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By Brian Prowse-Gany and Joyzel Acevedo
On Nov. 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States — and Brandon Straka, a gay man and artist living in New York City, posted a video of his reaction to Facebook. “I was devastated. I voted for Hillary, and I was one of those people who was going on social media, crying, making videos,” says Straka.
Almost two years later, Straka posted another video that has since gone viral and spawned a movement. “I became a liberal because I am against racism, I’m against judging people based off of their sexual orientation or their gender. But what I started to see happening more and more all the time were these very same behaviors sort of in the reverse of what is stereotypical.”
It was this disconnect that led Straka to create the #WalkAway campaign in mid-June of 2018, a social media movement that encourages lifelong liberals and Democrats to “walk away” from their party and explore conservative politics with an open mind.
For Straka, the left practices tolerance and diversity in a superficial way, with no regard to individual thought or personal belief: “If you express an opinion that’s outside of what is their ideology, there is no tolerance and there is no diversity.”
“I don’t think that being hostile towards heterosexual people helps gay people,” he says. “I don’t think that being hostile towards men empowers women. I don’t think that being hostile towards white people empowers black people.”
Having grown up in a small town in Nebraska, Straka knew a lot of people who voted for Trump. “I was really on a quest to try and understand why did they vote for this man who was a racist, who was a bigot.” A friend who is a lifelong conservative contacted him, sending a link to a YouTube video titled “Debunking That Trump Mocked the Disabled Reporter.” Straka was skeptical: “I almost still sort of had that liberal rage inside of me, that sort of thought, ‘I can’t wait to watch this and then tell her how stupid she is for being brainwashed by this idiocy.’” The video was a compilation of footage of Trump performing the same flailing hand gestures and rambling voice that he had enacted when imitating a disabled reporter. Brandon was shocked. “It became clear to me that he didn’t mock that man’s disability whatsoever. Yes, the man was disabled, but what he was really doing was making fun of the fact that this person who happened to be disabled was caught in a lie. You know, it blew my mind.”
As Straka dug deeper into the media’s coverage of Trump, he discovered more inconsistencies that disturbed him. “I even found footage where there were groups of black people who went to Trump’s rallies to support him,” he says, “and when [the media] got there, they actually framed up the shot to cut the black people out so that it appeared there were only white people there. … I started to see that I had been incredibly unkind and judgmental towards all of these people in the country who I thought were horrible people, because the media had made me believe that these people were terrible people, when in fact it wasn’t true.”
When he reached out to liberal friends and family, asking if they were aware of how the mainstream media was manipulating the public’s perception of Trump, he found himself shut out. “People were starting to disengage with me, they were starting to cut me off in real life, they were starting to cut me off on social media. There were all these different things that people were saying about me in order to be able to justify that I had sort of walked away from the camp and walked away from the groupthink.”
For Straka, the turning point had come. As he sat down to write what he calls his definitive manifesto, it dawned on him that perhaps he could create a video campaign that would inspire others such as himself, former liberals who no longer identified with the left’s ideology, and also conservatives who felt their image had been misconstrued by the media, to tell their own stories their way: “Maybe it’s time for the silent majority to become unsilent.”
Soon after, he posted a video on Facebook and Twitter, where it quickly went viral. In it he says, “Once upon a time, I was a liberal. But liberalism has changed, and I will no longer be a part of an ideology or political party that represents everything that contradicts my values of unity, equal opportunity, personal empowerment, compassion and love.”
The #WalkAway campaign page on Facebook now has thousands of video testimonials, and Brandon says this is a clear sign that the Democrats are in trouble. “If any of [the individuals in the Democratic Party] went to the page and watched the video testimonials of the people telling them exactly where the Democratic Party has gone wrong — I mean, this could actually be an incredibly useful tool for the Democratic Party.”
In early July, media outlets reported that part if not all of the movement is fictitious, that the #WalkAway campaign created “fake ads” using models to portray supposed members, and that according to the Hamilton 68 site, run by the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy, the hashtag is connected to Russian bots. Straka says it’s not true: “They have always had the option to go to the #WalkAway campaign page on Facebook, look at the real testimonials of real people, but they chose not to do that. No one ever reached out to me for comment, no one ever reached out to me to ask for my perspective as the founder of the campaign.”
Since launching the #WalkAway campaign, Straka has also been accused by people online and in real life of being a member of the “alt-right”: Several weeks ago in a New York City camera store, he was asked by a salesman if he intended to use the items he wanted to purchase for “alt-right purposes.” “I was taken aback,” he recounts, “and I started laughing and I said, ‘Alt-right?’ And he said, ‘Well, aren’t you with the #WalkAway campaign?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I can’t sell to you.’” Brandon came away from the experience feeling devastated: “I realized that there are a lot of people in my community who are going to be afraid of me, and are going to be afraid of what their perception is of what I’m doing and what the #WalkAway campaign is about.”
Straka’s campaign has been endorsed by several prominent right-wing figures, such as Candace Owens, Tomi Lahren and James Woods, and he’s appeared on and tweeted support of “Infowars,” the radio program hosted by conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Ultimately, Straka believes that as the #WalkAway campaign continues to grow, people will be left with two options: “Do I want to be in this different type of environment where we all don’t have to agree, but we do have to respect each other and treat each other with dignity? Or do I want to be in this other group where people are spitting on each other, throwing drinks in each other’s face, punching each other, screaming at each other, calling each other names, cutting off their parents, cutting off their friends? Which one is more attractive to you? … What group do you want to be in?”
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