John McDermott is a writer in Los Angeles.
James McElwain breezes past the line outside Joy District, a three-story nightclub in Chicago’s sceney River North neighborhood. The bouncer recognizes him, nods and points him to the VIP entrance. A black laptop bag slung over his shoulder, James cuts across the dining room to the employees-only back staircase, shakes hands with a security guard, climbs two flights of concrete stairs and emerges in the second-floor kitchen, where he’s met by a phalanx of cocktail waitresses in gold tank tops and black booty shorts. “Hi, James!” they greet him. A second security guard is elated to see him, and James wraps her in his meaty arms for a hug. He crosses the dance floor and climbs into the 4-foot-high DJ platform on the club’s western wall, ready to perform.
Sculpted, with a strong jaw and cheekbones, and standing 6-foot-2, James stands out, even among the horde of 20-something party bros who have descended on the club this Saturday night in October. And not just for the way he looks: All the while James snakes his way through the club, he talks about how Donald Trump possibly holds the secret to free, sustainable energy.Story Continued Below
“Trump’s Uncle John was an MIT scientist, and he got access to the files the FBI got from Nikola Tesla,” James informs me.
It sounds like bullshit, but the part about FBI files is true. Immediately after Tesla’s death in 1943, the federal government seized hundreds of documents belonging to the legendary inventor. The files were subsequently reviewed by none other than John G. Trump, head of research at MIT and late uncle of the 45th president. Possibly included in those documents—in addition to designs for Tesla’s infamous intercontinental death ray—are plans for creating a sustainable, worldwide energy grid. Or so James and his fellow amateur internet sleuths believe. In his report about the files, John Trump called Tesla’s work “speculative” and unworkable.
Meanwhile, Paul, James’ identical twin, finishes parking their murdered-out Jeep Patriot down the block and joins James in the DJ booth. Together, they form the house DJ duo Milk N Cooks. Paul, the more baby-faced of the two, sits against the wall as James prepares his MacBook Pro for their set.
At 28 years old, they look like a Berlin nightclub version of the Winklevoss twins—black skinny jeans and complementary wide-collared, raw cut, crew-neck T-shirts (James’ white, Paul’s black). They have a decent fanbase, with tens of thousands of followers across their various social media accounts and millions of streams between their SoundCloud and Spotify profiles. They’ve played as far as Rome, Hong Kong and Hanoi. But they occupy an unusual, niche space in American pop culture: They’re the unofficial DJ duo of the loose-knit cohort of conspiracy-theorizing, mainstream media-hating, far-right voters who have risen to prominence in Trump’s wake.
In 2018, Milk N Cooks were the featured entertainment at A Night For Freedom, a conservative meetup organized by far-right provocateur Mike Cernovich, a friend of theirs, which drew more than 700 self-proclaimed “deplorables.” They co-wrote the score for Cernovich’s recent documentary, Hoaxed, about liberal bias in the news media. Their Twitter and Facebook accounts are filled with posts mocking Hillary Clinton, celebrating Trump and railing against the “deep state.” Last summer, they gleefully played a gig at Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago.
On an aesthetic level, Milk N Cooks defy the image of the stereotypical flyover state Trump voter. Their mix of culture and politics is so peculiar that it seems like a marketing ploy, but they insist it’s not: In fact, they say they lost about 15 percent of their social media followers after they started publicly supporting Trump during the 2016 campaign. People have called Milk N Cooks Nazis, white supremacists, racists, fascists and members of the alt-right—all labels the duo rejects. Artists have declined to appear with them because of their politics, and their management has publicly disavowed them. But the twins continue to mouth off on politics—everything from the Democratic presidential candidates (“Joe bye bye-den!”) to Robert Mueller’s performance in Congress (“insane and sad honestly”).
The McElwains—pictured here in Chicago in 2017, Paul at left and James at right—got their start DJ’ing in college, at the University of Illinois in Champaign. | Credit: Milk N Cooks
As it turns out, they supported Barack Obama in 2008. And for anyone curious about how two former Obama voters flipped for Trump—a topic of interest not just to EDM fans but a whole industry of political strategists heading into the next election—it was not initially because of Trump himself. The man who turned them on to far-right conservative politics was Alex Jones, the InfoWars founder who was sued by the parents of Sandy Hook victims for alleging the 2012 elementary school gun massacre was a hoax. The McElwains’ embrace of the fringe right shows just how deeply the cynicism and anxious thinking of alternative media and conspiracy theories have infiltrated American politics.
