How Gavin McInnes Went from Vice to the Far Right

The original Proud Boy built a media empire on racism, homophobia, and sexism. The world changed and he didn’t—and no one’s laughing now

I enjoy Talking to Gavin McInnes even all these years later—after he called single motherhood “child abuse” and said feminism makes women ugly; after insisting trans people are “gender niggers”; after he called Muslims “shoeless, toothless, inbred, hill-dwelling, rifle-toting, sodomy-prone men.” Talking to him late one afternoon last November, a few days after he stepped down from the Proud Boys—the “Western Chauvinist” men’s club he founded in 2016—felt both invigorating and dangerous, like knowingly touching a live wire. I was afraid of him, but I wanted, in a twisted way, for him to like me, the way you want your bully to like you. Like all good narcissists, McInnes is charming and funny when he’s not being awful. It’s his modus operandi: to disarm you with humor, provoke, and then deflect. It has been his schtick for 20 years, going back to when he was cofounder and editor of Vice, the chief architect of a culture born in the after-hours joints of the East Village and Williamsburg. His jokes haven’t changed, but the world has.

And he did, too. We were talking on the phone because McInnes had, following a brawl last October involving 10 Proud Boys, abruptly severed ties with the group that he had created. McInnes started the interview by buttering me up, telling me I was the only journalist who’d called the FBI and found out the Proud Boys were not designated as an “extremist group”—a notion that was reported in The Guardian and repeated worldwide but turned out not to be true.

The last time I had spoken to him, it was a few years after he had left Vice, around 2008. I was living in L.A. and commissioned him to write a piece for a website I was editing—a libertarian defense of not voting. Later, we’d text theories about the island on Lost.

I listened as he said all the bad words freely: “retards,” “the Jews.” I counted seven “niggers” during our conversation. “It’s just swearing,” he said and compared himself to Archie Bunker. Besides, McInnes said, “I never have, never ever used the N-word in a bona fide way—or ‘retard.’ I’ve never said retard to a person with Down syndrome in a million years in an angry way—or in any way.” Later, while we are still on the phone, he calls his friend, driving him to a restaurant in New York, a retard for taking a wrong turn.

If I had been, for a brief moment, OK in his world, I was suddenly and decidedly not so as soon as I asked about Nazis. The first thing McInnes wants you to know about Nazis is that he is so very tired of talking about them. There is no such thing as “secret Nazis,” he insists. I pictured him on the other side of the phone line red-faced and yelling, looking like a grizzlier, hipster version of Rip Taylor, with a handlebar mustache and a full beard. I reminded him that there are members of the Proud Boys who have been linked to neo-Nazis and white supremacist organizations. He disputed this and then threatened to sue me: “Tricia, we’re going to court.” (In February, McInnes filed a lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center for designating the Proud Boys a “hate group.” Online supporters ponied up $260,000 to fund his effort.) Not only does he not condone Nazis, McInnes says, he threw them out of his (former) organization. Certainly he himself is no Nazi. “It’s not possible to be a Nazi in Manhattan,” he says, exasperated. “You’d just seethe yourself to death in about two days.”

I admit I laughed. And I kind of hated myself for it.

Gavin McInnes has been making people hate themselves for laughing at the wrong things for 20 years. As the founding editorial voice of Vice, he was leading the charge of anti-PC humor born of the idea that everyone—including people who are disabled or members of an oppressed class—should take themselves less seriously. In its early years Vice trafficked in sexism and racism in the name of free speech and comedy, feelings be damned. McInnes’s famous Dos & Don’ts fashion column was the magazine’s most successful franchise, packed with gems like, “There’s nothing like a big-titted fatso to get under the covers with”—a “Do”—and “What are you doing, you stupid, stupid bitch?”—a “Don’t” directed at a woman who sported a short bob with a long skinny braid. Because there was some truth to his takes—a rattail is pretty awful—many people overlooked the misogyny, bigotry, and racism and chuckled anyway.

We were 15 years away from #MeToo, an eternity away from white male privilege, wokeness, and trigger warnings. “With 11 years of additional experience, like, wow, things have changed,” the comedian David Cross said when I called him recently. Cross was once one of McInnes’s closest friends. “We’ve changed. Society has changed so much from what seems like a more permissive era.”

