I parked in a spot that said 2 hour free parking, imagining it would only take 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to exiled former mainstream outsider, Steve Bannon. I didn’t get to Steve Bannon — instead I found a kind of catatonic / non-fanatic-fanatic supporters of Steve Bannon . One such supporter, a man who drives a 2004 Chevrolet Yukon, with a 25 foot trailer and “Build The Wall” paper maché, 5 feet high letters on the back and another, a campus organizer, who asked me who Steve Bannon was when I asked him if he knew “Steve”. These would be my people on the inside of the over-hyped Build the Wall event in Detroit, Michigan.
I got my free ticket to the Build The Wall rally one week before the event. It wasn’t too difficult, I just had to give over an email address. I have a few of those (they’re free), so I gave them an alias. I drove down to Cobo Center, a downtown conference center named after a racist man named Albert Cobo, mayor of Detroit from 1950–1957. The city will soon change the name of Cobo Center to TCF Center, after the Chemical Bank who will pay $1.5 million per year for 22 years for the exclusive naming rights. Whether this is a better name, I’m not sure.
Looking for parking, I ended up at Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill, a hold over watering hole adjacent to the now closed Joe Louis Arena. Wearing a knit beanie on top of my head, I probably looked out of place to the bartenders. I noticed the older woman tending bar thinking, “we don’t normally serve your kind here”. Everyone else in the bar was wearing Detroit Red Wings jerseys, and I was immediately asked for ID. I passed the legality test by 12 years. I ordered a Labatt Blue, another, and finally another. I felt as though in order to go into the belly of the beast, I’d have to be a bit buzzed. After a dinner of popcorn and beer, I walked over to Cobo Center.
Outside of Cobo, a lone cowboy looking man stood across from 40 or so protesters. The protesters chanted the oft heard slogans of displeasure with the current President and his policies. “No Border, No Wall!” I spotted a friend, quickly chatted about the situation and how I was about to go inside Cobo Center. “Good luck” they said. I thought I’d need it.
Before going in, I walked over to the Detroit Riverfront, a beautiful walkway that overlooks the Detroit River, and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. It’s hard not to either laugh or perhaps sigh at the fact that the senior wing of the Tea Party was holding their Build The Wall rally on the Canada-US border. The Detroit-Windsor crossing is 1,656 miles away from McAllen, Texas where President Trump holds press conferences about securing the Southern border.
Inside, unbeknownst to me, a tame situation was brewing. Getting into the event wasn’t hard at all. The checkin consisted of a woman checking people’s email address. A young couple in front of me, twenty-somethings, seemed to be on a date. The woman checking ID’s let the couple in, however before they walked through the doors, she offered the man a bit of advice. “You need to give her your full support, always, especially since she’s a Mother”. It sounded more like a prayer than advice. “Of course, always” he responded. I was next in line and was hoping for a similar token of advice. I thought I needed a prayer.
I showed her my ID, she double checked it with her sheet of paper, seemingly filled with dozens of fake email addresses, and she OK’d me to the next round, before telling me about her trips to South Carolina, to rail against Lindsey Graham, whom she hates. Me too, I said. I walked passed her, and the doors behind me closed. I could hear the echo of the PA system rattle off the walls. The event hall sounded empty.
I walked in further and it was very empty. In my estimation, there were 200 people there, max, but that number could be closer to 150. On the edges there were your average right wing media guys, and your MAGA hat wearing Trump fanatics looking to get a piece of Bannon. Standing in the wings of the stage were men with earpieces and barely intimidating looks.
As I walked closer, I quickly noticed the age of the audience. It seemed old, tired, and void of energy. It felt as though the ringleader, Steve Bannon, was the only one with energy.
Bannon, on stage, was hosting a panel, where the contestants on his show were virtuously defending early Trump presidency talking points. These aren’t the talking points of now, but the talking points of the last week of the 2016 campaign. This was the “Hillary For Prison” crowd, not the “RIP John McCain” crowd. Bikers for Trump, a single Proud Boy, MAGA, they were all there, watching the scene unfold.