Whatever controversy might be swirling around Milk N Cooks, no one in the crowd seems to know or care at Joy District on this October night. James starts the set and plays a string of crowd favorites—Drake, Pitbull and Blink 182, “Tipsy,” “September,” “Mr. Saxobeat”—mixed over a house beat, and the dance floor swells. There are bros in flat-brim hats, plaid button-downs and Barstool Sports hoodies, and three women draped in white “Bachelorette” sashes. There’s zero indication anyone is here to see a MAGA DJ crew.
The first time I met James and Paul McElwain was nine years ago in the beer garden at KAM’s, the grimy dive bar on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign. I was a senior, limping toward graduation, and the McElwains were sophomores. I had never spoken to the brothers, but their reputations preceded them. James had bought a pair of turntables the year earlier and taught himself, and later Paul, how to DJ. The McElwains burst onto the Illinois fraternity and sorority scene; before long, everyone knew about this pair of tall, jacked identical twins taking campus nightlife by storm.
Just as instantly, people hated them. They were conspicuously happy meatheads whom women seemed to love. They had begun making a name for themselves as Milk N Cookies (they later shortened it to Milk N Cooks to fit on a promotional flyer). They were dismissed by many as a novelty act—untalented hacks trying to capitalize on the late-2000s EDM craze with their twin gimmick.
But the brothers I met back then weren’t the self-important jerks others had made them out to be. I was in the beer garden looking to bum a cigarette, and James (or was it Paul? I couldn’t tell them apart) happily obliged. They seemed like generous guys who liked to joke around. They were the last people I would have guessed would get interested in politics.
James and Paul grew up in Palatine, Illinois, an upper-middle-class suburb some 25 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, where they lived with their parents and two older sisters. To hear them tell it, theirs is a classic tale about the hope and folly of the American dream. The McElwains were “broke,” they say, until James and Paul turned 5, when their father got into real estate and cashed in on the pre-crisis housing bubble. They moved into a McMansion in a development their father built, only to have the money dry up once the recession hit, when they were 18 years old. Still, politics was never discussed in the house beyond their dad telling them, “Vote Republican, lower taxes.”
Their awakening came in college. Like so many millennial voters, the McElwains say they were enthralled by Obama’s first presidential campaign, specifically his promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they quickly soured on him.
“I trusted Obama and CNN so much,” James says between bites of steak at Old Grounds Social, a bar-restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area where we met in September. “And then I remember the timetable to bring the troops home kept changing—from 30 days, to 90 days to six months. And I was like, ‘Dude, what the hell is happening?’ This was the entire reason I supported the guy, and now he’s adding troops?!”
“People assume conservatives want war all the time, but that’s not the case for us. We’re noninterventionists when it comes to foreign policy,” adds Paul, who’s having wings.
It was around this time that a member of their fraternity introduced them to Loose Change, the viral YouTube documentary that posits “9/11 was an inside job” and inspired a generation of conspiracy theorists.
Although they once supported Barack Obama, the twins—shown here at a 2014 music festival in Chicago—soured on him, and eventually embraced Donald Trump. | Milk N Cooks
“That’s when we got red-pilled,” James says. He and Paul became fascinated with the film’s notorious executive producer, Alex Jones, and gradually adopted his deeply cynical worldview.
Still, they remained “focused on school, girls, fraternity life, DJing,” Paul recalls. After a 35-day jail sentence for drug possession, the McElwains dropped out of college just before their senior year and moved to Chicago to earn a living DJing full-time. Their career highlight came in 2013, when their remix of “Animals” by Martin Garrix exploded and was played live by world-renowned EDM acts Tiesto, Afrojack and Hardwell.
Neither voted in the 2012 presidential election, but their political fervor was reignited in 2016. Like many InfoWars acolytes, Milk N Cooks were skeptical of Trump when he announced his candidacy. Paul thought of him as a “Sharper Image billionaire,” chintzy and shameless. But Trump piqued their interest with his emphasis on domestic manufacturing and slashing the corporate tax rate, and eventually with his pugilistic style. “I like him because he doesn’t give a shit,” Paul says.
