Following this weekend’s social media meltdown over the guest list of the DeploraBall —an inauguration bash celebrating the role a right-wing social media insurgency played in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — a man named Jeff Giesea finds himself in the crosshairs of a livid troll army. It’s an army he helped create.
Giesea, a Washington, DC, entrepreneur and consultant, is one of the minds behind MAGA3X, a meme-happy social media organization that describes itself on Twitter as “a citizen grassroots movement that helped elect Trump” and on its website as “Freedom’s Secret Weapon.” He is also one of the organizers of the DeploraBall, now the site of a dispute threatening to destroy the alt-right — the nascent conservative alliance of hardcore trolls, white supremacists, anti-SJWs, Trumpian nationalists, and memelords — on the eve of its greatest triumph.
“We just had a bad public breakup,” Giesea said.
In short: Last week, Giesea, a startup veteran who has worked for Peter Thiel and the Koch brothers, and his co-organizer, the conservative internet personality Mike Cernovich, decided to remove a third co-organizer, Anthime Gionet (a former BuzzFeed employee who goes by his Twitter handle, Baked Alaska, and the alias Timothy Treadstone) from the “Featured Guests” section of the DeploraBall’s fact sheet after Gionet posted several anti-Semitic tweets. Since then, prominent Twitter conservatives have been taking sides: in one corner, those who decry the alt-right’s associations with white supremacists and racists, and in the other, those who believe the DeploraBall organizers have abandoned the movement’s commitment to offensive speech and its white nationalist vanguard at the first sign of mainstream acceptance.
“Whatever #AltRight was, it’s been taken over by white supremacists and I disavow it,” wrote the pro-Trump radio host Bill Mitchell on Twitter. “I’m #AmericaFirst where we can ALL be great again.”
Meanwhile, on the white supremacist website the Daily Stormer, editor Andrew Anglin wrote, “This act of Cernovich has caused a rift within the pro-Trump alliance, which I believe is a very good thing. People are choosing sides, mainly on the Jewish issue. To a lesser extent on the racial issue.”
It looks, on Twitter at least, like the fracturing of the pro-Trump internet in real time. But can the men behind a kinder, gentler DeploraBall survive the split? And can Giesea learn to live with the meme army he helped build, now that it’s peacetime?
Among the men’s rights alumni, opportunistic culture warriors, outright white nationalists, and self-made digital media impresarios who compose the leadership of the pro-Trump internet, Jeff Giesea is unique. First, he’s not public: He hardly tweets, he doesn’t have his own video channel, and he doesn’t pick fights online. Second, while much of the pro-Trump internet lambastes out-of-touch, Ivy League–educated city dwellers, Giesea is a gay Stanford graduate who lives in Washington, DC. He is precisely what people mean when they talk about the coastal elite.
At Stanford, Giesea edited the Stanford Review, the conservative paper founded by Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who is advising the president-elect on all things Silicon Valley. After graduating in 1997, Giesea went to work for Thiel Capital Management, Thiel’s hedge fund. Over the next 15 years, he started and sold several startups; these days, he works as a coach for executives.
"Trolling, it might be said, is the social media equivalent of guerrilla warfare"
But two years ago, Giesea found himself “bored being nice to people all the time," said. "I felt like I wanted to do something more substantial and I felt like Western civilization was in a fragile place.”
Around that time, Giesea met over Twitter Chuck Johnson, the notorious troll and journalist who has been in the news recently for his close friendship with Malik Obama, the president’s Trump-loving half brother. In an article titled “It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare” published in the official journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, Giesea described “carousing” “over beers” with Johnson, while plotting how to troll ISIS.
“When I met Chuck I wondered why we weren’t weaponizing people like him,” Giesea said. “He led me on this intellectual journey.”
That journey led to Giesea to this realization:
Warfare through trolling and memes is a necessary, inexpensive, and easy way to help destroy the appeal and morale of our common enemies. … Trolling, it might be said, is the social media equivalent of guerrilla warfare, and memes are its currency of propaganda.
And in the same article, Giesea noticed that Trump supporters online were already practicing advanced meme warfare:
In the U.S. Republican Primary race, Jeb Bush recently attempted to paint Donald Trump as the "chaos candidate." But when his campaign tried spreading a #ChaosCandidate hashtag, trolls supporting Trump took it over and used it to denigrate Jeb Bush. Hashtags, one might say, are operational coordinates of memetic warfare.
Once a libertarian and always a political theory buff, Giesea found himself late last year migrating to what he calls Trump’s “civic nationalism”: nationalism based on civic pride rather than ethnicity or religion.
“I see Trumpism as the only practical and moral path to save Western civilization from itself,” Giesea said.
So he got involved. He organized a meeting for gay people at the RNC. And he helped Mike Cernovich build MAGA3X, a grassroots, digital, pro-Trump organization. Together, they set up a network of pro-Trump internet influencers, including Jack Posobiec and Gionet.
