Trump had promised jobs, and they came begging.
Thursday’s DeploraBall was a gathering of the most infamous faces of the far right internet; Friday’s was held by a micro-grassroots organization called Gays For Trump. One group had real connections to the incoming administration and the possibility to achieve actual power. The other was signing up for imaginary government duties and inventing countries.
Among the pink-faced college Republican types, trolls, contrarians, Islamophobes, and Twitter fanboys the reality became clear: this was an audition to parlay loyalty into a seat at fascism’s table.
Even though the alleged purpose of DeploraBall was to seek distance from the so-called “alt-right” by rebranding its attendees as “Trumpists,” protestors outside still saw it as a soiree for internet Nazis. The public controversy around its existence and between its organizers only served to further its ultimate goal: attention.
Organized by grassroots organization MAGA3X—presently run by men’s rights self-help posterboy Mike Cernovich, Citizens For Trump bullshit purveyor Jack Posobiec, and meme warfare advocate Jeff Giesea—the 1,000-person event attracted many of the living brands associated with the so-called “alt-right.” Radio host Bill Mitchell gave an interview at a cocktail table; disgraced pharma goblin Martin Shkreli skulked through the halls; Giesea’s former boss Peter Thiel appeared just long enough to take a few selfies with some young acolytes. They came to kiss the ring, and they came to network.
Mitchell, Right Side Broadcasting, and The Gateway Pundit attended to prove their willingness to provide favorable media coverage. Cernovich is reportedly vying for a Congressional bid. Posobiec, it’s been rumored, has job offers from RSBN and The Rebel. And Giesea, through his proximity to Thiel likely has a bright future, though after watching the uncharismatic VC’s prepared remarks get steamrolled by the audience he’d helped gather, probably none that involve public speaking.
As to the audience itself—dressed up, drunk, and starstruck—abandonment by the figures they helped to elevate was the only likely future.
An abstract artist took the stage to finger paint, though no one seemed to know what. The predominantly grey, pink, and purple canvas, a bearded man next to me hypothesized, was an American flag. Finally peeling away a sticker in the center of canvas to reveal an image of a muscular Trump, arms crossed, wearing a “POTUS 45” sleeveless t-shirt amidst an ugly swirl of irrelevant colors, the cheated crowd cheered.
My way in was Katarina Niedermair, 22, a politically ambitious polymath who says she’s “biohacking” to treat her own Crohn’s disease and believes in “trolling for peace.” She and her father used their spare general admission tickets to sneak me, a Rolling Stone reporter, and a producer from This American Life in. According to Niedermair, she was a key organizer and made the event possible, only to be ousted from her leadership role within MAGA3X a few weeks prior by Cernovich and Giesea, who took the credit.
Unlike many of her collaborators, Niedermair told me she abhors online abuse and the proliferation of fake news perpetuated by power-hungry internet celebrities who don’t know or care they’re being lied to. If Trump doesn’t do right by the country, she told me, she has faith that the internet that helped to elect him holds him to account. That same internet also led a gunman into Comet Ping Pong in search of an imaginary child-sex ring. A cardboard sign reading “Go Home—no hate here” and the New York Times article debunking of the Pizzagate conspiracy now hang inside the restaurant, protected by a security guard.
It was hard not to think of Trump himself as a meme gone too far, where trolling had metamorphosed into earnest devotion.
Around October, Niedermair was brought aboard MAGA3X by Tim Treadstone— later pushed out of the group too—and her responsibilities ballooned. What may have caused the schism was her setting up a political action committee to help fund the ball, a plan which supposedly had Giesea’s blessing. Niedermair alleges that Giesea had spent an exuberant amount on Facebook ads and didn’t want an FEC filing to reveal this. She also claims Giesea commissioned artists to make memes, casting doubt on how much of Trump’s supposedly populist online presence was bought and paid for.
“I don’t really want to be involved—from an organization standpoint or a business way—with social media e-celebs after this experience,” she told me, “just seeing behind the scenes, the drama, the egos. It’s all really off-putting to me.” She used her party to do some political maneuvering of her own on behalf of her organization—Warfare Media, whose lofty plans include universal internet access and the construction of a space elevator in the Congo.
