President Trump couldn't personally make it to Houston for the 3rd Democratic Debate, so he paid $7,500 for a single-engine Cessna to fly in circles over Texas Southern University campus while pulling a banner that said, "Socialism will kill Houston's economy! Vote Trump 2020!"
For four hours, it chugged around up there. You could hear it everywhere. It was the soundtrack of the night.
You can just imagine Trump's face as he had the banner-plane idea. You can hear him putting in the order. You can see his list of demands. And at the very top, "I WANT THE LOUDEST PLANE YOU CAN FIND!!!"
Was that Bret Baier in the aisle, adjusting his reading glasses and thumbing at the strap of his comically small backpack as he crossed the blue-carpeted gymnasium? He looked like the human version of Wisconsin. He was saying something but all you could hear was the plane overhead.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
Bret Baier, the stoic host of "Special Report with Bret Baier" on Fox News and the network's chief political anchor. He's underrated, if you ask me. Legacy. Old-school. He just delivers the news, which is what most people want. He talks the way anchors used to talk, with the American accent unique to news anchors even though he was born in New Jersey and raised in Georgia.
I had spent the last year-and-a-half on a series of in-depth profiles on some of the major countercultural figures of our time. People like Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, and Carol Swain. So my first impulse was to rush over to Baier and profile the guy. Nobody else would, after all. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's. But they ought to. The man has a hell of a story.
He joined Fox News a year-and-a-half after it was founded, as the southeast correspondent in Atlanta. A few years later, on a Tuesday in September, nineteen terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners and crashed into America.
When the first plane hit, Fox producers told Baier to just get in his car and drive to New York City. They needed back-up reporters for the next day. When the second plane crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m., they said, "Step on it, Baier."
He and his producer were an hour outside Atlanta when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. Still a good 8 hours away, but closer to D.C. than to New York City. So they re-routed to Arlington, Virginia, as fast as they could. Past a blur of fields full of indifferent cows. Past houses full of people who could hardly talk, people who couldn't describe what they were seeing and hearing, all the smoke and the blood and the office-supply confetti. Past towns that barely moved, gas stations with nobody in them, people sunken into a far-away stare.
Yet there was the sun, with only a few bangles of cloud every so often. America had been paralyzed but the earth kept trucking along, quiet and unbothered. It must have felt strange for Baier, to speed down empty highways — toward literal death and chaos — under a perfect sky, below cascading light and color.
Nature doesn't care if we make it out alive.
That day, Baier reported live from a Citgo station across the street from the Pentagon, rubble in heaps of flame behind him. It was like he'd fallen onto a different planet and was reporting back to home.
The next day arrived and it was so quiet everywhere. Nobody knew a damn thing. We could not believe our eyes. We all turned to reporters and anchors for answers. Most often, they blurted out whatever they could.
Something about Bret Baier gave audiences a much-needed boost. Reliable, sturdy. Like he said what had to be said and not a word extra.
Fox kept him in D.C., indefinitely. A friend helped him find an apartment. He never went back to Atlanta. Two weeks later, Fox News appointed him Pentagon correspondent, a position that saw him travel the world, including 13 trips to Afghanistan and 12 to Iraq.
Halfway through George W. Bush's second term, Baier became Fox News' White House correspondent.
Then, a year before he would earn his current position as anchor, Baier became a father. His son was born with holes in his heart — five congenital heart defects. Twelve days later, the boy underwent open-heart surgery. Baier and his wife waited in tiled rooms drenched with flowers and ESPN and drab ultraviolet light, surrounded by machines full of beeps and whirring and beeps and whirring.
Baier's son has since undergone two additional open-heart surgeries, nine angioplasties, and one stomach operation. In an interview with Parents Magazine, Baier said that his son's health problems have "given me perspective about my job, going through policy and politics in Washington, D.C., to see the bigger picture."
*Part of the reason I couldn't tell whether or not it was Baier is he's usually up on the main stage. For the 2012 election, he moderated five Republican debates, and co-anchored FNC's America's Election HQ alongside Megyn Kelly.
The 2016 election would propel him into a much larger role. He anchored three Republican debates, but this time he had to handle Donald Trump.
