Even after I’d passed through the press check-in, where the list ran six or seven pages, even after I’d passed through a security check and gotten in the elevator at the Wolstein Center in downtown Cleveland, there was still a part of me that was still sure the Wake Up! party — billed as “the most fab party at the RNC” — was a hoax. The party invitation seemed absurd. Beneath a banner illustration dominated by a superhero Donald Trump, the party invitation sketched out a call for a new gay Islamophobia. (“As gay Americans, we could no longer stay silent about a barbaric ideology,” the invitation read. “p.s. It’s a known fact that gays throw the best convention parties.”)The speaker list included legendary Muslim-basher Pamela Geller, Dutch politician and preeminent European hatemonger Geert Wilders, and gay-fascist provocateur fameball Milo Yiannopoulos. Photography and artwork were to be supplied by Lucian Wintrich, the man behind Twinks4Trump.
Could this thing really be real? Someone was trolling someone, surely. Maybe it was a prank on the convention press corps, a mathematically perfect thirst-trap designed to ensnare the roving bands of reporters swarming Cleveland on the hunt for conflict, color, absurdity, anything to enliven a week of tedious newslessness.
So when the elevator door opened on the fourth floor, I half expected it to open onto an empty hallway, or a parking garage — joke’s on you, media drones! But no: The doors slid open, revealing an event ballroom adorned with Twinks 4 Trump’s portraits of slender youths in states of languorous undress, three-quarters full and buzzing in sincere anticipation of the party about to begin. The Wake Up! party, evidently, was real.
And what a reality! After an hour so of lining up for the cash bar and mingling with their fellow fabulous attendees, the assembled crowd snapped to attention as a few of the hosts took the podium. Jim Hoft said some brief and unremarkable words about Trump as a true friend of the gays, “a better friend to the LGBT community than Hillary Clinton could ever be,” and then introduced Wilders: “Geert is known worldwide because of his raw courage,” he said. “He has stood up to Islamic radicalism for over a decade…and he is a hope for western civilization.”
Wilders took the podium and proceeded to lay out the boilerplate of his continental Islamophobia — the current situation in “Eurabia,” as he termed it. “The situation in Europe today is worse than ever,” he said. “Europe as a matter of fact is collapsing, is imploding, is exploding.” He rattled off a list of recent terrorist attacks. America should learn from Europe’s mistake, Wilders said. “Get rid of your political correctness. Anywhere in the west, if you allow Islam to be planted on your soil, don’t be surprised that you will harvest Sharia law. Because Islam and Sharia law is exactly the same…. Sharia law means terror.” Wilders called for an end to immigration from “Islamic countries,” and an expulsion of “jihadists” with dual nationalities. ”
“Islam is wrong,” he said. “All Muslims are radical… We should de-Islamize our societies. Please understand. It’s a matter of our existence. The time for being politically correct is long gone. I don’t want no more mosques in the Netherlands, and I’m proud to say so.” The audience cheered and cheered and cheered.
Next to the stage was Pamela Geller, a woman who’d had dozens of speaking engagements cancelled after her Mohammed-drawing contest last year in Garland, Texas. Later, Jim Hoft reminded the crowd of this fact. “She hasn’t had a speaking engagement in over a year,” he said, “and the first ones to invite her to a speaking engagement were the Gays for Trump!”
“A jihadi walks into a gay bar,” began her cold open. “The bartender says, what’ll you have? And the jihadi says, ‘shots for everyone.’ ” Uproarious applause. Geller, glittering under the lights in a sequined rainbow shirt that read “Love will win” — continued: “The Democrats pay lip service, and talk about transgender bathrooms,” she said. “That’s not gay rights in the 21st century. Gay rights in the 21st century is the persecution, oppression, execution of gays living in Muslim countries under the Sharia.” The gay rights movement and the fight against the Muslim threat are one and the same, she said. “What greater threat is there to the gay community than Islamic law?” Geller dismissed suggestions that there even is such a thing as Islamophobia. “It doesn’t exist!” she said. “It’s a myth!”
Hard on the heels of Geller came the man of the hour, Milo Yiannopoulos. Eschewing his recent turn towards Obersturmbannführer chic in favor of a bullet-proof vest over a tank top, Yiannopoulos breezed to the podium with Trumpian self-importance. Mere hours before, he had been permanently banned from Twitter for organizing social media attacks against Leslie Jones, the only black lead in the new Ghostbusters movie.
Yiannopoulos laughed off his recent expulsion from Twitter. “For getting in a fight with a black ghostbuster!” he guffawed. (The crowd roared with laughter. “Worst movie ever!” someone called from the audience). “It could at least be getting into a fight with somebody serious, but no! It was the tertiary star of a fucking terrible feminist flop!”
“You’ve heard from Pamela Geller, who can speak with far more authority than I ever could about the risk from jihad and radical Islam, or let’s just say Islam,” Yiannopoulos said. “Politicians in this country, Democrat politicians, [are] welcoming in a religion that wants us dead. They’re welcoming in movements and belief systems that are completely incompatible with the western way of life, with modern western capitalist liberal democracies.”
Yiannopoulos was on a roll. “I still don’t see the reason why the left-wing press mollycoddles and panders to an ideology that wants me dead,” he continued. “I don’t understand why brain-dead celebrities tweet out messages of hope and love…. That’s not going to save you when someone has an AK-47 pointed at you. What’s going to save you is having your own.”
Seemingly intoxicated with the attention and his own rhetorical momentum, Yiannopoulos ended with a joke about his preference for black men: “Don’t contact me if you’re under seven inches and you know who your dad is.”
Afterward, some of us stumbled out of the conference hall, somewhat stunned and shaken. The Wake Up! party was no media prank. Or if it was, it was one of a different sort, perpetrated on the scores of reporters without whom the event would have just been a few hundred bigots talking to themselves in a half-empty carpeted ballroom.
The constituent elements of what we’d witnessed – European nativism, good old American Islamophobia, the rhetorical enlistment of gay rights in a violent nationalist agenda – were hardly without precedent. But the powerful combination of them, at the Republican National Convention, before a loud and enthusiastic audience, all dressed up as something young and sexy and fun, that felt new. It felt scary. Stepping out of the hall and into the night, one woman began sobbing inconsolably. “It was just so much hate,” she said. Someone else asked me for a reassuring hug.
Down the street, kept at bay by a phalanx of police officers, was a counter-protest. There was one banner. “Queers against racism,” it read. The protest was small, perhaps a dozen people. As dismayed observers straggled out of the event, they drifted over to the protest like survivors of some recent catastrophe, exhausted, drinking up this small reassurance and comfort in the dark.