By 11:30 the intoxicated trolls began stumbling home. The protest had long since been broken up. VICE cofounder Gavin McInnes bragged to an InfoWars film crew about his assaults of protesters while a group of loud men shrieked “hail Harambe,” posing for a photo. Though banned from the DeploraBall, white nationalist Richard Spencer—soon to become a meme after taking a fist to the face—was seen lingering on the sidewalk. He claimed to have only been there for about ten minutes after getting dinner nearby.
A cryptic message posted yesterday to the DeploraBall website appeared to call out Cernovich, Giesea, and Posobiec for their alleged backstabbing. The group’s Twitter and Facebook profiles as well as the maga3x.com website were owned by Treadstone, according to Niedermair, and he was attempting to take them back. She also claims the highly active MAGA3X Facebook page with over 100,000 likes has received offers to cede ownership to bidders for as much as $25,000.
Friday’s DeploraBall hosted by Gays For Trump and proclaiming itself to be “the gayest gala in DC” wasn’t actually in DC at all, but instead in sleepy Potomac, Maryland. The venue itself, the Bolger Center, is less a hotel than a sprawling confederation of tan brickwork buildings which the US Postal Service runs at a deficit. Aside from the gala itself, in three days staying there I saw maybe a half dozen people on Bolger’s grounds.
Unlike Cernovich or Jack Posobiec, Peter Boykin—the creator of Gays For Trump—doesn’t have a massive internet following or know much about the web at all. He says he individually vetted each of the 1,575 members in the Gays For Trump Facebook group to avoid for what he calls “trolls” and prior to our conversation had never heard of 4Chan.
Working two jobs seven days a week, Boykin somehow managed to generate interest in his group by attending both Trump rallies and Pride events. He lives paycheck to paycheck, partly because of student debt to online diploma mill Kaplan—an organization not unlike the defunct Trump University—which awarded him two Master’s degrees. After 9/11, he told me, he and his husband considered moving to the mountains.
“Over ten years ago I did a local reality show that was sort of like The Apprentice,” he told me fondly, but speculated that the show had been bought out so as not to compete with The Apprentice. Trump’s wealth will make him impervious to corruption and concern for his legacy will keep him honest, Boykin believes, despite countless indications to the contrary. He applied in earnest to be a part of the Trump administration through the Great Again website and, according to a recent tweet, seeks to join the White House “LGBT relations department”—which does not exist. In a tux with slicked black hair, he zipped around the gilded hotel ballroom to a soundtrack of Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and RuPaul, never getting the chance to enjoy his own three-course dinner.
“Are you press?” a volunteer named Thibaut asked. I was, as were about half the 200 guests at Gay DeploraBall, including RT, Cosmopolitan, RSBN, a documentary film crew, and two gentlemen from Japanese video sharing service Niconico. Branding confusion—the DeploraBall name and its inclusion on the website alongside the higher profile event—led the prior night’s leadership to add Peter to the list of banned guests alongside Richard Spencer and Tim Treadstone; easier access to tickets had seemingly led many of my colleagues to Potomac in search of “alt-right” controversy, where instead they found climbers cut from a cloth with a much lower thread-count. Ambitious though they were, the guests of the Gay DeploraBall weren’t connected, powerful, or influential.
Among those accepting raffle items was Zdenek Gazda. Taking the stage to raucous applause, Gazda was revealed as the original videographer of the now-infamous Hillary Clinton fainting clip which he then licensed out. (An employee from Storyful confirmed that the company licensed Gazda’s video.) Gazda claims not to have been paid yet.
Vit Jedlicka also took the stage, wearing a blue suit and sipping wine. Better known as the President of micronation Liberland, Jedlicka explained that he found the patch of land which has been embroiled in a border dispute between Croatia and Serbia though a Wikipedia search. Even the LGBT-friendly audience seemed unenthusiastic to hear about marriage equality in an unrecognized nation no one is allowed into—or at least less interested than the multinational corporations seeking to use Liberland as a tax haven, as the rumors go.
A fellow New Yorker, Dustin Gold was in attendance at both DeploraBalls dressed as Trump, though Friday’s gala featured a ten minute standup set from him in character. “I’ve been mentoring political comedians for eight years, I’ve been doing this,” he told me, gesturing to his spray tan and wig, “for six weeks.” Politically he identifies as an independent and seemed skeptical of Trump; his set included jokes about Obama’s devotion to Islam and Hillary Clinton’s imminent death. The crowd loved it.
