Reagan’s Favorite Rag Gets a Trump-era Makeover
A block away from the former Capitol Hill headquarters of Breitbart News — known in Washington as the “Breitbart embassy” — sits a second-floor apartment its occupant calls “the Consulate.”
Here, surrounded by memorabilia of the British empire, two right-wing entrepreneurs — a protege of Steve Bannon’s and a social media activist — are rebooting a dilapidated conservative publication from around a dining room table.
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This month, the duo relaunched the 75-year-old Human Events, once Ronald Reagan’s favorite newspaper. Their efforts to reinvent it as a thriving digital media enterprise driven by “tabloid intellectualism” represent the latest test of whether President Donald Trump’s haphazard insurgency can mature into a durable political movement.
“It’s Trump as a philosophy, not Trump as a man,” said co-founder Raheem Kassam — the posh, bespectacled, former editor of Breitbart London — of the publication’s guiding light. “Where is the movement going after Trump? How do we keep the good — the pugilism? How do we tie up the fraying ends? Because remember: This was not supposed to happen. Trump was not supposed to get elected.”
Kassam’s publishing partner, Will Chamberlain, a 33-year-old former litigator turned activist — also bespectacled, with a no-nonsense demeanor — bought the moribund publication for $330,000 this winter, announcing the purchase during the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Now, the duo are positioning it as an alternative to what they derisively call “Conservative Inc.” — the movement conservative heirs of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — who are more accepted in the cultural mainstream and make up the right’s shrinking, anti-Trump intellectual vanguard.
The disdain is mutual. Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, who serves as the editor-in-chief of the new Never-Trump publication the Bulwark — the spiritual successor to William Kristol’s shuttered Weekly Standard — called Chamberlain and Kassam “woolly conspiracy mongers,” and expressed doubts that their venture will get very far. “Isn’t the crackpot lane already kind of crowded?” Sykes asked.
David French, a senior fellow at the National Review, another outpost of pre-Trump movement conservatism, said he was unaware of the relaunch, and expressed his own skepticism about the publishers’ vision of a publication built around some sort of Trumpist philosophy.
“Trumpism is solely defined as advancing the interests of the man Donald Trump,” French said. “People are trying to put some sort of intellectual frame around the ambitions of this one guy, who doesn’t even have a particularly coherent ideology himself.”
He added, “If they can make something that is utterly incoherent coherent — more power to them.”
Since launching at the beginning of this month, the new publishers are claiming some modest early success. Ten days in, the group had amassed roughly 600,000 pageviews and more than 750 paying members, or “Founding Fathers.” The early ranks of members — who pay $17.76 a month — include Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney. Kassam ran into Giuliani at the Trump Hotel last week and helped the former New York City mayor purchase a membership on his iPad.
Giuliani said this fixation on de-platforming has drawn him back to the publication, which he became a fan of in the ’80s . “I like making the issue of censorship relevant and educating everyone that free speech even includes people right of center,” he said.
Members get access to an invite-only chat room on Discord — a private messaging app favored by the alt-right — and to exclusive insider content. Most of the outlet’s articles will be freely available, because the publishers hope to influence public discourse, a goal that has pushed them towards a Twitter-centric strategy that caters to the chattering classes.
To that end, the new Human Events has taken up social media censorship, a hot-button issue on the pro-Trump web, as its first cause célèbre. Among its first articles was an essay by Chamberlain titled, “Platform Access is a Civil Right.” And when a handful of right-wing figures, along with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, were banned by Facebook and Instagram for being “dangerous” extremists, Kassam authored an article calling it the “the Day of the Long Knives,” an allusion to a deadly purge of German officials overseen by Adolf Hitler.
“Of course it’s hyperbolic,” Kassam acknowledged. “That’s tabloid. But at the same time, assaults on individuals and assaults on people for political wrongthink are not just murderous assaults. They can be rhetorical.”
Days after the social media purge, the publication generated more buzz by publishing a salty retort to Facebook from one of the banned, Alex Jones’ English sidekick Paul Joseph Watson, in which the InfoWars personality condemned “feverish authoritarians” and threatened legal action.
Kassam, 32, was briefly banned from Facebook himself in February, an episode that led Donald Trump Jr. to complain in a tweet about conservative figures getting locked out of social platforms. Though Kassam was reinstated after a matter of hours, he found himself locked out of his account again in late April, just as he was preparing to re-launch Human Events. Kassam said that this time, he was told he had been banned for calling a critic “dumb” in a comment on his page, and that he was reinstated after three days.
A spokeswoman for Facebook attributed the incident to a misunderstanding. “This profile was removed in error and was restored as soon as we were able to investigate,” she said.
Human Events is not the first pro-Trump Breitbart spinoff. In 2017, one of the outlet’s former reporters, Patrick Howley, launched Big League Politics, a site best known for breaking the news that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook included a photo of a young man in blackface. While Big League Politics has hewed closer to a supermarket tabloid sensibility, Human Events aims up-market and has been imbued with Kassam’s vaguely royalist sense of Anglo-American identity.
The site cheers on Brexit, and recently featured a knighted English intellectual’s call for the abolition of universities.
