Part I: The Troll
Cleveland, Ohio! They landed from everywhere—bratwurst beer bellies from Chicago and pearled socialites from Manhattan. Leathery farmhands from Nebraska wearing camouflaged trucker hats with ‘Make America Great Again’ stitched in red letters. Eight year olds from Florida dressed in Polo’s and khaki high-waters who threaded around tanned businessmen in dad jeans and pastel golf shirts, standing with tall leathery wives who stood regal in Capri pants and wedge heels, their wrists and necks jeweled in cheap gold and turquoise bought somewhere in Tempe, Arizona. Twenty-somethings from Indianapolis and Sacramento hustled through the terminals in skirts and starter suits with impatient faces past doughy TSA agents and hard-jawed Cleveland cops with their thumbs hooked into their black pistol belts. All had flown in for the coronation of Donald J. Trump with bags bloated with the fantasies of crushing the elites of the liberal war machine—what with their death panels, safe spaces, political correctness, gun-free zones, Muslims, Hillary Clinton, and anything else deemed the death of liberty and freedom for red-meat Americans worldwide. Hot damn, y’all! This is the Republican National Convention! Deport all nonbelievers!
The convention was held in downtown Cleveland at the Quicken Loans Arena, or “The Q” as it’s known locally. Delegates and credentialed media were forced to enter an initial security checkpoint at the intersection of East 4th Street and Prospect Avenue, then head south through a maze of security before even reaching the arena. The intersection was a routine stop for roving bands of protesters, religious nuts, and tourists out to catch a glimpse of their favorite cable news broadcasters and mid-level political celebrities. North of the intersection East 4th Street narrowed into an alley lined with swanky restaurants, bars, and tourist shops that ended at Euclid Avenue. This alley served as the King’s Highway for delegates as they made their way to suites and hotel parties around downtown every night along with political reporters eavesdropping for convention gossip. It was also a thoroughfare for various fringe elements like Alex Jones, hard-right religious cabals, and every type of hard left protester who yelled incomprehensible chants and doomsday gibberish through dented megaphones, to the point that by the end of the first day I began to call it “Batshit Alley.” It was at the southern end of Batshit Alley, near the convention entrance, where I first saw Roosh.
It happened the first day, only hours after I had arrived somewhat nervous and threadbare. He stood in a large crowd of people near the entrance to the convention dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and topped ironically with a hat that read “Hillary Clinton for President.” He’s tall and lean, with a thick black beard streaked with gray. He rotated his cell phone back and forth between his face and a half-dozen women in front of him as he commented on their figures and body hair—clearly hoping to antagonize them into responding to his endless barrage of middle school vitriol for a live audience on Periscope. The women chanted “ra-pist, ra-pist, ra-pist!”
Roosh, whose full name is Daryush Valizadeh, 37, is the flag-bearer for a concept he calls “neomasculinity,” which according to his horribly sexist website Return of Kings includes such rotten tenants as “a woman’s value significantly depends on her fertility and beauty. A man’s value significantly depends on his resources, intellect, and character,” and the “elimination of traditional sex roles and the promotion of unlimited mating choice in women unleashes their promiscuity and other negative behaviors that block family formation,” and finally “socialism, feminism, cultural Marxism, and social justice warriorism [sic] aim to destroy the family unit, decrease the fertility rate, and impoverish the state through large welfare entitlements.”
In 2015 he unabashedly stated that rape should be legalized, which by his own logic would force women to become hypersensitive to their own surroundings to the point that—
“A girl will not enter an impaired state of mind where she can’t resist being dragged off to a bedroom with a man who she is unsure of—she’ll scream, yell, or kick at his attempt while bystanders are still around. If rape becomes legal, she will never be unchaperoned with a man she doesn’t want to sleep with.”
His legalization of rape as a means to prevent it is a lesson in wanton technicalities. His garbage logic suggests that if we can only make an immoral and violent act like rape legal in the eyes of the law, then rape will no longer be immoral and violent in the eyes of society. Basically, his logic is that the concept of rape will go away if we just take rape off the books and all of us—women included—tacitly agree it’s not really a thing. Yeah. . . .
It doesn’t seem as if he generated this demagogic belief in a vacuum, either. By his own admission he is the exact person who takes advantage of impaired women incapable of giving consent, stating in his 2011 e-book on picking up Icelandic women titled—DUH!—Bang Iceland:
“While walking to my place, I realized how drunk she was. In America, having sex with her would have been rape, since she legally couldn’t give her consent. It didn’t help matters that I was relatively sober, but I can’t say I cared or even hesitated. I won’t rationalize my actions, but having sex is what I do.”
This was the man the women on the street bellowed at while he recorded them for untold numbers of sympathetic viewers. Eventually they turned their backs on him. With no one to argue with for his viewers he disappeared in the heavy crowds outside The Q. I didn’t pay him a second glance.
Early the next afternoon, however, I came across him not far from where he had harangued women for his followers on Periscope.
