On Saturday, the probable Republican presidential candidate for 2024 visited the Austin rally for a day-long meeting joined by 6,000 to 7,000 of his most ardent followers and sympathizers. That initial phrase used to be accompanied by a summary of the future candidate’s political and policy views. However, this has not been the way of covering a Donald Trump address, and there was no new stuff yesterday. The only question was why his supporters would queue up early in the morning to have a decent seat to watch him.
The account of how Trump smashed ISIS with the assistance of a general he only named “Raisin’ Cain” was among Saturday’s jokes, which included a long explanation of the process of procurement for the replacement of Air Force One. I’ve been to a dozen or so Trump rallies, and I’ve read these stories before. When Trump mentioned how scared he was going into Iraq to see troops, a man in the crowd supposedly yelled out the comic line—”perhaps I should have been given a medal”—before Trump arrived. When the past president realized what had happened, he burst out laughing twice as hard as his neighbors.
Trump’s followers and allies were far more intriguing. The conference, which featured speakers like rock musician Ted Nugent and allies like Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, had shown a movement getting deeper into a disturbing circle of preacher scammers, as its true believers become increasingly okay with the notion of using violence to defeat political adversaries. In other words, everything is going swimmingly.
At the height of the Republican primary campaign in Texas, Trump held a rally in Conroe in late January. The joint fund-raising team of Save America, an offshoot of Trump’s past (and possibly future) campaign, held that rally, as did most of the former president’s. Despite the large banners promoting Trump’s latest novel, the event was largely civic in nature. He read a precise speech from the teleprompter backing all of the required Texas GOP candidates.
The American Freedom Tour, a for-profit traveling show that delivers presenters to MAGA supporters across the country, hosted an event Saturday in Austin rally at the city’s convention hall. The job is to sell tickets, not to support candidates or even to urge people to vote.
Trump was the main event, with comparative heavyweights like outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and lower weights like Kevin Sorbo, who featured in the 1990s shlock series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, on the main event. While the attendance of 7,000 people may not seem noteworthy in another environment, it was significant considering that each person had paid a significant sum to participate. The lowest tickets, for seats in the very back of the storage space, were from $45 to $95.
With a pass at the “VIP” or “Delegate” level, visitors may get a seat midway to the stage for $800 to $1,000, respectively. Both included an invite to breakfast with Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative filmmaker whose latest movie, 2000 Mules, argues that the 2020 vote was stolen, as well as an afterparty with Donald Trump Jr.Only the Delegate level received a “Full-Color American Freedom Tour Program,” which proved out to be a largely blank booklet in which participants were invited to jot down notes regarding the speakers’ comments. The premium seats, on the other hand, were reserved for those who purchased “Presidential” tickets, which cost around $4,000. Visitors were able to seat almost wherever, as it turned out. I strolled in without a wristband and sat in a seat that was expected to cost $3,000 but was unoccupied.
You’d think the American Freedom Tour was a conservative cause fundraiser, given the amount of money involved. Many people who purchased a ticket undoubtedly expected this to happen. However, there is no mention of how the earnings will be split on the tour site. Of course, it’s not a PAC. The funds will go to the speakers—presumably Trump and Trump Jr.—as well as the organizers of the gathering.
The American Freedom Tour‘s only declared goal is to hold more American Freedom Tours. The FAQ on its site doesn’t specify what the money is used for, but it does point out that no filming of any type is permitted inside. A brief “core principles” page emphasizes that “religion, family, economics, and liberty” are the four basic principles of American freedom, which are given a brief paragraph. “Men, especially our fathers and husbands,” it continues, “are being ridiculed and parodied in popular culture.” Proceeds will be distributed. Of course, it’s not a PAC. The funds will go to the speakers—presumably Trump and Trump Jr.—as well as the organizers of the gathering.
The American Freedom Tour’s CEO, Brian Forte, took to the stage to make a fundraiser pitch for his own organization. A large QR code emerged on the display, leading attendees to a donation page, and the older people in the room tried to explain it. Forte, a motivational speaker with thirty years of experience, was requesting money from people who had already paid to attend.
The speech continued for several moments more, with Forte never mentioning the purpose of the gifts. This type of teaching is familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered a Righteous Gemstones evangelist. When you don’t explain how “give me money and you’ll go to heaven” becomes “give me money and the country will be rescued,” it’s a more effective strategy.
Aside from solicitations, what did customers get? On Saturday, the Austin Convention Center, which is best known as the host of South by Southwest, was a hermetically walled fortress. The protest was held in a room with no windows. In the afternoon, a downtown abortion rights march circled the conference center before Trump addressed the stage. Protesters could be seen, but not heard, from the inside hallway.
Instead, the audience was exposed to Ted Nugent’s music and remarks. The Michigan-born classic rocker has been stomping through Texas for a few decades talking and doing ridiculous stuff, but then on Saturday, he surpasses himself. He began to speak after playing music for a while, primarily a substandard imitation of Jimi Hendrix’s renowned electric “Star-Spangled Banner.”
He stated that simply attending gatherings like these without taking action was not enough. “I love you, people, terribly,” he shouted to riotous cheers, “but I’d adore you even more if you simply went nuts on the heads of the Democrats, Marxists, and Communists.”
The decent men in the house had to be destroyed; the bad people beyond, in Austin and around the country, deserved to be squashed. After Trump, Nugent was the most well-received speaker of the afternoon.
An eighteen-year-old radicalized on far-right comment boards started walking into a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, and brutally murdered ten people, echoing a 2019 shooting by a white supremacist at a Walmart in El Paso that gunned down 23 people and a 2018 shooting by a white nationalist at a Pittsburgh synagogue that gunned down 11.
The “great replacement” conspiracy theory holds that malignant forces—maybe Jews, maybe Democrats—are orchestrating demographic shifts in America to suffocate the political influence of white people.
It’s an idea that has been embraced by senior Texas Republicans in various versions, most notably by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Although there is seldom a direct correlation between what politicians say and what extremists do, which is exactly why politicians must be extra cautious. “I believe they had a sad occurrence in Buffalo, just as I’m walking on the stage, tragic tragedy in Buffalo with several people being slain,” Trump said, casually mentioning the Buffalo shooting. We lost no one in Afghanistan in eighteen months.”
It sometimes seems as if we are now in the midst of a period of high political violence. While we’re nothing near the pinnacles of American history, it was conceivable to witness a rather grim image of the near future occurring in Austin on a wonderfully lovely Saturday afternoon. There was money to be made in inflaming rage and inciting violent conflicts, and there was none in deflating it.
The negative feedback loop continues to spin. It goes round and round, and no one knows where it will stop.
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