I quickly got bored and walked over to the proverbial elephant in the massive room, the 1999 Chevy Suburban with the 25 foot long trailer with a massive paper maché art piece on the back. The owner, Rob Cortis, from Livonia, was hyper distracted, however poised. The Bluetooth in his ear seemed to be a hive of activity; he was receiving messages from multiple people, and he was determined to organize his troops. He, within minutes of meeting, told me about how his volunteers scattered once Bannon hit the stage, making it seem like they totally betrayed him. I asked if he knew “Steve’ he said, yeah. I asked him if Steve knew about his SUV-Trailer combo. He said “well it’s here”. I was immediately owned with his logic.
I noticed an older couple, staring at me as I selfie sticked my way through the swamp of people. I could tell they were annoyed that I wasn’t paying close attention to the people on stage. They were skeptical, not of the anti-immigrant platitudes of those on stage, but me, with a selfie stick. They were whispering to one another, and then would look at me. I stared back. It seemed to work. A man in an NRA hat was taking video of me, while I filmed the Unity Bridge. Why? I don’t know. Security, I suppose. Security, or at least the feeling of security was likely a top priority for the organizers.
Rob Cortis, owner of the Unity Bridge, was still distracted. He would go from talking to me, to talking to someone on his Bluetooth, without losing eye contact with me. Are you talking to me? I asked, he pointed to his Bluetooth. One of his volunteers returned, Rob was noticeably upset. People were taking his Trump 2020 stickers, which he sells for $3 each. He also sold MAGA hats, in 3 different colors, and various Hillary For Prison shirts and paraphernalia.
The Unity Bridge is a fixture in the Detroit area, a staunchly blue region, minus a few affluent Trump enclaves. The Unity Bridge website includes a lengthy wishlist where Rob lists items he needs replaced, and even a wish for a “$15–25k Used Box type Ambulance”.
I looked back at the stage and saw that the number of people speaking about a wall doubled. It was a packed stage, and the easy joke would be about how the number of people on stage matched the crowd size. They talked about illegal immigrants sneaking over the border murdering red blooded Americans, again, a few hundred feet away from the border with Canada.
Compelling shit, if you’re into that. It’s easy to attach oneself to an imagined community, however it feels very weird when it’s so close to a relatively peaceful border such as the Detroit-Windsor border.
I walked over to the Q&A zone at side stage, where a long lineup was organized to ask the 10 or so people on stage a question about illegal immigration into America. I noticed a minor scuffle break out. I tried to pick a side quickly while filming with my phone, however, the sides weren’t clear to me. I shouted, “free speech!”
The woman, who supposedly had not followed the line protocol, was an older activist, and a mainstay at local political rallies. I’ve seen her get up at other rallies, and it almost always ends in the person on stage saying “OK, your question?”She told the people on stage they were racist. They once again ate it up, as though that’s why they were in Detroit, to be called racist. For these people, this type of verbal domination gives them energy, no matter who it comes from.
A man in line was upset with the line-cutter. “I actually have a good question! She cut!” It was hard not to think of calling him a “snowflake”, as he lost his cool about his spot in line. After, the event, I noticed this same guy with his wife, who looked frightened, talking to another couple about the specter of a new type of drug coming over the border. “A speck of this shit would kill an elephant!”
The line fiasco seemed to work itself out, and I watched a group of people comment on the state of affairs, to a Fox News style panel. Kind of a dream come true for a lot of them, I imagine. I noticed that there were very few questions, but a lot of comments. “I own a construction company and I can get you hundreds of thousands of pounds of sand, free”. The crowd went wild. Bannon, always the ringleader, told the crowd, “This is how it works!”
I quickly befriended a young suited fellow. His hair was Fox News perfect, and his tie was presidential red. He pointed to his lapel, where he had a metal pin attached, just like a real politician. He introduced himself as the Wayne State University campus leader of the Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group with connections to the Paul family.
Moments before we met, he parroted campus conservative talking points to the panel on stage- something about how on his own campus he’s become a victim of free speech and if the panel had any tips on how to combat campus wide liberalism. The people on stage ate it up. “You know what a racist is these days? A conservative winning an argument” said a voice from the stage. Rapturous applause from the audience.
There was no doubt in my mind that the people on stage were all vying for the attention of Steve Bannon and his media connections. Some of the people on stage, like Sheriff Clarke, have been exiled from the national TV spotlight, however people like Joy Vila, a singer, and former Bernie Sanders supporter known for her Grammy Awards outfits supporting Donald Trump was there to prove she has what it takes to make it in the media big leagues.