In 2013 McInnes released a mockumentary, The Brotherhood of the Traveling Rants, in which he went on tour as a stand-up comedian. For the movie’s opening, he approached all of his famous friends and acquaintances on the alt-comedy circuit—Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Patton Oswalt, and Justin Theroux—to ask them for advice on comedy. They all shut the door in his face and told him to fuck off. Only Theroux obliged—while taking a dump.

The bit would prove prescient.

“I blocked him years ago on Twitter,” Oswalt said, “because he was basically like a 12-year-old shitlord.” Oswalt blurbed McInnes’s 2012 book How to Piss in Public, “but the next thing I knew, he’s, you know, doing flirty interviews with Emily Youcis”—a white supremacist It girl of sorts—“and I’m just like, ‘What the fuck?’” Oswalt added.

“All these alt-right guys are failed comedians,” Oswalt continued. “They all wanted to be comedians, or they’re fascinated with comedy. They hit some walls like everyone when you start off doing comedy, but they immediately metastasized what they perceived as showbiz failure into: ‘Well, fuck comedy. And, come to think of it, fuck all liberalism!’ And they went right-wing because of that.”

“We were ‘hipster racists’ or ‘ironic racists,’ and that’s just not OK. Putting words like ‘hipster’ or ‘ironic’ in front of ‘racist’ still makes you racist.” —Leslie Arfin

At Vice, McInnes coached his writers to say un-PC things. “Be an idiot. Be an asshole. Be yourself,” he counseled a writer during a job interview. One of the writers he groomed was Lesley Arfin, who wrote a column called Dear Diary, in which she looked back at her high school diary entries and recalled what really happened. In 2012, Arfin, who later went on to write for Lena Dunham on Girls and on Andy Samberg’s Brooklyn 99, became embroiled in a controversy for some racially insensitive tweets responding to people who criticized the lack of minority actors on Girls.

Today Arfin is a married mom who lives in L.A. She said, “[During the Vice years], I was interested in not taking myself too seriously, so as to seem like I was tough enough to hang. When they made anti-Semitic jokes, I joined in, because, ‘Hey, I can laugh at myself, too—that’s how cool I am.’” (Arfin is Jewish.) Now she told me, “I think a part of it was looking the other way. But another, bigger part was that we were ‘hipster racists’ or ‘ironic racists,’ and that’s just not OK. Putting words like ‘hipster’ or ‘ironic’ in front of ‘racist’ still makes you racist.”

For a while “ironic racism” was considered trendy and edgy—a brave counterbalance to oppressive PC culture. But Jimmy Kimmel, among others, always wondered where McInnes’s act ended and his sincere beliefs began. While interviewing Kimmel for a story about McInnes in 2008, I asked him to compare the kinds of things McInnes was saying to jokes by Kimmel’s then-girlfriend, Sarah Silverman. “When Sarah talks about racial stuff, she’s pretending—she’s playing a character that’s naive,” Kimmel replied. “Whereas Gavin, he’s right there with it. There is no twist. It’s just a picture of two black people and something horrible underneath.” Asked if McInnes was simply misunderstood, Kimmel said, “I don’t think there’s any misunderstanding.” (Kimmel declined to be interviewed for this story.) While his Vice cofounders went on to become vastly more successful than he, McInnes has straddled the line between wannabe comic and free-speech advocate. People have wondered for a while if his right-leaning views are real or a joke. “I’m still doing satire,” McInnes insisted over the phone in November. “The difference is I got kicked out of comedy.”

Gavin McInnes on New York’s Lower East Side in 2001 during his formative years as a comedian and right-wing provocateur. As cofounder of Vice Media, he popularized the anti-PC humor that would later dovetail with the rise of Trumpism and the alt-right.

Gavin McInnes

According to his bio in the Vice Dos and Don’ts book, McInnes “is a complete asshole that ostracizes everyone he speaks to and dresses like a fucking idiot. Um, what else? He was born just outside of London in 1970, played in a bunch of crappy punk bands like Anal Chinook and Leatherassbuttfuk, did a comic book called Pervert for several years and started up Vice magazine in Montreal in 1994 with Suroosh Alvi and Shane Smith.”

