It’s not much to look at from the outside, a dingy apartment building in a downwardly mobile stretch of burglar bars, psychics, and coin laundries. When asked the name of the neighborhood, one inhabitant classifies it as “no place in the middle of every place.”
It’s not much better on the inside. The guy I have come to see answers the door of his cheerless one-bedroom shirtless, in camo shorts and Chucks, while pulling on a white polo in order to appear less feral. He’s not a down-on-his-luck porn producer, though he used to work in the industry. He’s not some middle-aged gangbanger, though he could pass for one: solidly built with his name tattooed on his knuckles and a branding-iron mark singed into his chest. He is Sabo, America’s preeminent right-wing guerrilla street artist.
This sounds impressive. Yet being the Banksy or the Shep Fairey of the right is not a high pile to climb. It’s a bit like being the foremost reggae singer at the Grand Ole Opry or the premier scuba outfitter in the Kalahari. There’s not a lot of competition.
In this most liberal of cities (where even unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Republicans) and out of these modest digs, Sabo runs a one-man torture emporium. His victims include everyone from lefty politicians and Big Tech overlords to smug celebrities who never cease to subject us to the hot blasts of their virtue-signaling.
When inspiration strikes, Sabo might hijack a billboard, as he did last year with one advertising the film The Greatest Showman. It featured the actress Zendaya on a trapeze, and Sabo added a smirking Al Franken behind her with his lechy come-hither hands outstretched. Or he might crank out cheeky T-shirts with the letters “DOU” next to a picture of Che’s face.
The fashionable hypocrisy of the left drives Sabo bonkers, which explains the “F— Tibet” sign in his living room. It’s not that he doesn’t feel for the Dalai Lama’s oppressed people. But he’ll see some L.A. fashionista in a Mao shirt hauling a Free Tibet tote bag, “And I’m like, ‘You realize the reason Tibet needs to be freed is because of the f—ing Communists?’ These are the idiots I have to deal with.” No Third Way-ist, Sabo calls leftism a “mental disorder.” But whatever his stunt, he has been earning national headlines of late. Not too shabby for a lone street artist with a surly streak and a copy of Photoshop.
From the moment you step inside Sabo’s place, you get the sense that artistic violence is committed here. Amidst the skateboards and racks of spray-paint that adorn the hovel of this 50-year-old man-child, there’s a tattered Koran, which serves as his doorstop. It’s missing pages, since he’s used a few when out of toilet paper. If a visitor didn’t get the point that he’s not a fan of Islam, one wall also features Beyoncé in a burka.
Next to the coffin-sized printer that cranks out the posters that he plasters all over Los Angeles, there’s a wall-sized depiction of Elizabeth Warren in a Pocahontas headdress. There’s also the Hillary Clinton Wizard of Oz-style flying monkey campaign placard (with which he blanketed Brentwood before one of Hillary’s deep-pockets presidential fundraisers) and the tin of “Planned Parenthood Baby Dick Sausages by Vienna” (his nod to the unborn, though he’s ambivalently pro-choice).
Sabo’s also pro gay-marriage. But just when you think he’s going bleeding-heart on you, his bathroom door features the traditional ladies’ room silhouette of a woman, but from under her skirt is protruding, like a turtle head from a shell, a man’s unit. The bathroom is marked neither “Men” nor “Women,” but rather “It.” Though Sabo hastens to add that with their high rates of attempted suicide, he has nothing against “trannies.” “I hurt for them in a good way . . . just don’t try and tell me that it’s normal.”
Then there’s the MAGAphone—a megaphone inscribed with Donald Trump’s favorite acronym, as well as “Eat Shit Commie” around the horn. This comes in handy at rallies where Sabo and his winger pals square off with the masked ninjas of antifa, who like to combat what they consider fascistic forces by invading their free-assemblies and beating them down in the street with no regard for parade permits or irony. Keeping with the fecal theme, there’s the Obama-face toilet seat (Sabo was once paid a visit by the Secret Service after tweeting that he wished Lee Harvey Oswald would come back as a zombie during the Obama years). And there’s the tire-sized brown plastic turd in his kitchen, along with a tchotchke-sized one nearby that’s stabbed with toothpicks and a small banner reading “Bernie Free Shit.” When out for a walk, he’s not above planting such flags in real-life dog droppings to lampoon America’s favorite socialist.
Sabo thinks of himself as occupying the same lane as George Carlin or Lenny Bruce, proudly saying the unsayable. His critics see him more contemptuously. A Forbes writer, perhaps auditioning for an associate professorship of grievance studies at Swarthmore, provided a handy representative grab-bag, calling Sabo’s work “a celebration of whiteness, homophobic, anti-feminist, anti-immigration, pro-Trump and generally bombastic, heteronormative propaganda that does with images what Richard Spencer does with language.”
