WASHINGTON — Charles C. Johnson, one of the country’s most notorious Internet trolls, sank into a plush couch in the lobby of the soaring Trump Hotel here on a recent afternoon, sipping a jasmine green tea while chatting with a top staffer at a pro-Trump super PAC.
He’d just attended the State of the Union address as the guest of a congressman from Florida, garnering national attention, and was squeezing in some meetings at Washington’s new clubhouse for the powerful before heading back to Los Angeles to spend time with his wife and infant daughter.
It’s a stunning scene given that, during any normal era in American politics, Johnson, a 29-year-old Massachusetts native, would be radioactive — the kind of person who could end a political career by just appearing in a photo with an aspiring lawmaker.
He’s argued that black people are “dumber” than white people, questioned whether 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, was banned from Twitter for threatening a Black Lives Matter activist, and posed making a white power sign while standing next to white supremacist leader Richard Spencer.
But now he’s managed to secure himself a foothold not far from the center of influence in Washington, taking advantage of the new anything-goes environment to win sit-downs with political leaders. Johnson’s rise to prominence is a case study in the empowerment of the so-called alt-right, the white nationalist movement that has gained mainstream currency in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election.
He’s met with Trump’s interior secretary to discuss a border wall, huddled with Julian Assange and a Republican congressman on a jaunt to London, and written an article on his conspiracy-focused website, GotNews.com, that has landed on the president’s desk.
What’s also surprising is how he traces his extreme views, and his knack for grabbing headlines, to his education at Milton Academy, the exclusive prep school outside Boston, where he was a lonely conservative voice known for provoking outrage online and in person.
Like the influential Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who says his far-right worldview stemmed from being an outcast at liberal Santa Monica High School, Johnson says his views were shaped in opposition to wealthy, liberal Milton — a place where he sought acceptance but felt rejection.
In Trump, Johnson says he has found a leader he respects and wants to emulate, someone he might have looked up to when he was a downcast teen at Milton.
“He’s very aggressive and he’s very alpha male. But he’s also having fun,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “Trump is the kind of person I’d want to be. He goes in front of crowds with tens of thousands of people. Jokes around and has a good time.”
And with Trump in power, Johnson feels included.
“He enlists people in this cause,” Johnson said. “It’s very deliberate. He has a way of inviting people to join him.”
Pressing people’s buttons
The oldest of three children of a high school history teacher and the owner of a small import gift business, Johnson was born in Dorchester and moved to Milton when he was about 6.
He said his parents wanted to keep their children in Milton public schools. But Johnson had his heart set on Milton Academy, the elite school founded in 1798 whose graduates include former governor Deval Patrick and the late senator Edward M. Kennedy. So Johnson’s parents secured a scholarship to enroll their son as a day student, he said.
At Milton, Johnson was constantly challenging his classmates’ beliefs about abortion, affirmative action, and other highly charged issues.
“He was definitely polemical, and he liked to press people’s buttons,” said Matthew Boyle, a fellow member of the class of 2007, who was co-president with Johnson of the Young Republicans Club. “I used to tell him, ‘God, let it go. You’re not going to convince people.’ But that wasn’t what he did at all.”
“He was definitely a pariah,” said Korei Klein, another former classmate. Klein described the campus as saturated with politics and said that Johnson was often making the conservative argument, and making it alone. “He would be incredibly vocal and incredibly well-informed.”
But he wasn’t very persuasive. “He didn’t do a great job of convincing the liberals,” Klein said. “He did a great job of getting people to dislike him.” Boyle, now an executive at a company that runs assisted-living facilities and drug-and-alcohol recovery centers, said, “All my former classmates really hate him.”
Johnson, too, recalled being out of place and alone.
“I saw the disconnect between how the liberal left lives and how they talk about it,” Johnson said during a meandering interview. He described his experience as “miserable” and said he felt like a “class traitor” for attending the school because he was not as affluent as the rest of the student body.
“We were the poorest people in Milton. Far and away,” he insisted.
“Poor’’ is a relative term in Milton, the leafy suburb where he grew up in a 3,000-square-foot Colonial, which property records indicate his parents still own, now valued by the town at more than $800,000.
But Johnson still seems to have found some success at the school. He was one of three editors-in-chief of the official student newspaper, the Milton Measure, founded in 1894, a school spokeswoman confirmed. And he was a member of the underwater robotics club.
To this day, he embraces the school’s motto, “Dare to Be True,” as his guiding principle, which is particularly ironic since he has questioned the basic facts of Hitler’s genocide.
And while Johnson’s family certainly wasn’t in the 1 percent, any claims of real economic distress strain credulity. His father, a Harvard graduate, owned enough real estate that Johnson referred to his family, during the Globe interview, as “landed gentry” with “all of these properties all over the place.”
Johnson’s parents did not respond to interview requests. When a reporter rang the doorbell at their house, someone shut the blinds in a window.
Pushing unpopular views
Johnson said he desperately wanted to thrive at Milton Academy, an ambition that seemed out of reach. But he did learn that he could carve out a place for himself and get attention by pushing unpopular views, a talent that’s rewarded in Trump’s Washington, where earning headlines is prized, even if it’s for unsavory acts or arguments.
