This past Sunday, after a meeting of citywide leadership to debate various resolutions and proposals ahead of the chapter’s convention later this month, about two dozen members of the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America adjourned to Churchill’s, a bar in Midtown blocks away from the donated space where the meeting had taken place. I joined them, being a member of the chapter and having attended the meeting as an observer. (I was also asked to take the minutes.) We joked about the irony of a socialist cadre decompressing in a pub named for an genocidal imperialist. The ceilings were adorned with St. George’s flags and the late prime minister’s speeches were piped into the bathrooms. We even walked past a bar named for Wolfe Tone, a 19th century Irish revolutionary, to get there, over my half-hearted protest.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, disgraced reactionary Milo Yiannopoulos was in town for a booze cruise with Gavin McInnes’s Proud Boys, a misogynist band of alt-lite throwaways most active in gentrified Brooklyn. Yiannopoulos fell out of favor with his fiscal sponsors, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, following a succession of investigative reports that shed light on statements he’d made apparently supporting pederasty and his collaboration at Breitbart News with open white supremacists and fascists.
In retrospect, if there were any bar in New York City that Milo Yiannopoulos would go to for lunch on St. George’s Day, it is Churchill’s.
On Saturday night, he, McInnes, and their hangers-on performatively drank beer while regaling each other with myths of Western civilization’s greatness and the debt owed to them by the modern world. Meanwhile, DSA members held a town hall on the injustices of the health insurance industry, continued organizing with the Reclaim Pride Coalition, held a reading group to discuss Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire, and met with Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a DSA member and Chicago alderman, to discuss electoral strategy.
At Churchill’s the next day, Yiannopoulos wandered, apparently oblivious, through a crowd of leftists who fell silent as they realized who had just walked in. After putting his bag down, Yiannopoulos and his lunch mate stepped out for a cigarette, and my fellow socialists huddled to plan an impromptu direct action. I followed Yiannopoulos outside out of morbid curiosity, a sense of professional obligation—I cover the far right—and a feeling that, as a journalist, my contribution to whatever was about to happen should be to observe, not to participate directly.
Our conversation was, ultimately, pretty dull. To be fair, I didn’t have particularly good questions to ask, because I haven’t followed Yiannopoulos particularly closely since his fall, or even before. He is and has always been a media creature, not someone who wields power himself nor even seems particularly interested in doing so. I don’t think he has anything even resembling a coherent political worldview; I think he’s a self-obsessed grifter more interested in nihilistic provocation than anything else. Speaking to him is like walking into a hall of mirrors.
Still, even if he is merely an epiphenomenon, his present activities might be instructive as to the state and status of a particular sliver of the far right, so I talked to him to see what he had to say. (Basically: nothing.) I went back inside and took some notes on my phone, waiting to see what my comrades had planned.
When Yiannopoulos and his lunch date, Chadwick Moore—himself some kind of off-brand Milo—finished their cigarette, they came back inside and were greeted by a phalanx of reds chanting “Nazi scum get out. Nazi scum get out.” (Much has been made of whether Yiannopoulos is “actually” a Nazi. In addition to being pedantic and beside the point, it seems reasonable enough to, for the sake of a slogan, describe anyone who is a demonstrable neo-Nazi sympathizer as a Nazi.) Time does odd things in these moments of confrontation, however non-violent, and what probably took less than a minute to transpire felt like five or more. In the end, Yiannopoulos and Moore’s bags were retrieved and they left. The socialists erupted into cheers and the first verse of “Solidarity Forever!” before tipping the staff and offering to buy a round for everyone in the bar whose lunch had been disrupted.
As was to be expected, this sparked several waves of reaction: First, there was glee at the small victory of having disrupted Yiannopoulos’s afternoon and having gotten under his skin. “If you don’t want Nazis in New York, join DSA,” the chapter’s Steering Committee said in a statement. “We’re building a better world, one bar at a time.”
Then, there was the backlash.
