If you’ve been paying attention to all of the increasingly bad news in the world lately, you’ve probably heard of the Proud Boys, a group of right-wing millennial hipsters who like to punch the shit out of each other. Or that crowdfunded ship intended to intercept incoming refugees. Or how about that lady who interrupted a production of Julius Caesar in New York because of Kathy Griffin, or something?
What they all have in common is a 45-year-old conservative Canadian commentator named Ezra Levant, who in February 2015 launched a website called The Rebel, based out of Toronto. The site is like Canada’s very own Breitbart, dedicated largely to political and social commentary that covers everything from misinformation about Muslim communities to the likelihood of “white genocide” happening in Canada to the belief that being trans is a mental disorder that naturally precludes you from serving in the military. Its many columnists and personalities are now one of our most effective exports. (Thanks, NAFTA!)
In The Rebel’s short two-year history, it has become the leading — if only — voice of Canada’s alt-right. The New York Times has called The Rebel “Breitbart North,” Breitbart being a far-right news and commentary site that NBC has called “a hub for pro-Trump, anti-immigration and especially anti-Muslim agit-prop.” (The Rebel has written about me multiple times, always leading to a flare-up of online harassment and threats of violence and sexual assault.) But over the weekend, contributor Faith Goldy livestreamed from Charlottesville, often speaking about what she considers to be a double standard between protesters, saying, “The alt-right wasn’t allowed to demonstrate any show of force. The alt-right wasn’t allowed to legally exercise their permit. Chant ‘BLM’ and all of a sudden the cops don’t care. Where are the riot police now?”
Since then, contributors have been abandoning the Rebel ship in such quick order that it’s hard to keep track of who even works there anymore. Some are speaking out against the website for swerving too close to associating with white nationalists, or saying Levant is ripping off his viewership. Contributors Brian Lilley (The Rebel’s cofounder), Barbara Kay, Gavin McInnes, Caolan Robertson, and John Robson have all cut ties with the website. Lauren Southern left last spring. Goldy was recently fired from The Rebel after Levant found out she appeared on a Daily Stormer podcast, which is a neo-Nazi website. Levant said it “was just too far.” Levant has since released multiple statements trying to separate himself and the work he promoted at The Rebel from the actions and sentiments of white supremacists in Charlottesville. Norwegian Cruise Line even canceled the Rebel Cruise!
Now, Levant is left trying to distance himself and his website from neo-Nazis after aligning with a fair number of their beliefs for his entire tenure as “Rebel Commander.” Up until this week, though, Levant was apparently happy to accommodate anti-Muslim rhetoric, panic around feminism, and suggestions that the Quebec mosque shooting in January was maybe actually a Muslim and not a white supremacist. He once dressed in a niqab on TV and referred to it as a “one-person prison” and a “symbol of gender apartheid.” He didn’t seem to bat an eye when Southern mocked trans people, or McInnes put on condescending “Middle Eastern” accents, or Goldy tried to make “white genocide in Canada” happen. But what Levant — a “proud Jew” — couldn’t support, it seems, was direct Nazi symbolism, chants about how “Jews will not replace us,” and the murder of Heather Heyer, a white woman. Those things, finally, were a bridge too far.
“We believe that character and ideas and action are more important than skin colour, or for that matter sex or sexual orientation,” he said in a staff memo denouncing the alt-right. “The thing is, you can be upset with leftist extremism and political correctness and censorship and historical revisionism and anti-white shaming in the popular culture and open-borders immigration … you can hate all of that without being a racist,” he said in another video, titled “Why the Rebel Rejects the Alt-Right.”
But no matter what he says now, Levant will always be the person who built The Rebel, who asked people to donate to his cause, who hired Goldy and the rest of the site’s contributors, and who gave them the platform that helped them become leaders among the US alt-right movement. Their success as exports might’ve been great for business up to a point, but now those contributors no longer need Levant or his mom-and-pop media company to succeed.