He had a few compatriots with him. One was dressed in a brown T-shirt that read “Feminism is Cancer.” Another wore body armor under a snug white t-shirt. A man who appeared to be Roosh’s confidant wore a snappy tailored suit. Many of his acolytes were males in their twenties and thirties who look like they’ve heard “no” and “let’s just be friends, okay” one too many times and have found someone who could channel all that unrequited desire and sexual frustration into an erratic beam of anger. With Roosh they feel legitimized, like they have a voice.
I spent most of my time in Cleveland partnered with Jared Yates Sexton, a writer and college professor hustling for Atticus Review and The New Republic as a political correspondent. The previous June, Sexton live-tweeted the blizzard of hate-filled rhetoric spewed out by the crowds at a Trump rally in Greensboro, N.C. His tweets went viral and for his troubles he received jargon-esque insults like “cuck” and “libfag,” never mind a few death threats, from various Roosh supporters and other “men’s rights activists” all across the internet. Naturally, he was weary of interacting with Roosh or other like-minded ilk. It’s one thing to be insulted by faceless shit-gollums hiding behind the thick anonymity of the internet; it’s a whole other matter to risk the same shit-gollums as they turn and face you while cracking their knuckles in an alley of potentially sympathetic supporters, or at least a crowd more than willing to turn their backs as a liberal reporter is beaten to a grease spot.
I had no such concerns, however. There were simply too many square folks and hyper-alert cops who wouldn’t tolerate the King’s Highway of the convention turning into a guttural brawl. While there are plenty who might be willing to hurl a litany of garbage insults and logical fallacies in person, only a tiny number of people are truly willing to risk their safety (along with their wallets in lawyers, fines, and court fees) for the zero-sum act of actually striking blows in a public space, and you can usually spot those monsters long before they throw a single punch. There is a wild testosterone confidence in their demeanor, a brand of violent, atavistic willpower in their eyes that I simply did not see in Roosh or any of his people. They might have been loud, but they were certainly not fighters. Not by a stretch.
A young Asian reporter with a video camera and media credentials from The Washington Post pulled Roosh and one of his compatriots into an access road around Flannery’s Pub to answer a few quick questions. We decided to stand idly by and listen in. While Sexton didn’t want to be recognized, the impulse to hear his remarks was far more overriding. The hapless interviewer began to ask Roosh and his compatriot about their political views.
Roosh began pontificating on his support for Hillary Clinton, his support for the LGBT community, and his apparent masterful abilities to see past racial and sexual divides to reach common solutions to issues that benefit all. He spoke with an air of gotchya’ irony packed with the dubious smug certitude of trolling some young media intern as she sweated her way through the chaos of what was probably her first political convention.
Finally Sexton had enough. He leaned between Roosh and his compatriot and looked squarely at the reporter. “You know you’re getting played right now, right?” he said.
“What?” she asked over the camera.
“You’re getting played right now.”
I jammed a finger at Roosh. “That guy’s a goddamn rape advocate,” I said. “Yesterday he was down the street telling women they were too ugly to be raped. He goes by Roosh. Look him up.”
Roosh and his friend turned toward us with their faces screwed into mock surprise. Their faces reminded me of Scooby-Doo villains after their masks have been yanked off. His entourage did nothing.
“You guys must be homophobes,” Roosh said loudly, trying to deflect attention with the first garbage insult that snapped into his mind. “These guys are homophobes!” But it was too late. The reporter jerked her camera lens skyward and eyed Roosh and his friend shrewdly. The corners of her mouth dropped into a thin incredulous sneer. She began to back away. Roosh had lost and he knew it. He shot a few more ineffectual barbs at us, then quickly retreated down Batshit Alley with his acolytes and once again disappeared in the sea of people near the entrance to The Q.
While walking toward an LGBT event at Cleveland State University that evening, I turned and saw Roosh and a small number of his toadies walking behind us. I tried to turn away, but it was too late. He immediately recognized Sexton and me as the two who fouled his spurious interview with The Washington Post earlier that day and trotted up to us with his compatriots lurching behind him. He wedged himself next to me and began to casually harangue me for blowing an interview that was, he claimed, meant to stick it to the mainstream media. He talked to me as if I was supposed to be simpatico to his cause, but that I had betrayed him somehow as a member of the same sex. There was nothing terribly menacing about him. I never felt terribly nervous outside of the general shock of his sudden appearance. I certainly didn’t expect to see him heading to an event catered to the LGBT community given the general back-alley homophobia of his ideology. But here he was, right next to me—a walking pile of human garbage.
“What are you, a white knight?” he asked me. A ‘white knight’ is men’s rights jargon for someone who treats women as maidens in distress and in need of protection. It’s the kind of language you might hear from a doughy college dropout snacking on Bagel Bites while decrying criminal charges levied on creepy men who drill holes in hotel walls or hack celebrity cell phones for nude photos.
I told him to fuck off, but he just kept hammering me with his cranky rhetoric, as if everything I said caused him to reboot and begin his script all over again—a common trait in hardcore identity politics and people who believe their own bullshit a little too much. Thankfully we came up to a long line of people waiting to enter the rally. Once he saw the line he muttered something about not wanting to wait like the rest of us peasants and took off with his entourage to the front. I’m not sure what he said, but security just checked his name from a list and turned him loose inside. Once Sexton and I finally made it inside we made a strong point to steer clear of Roosh and his followers.
