On the eve of president-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, an angry mob gathered outside the National Press Club to protest one of the many elite galas taking place around Washington, DC, as is inaugural tradition. Outside, the demonstrators held homemade signs over their heads and wore scarves over their faces. Inside, the attendees wore suits and cocktail dresses, tuxedos and ballgowns. Outside, they chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!” Inside, they swayed to “Funkytown” and fist-pumped to “Eye of the Tiger,” snacking on smoked gouda and clinking glasses from the open bar.
The scene was pure establishment. Yet not so long ago, this insider crowd of self-proclaimed deplorables was definitively fringe.
The attendees at last night’s inaugural DeploraBall represent the new political establishment, a loosely affiliated band of social media celebrities, online provocateurs, and their millions of followers. During the campaign, they staked their reputations on bucking authority, Democrat or Republican.
Reaching consensus about what this movement stands for has proven as difficult as forming consensus about anything on the internet.
You know some of them by name already. Pharmaceutical bad boy Martin Shkreli, who Twitter recently banned for harassing a Teen Vogue writer, wandered meekly through the sea of Make America Great Again baseball hats. Bill Mitchell, the online radio host and prolific tweeter of statistically dubious claims, glad-handed and posed for selfies with a parade of fans. Notorious tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who famously helped Hulk Hogan sue Gawker into oblivion and has since become a key Trump transition advisor, hustled to the exit after reporters spotted him. And up on stage was Michael Cernovich, famed on social media for, among other things, perpetuating rumors about a Washington pedophilia ring.
“It’s good to see everybody from Twitter!” Cernovich said before leading the crowd in chants of “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!”
It was far from the typical staid DC gala, but then, it was never meant to be. The name alone, DeploraBall, is a cheeky reference to the nickname Hillary Clinton clumsily bestowed upon Trump supporters during the election cycle, and which Trump supporters have since gladly embraced. “We’re trying to assert our presence as the new type of Republican,” Jeff Giesea, who organized the event with Cernovich, told me before the ball. “This is not your dad’s or mom’s Republican party anymore.”
In this new wing of the conservative movement—the Deplorable Wing, as Giesea calls it—issues like gay marriage and abortion are secondary to issues like immigration and jobs for Middle America.
And yet, even as the leaders of this movement seek to shatter the mold in Washington, they’re trying to define just what this diffuse network that helped meme-ify Trump into the White House actually stands for now. How to approach the racist factions of conservatism that have sprung up on the “alt-right”? Where to draw the line between online provocation and bullying? To a person, every attendee I talked to disavowed the racist and violent bullying that earned this group the nickname “deplorables” in the first place. But reaching consensus otherwise about who and what this movement should comprise has proven about as difficult as forming consensus about anything on the internet.
As Cernovich delivered his remarks, he asked the crowd, “Are you Twitter trolls?”
“Yeah!” some in the audience enthusiastically called back. Others cried, “No!”
Cernovich split the difference. “Either answer is correct!” he said.
But if Trumpists are to become the new heart of conservatism, the shapers of political discourse and policy in America, then the answer to this question and others becomes increasingly important. Until they’re willing and able to define what they will and won’t stand for, the rest of the country will do it for them.
“These people are Nazi apologists,” said 23-year-old, David Whipple, one of hundreds of protesters gathered outside. “I want to show everything they stand for, I stand against.”
Back inside the hall, it was Giesea’s turn at the podium. Unlike Cernovich, he didn’t lead the crowd in popular campaign trail chants or drag down Clinton yet again. Instead, he talked about the need to be constructive and make the country great again for all Americans. It was the softer side of deplorability. But Giesea’s prepared remarks didn’t ignite the crowd. As he spoke, the din of audience chatter grew louder and louder. A bespectacled woman toward the back shoved her Yuengling in the air and bellowed, “Whatever he said!” Giesea had laid out his vision for this new wing of conservatism, but not everyone had heard it. In person, as so often happens online, the point got lost in the chatter.