“I was just shoved and screamed at by a big group in a pub in Manhattan and forced out of the place. One of them was a reporter for Gizmodo,” Yiannopoulos wrote on Facebook. “It’s now impossible for me to safely go out for lunch in most major cities in America because I supported Trump at the last election and don’t like feminism.”
One supporter pleaded with him not to back down. “I’m getting tired,” he replied.
On Twitter, from which Yiannopoulos is banned, Moore ranted about how the pair had been “physically assaulted” by “20 lesbians and a Gizmodo reporter.” (They were not.) Elsewhere, Gavin McInnes rued the missed opportunity to unleash his Proud Boys.
The emerging conservative narrative was that DSA, in the form of 20 lesbians and a Gizmodo reporter, gay-bashed two innocent conservatives, who happened to be homosexual—or is it the other way around?—and moreover that socialists from the mainstream, liberal media are more interested in heckling those they disagree with than debating them in good faith.
All of this culminated in an appearance by Moore on Tucker Carlson’s show. I was invited to appear alongside him, and while we initially thought there might be something worthwhile in going on in order to pull some kind of prank in order to show up the whole affair as a farce, ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth it—Carlson is too good at twisting anything his heel guests say or do to fit the narrative he’s weaving. We stuck to our original statement, telling him, “Go fuck yourself.”
Carlson’s staff, however, were persistent. “We don’t engage in word games,” a producer on the show wrote in an email. “This will be an adult discussion with Tucker with input from Chadwick Moore.”
“This is going to be a very fair segment and I think beneficial to the larger discussion in America today,” an executive producer claimed.
As it turned out, the narrative Carlson chose was to portray every member of DSA as being a child of privilege. “I wonder how many of those democratic socialists have their own student loans,” Carlson asked. “Probably none!” (Actually, the chapter has a Debt & Finance Working Group.)
“They were all white,” Moore, who repeatedly disparaged and deliberately misgendered one DSA member, said. (They weren’t.)
“There was a time when socialists cared about economics,” Carlson said. “And then little rich kids like this got involved and it became all about race and gender like everything else.” (A lot of people in DSA will be surprised to learn this!)
Naturally, Carlson used my personal biography to disparage the organization—and, indeed, the entire project of building socialism in the 21st century—as a whole.
“From one of the richest suburbs of New Jersey,” he sneered. (True!)
“Went to some fifty thousand dollar a year boarding school,” he spat. (Actually, it was $43,500, but sure! Also, Carlson went to a $58,000/year boarding school.)
“He’s obviously acting on behalf of the global proletariat,” he snarled. (I’m doing my best!)
What all of this is supposed to add up to is a damning critique based on, of all things, identity politics—the identity, in this case, being class. The idea is that no one who grew up in privilege can ever work to build power for those who did not, to alter the social relations that created such privileges in the first place. (This is an argument that I first heard, ironically enough, from another student at that $43,500/year boarding school after declaring myself a Marxist in my junior year.)
Together, Carlson and Moore strove to portray me and Annie Shields, engagement editor at The Nation and a fellow DSA member, as immature brats whose class and racial privilege has blinded us to the fact that we should not act in solidarity with working and oppressed people.
“It was pretty incoherent,” Shields reflected on the phone with me. “Because we’re white, they wanted to make us look like rich idiots; if we weren’t white, they would have tried to dig up any criminal background.”
In the end, the point of the segment was obviously to try to get one or both of us fired—the two of us being the only two present with any clear institutional affiliation—or, short of that, harassed off the internet. “The first person I wanted to talk to, after I heard from my boss, was my union rep,” Shields told me. (The Nation is unionized with CWA-NewsGuild.) “There’s a handful of public posts on my Facebook page that got flooded. One is from a couple months ago, about my grandmother dying,” she said. “The comments are full of vitriol now.”
The photographs Carlson’s producers chose to represent us are both from years ago—we both look much younger in them than either of us do now, which Shields speculated is part of the broader effort, in the wake of the Parkland shooting and the upsurge of youth and student activism that has followed, to silence young people.
“They’re really just assholes,” she concluded.