(While Giesea wouldn’t disclose how much of his own money he spent on MAGA3X, he described himself as the organization’s “behind-the-scenes business guy.”)
The MAGA3X accounts were a water cannon of memes, Breitbart stories, WikiLeaks theories, pro-Trump YouTube videos, and cartoons about #Pizzagate, and they swelled to the tens of thousands, eventually gaining public praise from Gen. Michael Flynn, the national security adviser to be. To its efforts on Twitter and Facebook, MAGA3X added a series of flash mobs, many of which were organized by Gionet. They even built a meme generator to promote the meetups. If Giesea hadn’t quite conscripted a troll army, he had certainly done his part in winning the rhetorical war on the internet.
Then two unexpected things happened: Donald Trump won the presidency, and less than two weeks later, Richard Spencer — the much-covered poster boy for the new white nationalism and coiner of the term “alt-right” — presided over Nazi salutes at a conference in Washington, DC, while raising a glass and shouting "Hail Trump!" and "Hail Victory!" ("Hail victory" translates to the German sieg heil, the Nazi greeting.)
It was the toast heard round the pro-Trump internet, and it divided people into three rough camps: Those who approved of the sentiment and the action; those who approved of the sentiment but found the action counterproductive; and those who, for various reasons, wanted nothing to do with the sentiment or the action. Spencer’s salute also focused mainstream media attention closely on his white nationalist beliefs. Media, never good at covering leaderless online movements, suddenly had an alt-right leader, and a political platform to attach the label to.
“The alt-right was this big huge umbrella term,” Giesea said. “More recently it’s taken on much more narrow connotations around white nationalism. Now it’s kind of like, pick a lane.”
The DeploraBall has very much picked a lane, and it’s not alt-right. After one venue backed out of hosting the event over contested claims of harassment, Giesea convinced the executive director of the august National Press Club, where he was once a member, to hold it. In a fact sheet, the organizers explicitly state that the event is not associated with the alt-right:
This is an event for Trump supporters from across the country, from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and walks of life. We will not tolerate any incendiary actions that are discriminatory in nature and/or designed to disrupt the event. If we had to put a label on our group, we would call them Trumpists. This is a new type of Republican and presence in town.
Richard Spencer isn’t going — Giesea called his fantasy of an ethnostate “irresponsible” and “immoral": "I don’t know how it could happen without the breakup of America or ethnic cleansing.” Neither is Sam Hyde, co-creator of the canceled Adult Swim sketch comedy show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace. And neither, of course, is Baked Alaska Some guests have consequently asked for refunds (which will be honored, according to Giesea).
Now, Cernovich and Giesea’s event has become a target of the most vocal part of the movement they helped to build. White nationalists like Anglin and Spencer have started to call them the “alt-light” — enemies of political correctness but hardly fellow race warriors. A legion of internet horribles has seized on Cernovich’s manner of speaking to taunt him. Anonymous Twitter accounts have suggested that attendees raise Nazi salutes at the event to sabotage it. A cartoon depicting Gionet stabbed in the back by a knife bearing a Star of David on the handle has spread widely. And Gionet, in a since-deleted series of tweets, lambasted the DeploraBall organizers and Giesea specifically. (Gionet declined BuzzFeed’s request to discuss the circumstances of his removal from the event.)
By excluding the more explicitly racist and controversial figures in the Trump internet from the DeploraBall in favor of people like Roger Stone and Milo Yiannopoulos — who were well-known before the rise of the alt-right — Giesea and Cernovich have in some ways recapitulated the Trump transition, which immediately dropped its promise to drain the swamp and appointed a succession of Beltway insiders and billionaires to important posts. That leaves the newly cleaved polite portion of the Trump internet with a fundamental question: What, exactly, does it stand for, if not no-holds-barred meme war?
That remains to be seen. While Giesea certainly rejects some of the outright discrimination encouraged by parts of the alt-right — “I’m gay, why would I support a movement that wants to turn me into a lampshade?” he said — he also said his perspective “isn’t totally colorblind” and doesn’t ignore demographics, specifically that America is getting less white. But it’s very possible that the contingent of pro-Trump internet supporters who are both intellectually committed to discussing the cultural, social, and electoral consequences of the shrinking size of the white majority in America and morally committed to decrying racial hatred is hardly big enough to fill out the masthead of a campus newspaper.
Over the weekend, as the conflict crescendoed on Twitter, Giesea had doubts about moving forward with the DeploraBall. “The people from Middle America who are coming here don’t deserve to be dragged into some drama where people Sieg Heil,” he said. But he decided the celebration was too important to cancel. And so, unless the National Press Club pulls out, the party will go on, a thousand Trump supporters with varying agendas, plied with booze, celebrating their new president.
“I’m concerned with enforcing behavioral standards,” Giesea said. “It’s a tough needle to thread.”
Updated to note that "Baked Alaska" is a former BuzzFeed employee.
This article has been updated to give more context about Richard Spencer's actions at the National Policy Institute conference.