In early June, just days after a white supremacist stabbed two people to death on a Portland commuter train in an alleged hate crime, Kyle Chapman eagerly headed north from his home in the Bay Area. The recently minted social-media star known as Based Stick Man was scheduled to speak at a “free speech” rally in Portland, which he’d helped promote. At the edge of Terry Schrunk Plaza, he denounced the hundreds of anti-fascist counterprotesters—”libtards” and “masked thugs,” as he put it—who’d gathered on the other side of a police line, reveling in the news that some had already “rushed across the street and tried to attack one of our guys.”
“Did anybody get to bash a commie yet?” Chapman asked, addressing a group of “Western chauvinist” street brawlers known as the Proud Boys, who flashed “OK” hand signs as a videographer livestreamed the event for Champman’s 34,000 Facebook followers. “Well, let me know when the time is right because I’m not going to miss out on any fun.”
By the end of the day, police had arrested 14 counterprotesters and confiscated various hammers, wrenches, bricks, and wooden rods. It was a familiar scenario of provocation and violence, one that since the 2016 election has accompanied the far-right’s forays into some of the country’s most liberal enclaves.
Chapman, who is 42 and built like a defensive lineman, is a veteran of this scene. He rose from obscurity in early March after being captured in a video at a pro-Trump rally in Berkeley, California, smashing an anti-fascist (a.k.a. antifa) counterprotester over the head with a curtain rod. (He was arrested later that day on suspicion of assault.) Two days after the footage went viral, an Urban Dictionary user submitted an entry for “Based Stick Man,” defining Chapman as “the protector of all people and things right-winged.” Since then, he has been arrested twice more in Berkeley on suspicion of assaulting people during street protests but has not been charged with a crime. In the same period, Chapman—who has a felony criminal record and spent a total of 10 years in prison until 2014—launched his own website and line of apparel, and started an aspiring militia group called the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights.
Indeed, Chapman has sought to parlay skull cracking into something of a brand. Before the Portland rally, his Twitter account urged his followers to show up and “smash on sight” in “an open season on antifa.” The tweet was later deleted; Chapman told me that as with many of his social-media posts, it was sent “by an admin.” He does not advocate violence except in self-defense, he said, but added, “It’s not such a bad idea, is it?”
Recently the mainstream media took the bait: Chapman was vilified but arguably also romanticized in a New York Times story, which dubbed his group an “alt-right Fight Club.” He is emblematic of an ascendant cohort of bloggers, livestreamers, meme jockeys, and Twitter trolls who have seized on right-wing extremism in the age of Trump—perhaps out of political passion or ideology, but perhaps also for what they see as an increasingly viable money-making opportunity. A commercial diver from Daly City, California, Chapman is now pondering a new career as an activist and media entrepreneur, he says. “It looks like it is going to be a while before I go back to work,” he told me regarding his day job. “I am going to try to get more involved in this movement.” His supporters reportedly raised more than $87,000 for a legal defense fund, and he is crowdfunding another $40,000 for a Based Stick Man graphic novel that he intends to pitch at Comic-Con this summer.
“This is just the beginning—we are going to do this in every one of these liberal, neo-Marxist strongholds throughout the country where our right-wing brethren are being systematically oppressed,” Chapman told me when I met him in late April in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. It was the third such rally in two months, and the only one that was ignored by violent antifa counterprotesters, who didn’t materialize that day. As some of Chapman’s fellow travelers moved in to film our exchange, he shifted into full-throated character, condemning my reporting for driving the “anti-white racist agenda” of the far-left. “You, sir, and your magazine all have blood on your hands,” he bellowed, egged on by a growing throng of supporters, some of whom were wearing Based Stick Man T-shirts. “Mother Jones is one of the worst magazines out there.” After a little more back-and-forth, he shook my hand and said matter-of-factly, “Thank you, brother. I appreciate you coming out.” (A clip of his rant later appeared on Twitter and his own Facebook page under the headline “Kyle Chapman Destroys Josh Harkinson From Mother Jones Magazine.”)
Chapman stumbled into hyperpartisan internet stardom quite by accident; a month before he became a celebrity, he described his social-media habits as “going on Facebook once a month.” He didn’t know how to navigate Twitter or even how to properly pronounce “meme.” “I think people recognized that he wasn’t great with social media,” says former BuzzFeed social-media staffer Tim Treadstone Gionet (a.k.a. “Baked Alaska”), now a self-styled right-wing media consultant and friend of Chapman’s. “Other people independently picked up the slack and created his influence and created a platform for him.”
Chapman’s rise from ex-con to internet meme and aspiring entrepreneur would never have happened if not for a new far-right cottage industry that tends to make better known conservative media outlets look like child’s play. As Fox News has cut ties with Bill O’Reilly and Breitbart News has booted Milo Yiannopoulos, a new breed of even more extremist social and independent media is rising to fill the void. Largely funded by direct donations from listeners and readers, its participants embrace the sort of controversies and rhetoric that have scared advertisers away from larger outlets. “It really shows the power of independent media from individuals, not from companies,” Gionet says. “It is a great testament that he didn’t need a huge mainstream push to be one of the most known people in our movement.”
“I tried to get him on Fox, to get people talking about him on Fox, but then Fox wasn’t interested,” claims former Daily Caller and Breitbart reporter Chuck Johnson, whose crowdfunded conspiracy-theory friendly “news” site, WeSearchr, helped raise money for Chapman’s legal defense. Breitbart News also didn’t pay Chapman much heed. “So it was like, ‘Okay, well…We’ll just go to all the other people, like no big deal, right? We’ll go to Gavin McInnes or we’ll go to Alex Jones or The Rebel. The proliferation of content means that Fox and others are no longer really in control.”
Crowdfunded media ventures were until recently mostly a phenomenon on the left, which has long been skeptical of relying on wealthy individuals and corporate patrons. Though there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that the right can sustain the same interest from small donors, the populist surge that swept Donald Trump into office has clearly given its media entrepreneurs a tailwind. It’s a trend that Trumpworld has happily promoted by granting praise, high-level access, and White House press credentials (if just temporary ones) to fringe sites such as Gateway Pundit, Infowars, and Rebel Media.
“These [left/right] labels are changing,” insists internet troll, vlogger, and self-proclaimed “national security reporter” Mike Cernovich, who is among the most prominent pro-Trump voices online and now works for Infowars. “Whether the liberals agree with us or not, we view the left as being the establishment now. The counterculture, the dissident thinking is now coming from the right.”
Chapman has joined a loose-knit far-right movement that has no shortage of participants with checkered pasts. According to public documents obtained by The Smoking Gun, he has served a combined 10 years in prison for grand theft, robbery, and illegally possessing a firearm. His records also revealed that he has used cocaine, LSD, and meth; twice violated parole; and has been described by his own lawyer as having “severe psychological problems.” (Chapman says that was just a legal strategy.) He was last released from prison in 2014 after serving 63 months behind bars for jumping bail and illegally possessing a firearm as an ex-felon. His federal supervision ended just two months before he made his antifa-smashing debut in Berkeley.
But his supporters on the far right “don’t really care about that,” says Johnson, whose site has described Chapman as an “American hero” facing “political prosecution.” Chapman leaves a guy like Johnson waxing philosophical. “My central insight is that human nature is a lot more tribal than people want to admit, and a lot more ideological. That insight has helped me explain a lot of phenomena on the internet.”
With Chapman still lighting up social media a day after his arrest in early March, prominent far-right media personalities rallied to his cause. Yiannopoulos’ website described him as a “commie-crushing superhero,” posted a sampling of Based Stick Man memes, and linked to the crowdfunding campaign for his legal expenses. Cernovich’s Danger and Play blog declared him “the future of politics in America,” adding, “There will be more open fights, as the Left refuses to police its own side.” Cernovich announced that he was personally contributing $1,000 to fund Chapman’s bail.