It’s easy to assume that the ongoing implosion of The Rebel is good news for those who aren’t fans of its race-baiting Muslim-anxiety content. (Goldy often ranted about the threat of “Islamic terrorism” on her show, On The Hunt.) On one level, it is: Maybe a media company whose entire diet is dedicated to stories like “Nice Try, BBC: Niqabs Are Not Normal!” or “In defense of of ‘racist’ jokes” can’t really thrive (at least in Canada). But many of its contributors will inevitably end up working at other outlets — or already do. Whether Americans know it or not, many of their foremost fascists, like their pop stars, are coming from Canada. (Does the language we’re using to describe The Rebel seem a little soft? That’s because Canadian libel and slander law is much stricter than it is in the US. The Rebel often toes this line in their coverage since they function in a Canadian legal context; this piece, then, lives in that same context.)
Levant was able to build his media company into a success partly because he has a long history in Canadian media, not just as a former Reform Party of Canada stunt coordinator and a former newspaper columnist, but as as someone who aligns himself with at least one tenet of Nazism until it didn’t serve him well. (Years ago, Levant began using the term lügenpresse, a German word that means “lying press,” a slur Nazis used when talking about non-Nazi media.) He’s also the same person who suggested that Muslim immigrants in Europe were causing a rape crisis in Sweden and an uptick in anti-Semitism in Denmark. But don’t worry — he went on a “week long fact-finding trip to Europe” in 2016.
In 2010, he joined Sun Media — the now-defunct owner of several conservative Canadian tabloids — as a columnist and later, in 2011, as on-air talent for Sun News Network. Sun TV, as well as Levant’s show, The Source, skewed very far right, often delving into important topics like whether Calgary, Alberta’s first (and only, and current) Muslim mayor was “an anti-Christian bigot” or how “the phrase ‘gypsy’ and ‘cheater’ have been so interchangeable historically that the word has entered the English language as a verb: ‘He gypped me.’” Sun News imploded at 5 in the morning in the dead of winter in 2015. It had no ratings and no money, and the federal broadcast regulator was not keen on giving it a spot on Canadian basic cable. That same year, Levant launched The Rebel.
Levant’s link to mainstream journalism helped legitimize what he was doing with The Rebel, even if the content was often offensive or alienating. Under the guise of claiming he was counterbalancing the liberal media, Levant was able to bring on writers and contributors who were young and hungry, but also ones who were older and established, with recognizable names in Canadian media. He was even able to get access: Andrew Scheer, leader of Canada’s Conservative Party (the party of opposition to Trudeau’s Liberals), appeared on The Rebel earlier this year, where he and Goldy chatted about duck hunting on her show. Levant tended to go after correspondents who were young, were in tune with youth culture (even if that culture was racist), knew how to troll, and were ready for a fight. They gave The Rebel a kind of twisted sex appeal.
Vice Media cofounder Gavin McInnes is maybe the best-known Rebel associate who’s active in the United States’ alt-right sphere. He joined The Rebel in 2015 to make YouTube videos on topics ranging from how feminism makes women ugly to “10 Things I Hate About Israel,” which was initially called “10 Things I Hate About Jews,” and has since been scrubbed from YouTube and The Rebel entirely. (Hard to be in Tel Aviv if you don’t like chickpeas, turns out.) McInnes has done segments about “cuck-mercials,” specifically calling out an STD commercial and saying that black men have a higher rate of Chlamydia, as well as saying a Holocaust museum tour guide made him want to defend “super far-right Nazis.” (“I’m becoming anti-Semitic,” he added.) All this occurred under the oversight of Levant, who often talks about how important his Jewish heritage is to him. McInnes has also been a semi-regular fixture on Fox News, often ranting about feminism and female privilege.
His Proud Boys, an MRA (men’s rights activists) organization, were slated to headline the Boston Free Speech rally this Saturday, but dropped out due to a lack of support from the city and from Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. (“He is going to let a riot happen and tell the police to stand down,” McInnes said. “I can tell the mayor is going to make sure we are endangered.”) McInnes’s Proud Boys are often young, mobilized men and boys, and so joining The Rebel gave the outlet and Levant an audience they rarely had: The Rebel became relevant to youth culture. (Or, at least, Nazi youth culture.)