Baier knew Trump personally, from before the election. They'd played golf together. He described Trump as "a nice guy outside of his TV persona" and never thought Trump would actually make a run for the Presidency. Onstage, Trump was much different. And Baier had been tasked with maintaining control.
A devout Roman Catholic, he appreciates a nice glass of wine and a fine cut of steak. He likes a good joke, too. In January, 2019, Baier signed a multi-year deal with Fox News to continue "Special Report." A few weeks later, he and his family went to Montana for a ski trip. The weekend was wonderful. But they had to get back to New York because Baier was scheduled to appear on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" that Tuesday.
Imagine him, again in a car hurtling toward a fateful destination. How he squinted through the frost-pocked windshield and gripped the steering wheel. As he guided the white SUV along the two-lane road to the airport. The land looked haunted, barren, lifeless. Everywhere, the world was frozen white. Snow and ice blanketing the fields, gauze over the sky.
At some anonymous intersection, Baier pumped the brakes, but the tires hit an ice patch, and the SUV spun loose. An oncoming car slammed into the driver's side, launching the vehicle into an embankment, wedged on its side. A man named Zach stopped his pickup truck and helped the family crawl free, and the Montana Highway Patrol rushed them to the hospital.
"Don't take anything for granted," Baier tweeted later. "Every day is a blessing and family is everything. It's always good to remind yourself of that before something does it for you."
Before every debate that he moderates, Baier spends 10 minutes alone, praying.
A Freedom of Information Act request in 2011 revealed that Fox News was actually right. That the Obama Administration really did hate them. And had intentionally excluded them from a press pool two years earlier. Then laughed about it.
The documents unearthed snarky emails between various high-ranking aides in the Obama Administration. In one, the Deputy White House communications director bemoaned Baier's reporting on the bias. "I'm putting some dead fish in the [Fox News] cubby — just cause Bret Baier is a lunatic." That same day, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest bragged in an email that "we've demonstrated our willingness and ability to exclude Fox News from significant interviews."
The Trump administration pulled a similar stunt in July, 2018 by banning a CNN reporter from the press pool. Trump and Fox News had developed a beneficial relationship by then. And CNN was a lifelong competitor, a public enemy.
That night, Baier delivered an official statement, "This decision to bar a member of the press is retaliatory in nature and not indicative of an open and free press. We demand better. As a member of the White House press pool, Fox stands firmly with CNN on this issue of access."
Fox News rebuked Trump in solidarity with CNN. It was a heartening gesture between two seeming enemies. Fox News were standing up for truth, defending journalism, rejecting tyranny even though the ban would have benefitted them as a company.
Who knows how many books and dissertations and articles have been written about Fox News, usually in relation to bias, usually with a scathing tone. The conclusions differ wildly, yet each one claims certitude.
Generally, academics and journalists have taken a doomsday tone when talking about Fox News. Accusations of evil, fear-mongering, bigotry, hatred, misinformation, propaganda, racism, homophobia, and so on.
Despite these outcries, Fox News has consistently held its spot as the most-watched network in the country. Imagine how that makes its critics feel.
In an August 3, 2018 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Baier said, "the biggest problem is that the people who are most critical of Fox are usually people who have not watched Fox News."
Fox News is composed of two distinct departments. Punditry and straight news. Or "opinion news" and "descriptive news." Consistently, surveys of the public rate Fox News as both the least- and most-biased news network.
Last year, a survey found Fox News to be the second most-trusted television news brand in the country, after the BBC.
In a separate study, Democrats rated its bias score at (negative) -87, while Republicans placed it at (positive) +3. Which is like if, at a football game, one referee said "Touchdown," while the other referee said "Turnover, leading to Touchdown for the Defense." It can't be both, can it?
Public opinion may not be the best metric for understanding Fox News, especially in 2019.
Quantitative studies have offered clearer conclusions. In 2016, a content analysis used crowdsourcing and machine learning to examine over 800,000 news stories published over a year by 15 major outlets, from the New York Times to Fox News. They wanted to chart media bias.
What they discovered is that news outlets are far more similar than we believe. Much of the perceived bias is a matter of separating "opinion news" from "descriptive news." For conservatives, it's punditry. For those on the left, it's op-eds and long form investigative pieces, although the left tends to insist that they're not biased, that they are instead just more apt to tell the truth, even though research has disproven this belief.
