2016’s Angry Populist Enforcer
Matthew Boyle—the recently named Washington political editor of Breitbart.com, the right-wing populist news site founded by the late controversialist Andrew Breitbart—will never be mistaken for a slick Beltway insider.
Yet in just a few short years, the 28-year-old Boyle—pudgy, rumpled, and baby-faced, possessed of a manic energy fueled by Marlboro Lights and Mountain Dew—has leveraged his Stakhanovite zeal and pugnacious reporting style, described by operatives and competitors alike as bullying and relentless if occasionally misguided, to become a gravitational force in the Republican cosmos.
“You’ve got a political elite, but also a financial elite and a cultural elite out in Hollywood, and you have to be aggressive with these people to get answers out of them,” he tells me over lunch at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill, just the sort of expense-account Washington watering hole where Boyle is an alien presence.
Breitbart News’s Machiavellian publicist, former GOP congressional aide Kurt Bardella, has chosen the upscale venue for our meeting.
“It’s not like it’s fun for me,” Boyle continues concerning his combative M.O. “I’d much rather not have to do this. But I feel like to get information from people who don’t give it out, you have to be a little bit rough-and-tumble with them.”
He pauses to give free rein to a hacking cough—a symptom, no doubt, of endless days on the road chasing presidential candidates, sleep-deprived nights filing 30 stories a week (a Brobdingnagian output barely reduced by his new management responsibilities), and his customary pack a day.
Along with ever-present bottles of his favorite sugary, caffeine-infused soft drink, plus a river of hot coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, it adds up to a perfect storm of unhealthy living.
“I’m highly caffeinated at all times,” Boyle declares.
Breitbart News Executive Chairman Steve Bannon—tagged as “the most dangerous political operative in America” by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green—has had his eye on the hyperkinetic Boyle since 2011, when the American University journalism school dropout joined the staff of The Daily Caller and began posting rabble-rousing stories on the conservative website.
Notoriously, Boyle’s methodical campaign to ask hundreds of GOP lawmakers, one by one, if they favored the immediate resignation of then-Attorney General Eric Holder over the “Fast and Furious” scandal, and then publish a running tally of Holder’s critics, prompted a public paroxysm of indignation by Holder in November 2011.
“You guys need to—you need to stop this,” he sputtered at Boyle’s Daily Caller colleague Neil Munro, now a fellow editor at Breitbart, when Munro approached Holder after a press conference. “It’s not an organic thing that’s just happening,” the attorney general complained. “You guys are behind it.”
Bannon believed that Boyle fit like a velvet glove over an iron fist into Breitbart’s renegade, anti-establishment ethos that appeals to an estimated 18 million readers who comprise a fired-up activist base in Republican presidential primary politics.
Thus Boyle enjoys direct access to many of the White House wannabes attempting to woo that base; before Rick Perry ended his anemic campaign, Boyle watched the former Texas governor hem a pair of trousers with a needle and thread in his hotel room.
More recently he took a ride in a small helicopter with Dr. Ben Carson, and was planning to spend six days in Haiti watching ophthalmologist Rand Paul perform cataract surgeries until the Kentucky senator’s poll numbers began to erode and Boyle decided he couldn’t spare the time.
Boyle says he has the personal cellphone number of the Republican frontrunner he refers to privately, in a tone of respect if not reverence, as “Mr. Trump.”
Donald Trump, for his part, has returned the favor by granting an endless stream of “exclusives” to Boyle—notably Trump’s vicious personal attack on BuzzFeed political reporter McKay Coppins, a former writer for The Daily Beast when it was merged with Newsweek, for Coppins’s unflattering profile of the reality television star/real estate mogul.
Boyle’s February 2014 hatchet job so faithfully took Trump’s side of the controversy that the press criticism site Mediaite reported the flap under the headline: “Breitbart Now Donald Trump’s PR Firm.”
More recently, Coppins wrote a BuzzFeed story quoting anonymous Breitbart employees to the effect that Trump provides financial support to his favorite news site in return for positive coverage—a charge vehemently denied by Bannon, who says the frontrunner, unlike other GOP candidates, hasn’t even bought advertising space.
“There’s a revolt going on in this country, and the old paradigm—controlled and financed by a collection from the Party of Davos—is cratering,” says Bannon, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood producer who, by a strange circumstance, owns a lucrative stake in Seinfeld.
“There’s a tsunami of rage from populist conservatives,” he says. Breitbart News—and Boyle—seek to harness it.
In early 2012, after Andrew Breitbart’s untimely death of a heart attack at age 43, Bannon assumed control of the news site’s content, attracted investors (reportedly including hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a major donor to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz) and supervised the operation’s rapid expansion at Breitbart News’s headquarters in a mansion near the Capitol Building.
“We had a punch list, seven new verticals, and we knew we had to hire a whole bunch of people,” Bannon says. “Andrew thought the world of Matt, was kind of his mentor when he was at The Daily Caller, and Matt was our No. 1 draft pick. He was a young guy, and had a fighting spirit and aggressiveness which was perfect for us—and which you can’t coach.”
