On February 8, Washington Square News (WSN), one of NYU’s student papers, ran a correction of sorts in an editorial, headlined: “McInnes: You Are Not a Nazi, Please Stop Harassing Us.”
It was a reference to an earlier story that implied that Gavin McInnes — one of the founders of Vice (he left the company in 2008), now a right-wing talk show host — was a Holocaust denier. McInnes is not. He responded to the story by loosing his army of 163,000 Twitter followers on the paper’s editor and threatening to sue the publication for libel.
The reason WSN had written about McInnes to begin with was because of an incident the week before, when a speech he was scheduled to give on campus drew a crowd of Antifa demonstrators and quickly became a melee.
Both sides arrived primed for a fight. The demonstrators were outraged that a “Nazi” had been invited to speak at a progressive campus, and their goal was to shut the event down. When McInnes and a group of supporters from his fan club, the “Proud Boys,” approached the Skirball Center, punches were thrown, McInnes was sniped with pepper spray by a demonstrator, and eleven people — representing both sides of the conflict — were arrested.
After the confrontation, McInnes, 46, spent a few days doing interviews with right-wing media outlets like the One America News Network and Sputnik News, trying to differentiate his views from those of the white-nationalist fringe. As WSN conceded, McInnes does not identify as a Nazi. He calls himself a “Western chauvinist,” espousing the idea that Western civilization, which he associates with “Judeo-Christian values,” is superior to all others. Since his Vice days, McInnes has embraced the role of provocateur. He’s happy to toss off racist jokes about Susan Rice, tagging her on Twitter recently with the alt-right slur “dindu nuffin,” or to refer to Jada Pinkett Smith as a “monkey actress,” as he did on his radio show last year. He has also been a vocal supporter of closed borders and, in his Twitter bio, identifies himself as “anti-Islam.” Nevertheless, he rejects any comparison between his articulated beliefs and a philosophy of white-supremacist racism.
That kind of linguistic parsing makes McInnes a perfect figure for the Trump era. At a time when the Justice Department is arguing that an executive order barring immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries has nothing to do with Islam, we seem to be in an age of oratorical gymnastics.
McInnes was an early and prominent Trump supporter. He and I met during the presidential campaign, after I crashed a meeting of his Proud Boys at a bar in Brooklyn. Best described as a fan group for McInnes’s show, the Proud Boys exist primarily online, and in practice the group is mostly apolitical. The meetup I attended consisted of a handful of millennial men drinking beer, fighting outsiders, and reveling in an anti-p.c. space where they were free to toss around the word faggot to their hearts’ content. The Proud Boys, McInnes likes to point out, include men of different races, and that was true from what I saw.
We talked a few more times before the election and met again last month at an Irish bar called Sullivan’s in midtown Manhattan, where I found McInnes and a researcher draining Budweisers in front of a plate of nachos at 2 p.m. I’d asked for an interview because I was interested in a kind of schism that has emerged between people like him and the internet’s explicitly white-nationalist contingent (as embodied by Richard Spencer, he of punch-meme fame).
The harder-core like Spencer sneer at the McInneses of the world, among whom they would include other provocateurs on the right like Milo Yiannopoulos. “Alt-light,” they call them. And McInnes, in turn, hates being associated with Spencer. We didn’t get very far before McInnes’s frustration became apparent. “I’ve always been clear that I’m about Western chauvinism,” he said. “I mean, my wife’s not fucking white.” (His wife is Native American.) “My kids aren’t white.” When I pointed out that his defense — that he associates with people of other races — sounds like something of a cliché, he didn’t like that much, either.
“You know what pisses me off about you fucking people?” McInnes said. “You have these clichés, where you go, ‘Oh, that’s the classic this-argument,’ and you never back it up….Yeah, race mixing does exonerate you. Fucking having black friends does exonerate you.”
In McInnes’s view, liberals are too caught up with “microaggressions and ‘diet racism.’ ”
“What’s wrong with noticing a pattern with a race?” he asks. “Racism is saying, ‘This race is this way and there’s no exception.’ ”
However, McInnes’s own view of what constitutes racism appears so narrow that all manner of bigotry can filter through. The demonstrators at his speech last week weren’t all that interested in the finer points of his “Western chauvinism” — any more, of course, than he’s interested in sorting anarchists and sundry leftists from Democrats and “Obama worshippers.” But at a time when the language of thinly veiled bigotry is being written into executive orders and federal policy, and men like former Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon have the president’s ear, the taxonomy of nationalism seems beside the point. Whether McInnes and his ilk are bullshitting or gaslighting, the effects of the policies they espouse are the same, just as Trump’s ban is still a ban by any name.
McInnes, for his part, seems to have embraced the newfound excitement. Outside a party on inauguration weekend, he punched a demonstrator, on camera, and then proudly shared the video. The morning after the protest at NYU, he posted a clip on YouTube entitled “Fighting ‘anti-fascists’ is fun!” It seems likely that he’ll continue to posture, at least, about meeting force with force. And he’ll probably have a few takers.