The researchers found a much larger bias-divide in opinion news, whereas descriptive news was practically neutral. One of the researchers described Fox News' descriptive news as "guided by similar news values as more traditional, legacy media."
University of California Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote that "Fox News stands next to industry, state government, church, and the regular media as an extra pillar of political culture all its own."
Say what you want about Fox News, they play a crucial role in the so-called mainstream media. And, despite what Fox News will lead you to believe, they are definitely part of the mainstream. And they are by no means the innocent victim. And certainly not powerless. And they have all kinds of problems that I will not defend. But we'll talk about that in a later installment, the one about Kamala Harris at a gun control rally, advocating for propaganda.
After two months of political events, I suspected that different news networks have their own signifiers, like the distinct stripes and markings on various spiders.
Wall Street Journal reporters tended to carry old-timey notepads and interview any bystander they could find. Breitbart usually only sent one person, and he wandered around with his iPhone, recording every single thing. Politico, prim-suited men who could just as easily work on the stock market.
Most of the reporters dressed like that, in stagey business attire. Prim for a high school job fair. Meanwhile, the photographers, mostly men, looked like professional paintball players. The camera crews and technical staff were the only ones decked in tattoos and wearing sandals and generally not caring about the chaos all around them. On-camera talent were covered in makeup and shrink-wrapped into dresses or suits with chip-clips along the spine.
The Washington Post sent the classiest and most bored-looking people I have ever encountered. They never looked at their laptops as their fingers chopped at the keys, and you assumed they were pretending until you read their stories online. You could spot ABC because their camera crew wore faded red ABC hats. Associated Press looked like they had just come back from a battlefield assignment in Syria, and never donned the same press credentials as everyone else, preferring a tattered AP lanyard. And you always knew when someone was with the New York Times because they announced it to the entire room.
And Fox News? At democratic events, they usually hid. But not that day, in Houston, as Bret Baier walked up the aisle to a table a couple rows in front of me.
Most people arrived in the Media Filing Center several hours before the debate. Fox News got there just slightly after that, as everyone was wiggling in their seats and connecting their laptops to a shared outlet.
There were seven or so in the pack of Fox News, all grinning. They all had white to-go sacks from Chick-fil-A. And the room got quieter, so Trump's plane got louder. It was a double trolling event.
As host of the debate, ABC would be providing dinner. This information was included in the credentials email that all of us had received. So nobody else had brought food with them. No need.
Even better, I was familiar enough with that part of Houston to know that there was not a Chick-fil-A anywhere close to us. Who knew where they'd gotten that Chick-fil-A, but odds are it wasn't warm. Who knew if there was even any food in the bags.
They had brought Chick-fil-A into a building full of national media during the third Democratic Presidential debate. The 2020 election was already full of outrage about plenty of things, and one of them was Chick-fil-A. To some folks, the red chicken logo might as well have been a swastika. That very week LGBT activists had vehemently — cartoonishly — protested the opening of several Chick-fil-A's throughout North America. Chicken sandwiches had become yet another flag on the tug-of-war rope in the Culture War of our country.
To be clear, the political left was anti-Chicken and the political right was pro-Chicken. The media tended to lean anti-Chicken, and frequently wrote about anti-Chicken causes, often scolding pro-Chicken voices, or ignoring the struggles of the pro-Chicken community only to deny any opinion on Chicken at all. That was the cowardly part, of you ask me, the pretending like they weren't activists.
The Democratic candidates definitely leaned anti-Chicken. Sometimes they took it so far that it upset moderate anti-Chicken advocates. Because was it really so bad to eat Chicken? Couldn't you be anti-Chicken but also enjoy Chicken occasionally? Why did everything have to be either "all Chicken all the time unless you hate freedom" or "no chicken ever unless you support hate"?
The fight had spread everywhere. Airports, stadiums, malls, campuses. All had served as battlegrounds for the anti-Chicken versus the pro-Chicken.
The previous President was anti-Chicken. In fact, he may well have enflamed the entire movement. During his tenure, there were nationwide protests that saw pro-Chicken advocates angrily and proudly eating Chicken while anti-Chicken advocates protested outside and occasionally engaged in homosexual affection, which was being threatened by Chicken, according to them.