Becoming a codified non-profit appeared to be the chief conceit of the event for Gays For Trump, though political aspirations didn’t end there. Scott Presler, one of the key organizers and the closest thing the gala had to an internet celebrity, has plans to run for office, potentially in his home state of Virginia. “I want to make sure that LGBTQ Americans cannot be denied housing because of their sexuality, I want to push for anti-discrimination laws,” Presler, tall and slim with a red bowtie and matching cummerbund, hair pulled back in a tight ponytail told me, “I want to make sure that everybody’s got a fair shot.” Presler came out less than a year ago in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Like Boykin, he feels Sharia law is an imminent threat to Americans. “Every single day almost we have radical islamic terrorists,” he stated, leaning heavily on a phrase beloved by Trump meant to inspire anti-Muslim sentiments, “killing, murdering, slaughtering our people, raping women, murdering LGBTQs, raping children—pedophilia. I think radical islamic terror is the greatest threat to the world.” I have no idea how these beliefs can co-exist.
After rattling off Trump’s LGBTQ-friendly moments, Presler expressed how excited he was that Jeff Sessions would be upholding gay marriage. Sessions has a long and well-documented history of voting against LGBTQ rights, as does Vice President Mike Pence.
After midnight most of the press had left, though the conference hotel ballroom was still dotted with guests availing themselves of the open bar or swaying to Bowie. It was like intolerance’s bar mitzvah. The past two days had felt like a journey into the Twilight Zone, surrounded by hospitable people (at least, to me, for obvious reasons) who calmly regurgitated beliefs I found personally abhorrent and “facts” that were objectively untrue, who had elected a man I sincerely believe will bring nothing but catastrophe to this country.
Wealthy manipulators and upwardly mobile networkers had laid irresistible bait for America’s poorest and most frightened: on the team that’s supposedly winning, gnawing at overdone filet mignon instead of being pepper sprayed by cops in the capitol’s streets. Here they are accepted without question. Here, they feel welcome, swaddled or smothered in a powerful group identity. The gambit of authoritarian regimes is, after all, projected strength—protection within it, or assault by it.
Event staff weren’t sure what to do: the night’s most striking guest—a wheelchair-bound guy wearing a rubber Pepe mask—had been a keen photo op, though none of them knew how he managed to get in without checking in. Under the mask was a gaunt, elderly man who explained to an RSBN interviewer that billionaire magnate George Soros had “put a hit out on” him. Trump’s unofficial mascot told several partygoers throughout the night that he was tired, that he just wanted to go home.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” a young man whispered, pulling me aside. As we walked towards a dark and empty room in Bolger’s Franklin Building he confided that he wasn’t a Trump supporter, hadn’t voted, and his association with Gays For Trump was only six hours old.
A former left-leaning libertarian, the young man—who asked not to be identified—now found himself among the “alt-right,” befriending people with a range of faux-contemporary and horrifying ideas. Ideas like “dark enlightenment” (that pre-enlightenment authority structures like monarchies are ideal), “racial realism” (racism clad in pseudoscience), and outright fascism. “The left isn’t really talking about diverse things—and that’s the draw for these young kids—except identity,” he told me in hushed tones, scanning the room for interlopers. “To be radical is to identify as something versus on the right to be radical is to have an idea that’s different, and that’s what kids are interested in.” The conflation of “reactionary” with “radical” was, to say the least, concerning.
It echoed what Jeff Giesea had told Buzzfeed, that he’d grown “bored being nice to people all the time.” In the sole interest of being interesting, a reactionary movement was born to inflict itself on humanity. The last two days had shown this morally bankrupt faction to be profitable.
The young man told me he was only attending, like anyone else who could see past the populist charade, to make connections. “These people are going to be in power. Hopefully I can use that power contrary to their interests eventually,” adding, “And I’m going to be honest, like a lot of the people in the alt-right—it’s for kicks.”
His words rang as true as they were chilling, and I wondered what the boring people of this country would do to fight back. The next morning 2.5 million people took to the streets of cities across the country in peaceful protest.
Correction: The article originally stated that Sam Hyde was banned from the DeploraBall. Instead he gave away his ticket to show solidarity with Richard Spencer, which is so much worse.