About a week later and now out of jail, Chapman appeared on How’s It Goin’, Eh?, a Canadian radio show on The Rebel, a far-right network hosted by Proud Boys founder (and Vice alum) Gavin McInnes. “I mean, people are totally inspired by you,” said McInnes, whose “pro-Western” fraternal organization purports to court men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” “We’re pushing back the antifa and the liberals and the nutbars and the commies and the Marxists,” McInnes said, later inviting Chapman back a second time after Chapman was filmed punching a man who’d confronted him as he’d walked through town with an American flag on April 10, and bloodying another at the second “Battle of Berkeley” on April 15. (Chapman says it was all in self-defense; the Berkeley Police Department declined to say whether it had issued another warrant for his arrest.) “The antifa came to disrupt the event and attack us,” Chapman said during his curtain call on the show, “and we handed ’em their ass.” Later that day, McInnes announced that Chapman had formed his Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights militia group as “the military division of #ProudBoys.”
McInnes and fellow Rebel contributors Lauren Southern and Faith Goldy flew to Berkeley on April 27 to speak at Chapman’s most recent “free speech” event there, which he also dubbed the “fuck antifa” rally. Sometimes accused of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, The Rebel has staked out territory to the right of Breitbart by mostly eschewing ad revenue and courting small donors. Rebel founder Ezra Levant (who is Jewish) told me that the three-year-old site has raised more than $1 million, with only 1 percent coming from any single contributor (though he would not release details). “Crowdfunding makes us immune to the bullying tactics of the social-justice left, who occasionally target advertisers of conservative media,” Levant said. “That’s the opposite of the oldstream media trend, where viewer comment sections are being abolished in the name of political hygiene.”
Some far-right media figures claim to have attracted megadonors—Yiannopoulos reportedly landed $12 million from an anonymous patron. Yet calls for small donations appear prominently on sites popular with the alt-right such as the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer and the social network Gab. In August, The Daily Shoah, a neo-Nazi podcast, raised money by selling “Daily Shoah” oven mitts (slogan: “Pop ’em in!”)—an apparent reference to the Holocaust. It’s hard to know in reality how much money these sites have raised; they don’t release the names of their donors, and they have been known to make inflated claims about their web traffic.
The crowdfunding model is also increasingly popular among the right’s independent media personalities, especially as advertisers have fled YouTube over concerns about appearing alongside offensive content. Among the most successful is former Young Turks personality Dave Rubin, who raises $30,000 a month from more than 4,000 patrons for the Rubin Report, a YouTube show that has featured guests such as Cernovich, Southern, and Yiannopoulos, who tend to be shunned by more mainstream outlets. Cernovich claims he uses the $10,000 that he earns each month from 260 recurring donors to pay a staff of researchers. “The media doesn’t get to pick and choose who is going to have a platform,” he told me. Crowdfunding “has now allowed the people to do it.”
A case in point was the recent controversy that engulfed Breitbart News following the London Bridge terror attacks, when Breitbart editor Katie McHugh tweeted, “There would be no deadly terror attacks in the U.K. if Muslims didn’t live there.” Shortly after being fired over the tweet, McHugh launched a crowdfunding campaign on WeSearchr, where she has raised $7,167 toward a $10,000 goal, according to the site. “Instead of giving her a raise, Breitbart squealed at pressure from leftist CNN, which apparently has anonymous pro-Islam sources at Breitbart, and fired her,” says the fundraising appeal. “Why is Breitbart silencing Katie McHugh for telling the truth about Islam?”