Every time the pro-Chicken folks bit into a Chicken sandwich, it was like they were gnawing away at the anti-Chicken people themselves. Degrading their identity. Because, for them, it was about the identity.
But the current President, unabashedly proud of his pro-Chicken stance, once served Chicken at the White House to some winning sports team, and the anti-Chicken activists saw it as proof that Chicken and hate go together. And maybe Chicken would even lead to the impeachment of the President they hate, which would mean the Vice President would become the President, but he's one of the most pro-Chicken people in America, so they'd have to impeach him, too. And the Supreme Court, it was overrun with pro-Chicken types.
This election, the Democratic front-runners competed for the bolder plan. They would end Chicken in America once and for all. They would obliterate our evil President and his Chicken Supremacy. Their stump speeches relied on harsh criticisms of pro-Chicken voters, who pretended to find the whole anti-Chicken movement amusing but were secretly enraged by it. In fact, they were certain that the anti-Chicken movement had been systematically silencing them for years, and that they had to fight for their Chicken in order to keep everything that they valued, even all the not-Chicken.
The media and the democrats and Hollywood and academia — all hated the Chicken, because they hated the pro-Chicken people. If they had their way, no more Chicken, ever again. And no more pro-Chicken deplorables. And tonight the anti-Chicken politico-culture complex would prove it, with long rants which get confirmed by glowing articles, calculated takedowns about the merits of anti-Chicken and the evils of pro-Chicken.
Yet here was Fox News, with actual Chicken. And they were smiling. Maybe in part because the police who were guarding us all tended to be pro-Chicken. And this was Texas, after all, an incredibly pro-Chicken state. But there were 49 other states and 14 territories, and all of them were fighting for or against Chicken.
Some experts even said we were on the cusp of a Civil War.
New installments to this series come out every Monday and Thursday morning. For live updates, check out my Twitter.
We've heard the catchphrase "follow the money" so often that it's nearly a joke. It gained added attention in the 1976 movie All the President's Men, which follows the story of the two journalists who uncovered Watergate. "Follow the money," their source told them, "and you'll find corruption."
Problem is, corrupters hide their bad behavior remarkably well. They are masters of disguise. But if you look closely enough, you can spot the seams splitting in their choreographed routine.
One technique that magicians use for psychological misdirection is called the false solution. The goal is to distract the audience, to make them believe that they know what's really happening. All the while, the machinations of the actual trick are happening right in front of them, because "implanting an unlikely and unfamiliar idea in the mind can prevent participants from finding a more obvious one."
Billions of dollars. Lost. Gone.
I want to tell you a story of tremendous corruption, masked cleverly, using many of the same techniques that magicians have used for centuries. Only it's not a rabbit disappearing into a hat or a coin vanishing behind an ear. It's billions of dollars. Lost. Gone.
And the people responsible are the same people who have been so monstrously worked up about Trump's impeachment. The same people screaming about Trump's malfeasance with Ukraine are actually the ones misbehaving in Ukraine.
It's essentially an elevated, highly organized form of projection. Only instead of one person lashing out at the world, it's an entire political party, right up to the top. The very top. Barack Obama. It's right there on video.
Or how about the audio recording we uncovered, with Artem Sytnyk, Director of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine, openly admitting a connection between the DNC and Ukraine?
So far, the story told by the Democrats and the media has been about Trump and Ukraine. Every so often, you hear mention of Joe Biden's dubious history with the war-torn country.
We were the first to talk about Joe Biden's connections to Ukraine back in April, with our candidate profile on Biden.
It turns out, the whole debacle was much worse than we thought. It stretched further than Uncle Joe. What we found out is that the DNC was working with the Ukrainian government.
This isn't a conspiracy theory. And we have the documents to prove it.
Read on to discover everything you need for a 30-second elevator pitch that you can give to your friend and say, "Look, here's what you need to know. Here's what's really going on."
If anyone is guilty, they should go to jail.
Last night, in Ukraine: The Democrats' Russia I revealed the elaborate misdirection taking place.
I said it last night and I'll say it again: If Trump is guilty, he should go to jail. If anyone is guilty, they should go to jail. Because this is too important to the Republic.
Watch the hands, follow the money.
