Bun B's Wisconsin Dispatch, Part 3: When People Treat Politics Like Sports
On his last day in Wisconsin, VICE's political correspondent visits the most boring room in Waukesha County, and finds a little peace with the Sikhs of Oak Creek.
A Trump tailgate in Janesville, Wisconsin. All photos by Abazar Khayami
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 have a question that's been on my mind for the last few weeks. Since the primary in New Hampshire, I've noticed that a number of the men attending Republican campaign rallies wear athletic gear—local sports jerseys and caps, and even some jerseys with the name of a presidential candidate across the back. There aren't a ton of these guys, but they're really hard to miss. The Ted Cruz campaign even seems to be giving "Cruz Crew" jerseys out to its volunteers. So are these guys treating political campaigns like sporting events?
Let's think about it: Sports fans get up on the morning of a home game; they put their gear on, turn on sports talk radio, and listen to guys call in to talk about how great the local team is and trash talk the day's opponent. That sounds a lot like how things go at campaign rallies, except instead of sports talk radio, they're listening to Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. Otherwise, the same basic structure applies: Our guy is good; the other guy is bad. Take the charged language of AM radio, mix it with a little beer and politics, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Trump fans. All photos by Abazar Khayami
And in Wisconsin at least, most guys who show up to campaign rallies seem like they've been drinking beer for hours, and by the time they get to the event, they're already buzzed and charged up for their candidate. At the Donald Trump town hall in Janesville on Tuesday, I actually saw guys drinking beer from clear plastic cups in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express where the Donald was speaking. At the campaign rally, everyone there looks and acts like these guys—so when they see someone else wearing a homemade Trump jersey, it's understood that he's on the same side. And how do they greet one another? "Go us! Fuck them!"
Enter the opposition: The away team, or in the case of a Trump rally, the protesters—in other words, the same people that the guys drinking in the parking lot have been talking shit about all day. And these guys are pumped, they've been drinking. So what happens now? At the very least, some kind of verbal confrontation. But as with any particularly rowdy sports game, the conflict easily escalates from verbal to physical. Think about an Oakland Raiders tailgate, or a Red Sox game—that's what it's like at a Trump rally. Things get ugly real quick.
OK, back to our regularly scheduled program. It's our last full day in Wisconsin, and the candidates are taking a break before they come back and barnstorm the place before the primary on Tuesday. Without any big rallies on the schedule, we decide to roll by the Cruz campaign office in Waukesha County, a key Republican stronghold in southeast Wisconsin that all three of the remaining GOP candidates are trying to win.
For all of the fanfare surrounding Waukesha, the Cruz office itself is pretty low-key, located in an office park right off a main drag. The Republican Party of Waukesha County has an office a few doors down, and the storefront is covered in signs asking people to stand with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and a number of other local candidates who will be on the ballot April 5. The Cruz office is on the second floor, above the office for something called the Industrial Clutch Corporation, and a couple of campaign posters and yard signs let us know we're in the right place.
Inside, the office is small and cramped, packed with volunteers phone-banking for Cruz. For those of you who've never been inside a campaign field office, a phone bank room is basically just a bunch of volunteers sitting at folding tables, calling their friends, relatives, neighbors, and basically anyone else they've ever met, asking them to commit to voting for the candidate in question, and maybe volunteer, or donate $5, depending on how the call goes. It's kinda like telemarketing, but they're doing it for free.
Maybe I've watched too many West Wing reruns or episodes of House of Cards, but I expected campaign field offices to have this incredibly infectious energy and be filled with some of the county's smartest political minds debating strategy and pacing around war rooms. I don't mean that to be condescending: The people in Cruz's Waukesha office are doing hard and thankless work. But this has to be the single most boring room in the county right now. The people here must really care about Ted Cruz to trap themselves in a room and do this shit for free. That's some real moral obligation shit right there. Mary Baxa, a first-time volunteer, tells me she got her son involved, knocking on doors for Cruz, and that she's been trying to get her parents to volunteer too. That's how seriously she's taking the election.
Later in the afternoon, we make our way to Oak Creek, to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Some of you may remember this as the place where on August 5, 2012, a 40-year-old white supremacist named Wade Michael Page shot six members of Sikh faith and wounded four others, before turning the gun on himself. Nearly four years later, the Sikh community in Wisconsin continues to rebuild, but like Sikhs across the United States, they are forced to deal with racism and discrimination. According to the Sikh Coalition, the number of hate crimes against Sikhs have risen since 2012.
And because Sikhs are often confused with Muslims, they also have to contend with a growing strain of Islamophobia in American politics—a sentiment that's been stoked by recent statements from both Trump and Cruz. At a CNN town hall with Trump in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Lieutenant Brian James Murphy, the first police officer to respond to the 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, noted that 99 percent of men in the US who wear turbans are Sikh, and not Muslim, and asked how the country can protect the constitutional rights of religious minorities while still addressing Islamic radicalization. Trump's answer was so rambling and incoherent that anyone who belongs to a minority faith in the US should reasonably be terrified at the prospect of his winning presidency.
It's customary in the Sikh religion to cover one's head and take off one's shoes inside the temple, so naturally, we oblige. I meet Balhair Dulai, the temple's vice president, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more grail and peaceful human being. Dulai is calm, and he tells me about the 2012 massacre and how it helped bring the Oak Creek community—and Wisconsin—together: People who would have never even acknowledged him before the shooting now stop him to talk, he said. We're standing in the temple's library, and on the wall around us are images of the six people who were killed that day. Dulai mentions that the shooter, Wade Michael Page, didn't know anyone in the temple personally, and therefore must have simply been mentally unstable. That type of forgiveness, and faith, is incredible to me.
Dulai tells me a little bit about Sikhism, and he says that Sikhs represent peace and love. The temple, he says, has an open-door policy, and it offers free food to anyone who comes into the building—a policy that hasn't changed since the shooting. As he gives us a tour of the temple, Dulai tells me a little bit about the history of the Sikhs, specifically their legacy as warriors, and their contributions to the world wars. As he talks, it sickens me to realize that it's usually the people like Dulai—the ones who open up themselves to everyone, and who's work centers around being good to all—who get grossly taken advantage of.
Dulai leaves us with some literature on Sikhism and an offer of food and drink, and we thank him for his time and insight. I realize that, as a human being, I am better for having met this man. It takes everything in me to walk out of there with dry eyes. I can only hope his compassion for the world and his fellow man rubs off of me. Out here on the campaign beat, I could use it.
Follow Bun B on Twitter.