They cheered in their living room when Trump told Clinton she should be “ashamed” of how she had attacked her husband’s sexual assault accusers. As the election grew closer, the duo’s social feeds, once reserved for sharing songs and information about live performances, turned into a mixture of Clinton-bashing, conspiracy-peddling and pro-Trump memes.
“We didn’t know it was a risk to start talking politics,” James says. “But if we could go back, we would do it again.”
Politically, the only concrete policies the twins advocated for during the time I spent reporting on them were lower taxes and a strong domestic manufacturing sector. They identify as “libertarian independents,” but more than anything, theirs is a politics of grievance and skepticism—against the shadowy establishment and its amorphous, nefarious agenda, and against a mainstream culture they see as stifling free expression and obfuscating the truth.
I’ve scoured hundreds of Milk N Cooks’ posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and listened to much of their work. Their music is apolitical, except one song that samples a speech by Jordan Peterson, and that’s just a bunch of self-help babble. Online, the McElwains aren’t shy about retweeting fellow right-wing provocateurs like Cernovich, Jack Posobiec and Ali Alexander. They love to own the “libs,” often in ways that are vulgar and offensive. They clearly revel in stoking political tensions and amplifying the president’s dog whistling. In July, for example, they tweeted a poll asking, “Does ilhan Omar hate the USA”—milking a controversy over Trump’s xenophobic and racist comments about the freshman congresswoman.
Since Trump was elected, people have left negative Yelp reviews for the clubs where Milk N Cooks perform, calling the twins “racists.” In 2017, actress and singer Taryn Manning canceled an appearance with Milk N Cooks at the Summer Camp Music Festival at the urging of her publicist—Milk N Cooks believe it was because the publicist didn’t like their politics. Manning declined to comment.
Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, has studied Milk N Cooks since their performance at A Night For Freedom; she does not consider them white supremacists or alt-right, but rather “alt-lite.” “We’ve made a distinction between the alt-right and the alt-lite,” Mayo says. “The alt-right is very specifically white supremacist. The alt-lite may share some ideas with the alt-right—they may be against immigration and anti-feminist—but they’re not white supremacist.”
Still, when it comes to such labels, “the line between the two of them is very blurry,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right Wing Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “It’s much more of a distinction without a difference,” adds Peter Simi, sociology professor at Chapman University. “One of the goals among this fairly disparate of far-right extremism is to sow confusion. And the best way to do that is to rename yourself constantly so nobody can pin you down. You’re gaslighting people, in a way.”
James says he doesn’t buy this equivalency, and thinks it’s further proof of the media’s liberal bias: “If you are at all to the right, you’re labeled ‘far right.’ If you aren’t a liberal, you are ‘alt-right.’”
It doesn’t help the McElwains’ cause they both look extremely Aryan and rock the high-and-tight haircut co-opted by white nationalist Richard Spencer and his many alt-right minions. But Milk N Cooks deny they are white supremacists, or alt-right or even alt-lite. “There are a lot of great people who support Trump, just like there are a lot of racist, misogynist assholes,” James says. “I like the way I look. I’m not a fucking Nazi. I’m not going to disavow my haircut like Macklemore’s bitch ass.” When I asked them about misogyny—I’d come across a lewd tweet from the twins about Senator Kamala Harris’ relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown—Paul wrote in an e-mail, “Wouldn‘t it be misogynist to assume Kamala can‘t handle criticism about her political rise simply because she‘s a woman?”
Al Rothlisberger, who manages a sports bar in Chicago and met and befriended the McElwains through the hospitality industry, has left some scathing responses on their pro-Trump Facebook posts. “I love these guys, but I worry they’re part of a political wing that’s hijacked conservatism and just wants to burn the whole thing down,” Rothlisberger says. “I want a political stance a little more thought-out than, ‘Yeah, we have a fellow bro working for us in the White House.’” (“Digital schizophrenics,” the McElwains say, when I ask them about Rothlisberger’s comments—their term for people who attack them on Facebook but buddy up to them in person.)
