Trump’s Hometown Shock Troops Are Raring For a Fight

The grand ballroom at Cipriani Wall Street is bathed in purple and red. There are red and white lights and blue curtains and a massive Christmas tree all underneath the glow of two jumbotrons. There’s a bald man with a ruddy dome and a senator in a scarlet waistcoat. A pool of wine vomit appears in a bathroom sink in between the risotto course and the filet mignon.

I’m in the corner with the rest of the press, crammed up against a riser where photographers grumble because they cannot actually see shit and Donald Trump is about to take the stage to make what the program calls his “grand entrance” at the 111th annual gala for the New York Young Republicans Club, a $699-a-plate event co-hosted by a Hungarian far-right think tank. It feels like MAGA prom — men in black tie, women in sequin dresses.

I’ve been following the NYYRC for months to understand a shock-ready, gun-slinging contingent of far-right millennials and zoomers firmly embedded in one of the most cosmopolitan, progressive cities in the world. They think of themselves as warriors for the MAGA movement operating behind enemy lines, surrounded by lefties infected with the woke-mind virus that makes you put your pronouns in your bio and the woke Covid vaccine that makes you gay. Sorry, my mistake, that’s a misinterpretation. “That’s not how it works — if you took the vaccine you were already a homosexual!” says gala MC Alex Stein, a right-wing YouTuber who went viral for doing an anti-vaccine rap after his mother died from Covid-19. Stein is playing the hits because the MAGA elite are in the room. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is here. Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, and Jack Posobiec. On Bannon’s podcast, Posobiec refers to the event as part of the “gathering of the Macedonians.” As attendees arrive, stepping out of black cars and cabs on Wall Street, protesters shout: “Klan rally inside! White hoods complimentary at coat check!”

At the center of it all: NYYRC president Gavin Wax, a 30-year-old day trader who in his five years in office has grown the club from a few dozen to 1,100 members, jamming himself like a quick-talking crowbar into the internal machinations of New York City’s conservative elite and, he claims, gaining the ear of the big man himself.

The dinner moves through courses and speakers: White-jacketed waiters carry overladen platters that threaten to slosh gravy onto jackets and dresses. Gaetz gets the crowd’s attention with lines about the movement being “under siege” and touts his ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy; Sen. Roger Marshall falls flat as he drones through a boilerplate MAGA stump speech. Just after 10 p.m., the room stills as club president Wax takes the stage to introduce the man everyone is waiting for.

<br>Club president Gavin Wax greets Donald Trump onstage at the club’s annual gala, held at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan in December.

Club president Gavin Wax greets Donald Trump onstage at the club’s annual gala, held at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan in December.

He gets it all in: Trump’s fight against the globalists, the forever wars, D.C. corruption, the political persecution of the former president. And he professes his loyalty. “Under my leadership, the New York Young Republican Club will forever be a vanguard of the Trump movement in this city,” Wax thunders. “We will be unrelenting in our pursuit of the America-first agenda, and together we will make America great once more! Now, ladies and gentlemen, get on your feet, and give a loud, warm New York welcome to our hometown hero!”

Wax’s speech made one thing clear: If there are still any pundits or patsies holding out hope for a return to the mythical era of cordial conservatism that ruled Republican politics the last time the NYYRC had any sort of juice, they can give up now. The current incarnation of the club is all-out MAGA-minded, and the leadership is determined to make their group a talent incubator for prospective staffers of future far-right politicians long after Trump’s sun has finally set. They’re hardly kingmakers at the moment — the biggest political job one of the club’s top dogs has held is a nebulous gig for George Santos, the instantly-disgraced ex-congressman. But they are beginning to boast connections to dozens of boldface names in the MAGA movement, from controversial congressmen like Gaetz to shadowy advisers like Bannon, who have both spoken at past NYYRC events — and now, they’ve finally had a visit from the emperor himself. They’ve gotten here by running the Trump playbook: start fights, grab headlines, and make a whole lot of noise. But the brand of politics they’re espousing is dark, even by Trumpist standards. Tilt your head one way, and guys like Wax are just tiny, squeaky wheels in a vast political machine. Tilt it the other, and they could very well be the GOP’s amped-up, authoritarian-friendly future.