While I was listening to the superfans talk to the panel, the campus organizer guy turned to me, he said, “isn’t it possible that Trump making an announcement about a national emergency could also mean that another president could take away our guns?” I immediately thought about why he would ask me this. Was it his way of checking for ideological purity? A woman waiting in line to ask a question told us too quiet down. I told him, yes, and Trump already did it so it’s too late to turn back. He said, “I know”, sadly.
A girl probably 12 years old told the panel about her Democrat teachers at public school and how she wants to teach her friends about “what’s right”. The woman behind me, in a lake of empty seats, responded “they should lower the voting age!” I kind of agreed with her, but for most definitely different reasons. The panel once again ate up the non-question, and parroted the same virtuous answers they gave the campus organizer.
A friend of the Young Americans for Liberty guy, an older man with a big “45” button on his lapel, walked up and insisted they get some photos with the people on stage. The handler turned to me and immediately asked, “Are you media?” I could tell this was his way of checking for infiltrators. They stood in line to get a picture with Sheriff Clarke and Joy Villa in front of a professional looking red carpet style backdrop.
Leaving, there was no feeling of optimism or strength of the movement. Old people slowly got up and walked the long walk to the entrance (which is probably the same distance the protesters were from the Canadian border). Near the doorway, fifteen or so security guards were sitting on edges of tables outside of the hall, a majority of them on their phones, paying little to no attention to anyone walking by. The cops on hand to provide extra security were trading laughs with each other and were equally unconcerned with the attendees.
The Build The Wall movement, as a byproduct of the Tea Party movement, is old, but it is captive. They love hearing and sharing stories from “Angel Moms”, mothers of young people killed by illegal immigrants, two of whom were on stage. They love hearing people they recognize from TV talk shit about Mexico, and they love spending their money, especially on Go Fund Me projects raising money for a private wall. These are Tea Party long gamers and they’re 10 years and one month into their outrage, a misguided hate for the Other, and here in Detroit — they’re thousands of miles away from a perceived hostile border with Mexico, and hundreds of feet away from a relatively peaceful yet guarded border with Canada. The reality, outside, was not a talking point.
I got a tip Bannon was staying at one of a few casinos in Detroit. I pulled up to Motor City Casino, ready to watch for Bannon. I was determined to question him about the location of his rally on the Canadian-US border, and the insistence to move it to Detroit, in spite of a lackluster crowd. What more did he want now that the President created an artificial national emergency?
I got a beer, waited around. I thought about my method of approaching Bannon. Would I approach him with my selfie stick, pretending to be a crazed supporter? Would I come out as a Bernie guy who wants to see what the other side thinks? Would I say I’m with the media? After waiting another half hour, I decided it wouldn’t matter, I’d just walk up and start talking. He’s probably used to it.
I waited, and waited. One beer done, I got another, and decided to press my luck on the slots. I managed to win $2.75 while waiting, but Bannon and crew never arrived. I’m sure they arrived, but not the way I arrived. Now knowing what I saw inside the rally, I imagined they had their hired security detail leading them to the casino in black SUVs, earpieces in, entering through a back door. There’s little doubt in my mind that this is what happened, because these people are obsessed with security, and their hook is the overstatement of harm.
This was a gathering of paranoid policy wonks with a Fox News vocabulary. Everything about the Build The Wall rally in Detroit was about fear and division. I didn’t go in thinking it would be all roses and sunshine, and I don’t think that what politics should be about, but what I did see was an outward projection of fear by an aging activist base, and a misguided and overstated sense of harm that could be done to them specifically by immigrant communities. Really, it’s just anger and fear, mixed with right-wing media. For the people in attendance, it is indeed an intoxicating combo.
Driving home, passing empty lots and abandoned homes, on a shitty highway filled with massive potholes, I thought about how fair it is to point at what globalization has done to Detroit and the rest of the Midwest. However, we didn’t get here because of carfentanil, an immigrant caravan, or even Democrat teachers. This lays squarely on the concept of neo-liberalism — and confusing that with a fabricated immigration crisis is an ugly sleight of hand by Tea Party activists, a move they are more than happy to make.
Don’t believe the hype, but do believe in these activist’s ability to raise cash and show up to vote. The Build The Wall crowd’s capacity to hyper-focus on the symbols they feel are emblematic of the times is also the fuel for their election day rage. If anything, organize against this, but don’t focus on their message, but rather zone in on offering an alternative to their hate and misguided action.