There couldn’t be a more “politics in 2023” story than this: A group founded by Canadian bros who got famous posting prank videos on YouTube could now become a potent political force for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. And if Democrats don’t know who they are, they’d better learn fast. Meet NELK.
NELK’s name is a combination of the first initial of each of the group’s four founders (Nick, Elliot, Lucas, and Kyle). Now based in Orange County, Calif., NELK is still headed by one of its original members, Kyle Forgeard, but also includes a multiracial, multiethnic cast consisting of Americans, Canadians, and even a gay Brazilian immigrant. Their videos of outlandish pranks and wild partying have generated around 1.3 billion views. Though YouTube demonetized them for “creating a widespread public health risk” after they threw a massive party in violation of Covid protocols, NELK is fine without the ad revenue; the group reportedly sold more than $70 million of their brand’s “Full Send” merchandise in 2021.
“Full Send” is also how NELK’s members describe their lifestyle. As Forgeard explained to The New York Times, “It started out meaning party hard, but now it’s evolved into, ‘Any activity you do, give it your absolute best’… you’re in the gym, you got to full send in the gym.”
NELK also created a hard seltzer brand called Happy Dad, and their NFT, MetaCard, sold out in a few minutes, generating $23 million for the group last year.
Whenever NELK launches Happy Dad in a new state, thousands of their fans eagerly line up at liquor stores to meet them. Even their friends benefit: When Los Angeles gym owner Bradley Martin, an influencer in his own right who appears frequently with the group, announced an protest against the Covid lockdown n LA, thousands showed up bearing signs such as “Big Lats Matter.”
Most influencers, being extraordinarily protective of their brands, avoid ties to wildly controversial figures like Donald Trump. NELK has gone in the other direction. The group has sold both Trump 2024 T-shirts and ones that declared “Biden Is a Half Sender.”
NELK’s engagement with politics was initially limited, but it exploded after the group was introduced to Trump by Universal Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White prior to the 2020 election. White even secured them a trip aboard Air Force One, where they were lavishly praised by Trump; later that day, they danced to “YMCA ” onstage at a rally.
In 2021, NELK launched a podcast. Donald Trump Jr. was one of their first guests. Trump himself appeared on an episode that was pulled down by YouTube after receiving over 5 million views in 24 hours, because of the former president’s lies about the 2020 election. During the interview, one of NELK’s main cast members, Steve Deleonardis, known as SteveWillDoIt, gifted Trump a $75,000 Rolex. SteveWillDoIt told Trump he made $500,000 in a few hours selling a shirt with a picture of him and the former president.
The NELK cast later joined the president for a round of golf. One of the group’s members told Trump as they snapped a picture, “We’ll never let you down.” Now, the 2024 election gives NELK the chance to follow through on that promise.
To understand how NELK’s marketing power can be harnessed, Trump just needs to observe his longtime friend White, who has used the group to promote the UFC. When the MMA organization was confined to holding its bouts on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi (yes, it’s really called that) without an audience during Covid, he flew the NELK crew to the Middle East to watch the fights and film content. (The UFC even lent SteveWillDoIt a championship belt for a video where he walked around the pool area and attempted to pick up female pool guests.)
White has also lavished NELK with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. These gifts have been repeatedly featured in the group’s videos, in which bundles of hundred-dollar bills, sometimes in duffle bags, have been handed to different cast members. (NELK has reciprocated, gifting White a custom Maybach van.)
One could believe that White, simply likes the NELK boys and enjoys appearing in their videos. It’s clear from their interactions his affection for the group is very real. But it is also a savvy move for the UFC brand. Constant videos of NELK partying at, attending, and betting on UFC fights is a great way for the brand to target young men.
In 2024 Trump will have the opportunity to utilize the NELK promotional machinery in the same way. The Republican Party, with its stodgy, old, white, and religiously intolerant brand, has struggled with young voters. Young men who watch NELK videos for laughs and to see the group’s outrageous antics have been fed a steady diet of a simple message: Trump is cool, Democrats are nerds, and their PC culture is just about trying to stop the party. And NELK packages this message from a racially and ethnically diverse group of young men. Notably, the group’s videos are laser-targeted at men. There are no female members of NELK or women who regularly appear on camera.
They also subtly—if anything NELK does can be classified as subtle—insert conservative cultural grievances into their videos, which, unlike the podcast, tends towards the apolitical. During one prank NELK recruited a hyperactive and intense Bigfoot enthusiast named Tony to lead them on a hunt through the Michigan wilderness for Sasquatch. Their purported goal was to open a Bigfoot-themed amusement park to display their catch.
As the team discusses their plan to capture a female, so they could breed bigfoot in their amusement park, Kyle Forgeard rethought the plan. Perhaps they should capture a male bigfoot, he suggested, adding, “Would there be any kind of political correctness maybe if we did get a male, just to satisfy the Democrats, like maybe have two gay bigfoots…just for some PC media bullshit?”
If NELK can sell merchandise, hard seltzer, or NFTs to their audience, can they sell Trump as well? Unlike other conservative influencers like Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder, their audience isn’t tuning into their videos for political programming. They certainly aren’t hanging around complaining about the lyrics to “WAP.”
A viewer that clicks on a Ben Shapiro video has at least some interest in politics and likely is predisposed to agree with the content. NELK fans simply want to watch a bunch of guys having a good time. Imagine that in the early 2000s, the Jackass crew used their popularity to promote a political ideology. Episodes of Jackass had 2.4 million viewers in the 12-to-34-year-old demographic. NELK’s least-watched video over the past year had nearly two times as many views.
All of those young men are currently receiving this highly politicized message. It is a weapon for Trump, and one that most Democrats in Washington, D.C., won’t even see coming, because they don’t even know what NELK is. It is time they found out.