In fact, Kassam keeps a photo of himself, Trump and the so-called “Bad Boys of Brexit” on the wall of his home office. The photo came about two days after the 2016 election, he says, when he was “shooting the shit” with Bannon at Trump Tower and then-UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage texted him asking if he could come up to say hello.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, obviously,’” Kassam — Apple AirPods sticking out from his ears — recalled telling Farage. So the Brit came up along with fellow Leave campaigners Arron Banks, Andy Wigmore and Gerry Gunster. Spotting the Brexit crew, the president-elect embraced Farage in a bear hug, briefly lifting the smaller man off the ground, and posed for a photo with the collected Brits.
The ‘Consulate’ also features a map showing the British empire at its largest extent and a red hat that says “Make America Great Britain Again.”
Over the dining room table where the duo works looms a framed print of the Boston Massacre, prominently featuring the shooting of Crispus Attucks, considered the first black man to die in the American Revolution. But Kassam has not stuck it there as a celebration of American liberty. Instead, he said, he forces his American dinner guests to sit facing the print to shame them with the memory of the massacre, which he blames on the mobbish antics of colonial Bostonians, while praising the discipline of the Red Coats who fired upon them.
“They were far more restrained than one would have expected under the circumstances,” Kassam said of the soldiers — of whom six were acquitted of murder charges and two were convicted of manslaughter.
Though this pronounced Anglophilia was not a feature of the original Human Events, the unapologetic contrarianism was. Founded in 1944 by former Washington Post editor Felix Morley, the paper developed a reputation for stubbornly sticking to hard-right ideas, even when its peers took more moderate positions on say, arms control treaties. After taking a critical line on Richard Nixon for most of his presidency, the publication became a favorite read of Ronald Reagan’s.
“Ironically, precisely because H.E. never cared about political access, it became the newspaper of record in the Reagan White House — the only newspaper the president read cover to cover every week and insisted be placed in the Oval Office waiting rooms,” wrote far-right commentator Ann Coulter, a longtime contributor to the old Human Events, in an email.
But the publication’s cachet faded after the Gipper left the scene. It was purchased by the conservative publisher Eagle in 1993, and it ended its print run in 2013. By the time Chamberlain and Kassam purchased it this year, it was no more than an online repository of weekly musings from Coulter and an Eagle employee named Paul Dykewicz.
The new Human Events aims to fuse Kassam’s sense of flair with Chamberlain’s aggressive style of argumentation. Chamberlain came to Washington to attend law school at Georgetown in 2012. He went on to practice law for two years before calling it quits in 2017 to focus on politics — a shift that led him to devote a great deal of time to joining culture war squabbles on social media, where has a amassed a sizeable-for-politics Twitter following.
The sensibility of the new Human Events owes much to the back-and-forth of Trump-era Twitter bickering on which Chamberlain, a Bay Area native, has cut his teeth. “There’s a lot of peacetime conservatives out there,” Chamberlain said. “We’re not peacetime conservatives.”
On Tuesday, the site featured a piece from Federalist contributor David Reaboi, another right-wing Twitter pugilist, in which Reaboi responds at length to criticism he drew online for a Tweet he sent disapproving of a another tweet, one by the cookie-maker Chips Ahoy that featured a drag queen.
Kassam left Breitbart last year and briefly went on to oversee “The Movement,” Bannon’s effort to create a pan-European nationalist front. But the strategist and his protege had a falling out over Kassam’s management, as captured in the new Bannon-centric documentary “The Brink,” and Bannon fired Kassam.
Kassam said he and Bannon keep in close touch, but he thinks “the Movement” was poorly thought through. “It’s gone fantastically well, Steve” Kassam deadpanned sarcastically. This prompted a chortle and a “No comment” from Chamberlain. (Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.)
Chamberlain and Kassam first became aware of each other online. They met in person at at the Northwest D.C. townhouse of Catharine O’Neill, an heiress to the Rockefeller fortune who works for Trump’s State Department and regularly throws parties that draw a young, Trump-leaning crowd.
Within days of the launch, the pair began working to expand. Already, they are on-boarding their first hire — quixotically, a part-time ombudsman. For the task, they have selected a liberal, West Coast Bernie Sanders supporter who Chamberlain met through college debate.
The idea is to have the ombudsman vet the site’s arguments. “We want to know when our ideas are bullshit,” Chamberlain said. “We want to tighten our arguments.” The ombudsman will write for the site under a pseudonym in order to hide his true identity. “He doesn’t want to lose his friends,” Chamberlain explained.
The pair hopes to hit $1 million in annual revenue, and if they enjoy success this year, to begin publishing a quarterly glossy magazine in 2020. They believe there exists a fervent group of Trump supporters who do not feel connected to “Conservative Inc.” that will make up their base of paying members, while they reach a much larger audience of non-paying readers by pumping out timely takes on politics and culture-war issues.
They also hope to hold a “Fake News” gala this fall at which they will offer awards for the mainstream media pieces they disdain the most.
But for all their big plans, a publication built on Trumpism may find its fortunes are at the mercy of Trump himself, and his ability to hold on to power.
“If he wins in 2020, this thing called Trumpism is likely to endure and could conceivably have the kind of resonance with people that Reagan conservatism had,” French said.
On the other hand, if Trump goes the way of Jimmy Carter and gets booted after one term, it could kneecap the new Human Events. There has been little appetite for movements built around one-term presidents, French noted.
“There wasn’t much Carter-ism left,” he said, “after 1980.”