Chelsea Manning went to a rather awkward party on Saturday night. It’s something she’s been able to do since May 2017, four months after an outgoing President Obama commuted the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst’s prison sentence after she had served seven years behind bars for leaking 750,000 sensitive military and diplomatic documents on Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the months since, Manning has traveled the country, speaking about the U.S. military and her time in prison with college students and at anti-fascist protests. Earlier this month, she announced she would run as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Maryland’s Ben Cardin—making her the rare federal whistleblower to seek national office and, if she wins her extremely long-shot bid, the first transgender senator. All of which is why the party that Manning attended on Saturday was so awkward: It was a gala in celebration of the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. The event, A Night for Freedom, showcased a caravan of internet-famous far-right personalities. Mike Cernovich, a men’s rights activist turned political gadfly who helped propagate the blatantly false Pizzagate conspiracy theory, was the host, and other attendees included right-wing gotcha “journalist” James O’Keefe and Gavin McInnes, the Vice co-founder and who started the far-right men’s group the Proud Boys. The presence of Manning, a hero to many on the left, was, well, confusing.
It may have also been revealing, not about Manning’s motivations, which remain a bit hard to explain, but about how tangled—and hard-to-untangle—some of the politics on America’s fringes have become. Party attendees were quick to claim Manning as an ally at least in spirit. And Manning and her camp quickly engaged in some emoji-strewn damage control they probably hadn’t anticipated needing to do.
In a BuzzFeed report, partygoers touted Manning’s attendance as proof of their own inclusivity. “I truly don’t want to speak for her but I guess she respects what this is all about,” said Jack Posobiec, an infamous alt-right provocateur and vocal Trump supporter. Cernovich later tweeted that he was “glad she stopped by.”
Manning, whom Trump has called an “ungrateful traitor, who should never have been released from prison,” said in a tweet after being spotted at the event that she had “crashed the fascist/white supremacist hate brigade party,” implying that she wasn’t there to celebrate. On Monday, Manning offered an additional clarification:
In other words, Manning claims she attended the party to learn more about a group of people she believes push a dangerous ideology that doesn’t deserve a platform. Gathering “intelligence” on “fascists” is probably not the most pressing activity when you’re facing a difficult Senate race, nor is the inconspicuousness presumably required of such a secret mission realistic if you’re as famous as Chelsea Manning. If that is what she was up to, it’s also a move that could be construed as evidence of an affiliation with antifa, the anti-fascist activists on the left that are often associated with violence and direct-action tactics that sometimes break the law. Antifa’s tactics also include conducting deep research on far-right organizers, sometimes by embedding activists at events.
The back-and-forth continued. Posobiec tweeted on Monday an image of Manning wearing a paper wristband at the party. “Wristbands were only given to ticketholders,” Posobiec wrote in a tweet that followed, suggesting that Manning had obtained a ticket, which would imply she had planned or paid to attend. I asked Manning’s spokesperson if that was true: “Chelsea did not have a ticket. She was given a wristband,” the spokesperson said. “She didn’t pay to get in,” stressing that Manning did not pay the far-right organizers any money to party with them.
Tickets to the event cost $139 to $999—with higher prices getting attendees closer access to the speakers, according to Right Wing Watch, a blog that monitors far-right activists. Manning, according to the BuzzFeed report, was seen at the event with Cassandra Fairbanks, who is a writer for the right-wing website Gateway Pundit, known for its bigoted coverage and tendency to spread hoaxes and falsehoods, and a longtime supporters of WikiLeaks, which was the conduit of Manning’s leaks in 2010. Amid all this we also learned Manning had been spotted with this crew before. On Sunday, journalist Yashar Ali unearthed a photo of Manning that he said in a tweet was “taken in DC before Christmas,” posing alongside Fairbanks, Posobiec, Gateway Pundit’s Lucian Wintrich, and others.
Though it’s doubtful Manning’s presence at the far-right gala was a sign of political kinship, clearly the Senate candidate has some more explaining to do. As her attendance at the party started to gain steam on social media, people on the left landed somewhere on a spectrum of defensive to deeply confused to outright livid.
And some journalists, like Joe Bernstein at BuzzFeed, who helped break the story that Manning was at the event, stoked the confusion, asserting that Manning’s presence was “cosigning” the far-right organizers’ gala.*
If people were inclined to assume Manning could be a low-key confederate of the alt-right—which anyone familiar with her professed politics would realize is far-fetched—it might be because of our shifting fringe politics. From the time Manning entered prison to the time she exited it, WikiLeaks’ public image has undergone a significant revision. While always an antagonist of the global neoliberal establishment, the activist group led by Julian Assange found cautious favor on the left for its exposure of human rights abuses and other atrocities. But in the years since, particularly since the 2016 campaign—when WikiLeaks released troves of embarrassing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, its activities have suited the aims of the American right and the Kremlin, which sought to derail the Clinton campaign and aid the election of Donald Trump. And its rhetoric inhabits an ideological universe with similarities to both that of anti-globalization activists on the far-left and the xenophobic anti-globalists of the alt-right alike.
It makes sense that Chelsea Manning might find something in common with the deep-state skeptics that Mike Cernovich parties—or at least it makes sense that she could be perceived as an ally. She did, after all, spend years in prison for exposing secrets the government would have preferred to keep in the dark. And no matter how you square it, her old friends from WikiLeaks are hardly neutral actors: Remember when it was revealed that, during the campaign, Assange had messaged Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter with information on how to hack into an anti-Trump website? No matter what—in part because of her background, in part because of the shifting currents of the far-right and far-left—Manning occupies some weird, murky waters. It might have helped to clear them up before launching a bid for office.
*Correction, Jan. 23, 2017: This article originally misstated that BuzzFeed reporter Joe Bernstein tweeted that by attending Manning was co-signing the organizers’ ideologies. In fact, he tweeted that Manning was co-signing the event.