VICE's political correspondent joins the traveling Tea Party circus for a last hurrah before South Carolina's Republican primary.
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.
It's Thursday morning in South Carolina, and there's hardly a cloud in the sky. So far the day is tolerable for this Texas boy. I'm still fat full off last night's tenderloin and fried rice, but l load up on a Charleston Nasty Biscuit at the Hominy Grill anyway before the drive to the Lowcountry to see Ted Cruz.
Then we're blazing through the South Carolina countryside, heading west on I-26 and listening to Kanye rap about how much Kanye loves Kanye, surprising no one. By the time we get to Mutt's BBQ, where Cruz is supposed to drop in today, I'm hungry again. And I'd like to believe that even Cruz and his Tea Party People can't fuck up South Carolina BBQ.
The sign out front informs us that we've missed the $8.95 buffet, but even so the parking lot is filled to capacity—even the grass is completely covered with vehicles. Obviously, Ted Cruz has some fans out here. Once again, the bumper stickers remind us where we are. Today, I see a truck with a full nine flags waving from its flatbed: four are American, four are Confederate, and then there's one I've never seen before. I see a guy wearing a Ted Cruz football jersey, identifying him as a member of the "Cruz Crew." It's clean as fuck, in design and color anyway. It's just the wrong team. I ask to talk, but he declines.
Suddenly, the senator appears. The press pit lights up—Donald Trump got in a fight with the pope this morning, and reporters want to know what Cruz has to say about who is and isn't a Christian in this race. Cruz demurs, telling them that this one's between Donald and the pope. He makes his way into the building, where his opening act, South Carolina Congressman Jeff Duncan and Utah Senator Mike Lee, are warming up the crowd, making jokes with biblical references and non-secular punchlines. I find a spot in the back and try to see past the assorted trucker hats to the makeshift stage.
After the requisite ass kissing, the Courageous Conservative steps into the arena and asks that God bless the great state of South Carolina. He thanks his warm-up act for their fidelity to the Constitution and to God. Almost everything Cruz says has to do with Christians, the Constitution, or Barack Obama, who he describes as a disaster to loud applause. He also manages to work in the fact that a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows him leading Trump by two points, a big shift for the Republican senator from Texas. The crowd once again erupts in applause.
Cruz is a little more spit-shined and polished than Trump—his policies at least follow some kind of logical train of thought. But at least in South Carolina, they're both preaching to the same choir—hell, the car parked behind us at Mutt's has a Trump bumper sticker on the back. And when you boil it down, the rhetoric is basically the same. Cruz's stump speech is about what President Ted Cruz would do on his first day in office, a list that includes rescinding every single executive order ever issued by Barack Obama; opening an investigation into Planned Parenthood; instructing the IRS and other rogue federal agencies to stop persecuting Christians; and ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal. Oh, and also moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Pretty ambitious first day, Teddy.
As Cruz winds down, we post up by the front door with the news crews and some other suckers in Cruz jerseys, hoping to catch the man on his way out. An older gentleman in gym shorts and moccasins with socks stands nearby with an 8-by-10 glossy of Cruz's face and a sharpie. A teenager dressed up like Orville Redenbacher drops his business card into a designated box on a nearby Cruz merch stand. The official tees are moving, but there's a lot of homemade gear around here as well—Cruz supporters seem to have some free time on their hands. We chat for a minute with Duncan, the South Carolina congressman who likes to pull a copy of the Constitution out of his left pocket for effect.
Suddenly, Secret Service agents instruct everyone to get off the sidewalk as the senator exits the building. I'm eighth in line outside the door, and when Cruz stops near me, I ask how he plans to stop the federal persecution of the religious right. It's No. 3 on his Day 1 to-do list, and I know that it's an issue that strikes a major nerve with the Tea Party. He lets me know he would just tell federal agencies to lay off Christians, and that the current persecution stems from Obama's abuse of executive power. I thank him for his time, and he continues down the line, working the crowd.
Watching him in action, I totally understand how this guy won an election and why his campaign is resonating so strongly with Christian conservatives. But not every Christian conservative is a Cruz hypebeast, as I suspect we'll see at the next stop: the Conservative Review Convention, a confab of right-wing infotainers and presidential candidates that's going on Thursday night in Greenville.
At this point, I'm getting used to the looks I get from white men in Ford trucks here—it's pretty standard when you're black in places white people thought you knew better than to attend. I'm supposed to already feel too unwelcome to be here. But I'm here now, and I won't leave until I'm ready.
Inside, I spot a funnel cake concession stand and grab one because that's what you do in the South. We wander past various right-wing talk radio booths and people milling around in campaign shirts, and eventually, we make our way to the spin room. Halfway through a pulled pork slider, I get word that Sean Hannity will be in shortly. I wipe the BBQ sauce off my beard and get ready. I ask him if he and Fox News will throw their support behind the winner of the GOP nomination, even if it's Donald Trump. He tells me that he and Fox News are two separate things, and he deftly avoids giving me a straight answer. I thank him anyway. Leaving, he doesn't just give me a handshake—he gives me dap. A good strong dap, too. Somebody has black friends, y'all.
As the convention begins, our host Michelle Malkin, a self-proclaimed "angry brown lady in a box," welcomes us and announces that this is a safe space for conservatives. Matt Kibbe, a libertarian-leaning operative still reeling from Rand Paul's campaign, follows with a Bernie Sanders "Just Say No" joke comparing socialism to drugs. The next speaker, Virginia Congressman Dave Brat, talks in a conservative tongue so pure I only understand every third word. Later, I see the name Limbaugh on the screen and almost go into cardiac arrest. But it's not Rush—it's his lesser-known brother, David. I breathe a sigh of relief.
And then I see him. The golden goose I've been waiting for all day. A literal Tea Partier, dressed in colonial gear and in full character. And he wants to talk to me. I am the luckiest fucking man in the world. He explains himself, and I do everything in my power to not burst out laughing in his face. Interestingly, he hates Trump with a passion, describing him as a megalomaniac. But he says he's had to hold his nose for Republican candidates through the last few elections and will do it again for Trump before he lets another godless Democrat in the White House. OK.
Later, the one Republican candidate I have yet to see in person enters the room: Finally, it's Ben Fucking Carson. I head back to the spin room stat. Marco Rubio canceled his appearance here tonight, and Cruz has already come and gone, so as far as I'm concerned, Carson is the closer. I ask why his campaign hasn't done better, given how strong his support was among Christian conservatives. He tells me that the media has ignored him, hoping that its lack of attention and general disinterest in his campaign will force him to simply quit the race. Which, he says, he has no intention of doing.
Eventually, the convention winds down, and we prepare for the three-hour drive back to Charleston. It's been a long day, and if I never hear the words forefathers or constitution again in my life, it'll be too damn soon. It's just too fucking much. Plus, I'm outta weed, so my patience for this shit is shot. Gonna find out who the SC Kush plug is. Holla.
Follow Bun B on Twitter.