A fact checker might have a few qualms with this. For starters, Sabo’s not white. He’s of Mexican and mixed-Hispanic heritage and calls himself “brown.” For another, he’s done plenty of pro-gay pieces. But Sabo seems constitutionally incapable of passing a racial grenade without pulling the pin and suggesting someone use it as a suppository. Take his rather free ’n’ easy use of the N-word—which he wants to explain repeatedly. He abhors the word, he says, along with all racial prejudice. He grew up in rural Louisiana, where he saw people abused with it firsthand and where he himself was called a “wetback” and “beaner.” But he likes to think he makes a distinction between regular ol’ black people and, well, N-words.
Being the ruthlessly transparent type, he published a 3,105-word essay about his use of the N-bomb on his website. He thinks the word “repugnant” but believes “there are some who’ve earned being called that. As an artist, I reserve the right to use whatever word I feel appropriate to the project. If Chris Rock, Tarantino, and every hip-hop artist alive can use it, then so can I.”
Sabo’s recent smashmouth stunts include posting “F— Zuck 2020” posters across several cities in California, which saw Sabo sent to “Facebook jail” for a while. (He’s been permanently banned from Twitter for his numerous infractions.) He slapped up “She Knew” posters of Meryl Streep with sexual deviant Harvey Weinstein. Streep claims she didn’t, but Sabo doesn’t much care, telling the Guardian, “she’s swiping at us so we’re swiping back,” after the actress took shots at Donald Trump during a Golden Globes speech. He covered bus benches with posters of Jimmy Kimmel as the Johnny Depp character from the 1990s film Cry-Baby after one of the late night host’s political-emotional outpourings on his show. Sabo’s headline: “The Jimmy Kimmel Estrogen Hour.”
It may be emblematic of the caliber of today’s political discourse that Kimmel had a picture of himself taken sitting on one of Sabo’s benches with his middle-finger extended and sent it to the Hollywood Reporter (which religiously covers Sabo’s hits). It’s a modern version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
If it all seems a little ugly, bordering on Neanderthalish, that’s the idea. You can accuse Sabo of having snapped from being surrounded by so many Hollywood libs. But on his website, unsavoryagents.com, he beats you to the punch, freely admitting it in a short manifesto:
There was no place I could go where I wasn’t punched in the face by some sort of art defining who I was for being a Republican. Evil, Bigoted, Homophobic, Out of Touch, Rich, Greedy, on and on. And then I snapped. Why was the Left allowed to define me and where are the dissenting voices from the Right setting the record straight? Creatively speaking, no one. . . . My aim as an artist is to be as dirty, ground level, and mean as any Liberal artist out there, more so if I can. Use their tactics, their methods, appeal to their audience, the young, urban, street urchins with a message they never hear in a style they own. My name is SABO, I’m an UNSAVORY AGENT.
If that last sentence has the ring of an AA meeting gone wrong, it’s no accident. Sabo has attended plenty of them. He went cold turkey for years, but now sees no reason to be such a stickler. “I know the dragon’s tail that I’m pulling,” he says. No quitter myself, we drink to his sobriety throughout several boozy meals, in which I try to sort Sabo’s biographical particulars. This isn’t so easy, since he’s a discursive fellow who’s never met a rabbit hole he won’t disappear down.
He was born in Brownsville, Texas. His father was gone by the time he was 5—after Sabo’s mother stepped out on him. “She wasn’t a wild woman, but she was a strong woman,” Sabo says. “There was a seductive nature about her, there’s nothing more attractive than confidence.”
What Sabo lacked in stature—he stands 5'5"—he made up for in scrappiness. When he was 5, a 7-year-old started pushing him around. “I’m like, ‘What the hell do I do, man? I’m the smallest kid here.’ ” He saw his mom walk by with a basket of laundry, his little sister trailing behind like a baby duck, quacking, “Mommy. Mommy. He’s gonna get in a fight!” His mom coolly assessed the situation and said, “He can take care of himself.” “My heart dropped,” remembers Sabo, “and that’s when I got pissed and knocked the shit out of that guy.”
His mom remarried a much younger white guy—only eight years Sabo’s senior. “He was more like a brother,” Sabo remembers. Once, he took Sabo and his two siblings out to buy school clothes, telling them they could split a hundred dollars. Sabo did the math. “We ain’t gonna have shit for school clothes. I was 10 years old, and at that point, I knew I gotta start working.” He did everything from cutting wood to shrimping while his cousins ran around smoking weed and getting drunk. He figures that reality formed him politically. “I looked at my cousins and said, ‘Well, they must be Democrats because they’re a bunch of freeloaders.’ ”
The family moved to rural Louisiana, and his stepdad worked for peanuts at a small-engine repair shop, supplementing his income selling pot. They were still poor enough to need to live in a trailer planted in his step-grandfather’s cow pasture. “We were trailer trash that couldn’t even afford to live in a trailer park,” Sabo says.