As the lore goes, in 1994 the trio used welfare funds to start a magazine called the Voice of Montreal. McInnes writes in How to Piss in Public that the magazine was originally supposed to cover multiculturalism but instead published a lot of crude jokes, reviews of punk bands, and political rants. They were soon fired but decided to continue the magazine on their own. After shortening the name to the Voice (and then reportedly settling a legal dispute with the Village Voice), they changed the name to Vice and in 2001 moved from Montreal to New York with the help of a million-dollar investment from Canadian billionaire Richard Szalwinski.

At the time, I was a writer for the Village Voice, covering underground New York nightlife. It was just before 9/11, during the last vestiges of the Giuliani administration, when Brooklyn hadn’t yet morphed into a mommy-blogger playground with strollers and expensive loft apartments. Back then you could still go to an all-hours bar called Kokie’s in the heart of Williamsburg that, true to its name, sold cocaine (even if it was mostly baby powder). It was the era of the post-Kids Harmony Korine and Chloë Sevigny ironic white-trash aesthetic, and Vice was in the middle of it all. If you ran around in media, music, or art circles in downtown New York at that time, you knew at least one of the Vice cofounders: Smith, who until March 2018 was CEO, was the cokehead womanizer; McInnes was the class bully posing as the class clown; and journalist-filmmaker Alvi, well, he was Switzerland—the guy people had warm feelings for, mostly because he was not an asshole.

Even as the media empire grew, McInnes remained the voice of Vice. For much of the early 2000s, it was a free magazine you’d find stacked in bars like Max Fish, a Lower East Side hangout popular with skaters, punk rockers, and rising comics like Cross and Silverman. McInnes wrote most of the regular features, sometimes using pseudonyms. “I did all the editing. I controlled the content,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I used aliases to become women. I was a black guy. [Vice] was 100 percent my baby.” When Cross and McInnes, having never met, bumped into each other in an East Village bar one night, their admiration was mutual. McInnes told Cross how much he loved Mr. Show, Cross’s HBO series with Odenkirk, and Cross told him how much he loved Vice. They quickly hit it off by teasing a couple of barflies. “He kept escalating, and we were cracking each other up by ragging on these guys to their face, and it was like instant friends,” Cross told me in 2008, quickly adding even then: “I disagree with him drastically and vehemently on a number of things.”

In the years that followed, Cross and McInnes became close friends and collaborators, working together on projects like The Vice Guide to Travel, a series released on DVD by MTV in 2006, and Soul Quest Overdrive, a 2010 show for the Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim block. And as Vice’s reputation grew, McInnes began pulling famous comedians into the fold to do guest pieces for the magazine. Silverman and Kimmel both wrote for McInnes. So did Janeane Garofalo, who wrote “I Hate the Right” for The Hate Issue.

“Basically he’s a comedy writer,” Kimmel once told me, “so he just doesn’t seem to have the moral or ethical constraints that most human beings have. It’s as if he’s operating in a vacuum.”

At Vice, McInnes reveled in over-the-top, boundary-breaking naughtiness. A feature in 2000, “The Vice Guide to Anal Sex,” opened with McInnes recalling having sex with “a 32-year-old militant feminist girlfriend” and telling her: “I love hurting you.” The piece came with a warning: “This article is not for fags. Telling fags how to have anal sex is like telling Puerto Ricans how to have babies.” During one interview, he talked a lot about his dick. And he is known among his friends for his dick jokes, for taking it out in public, for drawing it in interviews. “He’s like the world’s smartest 12-year-old,” Trace Crutchfield, a video producer at Vice, once told me.

When the September 11 attacks struck lower Manhattan, McInnes watched the World Trade Center burn and then collapse from the roof of his Lower East Side apartment. The tragedy was a political turning point for him. A few months later he came across Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West. Published soon after 9/11, the controversial book argued that Western white culture was in danger of being swamped by immigrants and anti-American leftism. Keegan Hankes, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, tells me Buchanan’s tract has become “almost a foundational text” for many white nationalists. For McInnes it served as a wake-up call. “After that, I was off to the races,” he said.

A feature that McInnes ran in the magazine in 2002, “The New Conservatives,” was packaged as a piss take on fashion but reads today like a proto-manifesto for the Proud Boys. Introducing a spread of sullen models wearing expensive couture, he wrote that these New Conservatives “define the West as English Canada, America, and Britain and they are proud of Western heritage.” They “believe immigrants should assimilate and embrace their new country’s culture. Though they are made up of all races, the New Conservatives use words like nigger, paki and chink with reckless abandon. They claim politically correct words are the result of liberals trying to shape fear and guilt into meaningless syntax.”