In 2005, Johnson publicly sided with five Milton Academy ice hockey players who had received oral sex from a 15-year-old sophomore girl. The episode is one of the most notorious chapters in the school’s recent history. The hockey players were charged with statutory rape.
Johnson recalls standing up at a class assembly and arguing that the players were denied due process when Milton expelled them.
Johnson stands by his defense of the young men. “There’s all kinds of weird sex stuff,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘It’s none of our [expletive] business what happened here.’ ”
He added: “This is not a damsel in distress,” referring to the 15-year-old girl.
That year, Johnson also got into trouble for hosting an online discussion about controversial comments made by former US education secretary William J. Bennett, who said crime rates would drop if doctors were to “abort every black baby in this country.”
Johnson said that he was merely trying to start a conversation about Bennett’s comments and never endorsed them. Nonetheless, a firestorm erupted, and the school shut down the online discussion board and canceled classes so students could attend an assembly on racial issues.
Darlene Anastas, a theater design teacher who was the faculty sponsor of the Young Republicans, said Johnson was required to write an essay as punishment for his role in the controversy.
Johnson enjoyed “lobbing something he knows is going to get people talking and then sitting back and seeing where the conversation goes,” Anastas said.
“I didn’t always agree with him when he was a student,” she added. “But while I knew him, he was passionate about his opinions and he wasn’t afraid to state to them.”
Questioning the facts
Johnson sought out some of the famous people who came to speak at Milton and cultivated relationships with them — including Alan M. Dershowitz, now a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and a frequent Trump defender on cable news.
Dershowitz confirmed he first met Johnson when he spoke at Milton, where his daughter was a student. After Dershowitz delivered a talk on civil liberties in the gymnasium, a red-headed 16-year-old with glasses who had been sitting in the audience suddenly pounced.
“Charlie Johnson asked me an extremely critical, difficult question, very negative, and kind of hostile,” Dershowitz said. “He was kind of rude. The teachers looked at him because he was treating me as an equal, which I felt very comfortable with, but the school didn’t.”
Although he can’t recall Johnson’s question, Dershowitz said the two had a “good discussion” and Johnson approached him after the talk.
“He came over to me and said, ‘You know, you’re one of the first liberals who has ever taken me seriously and answered my question. I’d love to work for you one summer,’ ” Dershowitz said. “So I hired him.”
Johnson became one of Dershowitz’s summer research assistants, a position that allowed the high school student to spar with the famously pugilistic attorney five decades his senior.
The two still talk once or twice a year when Johnson calls for advice, Dershowitz said, and they last saw one another about three months ago outside the Fox News building in New York, as Dershowitz was headed in for an interview.
“It seems to me he hasn’t changed much,” Dershowitz said. “He’s a provocateur — very smart, very opinionated, and he was that way when he was 16.”
Claiming a fortune
Johnson cemented a reputation as an Internet troll when Rolling Stone published an inaccurate account of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia in November 2014. Johnson publicly named the accuser in the case after taunting her on social media. He turned out to be right that the rape wasn’t substantiated, but it wasn’t a total victory. At one point, Johnson posted a photograph of someone he believed was the victim, but it was actually somebody else.
In 2015, he was banned from Twitter for asking his followers to help him “take out DeRay McKesson,” a Black Lives Matter activist.
None of this bars him from trying to cozy up to power in Trump’s Washington. And Johnson feels he can contribute to the administration by helping Trump win funding to build the border wall.
“I do everything I can to support his agenda,” Johnson said. “He has changed the game in how politics is done. It’s deeply entertaining.”
Johnson also tries to capitalize on Washington’s hunger for political contributions, claiming a fortune in Bitcoin. He’s known to whip out his phone to display photos of piles of cash that he says are his.
Some are skeptical of these claims, including longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. “People who really have money don’t brag about it,” Stone said in a text message that Johnson then posted on social media. “It’s a telltale sign that you got [expletive.]”
Stone declined to comment for this story.
Johnson put himself in the headlines again last month when he secured an invitation to the State of the Union address as the guest of Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican.
Gaetz was immediately criticized for his choice, including by the Anti-Defamation League, which urged the congressman to cut ties with Johnson.
“Any measure of due diligence by you or your staff would have revealed that Johnson is an extremist and a Holocaust denier,” wrote Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the ADL. “Your inattention — or uncaring attitude — about Johnson’s record of bigotry and harassment is shocking.”
Dershowitz, who has written and spoken for decades about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, said he was not aware that Johnson has questioned the scope of the genocide — which is generally believed to have left 6 million Jews dead.
“I just want to express my shock that somebody as intelligent as he would question the basic facts of the Holocaust,” Dershowitz said. “That presents, for me, a different picture.”
Johnson says he believes the Nazis had a systematic program to kill Jews. But he’s offered a number of different opinions about the number of Jews killed.
“I think the Red Cross numbers of 250,000 dead in the camps from typhus are more realistic” he wrote on Reddit.
In an interview with the Globe, he gave another answer.
“It’s probably like 3 to 4 [million],” Johnson said. “Somewhere in there. It was a war. And people were not keeping detailed records.”
In a demonstration of how flexible his views can be (another hallmark of Trump’s Washington), Johnson said his thinking on the matter has evolved further. He said this week that he has “new information” that’s led him to believe the 6 million figure, after all.