"Hyenas are communists": Right-wing story hour, part 1 — the banality of celebrity

Conservative influencer Jack Posobiec read his so-called book to a dozen kids on a weekday morning in D.C. But why?

Published April 8, 2023 12:13PM (EDT)

Conservative activist and Trump supporter Jack Posobiec (L) is escorted out of the Lincoln Park by anti-racism protesters near the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, DC on June 26, 2020. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Conservative activist and Trump supporter Jack Posobiec (L) is escorted out of the Lincoln Park by anti-racism protesters near the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, DC on June 26, 2020. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

It was a recent Wednesday morning in Washington. The crowd was small,  the headliner was late and none of the expected counter-protesters had materialized. 

Jack Posobiec didn't seem concerned. The 38-year-old conservative influencer, a celebrity of sorts in the MAGA world since Pizzagate, was sitting on the floor of the Cleveland Park Public Library. He was wearing a white button-down shirt against a dark suit jacket. Squatting forward, he looked unnaturally bulky at the shoulders and hips, his slim frame swallowed up in his crouch, so that the first thing you noticed was the sharp horn of hair, gelled with great care above his high-cresting forehead.

To an audience of maybe a dozen children Posobiec was introducing "The Island of Free Ice Cream," a picture book he purportedly wrote about predators who lure unsuspecting animals to their doom. The children's parents watched from further back.

"Wolf Island was a dark and spooky place, full of shadows," he explained. He glanced up, past the adults, toward a camera that had been set up by Real America's Voice, a streaming and television venue that rose to prominence by hosting Steve Bannon. "And full of communists," he added.

He laughed. So did the parents. After a beat the children did, too.

Posobiec was the first reader in the Freedom Island Story Hour, organized by the Texas publisher Brave Books to promote its series of children's stories commissioned, according to the company's website, "to honor God… and instill a love of truth." It was part of a nationwide tour for the latest Brave Books release, "As You Grow," by child actor turned evangelist Kirk Cameron, meant as a conservative counter to the popular Drag Queen Story Hour, which emphasizes "the gender fluidity of childhood… and queer role models." In addition to Cameron and Posobiec, Chaya Raichik, creator and proprietor of the social media account Libs of Tik Tok, as well as Sean Spicer, Donald Trump's former White House press secretary, were scheduled to read.

If on this early-spring morning in our nation's capital you happened to drop by your neighborhood library — curious, perhaps, about the multiple law enforcement vehicles parked out front — what you discovered in the main reading room would probably have seemed like a total bust.

The reading itself started more than a half-hour late, and Kirk Cameron didn't arrive until a few minutes after that. "There's a lot of people trying to find a place to park," Eric Presley, Brave's creative director, explained. The initial police presence had dispersed, given the lack of turnout. What's more, everyone in attendance had to first pass by a prominent display, arranged by the library staff, of LGBTQ-themed books and Pride flags. Over the course of the morning the reading room was, at best, half full. 

For Jack Posobiec, however, everything he needed was already in place. Before he'd even sat down on the thin carpet, he had spent the morning diligently assembling the event into a broader narrative: the one he'd arrived at the library intending to share. "On my way to the book reading," he tweeted just before 9 a.m. to his 2 million followers — which is more than the National Review and the Heritage Foundation combined. "Good morning, Libs!" At 9:25 a.m. he wrote: "BREAKING: Heavy police presence outside the library this morning. Pray for us." In response to the library's prominent display of queer reading material and rainbow banners, he quipped, "Not one American flag." "They wanted to make sure our children saw," he added.

He proceeded to appear live from the lobby on Bannon's podcast "War Room," joking with the onetime Trump Svengali about how all the authors in attendance should have dressed in drag. Afterward, he posted a short video of flash-cuts from the event, in which he added a personal summary of "The Island of Free Ice Cream": "It's like Cuba and East Germany and the Soviet Union all together." 

Posobiec read from his book for just over 10 minutes to the parents and children in the room. "The hyenas were there and helping them," he said, once again looking past the families assembled in front of him — as if past props and stand-ins — toward the real audience, the millions beyond the camera's lens, who would experience this event solely from the material he was providing. "Because hyenas are communists too."

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This banality of celebrity, with its distinctive architecture — lackluster real life, set against  rarefied online latticework — is what makes someone like Posobiec, at least in this current moment, inescapable. "He has a platform that most American politicians would envy," the Guardian's Washington bureau chief David Smith wrote in March, "and could help decide the Republican presidential primary race in 2024… [his] recent online activity includes crude attacks on Antifa, The New York Times 1619 Project, and transgender rights ('Genital Gestapo') — ready made talking points for candidates."

Posobiec's approach embodies the broader desire of the GOP's mainstream for accountability in the guise of action — for creating a confrontational event that, at least in its second life as an online spectacle, can counter the supposed unexamined orthodoxy of liberal arguments on issues like race, sexuality and education. 

Posobiec is not looking to strike nuanced positions: In response to Trump's indictment, he vowed to go after the prosecutor, and has called for a coordinated MAGA attack to bring down the American financial system.  