One day, an old black man pulled up on their property on a tractor. Sabo asked, “Hey mister, how’s it going?” The man said it was awfully hot, did he think he could get some water? Sabo ran inside and grabbed a cup. “I went to pour it. Bam! My step-grandmother slapped it from my hand. She said, ‘You don’t give that n— a good cup. Give a Dixie cup.’ I handed it to him, I felt so bad. That’s Louisiana. She looked at me like I was a bug forever, until one day, she just accepted me. You know, her son married a Mexican woman. I was a f—in’ brown kid. That’s life.”
After high school, Sabo joined the Marines when a friend wanted to enlist together. He figures he got screwed twice, once when his buddy went AWOL before boot camp. The second time was when Sabo, who wanted to go into communications, was honest with his recruiter, telling him he’d recently smoked a joint—the only time, since he liked it too much and figured drugs would do him in. The recruiter tore up his communications contract and said, “You’re gonna be a grunt.”
Sabo became a tank crewman, from which he derives his handle. A “sabot” is a type of armor-piercing round—“pretty much a bullet for a tank.” The Call of Duty nerds like to test him on this, claiming, Sabo says while imitating their pedantic whine, that it “isn’t the round, it’s one of the things that cup the round.” Disgusted, he adds: “I’m like, ‘Bitch, I only slept on one for four years. Shut up. I used sabot rounds as a goddamned pillow.’ ” He doesn’t let his real name out there, since antifa types would chronically harass him, possibly worse, and he doesn’t need any help in the paranoia department: “I wouldn’t be surprised if celebrities have witches trying to f— me with spells. Sometimes when I do [a job], I get really sick.”
It was in the Corps that Sabo became a drunk. Everyone was a two-fister. “They literally had Coke machines filled with beer.” He never saw combat, but there was plenty of fighting. “When I got into a bar fight, the whole bar fought,” he says, suppressing a grin. He was once slam-dancing at a bar, and some Navy killjoy said, “Dude, you spilled my drink.”
Sabo responded, “Dude, it’s a slam-dance song.”
“It’s Barry Manilow,” said his rival.
They squared off, and Sabo knocked him out. After he was marched outside by bouncers, he did round two with five of his dance partner’s Navy buddies. It didn’t go as well. The next morning, he says, “I felt like I had been in a tumble cycle in the dryer.”
The military wasn’t for him, with all the rules. “I felt like I was in prison and hadn’t broken any laws.” Sabo punched out after four years. “We were both fine with the divorce,” he says.
He’d been introduced to art by a tank-buddy in the Corps and decided to try becoming a commercial artist. He put together a portfolio and got accepted into Pasadena’s respected ArtCenter College of Design. He lasted several semesters, until he was going into debt and feeling that he was not getting much bang for his buck. In need of a job, he joined the porn world. At first, he provided design assistance for one of Penthouse’s photographers. It was all downhill from there, with gigs like shooting backstage footage on a porn-reality show. “No one came out of that shoot undamaged,” he shudders. The nadir was a web-design job that included launching a granny-porn site.
Feeling guilty, he confessed his vocation to his little sister, a mother of five married to an overbearing Mormon. She cut off all contact with him. Then 9/11 happened, and, rocked by events, he got out of the porn business, figuring there had to be more to life. But on Christmas Day 2001, his sister, who was stuck in a deep postpartum depression, swiped a family member’s pills and killed herself.
Prone to depression himself, Sabo nearly capsized. “Have you ever had something you lost, and you don’t feel whole?” he asks me. He chronicles a family haunted by early deaths. His stepfather drank himself to death, finishing himself off by choking on a wad of chew. His beloved mother died in her 60s, and he hates that he couldn’t make her comfortable at the end: “She wanted [new] teeth. I couldn’t give her teeth . . . because I had no money.” His birth father kicked, too, from unhealthy living. A fitness buff who crashes marathons to dodge the entry fee (“if I’m going to pay somebody 100 bucks to torture me, it’ll probably be a chick with a whip or something”), Sabo once asked his dad if he took care of himself, maybe lifting weights. “Yeah,” his dad said, “12 ounces at a time.”
After his sister’s death, Sabo spent several years in the equivalent of a fetal tuck. Rebounding a bit, he took new-media startup jobs, using his design and coding skills. He didn’t last long at any of them; he couldn’t bear all the flimflam artists buying $700 chairs with VC money while having no idea what they were doing. “I hated being around a lot of very smart, stupid people,” Sabo says. He did freelance corporate gigs, but that didn’t suit him much, either. He doesn’t care for the detail work, such as invoicing clients. “I like to jump on the battlefield, swing the axe, then go home. I don’t want to clean the axe, put the axe on the shelf, make sure it’s ready for the next battle.” These were lean times. Between gigs, he might rely for sustenance on cookies and coffee at AA meetings. Other times, he’d fish out whatever quarters he could find and decide at the McDonald’s dollar-menu board whether he’d go with a hamburger or ice cream. “I always went with ice cream.”