Lauren Southern, a mini Ann Coulter (or maybe a less famous Tomi Lahren), has been quietly infiltrating US media ever since she left The Rebel in 2017. Vice called her “the alt-right’s not-so-secret weapon” earlier this year, and white supremacist Richard Spencer wished her well after her departure. (Southern has defended him, saying, “Richard Spencer is not a white supremacist. He is a white nationalist.”) After the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a lecture by Coulter, Southern and McInnes headlined a free speech rally and read a portion of Coulter’s planned speech. Southern has gained access to White House press briefings and has appeared on Fox News. Southern’s Patreon account was banned after the company determined that it was “likely to cause loss of life,” possibly due to Southern being embedded with Defend Europe, a sailing crew that tries to stop migrants and refugees from entering Europe.
While Laura Loomer isn’t as well-known as Southern, she’s the New York correspondent for The Rebel, and in June, she interrupted a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York. The production was stylized to include a Trump-like Caesar who, as the play goes, is eventually assassinated. Loomer stormed the stage during the assassination scene and shouted, “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right! This is unacceptable!” She was arrested and consequently made headlines in the US. She is currently still standing by Levant and The Rebel.
In its short two years, The Rebel has also been able to entwine itself with American fixtures of the alt-right, like conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, who was The Rebel’s Washington bureau chief for two months. Posobiec was one of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory supporters, tried to frame anti-Trump protesters for threatening violence against Melania Trump, and has since been retweeted by the president himself on the topic of black-on-black crime. (He also obtained White House press credentials.) Mike Cernovich, an alt-right media personality who claims date rape does not exist and who Donald Trump Jr. thinks should win a Pulitzer, has also appeared on The Rebel with Faith Goldy.
And while Milo Yiannopoulos has never been a Rebel contributor, he and Levant seem to have a long history of supporting each other. Levant launched a campaign to demand that Twitter verify Yiannopoulos and interviewed him last year to talk about “Twitter censorship.” Yiannopoulos was, briefly, slated to take part in the Rebel Cruise.
The media company’s more “mainstream” contributors are also finding life after The Rebel. Brian Lilley, the Rebel cofounder, left on Monday, saying that a long-standing concern he had about The Rebel’s tone “came to a head with this weekend’s events in Charlottesville.” Lilley acknowledged that the weekend’s rally was “an anti-Semitic white power rally,” but he’s also been more than happy to talk about how the media was refusing to cover “jihadi-style” attacks happening in Canada. He’s still employed on the radio by Bell Media, one of Canada’s largest broadcasting companies. Barbara Kay and John Robson, former Rebel contributors, are still columnists for the National Post, one of the country’s national newspapers. (Kay has written columns for the Post defending Yiannopoulos and arguing that rape culture is nonexistent.) And Gavin McInnes is set to leave by the end of the month for a job at a to-be-revealed company that Levant described to Canadaland as “a major competitor that we just couldn’t outbid.”
The influence of Rebel contributors, and how far they’ve managed to spread into the States, is a testament to Levant’s ability to find young, hungry, angry people and foster whatever talents they might have to make them semi-powerful figures in the alt-right media world. What he hasn’t been able to do is keep them on staff.
Levant’s responses to his staff leaving all seem clipped and somewhat bitter: He raised these kids, fed them, made them who they are, only to watch them flee. But this says nothing good about the character of the contributors who won’t stand by The Rebel, and nothing good about Levant either. Sure, neo-Nazism is bad, but backtracking now only ensures that they have a spot somewhere else in media, in Canada or elsewhere.
The reality is that the people leaving The Rebel are unlikely to fade away — plenty of Levant’s ventures have failed, but he comes back, every time, a phoenix no one ever asked for. The Rebel’s influence is deep, and it’s too late for Levant, or anyone really, to backtrack now. Even if The Rebel folds in on itself, which it certainly seems like it’s doing, the damage is already done. And even if Levant wants to take some of his work back, even if he now wants to separate himself from the same ideologies that led to the events in Charlottesville, you can’t unring a racist bell. ●
Scaachi Koul is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Scaachi Koul at email@example.com.
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