Here are the documents, video, and audio that we found in our reporting. This is the hard evidence that will help you explain this unbelievable situation to other people.
- Letter from Senator Chuck Grassley to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
- All of the documents collected by John Solomon.
- National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine — signed Memorandum of Understanding.
- FEC 2016 Expenditure connected to Ali Chalupa.
- Statement of Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko to The Hill.
- Viktor Shokin Statement — Sworn statement of former Ukraine Prosecutor General.
- June 2016 State Department memos detailing contacts between George Soros' office and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
- President Obama offering assistance to the President of Ukraine.
- Email from Ali Chalupa to DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda.
- Audio of Deputy Spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders' off-camera briefing with reporters at the White House.
- Recording of Artem Sytnyk, Director of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine.
As you can see, we did a lot of research on this, and we've done our best to condense it for you. It still requires you to do your own homework, but there's a tremendous freedom to that.
You are seeking the truth.
You are bucking the mainstream media. You are rejecting them. And you are seeking truth. Because they abandoned truth a long time ago and they certainly aren't interested in recovering it now.
The tropical storm kept cooking. Hurricane Bernard. A white-haired disturbance. Inland of the Gulf of Mexico 1,100 miles, no signs of stopping. Gale force winds so loud that at least one elderly woman, on that sunny August Sunday at the Iowa State Fair, had ear plugs and a sunhat, ready for disaster.
Photo by Sean Ryan
At about 15:30 hours, I observed a migration of Make America Great Again-hats, drifting westward, slowly but steadily, toward a one Mr. Bernie Sanders.
Photo by Sean Ryan
As you can see on the map here, from the southeast, a cluster of "Capitalism is Evil" sign-bearers building mass. If these opposing fronts collided, it would be catastrophic.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Then, when it could not get worse, an isolated storm to the north began moving south, from a restaurant which happened to sell alcohol, which all parties appeared to have had enough of already, and their tribal outfits differed antagonistically, ramping up the atmospheric pressure.Then came a southeastern oscillation of ditzy stoners who had just seen Bernie Sanders on Joe Rogan's podcast and wondered, would he stay around afterward so they could get a selfie together? Followed by the goat wranglers who had just finished an exhibition.
And all of it was heading to one place. The Political Soapbox stage.
Photo by Sean Ryan
A man in a motorized scooter rolled by the fenced area for media, seemingly the most innocuous of all. No, no. He was wearing a MAGA hat and had a Trump/Pence lawn sign in his front basket. He passed a 20-something who shouted something about, "Did he like his wheelchair?" and "How much will it cost the rest of us?" but the man didn't hear because it was loud and his hearing aid was loose.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Two women held hands, scoping around for people's reactions. Nobody seemed to care.Meanwhile, the anti-Bernie factions had posted up in front of the stage as Bernie's staff was fighting through a squall of reporters and admirers from the west, and the suction energies were colliding. Millibars and millibars of barometric pressure.Sunlight cut through the clouds and the world was bright all of a sudden, too bright. The metal breath of heat, scalp-frumping heat. Viperous and hateful.
A tractor-led train nudged through the rows of Sunday fairgoers, then came to a stop. The cartoon character of a conductor yanked a cord and the train made an electronic "Toot toot!" He yanked and yanked, squinting ahead, edging into a panic. The crowd had overtaken the tractor-train like a handcart lost to quicksand. A horde of people were frenzying around. Cameras, microphones, lots of urgency, lots of shouting. The conductor could see over it all. The people looked like ants carrying an orange slice. Only it was Bernie Sanders at the middle. Everyone recognized that face, that wild white hair, those fingers pointing everywhere, that hunched-back stroll.A young woman passed behind the squall, "Aw, I can see his little head." The bald spot. To her, he was Buddha.
Photo by Sean Ryan
If you turned in any direction you'd see ruddy-faced people griping at other ruddy-faced people, contorting themselves like a mime because we're not great as a country about expressing negative emotions, especially in public.If only National Geographic had covered the event. They would sauce it up with classy references to sociology. Or they'd frame the commotion as a nuanced power struggle acted out as a performance, a dance, between the authoritarians and the revolutionaries, or the such-and-such tribe versus the so-and-so tribe. Or maybe they'd pin it on something like native aggression.
