The DeploraBall was never supposed to be a big deal.
You wouldn’t know that from the crowd on Thursday night at the National Press Club, where a spiffed-up audience of about a thousand chanted old rally cries, danced, and generally beamed at one another in giddy anticipation of what was to follow the next day. But so it was: As originally conceived, the inauguration-eve ball for supporters of Donald Trump was meant to be relatively inconspicuous. Sure, the initial program promised there would “be nothing like our DEPLORABALL party,” and was set to involve a number of prominent conservative media personalities, including Mike Cernovich, whom The New Yorker called “the meme mastermind of the alt-right” in an October profile. But the ball was booked at the Clarendon Ballroom, a small nightclub in Arlington, Virginia, across the river from Washington. Attendance was capped around 500, on the smaller side of inaugural events. And the organizer, MAGA3X, was a relatively niche operation, even if it reported that tickets to the original event sold out within 24 hours.
But a political and media sensation? A gathering for which hundreds of reporters from around the country would request credentials, the vast majority of whom would be turned away, some with a public boot in the rear? That the celebration would move to a swanky new venue just blocks from the White House, where it would become the focal point of a major organized protest and yield images of lovely young guests in ballgowns and tuxedos scurrying inside as protesters shouted and burned Trump’s signature Make America Great Again hats in the street? That it would occasion a line of police officers forming a human shield, and require organizers to rent a small army of private security workers? That it would become something that would prompt James O’Keefe — he of the stunt videos at Planned Parenthood and ACORN and NPR, and a celebrated figure within the so-called “alt-right” — to record a segment for Project Veritas, his activist organization? Something that would prompt O’Keefe to attend, and then draw Martin Shkreli and no less a right-wing luminary than Peter Thiel, too? None of that seemed even remotely possible. But it happened.
That’s because after the ball was announced what happened next was: People got mad, and triggered a peculiar alchemy in the Trump base. As the new administration takes the reins of the country, the pomp and circumstance of the DeploraBall provided a useful glimpse into the methodologies and motivations of its backers.
As word of the ball, named for the term appended by Hillary Clinton to half of Trump’s supporters in a September speech, spread in early December, not everyone was pleased. The event was lampooned on social media, especially Twitter. The complaints yielded results: By December 13, the Clarendon Ballroom canceled the event outright, claiming MAGA3X had never finalized a contract.
And the Trump machine — or, more accurately, the Trump supporter machine — came alive.
“Trump inauguration event relocates after venue caves to leftists,” read one Infowars headline. “If Lefties Had An Inaguration [sic] Ball Cancelled By The Venue Due To Pressure,” wrote a blog called Conservative Musings, “That Place Would Not Be There The Next Week. Charges Would Be Brought Or The Building Burned!” Cernovich worked his followers into a frenzy, posting a statement that claimed the original venue was “harassed by Hillary supporters.”
The DeploraBall became a cause unto itself, with the caricature of liberals silencing backers of the president-elect catapulting the event into the alt-right stratosphere. Days after the Clarendon Ballroom plans were scrapped, MAGA3X sent out an email to ticket holders, subject line “DeploraBall update: When they go low, we go high!” The ball would move to the much larger Press Club, organizers wrote, smack-dab in central D.C. — “Don’t you love the symbolism of it?!” — and reopen ticket sales to double the gathering’s size. In the following weeks, more prominent guests were announced, including, in the midst of a battle over what ideologies would be welcome at an event that had become an ever-larger umbrella, controversial Breitbart editor and writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Then came O’Keefe’s video, which purported to show #DisruptJ20 members plotting to set off a stink bomb at the ball.
On Thursday, there was no stink bomb. Instead, hundreds of revelers gathered in the headquarters of the century-old Press Club, delighted with what they had accomplished: that night, this election season, beyond. Beneath mahogany arches, etchings of broadsheets, and portraits of reporters who have called the club home over the years, the DeploraBall’s guests wore sequins and tuxes and suits; they sported red-and-white Make America Great Again hats as well as the newer “U.S.A.” variant Trump has taken to wearing lately, plus cowboy hats and purple velvet coats and vermilion three-piece suits and stars-and-stripes-patterned everything. An impressively convincing, if radically too lean, Trump impersonator roamed the club, squinting and pursing his lips throughout. People — mostly young and almost entirely white, and perhaps two-thirds male — clinked glasses and gushed that the open bar even had Grey Goose: the nice stuff. In the Trump era, no one would have to sacrifice quality. They laughed about the protesters downstairs: Too bad it wasn’t colder out there.
“It’s good to see everybody from Twitter!” Cernovich called out from the main stage at the Press Club, where guests paused their conversations and dancing and officially sanctioned schmoozing (a sign in front of one room announced that it was the NETWORKING LOUNGE) to listen to some of the alt-right movement’s loudest voices. These figures held an outsize celebrity there: On catching sight of Thiel or radio host Bill Mitchell, for example, multiple members of the audience began to bounce in place, bopping each other on the shoulder in an Is that who I think it is — Oh my God, it’s totally him — We have to talk to him — You go — I can’t! — Go get your picture with him! routine that yielded untold starstruck selfies over the course of the night.
“This is the coming-out party for many of you,” said Cernovich.
A funny thing happens when Trump’s supporters flip into rally mode. While any really effective campaign can feel cultishly showy — see: Yes, we can! Yes, we can! — the Trump universe’s talking points, buzzwords, and laugh lines are so numerous that to be in the crowd can feel a little like going to a Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight showing, an effect greatly exacerbated on Thursday by the ratio of attendees in actual costume. Mention Paul Ryan: Boooooooo! Mention Mexico, or immigrants, or fences, or the prospect of Trump beginning to fulfill his many promises: Build that wall! Mention Hillary Clinton, and yes, even on January 19, more than two months after the Democrat’s loss and her retreat into mostly quiet isolation: Lock her up!
Then there are other lines that, when delivered just right — a tenor Cernovich is remarkably adept at striking — produce something darker, something nastier and vastly more concerning than rally chants. As Cernovich stood on the stage and rose crisply into a crescendo about the power of Trump’s supporters and how foolish their detractors were ever to have doubted them, the man next to me in the crowd shot his arm up into a Nazi salute.
The gesture was, according to Cernovich, explicitly banned from the DeploraBall, as were images of Pepe the Frog, a meme that is often coupled with anti-Semitic sentiment. (MAGA3X did not mention these bans in any of its planning messages to ticket holders, and if there was any announcement to this point at the event, I didn’t hear it.) Throughout Cernovich’s speech and the ones that followed it, by speakers including Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke and Paul Nehlen, who unsuccessfully challenged Ryan for his House seat in August, arms would occasionally shoot into the air, sometimes hovering briefly at that telltale angle before shuffling into something else, elbows rigid as hands flipped into a Trumpian thumbs-up or OK sign.
I’m not convinced that any of the DeploraBall’s attendees particularly believed in Nazi ideologies, or meant, really, to advocate them. It’s possible that they did — the protesters outside certainly seemed to think so — and on a night when the mood inside the venue was joyful and benign, maybe they were simply vibrating at a pleasanter frequency of hatred than they might in less-friendly territory. Or it could be something else — a visual manifestation of solidarity, maybe, a sort of irrevocable jumping into the abyss and communal point of no return. Throughout the night, guests were cheerful and polite, gabbing with each other about making new friends and telling anyone who would listen that — contrary to what you might read in the media — they held no biases against anyone for their race or gender or creed or anything else. Indeed, many, if not most, members of the DeploraBall audience would pause after a particularly vicious chant or one of those strangely elongated thumbs-ups, look around, and grin. Can you believe we had the balls to do that? they seemed to ask. Can you believe we’re getting away with it?
It’s been argued that the Trump phenomenon — and it is a phenomenon that we are swearing in this man, a 70-year-old billionaire with zero political experience — can be explained in large part by the frustrations of middle America. Away from the coasts and big cities, people grew tired of being told what they could do and say, what was politically correct and what wasn’t.
And here, we can see a little bit of what turned the DeploraBall into a supernova. The more Trump’s candidacy was mocked, the harder his supporters believed in it. The more they were told they couldn’t say certain words or make certain gestures, the more fervently they wanted to carry them out. The more the national media and mainstream political figures pronounced that it was all a misguided farce, the more desperately a nation of frustrated voters wanted to prove everybody wrong.
It was, basically, a master class in feeding the trolls — in cramming rebuttal after rebuttal into their maw, in bloating them, in lining them up under funnels of high-calorie dismissals until they became so powerful that they won.
Lined up to enter the event, stilettos clicking on the marble and the shouts of protesters still audible, the man in front of me announced, bemusedly, that he was recently banned from Twitter. He wasn’t sure what for — he’d get into these political exchanges sometimes, go back and forth, things would get a little heated, who can really say. But it hardly mattered anymore. What did he need Twitter for now, really? A trio of guys in red caps came walking in, greeting the people in line: Sup, sup, sup.
The man banned from Twitter turned to them and grinned. “Welcome,” he said.