our purposes at least, Stancil is not just a serial-tweeting, fight-picking enigma; he's our serial-tweeting, fight-picking enigma, the loudest voice in the Twitter room of whom very little is known. Over the course of 117,000+ posts, Stancil remains an abstraction that seems to operate from an online plane of existence. Or, perhaps, he's just some guy who lives in Uptown.
So we set out to better understand the local man behind the nationally relevant handle. After some DM cajoling, Stancil agreed to meet last week at Spyhouse Coffee on Hennepin Avenue. In conversation, he talks a lot like he tweets—rapid-fire, earnest, and enmeshed in an online battlefield that wouldn't make sense to those who are mostly (and mercifully) offline.
"I don't feel I'm much like my Twitter..." says Stancil, 38. "I'm nicer! I think I'm just so much more boring than people expect."
Winding him up wasn't difficult. Per my voice recorder, Stancil spoke for 81% of our 1.5-hour chat. We touched on his growing up in the "religious and conservative" town of Belmont, North Carolina, becoming "intensely anti-Bush" because of the Iraq War, not fitting in while studying history at "bratty" Wake Forest University, and, eventually, matriculating to the University of Minnesota Law School on a full-ride scholarship. His understanding of Minnesota prior to moving here in 2009? "I'd seen the movie Fargo and I really liked it," he says with a chuckle.
Here are some highlights from our big Stancil interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
So you get to Minnesota in 2009. That's a great time-peg, because it's right around the time you joined Twitter, right?
I wasn't really super active until Trump got elected. And then I became increasingly active, and I really became active in the last nine months... but that's a separate story, I've got a whole theory—
Oh no, we're going to get into that because I'm curious. And I'm going to ask, because I know you're a very smart guy, and any "aww-shucks, I don't know..." I'm going to read that as a little cagey on your part, because I feel like you know what you're doing. But please, take me through Will Stancil becoming a Twitter character.
Honestly, the reason I'm on Twitter is because that's where you talk to journalists and politicians. And it's where the consensus forms. For a long time, it was about talking to those people and being a news source. It's not really anymore. I got into the main bloodstream. If you're on there long enough, the number of important people you build relationships with is a little scary. There are some fairly influential elected officials who will reach out and say let's chat.
Name-drop a couple for me.
I'm not going to do that.
But, you know, it's people who shouldn't be talking to me. There's a U.S. senator, not somebody you'd expect, that corresponds with me. I'm obviously not setting the policy agenda for anyone, but you wanna bounce ideas off someone. So you get in their ear, and make all these connections. For a long time my thing was fighting the Trump war—that Democrats aren't fighting Trump enough. The Atlantic said to pitch us on that.
Did you get published in The Atlantic?
Yeah, in 2018. I study school and housing segregation professionally, and then they started pitching me on that, which is useful professionally. But this is the way I think about Twitter: If there was a room that had a substantial share of politicians, journalists, and cultural figures all hanging out and talking? That's an influential room to be in, and just because it's online doesn't mean that's not what's happening.
And your impulse to wanna be in that room... it doesn't coincide with your career, really, so it's just a passion thing?
Some of it is career-related. But, generally speaking, I've found my stuff on housing discrimination is not what people are interested in in that forum. But when you're talking about day-to-day current events and politics, I have a private interest in that. And for that, it's useful. You get to see the inner workings.
You mentioned this nine-month timestamp of increasing Twitter activity. What made you want to post more?
I can't say I want to post more...
[Laughs.] OK, what compelled you to post more?
News people take the temperature of Twitter in order to sort of understand the world. You know, the Twitter consensus is the consensus as they see it. It starts showing up in headlines. With this economy thing—
Which is kind of your main hobbyhorse.
I thought, "Here's a thing, like the Iraq War, where there's a narrative out there that's just probably not correct." On some levels it's a subjective measure, but in 2018 conditions were really similar, people were really happy [about the economy]. But now they're really sad or upset. It doesn't really make sense why that is, other than a faulty consensus that's being echoed in the news. And I thought: What if we can change the consensus on Twitter?
