Clubhouse Rules: New York’s New Young Republican Leader Eyes the Future

Gavin Wax sits in the “Clubhouse” of the New York Young Republican Club. (Credit: Aidan Kahn)

Gavin Wax sat on one of the many brown leather couches lining the studio apartment that serves as the “Clubhouse” of the New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC) on a recent Thursday afternoon. It is thanks to Wax that this group has that Midtown apartment at all – a fact which the 28 year-old Queens native does nothing to hide and which no one does anything to dispute. When Wax took over the presidency of the Club in 2019, it had 50 members and nowhere to host them. These days, membership stands at 1,100, while more than 76,000 have subscribed to their newsletter. With the members came the donors, making it possible to rent the space. Among them are Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, whose sizable donation helped pay for the couches.

Across from Wax, a young and visibly awestruck man settled into a leather seat of his own. He looked around the room, admiring the heavy, crimson curtains, the elaborate hunting trophies and the prominent display of KellyAnne Conway’s book Here’s the Deal on the mantelpiece of a fake fireplace. Žiga Ciglaric, a member of Slovenia’s right wing populist party, Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), had come to receive political advice from Wax, who took on the role of wartime consigliere with ease: “When did you lose the election?” he asked, brow furrowed. “How’s your relationship with the media?” he added and nodded with acknowledgment when Ciglaric complained of a “communist” media elite that is “brainwashing” the minds of the Slovenians, who turned their backs on SDS during a parliamentary election this April.

Under Wax’ leadership, meetings like these are common at the NYYRC clubhouse. Since 2019, the Club has created “coalitions,” as he likes to call them, with far-right youth movements from all over Europe. Meanwhile, Wax is gaining more attention in the United States. Media outlets like Newsweek reported on it when Wax enthusiastically endorsed Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán —whose government the European Parliament recently referred to as an electoral autocracy— in early 2022. When Wax later traveled to Hungary to speak at the first-ever Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Europe, The New Yorker and Arkansas Online made note of his presence.

When Wax finished counseling Ciglaric on this particular October afternoon, he was headed straight to the Taiwanese Embassy.

Wax’ idea is to nurture a global network of young, far-right politicians with a shared ideological framework, which he describes as populist and centered around “opposing free trade, opposing free immigration” and “economic pragmatism.” Ideally, the New York City-based Club will be the movement’s center of gravity.

At the same time, there’s work to be done on a national level, Wax said. Were it up to Wax, the Republican establishment would be on its way out and the remaining party members would adopt what he describes as the populist agenda that former President Donald Trump might have instigated, but of which he is only the beginning.

“The end goal for us is to take over the governing infrastructure that runs the Party. We need to put people that ideologically agree with us in positions of power so they can influence and shift things overnight,” said Wax.

In the future, it may very well be up to him. He’s president of the largest and oldest Young Republican Club in the country, he’s added appearances on alt-right podcasts and Fox News, he has ties to the likes of Steve Bannon and Matt Gaetz, so Wax’ words hold sway. And he intends to put action behind them. Eyeing the midterm election, he’s focused on a bright red future that few others see for true blue New York.

The “Emperor”

By mistake or design, and probably as a result of both, Wax’ origin story somewhat resembles Trump’s. As a former Bayside, Queens-resident with a college degree from Nassau Community College, Wax doesn’t possess the political pedigree of a traditional Republican leader.

Wax was raised by a single mother working shifting office jobs and the two of them moved around New York a lot. He frequently changed schools and found it difficult to fit in among his peers who wore clothes that his mom couldn’t afford. In high school, Wax said that he started selling “weed and mushrooms” to students and parents. He never touched the stuff himself, he said. He was in it to afford the same clothing as his customers.

“I didn’t like the clothes I had, I didn’t like that I was poor. You know, stupid petty shit,” Wax said. It took him a few years – and the political emergence of Trump – to realize that “fitting in” was not going to be the most politically salient strategy in the future.

These days, he’s selling political ideas. And like any good salesman, he easily attunes to the audience he’s trying to reach, weaving himself in and out of different discourses: at times speaking softly on the leather couch, while at others, screaming 140 characters onto Twitter, where he, until recently, called himself “The Emperor.”

At the Club, his leadership seems to agree he’s earned that title.

“Gavin’s problem is that there’s just not enough time in the day,“ said Nathan Berger, vice president of the Club. A sentiment that is echoed nearly word for word by the leaders of the club’s Black and Catholic caucuses, Jude Somefun and Michael Bartels. Perhaps once an outsider, he’s now the center of the world in the Midtown apartment promoting a Trumpian agenda, which may once have seemed fringe but is quickly becoming mainstream within the GOP.

The club’s former leadership is less likely to praise Wax’ talents. Some have claimed that he took over the once liberally Conservative club by way of a coup in 2019, when alumni of the NYYRC enticed Wax and then-associate Vish Burra to replace the presidency.

“We won an election without opposition and it was unanimous,“ said Wax, calling it a coup only “in the metaphorical sense. The club rapidly changed direction, ideologically and otherwise,“ embracing a more divisive profile: Disputing the 2020 election results while embracing a far-right political agenda. The former leadership have since left the club and the five members that were contacted for this story declined to comment on the specific circumstances of their departure.

