Last weekend, The Sunday Times, The Times, and the U.K. current-affairs program Dispatches accused Russell Brand of rape. Their joint investigation, four years in the making, came off as thorough and credible and apparently watertight enough to withstand the country’s sturdy libel laws.
Brand’s reputation for sexual impropriety has been whispered about within the British television and comedy industries for years, but the investigation marks the first time any accusations have gone public. They make for grisly reading. A woman claims she was raped against a wall in Brand’s Los Angeles home after she rejected his offer of a threesome. Another claims that Brand pinned her to his bed, forcing his hands into her underwear while she screamed for help. A third—16 years old at the start of their relationship—also claims that she was sexually assaulted by Brand. Likewise, her retelling contains a vivid detail hinting at what an open secret this was; when the taxi that picked her up from school stopped outside Brand’s house, the driver tearfully pleaded with her not to go in.
This sort of thing ends careers. Scores of powerful men were taken down by similar accusations—and far lesser ones—during the first flush of #MeToo, in 2017. Some of them are now in jail. Others will never work again.
With every passing day, Brand’s prospects have diminished. His agents have dropped him; his publisher has paused any relationship with him; he has canceled a lucrative stage tour. Acast and YouTube have both demonetized Brand’s content, by denying him advertising. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the women’s charity Trevi has also severed ties. More accusations have surfaced, including claims that Brand exposed himself to a woman and then bragged about it on his radio show minutes later. And now, the police are involved, investigating claims by a woman who says Brand sexually assaulted her in Soho 20 years ago.
By all accounts, it looks incredibly bleak for Brand. And yet, possibly more than any other public figure who has come to be undone like this, there is a chance that Brand will survive. And this has less to do with his innocence, and more to do with his new career as an Internet-conspiracy-theorist wing nut.
A few years ago, Brand—now less dandified than in his heyday, with a graying, grown-out, messianic beard—started posting videos to his YouTube channel, ranting and raving down one alt-right rabbit hole after another. There’s lots of content about Hunter Biden and the deep state, among other fanatical things. And he made videos that were strangely tough on the coronavirus vaccine and strangely forgiving about Trump. It’s a bit like watching The Daily Show, if The Daily Show were presented by someone who screams at strangers on the subway for a living.
At first glance, this looks like an almighty fall from grace. A few years earlier, the books Brand wrote were lucrative. (His 2007 memoir, My Booky Wook, sold more than half a million copies.) Even though he wasn’t very funny, his stand-up shows filled arenas. He was inescapable on British television.
And then he moved to Hollywood, became a leading man, and married Katy Perry. To go from that to posting rabid, wild-eyed videos called things like “The FBI Have Been Harvesting Your DNA?!” was jarring. You actually worried for the guy. Perhaps, you thought, it was a symptom of his addictive personality. Brand has struggled with substances and alcohol, and claimed to be a sex addict, so maybe sermonizing was his coping strategy.
But, following last weekend’s exposé, Brand’s career shift starts to look fortunate. Deliberate, even. These videos have exposed Brand to a whole new audience, primed to swallow whatever crackpot drivel he happens to hack up. They’re Trumpists. They’re sympathetic to Putin. They denounce Joe Biden, climate change, coronavirus vaccines, and—here’s the important part—the mainstream media. In short, they are the percentile who are most likely to sit through a harrowing 80-minute documentary full of rigorously fact-checked accusations about Brand raping people, and then write the whole thing off as an Establishment witch hunt.
It’s a bit like watching The Daily Show, if The Daily Show were presented by someone who screams at strangers on the subway for a living.
Brand seems to know this. And, ahead of Dispatches or The Times reporting the story, he came out swinging. In a video entitled “So, This Is Happening,” Brand pre-empted the investigation by outing himself as its subject. He aggressively denied any criminal wrongdoing before, inevitably, hinting at a wider conspiracy.
“Is there another agenda at play?” he frothed. “I’m aware that you guys have been saying in the comments for a while, ‘Watch out, Russell, they’re coming for you, you’re getting too close to the truth.’ … It’s been clear to me, or at least it feels to me, like there’s a serious and concerted agenda to control these kinds of spaces, and these kinds of voices, and I mean my voice along with your voice.”
The ploy worked. The comments below the video are almost unanimously supportive. “Honestly, dude, it’s surprising it has taken them this long to try and shut you down,” reads one. “This is just like Michael Jackson, it’s all about money,” reads another. A third reads, “It was just a matter of time before the machine came after you.” There are thousands more like it.
