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Eleven years ago, Pamela Geller declared war on savages who were trying to take over the world. This November, she admits she lost.
Her readership grew slowly, helped by her willingness to blog about news the mainstream media wasn't covering. In 2008, she published cartoons of Muhammad from a Danish newspaper. Her readership increased tenfold, she says, because when the cartoons made international headlines, her blog was one of the only websites to run them.
It was also helped along because, a couple of times, she video-blogged while in a bikini.
Geller's activism didn't begin until 2007, when she teamed up with Spencer and others to attempt to close Khalil Gibran International Academy, a Brooklyn dual-language middle school that planned to teach Arabic. The coalition saw it as a front to indoctrinate preteens in Islam. They didn't close the school, but they were able to pressure the would-be school principal to resign. It was a small victory, but it was a victory nonetheless.
Geller, still largely unknown, was hungry for more. She saw evidence of "creeping sharia" everywhere. She was firmly a part of the war against what she called an Islamic "world takeover." The only problem is, if you believe you're in a war—an actual war—it's easier when there's a visible enemy to fight.
Then a brown guy whose parents had the lack of foresight to name him Barack Hussein Obama ran for president of the United States. Geller finally had her enemy.
"I never said that," she tells me sharply, leaning in and lowering her voice. "They say things about me that are patently untrue."
My coffee's gone, and hers is cold. We're talking now, of course, about the first time she won Worst Person in the World, when she published, but didn't herself write, an outlandish claim that Barack Obama was Malcolm X's love child.
"Did you ever say he had sex with a crack whore?"
"I never said that, either!"
In October 2008, when it was all but a lock that America would have its first African-American president, Geller took to Atlas Shrugs. "Conventional" birth certificate birtherism had already started a year before, but no one expected what came next. One of her readers, a conspiracy theorist named Rudy Schultz, had conjured a new claim that Malcolm X had impregnated Ann Dunham, a white woman.
She posted Schultz's ludicrous theory. To date, the post has received nearly 10,000 Facebook likes and drew a firestorm. The theory took off nationally, and because of that post, she was thrust into the public eye when Olbermann named her Worst Person in the World. Geller's celebrity and readership jumped again.
"So you kind of indirectly started birtherism even though you weren't the one peddling it," I say. "Kind of, right?"
Geller looks at me, smiles coyly, and nods.
It was her most successful jab at the president early on. She hated him, feared him. She'd dedicate the next four years to smearing him at every opportunity. She teamed up with Spencer to write a book, 2010's The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America, before the president was even inaugurated.
Geller looked at Obama and saw a man who loved America less than her, who had a Muslim name and held meetings with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom she saw as savages.
Obsessed, she blogged about the president nearly every day. At one point, she wrote on her blog: "One thing is for sure: Hussein [Obama] is a Muhammadan. He's not insane . . . he wants jihad to win. That's what he is doing. Of course, to the Western mind, the rational mind, the logical mind, the American mind, that is insane."
It made juicy reading. More people subscribed. Then her popularity got another boost when a massive, right-wing grassroots movement called the Tea Party started making national news.
It started as a modest group of people who wanted to cut the deficit, balance the budget, and lower taxes. But it was sexy, and it exploded. The left reported more on the uglier fringe groups, like the birthers. Later, America would hear about the Southern evangelicals, the voter IDers, the anti-immigrationers. The Tea Party grew into a sort-of big-tent party. Geller was one of the first converts.
"It was just organic. People got up and said: 'No. No way.' And it didn't have a leadership," Geller says. "I kinda liked that about the Tea Party. Because weak people need a strong leader. Strong people don't need a strong leader."
Geller got gigs blogging for other sites. Fox News loved her. Halfway through Obama's presidency, her blog was fielding 200,000 unique visitors a month. And then plans for the Cordoba House, an Islamic community center since renamed Park51, were announced. Geller seized her opportunity.
"I thought it was deeply humiliating, wildly offensive. I didn't say they couldn't build it," she says. "I appealed to them not to build it."
Top Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, and Sarah Palin spoke out against the community center, which also had a mosque. Geller teamed with Spencer and other Southern Poverty Law Center–certified hate groups to denounce the $100 million project. She went as far as to say the "Ground Zero Mega-Mosque"—as she liked to call it—was a "victory mosque."