Photo by Sean Ryan
To me, it was greater than that. The air had the eerie weight that precedes a tornado. It stank like when you're near a rattlesnake. It was all energy, the entire country at war in this one locale. And everyone had something to say, wanted something to do, somewhere to go, some way to matter in the rioting disaster of a struggle that is bigger than all of us, and deeper than we know, but still within arm's reach.
All at once, every person started mumbling, in one way or another, and just as quickly people clashed with their enemies and bonded excessively with their allies.
They had no choice. It was "He is red and I am blue." Followed by rictus in the face and words that imply bashing.
Photo by Sean Ryan
And the whole time this wonderful commotion was playing out, you could turn in any direction and get a turkey leg, or fried pork chop, or a bucket of cookies. Imagine if there were concession stands during the Civil War. These are the kinds of silly habits we humans indulge in.
A woman rolled her eyes as she passed the stage, "Political soapbox, ugh."A single engine plane puttered by overhead, pulling a banner that read, "Sen. Ernst what the flood?" with the logo for LCV, League of Conservation Voters, and the hashtag "climate." They want to feel the world getting hotter? Get down here, in the bubbling muck.
Last time Sanders took this stage, a thousand people gathered. Five months later, he nearly beat Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus, which was a shady nightmare for Bernie and his unyielding supporters. I'll tell you more about it in the "Embassy Fortress" installment of this series.
Today, Sanders was lither and sharper than he had been any of the times I'd seen him yet.Rachel Stassen-Berger, politics editor for the Des Moines Register, took the stage and introduced Bernie and laid down the ground rules. No heckling, no signs, just be Iowa nice. In some ancient ritual, a group of Trump supporters in red MAGA hats and "Iowa for Trump" T-shirts sang their tribal war songs. Crows on the powerlines stared down lustfully, waiting for someone to drop a fried pickle.
Twenty feet away, at a different gathering of Trump supporters, five middle-school-aged girls shouted as they passed a woman with a "Women for Trump sign." They said, "Racist. Racist. Racist. You're a racist. You're a racist." Every single one of them looked like Billie Eilish.
Photo by Sean Ryan
The woman shrugged, said, "I'm proud to hold this sign."Her high-school-aged daughter, nearby, rolled her eyes, "I don't care what they say."
The largest contingent of Trump supporters populated a patch of land between the fried Twinkie trailer and a lemonade booth. Right then, a massive migration of Bernie supporters, signaling their poisonousness with multi-colored hair dye, was navigating toward the stage. One particular subgroup wore T-shirts with Harry Potter references. Behind them, "Keep America Great" signs jutted up from the crowd like stiff dandelions.
It was possibly the largest Soapbox crowd yet.
"Boy that's a big crowd," Bernie said as he looked out over the stage.
He had hardly made it to the stage. From the moment he stepped through the front gates, he was surrounded by people and microphones and cameras. The New York Times reported that "he spoke to almost no one." Incorrect. He spoke to anyone who approached him. As much as he could, mobbed by media and fair-goers hoisting cell phones. What was he supposed to do, have biscuits over tea?
Out in the tempest, Benny Johnson of TurningPointUSA held a travel-size whiteboard inked with the words "Where has Socialism Worked?" above numbers next to blanks. At any given time, you could look over and see various Bernie supporters vehemently scrawling "Norway" or "Sweden" or "Canada" or "China," followed by his rebuttal and dry-erase ink smears on his hand.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Ten feet away, unaware that Johnson was filming a segment about socialism, a young man in jeans and a bandana and a sports jersey of some kind, scoffed at a roving herd of Bernie supporters. "Socialism sucks," he muttered, too quietly for them to hear, but loudly enough to find satisfaction.
Besides, the small band of Bernie supporters seemed too happy to have cared anyway. They buzzed and chattered like they were pre-teens about to see their favorite band in concert for the first time. A couple of them definitely were pre-teens. But, as is usually the case at a Bernie event, there were supporters of all ages.
A man in faded jeans and a plain red T-shirt passed by the outer edges of the natural disaster. "Who's this," he asked the people around him. "Bernie? Bernie?!" Then he spat. Then he snorted. Then he spat again. Then, with a crooked smile, he shook his fist sarcastically and shouted, "Tax 'em all to death, Bernie! Tax 'em all to death."