These days, his bills are paid, and he’s socking money away. If a political piece goes viral—and his often do—he can sell $20,000 worth of merchandise online. One hit was his “Republican Is the New Punk” T-shirt, featuring Donald Trump sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed and lips pursed in spiteful serenity, with two middle-fingers raised. If Zoloft and alcohol couldn’t fix what was broken in Sabo, political combat did. It reordered his life. It gives him purpose to, say, drill Gwyneth Paltrow as an “Obama Drone.” He plastered her L.A. neighborhood with posters of Obama’s favorite weapon hovering around Gwynnie’s head the day she hosted a fundraiser for the president.
Sabo did his first bits of political street art way back in the Clinton years, when he grew disgusted at Dems circling the wagons around the man that he simply called, in one poster, “Rapist.” He marks the Lewinsky scandal as his “first slap in the head,” his awakening. The second came during the George W. Bush years, when everyone in Los Angeles seemed overnight to grow savagely nasty toward all things Republican. Like the “full-blown Commie” he was dating at the time (she taught Brazilian film at UCLA), who asked him not to speak at parties so as not to embarrass her. After breaking up, he saw her walking down the other side of the street and simply yelled “W!” She snarled back.
He floundered with his art for years, but always expected the miracle—as they say in AA. He got it with Trump. He may still be “some guy who lives in some dump,” but he has an equal footing with Jimmy Kimmel and Meryl Streep in the political conversation. Sabo’s fond of the late Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream from culture.” And he’s freely taking a leak in that stream.
Let Shepard Fairey, Obama’s Leni Riefenstahl, congratulate himself for being anti-establishment when it doesn’t get more establishment than having your art hanging in the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery as you pull corporate gigs for Google and Pepsi. Sabo is hitting from the other side of the plate. He claims his is the real street art. Actually dangerous. Actually unacceptable. Street artists like to fancy themselves trollers. But in this day and age, you can’t out-troll the troller-di-tutti-trollers, Donald J. Trump, whose average afternoon of tweeting is more anti-establishment than anything Nerf revolutionaries like Fairey have dreamed up in years (even if Trump now technically is the establishment as Leader of the Free World). In Godfather parlance, Sabo is like Trump’s Luca Brasi, the muscle on the street when pixels aren’t lethal enough.
Trump is the straw that stirs everyone’s drink, and Sabo argues with me about him for hours. Here, I feel for the artist. There’s surely nothing drearier than a Never-Trump moralist deciding to tell Luca Brasi a fact or two about This Thing of Ours, except for one who becomes even more convinced of his righteousness with a snout full of firewater. It’s not that I’m so bothered by Trump’s habitual lies (the Washington Post has counted 4,229 in 528 days), florid narcissism, below-the-belt personal attacks, and all-purpose degradation of the office. And I frequently agree with him on policy, on the off chance he cares to make any before growing distracted and heading back to Twitter to attack basketball players. Trump is who he is and never pretended to be otherwise. My trouble is that plenty of other people are pretending. Trump’s liberties with truth aren’t as bothersome as the liars he makes out of others, saddled with the unenviable task of defending often indefensible behavior. Take my fellow evangelicals, who, like Pharisees, have historically condemned every moral lapse in the public square, but who now largely cut Trump a pass as God’s avenger. Or take Sabo himself, who started off a Ted Cruz guy. One of his most popular pieces contains Ted Cruz’s head on a heavily tattooed prison body, cigarette dangling from his mouth—perhaps the only time in his life Cruz ever looked cool. Even so, Cruz ruined it by championing the poster while announcing that he doesn’t smoke.
During the campaign, Sabo was on record calling Trump “a man without a core” and a “circus freak.” He did a piece with a Mussolini-esque character wearing a Trump hair-helmet, captioned “Il Douche.”
So who changed, I ask Sabo: Trump or you?
Surprisingly, Sabo concedes many of my points: “Trump is thin-skinned. He’s a demagogue,” he allows. “But you know what? It works for him. What you’re wanting is what everyone on the right wanted.”
“Moral consistency? Lack of hypocrisy? Not setting your hair on fire?” I snap back.
“No,” he says. “You wanted a comfort zone. What you were familiar with. What you thought was going to deliver the things you believe in. That Southern Baptist dude who wears a jacket in the Oval Office and never takes it off. But see, what you don’t understand is that dad f—ed a hooker when he visited Cleveland, and he’s just as dirty as everyone else.” With Trump, Sabo says, the usually secretive dark tendencies of most politicians are transparently on display. But meanwhile, he’s still “kicking the teeth in” of everyone who needs their teeth kicked in.
