"There is an incentive to be a victim. It is cool to be a victim."
Gavin McInnes was talking about Darth Vader the other day, and starting to seethe.
Once upon a time, McInnes had been a co-founder of Vice, the millennial media brand that launched as a free Montreal music magazine in 1994. He was the one behind its brash voice and hipster DNA, a provocative writer and editor with a nose for raunchy street culture. But in 2008, his partners pushed him out amid so-called "creative differences." Vice exploded into a multibillion-dollar worldwide business venerating the new global youth culture. McInnes went the other way, doggedly hacking a jagged but unrelenting path to the far-right fringes of American culture.
Now 47, with a wife and three kids in the suburbs, McInnes plays host to a subscription-based online TV talk show from a tiny studio in Manhattan's garment district, wearing dapper suits and spraying racial and sexual-orientation epithets while beating the drum for libertarian politics, Father Knows Best gender roles, closed borders, Islamophobia and something he calls "Western chauvinism," a dream made manifest through a fraternal order he founded last year called the Proud Boys. (He also makes videos for Canada's Rebel Media, although word leaked this week that he would be leaving it for a bigger platform.)
On this day late last month, McInnes was raging against an ad campaign for the Broadway show Kinky Boots that featured a half-dozen celebrities poured into the musical's trademark red sequined boots, including the tennis star Martina Navratilova, singer Josh Groban and – evidently a sacrilege – James Earl Jones.
"Look at [expletive] Darth Vader!" McInnes spat. "He rules not just the dark side of one planet, but the entire universe, and we put him in [expletive] thigh-high boots. What. The. [Expletive]?! That's exactly what I'm talking about!"
Perhaps we should back up. McInnes had opened the show ranting about "cuckmercials," TV spots he believed were subverting the culture by, say, depicting emasculated men or mixed-race couples. But the issue was more complicated than it seemed at first glance, as it often is with McInnes: His wife is part American Indian, a fact he tends to brandish like a Get Out of Jail Free card in a game of real-life Monopoly.
"I've made mixed-race babies," he noted. "I'm not against it, clearly! But it just gets annoying when it gets shoved down your face!"
Later, McInnes would return to the theme, insisting that his semiotic analysis of ads was serious business. "It is relevant, because when you [different expletive] on your own culture again and again and again, you enable jihadists," he bellowed. "They don't want to assimilate! They want to replace. And we're not gonna' let that happen."
McInnes often invokes images of barbarians at the gates, and he likely would have done so again this Saturday afternoon, as one of the featured speakers at a free-speech rally in Boston Common. But on Monday, after a protester had been killed by a car in Charlottesville, Va., during a weekend of white-supremacist demonstrations, rumours began to swirl that Boston would be cancelling the permit; McInnes admitted he didn't want to go, after all. (It is going ahead.)
"The unfortunate position that Charlottesville put us in … [is] now [it would seem as if] we're speaking on behalf of Alex Fields Jr., who [allegedly] murdered a woman," he explained that afternoon, over the phone from New York. "We're now his ambassadors, and we're fighting these [anti-fascist] kids, physically fighting, on behalf of white nationalists who purposely threw dynamite into a wasp's nest. And that's not my cause. I don't want to fight on their behalf!"
McInnes has been spending a lot of time like this lately, trying to ensure he isn't yoked to other yokels: He had formally disavowed the Charlottesville rally back in June, but critics noted its chief organizer, Jason Kessler, had once been a member of the Proud Boys. (McInnes said he kicked Kessler out once his racist politics became apparent.)
You could understand how people might have been confused. McInnes is also a prized contributor at Rebel Media, Ezra Levant's far-right online news and commentary site, and last March he made a video trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes about the causes of the Holocaust and the Ukrainian genocide known as the Holodomor. After the former Klansman David Duke and the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer praised the video, McInnes swore at them on Twitter.
This week, Rebel scrambled to contain the damage after its coverage of Charlottesville struck some as friendly to the white supremacists. Reporter Brian Lilley and columnist Barbara Kay both quit the site, and federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer issued a statement saying he would not grant interviews to Rebel until its editorial direction changed.
McInnes seemed exasperated with the whole business. "Why are we going to so many rallies? What's with all the activism?" he wondered aloud during Tuesday's show. "I don't know, man. Let's take a break. That's not what we set this thing up for," he said, referring to the Proud Boys. "Booze is what we're about."