In no time at all, Hurricane Bernard had completely riled the environment. Ten minutes earlier, the first subgroup of the Make America Great Again clan was out at the edges of the crowd on their own. But now, they were embedded in the eddying mass, so far from the outskirts. So they waved their "Keep America Great" signs and sang about the good times and argued with college students and men in Chicago Cubs hats about the importance of taxes and health care and the meaning of the soul in relation to a cheeseburger.*
Photo by Sean Ryan
Earlier, rain had passed through just long enough to make for gasping humidity. It was 82 degrees but it felt like 100. People riot in the summers. It's the heat. It makes us crotchety and bold. So the atmosphere around the stage was perfect for combat. Unbearably muggy. Everybody had a temper or some eagerness or both.
As he ascended the walkway toward the stage, Bernie was like a saint or an anti-hero, the way people wanted to see him. No spectrum, only the magnets with a north and a south. People gasped at the sight of his unkempt hair and monastic bald spot.
A twelve-year-old boy in a bright pink shirt jumped and jumped, looking for Sanders. A man in a cowboy hat stroked his gray handlebar mustache as he said, "Bernie," with a pickled reaction. "Uh oh, Bernie. Sanders."Just around the corner, if you could get through the clotted masses, was the "Cast Your Kernel" poll. Passersby placed one corn kernel in the mason jar with their favorite candidates name on it. Later, at the end of the Fair, when the votes were tallied, Republicans would win, with 51 percent of the vote.
Trump would get 97 percent of the Republican vote. The closest Democrat would be Biden, with 23 percent. Anywhere else but Iowa this would mean nothing at all. But the more you learn about the Iowa Caucus, you'll realize that corn kennels in a mason jar would actually be a better system.
By the time Bernie started his speech, there were people all the way across the wide street, a solid battlefield of faces to the deep-fried Snickers trailer. And all around the stage, every side. Easily 700 people. Maybe 1,000. Maybe more, below the Ferris wheel.
Lots of Bernie signs. Lots of sarcastic whooping. Lots of very passionate, aggressive arguments. But also lots of people who'd come to the fair for turquoise rings or leather pants or personalized keychains, and all of a sudden they had been swept into tantrum warfare.
Behind the gated media area, two couples stood side-by-side. One couple had voted for Trump in 2016, the other had voted for Hillary Clinton, reluctantly, because they were Bernie supporters, so now they were shouting along in support of Bernie.
In response, the Trump couple muttered a couple phrases about "Aren't socialist so stupid?" Then the Bernie supporters performed an imitation of Trump supporters. It was fairly graphic and involved a recreation of incest and/or bestiality. Maybe not, it was hard to tell what the couple was miming. But it stoked the Trump supporters, and all of the oblique warfare was off the table. Now, it was hand-to-hand combat.
Photo by Sean Ryan
The woman of the Trump tribe was the more dominant member. The aggression of the Bernie tribe was equally distributed between its two members. This only strengthened and infuriated the Trump woman. She called the Bernie man a "beta." In turn, he lifted his nose to the sky and muttered something about health care and would the lady kindly go to a dermatologist and get the psoriasis figured out? His female counterpart looked at him with a mixture of pride and disgust. The Trump male member pecked at a pretzel with his teeth.The two couples looked similar in age and appearance. Their clothing choices differed slightly, but not enough to signify an ideological divide of such gravity. On any other day, maybe they would have gotten along.
All the while, Sanders shouted into the microphone. His speech blared out air-raid horns 10 feet from the two battling couples. Then, the couples stopped. Laughed. Nodded to each other, distracted by a man in American-flag short-shorts and a sleeveless American-flag shirt and American-flag socks and American-flag shoes and an American-flag cowboy hat and a double-knotted fannypack and a pair of round sunglasses that belonged to a woman. He had a tattoo canvas running down both arms and along his shoulders that featured war-planes dropping giant bombs into the oceans or onto land, it was hard to tell. He was the modern Uncle Sam, hooting and stomping.