Cernovich, who came to know Milk N Cooks in 2017, when the twins kept tweeting at him about their shared political views, says he has since warned the DJs against being so public with their political views. “There aren’t many pro-Trump cultural figures because the social cost is so high,” Cernovich says. “What creative person wants to be conservative? You’re young, you’re virile, you’re hot, you’re hip. You don’t want to preserve the status quo, you want to be creative, do new things, push boundaries.”
Asked about the conspiracy theories they have propagated online, James, at right, says, “[W]e are simply curious people looking for truth.” | Milk n Cooks
But the McElwains have not backed away from politics, and they maintain they’re being misunderstood.
“Even before politics, we were the bros easy to hate,” James says. “People would get pissed at us just for having a good time.”
“It shows how confidence threatens people who are insecure,” Paul adds. “They think, ‘Why isn’t this person bogged down with the issues I’m facing? Fuck them!’”
“There’s fluoride in the water, and it will turn you gay,” James tells me, laughing, as I go to fill a glass of water in the kitchen sink. “The water in the fridge is filtered.” It’s a reference to one of Alex Jones’ most indelible on-screen moments, when he railed about the government “putting chemicals in the water that turn the freakin’ frogs gay.” James’ comment might be a joke, but in the bathroom, the deodorant is aluminum-free; the toothpaste, fluoride-free.
We’re in Paul’s new apartment on Chicago’s west side in October. Paul had moved in with a friend, marking the first time the brothers, inseparable since birth, were living apart. On the ride to his brother’s place, James was listening to the latest episode of The Dan Bongino Show, another podcast with a conspiracy-minded host who has benefited from the Trump presidency.
Talking with James and Paul, it’s evident they’ve spent untold hours listening to conspiracy theorists. Like their idols, the McElwains are prone to tangents, can call up obscure “facts“ off the cuff and possess a seemingly endless reserve of energy for political discussion.
“I’m not saying kids didn’t die“ at Sandy Hook, James tells me at one point. “But you can watch the three-hour We Need to Talk About Sandy Hook documentary and find over 50 different anomalies that are really frickin’ odd. … And it’s like, ‘Is anyone going to explain this?’”
I recently asked James if he stands by this comment, given the trauma these conspiracies inflict on the families of Sandy Hook victims. “We understand the pain it can cause to question the circumstances around that tragedy, but we don’t think it should be wrong to question things to find answers that are not clear,” he wrote in an email. “We wish no harm on anyone ever, be it emotional or mental pain from victims of tragedy… we are simply curious people looking for truth.”
When I asked if the twins think it’s dangerous to use their platform to propagate conspiracies, James wrote: “It’s dangerous for any platform to propagate conspiracy theories. Harassment aimed at Sandy Hook families due to Alex Jones, for example, or myself being called a Nazi because an MSNBC contributor said Trump supporters are Nazis by association. These examples are on different ends of the spectrum but both show why people, even ourselves, need to be careful when declaring facts regarding a theory versus opinions on a matter.”
Going forward, Milk N Cooks hope to find ways to blend politics and music more. They’re contemplating a YouTube show in which they analyze the news of the day. At one point, James muses about working with Kanye West—“We have the musical capability, but also because we connect on the Trump thing.” (Kanye has since distanced himself from the president.)
The McElwains have no such plans to abandon their Trumpism. In fact, they see a bright future under the current administration.
James’ partner is a Mexican immigrant. (The McElwains are “pro-immigrant,“ James says. “But I also think you should have a secure process to know who‘s coming into the country.“) On March 25—the day after the Mueller report’s release—his partner gave birth to their son, Leon. She has another son, Roman, from a previous relationship. The couple plans to raise both boys as one family, with the help of Roman’s father.
“I am very excited to raise these boys, and biracial boys at that, in this America,” James wrote to me via email after the birth. “It’s odd though. I see a vibrant economy, with a president who’s protecting civil rights, protecting the country, reforming prison sentences—tons of amazing stuff. Then you have people on the far left who see the complete opposite; a crumbling economy and a nation filled with white supremacists ready to kill you at any corner. It’s sad to see there may be no harmony between people anytime soon, but it is something we gotta live with.”
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