“How can I say it, dude?” he goes on about people like me criticizing Trump while still enjoying the spoils of his Supreme Court picks, his pushback on the thought police, and his promoting of America instead of apologizing for it. “It’s like grow the f— up. You’re not a child. We’re dealing in an awful world. You’re bitching about the carpet not matching the drapes while all the hordes come down on you. Trump was the furthest thing from perfect,” Sabo concedes. But asking Trump not to act like a jackass is “like asking a zebra to not have stripes. You deal with the f—ing zebra on the zebra’s terms.” It’s like the Serenity Prayer, he says, falling back on his AA training. “Once you understand that the world isn’t the way you wish it could be, but the way that it is, you find peace.”
It’s a world never short of targets for Sabo. In mid-July, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen, who’s made a career of pranking people in the guise of such characters as Ali G and Borat. He’s got a new show, Who Is America, and viral clips have been spilling out (such as one with Cohen getting Dick Cheney to autograph a fake waterboarding kit) in advance of the premiere. Sarah Palin is also making noise, as only Palin can, about the “evil” comedian, the “shallow Sacha boy” (Palin’s never had Trump’s aptitude for nicknaming), who had her fly cross-country purportedly to do an interview that would provide a “ ‘legit’ opportunity to honor American Vets and contribute to a ‘legit Showtime historical documentary.’ ” “Yup, we were duped,” the former Alaska governor folksily Facebooked.
Cohen, she charged, disguised himself as a disabled vet, “fake wheelchair and all.” Thinking she’d be honoring people in uniform, she was, instead, subjected to “Hollywoodism’s disrespect and sarcasm.” Showtime denied that Cohen was portraying a veteran—it wasn’t a wheelchair, apparently, but a motorized scooter. Cohen himself responded to Palin as the character he played while interviewing her: Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, a conspiracy-nut yahoo who is the “founder/CEO/accountant” of truthbrary.org. While tipping his hat to Palin for “TELLING THE TRUTH about Obama’s birth certificate,” Ruddick/Cohen said in his statement: “I did NOT say I was a war vet. I was in the service—not military—but United Parcel, and I only fought for my country once—when I shot a Mexican who came onto my property.”
The story is muddled, to say the least. But that doesn’t keep cable-news jockeys from tearing each other’s lungs out over stolen valor vs. not being able to take a joke. As yet another culture-war wave swells, Sabo grabs his board. The plan is to hijack a billboard—one that sits kitty-corner from CBS headquarters in L.A.’s Fairfax district (CBS is Showtime’s parent company)—and cover it with anti-Cohen art. Sabo and his crew have done this sort of gig before. To torture Hollywood over its myriad sex scandals, they hit three billboards simultaneously in February, right before the Oscars (aping the Best Picture-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Sabo’s signs read: AND THE OSCAR FOR BIGGEST PEDOPHILE GOES TO . . . WE ALL KNEW AND STILL NO ARRESTS . . . NAME NAMES ONSTAGE OR SHUT THE HELL UP!
The Cohen prank is not an impossible job, but it is not necessarily an easy one. There’s lots of logistics, lots of heights (Sabo gets spooked on tall ladders), and lots of opportunities to get caught. We are slated for takeoff in the dark of night—to avoid authorities—on a Sunday, which coincides with Who Is America’s debut. Sundays are better than Fridays, since if you get arrested, you don’t sit in jail all weekend while the courts are closed.
As Sabo preps, his crew drifts in, coming together slowly and dramatically as in a heist film. There’s a high-flying graffiti artist who asks to remain nameless, but who’ll make for a good pair of extra hands when traversing the heights. There’s some L.A.-chapter Proud Boys, the hard-drinking-and-fighting social/political outfit launched in 2016 by Vice cofounder Gavin McInnes, who regularly lock horns with antifa at free-speech rallies. There’s Sabo’s chum Maytor wearing a Smurf shirt. He dabbles in street art, but in civilian life runs three cemeteries in Delaware, which keeps him fairly flush. “People are dying to get in,” he says, obligatorily. “Everyone I work with is a character,” Sabo explains. “But that’s okay, because we’re not exactly working for Avon.”
But before we really get cooking prep-wise, Sabo receives a call for help. He yells that we have to go—the Proud Boys are getting accosted down the street at a 7-Eleven. He grabs tennis shoes as he runs out the door. If there’s a fight, he doesn’t want to have to do battle in flip-flops. We are just in time to catch the denouement.
L.A. chapter Proud Boys Galt (as he prefers to be called after the character from Atlas Shrugged) and Levi Romero had met up with a local Fox reporter for an interview about an encounter with a gang of lib-activist Twitter-mobsters who’d shown up the night before to make trouble for Proud Boys when they’d gathered at the Griffin Bar in Atwater. No real violence occurred. But words were exchanged, MAGA-hats snatched, shoving ensued, and everyone bounced. The bar owner was roundly raked online for admitting “Nazis,” a common lefty euphemism these days for anyone who wears a Make America Great Again hat in public, as the Proud Boys proudly do. They’ve been branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center—but then, who hasn’t? Everyone from the Family Research Council to Ayaan Hirsi Ali shares that distinction.