And this isn’t limited to faceless Internet commenters. Several high-profile British figures, many of whom welcomed Brand with open arms after he revealed himself to the world as a coronavirus skeptic, have also used the accusations against him as ammunition in the culture war. Columnist Allison Pearson tweeted, “My first reaction is to wonder why they are trying to silence the person.” GB News presenter Beverley Turner tweeted to Brand, “You are a hero.” Laurence Fox, the nephew of Day of the Jackal star Edward Fox, blew up his career in a swirl of reactionary anti–Black Lives Matter tweets some years ago. He called the investigation “the limpest hit piece ever.” Elon Musk backed him. Andrew Tate backed him. Donald Trump Jr. backed him. These might be the very last people you’d want in your corner when you’re trying to defend your reputation, but Brand needs to take what he can get.
Then again, Brand’s transformation from comedian to conspiracy theorist has been a long time coming. He first started dabbling in politics almost a decade ago. In October 2013 he guest-edited an issue of the progressive British current-affairs magazine The New Statesman because he wanted to usher in “a genuinely popular left-wing movement.” But he lost this following just as soon as he gained it, after using an appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight to discourage people from voting.
Rejected by those whose approval he sought, Brand started to make odder and odder pronouncements. Again on Newsnight, he insisted that “we have to remain open-minded” to the prospect of 9/11 being an inside job. And while this simply caused the left to further write him off as another celebrity with ideas above his station, the conspiracy-theory community started to tentatively welcome him as one of its own.
Looking at Brand’s output today, that community has now eaten him whole. His videos all have titles expressly designed to galvanize the most ardent wing of the MAGA fringe: “Who REALLY controlled the pandemic?!” “The Robots Are Coming,” “You’re NOT ALLOWED to say THIS about Jan 6th.” And they typically begin with him yelping things like “Global bureaucracies want to control your free speech. Is this conspiracy theory, or is it the censorship industrial complex?” at his 6.64 million subscribers. Adverts, when they come, all tend to be for VPN companies offering to hide your data from the nefarious Big Government.
Not even demonetization by YouTube is likely to stop Brand at this stage. While it might currently be the main source of his viewers, Brand was also smart enough to join the alt-right streaming platform Rumble. There, his daily program, Stay Free, sits among hits like The Kimberly Guilfoyle Show (recent episode: “WHY IS BIDEN IN ALASKA INSTEAD OF 9/11 MEMORIALS?”) and Bannon’s War Room (Mike Lindell: “We’re Going On the Offense” Against Election Machines). In Rumble, Brand has a safe new home.
In fact, when a British parliamentary committee member wrote to Rumble, asking for Brand to be demonetized, Rumble branded the request “extremely disturbing.” This isn’t unexpected, but it does somewhat reinforce the notion that Brand isn’t going anywhere.
Rejected by those whose approval he sought, Brand started to make odder and odder pronouncements.
What makes Rumble such a good fit for Brand is that they both share the same sinister obsessions. In his videos, Brand almost exclusively talks about issues designed to inflame the current U.S. culture wars, despite uploading all his content thousands of miles away, from a renovated pub near Henley-on-Thames. Why has he chosen to enter a fight that has such little effect on him personally? A few months ago, it seemed like he had simply decided to follow the money, spouting dangerous notions with abandon purely because he has bills to pay.
In light of these allegations of rape, sexual assault, and abuse, perhaps something more nefarious is at play. The whispers about Brand were growing so loud that he must have seen this reckoning on the horizon. And who better to appeal to in this scenario than an audience that has swallowed the Trump playbook wholesale? If you’re accused of anything, get out in front of it. Call it a witch hunt. Hint at a coordinated Establishment attack. Tell your fans that the lying mainstream media is out to get you. These people have heard this drumbeat for seven years now. They’re trained and tribal and ready to go to war for their idols.
And this might be the outcome. Even if he dodges criminal charges, Brand is done in the U.K. He won’t be on television, he won’t publish any more books. His income is now limited to ranting about American issues on a North American website, to an audience primarily made up of the American alt-right. This is the only place on earth that will make him feel welcome, so it stands to reason that eventually he’ll pack up and ship off and become yet another touring demagogue in a country full of them. Sorry, America, but he’ll be your problem soon.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals