Bun B's Wisconsin Dispatch, Part 1: Inside the Ongoing Disaster That Is the Trump Road Show
Bun B's latest missive from the campaign trail finds him in a Wisconsin Holiday Inn Express surrounded by some very, very angry people.
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.
We're in Wisconsin, baby. Home of cheese, and the Green Bay Packers, and, well, cheese. It's also the latest stop in the traveling political flea circus of 2016. The remaining presidential candidates have arrived in America's Dairyland, and it didn't take long for the shit to hit the fan. By the time I arrived this week, protesters had already staged a sit-in at a Holiday Inn Express in Janesville in an attempt to stop Donald Trump from holding a rally at the hotel conference center the next day. The demonstration ended with six arrests, giving us an idea of what we might expect this week. Trust me, it's never a boring day on the Trump beat. And unfortunately, that's the beat I'm on today. But it's cool. I'm after the truth, and there's no better place to find and expose it than in the presence of a liar.
The 35-degree Wisconsin air slaps my face like a mad wife, welcoming me to Milwaukee with a cold-ass breeze coming off Lake Michigan. But I'm bundled up and ready to see what Wisconsin's about. I've had shows here before, but never really ventured out. And we'll be all over the state before the week is over. First stop: Janesville.
Most of you have probably never heard of Janesville, Wisconsin. Those who have may know it as the hometown of Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, or alternatively, as the place where, in 1992, Geraldo Rivera staged a confrontation between members of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Klan demonstrators and ended up sparking a fistfight. On our way into town, we pass by the General Motors plant, which used to be the engine of Janesville's economy but is now shuttered after the collapse of the economy in 2008. We jump out the whip to look around, but a security guard immediately says we have to keep it moving.
We get word that the crowd is growing around the Holiday Inn Express, where Trump is still planning on holding his town hall Tuesday afternoon. As we pull up, I realize that's an understatement. There are tons of people here, spanning the entire spectrum of Trump sentiment. The line of supporters trying to get into the event winds around the entire parking lot. A crowd of protesters is swarming right next to them, and it's the largest I've seen at any Trump campaign event so far. And another crowd has gathered up nearby, protesting the protestors. Capacity inside is 1,000, and there's at least double that number of people outside. Sheriff's deputies, SWAT teams, and Secret Service are all on site, and for the first time, I can see snipers on the roof. Like six—on the roof of a Holiday Inn Express. It's bananas.
The anti-Trump crowd is loud and organized, congregating in a corner of the hotel parking lot with signs that say things like "Shame on White America" and "No Hate in Our State." Every five minutes or so, they break out in a "Dump Trump" chant, or some old protest song. They don't even seem to notice the line of gawking Trump fans winding around them. Eventually, one of the demonstrators gets too excitable, and is removed from the cordoned-off protest area—which doesn't surprise me. Emotions are running high. I ask the ejected protestor, Neal Fletcher, why things escalated, and Neal tells me it's because the Trump supporters couldn't define "Democratic socialist."
I track down the Trump fan in question and ask why he's supporting the unlikely Republican candidate. His name is Justin Ferguson, and his answer mostly boils down to economic issues. Trump supporters seem to think their guy is a perfect businessman, and I get the sense that a lot of the real-estate mogul's fans are living vicariously through the candidate and his lifestyle.
Eventually, the conversation turns to foreign policy, and that's where Justin loses me. He stumps himself talking about banning travel to, and immigration from, "high-risk countries"—in other words, religious persecution of Muslims. By the time he tries to redirect the discussion, the damage is done. Much like Trump, Justin's blanket statements about Islam and ISIS have left him without ground to stand on, misinformed and misguided by the guy he thinks should be president. It's time for me to move along.
Other than Justin, most of Trump's faithful are quiet as they file into the hotel's convention center. We make our way around the hotel to the media check-in at the back entrance, where reporters are milling around, taking smoke breaks while they wait for Secret Service to empty everything in their bags. But there are about 20 cops back here, so my smoke break isn't gonna work. Good thing I didn't bring it, because the K-9 is coming by, getting his sniff on. The entire scene is a madhouse, and it takes a good hour to get to the door, but eventually we get in.
The place is packed—there are no seats left for attendees or the press at this point. The opener—a former Apprentice contestant from somewhere else in the Midwest—takes the stage, talking about how much money Trump raised for veterans by skipping the Fox News debate in Iowa this year. She makes the vets in the room stand up, and then sit down until she finds the oldest one, an 87-year-old. Then she tells the audience to buckle up for the ride "because the Trump train is leaving the station!" Allow me to jump the fuck off.
A few minutes later, security gets onstage to let everyone know that the room is now at capacity, and that those still waiting in line outside will have to settle for listening to the candidate over blaring loudspeakers in the parking lot. The attendees are also reminded that if someone starts to protest inside the venue, they are to notify the nearest law enforcement officer, and not touch or harm the protestor themselves. That's funny, considering that we're at a town hall for a candidate that considered paying legal fees for a supporter charged with assault at one of his rallies.
Irony aside, though, the scene inside the Janesville Holiday Inn Express seems relatively peaceful. Plus, S.W.E.P.T.—that is, the Southern Wisconsin Emergency Preparedness Team—is in the house. They're like a volunteer SWAT team with none of the resources SWAT has at its disposal—somewhere between a Red Cross crew and neighborhood watch, I think, with whistles and neon yellow vests. I feel safer already.
As the room waits for Trump, I notice that I haven't seen any elected officials here, which seems a little strange; usually, a couple of local businessmen and politicians warm up the crowd before the main act. Besides that Apprentice lady, the only other person to get on stage was the human loudspeaker with his crowd control PSAs. Trump is late, and the crowd outside starts to dissipate slowly, until only the most ardent supporters—albeit hundreds of them—are left outside, waiting in front of the lobby doors to hear the candidate's disembodied voice come out over the speakers. Most of the protesters get bored too, though a few remain scattered among the "Make America Great Again" hats and homemade campaign swag.
Inside, as more time passes with no sign of Trump, excitement eventually turns to anxiety, anticipation to aggravation. People who came in with huge, giddy smiles are no longer laughing. Some start to ask each other whether or not Trump is even coming. The older folks in the crowd start to switch into nap mode, nodding off in their hotel ballroom chairs. The locals are getting restless, and so is the media. There's no water, no snacks, and even if there were, it's unlikely the campaign would let us out for refreshments available anywhere. We got here at noon, and it's now 5 PM. Bring this guy's ass out already.
Finally, the campaign's signature opera music starts to swell. Then Elton John comes on. Trump's Rolling Stones intro song plays twice. Cue the combover. And in walks the Orange Creamsicle himself, grabbing the mic to thunderous applause. He says he feels bad that the "over 5,000 people are outside that can't get in." The crowd in the parking lot is nowhere near that big, but accuracy doesn't concern Lyin' Don. Then he shouts out the motorcycle community, wondering aloud why the biker crowd loves him so much, considering that he's "not a motorcycle guy." But Janesville is Harley Country, so it's well received nonetheless.
And with that, the Republican frontrunner launches into his standard speech, teeing off with a couple of lines about Wisconsin's lost manufacturing jobs, the ones stolen by China, and the crowd eats it up. The message hits home here. Brushing off Scott Walker's endorsement of his rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, that morning, Trump says the Wisconsin governor gave him a plaque that the mogul never bothered to read, and that someone eventually found buried under a pile of other plaques people had given Trump.
After a little while, I walk out to the lobby to see how the fans in the overflow crowd are reacting to Trump's speech. But they kind of aren't—applause lines that get huge cheers inside the ballroom don't seem to resonate with the audience outside. Because the point of being at a Trump event is not to hear Trump speak—it's to see him, to take selfies, maybe get a handshake. Having been denied this opportunity, interest seems to have waned. Most people are standing around, talking to each other, cracking beers in front of the rent-a-cops. The protesters—the ones that stuck around—move closer. For a while, everyone's sharing the same space. But it doesn't last—a little later, after I've gone back inside, tensions apparently escalated, until Trump fans pepper-sprayed a teen girl in the face.
Back in the ballroom Trump is taking a few questions from the crowd, starting with the bikers. He gets a question about the tragically high suicide rates among US veterans. No problem—Trump's gonna fix it, he says, it's the illegal immigrants who've been robbing vets of their benefits, and everyone knows Trump will fix that problem. He gets question about unemployment, and one about Social Security spending; easy—Trump'll fix that when he takes our money back from China. When someone asks about foreign policy, Trump says he doesn't plan on telling voters his plan, because he wants to maintain his "unpredictability." Bruh. Bruh. Cut it out, dawg.
At this point, they've totally lost me: This dude says any fucking thing, and his fans, uninformed and disaffected by a political system that made them promises it couldn't keep, eat it up. They scream questions at him, not realizing that the whole thing is staged, and not some open call.
Eventually, Trump winds down, and the town hall closes with a final act: An impassioned speech from a woman named Melissa Young, who was introduced earlier as Miss Wisconsin 2005, makes an impassioned speech, getting up from the front room and informing the audience that she is suffering from a terminal illness, but that the fame she gained from Trump's pageant—and a kind note from the pageant master himself—changed her life, allowing her to set up a scholarship fund for her son. A son who, she notes several times, is Mexican-American. I'm sorry for her, and pray the whole thing isn't staged.
But it's Trump, so it's hard not to have doubts. At this point, I'm so sick of hearing the dude. For real. The rhetoric, the pandering, the blatant bullshit—it's all too much. The divisiveness is sickening, and the hate is harder and harder to take. I make my way outside catch some fresh air, and soon everyone else starts to exit the building too. Good—hat means I'm done here. Trump's campaign staff is handing out flyers, pleading with people to vote in the Wisconsin primary on April 5, informing their fellow Trumpians that the race here is closer than most anticipated. That's news to me—and it sounds so sweet.
On the way out of Janesville, we decide to stop at a local bar and check the temperature of the town. And then we spy the greatest club advertisement ever: Diamond Jim's Isabella Queen Gentlemen's Club is offering free lap dances to anyone with a ticket to the Trump event. Just as we're jumping out of the car to take the greatest selfies in Wisconsin, a car pulls up; the door flies open, and the man inside asks if I'd like a picture with a one-legged preacher. Oh man, do I. The man is Reverend Jim, the owner and operator of Diamond Jim's, and true to his word, he has one leg.
He's giving away lap dances because, in Jim's words, if Democrats are giving everything away, he might as well give something away too. He asks if I want a lap dance, and I respectfully decline. He's more than happy to have one for me, though. The dancer tells me she doesn't plan on voting because she thinks all the candidates are the same. As she does a flip in his lap, I tell Jim he's got the best view of an asshole I've seen all day—and I should know because I just saw Donald Trump in person. Boom goes the dynamite.
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