STICK WAX IN A police lineup with 10 other 30-year-old day traders buzzing around midtown Manhattan, and you’d have trouble fingering him for a crime: neat haircut, close-cropped beard. He’s a master of the practiced “Hey, how ya doin’?” handshake when working a room. It all adds up to a guy seemingly tailor-made for politics.

<br>Vish Burra poses with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, his wife, Ginger, and another gala attendee (from left). Burra worked for Gaetz as he was investigated.

Vish Burra poses with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, his wife, Ginger, and another gala attendee (from left). Burra worked for Gaetz as he was investigated.

Wax grew up about a 10-minute drive from where Trump did in Queens — but his background is much different. Wax bounced between schools while his single mom worked office jobs; in high school, he sold weed and mushrooms to afford the fancy clothes his classmates wore. As an adult, the hustle didn’t stop: Wax graduated from Nassau Community College and worked for a marketing firm, supplementing his salary with an import-export business hawking leather bags from Morocco and coffee. Wax dabbled in conservative politics before the 2016 election, but by the time Trump clinched the Republican nomination, Wax was a MAGA die-hard. In those days, New York had an underground but burgeoning alt-right scene centered around figures like British provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who hosted parties attended by operatives and online trolls alike. At one of these events, Wax met Nathan Berger, an entrepreneur a few years his senior who was also interested in local right-wing organizing. At another party, Berger and Wax met the third member of what would become the ruling trifecta of the NYYRC, Vish Burra, a Staten Island software account manager turned “shitposter,” in his words, with a knack for getting attention and a modest Rolodex of political contacts.

The three had plenty in common: Like Wax, Burra was a former drug dealer, though on a quite different scale — he got busted in 2014 for possession of more than two pounds of pot and 1,000 milligrams of psilocybin. Berger, meanwhile, was also in the import game — he imports a mundane but mildly humorous product he refuses to name on record. Berger is slim with short, curly red hair, and rectangular glasses — a sweater-over-oxford-shirts kind of guy. Burra is heavyset, cue-ball bald, with a robust black beard, and favors the extremely Staten Island combo of denim and flat-brim, snap-back baseball cap.

Within about a year, this motley crew effectively took over the alt-right party scene. Wax claims that by 2018, parties organized through an email and Facebook list called “Friends of Vish” drew crowds of more than 100, and they realized their social reach could be turned into something legitimate — a way to wrestle away control of NYC Republican institutions.

Their first target — a “beta test,” Burra calls it — was the 2019 election inside the Metropolitan Republican Club, a staid social organization founded in 1902. In late 2018, the club had around 200 members on its rolls, and Wax worked as an unofficial “campaign manager” for Ian Reilly, an internal candidate for the MRC’s presidency. A 200-voter internal election is a pretty easy target to manipulate, and Burra and Berger wanted to see if they could tip the scales with their party pals. By the election, Reilly had the endorsement of Yiannopoulos and the MRC had 800 new members on its rolls, most of whom Burra claims were contacts from their networks recruited to help with the win. Reilly easily swept the election, and they decided the mostly dormant NYYRC was next.

According to Wax, the MAGA takeover of the NYYRC was more of a peaceful transfer of power than insurrection. The NYYRC had been running on life-support for years — it had no clubhouse, infrequent meetings, and held little power in the local political scene. But its name still had weight: Founded in 1911, the club claims as members a long list of elected officials, including President Richard Nixon, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. In 2019, Wax, Berger, and Burra brought their networks to sweep them into office. Since then, the NYYRC has come back to life — per IRS documents, the club brought in $129,730 in membership dues in 2022, on top of $42,998 in contributions. Wax ballparked the total spend for the 2023 gala at close to $750,000.

After a few short years, the NYYRC can host lavish events and brush up against power in both the city and country. It has built that power through what can best be described as shit stirring. After Wax and Co. took over the club, they brought in Pamela Geller, a virulent Islamophobe notorious for opposing the “Ground Zero Mosque”; in 2020, they brought in Gaetz for a defiantly mask-free gala that caused so much controversy officials shut down the restaurant that agreed to host the event. In 2023, when Trump was indicted, the club released a feverish statement claiming that the former president’s “soul is totally bonded with our core values and emotions, and he is our total and indisputable champion,” which almost immediately spawned an article in The Atlantic.

“It was a masterful statement,” Wax says. “We know it’s fucking interesting, and we know people are going to discuss it, and then I know that I can sit down with a reporter and he’s going to spend two hours in our clubhouse dissecting this Freudian overtone in our statement.”

“I wrote that on the subway,” Berger tells me about the statement, laughing.

THROUGHOUT THE FALL of 2023, I dip in and out of NYYRC events. I get a range of responses and reactions to my presence; when I meet one man, he bellows, “Do you believe January 6 was an insurrection!” — more of an exclamation than a question. Another says they’ll “pray you find the truth, the absolute truth in your journalism.” There are many references to Republicans being the “party of Lincoln” as evidence that the GOP’s racist reputation is overblown.

One of the first events I go to is a recent Republican primary debate. It’s at the group’s clubhouse, which is a generous name for the studio it rents in an unassuming building on Manhattan’s 28th Street, three floors up a rickety staircase, past a framed sign reminding members to keep their voices down in the hall. Wax signed the lease in 2021, giving the group its first physical home since 1963. As I get there, the club is wrapping up a lecture on gun ownership.

When the debate starts, it’s clear nobody really cares about the candidates on the screen. The young MAGA movement is still firmly, devoutly, behind Trump. Their reasons vary: Some are Catholic pro-life crusaders, others are fiscally-minded econ students. Many are deeply concerned with Joe Biden’s perceived “open borders” (despite the fact that immigration policy has changed very little in the past three years), and almost all of them say they’re convinced Trump’s record of “no new wars” sets him apart as the peacemaker we need (despite the fact that Trump continued the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Syria, authorized massive arms deals to Saudi Arabia, and has threatened to go to war with Mexico in his second term). But the word that gets thrown around the most is “populism,” and the conviction that 45 is the only one who can take on the deep state and big corporations is seen as gospel. The fact that he hasn’t successfully done either of those things — well, that’s just fake news.

At the debate party, I strike up a conversation with a young guy with glasses who introduces himself as Don. He and several others I speak to liked Ron DeSantis at first — before the Florida governor took a real shot at toppling Trump. “Now it’s heresy,” Don says, to consider DeSantis. With that in mind, I run Don through some 2024 scenarios: if Biden keels over (possible), if Trump keels over (I say possible, Don says less possible), if (I frame this cautiously) Trump succumbs to the myriad legal cases against him.

Don scoffs: “Even if all the charges against him are true — if you don’t believe they’re politically motivated, you’ve either got a stake through your brain or you were born retarded.”

<br>An attendee wears a dartboard featuring President Joe Biden’s face at the <br>MAGAween party, where there was a category for “best nonbinary costume.”

An attendee wears a dartboard featuring President Joe Biden’s face at the
MAGAween party, where there was a category for “best nonbinary costume.”

I have at least a dozen interactions like this while hanging out with the NYYRC. At the group’s “MAGAween” party in late October, I overhear a woman wearing a “Make America Cowboy Again” shirt having an impassioned discussion about the Arizona recount in 2020 with someone in a Mormon-missionary outfit. A guy walks past wearing a dartboard with a picture of Biden’s face. At one point, when I’m talking to partygoers about what they like about Trump, I push back on an assertion that his tax policies were a great boon to the working man, as he slashed the corporate tax rate and gave other breaks to the wealthy. “You sound like you’re reading from a script,” a woman says to me, narrowing her eyes.