When we catch up to them, however, Levi is less Proud Boy than Abashed Boy, holding his MAGA hat under his arm. In the course of the last hour, it’s become a red cape waving in front of angry bulls. While they were setting up for the interview, an enraged black guy saw Levi’s hat, spat in their direction, fake-apologized, and then flew at them, Galt tells me. The guy shouted, “F— you and your hat and everything you’re about.”
The only thing Angry Guy could have ascertained that they were about, from their appearance, was being pro-Trump. And while Trump inflames passions—often by design—he is also the duly elected president of the United States. Should wearing his merchandise be enough to get you assaulted in the bars and streets of Los Angeles, as if a MAGA hat were a Klan hood? Galt tells me it’s par for the course: “I’ve had countless friends lose their jobs and get jumped. I’ve had bricks thrown at me and been pepper sprayed.” Though he supports Trump now, Galt didn’t vote for him. He considers himself “a true liberal—meaning I believe in liberty. I’ll be friends with anyone. But the left tends to think the right is evil. We just think they’re wrong.”
Galt invited Angry Guy over to thrash out their differences in dialogue, but the man instead went to his car and started blasting the YG and Nipsey Hussle song “FDT (F— Donald Trump).” Galt went over and talked to him and after a few minutes, and some uneasiness, things settled down. Angry Guy, softening, even admitted he had friends who were conservative. He apologized for making assumptions. One of the assumptions he probably made was that the Proud Boys were white supremacists, though Galt is of mixed Chinese-Hawaiian stock and Levi is Mexican-Japanese.
But shortly thereafter, Galt says, a Korean guy jumped out of a Mini Cooper and started yelling insults at Levi because of his hat in the middle of his interview. When he asked Galt if he was with Levi, and Galt said yes, he yelled, “F— you too, then.” He told him he was stupid, regarding Trump. Galt told him he didn’t even vote for Trump. The guy threatened to “f— you up” anyway.
By now, Galt had had it. Proud Boys generally don’t shrink from a fight (note the name). He followed Angry Guy 2 into 7-Eleven and got-nose-to-cheek with him, encouraging him to strike first. His bluff called, AG2 headed for the Slurpee machine, chastened. But when another bystander intervened on his side, he found courage, and it looked to be a two-on-one hoedown. (Levi was still outside talking to the reporter.) When we roll up, Galt is being escorted out—for his own well-being—by a middle-aged good Samaritan in a Golden State jersey, trying not to break his vape in all the hubbub.
His name is Joe, and when I ask what he just witnessed, he tells me “ridiculousness.” Since Trump was elected, everyone’s blood is running hot—he gets that. “I’m a black guy. I don’t like Trump either,” he says. But Galt and Levi getting targeted isn’t right. “Say whatever the f— you want,” believes Joe. “But dude, calm down! Have a different opinion, fine. You don’t like Trump? Fine, I’m the same way. But don’t touch—don’t spit on, for sure—and we won’t have a problem. I have friends who voted for Trump, close friends. . . . This is like gangland. It’s almost like we’re living in the ’80s back in Compton: Crips and Bloods.”
I explore this gangland theme in a postmortem with Levi. Sabo and Galt have to head to the hardware store to pick up some gear, and we decide to get pizza and beer. On the surface, he’s a laconic, charming, self-deprecatory goofball, who calls everyone “Doggy” or, if he’s trying to show respect, “Big Dog.” Levi is 24 and wears a cheesy mustache that makes him look like a fourth Beastie Boy from the Sabotage-era. Sabo told me Levi is a bit of a legend in Proud Boys subculture. The Internet is rife with videos of him drinking and fighting and getting arrested. Levi preemptively warns me I’ll find saltier stuff—like him threatening a lib-activist rival, vowing to cut his heart out and rape his wife.
Already divorced with a kid, Levi jokes that he’s a young guy with middle-aged problems. He’s trying to go legit, apprenticing as an electrician. But between traveling to rallies for antifa battles, working Sabo gigs, keeping up his Proud Boy duties, as well as servicing all his online beefs, partisan combat has taken up the better part of his last year. He tells me of the times he’s been assaulted. Shows me scars on his torso and hands from getting slashed with a beer bottle. He doesn’t take the Proud Boys overly seriously. They bill themselves as “Western chauvinists” who think the “West is the best,” which draws charges of racism, even if both he and Galt tell me the L.A. chapter is about half Latino. Galt, upholding Proud Boy political incorrectness, gives their diversity breakdown: “We’ve gotta lot of heebs, spics, and beaners, a few nips, some gooks. We’ve got chinks, we’ve got white trash. We’ve got micks—I’m part Irish. One of our guys is a black-dude cop who wears a cowboy hat and rocks a Confederate flag.”