If I were being honest, I'd have to admit that I felt for him. Since the middle of July, McInnes had taken up residence in my frontal cortex as I immersed myself in his recent oeuvre, including his foulmouthed 2012 memoir, How to Piss in Public, and the 2013 indie comedy How to Be a Man, a ribald and intermittently sentimental bit of filler in which McInnes stars as an ad-agency creative who makes a video for his unborn son because he believes he is dying of breast cancer. (At the time, McInnes was the chief creative officer of the ad agency Rooster NY, and his third child was on the way).
Then there is the eponymous show he's the host of for the subscription streaming service Compound Media, a company started by shock jock Anthony Cumia after being fired in 2014 amid allegations of a racist Twitter tirade.
Monday through Thursday mornings, McInnes serves up a corrosive cornucopia of race-baiting, paranoia, performative outrage and woman-bashing. (On one show, he said a female writer who had been critical of him was "out to destroy men, because men didn't impregnate her." On another, he suggested some women launch sexual-assault allegations to become celebrities: "There is an incentive to be a victim," he declared. "It is cool to be a victim.")
But after a few days of being pummelled by the slurs, I found they lost most of their power: His use of them, at least the racial ones, seemed like a tic borne of a free-speech absolutism and willful disregard for context, rather than rooted in hatred. (The misogyny and transphobia were harder to swallow, because they flared with genuine anger and felt more deeply ingrained.) The show took on an almost surreal quality, at times seeming like a satire of itself. It reminded me of the way Hazlitt magazine's Alexandra Molotkow had described her experience of reading Vice as a teenager: "I was privately shocked by what passed for normal in its world, so I kept reading until I wasn't."
Sometimes, watching McInnes's show reminded me of the early years of Vice, where irony and sincerity were dizzyingly fungible. And every so often, glimmers of his old self-mockery would shine through, like a secret message blinked out by a captive in a hostage video.
Was that, I wondered, the real McInnes? What had pushed him to the edge?
A few weeks ago, I caught up with him by phone. He was at his house in a "chichi suburb" in Westchester County, north of New York, where he and his family had moved last year from Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighbourhood. His wife was with the kids at their country place upstate, and he had the afternoon free.
He was in the mood for an argument, and he began by keeping score of our conversation: When I mentioned that, during his show, he sometimes references European art films (Betty Blue, Withnail & I, etc: signifiers of a certain kind of late-eighties Canadian undergrad), which seemed likely to be more popular among the "lefties" he derided than his audience, he replied, "Touché, sir. Point one for Simon."
Let's not do that, I suggested.
"Why not?" he replied. "What's wrong with a little competition?"
That grudge-match attitude extends to the world's cultures, which he evidently believes are engaged in a zero-sum game. The Proud Boys motto is "The West Is the Best," so I asked McInnes, who travelled extensively in his twenties and thirties, whether he believes cultures coming together, as they do in cities such as London or New York, is a positive thing.
"No. I think a lot of accusations about me are inaccurate, but to call me a xenophobe is an accurate criticism. I don't even see it as disputable that any other culture is in the same league as the West – that's why everyone wants to emigrate here, because we're simply better." Then he added: "It's not racial, it's cultural."
"Tell me a culture that's as good as the West," he continued.
I responded that I didn't think in those terms, that I viewed cultures as complementary rather than competitive.
"Okay, well, just choose one, then!" he said.
I mentioned Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Eastern philosophy.
He pounced: "China? Are you talking about a country that killed 70 million of its own people? Communism?!" He unleashed a few Chinese slurs.
I thought of mentioning that Karl Marx was born in the West, but I could see we weren't going to get anywhere.
It was that so-called Western pride – specifically, the Proud Boys – that prompted our phone call. On Canada Day, five Halifax members of the fraternal order showed up, unbidden, to a protest held by a group of Indigenous and other activists at the city's contentious statue of Edward Cornwallis. After it surfaced that they were members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the five were suspended from duty and training pending an investigation.
"Normally, somebody calls me a Nazi, I don't give a [expletive]," McInnes said. But if the Halifax boys were tainted by their association with him, "I feel like coming out of the woodwork and saying: 'Not a racist, not a racist, not a racist.'"
