Editor's Note: You might know Bun B as the Texas–based rapper, professor, and activist who's one half of the legendary Houston duo UGK. He's also VICE's newest political correspondent, reporting on the ground from the campaign trail of the strangest presidential election in recent memory.
I'm finally back in the Lone Star State. As much as I enjoyed my travels in New Hampshire and South Carolina, there's nothing quite like the sublime pleasure of a Bacon & Cheese Whataburger in the comfort of my own bed. For some reason, though, I can't get quite comfortable. There's a foul smell in the air, and it ain't the cow patties. The GOP candidates have also come to town.
Thursday was the opening night of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the largest in the country and a local tradition. Throughout the month of March, folks from all over the world descend upon NRG Park, home of the Houston Texans, to indulge in all things country. There's a huge carnival outside the stadium akin to a state fair, and inside, the daily rodeo competitions are followed by nightly concerts. Cowboys in 10-gallon hats and dusty leather chaps ride half-ton steers and badass broncos, run steel wagon races, and hogtie calfs. Cowgirls in sequined-covered tops and Daisy Duke cutoffs drink Bud Lights and take selfies. Kids dressed as mini John Waynes run around the petting zoo and ride sheep in the Mutton Bustin' contests.
The rodeo doesn't start until Tuesday, but the festivities kick off with the World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, a three-day competition where the best burners in the country bring out the beef and show their skills. It's the rodeo party of the year. There are margaritas and Miller Lites as far as the eye can see, along with an endless supply of some of the best food you'll ever taste. Live bands and DJs keep the floors packed with people showing off the newest line dances. Once the drinks kick in, though, the cowboy boots might as well be roller skates, and the dance floor turns into a country-western roller derby.
Usually, I have a front row seat for the foolishness. But the biggest clowns in town today aren't wearing overalls and paint and dodging raging bulls in NRG Stadium—they're in suits and ties, lobbing insults at each other on the campus of the University of Houston.
I head to the Republican debate straight from NRG Park, so I'm dressed like a typical Texan on Rodeo Day. On the drive into the debate, I see a group of Latino kids in the middle of an organized protest, marching off of the university campus with a police escort. Closer to the site, another group, the Students for a Democratic Society, is holding another protest; it's triple the size of the first group, with more than 100 protesters chanting and waving signs that say "Dump Trump."
I get the sentiment. While we were all waiting for the punch line, this national joke turned into a dark comedy. Donald Trump, in all likelihood, is going to win the Republican presidential nomination. America is ready to give the keys to the ship to Gilligan.
Security is tighter than knat pussy. The ghetto bird hovers above me. Police are on every damn corner, starting four blocks out. Driveways are blocked off by dump trucks. We pass through four checkpoints before we find the media filing room. Shit is no joke out here. On the way in, we see a man being put into a police car, and Secret Service loading shit out of a U-Haul van. Inside, the first thing we see is the catering, and the entire room is almost all cops. There's a coffee shop courtesy of Google (a partner in the debate) and a stand where YouTube's demonstrating its 360-degree camera.
The filing room is crazy—there are more than 200 people here, and that's just the press. That's when it hits me: This is a presidential debate. This is a much bigger deal than the rallies I've been to, which have been open to the public, and have only featured one candidate. The debate audience is mostly invite only, and each of the candidates is on stage. It's a huge fucking production. There are a dozen flat-screen TVs in here, and an LED screen the size of my Escalade. I'm impressed, but I shouldn't be. We grab the last seat in the last row and listen.
The show starts, courtesy of CNN's Bearded Wolf. Before the candidates are announced, Blitzer makes a show of introducing former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara (say what you will, but that fucker is a survivor). Then one by one, the band comes marching in.
As the debate starts, the first thing I notice is how loud the cheers are for Donald Trump. I would have thought Ted Cruz would have the crowd on his side, but I was wrong—even in his home state, the Texas senator isn't getting the same kind of support as Trump. His recent endorsement from Texas Governor Greg Abbott is a good look, but it's far from a deal closer. In addition to Trump, Cruz, and Marco Rubio, Ohio Governor John Kasich is on stage taking up space, while Ben Carson is simply staring off into it. This shit is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-fucking-S.
