The prime time programming for Republican convention hadn't started yet Monday morning in Cleveland, but the true Donald Trump fan base came out in force at Settler's Landing Park, a small green strip next to the Cuyahoga River. The crowd, composed mostly of angry white men festooned in either biker gear or T-shirts decrying Hillary Clinton, was there for the America First Unity Rally, hosted by a group called Citizens for Trump. It was a proud showing of what used to be called the "fringe" right, but is now the faction that, through Donald Trump, controls the Republican party.
But while the rally was ostensibly about rallying support for Trump, the true man of the hour was Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who runs "Infowars" and who was there to claim his victory in destroying the last remaining strips of sense and reality-based thinking within conservatism. While other speakers, such as Sen. John McCain's primary challenger Kelli Ward and talk show host Wayne Dupree drew applause and some whoops of support, it was only when Jones ascended the stage that the crowd really came alive, rushing the stage to get near their hero as he unleashed a stream of paranoid rhetoric that really only makes sense to his avid fan base.
"The establishment, George Soros and others have done everything they can to try to shut down our free speech," Jones ranted as the crowd gazed upon him rapturously. "They tried to destroy our sovereignty. They tried to attack our Second Amendment. And everything they've done has blown up in their face. They are failing and Donald Trump is surging in every major poll across the country!"
"The answer to 1984 is 1776!" Jones added triumphantly, as the crowd joined in, chanting along with what was clearly a favorite slogan from his long-running media empire of radio shows, videos, and "news" stories that paint a picture of a world where every violent event is a "false flag" and the world is run by a shadowy conspiracy of "globalists" that seem, by the number of times his name was mentioned, to answer solely to the liberal-ish philanthropist George Soros.
It's tempting to write off this rally as a fringe event that has no real bearing on what's going on in the main hall of the Republican National Convention. But the grim truth is that, as the events in the Quicken Loans Center demonstrated, so-called "mainstream" Republicans had lost out and these folks, with views shaped more by paranoid urban legends than by ideology, had won the day by getting their guy, Trump, nominated.
"Donald Trump is finally saying the things America needs," a Infowars shirt-wearing man from Morgan Hill, California who would only provide the name "Wade" to me, argued. "We've been on too long, side-stepping the issues, and trying to make everything politically correct."
When asked how long he had been a fan of Alex Jones, Wade perked up.
"Since 9/11. He was the only one speaking the truth about 9/11 and is to this day," Wade said.
When pressed about what this truth is, Wade continued by saying, "The planes sure as hell didn't bring the buildings down."
"Buildings don't fall flat and go to dust," he added, laughing ruefully at those who believe otherwise.
Jones is a long-time 9/11 truther, probably the most prominent one in the country. He is also tight with Trump, who has popped up on Infowars as an honored guest.
"Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down," Trump gushed while giving an interview to Jones in December.
Jones returned the praise, saying, "my audience, 90% of them, they support you."
That certainly seemed to be the case with the crowd of Jones fanatics that turned out to Monday's rally. The mutual admiration society between Trump and Jones is especially notable, as Jones generally sprays hate and disdain for all politicians, Democratic or Republican, who he views as "globalists" engaged in a worldwide conspiracy of villainy.
Wade had an explanation for why Jones makes an exception to this general rule for his orange-hued billionaire buddy.
"Trump's not the typical Republican," Wade said, thoughtfully. "Like Ronald Reagan, Trump's hijacked the Republican Party for the people."
"The people", of course, is a hazy phrase. The folks at the America First Unity Rally certainly thought of themselves as "the people". The rhetoric, from speaker after speaker, focused on portraying their audiences as the authentic America, one that has supposedly been marginalized by the forces of "political correctness".
But, to my eyes, this group of people, at best, represented a very thin slice of America: Almost completely white, mostly male, paranoid, and sticking to an aesthetic that is best described as "defensively masculine", with a heavy emphasis on biker gear and ill-fitting T-shirts. It was a crowd completely detached from any relationship to truth or facts — there was quite a bit of chatter about George Soros supposedly funding "agitators" to disrupt the RNC — and instead caught up, to an alarming degree, with the fact-free world according to Alex Jones.
People who fit this description aren't small in number — Infowars has a healthy audience, needless to say — but they hardly represent the whole of America. But it's not surprising that they feel vindicated, as if they were a truly representative group instead of a small and paranoid minority. After all, they just conquered a political party, and if the mood in the air was any indication, they think their candidate is about to win the presidency.