At that time, Vice was ascendant, and the press was beginning to take notice. The New York Press, an alternative weekly, ran a feature about the three cofounders with a photo of McInnes dressed as a skinhead, Smith as a prison inmate, and Alvi as the man they presumably beat up. In the interview McInnes says of Williamsburg hipsters: “Well, at least they’re not fucking niggers or Puerto Ricans. At least they’re white.”

Then in 2003 The New York Times profiled Vice, noting its move toward the mainstream. The article also noted McInnes’s right-leaning views. “I love being white,” he is quoted as saying, “and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.”

The quote ricocheted through the New York media world. Gawker ripped him for his statement, and McInnes backpedaled, writing, “I will now be saying stuff to the press that is so left-wing, so Black Power, that it will make your ears burn off.” (More recently he has rescinded that apology.) For Crutchfield, who officiated at McInnes’s 2005 wedding to Emily Jendrisak, who is part Native American, the Times article was disillusioning. “He doesn’t know this: I made, like, an effigy of Gavin dressed exactly like they were dressed in that interview,” Crutchfield told me recently. “And I tied it on a rope, and I threw it over the streetlight at North Sixth and Bedford. And I told him, ‘They’re hanging your body in mock effigy.’ That was my way of trying to show him, like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’”

The loudest voices defending McInnes, publicly at least, were his friends from the comedy world. In the same Times story that got McInnes in trouble, Silverman was quoted as saying, “If you think Vice is misogynistic, then you are a self-centered white woman. Because Vice is so much more. It harshly makes fun of men, women, all races, nerds, hipsters, the elderly, the short, the tall, the fashionable. It’s without boundaries, which is what makes the playing field even.”

In 2006, McInnes, Cross, and Crutchfield went to China to film an early segment of The Vice Guide to Travel in what was Vice’s first video production for a big corporation, Viacom, owner of MTV. One night at a bar in Shanghai that had an American rock-and-roll theme, the owner mistook the group for a band and asked them to play as the opening act at a show a couple of nights later. “We’re like, ‘Sure,’” Cross told me in 2008. “We called ourselves American Pie, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re pretty popular in the States.’” Though none of them know how to play any instruments, they came back and took the stage in front of an audience that for the most part didn’t understand English. “We sang a song called ‘Yellow Man, What Are You Doing?’” Cross said. “It’s this ridiculous ‘You built our railroads and for that we thank you, but now it’s time to leave.’” The footage didn’t make the final cut, but Cross said that it was “pretty awesome.” “That would be my favorite thing that we ever did.”

Today, Cross defends what happened on stage that night, saying it was more about making fun of bad punk rock than making racist jokes. “The prank is on people who were there and thought we were a punk band,” he said. Crutchfield isn’t so sure. “I was there, and I was not happy at all,” he said. “In fact, when we came back from China, they all stopped in San Francisco, and I was like, ‘No, I’m going home.’ Part of the reason was that whole ‘Yellow Man’ thing—it just wasn’t funny to me.”

After the trip Cross and McInnes stayed close, literally: They bought homes in the Catskills separated by a short walk through the woods. But back at the Williamsburg headquarters of Vice, McInnes’s unpredictable nature was becoming a problem for the burgeoning brand and the multinational corporations that were clamoring to become clients. A 2007 Times story about the company’s corporate clients included only the briefest mention of its cofounder: “Mr. McInnes, who had become known for making racially charged remarks, perhaps as pranks, fell out of day-to-day involvement with the company.” A couple of months later, in January 2008, McInnes announced his official departure from Vice in a mass email: “I no longer have anything to do with Vice. … It’s a long story but we’ve all agreed to leave it at ‘creative differences,’ so please don’t ask me about it.” Without Vice to anchor him, McInnes soon found himself at a crossroads, unsure whether to pursue a career as an entertainer or dive more deeply into politics. His first major post-Vice venture, the website Street Carnage, featuring a bizarre assortment of old TV clips and D-list celebrity fare, was soon collecting internet dust. For a while he was a regular guest on Fox News’s bizarre late-night show Red Eye, hosted by Greg Gutfeld, another right-wing former magazine editor (Maxim, Stuff) who had specialized in limning the boundary between outrage and humor.

