On Saturday night hundreds of self-described “deplorables”, arch-conservative internet personalities, trolls-turned-citizen journalists, and conspiracy theory enthusiasts put on their best suits and cocktail dresses to drink, dance and toast the Trump presidency at an exclusive rightwing social gala called A Night For Freedom.
It’s unclear if there was an element of trolling in the decision to hold a pro-Trump bonanza in Manhattan, the same day several hundred thousand people participated in a city-wide “women’s march”, but if there was, then the party’s masterminds were almost foiled at their own game.
Despite elaborate security precautions to prevent infiltration by journalists, protesters and other troublemakers, the event came close to collapsing at the last moment when, in what the event organizers described as a “set-up”, the scheduled venue abruptly canceled the day before.
Organizers scrambled behind the scenes to secure a new venue to accommodate their 750 guests – only for the second venue to also back out at 1am the morning of the event. A Hell’s Kitchen nightclub finally agreed to host, apparently only after one of the event organizers offered to pay $20,000 in cash up front.
Outside the nightclub, black-clad protesters taunted arriving guests while a heavy cordon of police stood watch. But stepping inside felt like entering a separate universe. The atmosphere was somewhere between a political fundraiser – with lots of red, white and blue and, at one point, a spoken-word ode to the American flag – and a high school prom. Music thumped in the background. Men wearing Trump-style red ties were everywhere.
Guests were giddy with the cathartic high that comes from being in the presence of like-minded people. Many had flown in, and one man told me he had driven five hours to attend. Outside was a hostile world of haters, losers, cucks, globalists, social justice warriors, betas, libtards, and soyboys – but inside was a haven where deplorables could speak freely. Fans geeked out as they took selfies with their favorite rightwing YouTube stars.
The evening’s most unexpected guest was Chelsea Manning, who dropped by briefly during the earlier part of the evening to the surprise of those present and the confusion and consternation of leftist social media users, who heard the news on Twitter. Manning later uploaded a picture of herself making a thumbs-down sign, announcing that she had just “[c]rashed the fascist/white supremacist hate brigade party”, but others disputed her characterization of her presence there.
“Yes I literally shook hands with Chelsea Manning [tonight], the left is freaking out, it was not a big deal,” Mike Cernovich, the event’s main organizer, wrote on Twitter. Cernovich, a rightwing muckraker, occasional men’s rights advocate, and self-described “mindset” guru, said he was “glad she stopped by. All are welcome to party with me.”
“Twenty years ago the idea that anyone can get their own [social media] account and troll any senator to their face would be regarded as an absurdity,” Michael Malice, a fixture of the rightwing alternative media sphere, told a cheering crowd.
“The gatekeepers who are controlling our information are falling. Twenty years ago there were three channels [sic]. Today there are literally infinite YouTube channels. Infinite Twitter profiles. Infinite Facebook profiles. You can’t silence people any longer.”
At last year’s “DeploraBall” members of the anti-establishment movement then known as the “alt-right” celebrated the inauguration of Donald Trump, a man they credited themselves with having “memed” into the White House over the resistance of a hostile political and media elite. Even then, few Americans had heard the term “alt-right”, and the political establishment was only belatedly recognizing the influence exercised by a network of online alternative media outlets and rightwing social media personalities.
A lot can happen in a year. Today, the movement has a Super Pac. Gateway Pundit, a far-right blog that has been criticized for spreading hoaxes, has been accredited to the White House press corps. Recently Cernovich partnered with BuzzFeed News to release revelations about sexual harassment claims against Michigan representative John Conyers.
As they have moved from the darkest corners of the internet to the white-tableclothed banquet halls of Washington and New York, pro-Trump online provocateurs, famous for their hatred of political correctness, have also been forced to engage in their own project of respectability politics.
Members of the repackaged and somewhat sanitized movement consider themselves populists and nationalists, not bigots. As they see it, one can support, say, hardline immigration policies without being racist. As Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice and founder of the Proud Boys, a “western chauvinist” and anti-feminist group, explained last year to the New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz: “They [white nationalists] care about the white race. We care about Western values.”
‘Do you want to make us look professional, or sloppy?’
In emails to guests leading up to the event, Cernovich laid out strict rules for decorum, dress code and security protocol. “By attending the event, you become a brand ambassador,” he wrote. “Do you want to make us look professional, or do you want us to look sloppy?”
Any journalists requesting press passes would be denied (“I’m bored of the media lying about me and us, and have no interest in press coverage”), and, he added, undercover security personnel would be mingling with the guests to keep an eye out for “negative or toxic people”.
But if “A Night for Freedom” was an opportunity to show off the rebranded and increasingly mainstream alternative right wing, it was also a reminder that “mainstream” is a relative notion. While the “alt-lite” may have successfully distanced itself from the worst extremists, it can sometimes seem unclear exactly how “lite” the new movement is.
A prolific livestreamer who rails against Democrats, the establishment GOP and the “fake news”-peddling media to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Periscope followers, Cernovich is known for reflexively accusing his detractors of pedophilia, and he was one of the propagators of “Pizzagate”, the wholly discredited conspiracy theory that high-ranking Democrats were operating a child sex-ring out of the back of a Washington DC pizzeria.
Joining Cernovich as the evening’s headline acts were McInnes; reality TV star and Trump supporter Anna Khait; “political operatives” Jack Posobiec and Ali Alexander; and Stefan Molyneux, a far-right podcaster who advocates “anarcho-capitalism” and racial IQ theories. (Molyneux, who encourages followers to break off contact with their families, has also been accused of operating a therapy cult, a charge he denies.)
In a series of panels the speakers, some of whom seemed rather tipsy, offered their thoughts on a greatest-hits list of favorite topics including Hillary Clinton (“she’s gonna get her time, you guys just wait”), cryptocurrency, the dangers of socialism, George Soros (“the head of the snake”), and the media (“leftist propaganda machine”).
As a group of Proud Boys stood behind him in matching Fred Perry tennis shirts, McInnes argued that women would be happier under traditional gender strictures, using a vulgar physical analogy to describe how he sees young single women as being exploited by men.
He went on, “Why do [progressives] have a problem with traditional people? You’re the ones being left with cats and dogs for sons and daughters.”
This brought McInnes to one of his recurring preoccupations, natalism. He described his pride at being a father and encouraged listeners to have lots of children. “Remember, one [child] is for losers. Two is for fags.”
The evening wore on and the drink flowed freely. In the men’s room a drunk man ranted bitterly about the Women’s March. “Bunch of fucking pussies out there. And fags. All I know is I ain’t getting none!” he added, for anyone wondering.
Up on the roof, groups of people clustered on a smoking patio. Conversation frequently came back to the deep state, Antifa and when Hillary will face justice for her crimes.
One person was complaining about the protesters outside, some of whom had allegedly attacked guests as they entered.
What do you think is behind that sort of behavior? I asked.
“Divorce,” he said.
Back inside, people danced to the musical stylings of DJ duo Milk N Cooks. On the stage two professional dancers, with identical short blonde hair and American flag leotards, shimmied back and forth.
People flooded to the dancefloor. Men loosened their ties. The DJs cycled through various 90s and early 2000s club hits and bar-mitzvah standards – In Da Club, Can’t Touch This. An older couple slow-danced sweetly to Africa by Toto.
As it neared midnight, Chumbawamba came on – “I get knocked down, but I get up again” – and the crowd shouted triumphantly along: “You are never gonna keep me down.”