On Thursday evening, several middle-aged couples boarded an elevator in the Washington Press Club Building; in high spirits and dressed to the nines in pressed tuxedos and glittering ball gowns, they were the very image of inaugural revelry.
“Oh my God, I almost forgot, I nearly killed the dog the other day!” one woman exclaimed with mock horror as the elevator shot up to the 14th floor.
“Would’ve been fine by me!” another companion, presumably the woman’s husband, quipped.
Everyone laughed. It was all wonderful and breezy and almost enough to make you forget that you were in hell.
When the elevator reached the 14th floor, it opened up into DeploraBall, the inaugural fete thrown by Mike Cernovich and other allies of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement.
Indeed, DeploraBall was not a scene one typically associates with harmless conversational jousting among the comfortably married. Yet, like the alt-right itself, the evening was defined by extremism and ― to put it diplomatically ― an elastic relationship with reality. There was Cernovich revving up the crowd by calling Hillary Clinton a “bigoted Nazi” who “wanted to put us in camps”; there was Jeff Giesea, one of DeploraBall’s co-organizers, urging the crowd to “preserve our civilization”; there was conservative activist Lucian Wintrich dismissing accusations that the alt-right is extremist by denouncing the “fascist left” and calling liberals Nazis.
Then Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a far-right activist who let a prisoner die of dehydration in one of his prison cells, got up to speak. Informing the crowd that “the real fighting starts today,” Clarke assured the audience that the only time he would “reach across the aisle would be to grab [Democrats’] throats.”
Though there were a lot of puzzling things about DeploraBall ― among them a performance of Bob Dylan’s protest anthem, “The Times They Are A Changin’” ― none was more head-scratching than a denunciation of fascism followed by a sitting law enforcement official threatening to choke his political opponents.
The so-called alt-right encompasses a range of nationalistic outlooks, ranging from segregationists to authoritarians to angry Redditors in need of a platform to vent their anger. Though their aims vary, almost all are united in their distaste for, and often outright hatred of, pluralism.
Other attendees included Martin Shkreli, the so-called “Pharma Bro” who is under indictment for securities fraud and who rose to prominence for raising the price of a live-saving drug; Roger Stone, the lifelong Republican activist known for his underhanded tactics; entrepreneur Peter Thiel, a member of Donald Trump’s transition team and secret funder of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit that ultimately bankrupted Gawker; Michael Flynn Jr., son of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and a online propagator of fake news stories; James O’Keefe, the conservative activist criticized for selectively editing his undercover videos of progressives; Pamela Geller, a leading Islamophobic activist; and, of course, Cernovich, a near-bottomless well of controversial statements who has made a name for himself promoting an uber-macho brand of personal improvement.
There were other moments of unreality. As partygoers waited to pass through security, a man held up a sign that warned of “the MEXICAN NIGHTMARE.” Another attendee carried a sign reading, “HILLARY IS A DISHONEST UNTRUSTWORTHY, HATEFUL, ESTABLISHMENT WHORE AND A ?ITCH!” Chants of “Trump! Trump!” and “Lock her up!” soon erupted, and the sight of a man in a tuxedo barking, “Trump that bitch!” does not fade from memory quickly.
Inside, in the wood-panel-lined, boys-club-like environs of the Press Club, revelers snapped photos of themselves beside a Donald Trump impersonator and a painting of George Washington wearing a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. They surveyed the offerings at the buffet and bar, which somewhat counterintuitively offered a foreign beer, Heineken. Partygoers, predominantly white, ranged in age and dress, some opting for classic evening wear and military dress uniforms while others sported their finest #MAGA T-shirts. This was the Met Gala for white people who feel under siege ― the Capote Ball for anyone who wants their kids to grow up and be like Fox News’ Jesse Watters.
However, the evening was defined as much by what was going on within as by what was going on without. Fourteen stories below, on F Street NW, a large protest had gathered well before the festivities began, with hundreds of people holding signs denouncing extremism and espousing action (”SMASH FASCISM” and “Take to the Streets,” to name a couple). On one end, someone had inflated a giant elephant with the word “RACISM” stamped across it, while several hundred feet away, a woman carrying a “Free Palestine” sign argued with a man sporting an “American Bikers United Against Jihad” hoodie. Protesters had trained two spotlights on the Press Club Building, one of which read, “Impeach the Predator President” and the other ― in what was truly history’s strangest bat signal ― “Bragging About Grabbing A Woman’s Genitals.”
A human shield of police formed alongside the entrance to the party, dividing the partygoers from the more aggressive protesters, many of whom yelled invectives at the attendees. At one point, as the crush of protesters heaved forward, several officers fell over, forming a temporary gap. Suddenly exposed, a handful of attendees (and one Huffington Post reporter) scampered into the lobby, their flight set to a soundtrack of clacking heels and cries of “fascist!”
The protests were met with a mixture of amusement and anger by the self-proclaimed “deplorables” inside. Some snapped photos of the demonstrators as they snaked through the security line in the lobby, offering defiant waves and other, less friendly gestures through the windows.
“I had a sign with ‘peace’ written on it thrown at my face!” one attendee in the security line recalled.
“You just can’t dress well in these parts,” his companion replied consolingly.
Others were significantly less good-humored.
“Was there tear gas?” one partygoer loitering by a bar upstairs in the Press Club asked about the protest.
“Yeah. Fuckin’ gas ‘em!” another replied.
“Fuckin’ billy-club them!” the first guest added.
“I’ll go out and help!” added the second.
One attendee was quite certain that the country was squarely on the side of her and her fellow deplorables.
“The media gives them a platform!” she insisted. “That’s what it is!”
“We love America here,” another guest injected. “That’s what this is!”
Huffington Post reporter Eliot Nelson’s book, The Beltway Bible: A Totally Serious A-Z Guide to Our No-Good, Corrupt, Incompetent, Terrible, Depressing and Sometimes Hilarious Government, is out now.