Inside the Insane 'America First' Rally at the Republican National Convention
A conspiracy-mongering circus to celebrate the ascension of Donald Trump.
Photo by Pete Voelker
The woman introducing Kate Koplenko said she wasn't even going to try and pronounce her last name. Instead, the deeply Southern-sounding MC turned the mic over to 16-year-old Koplenko and had her do it herself. She was onstage at Citizens for Trump's "America First" rally on the opening day of the Republican National Convention as an example of someone who came to the United States legally and had therefore made positive contributions to society.
Koplenko's contribution on this particular Monday afternoon was musical entertainment. "It's time to act / back on the track," she sang in what sounded like a t.A.T.u. song commissioned by the Kremlin. "The stakes are high / but still they deny / terrorist attacks." The name of her song was "Political Correctness," and the crowd of people wearing "Hillary For Prison" buttons, and the pro-Donald Trump bikers there to protect them, went fucking nuts for it.
Koplenko is a pale teenager with light-colored hair, barely visible acne, and a well-worn shirt advertising Roger Stone's book The Clinton's War on Women. She came to the US from Russia when she was ten on a student visa to improve her English, but is now a permanent resident living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her 40-year-old mother doesn't pay much attention to politics, but young Kate started watching the Republican primary debates in September, fell hard for Donald Trump's immigration policy, and then became the president of a pro-Donald group at Broward College. Her most recent step toward total devotion came when she begged her mom to take her to Cleveland to perform.
"I tried to stop her," the elder Koplenko told me. "But I couldn't, and now here I am."
If Koplenko's mother doesn't really care for or understand her daughter's new passion, it was definitely popular among other adults at the "America First" rally. One man from Kentucky came up to the two Russian women to ask if they were good at chess, compliment their English, and see if Koplenko's mom shared his love of Putin. She looked simultaneously bored and nervous as other people approached to give praise.
Alan O'Brien was one of those fans. He works with high-end stereo equipment and thought the acoustics of the performance could have sounded better, but that Koplenko's message was spot-on. The 54-year-old, who's from somewhere in rural Ohio, told me he has family who worked in law enforcement and felt compelled to come to the rally because he had heard that 10,000 Black Panthers would be in attendance.
"I was just getting sick of it," O'Brien said. "I've never been prejudiced in my whole life, but I'll tell you what: I can understand both sides and police brutality. I've been roughed up by the cops, but when I think back on it, I think, Well I probably deserved that. But what they're doing now is out of hand. Their lives matter just as much as ours."
He couldn't really articulate what he felt he was accomplishing by being at the rally, or what it meant that he was planning to vote in 2016 for the first time since Ronald Reagan was on the ticket. But he did say that he "lives and breathes InfoWars," and that Koplenko's song resonated with him because political correctness has gotten out of hand. "The United States was founded on saying whatever you want," he said. "If people don't like it, they can walk away."
The rally, hosted by the grassroots pro-Trump group Citizens for Trump, was not an official convention event, and took place off-site, at a park a couple of miles away from where the actual delegates and Republican Establishment were gathering to nominate Trump. The lineup was a melange of libertarian-leaning pundits and conspiracy theorists, including former Trump advisor Roger Stone and Alex Jones of InfoWars.
Media Matters predicted it would be the "freak show to the RNC circus." In the end, though, it was a pretty peaceful event in which speakers harped on variations of the same theme: Basically, they all loved Trump because, in their eyes, he wasn't afraid to stigmatize Islam or say a variety of other things that might offend people. The only hint of unrest came when comedian Eric Andre tried to provoke an incident with a camera crew in tow and got shoved by a giant angry man; otherwise, everyone there seemed to be in agreement with the speakers. But the fact that the rally went unchallenged despite going on all afternoon was also perhaps what made it so unsettling.
O'Brien, for his part, came to Cleveland just to see Jones, who took the stage in a blue blazer and wayfarer-style glasses, yelling some of his catchphrases like, "The answer to 1984 is 1776." The "America First" rally was his event, and arguably its main draw. People rushed the stage to see him. But when O'Brien heard that the provocative Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to appear later in the day, he stuck around.
As he put it, "That guy's funny."
Yiannopoulos, a bleach-blond Brit whose work frequently appears on the conservative website Breitbart, rose to prominence writing about Gamergate and now writes opinion pieces about things like political correctness, feminism, Black Lives Matter, and Islam. In a speech that questioned the existence of transphobia and the eating habits of Lena Dunham, he called out the lack of anti-Trump protestors at the "America First" rally. "The midgets of social justice haven't shown up today because they're lazy and boring," he taunted.
Although Yiannopoulos seemed vindicated by the fact that protestors didn't show their faces, his schtick in some ways depends on their existence. When he appeared at DePaul University in Chicago this May, for instance, he didn't really have to do much––his event was shut down due to the demonstrations against him. His appearance and subsequent ejection is often the whole show. So on Monday, it actually seemed like he might bomb in the absence of some kind of drama, that the self-deprecating jokes about being a "dangerous faggot," as he calls himself, might go over the heads of the old people in wheelchairs and the leather-clad dudes from the American Legion Riders.
They all loved it.
After his speech, Yiannopoulos headed to the perimeter of the park to sign autographs. A 17-year-old named Chris Walker was visibly shaking as he stood in line to get one. The recent high school grad, who said he was about to matriculate to the University of Pennsylvania, looked like he was about to cry when describing Yiannopoulos as "a very great shit-poster."
"I've been following him for a year or two maybe, and he's like a celebrity to me," Walker told me. "He talks a lot about political correctness, which destroys the ability to have an honest conversation. You don't have to advocate for something that Trump says or Milo says, but you should at least advocate for their ability to say it."
At around 4 PM, the crowd started to clear out. A man wearing Trump-branded sunglasses danced wildly to a country song, like he was at an alternate universe Bonnaroo. The police looked bored, and the streets smelled like boiling horse shit.
Video credit Lindsey Byrnes
A throng of barrel-chested men eventually escorted Yiannopoulos out of the event. He did not look up from his phone once––not even as he was crossing the street. He didn't say a word the entire way back to his hotel, although people behind him were chattering.
"I can't believe that's Milo," a bro with a Georgia twang and Oakleys whispered to his friend. "He's the only guy I would go gay for."
The two paused, looked at each other, and high-fived.
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