Posobiec, of course, is not looking to strike a nuanced position or engage in genuine debate; across the board he conveys an uncanny instinct for the most extreme position. He characterizes his opponents as pedophiles and murderers, language that, like the rest of his activism, is best understood as akin to a physical gesture: The act of expression is the meaning.

Over the last half decade, Donald Trump has praised Posobiec repeatedly. In response to the former president's recent indictment, Posobiec vowed to go after the prosecutor in the case, and has called for a coordinated MAGA attack to bring down the American financial system.  

I first came across Jack Posobiec in December of 2016, in the wake of the Pizzagate scandal: a proto-QAnon conspiracy theory about Democrats operating a child sex and torture ring based at Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria and bar in northwest Washington, D.C., that happens to be a personal favorite of mine. It's one of the few places in the city where you can meet a colleague for a drink, take your kids out to a fun family dinner and, on a weeknight, catch a performance by a local band. After Posobiec implied that he'd glimpsed a secret door during his own visit to the pizzeria, an AR-15-wielding gunman from North Carolina stormed the place and fired off a few rounds that mercifully hit no one, before eventually surrendering to police. Hours earlier, I'd met a friend for drinks at Comet's small bar. It was difficult to fathom how close we'd come to being there.

Half a decade later, in the wake of everything Posobiec had gone on to do, from promoting "Stop the Steal" to calling Shakespeare fans Nazis to getting banned from the dating app Bumble, it takes a moment, seeing his name again, to contextualize what he's become. Republican voters, Dave Weigel wrote in a recent Semafor newsletter, see him as "the most cited influencer, by far" — someone "who will matter as much to the future GOP voters as Washington Post columnist George Will did to Republicans a generation ago."

For Posobiec, the key to the culture war is that it has no limits. Instead, the future is simply terrain across which this never-ending battlefield might expand, providing an endless supply of material he can then package into his potent, easily accessible brand of outrage. 

Up close and in person — amid the poor turnout of a local children's story hour — the true extent of his influence isn't necessarily apparent. Instead, he comes across as someone not all that far removed from his own biography

Jack Posobiec III was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, in 1984. His father was a psychiatric nurse. His mother worked for a pharmaceutical company. Both voted for Bill Clinton twice. Both were lifelong NRA members. In high school, attending Kennedy Kenrick Catholic, he worked at a deli, where he became interested in the local music scene. He taught himself to play guitar. He joined a band called China Syndrome. He was a fan of David Bowie. For college he went to nearby Temple University, where he first got interested in politics, joining the Republican club in response to his professors' advocacy, in class, of liberal positions. After graduation he interned for Rick Santorum's U.S. Senate campaign. He worked on down-ballot tickets too, his first in-depth experience with political pranksterism.

His next move took him halfway across the world, to Shanghai, where he worked for the American Chamber of Commerce. While abroad he played a minor role as a street thug in the 2008 martial arts film "Forbidden Kingdom." The following year he returned home, and after brief stints as a sales rep at a local radio station and a staffer for a failed gubernatorial campaign, he decided to join the Navy. He went to bootcamp and scored so well on the aptitude test he qualified for intelligence service and was sent on a 10-month deployment to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, where he worked closely with detainees. In 2015, he turned down an offer from Ted Cruz's campaign to join Citizens for Trump, where, under the tutelage of Roger Stone, he learned the dark arts of ratfuckery: "Attack, attack, attack. Never defend. Admit nothing, deny everything."

By the 2016 presidential campaign,  Posobiec had stopped writing on Twitter about films and TV shows. At last he began to assume the identity he continues to develop today: "a  hyper partisan social media assassin," as the late Jonathan Valania wrote in an exhaustive 2017 profile for Philadelphia magazine, "and a frighteningly good one at that, able to blur the lines between truth and fiction and right and wrong and, uncannily, make the ensuing confusion go viral in the gaslit midnight of the American Century."

By 2016, Posobiec began to assume his current identity: "a  hyper partisan social media assassin, and a frighteningly good one at that, able to blur the lines between truth and fiction and right and wrong."

He's come a long way in a short time. The Cleveland Park Library is only a mile-and-a-half walk down Connecticut Avenue from Comet Ping Pong, the initial shore from which he launched his first major attack, spawning his thousand-ship assault on reality that seems only to have grown in strength. Still, his recent story-time stunt was just another stop.

The following week, he held  a demonstration in lower Manhattan, alongside Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, to protest Donald Trump's arrest and arraignment. Standing on a park bench, Posobiec shouted into the receiver of a bullhorn, "They can't gag all of us." He was wearing black sunglasses and his blue suit jacket, with the collar of his shirt open. 

"This is the funeral procession of the Republic!" he proclaimed. It was hard to tell from the video he provided just how many people had attended, or whether members of the press outnumbered Trump supporters. All of which, perhaps, is beside the point. For the rest of the day he retweeted multiple clips of the speech. Later that evening, on Truth Social, Trump reposted Posobiec's line about not being silenced, which Posobiec then posted to Twitter as a screenshot, along with the comment: "Thank you, Mr President."

By Timothy Denevi

Timothy Denevi’s most recent book is "Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism." He teaches nonfiction in the MFA program at George Mason University.

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Children's Books Conservatives Donald Trump Far-right Jack Posobiec Maga Reporting Story Hour