If you’re not a devotee of Alex Jones’ radio show or a regular viewer of Moscow’s wacky propaganda network Russia Today, then you’re missing out on Max Keiser. Since the 2008 financial crash, the 53-year-old broadcaster, former Paine Webber stockbroker, Bitcoin evangelist, and endlessly quotable provocateur has positioned himself as a raging avenger against the various evils—real and imagined—of the global financial elite, or as Keiser likes to call them, the “banksters.” In the years since the 2008–09 crash, he’s become an eccentric hero of a certain ultralibertarian, 9/11-conspiracy-espousing, gold-bug-loving corner of alternative media.
On his Russia Today program the Keiser Report, the host rages against the “scum” and “financial terrorists” at Goldman Sachs, assorted “mass-murdering arsonists burning down financial markets around the world,” and the “Fourth Reich” of the Angela Merkel–led eurozone. He has called for mass hangings of bankers and warned of a looming currency Armageddon. Earlier this year, during an appearance on the Iranian English-language network PressTV, Keiser predicted an imminent “hot war” between China and Japan, which would lead to the collapse of the U.S. dollar. His go-to reference for political and economic adversaries is Nazism. (Titles of recent Keiser Report episodes include “Global Financial Holocaust” and “Debt Death Camps.”) His rhetoric is sewn together with phrases like “the maw of this Cuisinart of fraud.” The clip that made Keiser an instant alt-media star—and brought him to the attention of paranoiac shock jock Alex Jones—was an epic rant on France 24 against Goldman Sachs, whose misdeeds he compared to the atrocities of Auschwitz. In that same video, Keiser said that “the tragedy of 9/11 is more of these Goldman Sachs bankers didn’t go down” while casually invoking 9/11 conspiracy theories.
A lot of what Keiser has to say is appalling. But much more than fellow demagogues like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, Keiser has a sense of playfulness and absurdist wit—there’s a stronger whiff of the performance artist about him. That’s why watching Keiser’s television appearances (which get anywhere between 25,000 and 500,000 views on YouTube) can be entertaining even if you can’t agree with a word he says. Take, for example, a recent show about the struggles of the eurozone, which he ascribes to “Peek-A-Boo Accounting”:
He begins the discussion in a nasally, almost bored tone, reminiscent of Alan Colmes or Droopy Dog. “Peek-A-Boo accounting,” Keiser drones, “is the new black. Yes, it’s the must-wear accounting trick for banks, municipalities, and nations across the world this season. … However, just as you wouldn’t wear a mini-skirt if your legs look like tree stumps, you don’t want to try wearing these accounting tricks if your name is Joe Bag of Doughnuts or Jane Tacky Toe Polish. No, no, no.” Keiser then sings “Working on a Chain Gang” and introduces his wife and broadcast partner Stacy Herbert, who writes, produces, edits, and co-directs his show and plays the straight woman to Keiser’s hysterical joker. “The euro was set up to fail,” Keiser claims, so that Germany could establish “the Fourth Reich.” Later in the clip, Keiser pivots to the U.S.: “Let’s torch the Constitution, let’s torch the Bill of Rights, so some Hamptons schmuck doesn’t want to miss his schmucky yacht payment for four seconds! LET’S TORCH IT ALL! BURN IT ALL DOWN! BURN AMERICA DOWN! SO THE MILLIONAIRES CAN HAVE FREE YACHT PAYMENTS!”
He then reverts, almost instantly, to his calm Droopy Dog voice.
This flair for the dramatic can’t be taught at Paine Webber, as Keiser explained when Slate contacted him for this piece. Before working on Wall Street, Keiser studied theater at New York University, where he was a classmate and friend of Alec Baldwin; they did comic skits together at various nightclubs, Keiser says. He also honed his skills doing street magic on Broadway and performing at New York City’s comedy clubs. He sent me a video purporting to show Jerry Seinfeld introducing him as a “funny guy” at the Comic Strip in 1978.
When he quit acting and started working as a master of the universe, Keiser says it was an easy transition. “What I immediately recognized about Wall Street in 1983 was that it was a continuation of my career in theater,” he says. “Wall Street is a big theater, and it’s all illusions.” His all-the-world’s-a-stage mentality has not only aided him in his Wall Street career but in his broadcasting and other financial ventures. In 1996, he co-founded a box-office futures market, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, where traders could gamble on the success or failure of Hollywood movies.* More recently, Keiser says, he made $1 million by investing in the Internet-based crypto-currency Bitcoin; his next venture is to launch an exchange-traded fund split between Bitcoin, gold, and silver. Keiser is pushing these three commodities as a hedge for what he predicts to be the inevitable collapse of the U.S. dollar, perhaps this year.
Overseas at least, Keiser’s media profile will likely rise and fall not on his radical forecasting but his equally radical populist rage. However controlled and calculated it might be, his shtick goes way beyond the kind of liberal-tarian economic rhetoric that might get a hearing on MSNBC. In a glowing profile late last year, Britain’s left-leaning Independent newspaper predicted that Keiser will become “the most widely watched news commentator on the planet,” lauding his “sardonic, quick-fire” style. “No channel in the United States will carry his broadcasts,” the paper added, “which go well beyond the benign impudence of The Daily Show.”
But in Europe—where talk of a German Fourth Reich is not necessarily uncommon—Keiser is achieving something akin to mainstream success. The Keiser Report is often Russia Today’s top-rated program in the U.K., where the network’s viewership exceeds that of other foreign news channels, including Fox News. He briefly had his own show on BBC World News in 2009 and has made multiple appearances on various BBC networks since moving to London 10 months ago. These performances are noteworthy for their un-Keiser-like restraint. On a recent visit to the BBC political show This Week, he eschewed his normal histrionics, instead offering coolheaded explanations of HSBC’s money laundering for Mexican drug cartels and a whimsical Mary Poppins parody, complete with umbrella and bowler hat.
Keiser favorably compares his own BBC appearances to that of Alex Jones, who appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show last month but wouldn’t—or couldn’t—tone down his belligerent-clown style to suit his more genteel setting. “Just like if you’re in any kind of marketing business,” Keiser says, “it makes sense to be sensitive to the local demands of that market.”
Unless his predictions of economic apocalypse prove true, though, it’s doubtful you’ll start to see Keiser on any major networks on this side of the Atlantic. His conspiracy-minded views are just too radical and offensive. (He demonstrated as much to Slate by sending a link to a “side project” for which he’s soliciting $20,000 in crowdfunding: a 9/11-conspiracy movie with the working title 9/11 Suicide Banker.) But in the meantime, if you like your raging populist economic commentary to come with a side of non sequiturs, balloon animals, and apple juggling, then you know where to go.
Correction, July 15, 2013: This article originally misstated the date that the Hollywood Stock Exchange was founded. It was 1996, not 1999. (Return to the corrected sentence.)