When confronted with the fact that some are unwilling to go on the record about him, Wax seemed pleased: “If I’m going to be hated, I’d rather also be feared.“

Meanwhile, a collective amnesia seems to hover over the current members, who all have a hard time remembering the details of the change in leadership, Wax included.

As he walked around the Clubhouse, tidying the already immaculate space, he pointed to pictures of notable alumni, recounting their names and dates of membership. At the same time, he found it hard to remember the name of the former president from whom he took over the Club. It’s Melissa Marovich, a young woman who presided over the Club from 2016-2019 and has since left politics altogether. She, too, declined to comment about her exit.

Wax simply refers to his predecessor and the rest of her former presidency as a group of “no-names,” unable to fulfill the potential of the Club.

Winning on the Margins

Why anyone would want to ascend the throne of a tiny Club of 50 members ruled by a bunch of “no-names” only makes sense if you can spot the political potential that Wax is committed to realizing. Many think of New York as a decidedly Democratic state, but in Wax’ mind nothing is set in stone.

“There is a very fertile ground in New York based on a very populist agenda: crime is up, the economy is a mess, people are fleeing the state in droves, taxes are too high, the services are too bad. The situation is abysmal and I think it’s shifting the political dynamics in favor of the Republicans. That doesn’t have to do with the brilliance of the party. That just has to do with the fact that the average Joe-Schmo, the average Sally-Jane, realizes they’re spending more money and they’re getting less in return,” he said. Wax argues enthusiastically that the key to flipping the state red is getting a third of New York City to vote for a Republican.

Calling the ground “fertile” is an overstatement, at least for now. No polls indicate that the road toward a new golden era for Republicans has been paved.

“Suppose that you were able to convince a third of New York City voters to vote Republican,” said associate professor of Data Journalism and former database journalist at FiveThirtyEight, Dhrumil Mehta. “It still doesn’t make much of a difference to the overall New York State result.”

Wax is, however, convinced that with the right candidate – and the right Democrat to run against – it can be done. Wax gave the example of Democratic Mayor Eric Adams.

“Eric Adams was a former Republican who ran as a cop on an anti-crime agenda. He did not run like a left-winger. Eric Adams kept the margins where they were, but if you get rid of Eric Adams and swap him with a Far-Leftie, you’re talking about 30-40 points for Republicans in the city. So it can happen,” Wax said.

Besides, “politics is about winning on the margins,” and so Wax is committed to keep chipping away at the Democratic majority while they’re looking the other way.

The rivals at the Manhattan Young Democrats (MYD) are indeed looking the other way. But perhaps not for the reasons Wax would like to think.

“I don’t think about Gavin Wax,” was the succinct answer from the president of MYD, Jeremy Berman, when asked about Wax’ political efforts. Berman paused briefly after learning about the recent growth of the Republican Club, but then added:

“They can have as many members as they want, but we are the ones who are electing the elected officials. I’m less concerned with how fancy the venue my banquet is in, and how many Congress members I can meet from outside the state of New York, and I’m more concerned with making people’s lives better.”

Berman said the focus of the MYD is on local politics rather than international relations. He is running for the Democratic State Committee this year.

Meanwhile, Wax is aware that little will come of his aspirations without political power. So he’s got a plan targeting his own party.

“We can take over the local party. We did a test run this year, and we got a few dozen people elected to the county committee,“ he said, referring to a contested Manhattan county committee election, in which the NYYRC was accused of committing ballot fraud – an allegation Wax refuses. “If we committed ballot fraud, we would have been prosecuted.”

So he’ll apply the same strategy going forward, starting with intentional moves to lift up local leaders.

“And slowly but surely, we’ll put our people into positions of power within the party, and have direct political influence and control of the levers of power,” Wax said.

Pace is a recurring theme for Wax. “Slowly,” Wax’ political faction will carve out the GOP establishment through the county committee. “Slowly,”that faction will start to seriously challenge the city Democrats. And slowly, no rush indeed, Wax himself may consider running for office.

With Tweets disputing the recent Brazilian election results and an endorsement of the now-defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro, Wax’ Twitter-presence would surely scare off New York City liberals. His real life persona is less extreme. Compared to characters like former Republican mayoral candidate and Guardian Angels-founder Curtis Sliwa or the underwhelming gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, Wax has a few extra strings to play. He’s traded Queens for the Upper East Side and secured a job as Global Digital Marketing Director of the alt-right tech startup GETTR, a social media platform not unlike Trump’s TRUTH Social. Dressing the part might have been an issue in high school, but these days, the cufflinks on his suit are Gucci.

Wax may be busy, but he’s not in a rush. He recently flew down to Florida to attend the wedding of the Congressman Matt Gaetz to Ginger Luckey; Gaetz has continually made headlines recently for his alleged involvement in a sex trafficking probe. It was an intimate event, Wax said, visibly proud to belong to Gaetz’ inner circle, who celebrated next to punny signs announcing that “Gaetz got Luckey.”

The following Monday, Wax was back at the Club, keeping the leather couches occupied and the NYYRC’s membership growing. He may also be calling his real estate agent soon. The Club is starting to outgrow their current clubhouse. Lucky for him, more private donors – whose identities Wax will not disclose – are lining up to show their support. He’s convinced that, eventually, the voters will too.


Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dhrumil Mehta’s surname. 

About the author(s)

Asta Kongsted is an M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School. She is the former editor of the Danish media Føljeton.