This is generally how a night with the NYYRC goes. Everyone is friendly enough, talking happily about topics like religion or historical European martial arts (one man at the Halloween party was dressed in a full suit of armor). And then occasionally someone will say something that shocks me to my core. At another debate-watch party, I chat with a grad student in her late twenties who recently moved from the West Coast and is considering joining the club. I ask her how she split from her more liberal peers back home.

“I got kinda red-pilled by the gender stuff,” she says.

“The gender stuff” comes up a lot with this crew. I’ve heard a variety of views on abortion and gay marriage — there are plenty of gay men in the NYYRC — but when it comes to trans and nonbinary people, there’s derision, annoyance, or outright animosity. The MAGAween party had a category in the costume contest for “best nonbinary costume” because so many showed up in outfits mocking trans people.

“I didn’t know there were young people like me in New York,” the grad student tells me.

At this point, Don walks up. “A lot of people think they’re alone,” he says. “We’re trying to wake up as many people as we can.”

Don explains that he hopes the conservative movement can start to peel off votes from the Democrats by “punching left,” as he calls it, by instituting a public option for health care, which Don thinks would be a great thing. “Do you want a fat, disgusting people who need mobility scooters to get around Walmart?” Don asks. “Or a healthy, vigorous people who can stand — literally stand — on their own two feet?”

“You should run for office,” the grad student says. “You’ve convinced me!”

Don’s quote rattles around my mind for weeks. Healthy, vigorous people, standing on their own two feet. It’s a terrifying view of the world: that an ideal society requires purity, that the ugly afflictions of poverty deserve scorn and not compassion. Don has essentially given me the bullet points of how the modern American right makes an intellectual speed-run from being pissed off about wokes to nationalized socialism so a conservative party maintains power — and shown just how seductive that message of anger and disdain can be. It dovetails with other screeds I hear over the hours spent with the NYYRC — clenched-jaw rants against immigrants; callous, dehumanizing descriptions of trans people. (“Always check for an Adam’s apple!” Wax jokes at one party.)

Wax, Burra, Berger, and the other members of the NYYRC’s leadership know their members are going to say abhorrent stuff like this. They know that if a reporter hangs out at their parties for a few months he’ll hear people toss around slurs like “retarded,” “tranny,” and “faggot.” They know that if they make a YouTube shock jock the MC at their gala, he’s going to tell racist jokes about Michelle Obama being a man and suggest Trump should go to prison because “it would help him with the Black vote.” This is part of the plan.

<br>A campaign poster for Hungary’s far-right Fidesz party, signed by Hungarian <br>Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in the NYYRC’s clubhouse, a studio in midtown Manhattan.

A campaign poster for Hungary’s far-right Fidesz party, signed by Hungarian
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in the NYYRC’s clubhouse, a studio in midtown Manhattan.

THE WALLS OF THE NYYRC clubhouse are decorated with a kitschy array of political memorabilia. There’s a framed photo of Nixon, a sign that says “TRUMP” made of shotgun shells, along with crosses and American flags. On one wall is an installation of plaques — laminated news articles set into heavy wood frames. The New York Times, the New York Post, The New Yorker, New York Magazine — all clipped and mounted, like big-game trophies in a hunting lodge. And these aren’t — with the exception of the Post — puff pieces. The Times and New York have dishy takedowns of past gala events; The New Yorker’s is a snarky little dalliance about the “martinis with Roger Stone” event. When I start drafting this story in my head, fishing for adroit ways of capturing the young far-right’s views, I can’t stop thinking about the plaques.

“We know exactly what we’re doing,” Wax tells me a few days after the gala. We’re sitting down for a beer at the Beach Cafe, an Upper East Side joint popular with the NYC political crowd, and particularly the right wing. “We know how to get headlines. We know how to be controversial.”

I can’t argue that point: It’s why I’m here, talking to him for Rolling Stone. It’s another example of the hypocrisy at the heart of the Trump Media Handbook — these guys love the press. (Case in point: “Journalists and the media are shameless. Destroy them. Destroy their wives. Destroy their children … No mercy,” Burra later tweets, a few days before responding to fact checks for this story.) At the bar, Wax goes on about how other local Republican groups hate the NYYRC, how he’s often at odds with the state and city party establishment, because his group endorses whoever it wants, says whatever it wants, and isn’t beholden to outside donors or party funding. He loves this narrative, of course, because it’s the one that brings in the most new members, the one that apparently gets the attention of Trump.