So this has been kind of a deliberate project on that one issue?
There have been a lot of people who've helped, but I'd say I've probably been the most vocal person on this.
Aside from just righting what you perceive as a false narrative, what is the intent behind this? For you?
Well, a few things. I've always been fixated on the idea that media narratives are really important to politics, which is something Democrats in particular do not understand. I had an article in Politico about it; I'm obsessed with it. Democrats want politics to be: The economy numbers say a certain thing, and because of that, the polls are going to say a certain thing. And that's stupid and it's wrong. It's not correct. This is why Democrats get walloped, and they think they're going to beat Donald Trump because the economy is good? Nope! Doesn't matter, it turns out, if everyone is convinced it's bad.
And that's the vibes thing that gets ascribed to you a lot?
I don't know if I originated it, but I've been one of the... primary vibes leaders. [Laughs.] So to me there's a bit of a personal thing, trying to demonstrate whether this is true. Partly because I would prefer Trump not to win. But also because I really think that people need to think about how this works outside of political science circles. You have to think about this, or you're going to get your lunch eaten by the far right. And then I have to live with that. Honestly, part of it is, ya know, I was curious if you could do it.
If you could shift the narrative?
I had an ex-girlfriend, and I'd drive her crazy because I would tell her: "I really think if you could get in their heads, you could shift it! That if enough people change the headlines, you could change everything." She was like, "This is this crazy, kooky theory of yours..."
So your project is kind of a social experiment?
I mean, a little. I'm not trying to make people believe something I think is false. It only works, in this case, because the data supports the stuff I've been saying—about housing prices, wages—even if people try to refute it. But I don't know! Maybe it makes no difference at all. Maybe it's all bogus. Another thing is, and this goes back to how I feel about liberals and social media, people are really interested in presenting themselves in a way that comes off as smart, rational, cool, and ironic. And it's a restrictor plate.
Who are you describing when you rattle off those adjectives?
Like, everybody! But pick out a pundit of note, and they make these pithy little remarks about current events, they fire 'em out there, and they get a lot of retweets or whatever...
But Will: That's also you.
No! What I do is, I don't stop. You just keep going. People are like, "This guy's a maniac." This is what I've learned from working on a lot of political campaigns: You never worry about pushing your message too much, that you're annoying them. I don't care if people find it annoying. As long as the ideas are out there and you're forcing people to engage with them. That's what makes people change their minds. And liberals have this idea that they'll just develop really good ideas, and they'll sell themselves by virtue of their own brilliance. That's not how the world works. You have to go out there, and just have it out with people forever. The [negative] economic narrative has kind of crumbled since June. It's all what people in your social circles believe. You win over people by banging them over the head until they relent. Which is really annoying for me, and really annoying for them, and often very unpleasant. But it also kind of works, I think. We'll see.
I wanna run through some different groups, and ask you how they engage with you. Let's start with the Bernie/Chapo left, which seems uniquely irritated by Will Stancil. What are their critiques and how do you engage?
Oh, I don't know. I don't go after them too much.
But they go after you.
They do, they do. Sometimes it's good to fight back, and I do—a lot. I mean, I like Bernie. But I'd say there's a section of [that coalition] that's very cynical about real political outcomes. I work with policy makers, I like policy makers, I talk to my electeds even though I'm often to the left of them. We had this great legislative session in Minnesota last year, and that happened because, at the end of the day, everyone was willing to say yes. And if your faction is focused on being mad all the time, which a lot of people kinda enjoy, you're not going to get anything done. By far the worst actor might be Briahna Joy Gray, whose whole thing is getting people angry then cashing in on their anger. I think that's really counter-productive. I find that sort of nihilistic leftism really frustrating.
Which she'd probably counter with: It's not nihilism, it's tunnel vision in pursuit of Medicare for All.