We talked for more than two hours. He told me of his admiration for U.S. President Donald Trump ("America is in a cultural crisis, and we just had a president for eight years who was validating social-justice-warrior lunacy. … And then Trump comes along, and goes, 'No, I'm not a purple-haired college feminist, we're not doing any of that.'"); acknowledged he actually didn't vote for Trump (he's a citizen of Britain and Canada, but lives in the United States on a green card); insisted that his comments about the Holocaust and the Holodomor had been blown out of proportion ("My point was just, dwelling in the past and having a victim mentality is very unhealthy"); and said he hasn't read Vice since the split ("It's like an ex-wife. So, checking in on your ex-wife and seeing who she's dating now? It's emotional. Because I started that company. And, if the article's good, I'd get jealous. If the article's bad, it would hurt my feelings they let a [expletive] article get out. It's a lose-lose." He added: "And I hate those guys.").
I wondered if he regretted anything about his behaviour at Vice, which included an infamous 2003 interview with The New York Times in which he spoke of his pride about being white. "It's the first thing that comes up when you Google my name," he said ruefully, and then he repeated what he'd said in the days after the interview: that he wished he'd said "Western" instead of "white." But the split was inevitable, he said: He wasn't a corporate animal. He wouldn't conform to anyone else's expectations.
As we spoke, this attitude seemed to emanate from an especially deep place. After all, McInnes had been born in a small town north of London to Scottish parents, and immigrated to Ottawa when he was four years old. He had dropped the accent and worked hard to fit in. But then he'd found himself cast out again.
"I remember, when I was a kid, I was a class clown, and I got into a lot of trouble for it, and I had to be put in a special class," he said. "Back in the eighties, in Nepean, Ontario, they just had a class for anyone they didn't want around. It was sort of like school jail. And my dad, of course, being a blue-collar Brit, was obsessed with education. He was beside himself with rage. And he said" – McInnes adopted a broad Scottish brogue – "JUST [EXPLETIVE] SHUT YOUR MOUTH IN CLASS! CAN YOU NO' DO THA?'"
"I was able to do that for maybe an hour, but it just didn't work."
In How to Piss in Public, McInnes writes about accompanying his wife's relatives to a sweat-lodge ceremony. As the heat built up, he tried to remain stoic but eventually broke down and began screaming in agony: He felt relieved and renewed. "It's holding everything inside that makes you sick," he wrote. "I extrapolated this lesson and applied it to everything: If I wasn't a dick to people, I'd get sick."
Being a dick, however, may have consequences: Last month, McInnes made a video alleging that his support of Trump has made him a "pariah" among his friends. He tells me he's been "ostracized" from the entertainment establishment. "Liberals are sore losers, and they're convinced Hitler won," he said. "They have to fight to stop this new World War II happening. And you can tell me the right is in control, but that's not my world." (Mind you, the claim of ostracization might be taken with a grain of salt: Back in 2011, he told Alexandra Molotkow, writing in Walrus magazine, that he recognized he would "never get a show on mainstream television, because my sense of humour is totally incompatible.")
That's okay, though: Cast out of the Vice tribe, cut loose by an expanding array of friends, McInnes has found a new posse to ride with him out there on the frontier. On Monday, after making it clear he believes Alex Fields Jr. and the rally organizers were responsible for last weekend's tragedy, he set his sights on the media. They, too, were to blame, he said, for "politicizing" white men by constantly belittling them.
I was both stunned and energized. This was the mirror image of the argument I'd tried to make to McInnes the first time we spoke: That, if only for his self-interest, he might want to temper his Islamophobia because it could alienate and potentially spur the radicalization of moderate Muslims. At the time, he'd changed the subject. So I called him up and asked again if he didn't see the parallels.
"Simon, that is a remarkably facile way to view the world. You sound like a woman," he snapped. The question, as he saw it, was one of proportion: How many Nazis had killed anyone in the United States? And how many Muslims had done the same?
I reframed the question, and on the other end of the line, he paused. "Yes, innocent Muslims get caught up in that. Yes, the vast majority of them, especially in North America, are good people," he said quietly. "I don't want to alienate moderate Muslims."
Then why persist with the stereotyping?
"No, no! See? Now you're telling me how to behave in a society where we're under siege!" he yelled down the line. "This is victim blaming! This is victim blaming!"