It’s telling that Wax’s campaign is mostly focused on internal GOP politics. Midway through our second lager, Wax tells me he doesn’t have many interactions with left-wing groups in the city — they’re not the opponents he’s really interested in taking on. His counterparts are equally dismissive of him.

“No one in New York state government gives a shit about them,” Jeremy Berman, a former president of the Manhattan Young Democrats club, tells me. “Literally no one cares in the world that I live in. If they end up overseeing Führer Trump setting up the concentration camps and I get a bullet in my head, then I guess they’ll have the last laugh, but until then, they’re a nonfactor.”

NYYRC members do have a history of finding their way into positions of power. In the middle of the 20th century, club alumni worked in the Eisenhower administration, and newspaper archives are full of coverage from NYYRC events with speeches by familiar names — Nixon, Dewey, Barry Goldwater. That stuff is ancient history — but Wax and his friends are determined to bring the club’s institutional rep back.

Nathan Berger in the NYYRC clubhouse. Berger collaborates with far-right organizations abroad.
Nathan Berger in the NYYRC clubhouse. Berger collaborates with far-right organizations abroad.

The initial steps are pretty small: Members of the NYYRC have been involved in several City Council races and state-level elections. In 2022, Wax successfully got a judge to throw out New York’s gerrymandered State Assembly maps following a procedural error. While that decision may only gently affect New York’s heavily Democratic State Assembly majority, it’s a smaller skirmish in a wider redistricting war across the state that could have major repercussions in the makeup of the House of Representatives come November.

While Wax and his cadre try to parlay party throwing into actual political capital, those with real power are joining as well. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the chair of the House Republican Conference and fourth-ranked conservative in the House, formally joined the club in 2022.

“These [club members] are people who not only vote, they donate, they register voters, they volunteer on campaigns,” Garrett Ventry, a longtime New York Republican adviser who joined the club two years ago, tells me. “There’s some effectiveness and weight behind the punch when you can act like that instead of just as a policy shop.”

Of the club’s current leadership, Burra has spent the most time on Capitol Hill — albeit with politicians who’ve made names for themselves for all of the wrong reasons. He worked in 2021 as a “special projects coordinator” for Gaetz while the congressman was being investigated by the Justice Department for a slew of allegations related to sex trafficking (which he denied). Burra parlayed that into a gig as the “director of operations” for disgraced ex-Rep. Santos, a former member of the club. (Santos tells me he let his membership dues lapse at the end of 2023, but expects to rejoin the club.) While Burra has the most official policy experience, Wax is attempting to make a name for himself by going on right-wing radio and streaming shows (including Bannon’s War Room podcast, of which Burra was once a producer) and writing for the conservative site TownHall.

Wax swears these efforts are working. Some of his columns, he says, he forwards on to Trump’s personal secretary, Natalie Harp, who apparently prints out Wax’s articles, which Trump annotates in black Sharpie. (It’s a move Trump has pulled thousands of times with hundreds of reporters and pundits over his four decades in public life.) At the Beach Cafe, Wax shows me one of these exchanges, a series of DMs in which Harp passes on Trump’s gushing praise and Wax bows and scrapes with gratitude. Wax tells me Trump has told him several times “in writing” that he wants Wax to take a role in his next administration, which is a generous — but not outlandish — interpretation of some of the messages he showed me.

Berger has his own pet project: collaborating with other far-right organizations abroad. The club has been linked — through visiting members, guest speakers, and the like — with Austria’s Jugend Österreich (Freedom Youth of Austria), Germany’s “Young AfD,” Italy’s Lega, and Hungary’s Fidesz. Fidesz is the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a political hero of many group members. He was the club’s first international political endorsement;  El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele followed. (And when Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro lost his 2022 reelection bid, the group tweeted, then deleted, “send in the tanks,” essentially signing off on Bolsonaro’s supporters’ Jan. 6-style coup attempt.)