Right, well, I don't agree. It's like, look, what have you gotten done? Nothing. Now elected officials are backing away from you, because they can't work with you. Again, I'm not afraid to criticize people I like. I've criticized Joe Biden a lot, I've criticized [Elizabeth] Warren; I've been viciously critical of moderate Democrats. But ultimately Joe Biden passed a big climate bill, which I never thought was going to happen. I'd rather live in a world where that happened, and I had to bite my tongue a little, then a world where it didn't and I had to be indignant all the time.
OK, that's group one. And there's a lot of evidence out there of your fights with Matt Yglesias, but how do centrists come at Will Stancil? You jokingly called Matt Yglesias your enemy, which is kind of ironic because I think a lot of your detractors would fashion you as something of a young Matt Yglesias.
Yeah, people have been trying to do that. I think on the economy thing we agree. And like, broadly, I'm not a super far-left socialist. I'm pretty progressive liberal, I guess. So you know, to people who are super far-left socialists, I look more like Matt than I do like them. But, of course, I've spent years fighting with Matt. People are always like [to me], "He's a Bernie socialist," "He's a neo-lib whatever." It's just whoever I'm fighting with at the moment, but I'm not either of them. I voted for Elizabeth Warren. I'm that kind of progressive, that's what I am.
I think [centrists] just like the economy. They like Joe Biden. My deal with Joe Biden is: I didn't vote for him in the primary, I didn't love him, he was terrible in his early career—he was a segregationist. My pet issue at my real job is school and housing integration, and he got elected by killing a lot of school integration. He has a negotiating style that kind of drives me crazy. I think you see it with Israel although this is a little taboo: When he's in a tough situation, he doesn't criticize the other side, he keeps his head down, and he works behind the scenes. He did it with the Inflation Reduction Act, with the debt ceiling, and he comes out at the end with imperfect deals that are way better than you think they'd be.
You could argue his inaction with criticizing Israel is very much antagonizing Palestine and, also, the rest of the Middle East.
Right, sure. His overall approach is not the aggressive one I'd want, and it has some costs, but it's not the total failure I thought it'd be. I don't think people on the internet understand how policy making works, but a lot of it is just who you appoint, and he has put a lot of really progressive people into agencies. He's clearly not super progressive or a leftist, but he has not done what you'd expect a Clinton-type to do and go after the left all the time.
He certainly hasn't punched left as much as most modern presidents have. But I'm curious, just as an observer of your feed, what would you say to a critic of yours who says you're just carrying water for the most powerful man on Earth?
I've criticized [Biden] for years, if he gets elected I'll criticize him again. But right now there's an election coming up, and Joe Biden has probably been the most progressive and effective president, policy-wise, of the past 50 years. Versus, literally, a fascist. At some point you have to make a choice. This isn't a hard choice.
As your online profile has grown, has anyone from the Democratic Party reached out to you to be a...
No. Nobody. No. Anyone who has followed me for more than six months knows I would not be a reliable messenger. Another thing that drives everybody crazy on Twitter is: I sincerely believe everything I'm saying. I don't do propaganda, although I get that a lot. I'm repetitive and I'm insistent, but I really do believe in what I'm talking about. I don't think anybody is particularly thrilled about my presence, to be honest, including my employer! [Laughs.]
How has becoming Twitter personality Will Stancil impacted your mental health?
It's stressful sometimes.
But also self-imposed.
Yeah. There are times when you look on there, and it's 10,000 people telling you to kill yourself, it's like... well, this sucks. [Laughs.] If everyone around me is telling me I'm the worst person in the world and I'm an idiot, it's hard to resist that feeling of, "Oh my god, what if they're all right?" You have to develop a certain ability to look back at what you believe, and why you believe it, and say: No. No. No. No. They're all wrong. They're crazy.
But there's positive feedback too, right?