Hiring Boyle away from The Daily Caller the month after the 2012 election cycle ended, “we built a whole team around him to take this whole thing to the next level,” Bannon says. “He’s really a fascinating young man.”
Boyle, who was raised until his early teens in the Boston suburb of Canton, Massachusetts, moved with his family to Idaho, Minnesota, and ultimately Florida as his father, a produce and dairy buyer for supermarket chains, kept changing jobs as a result of corporate takeovers.
Today, Boyle lives with his younger brother, an insurance actuary for Geico, in a two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Maryland, far from the Washington social swirl.
Before he took on his new editorial duties, he toiled long into the night, working his sources on the phone, and seldom awoke before noon.
Boyle apparently sees little value in the musty journalistic traditions of objectivity, balance, and dispassionate analysis—an impression held by several Republican staffers toiling in Congress and the current presidential campaign.
“He’s more of an activist than a journalist,” claimed one presidential campaign operative, who, like half a dozen other GOP staffers interviewed by The Daily Beast, spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to arouse Boyle’s ire.
Freelance writer and fire-breathing blogger Charles C. Johnson, whose Gotnews.com website mixes politics and celebrity scandal, says the prevailing view of Boyle as a would-be player, rather than a mere observer, is not far off the mark.
“I think the tension within him is the tension between being an activist and being sort of a straitlaced reporter,” says Johnson, who himself is so far from being a “straitlaced reporter”—indeed, he’s infamous for his unquenchable belligerence—that he was recently banned from Twitter, a punishment yet to be visited upon supporters of the Islamic State.
Yet Johnson is probably in a position to understand Boyle’s passions better than most, having collaborated with him at The Daily Caller on widely criticized stories alleging that New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez had patronized underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez was later indicted by the feds on unrelated corruption charges, although the FBI stated in a court filing that it found some “corroboration” for the still-unproven sex allegations—which Boyle took as vindication.
“I think he has more chosen the straitlaced reporter role,” says Johnson. “I think his dislike of the Washington establishment comes not from an ideological point of view, but more from a temperamental dislike. He feels the establishment of this country has betrayed the country, and no one really covers them with the attention they deserve.”
Boyle’s own account of himself is in sync with Johnson’s, but it also contains the sort of conversion narrative that is reminiscent of explanations of how zealous Trotskyites transformed themselves into fervent Neocons.
“I used to be a liberal—I voted for Obama in 2008,” Boyle confides. “I don’t regret that decision. It was based on what he said he was going to do. He said he was going to change the country. He didn’t do that, though.”
Boyle’s ideological epiphany, if that’s what it was, occurred with the explosion of the Tea Party movement in early 2010, when he was co-editor of The Gargoyle, the campus newspaper of Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.
Curious about widespread news reports that tea partiers displayed a racist streak in their ad hominem trashing of the nation’s first black president, Boyle attended a Tea Party rally in St. Augustine—and freelanced his first story for The Daily Caller.
The experience of interviewing rally participants convinced him that the racism charge was a big lie perpetrated by the media-political establishment. The scales fell from his eyes.
“I’m somebody who believes journalists should be open about their personal beliefs and whatnot,” Boyle says. “I’m a conservative. I believe that the federal government is too big. I think they’re ineffective, they’re incompetent, and both political parties are to blame—not just Democrats or Republicans. It’s an out-of-touch political class in Washington.”
Like the rowdy outlet Boyle now represents, he’s by no means bound by the conventional rules of reportage as taught in the nation’s journalism schools and practiced, or at least peddled, by such establishment bulwarks as The New York Times and The Washington Post. He gets emotionally involved.
For instance, Boyle had a visceral reaction to the Fox News-sponsored Republican candidate debate last August in Cleveland, where the moderators peppered Trump—a Breitbart favorite because of his angry-populist appeal and harsh stance on immigration—with questions about his “temperament” and business failures, and singled him out for his refusal, at the time, to pledge his support to whoever becomes the Republican nominee, and not to run as a third-party candidate.
“They came after him with gotcha questions… He was unfairly treated,” says Boyle, who by his own account went into a tailspin.
“I felt like a part of me died inside when I watched that debate,” he says. “I was mad. The first question that was asked”—Bret Baier’s hand-raising “endorse-your-rival” challenge to the 11 contenders onstage—“was out of line. ‘Will you pledge to support whoever wins the Republican nomination?’ So they all endorsed each other except for Trump. Jeb, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, they all endorsed each other! That’s exactly what’s wrong with politics. They put politics over country! They put politics over public safety! Every single one of them on that stage, except for Trump!”
After that debate, Boyle soothed his wrath and depression by heading over to the nearby Horseshoe Casino and gambling into the wee hours at the craps table.
In his previous visits to the casino while in Cleveland for the debate, Boyle says he was up $500. But in his pre-dawn, post-debate doldrums, “I probably lost $300 of that back.”
