Two months ago, Brandon Straka was a New York hair stylist with $300 in his savings account and a struggling side job as a performance artist.
Now, thanks to his starring role in a video telling Democrats to ditch their party, he’s the head of a movement that’s been embraced by a wide swathe of the pro-Trump internet and earned him shout-outs from some of conservative media’s biggest names.
Brandon Straka’s fortunes started to turn in May, when he released a video chronicling his decision to leave the Democratic Party. In the video, Straka urged Democrats to “#WalkAway” from their party over issues like political correctness and left-wing “antifa” activists.
“Once upon a time, I was a liberal,” Straka says in the video, which details his path from the left to the right.
Straka’s video is filled with the kind of vague “free thinker” platitudes that have already been a hit with conservative college students, Kanye West, and fans of “intellectual dark web” figures like Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. In his video, Straka says he became a Democrat because he’s gay, only to be turned off by attacks on free speech.
“If you’re a white person, you’re not supposed to talk,” Straka told The Daily Beast. “If you’re a man, you’re not supposed to talk.”
In other words: It’s exactly the kind of conversion narrative primed to go viral on the right. Straka’s video has earned nearly 2 million views on Facebook and YouTube, and scored him shout-outs from the likes of Fox News host Charles Payne, Trump superfan Bill Mitchell, Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk, and Candace Owens, West’s guide to the right-wing internet.
The #WalkAway push has been written up on sites like Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit. On Facebook, hundreds of people have shared their own “#WalkAway” narratives.
As is common for political tags, Straka’s #WalkAway enjoyed a boost from fake accounts, identical astroturfed tweets, and a legion of bots. It’s not yet clear how big a role such accounts played in pushing the hashtag up Twitter’s trending chart. Over the weekend amateur tweet detectives zeroed in on one user purporting to be a Latino voter with her own jewelry design business, who’d chalked up thousands of retweets. The account was found to have a fake name and photo, and the web address of her ersatz jewelry business did not exist. By Monday afternoon Twitter had suspended the account.
Straka insists he isn’t receiving outside funding for his campaign, aside from a GoFundMe drive that’s received more than $15,000 so far. And he, obviously, is a real person. “I’m not a Russian bot,” Straka said. “I’m just a concerned individual.”
This isn’t the first time Straka has tried to get attention with his changing political convictions. In October 2017, Straka staged a “jukebox musical” called “RESIST: A Rock Revolution” that shares a lot in common with his viral #WalkAway video, albeit with far more jarring aesthetics.
After a strained performance of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Straka takes the stage in a Republican armband, a beret, and a military-style outfit modeled on Patty Hearst’s uniform after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Then he launches into a Trump-themed cover of “Forever Young,” asking the audience “who wants some fucking truth?”
Soon after that, Straka kicks into a Gilbert & Sullivan-style song about the concept of gaslighting.
What follows for the next 90 minutes is a bizarre collision between the political controversies of the Trump era and decades of pop music. At one point in the musical, Straka sings Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” while playing footage of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Meanwhile, an artist paints the 2016 electoral map.
While Straka says his musical won over his liberal audience, he concedes that it didn’t get close to the kind of outsized attention #WalkAway is enjoying.
“The rage and the hatred on the left is more powerful than any jukebox musical,” Straka said.
—with additional reporting by Kevin Poulsen