There's some. It's a lot less. [Laughs.] You're supposed to never let 'em see you bleed, but I'll tweet about how the harassment sucks. I don't like the performance, the irony, the detachment. I think that's what leads you to become Matt Yglesias, a troll-type. I don't like being abused or harassed. I hear a lot of people say, "He gets off on it." No, I don't get off on it! I hate that. No one enjoys this.
That's such an interesting point, and "get off" puts a psychosexual element on it I want to avoid, but your ability to just... punching bag is the wrong word, because you're punching too. Just to be in the trenches to that extent—not a lot of people would volunteer for that.
I don't know. Maybe there is something wrong with me. [Laughs.] It's just like, look: I know what I believe. I've never looked around the room and thought, "What does everyone else think?" I think you need to recognize that temptation and realize nobody can come in your head and change your mind.
But you want to change minds.
I know, I'm hopefully going in their head and changing their mind. [Laughs.] But nobody can force you to do that. Especially with the economy stuff, where a lot of people who've previously been very friendly to me suddenly became very hostile. Ya know, it was tough. It was miserable.
Are you worried about your screentime?
How many hours, if you could ballpark it?
Oh, I don't know. It's honestly probably not as many as it feels. I'm never going to be on Twitter if I'm with my friends or interacting with people.
Do you have a partner now?
No, not right now. But I've dated people while I've been on Twitter. Ultimately, what do people do all day? They text each other, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, whatever. I don't have any of that. It's just a way of interacting with people. People think it takes more time than it does.
With the economy thing, is there a point where you can rest, say it's enough, chalk it up as a W or an L, and move on?
Well, sort of. You can feel the air change.
So when you're confronted with studies like 40% of people couldn't come up with money for a $400 expenditure...
That's not true. That's a bogus statistic. I don't want to say there aren't people struggling, and it's really important for me as a progressive that we help those people. Politically, the way to help those people, is to understand we're a very affluent society, on average, and we have enough wealth to help the people at the bottom. But the $400 thing, or the 60% of people living paycheck-to-paycheck, they're either misleading or just wrong. And they're dangerous because they just exist to add negativity. And when people call those things out, it's like, OK, it's out there in the ecosystem—the correct way to respond to this stuff, which means I don't have to. It's nice, the load is off. I can go fight with the Nazis now! [Laughs.]
Is that the reason for that recent pivot, where you're now fighting with neo-Nazi types? Is the reason because you feel freed from the vibes economy stuff?
Yeah. I feel like I sorta pushed that boulder up the hill.
Are you enjoying being big-tent Will Stancil, where the centrists and the leftists all enjoy your fighting with the far right?
No! I never enjoy it. It's always miserable. I don't want anybody to know who I am. I just want to be some guy, which is what I really am. I am fighting with these people though; they're literally Nazis, it's kind of scary. Ya know, I just hate them so much. I hate the way these Steve Sailer-types—these race and IQ people—have hung out on the fringes of the respectable right for my entire life.
Is Twitter a net positive or negative in your life, in terms of happiness?
There are a lot of bad things in the world. I don't have much influence over it. That's always the case with anybody. I would like to do my part to make the world a little better. Ultimately, if I'm being realistic, the thing that has the most impact is the fact I have a Twitter account with 60,000 followers that includes a lot of powerful people.
And as that reflects on your happiness?
When something’s bad, I can go fight the tide a little bit. One thing that drives me crazy, about liberals in particular but also increasingly some of these nihilistic leftists, is that they have no sense of agency over the world. That they can't change anything. Maybe if you go out there and try to change something hard enough and long enough, maybe you could change something. Whether or not it works? I don't know, but I'm doing something.
In terms of Minnesota's historical contribution to the punditry class, we've got neo-lib icon Thomas Friedman and, now, we've got you, kind of the millennial, online pundit from our state. Do you feel like part of the punditry class?
No, I don't think so. I'm just a guy who tweets a lot.
But what is the punditry class if not that? Maybe you gotta get invited on the shows...
I gotta go to a nicer college. People always do this thing like, "Who are you?!"
And that's exactly what I'm trying to answer.