Soon after departing Vice, McInnes was recruited to write for Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who went on to become a majordomo of the alt-right movement. At that time, Spencer was the executive editor of Takimag, the vanity website of Taki Theodoracopulos, a New York society gadfly who had a history of penning racist columns for conservative outlets.

“Gavin was ‘alt-right,’ ” Spencer tells me. “That term was just being used. You certainly can’t pigeonhole him as a movement conservative, like a D.C. Beltway type, and he’s obviously not the religious right. He’s not quite a libertarian. So, you know, what is he? He was the exact type of person that I wanted to recruit.” The first column McInnes wrote for Takimag was “Fuck Single Mothers (Figuratively).”

In 2010, McInnes cofounded an ad company, Rooster New York, with marketer Sebastian Eldridge. The firm was hit by a social media boycott when McInnes posted a hate-filled article on Thought Catalog deriding transgender people as “mentally ill gays who need help, and that help doesn’t include being maimed by physicians.”

Meanwhile, Vice, now a multimedia empire, was announcing one massive fundraising round after another.

Some of McInnes’s old circle wonder if being excommunicated from Vice just before it made his former partners massively rich had left him embittered. “I do wonder if that had anything to do with Gavin’s continuous move rightward,” Cross speculated. Oswalt said, “He has to wake up every day going, ‘My friends are billionaires because I tried to do that stuff in The New York Times, and it cost me being in this empire.’” McInnes’s devolution into full-on far-right cultural warrior increasingly shut him off from the comedy world. Eventually he even stopped speaking to Cross. “I was actually holding out a little longer than other people were. Like, ‘He’s all right, it’s going to be fine,’” said Cross, “All of a sudden, there was a lot of anger behind the stuff he said. And then other people—especially people in the comedy community—he really alienated them.”

Cross recalled how when he and his wife sent out invites to their annual Christmas party about five years ago, “somewhere between half and 75 percent, on their own, independently, individually, wrote back, ‘If Gavin is going to be there, I’m not coming.’” By that time McInnes and Cross had stopped walking through the woods to visit each other at their Catskills homes. “I just didn’t want that energy at my place,” Cross said. “It just stopped being fun or funny.”

Then came Trump.

Members of the Proud Boys, the right-wing group McInnes founded in 2016 and has since disavowed, march in Portland, Oregon, in August.

Alex Milan Tracy

In 2010 in an online Q&A for New York magazine, McInnes was asked the stock question, “What do you think of Donald Trump?” He replied, “He built an empire out of nothing, and he’s a ridiculous-looking asshole who terrorizes Rosie O’Donnell. I feel a bond with him that makes Elliott and E.T. look like Paris and Nicole.” By the time Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, McInnes had become a rightwing aristocrat. At the DeploraBall at the National Press Club, organized by Mike Cernovich (the man who popularized the Pizzagate conspiracy theory), McInnes emerged as a member of an unlikely new trio: The square-jawed Spencer, always in a suit and tie, was for the old-school purists who are serious about white supremacy. Milo Yiannopoulos, a fey provocateur with bleached-blond hair, played to the gays and the college kids. And rounding out the group was McInnes, a snarling, tattooed ex-punk who spoke to the lost hipsters and blue-collar guys. They made a perfect trifecta.

McInnes had started the Proud Boys in early 2016 as a quasi-fan club for himself, but with Trump’s political ascendance, the group began to expand rapidly beyond its founder. There were meet-ups in New York and Los Angeles, and eventually chapters sprang up around the country and other parts of the world. McInnes claims the group now has up to 10,000 members. The Proud Boys’ messaging is vintage McInnes, virtually identical to the sort of things he wrote in Vice, but intervening events have given them a much more sinister cast. Several Proud Boys attended Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally in August 2017; member Jason Kessler, in fact, organized the event. After Kessler’s role was exposed in the media, though, McInnes booted him from the group and took a public stance against white nationalists. But not everyone is convinced of his sincerity.