Chapman and his supporters have also relied on crowdfunding, turning at first to the mainstream site GoFundMe to raise money to pay his bail. The account was soon shut down, however, for violating the site’s terms of service. “In this particular instance we removed it because it was in defense or support of anyone involved in criminal activity,” said GoFundMe spokesperson Bobby Whithorne. (Chapman has not been charged with any crimes related to his Berkeley arrests.) Chapman then set up a fundraising account on PayPal, but it was deactivated on April 15, he says, an hour after he was filmed engaging in anther bloody street battle.
The rival crowdfunding site Patreon has been more welcoming to these voices; it now hosts Rubin, Cernovich, Southern, Baked Alaska, and a number of lesser-known figures such alt-right sci-fi novelist and video blogger Brittany Pettibone, who, like Chapman, was booted from GoFundMe for violating its terms of service.* But even Patreon has limits: In December, it kicked off the animator Emily Youcis, a self-identified white nationalist. Such troubles may explain why the alt-right’s most controversial figures prefer to solicit direct donations via the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. “Bitcoin is the currency of the alt-right,” the white nationalist Richard Spencer tweeted in March, a day after Mother Jones revealed that Spencer’s personal wealth draws from inherited Louisiana cotton farms subsidized by millions of dollars from the US government. (Update: Rubin objected on Twitter to being labeled far-right, writing, “I’m gay married, pro choice, against death penalty, pro pot legalization.” Pettibone responded that she is not “alt-right” but considers herself “American nationalist.”)
Chapman sees the crowdfunding crunch as just another business opportunity. Late last month, he announced on Facebook that he is “teaming up with a fellow patriot” to launch BackTheRight.org, which they hope to make “a primary crowdfunding site for the right-wing.”
By his own account, Chapman is not getting rich off of his newfound fame. He told me that he has made less money since March than the $6,500 a month that he normally earns as a commercial diver for maritime and oil companies. Still, he has moved rapidly to monetize his public image. He says he issued cease-and-desist orders to T-shirt vendors that were hawking clothing with his visage; he now claims to net $2,000 a month selling apparel through his website. And he talks of ambitious plans to become a comic book publisher.
“Marvel, DC have really let their readership down because they’ve moved so far to the left,” he told me. “They’ve gone and changed white characters to black characters. They’ve taken straight characters and made ’em gay. It’s not what people wanted. They want superheroes.”
He envisions a graphic novel “based on me and my life… just a reluctant sort of anti-hero stepping forward to stand up for his fellow Americans who are exercising their free speech, and as a result creates a movement.” He claims to have attracted interest from “some pretty famous comic book artists” from Marvel and DC Comics, who “are sick of the direction of the industry, sick of all their jobs being outsourced to China and India, and they’re looking to do something different.”
When I reached out to Chapman again recently to confirm details in this story, we ended up having a long, civil conversation about politics, ranging from the struggles of the middle class to the origins of racial tensions. “It’s good to talk to somebody,” remarked Chapman, who lives with his Asian American girlfriend and their child. “Because you understand, when we go to these rallies, we get approached by folks on the left, there’s none of this… There’s nobody there who just wants to talk.”
This side of Chapman isn’t visible on social media. During the last week in May, his Based Stick Man Facebook account shared multiple posts promoting his graphic novel and his line of apparel, which includes T-shirts, hoodies, and a Based Stick Man “shield decal.” It wasn’t until May 31, five days after the Portland stabbings, that the account acknowledged them, with Chapman accusing the “fakestream media” of “peddling the idea that we are connected to the Bernie Sanders-supporting Jeremy Christian”—whom he called a “nut job.”
Less than three hours later, Chapman complained on Facebook that his personal account had been suspended after he shared “a meme of Mohamed getting it in the stink from (Palestinian political activist) Linda Sarsour.” The post received more than 1,000 interactions from his followers—the most in several days. “Hang in there,” one supporter responded, “just bought some new tees from your store!”
*We revised this sentence to better reflect the range of voices discussed; the story has also been updated with responses from Rubin and Pettibone.