Needless to say, he has plenty of detractors.
Betsy Rothstein, who writes a media column for his former employer, The Daily Caller, seldom loses an opportunity to mock him.
Recently, she recounted a “semi-erotic” incident in which Trump took a black sharpie and autographed a shoulder of Boyle’s shirt.
“Suffice it to say,” Rothstein wrote, “Boyle is never washing his shoulder or his shirt again.”
His admirers, meanwhile, include Trump supporter Ann Coulter, who says: “Boyle is a one-man investigative news division, the most productive person in media and amazingly cheerful for someone with such a gargantuan output. I assume his critics are mostly driven by envy.”
Yet Boyle’s apparent distaste for Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, allegedly a tribune of the Beltway establishment, led him to write a series of anti-Ryan stories in the run-up to last month’s election of the new speaker of the House—stories that did little to enhance his reputation for clairvoyance. Sample headlines: “Conservatives Rally Against ‘Mafioso-Style’ Paul Ryan Speakership Demands”; “At Least 75 Percent Opposed: Freedom Caucus Likely To Nix Paul Ryan’s Speakership Bid”; “Paul Ryan Silent As Permanent Political Class Cooks Up Giant Backroom Big Government Budget, Debt Ceiling Deal.”
And later, after Ryan was elected speaker with the support of a supermajority of the Freedom Caucus: “Paul Ryan, House GOP Leaders Set The Stage For Coming Cave To Obama’s Syrian Refugee Resettlement Program.”
On the other hand, Boyle can take a measure of credit for relentlessly reporting—and possibly stoking, according to GOP Hill staffers—the internal right-wing opposition to House Speaker John Boehner, who resigned last month under mounting pressure.
Several operatives interviewed by The Daily Beast said they have the impression that Boyle habitually decides what the story is before he gathers the facts, using evidence that supports his thesis and discarding evidence that contradicts it.
Boyle argues otherwise.
“When you’re doing a big investigative story about people in power, you’re not looking at it like a prosecutor who’s trying to put somebody in jail, proving that they broke the law,” he says, “but it’s similar to that. What you’re doing is building a case in the court of public opinion, so what you’re doing is gathering information and evidence that’s going to back up a theory… It’s a constant quest for more information.”
If the evidence backing up the theory isn’t forthcoming, he says, then he simply doesn’t publish.
Such was the case with a rather eccentric theory that he still believes that he had good reason to credit, but could never confirm.
Even now, Boyle refuses to dismiss the idea that New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson lost her job in May 2014 not because of her divisive management style, as the ample public record indicates, but instead as a direct result of her decision to kill a damaging story about the love life and questionable bank loans of Mississippi’s senior senator, Republican Thad Cochran, who was involved in a nasty primary race against Tea Party opponent Chris McDaniel.
Boyle, who spent two months in Mississippi covering the ugly campaign in which several McDaniel supporters videotaped Cochran’s Alzheimer’s-suffering wife in a nursing home, while another McDaniel partisan committed suicide in the aftermath of criminal charges, wrote about Cochran’s foreign taxpayer-funded travel with his administrative assistant (now wife) Kay Webber.
Times Washington reporter Jonathan Weisman was plowing similar ground, but his story never saw print—leading Boyle to embark on a convoluted chase to confirm that Abramson personally spiked the story and was fired as a result.
Apparently Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. was so embarrassed that his top editor was a closet Cochran supporter that she had to go.
“Clearly we did not find enough evidence on this, as is the case with many stories we look into,” says Boyle, who disputes the assertion by Cochran campaign staffers and other reporters who covered the race that his stories for Breitbart reflected a pro-McDaniel bias.
“There were plenty of sources at the time with positions of knowledge who had suspected something,” Boyle says. “There were also plenty of coincidences that may have pointed to something like that… I can’t close the book on this until further evidence comes out.”
Weisman, now an editor in the Times Washington bureau, calls Boyle’s Jill Abramson theory “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard… The idea that a story about Thad Cochran and his now-wife had anything to do with anything going on in the executive suites at The New York Times is nuts.”
Weisman adds: “It doesn’t necessarily surprise me that Matt Boyle made that assumption.”
Echoing the Breitbart gospel, Boyle says the Washington establishment’s fondness for omnibus trade agreements and comprehensive immigration reform is a manifestation of a phenomenon in which “the political elites are consistently trying to checkmate the American worker.”
He adds: “I’m not writing for the people on Capitol Hill. I’m not writing for the Acela Corridor, or the island of Manhattan, or the District of Columbia, or the Beltway crowd. I’m writing for the people in Middle America, the people all around the country who are interested in learning what’s happening in these power structures.”
Charles Johnson, meanwhile, says of Boyle: “He hates a lot of people… I think in the final analysis he wants to call the shots on things.”
This he seems adept at in the foothills of the presidential campaign, before the first votes are cast; whether Boyle’s influence increases or wanes nearer the political peak will be its own fascinating subplot in the storms and scrambles ahead.