McInnes has said he meant the Proud Boys to be a hipster Masonic Lodge—a men’s club for disaffected young men. Riffing on Fight Club, members were required to participate in various initiation rituals, including being beaten while naming five breakfast cereals, giving up masturbation, and getting a tattoo. Dante Nero, an African American comedian and podcast host, was a “high-ranking” early member (he came up with the “no-wanking” rule), but left the group after seeing racist memes proliferate on its official Facebook page. Nero said of McInnes, “He has a way of kind of riding the fence between guiding people and leading people in a direction and still making them feel like he’s one of them.”

By the end of last year, as his association with the Proud Boys became increasingly publicized, McInnes announced he was “disassociating himself” from the group and claimed he was “never the leader, only the founder.” Still, he couldn’t shake the association: Facebook and Twitter banned both McInnes and the Proud Boys; YouTube briefly banned and then reinstated him; his show at the conservative online video network CRTV was canceled; and Australia reportedly rejected his visa application for a string of appearances he had planned for this year. Attempts to return to Twitter as “Miles McInnes”—his fake “SJW” brother, a character on his new TV show, The Rebel—were nipped in the bud. Even his neighbors in the leafy Westchester County suburb north of New York where McInnes lives with his wife and three kids, had a beef with him after journalist Amy Siskind posted a warning on Facebook that McInnes was living in their midst. When McInnes, his wife, and their children went to Siskind’s doorstep one night, Siskind called the police.

Without McInnes, the Proud Boys grew emboldened. In August, the group held a march in Portland, Oregon, which garnered national news coverage for clashes with anti-fascist protestors. While McInnes’s efforts to distance himself from the group have not been entirely successful, they have drawn the ire of some former supporters. “Gavin is unsuccessfully trying to create space for himself by denouncing the alt-right,” Spencer tells me. “But then, in a weird way, he presents himself as the alt-right. I’ve also noticed this among other people who will kind of be like, ‘Oh, I’m not big, bad Richard Spencer, who talks about an ethnostate and reads Nietzsche. I’m just a reasonable guy.’ But then they basically want to appeal to the same audience I appeal to.”

The similarities between Spencer and McInnes are obvious: They’re both quick-witted and intelligent men, darkly charming when they want to be. Spencer understands what McInnes is doing better than most because he’s pursued the same strategy. In a documentary about the Charlottesville riots, Spencer once bragged to Vice (oh, the irony) how good the alt-right was at marketing. He said Gavin is a savvy marketer, too.

“Gavin wants to be the edgiest guy in the room. But then the ultimate taboo is white identity. He has to touch on that. But then, at the end of the day, he’s not ultimately serious.” —Richard Spencer

“There are two things that struck me as very important,” Spencer said of the Proud Boys. “The first is that they would always brag about, like, ‘Oh, we have gay members. We have a trans member. We have a Hispanic member. We have a black guy,’ and yet at the same time, the aesthetics of the group were, you could say, white nationalism or even skinhead.” Spencer points out that the Fred Perry shirts favored by the group first became associated with white supremacists in the 1960s and 1970s as part of British skinhead culture. “He’s gesturing,” Spencer says of McInnes. “You didn’t have to choose that [uniform].”

Spencer is also critical of the ways the Proud Boys glamorize violence. One of its initiations is getting involved in a fight for the cause. In 2017, McInnes went on Joe Rogan’s podcast (The Joe Rogan Experience) dressed like Michael Douglas’s misguided vigilante in Falling Down, and said, “You have to get arrested or in a serious violent fight” to earn the fourth degree. Of course, when it’s inconvenient, McInnes says he’s just joking.

“He would often say totally irresponsible things that he now claims are comedy,” Spencer said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘If you attack us, we’ll punch back harder.’ That is self-defense. I’ve listened to these interviews, he was making statements that could not be rationally construed as self-defense.”

Rogan said on his podcast shortly after McInnes stepped down from the Proud Boys, “There’s two different ways you can go through life: You can pretend, put on an act—or you can be yourself. What he’s chosen to do is a little bit of both. He’s chosen to pretend a little bit but also to be himself. It’s hard for people to know where the line is.”

“Gavin wants to be the edgiest guy in the room,” Spencer said. “But then the ultimate taboo is white identity. He has to touch on that. But then, at the end of the day, he’s not ultimately serious.”

