Let me confess a guilty secret: I subscribe and support American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis’s Podcast. His show, titled “The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast” is an extension of the persona he cultivated through his novels and his Twitter account, and usually involves him ranting about whatever he doesn’t like in the current politically correct culture. He lambasts “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors,” and rarely brings anything valuable to our political discourse.
So why do I subscribe?
Partly it’s because I’m fascinated by professional naysayers, from Christopher Hitchens and H.L. Mencken to Ellis – people who proudly go against the crowd with their minority opinions. Also, Ellis can be a thoughtful critic when he wants to be, as in this piece honoring writer John Edward Williams. But with his most recent podcast, he goes a step too far by supporting #WalkAway, an anti-Democratic Party hashtag with an insidious background.
#WalkAway started last May when Brandon Straka, a New York hairdresser, posted a six-minute video outlining why he’s leaving the Democratic Party. The dramatic video, which cuts between a close-up of Straka talking and images of recent Democratic protests, is poorly made but gets its message across.
“Once upon a time, I used to be a liberal,” Straka begins, “because I felt I had found a tribe whose values aligned with my own.”
“I have watched as the left has allowed themselves to become hypnotized by false narratives and conclusions perpetuated by social justice warriors who misconstrue facts and evidence to confirm their own biases that everyone who does not comply with their prejudicial conclusions and follow their orders is a racist, a bigot, a Nazi, a white supremacist [etc., etc.]…
“The Left has now decided that its point of view is the only acceptable one, and that suppressing, censoring, and banning open dialogue and debate is virtuous and progressive.”
The video made Straka a folk hero among the right, sitting for interviews with Diamond and Silk, the African American women who were paid by the Trump campaign for their pro-Trump videos, Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, and even Info Wars lunatic Alex Jones. At the end of June, the hashtag exploded, resulting in a series of tweets with, according to this detailed article by Arc News’s Caroline O, engagement rates of 500-400%. The movement has also managed to reach many who already disdain identity politics and the mainstream liberal worldview, like Bret Easton Ellis.
Ellis, who didn’t vote in 2016, attacked the resistance last year in a post-inaugural podcast rant calling them sore losers who couldn’t accept that Trump won. Predictably, his liberal Los Angeles friends resented this attitude.
“I was normalizing him, and that was not acceptable,” he recalled, adding that the very mention of Trump made them look as if “[they] had been bitten by a zombie…and infected with the ‘rage’ virus…not [because] I supported something Trump had done, but because I simply hadn’t clawed my face off in anguish at something [he] had done.”
Ellis routinely talks about Straka’s video and the movement he’s launched, repeatedly telling his listeners, “walk away, walk away,” all the while excoriating “the shrieking antics [of] a party becoming unhinged and sliding into its death throes.”
Ellis’s description of the Democratic Party sounds nothing like the party I belong to, which currently holds an eight-point advantage over the Republicans in the latest midterm polls, and put forward a candidate who won the popular vote by almost 3 million people in the 2016 election. Heckling Trump aides who craft hateful policies is not a leftist “rage virus,” — it is an appropriate response to a monstrous policy. But there’s something darker going on here: in latching on to a vehicle for his discontent, Ellis is promoting a campaign and hashtag used by the Kremlin to influence Americans ahead of the midterms.
Many of the accounts which promoted #WalkAway last June were bots, several of which have now been taken down. Looking at the photo collages of their tweets in Caroline O’s article, they all share bot characteristics: the tweets are similarly worded, the accounts have suspicious names like @Gary74096760, only a few followers, and no identifying profile photos. The amount of engagement these tweets received given the relative anonymity of these accounts were another sign of a Russian operation – a fact confirmed by Hamilton 68, the dashboard tracking Russian Twitter activity, where #WalkAway was the number one hashtag from at least June 30th through July 5th. (As of today, it ranks at #5.)
Brandon Straka, the man behind it all, also remains a mystery. Apart from a few stray theater credits and some GoFundMe pages for one-man shows, there’s little information about him prior to his video. No evidence (as of yet) suggests he’s directly involved with the Kremlin. However, his appearance on RT promoting the campaign proves that, at the very least, he is OK with the way they have used it. To use an analogy about collusion from Mother Jones’ reporter David Corn:
“Imagine that you’re standing in front of a bank where there’s a robbery, but you’re told that there’s no robbery going on. If people walking by ask you what’s going on, and you tell them that there’s no robbery, you are aiding and abetting the bank robbers even if you haven’t conspired to do that with them.”
Ellis’s promotion of #WalkAway not only aids and abets a dangerous hashtag originated by bad actors, but also plays into the rebranding campaign the fringe right now engages in. So-called pundits like Milo Yiannopoulos (whom Ellis favorably retweeted before he was blocked from the site) got the platforms they did not because of any coherent worldview, but because they could make conservatism “cool” again with their rebel image. “Don’t like what the PC left tells you what you can and can’t say?” they ask. “Join us and say whatever you want!”
Ellis has long portrayed himself as a victim (despite his detestation of what he calls “victim culture”) because liberals don’t like everything he says. This makes him the perfect target for #WalkAway, which allows him to justify his narrative of self-victimization and lack of participation by having someone to blame. With #WalkAway, he can hang back with the “cool kids” and mock the Resistance liberals who fight Trump and the Republicans every day. But in misreading the tea leaves of this fraught political moment, he does not realize that his stance only deepens his long slide into irrelevancy as the culture leaves him behind.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.