At 2023’s “CPAC Hungary,” an offshoot of the U.S. conservative convention, Wax was a featured -speaker, appearing on the rolls next to Gosar, failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Posobiec, Bannon, and former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Orbán spoke on the first day of the convention; the rest of the schedule had themes like “Local vs. Hiperglobal” and “No Country for Woke Men.” Berger has formalized a partnership between the club and Hungary’s Center for Fundamental Rights — the main sponsor of CPAC Hungary — and placed its executive director, Miklós Szánthó, on the NYYRC’s board of advisers. The CFR invited the club to co-host a gala at CPAC Hungary; in return, the CFR is listed as a co-host of the NYYRC’s gala. At the party, there is a smattering of other diplomats and academics from some of Europe’s other far-right movements: It’s clear there are plenty of MAGA junkies overseas looking for their next dealer.

“The populist right is on the upswing,” Berger tells me, pointing to the success of Germany’s far-right AfD and France’s National Rally. “We believe these groups are going to be in power, adjacent to leadership … and we think it’s a good idea to make friends and make connections and learn how they’ve achieved success. We’re not trying to build something solely for export.”

A WEEK OR SO after the gala, I meet Berger and Burra at the clubhouse. It’s a rainy morning, and we spend a few hours talking on the big leather couches. At one point, we’re talking about Posobiec, who is on the board of advisers for the club. I sense an opportunity to get a little bit of truth here and go for it, delicately posing the question of how trolls like Posobiec — whose grift is even more obvious than most on the far right — serve their mission. Berger makes a joke about “promo code POSO” working well on — a wink and a nod to the fact that every far-right huckster is selling something (in Posobiec’s case, a discount code to conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell’s bedding emporium). But Burra leans in.

“I’ll ask you this: What is power? To me, power is belief,” he says. His voice gets a little softer. “And if you believe it … who am I to tell you otherwise?” His voice gets even softer. “And I support you, my fellow American” — he breaks off in giggles.

I chuckle along, because it seems like Burra is giving me a peek behind the curtain. “And if that belief then increases the power of the people that you’re working for, then that’s …” I say, but he breaks in.

“Oh, is that how it works? Oh, OK, yeah, I guess, sure,” he whispers, grinning. “I’m happy to serve you, my people.” Berger looks vaguely concerned. Burra has now fully committed to his Batman-villain impression. “We’re going to give you the power back. We’re going to return the power to the people of Gotham.…” He starts giggling again.

“Look it’s — I genuinely believe it,” Burra says, sobering — it could mean anything, in this context. I think back to my conversation with him about how he thinks the 2020 election was stolen. “I’ve found a crew that also believes it,” he says. “There are masses that believe it. Are we all wrong? Or is there some part of what we’re talking about, so vigorously and vehemently and full of belief and emotion — is there even any part of that that you’re willing to take seriously?”

He’s partly right, when it comes down to it. It doesn’t really matter if Burra, Berger, and Wax are committed to each policy position or political statement made by the bigots and lunatics they’ve associated with over the years. The “crew” Burra talks about is real. That crew shows up for parties. It shows up for rallies. And it’s given many of the people involved with it a platform and political bona fides they didn’t have before. Where they go from here is still up in the air. Wax is thinking about stepping down next year. But he says that if Trump loses, “the club’s standing and my personal standing has been elevated to such a degree that I could stay involved politically in some capacity.”

Burra says he’s not sure if he’ll go back to work for Bannon after Santos’ office finally closes, or if he’ll try something else — and if Trump wins, he certainly wouldn’t turn down a job in the White House. “I’m pretty much always going to be with the club one way or another,” he says.

It all comes back to a political lesson he says he learned from Bannon himself.

“It’s about power,” he says. “Anybody who tells you different, they’re fucking lying to you.”

UPDATE 1/28/24: This story has been updated to reflect that Bukele represents El Salvador.

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