“Isn’t the fourth degree explicitly invoking violence?” I asked McInnes one day. “It’s a joke, it’s like a consolation prize,” he replied. “It’s not meant to be like, ‘You just earned your stripes.’” And what are we to make of the fact that the Proud Boys flash the OK symbol in photos, which some take to be a White Power sign? “It means, ‘I think liberals are fucking stupid babies,’” McInnes said and laughed. But that symbol is the same one flashed in court by the Christchurch shooter after he livestreamed the machine-gun deaths of 51 people in a mosque.

McInnes with Fox News favorites Lynnette Hardaway (left) and Rochelle Richardson, aka Diamond and Silk. “I love being white,” he told The New York Times, “and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted.”

Gavin McInnis

At the end of last year, as I was researching this story, McInnes and I began texting a lot. He wanted to make sure I did not paint him as a major racist and Islamophobe. He wanted to regale me with his crazy conspiracy theories about Charlottesville, like his contention that James Fields, who pleaded guilty to killing Heather Heyer after driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, was spooked by an AK-47-wielding antifa member. He wanted to tell me that his friends turned on him because they all have Trump Derangement Syndrome. When I ask why he thinks this is happening to him, the unfriending, the deplatforming—or depersoning, as he calls it—he replied, “Someone very powerful is out to get me.” McInnes said that he has never felt more like an outsider than in Westchester. “I thought we’d blend in eventually, but it went the other way, and now we’re more like The Addams Family.”

He’s not the first on the right to try to explain away racism or bigotry as humor or claim to be the real victim of the story. Figures, like Yiannopoulos and Cernovich, and conservative talking heads Steven Crowder and Kurt Schlichter also wrap themselves in the flag and complain that they aren’t allowed to speak freely because uptight “libtards” are ruining their fun.

I kept trying to get McInnes to admit culpability, to elicit some empathy for the violence that is, at least partly, a result of his poisonous rhetoric. I know that kindness exists inside him because he flashes it to me occasionally. In one of our calls, he wanted to know my “situation”—whether I am single or not. “I want to promote patriarchal values,” he said when I ask why he wanted to know. “There’s a real anti-family thing going on, and childless and alone as a bunch of sad cat moms—that makes me sad for them. I wish they could have had families. Maybe that’s when I get so much bias in the articles about me, because they tend to be written by single women who are never going to have kids and they resent that.”

When I confided to him that my boyfriend had recently died in a motorcycle accident, McInnes conveyed a genuine sense of kindness and decency that helped me understand why Arfin is still reluctant to disavow him completely. “It’s difficult for me to say he’s no longer my friend, because it’s muddled into so many people wanting me to say that I hate him now, and I don’t hate Gavin at all,” she wrote me in an email. “I love Gavin. I love his entire family. It pains me that I don’t know how to have a relationship with someone I love who also happens to promote really scary, fucked-up, insane and violent shit.”

Just before McInnes and I hung up, he apologized again for my loss. In a subsequent text he reiterated his empathy and offered me a modicum of advice, along with a dose of sexism. “If you were a dude, I’d tell you to go fuck some 5s,” he texted, referring to average-looking women. “Get your groove back. It’s not the same with women, though.”

Still, I want to believe he can change. That hope—that McInnes is just a funny guy who takes it too far, that he’d disavow his outright sexism and bigotry when he saw the kind of violence it begets—is not for McInnes as much as it is for all the men who follow him who are lost, looking for a bogeyman, a scapegoat, for the failures of modern life. McInnes is, in their eyes, a guy who achieved the American dream: a wife, a million or so bucks in the bank, a few kids, a nice house in a posh suburb. (They conveniently leave out that McInnes is an immigrant himself.) If McInnes can change, I want to believe that all these men who’ve gone down the Reddit rabbit hole of red-pilling and MRA-swilling message boards can change, too.

But when I press him, it’s clear that in his view he’s done nothing wrong—none of it is his fault. In his eyes, he is the victim and martyr.

Crutchfield said, “People ask me about this, and I’ve been kind of giving the same answer all along: It’s not an act anymore. This is what he does. This is de rigueur. This is his whole thing. If it’s an act, he never comes out of character.”

One evening I asked McInnes what happened with his Australian visa, if there was any news. He texted back, “Still up in the air. Govt facing corruption charges for leaking to the media.”

“You can’t be fucking serious,” I texted back. But he was. He always was.

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