What does Brandon Straka, a white, gay part-time hairdresser and struggling actor representing a controversial viral movement, have to say to convince black people to abandon the Democratic Party in favor of the GOP?
“Who cares what the color of my skin is? I may not know what the black experience is, but I do know what the experience of being an American is,” Straka said. “I have more faith that black people will not only listen to black people.”
Straka will be in Atlanta Tuesday for his “Black Americans” town hall meeting, where he will try to convince black Atlantans to back President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
The New Yorker has emerged as the face of the #WalkAway movement, which started as a hashtag. It now has hundreds of thousands of online followers as conservative media outlets and even Trump embrace it. It’s also drawn skepticism from mainstream media and many political observers who view the movement as propaganda possibly backed by Russia.
Straka will show a 35-minute film at AMC Phipps Plaza of clips from African Americans who claim they have left the Democratic Party. He will then lead a panel discussion of African Americans whom he said have left the Democratic Party, including Janelle Jones, the newest panelist on the television program The Georgia Gang; YG Nyghtstorm, a motivational speaker; and Chandler Crump, a 15-year-old Atlantan who has become a conservative darling.
He has held similar events in Harlem and Los Angeles targeting black voters and says he has more planned that will focus on Jewish, gay and Hispanic voters who identify as Democrat. “What we are doing is going into communities that I believe the Republican Party has ignored and unsuccessfully communicated with,” Straka said.
Howard Franklin, a prominent black Democratic strategist in Atlanta, is skeptical of Straka’s efforts. He says he doesn’t know anyone who has abandoned the Democratic Party as a direct result of the #Walkaway campaign or who plans on attending Tuesday’s event.
“With this amount of diversity in pursuit of the nomination for president, it is hard to imagine that black people are looking at this [Democratic] party and not seeing the issues we care about being reflected and talked about,” Franklin said.
Two of the 10 leading Democratic candidates for president — Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — are black. Several of the candidates have also backed exploring slavery reparations.
Straka said he was a liberal Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He latched onto the viral #Walkaway hashtag in May 2017 with a Facebook video renouncing liberalism and the Democratic Party. A Facebook group grew into an organization with more than a half-million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
In August, Trump publicly thanked Straka on Twitter after Straka tweeted: “His election and the things it revealed opened my eyes and changed me forever at a soul level.”
But there have been some questions about the numbers of supporters and how many have been converted. Most of the coverage of Straka and the movement has been confined to outlets like Fox News and Breitbart.
The Washington Post wrote there was “little actual evidence to suggest that #WalkAway represents a mass conversion of millions — or even thousands — of Democrats to the Trump Train.” ThinkProgress called it a “grifting operation,” that used stock photographs of people claiming that they left the Democratic Party.
In July of 2018, the website Hamilton 68, which tracks Russian influence on Twitter as part of an initiative of the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund, reported that #WalkAway was connected to Kremlin-linked Russian bots to manipulate voters into thinking the movement was more popular and active that it actually was.
“There is no Russian propaganda campaign and no connection between Walkaway and Russia,” Straka said. “We don’t have any major donors. Everything is grassroots support from Americans who send us $5 or $100.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.