While Roosh doesn’t appear to harness some over-arching energy over the men who’ve latched on to his misguided ideals, without his supporters he would be just another angry man screaming into a void. The hard truth is that while he may not seek to be a leader, Roosh’s rhetoric has managed to galvanize a disenfranchised mob toward a set of ideals that resonate with their unrealistic desires, which in this case a mob of males with a heavy sense of unrequited entitlement toward women and sex as a mask for their own social inadequacies. His views toward women and sex dovetail perfectly with the daydreams of hundreds of thousands of adult males who blame their failures with women and relationships on a shifting societal barometer they believe is diabolically set against them instead of their own inability to evolve. He gives them license to avoid harsh self-reflection and the ability to create an identity around a brand of thinking that fits with their wounded perception of the world.
In a certain sense this married tragically with the general impotent atmosphere of the convention-at-large. Trump and the other party speakers at the convention have become a singular voice for a broad section of fringe believers who otherwise might be shuttled back to the misogynist, xenophobic, and racist comments that grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dark back halls of 4Chan and Reddit. Everywhere I turned, with every argument I heard between a Trump supporter and with whatever liberal bystander was brave enough to identify themselves, I was confronted with the political identities of the fringe ideologies they felt best matched their basest emotions, which in many cases was abject anger brewed from the simple fear of losing their place. As I walked down Prospect Avenue, or through Public Square, or grabbed a drink at Nick’s Sports Corner, I felt this overwhelming notion that many who lurked around the convention—including many of the professional pols and pundits who were nose-deep in party business—were there to witness the official stamping of their own fringe political identities. Millions of disenfranchised Americans believe Donald J. Trump has become the beacon of their rage and feel legitimatized by his bile against Muslims, immigrants, minorities, Hillary Clinton, or whomever else draw his ire. This was never more evident than on Batshit Alley during Trump’s speech on the final night when a Trump supporter routinely tossed his right arm into the air at a forty-five degree angle toward the NBC Jumbotron and screamed “seig heil!” at the candidates doughy face. It wasn’t simply the fact he said it that was so brutal, it was that no one said a word to stop it. After witnessing that it was no surprise to me when David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate the very next day. . . .
This problem goes far beyond any reasonable differences in policy. It’s much more sinister and lonely; a toxic thread of our culture that lashes back at any change in society with an uninspired meanness that casts a massive shadow over any credible points sane conservatives may actually have with the direction of this country. Much like the same basement dwelling Roosh-fans there is a heavy strain within the electorate of the Republican Party, or at least right-wing voters who may or may not specifically identify with the party, who seem content to blame the assumed woes of America on forces seemingly beyond their control—be it liberals, government, minorities, NATO, the UN, martial law, sharia law, lizard people, et cetera—instead of recognizing their own hubris and lack of self-awareness and attempting to move forward with a clear head and a basic dose of humility. (For the record, there are people on the far left who operate much the same, but about different things. The difference is that no one takes them as seriously and they certainly don’t engage with the same level of obstructionism.)
But Trump and Roosh themselves are not the founders of their respective movements, if they can be called that. They’re only the personified products of hundreds of thousands of Americans, predominantly among white males, who treat candor as a vehicle for cruelty, and regard any subsequent backlash from regular folks as oversensitive “political correctness.” In simpler terms, they are the “I’m just sayin’” crowd. All Trump and Roosh have done, either consciously or unconsciously, is galvanized them for their own purposes, and now the rest of us are left with the grim prospect of a president who’ll head to foreign countries with one hand on the Red Button and a mouthful of “I’m just sayin’s” ready for anyone who disagrees with him.
I would not interact with Roosh again, though I would see him routinely over the rest of the convention. The last time I saw him it looked like he had finally locked up a media interview at a restaurant near Public Square. I had half a mind to torpedo it just like we had done the first one and a zap of twisted glee ran up my spine. Fuck him, I thought. Let’s burn the bastard one more time. . . .
But why? I wondered. The journalists would certainly figure it out soon enough, if they asked the right questions. As I watched him during the interview I suddenly realized how sullen he appeared—slump-shouldered, his eyes slightly cast downward, his posture diminutive and small, as if he was wearing all the endless scolding that reflects from back from society at his endless trolling. It dawned on me that whenever I saw him alone and disengaged he looked much the same, as if his default state was uncut sadness. When he stood to leave all his froth seemed to hang from his neck like a millstone for a few seconds, and I wondered if he had the intellect or just the guts to leave it all behind.
But I shook it away. No, I thought. This is his identity. Without it he has nothing. It was only after he disappeared into the chaos of the convention outside with his pack of sycophants did I realize, if only for a brief moment before my drink arrived, that he was just the mind of a tired boy trapped in the morass of his own dark ignorance, but who had become far too old and mean to truly feel sorry for.