Levi details the Proud Boy initiation rites, such as the “beat-in” rule where people whale on you until you can name five breakfast cereals. During Levi’s initiation, he clocked out in about 30 seconds. He has command of his Kellogg’s. At a Proud Boys convention, though, he agreed to another beat-in for fun and took a solid three minutes, for which he is revered. “Everyone was all-impressed, buying me more drinks.” I tell him it’s all well and good but that this stuff—from the beat-ins to the antifa wars—is starting to sound slightly preposterous, like gangbanging for liberal arts majors. He laughs and agrees. “Pretty much,” he says, “especially on their side. . . . I’m just a normal dude trying to live. But that’s what it feels like, like The Warriors.” Here, he is making reference to the ’70s gang film, citing its most famous line, said in a drawn-out high-pitched screech: “Warriors, come out and play-ayyyyyyy.”
Still, he allows, things have gotten too intense. It’s as though Trump’s election has allowed everyone to become his basest self. Levi understands that by many objective criteria, Trump is a jerk. He doesn’t particularly care. He just likes that Trump pushes the limits, almost to a fault. What happens when the other side gets in power and exacts revenge times five, I ask. “I don’t care,” he says. “I’m going to give them a little taste of their own medicine. I’m tired. I’m only human. I can’t lose with grace anymore.” Though he does wonder what will happen when Trump, who consumes everyone’s thoughts 24/7 now, is no longer president: “We’re going to need to invent new f—ing monsters.”
Back at Sabo’s place, on the driveway of his building’s carport, the crew lays out clamps, tie-down straps, and other equipment, as well as the 48-by-14-foot banner that will serve as the billboard replacement. Everyone takes a look at Sabo’s handiwork, which features a Photoshopped picture of Sacha Baron Cohen in a wheelchair, with prosthetic legs, wearing an Army T-shirt. Next to him is a silhouette of the United States, over which is the inscription “Sacha Baron Cohen Walks Away With a Hit . . . And a Touch of Stolen Valor.” Beneath the images are the date and time the show airs, “Saturday at 9 p.m. on CBS.” Though in actuality, it airs on Sundays on Showtime. Deliberate misinformation.
By Sabo standards, the thing is pretty complicated. Observers will have no idea what they are seeing unless they know the whole convoluted story. Levi surveys it and asks, “What’s the joke?” Sabo seems a little hurt, and Galt offers, “Levi didn’t read the news.” Sabo grows defensive, saying, “It’s subtle. It’s not intended to slap you in the face,” and goes inside. Levi keeps eyeing the banner, saying facetiously, “He’s like, beyond meta. Sometimes, I think Sabo started the whole post-satire genre.”
Inside, Sabo’s tooling around on his computer. He now wants to supplement the billboard with a poster at a nearby bus stop that he vows will “hit harder.” It’s the same doctored photo of Cohen, but this time with the insignia of the Wounded Warrior Project in an upper corner. It contains the stripped-down headline: “Who Is America? Stolen Valor.”
I hate to be an editorial scold, but I point out to Sabo that if people don’t know the name of Cohen’s show, they’ll have no idea what he’s talking about. And “Stolen Valor,” as laid out, sounds like the answer to the question “Who is America?” He considers my advice, switches the order of the two phrases, then prints it. He peeps outside to check on his crew like a fussy mother. They’re supposed to be packing their hooks and harnesses and toolbelts, while folding the banner in a complicated origami pattern that will make it easier to lay out on site. But they keep checking their phones to see if Levi and Galt made the evening news from the earlier kerfuffle. We’re running way behind schedule.
Sabo uses the delay to tell me about something he’s got on the drawing board. He needs to update his merchandise and is considering a teddy bear with Trump-hair wearing an “Adorables” (as opposed to “Deplorables”) onesie. As he shows it to me, he seems to think better of doing so, as someone would act if they’d just let you read their diary. “Am I getting soft?” he asks.
The gear is finally packed, and we shove off, ready for war. We convoy to the site. I ride with Levi and Tony (Tony being one of Sabo’s old friends from startup world). Tony flips on the radio and is about to change the station when Levi commands him to stop. “This is a good song!” he says of Hall & Oates’s “Out of Touch.” I volunteer that “She’s Gone” is one of the best blue-eyed-soul songs of all time. Tony’s partial to “Sara Smile” and “I Can’t Go for That.” Levi informs us that he and a pal dressed up for Halloween in high school as Hall & Oates. I point out that it’s a good thing Levi is Mexican or this would be the whitest conversation I’d ever been involved in. “I’m a coconut, dog,” Levi says.