If everyone stopped pretending they should listen to me... I'm just a guy who studies racial integration at the University of Minnesota!
Do you feel understood?
I don't know, there's a few people that understand me, I guess. I have a handful of friends who seem to broadly understand what I'm attempting to do, and that's good enough.
When you talk to normie, offline friends, what's their understanding of your life? Because I've tried to explain Will Stancil to friends who aren't online, and they're like, "What the fuck are you talking about?"
I can build a separation. I don't talk about Twitter day to day. Like, why would I want to?
I'm sure you've thought about this, but: Have you thought about what a pivot would be like, career-wise, if you leave academia and focus more on what you're doing online?
Yeah, and I don't think I would. I mean, I could definitely make some money on Substack or a podcast. But once you start taking money, it's inherently compromising. The easiest way to get positive audience reinforcement is telling them what they want to hear. I'm very wiling to tell my audience things that my audience probably doesn't want to hear. It's hard to resist the temptation to fall into that. I'm not doing this to be a big name; I'm doing it so I can make the Nazis go away and make people feel better about the economy.
Have you enjoyed reflecting on all this with me? Or is it stressful for you?
It's fine. Obviously it's a big part of my life, so what am I gonna do about it?
I have to ask this perfunctory question. Twitter is your social media platform of choice, and it's now owned by a complete shithead. What's your forecast for it?
I'm hoping it collapses—it'd release me and everyone else! This is controversial, and people get mad about it, but politics is about your audience. And when you have a Twitter account with 800,000 followers, and then you decide to leave because you can't support Elon Musk... I can't begrudge anyone for wanting to leave a platform that is dominated by neo-Nazis, which is certainly what I'm discovering. But I'll also say you're giving up power. That platform is power, and when liberals give it up, groups that you disagree with are going to gain power.
Yeah, I think you're generally right. And for me, personally, I fall back to the ol' "There's no ethical consumption," etc. etc. That's a cynical viewpoint, but again, if you look into who owns anything you're not going to like what you find.
That's true too, although I think Elon Musk is particularly odious. Hopefully it collapses. That'd be the happiest outcome.
I'll let you go in a minute, but for my project, my little article about who is Will Stancil, have we answered that question? Can one answer that question?
[Laughs.] I don't know. We haven't even talked about what I actually do in my life. I've given you my Twitter philosophy. This is the most detailed breakdown of Twitter dynamics I've given. That's your scoop!
I'm also interested in the psychology of you personally, which I don't think you've been that forthcoming with. Which is fine!
Honestly, I don't think it's that unusual. I'm a guy who believes things, and I'll be obnoxious about them until something gives.
But that's a rare trait.
To be obnoxious about politics? I'm not sure it is. That's everybody.
I think your pursuit of your goals is unique. Otherwise everyone would do it.
I think I have a higher tolerance, maybe, to be abused, and to just tunnel-vision on something. I would say that's probably true. Anybody could do this! I'm just repetitive. You're just not willing to be annoying. Be annoying! Don't worry if people find you obnoxious—your value does not come from them. If people imitated me, I could go do my thing and forget about all of this.
Do you kind of want to be freed from this?
There's only so much I can do on my own. I just want to live in a world where I'm not scared Donald Trump will be elected and impose a dictatorship. I could sleep at night.
I know you've been to The Armory at least once and enjoyed a beverage. Other than that, what do you do for fun?
I run, rock climb, go to the gym, bike, video games, reading. Your usual set of vaguely nerdy, Uptown-living guy stuff. I go to the bars, and sometimes I read books at them.
Which bars, in case somebody wants to come argue with you in real life?
Oh god, definitely not going to say that. I will say Lyle's was my all-time favorite bar, best bar in America in my opinion, and I'm so sad it's gone. I've been to the pinball bar a few times, it's OK.
Are you in Minneapolis for the long haul?
I guess, who knows? I like it here. I'm on my neighborhood board—I gotta keep the Lowry Hill board running!
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