I'm the only one in the room responding to this shit. Photographers are taking pictures. Writers are typing. Videographers are focusing their lenses. But no one laughs. No one sighs. No one grunts. No one does shit. Maybe it's not professional for journalists to react to the candidates; it's only when Wolf says "f-ing wall," quoting the president of Mexico, that I notice a chuckle or two in the room.
On stage, Trump says the Mexican president should be ashamed of using such a filthy word on television. This is the same guy I personally heard say the word "pussy" in New Hampshire. That I'm surprised at Trump's audacity at this point is frankly naive on my part. But Trump's rhetoric falls short Thursday night, and Rubio is jumping at the opportunity, cracking wise and calling Trump out left and right. It's the lowest I've seen Rubio let his nuts hang during this whole campaign. He seems very sure of himself, and his conservative swag is off the charts. Then Rubio states that with two descendants of Cuban immigrants and one black American on stage, the Republican Party is clearly the party of diversity. I exclaim "what!" Then I quickly contain myself before "the fuck" comes out.
As candidates use certain phrases, Google analytics pop up on the flat-screens, keeping the press updated on how many times a term has been searched during the debate. The phrase "Great Wall of China," for instance, saw something like an 800 percent increase in searches Thursday. Why that's necessary information for the press to know, I have no idea. Maybe Google just wants me to include it in my piece. Different stats like that pop up from time to time, most of it seemingly useless to the reporters in this room.
Now, I know this is Texas. I know we're generally regarded as a Red State. I know that there is an audience for the Republican candidates here. But to see how loudly and willingly the people of Texas have responded to a quack job like Trump reveals just how many Texans don't have all their ducks in a row. I wanted to believe we know better. We don't. I wanted to believe we are smarter. We're not. I wanted to believe that even conservative Texans, having experience with literal and figurative bullshit, would be able to see through the bullshit spouted by this guy. They can't. I was certain that once Trump hit Christian country, he'd lose steam. He hasn't. The inevitable reality that Trump will be the GOP candidate is getting harder to deny. We've laughed too long. We thought this shit would go away by itself. Instead, it has festered in the armpits of America like a boil. And now as painful as it may be, we gotta lance that bitch.
Rubio kicks back into gear. He calls The Donald out repeatedly on his shit, and I almost find myself applauding. Blitzer is losing control of the room. Cruz and Rubio attack Trump from both sides. But the best line comes from Carson, that mumble-mouthed motherfucker, who, unable to get a word in edgewise, jokingly pleads, "Can someone attack me please?" Hilarious.
After more than two hours, the debate eventually winds down, although it's not soon enough for me. The candidates and their surrogates make their way to the spin room, shuffling down a red carpet to the stage where CNN is hosting its post-debate interviews. Most of the press is on the carpet behind the CNN cameras. The journalists position themselves for the post- debate commentary from Anderson Cooper & Co. I see reporters circle around former Texas Governor Rick Perry and try to slide in for a question. Down the line, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, another Cruz supporter, talks about how his guy had another resounding victory against Trump. According to Patrick, Ted had his best debate, and Donald had his worst. But I think it's too little too late.
Kasich works the the lines to little fanfare. I ask Carson which states he thinks he can win on Super Tuesday, and he replies that he's been getting "mail" from fans in some of the Southern states. Mail? Like in the mailbox, mail? In 2016? Bruh. We ask Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee's spin man, about Trump's dismissal of Thursday's debate audience as "the lobbyists," implying that everyone who'd jeered at his responses was some kind of shill for the insurance and oil companies. Spicer proceeds to try and count out how many tickets were given out, eventually reaching a number, but never an answer.
Eventually, I'm waiting for Trump, but so is everyone else, and there are about 100 guys who've crowded in line before me. It ain't that serious. Or isn't it? This dude is the clear favorite. He has the momentum. He has America's ear. His answers are as vague as possible, and yet people swear they are the answers. He is the man to beat, on both sides. No one claims to know how he got this far. But I do—everyone here thought he was a joke, but no one's laughing now. This shit ain't funny. This is a war. Strap up.
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