It’s after 1 a.m. when the cars pull up into an alley behind a decrepit building on the corner of Fairfax and Beverly, right down the street from Canter’s Deli. Galt and Levi put on hardhats and fluorescent vests to look official. They carry a ladder around front, which they climb to get to another hopelessly tall and rickety ladder attached to the building. It is so precarious a proposition that it has a safety bar in the middle so repair people can attach a safety harness. Levi and Galt go without.
They lower a bucket down from the roof for the rest of us to load up equipment. Then we have to strap up the 150-pound billboard banner, so they can hoist it to the roof. The rest of us go around to the street and contemplate the ladder situation ourselves. Sabo takes a pass with his fear of heights. He’ll eventually climb up the mobile ladder to a first-story roof on another building and ascend another ladder to join his troops—a good general never leads from the rear. But he’ll only stay up for 20 minutes or so. Galt and Levi are extremely competent high-wire workers and have the hours-long job well in hand.
I’m on street-lookout. In the middle of the night, in seedy L.A., there’s plenty to look out for: the deranged homeless guy having a violent argument with his blanket. The his-and-hers meth heads, him pushing her along in a shopping cart as she yells, “Wheeeeee!” The roller-skating transvestite who looks like Dennis Rodman tries to pull off a double-axel and takes a hard spill on the pavement, nearly ripping her jorts. The guy sitting nonchalantly in the driver’s seat of his Camry, hoping nobody can see the working girl bobbing up and down. Bad news: We can.
Then of course, there are the cops. L.A.’s not-especially finest drive by five or six times and never seem to notice the four guys looking up at a billboard, with a ladder that’s headed to the roof in the middle of the night. We look so out of place that I feel like we should sell some meth to fit in and not attract suspicion. But Maytor, wearing his Smurf shirt while he suckles his peach-lemonade vape, says not to worry. Even if they catch us, “Most cops are Republicans!”
Sabo figured the job would be done in two hours. But it takes closer to six. No matter—Galt and Levi are fearless and look like they’ve been doing this their whole lives. If beating up antifa doesn’t pan out as a career, they have a trade to fall back on. They’ve prepped and measured well and clamped the Sacha Baron Cohen banner on tight as a glove—over an existing ad for some Kevin Hart-hosted game show. Sabo fires up a drone, takes some victory pictures, and yells congratulations to his men.
The gear packed, Sabo and the gang all walk back to his ancient Jeep Wrangler. He pulls some celebratory Modelos out of the back just as the sun’s coming up and offers a toast: “To all you guys. This is a definite team f—ing effort!”
Levi cracks that we’ll have gotten through all this “only to get open-container tickets.” “And they’ll only arrest the Mexicans,” Sabo adds. “The white guys will get away with it.”
As a stunt, Sabo’s feat is impressive. It hits the Hollywood Reporter about an hour after completion and Drudge shortly thereafter. Drudge gets 30 million hits per day, and Sabo gets not just a headline on the site, but also a photo of his handiwork. The work is torn down a few hours later, but thanks to the Internet he’s made a billboard for the world rather than just a seedy corner of Los Angeles. Cohen’s premiere has a dismal showing. Though by the following week, he doubles his ratings, with all the word-of-mouth and controversy. So I’m not sure if any of this matters. With our five-news-cycles-a-day, controversy-junkie metabolisms, I’m not sure anything does. I ask Sabo if, after all this trouble, it concerns him that we’re still not positive that Cohen even represented himself as a veteran to Palin. He shrugs: “I didn’t even read the f—ing article.”
These days, it isn’t necessary for your outrage to be justified; outrage all by its lonesome will do just fine. Still, it can be a drag on a man. One night, tearing down the Pacific Coast Highway in Sabo’s Jeep on our way to dinner, he makes a confession about the burdens of being himself: “It’s not easy being mean. It’s like, I don’t want to be Sabo 24/7. One, it’s not who I am. Two, to truly be Sabo, I have to be pretty f—ing vicious. And I don’t want to be vicious. It just takes too much out of me.” Still, he adds, “You can’t be a daisy and expect to get the kind of attention you may want. People are so damn desensitized these days, you almost have to be brutal. That resonates with people. I don’t know why, but it does.”
I make what I take for a beautifully simple suggestion: How about not being brutal? How about taking people as they come? How about treating ideological adversaries as you’d want to be treated? The Golden Rule and all that corny stuff we seem to have deliberately flushed from the national memory bank. You can disagree with your enemy, but you don’t have to slaughter him. Maybe your enemy doesn’t even have to be your enemy.
Sabo waves me off like I’m a child. For all his dark nights of the soul, he is certain he knows what needs doing: “I feel comfortable in the battle and that’s going to make me bloody and dirty and calloused. I know what you want. You want the good, clean guy to win. And you want to be able to say that you did it following certain standards. And that’s fine. But the fact of the matter is that even you don’t live up to those standards. It’s not that I’m not a nice guy. It’s not that I’m not a good guy. But these are ideals. And I gave up those ideals. Sometimes the dirty fighter is the one that’s going to win.”