"How you gonna do it?" He shouted. "Answer me, Bernie! How you gonna do it?" his American flag shorts billowing in the parched air, signifying the power of a nation at the top of it all.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
In a pinch, he could salute himself. He could stand at attention while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played from a bullhorn and everyone in earshot would straighten their backs and remove their hats and hold their hands over their hearts and tear up. If things ever got bad, real bad, he could hoist himself to the highest mountain as bald eagles screeched "Amazing Grace." And, look, as far as I'm concerned, he's an American hero.
I consider him the eye of the storm.
New installments to this series come out every Monday and Thursday morning. For live updates, check out my Twitter.
At the junction of U.S. Route 71 and Highway 141, 80 miles west of Des Moines, a sign with a heartbreaking photo said "Fingers & Toes 10 weeks from conception." Sponsored by Pro-life across America. Just outside Bayard, a sign read "Save the babies. Life begins at conception." Any time you saw these signs, they were placed so you had to look the baby in the eyes as you waited at the stop sign. No other cars for miles. A soundtrack of animal life and unperturbed Mother Nature.
The narrow backroads were all so buckled that it felt like we were driving on a giant trampoline.
Just past Richland Cemetery on 141, another Tulsi Gabbard billboard. Other than that, it's mostly elongated plains. Neat green rows of cornstalk occasionally interrupted by a meadow full of cows or a chicken farm or a town with one stop signs and two side streets.
There were so many Tulsi signs all over Iowa, billboards, lawn signs, various-sized placards, plenty of regalia that you didn't have to buy. None of the other Democrats had that much advertising. Or any, really. You could still find Bernie bumper stickers, but that's everywhere now, isn't it?
Photo by Sean Ryan
The only other 2020 presidential candidate with a comparable showing was Donald Trump. His face and his name were everywhere, even when you couldn't see them, even when they were just below the surface of everyday life. At diners, in cornfields, on people's head accompanied by the words "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN," at gas pumps, on the sides of barns, at the top of grain silos, along listless highways that ramped into dirt like unchristened landmarks.
Photo by Sean Ryan
"Is Gabbard from Iowa?" my dad asked.
No, no, she's from Hawaii. Which is, hopefully, why she began and ended many of her appearances with "aloha." She had been elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives when she was 21, an age many people start with a tornado of a birthday. Gabbard was born in American Samoa. Starting in 2013, she served as a Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, then resigned in 2016 to endorse Bernie Sanders. If elected president, she'd be the first Hindu. And, if she were selected as Vice President by Kamala Harris, who then won the Presidency, we would have the first Hindu Vice President/President combo.
Gabbard gained some attention during the second debate one week earlier, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, when she attacked Kamala Harris' criminal justice record, a weak spot. Gabbard lunged full bore, like a Spartan fighting an ambush of Persians. If that doesn't sound lively enough, just know that, as a result, "#KamalaHarrisDestroyed" spiked on Twitter. And by the looks of it, Kamala Harris might well have been destroyed by that moment, at least for 2020.
By the end of the night, it was what most people remembered. Google searches for "Tulsi Gabbard" outperformed "Kamala Harris" in every state except South Dakota, for some reason. None other than the New York Times hailed it as newsworthy. For weeks, journalists recalled it, like bored sailors imagining monsters.
Photo by Sean Ryan
And so it was a little strange to see her at the Iowa State Fair, in her black blouse and black chinos and beige sneakers and blood-red blazer with the sleeves rolled up like they did in the 1980s. This sense of out-of-placeness arose with many of the candidates' events, if only as a flash at the beginning and the midpoint. An influx of surreality. Here she was, a presidential candidate, talking to a group of people who had wandered up holding foot-long corn dogs, asking, "Now who's this? Oh which one is she?" Or, "Less press here today. Bound to be a whole lot of them tomorrow, it being Saturday, the first Saturday and all. Ope, lemme squeeze around you and grab my pop and some mustard."
Photo by Sean Ryan
A decent semi-circle of a hundred-odd people stared ahead at Gabbard in their "TULSI" shirts and signs. They looked sweet and desperate. But outside that tightknit cluster, the fair strolled along as usual. Seniors in little motorized scooters. Teenagers desperate for hickies or rebellion. Families dressed in bright matching outfits and meeting points so they never ever got lost or divided or ignored.
Photo by Sean Ryan
A bric-a-brac of middle America. With the occasional MAGA hat and Trump 2020 poster. Because, any time we ventured outside of the Democrats' rallies and events, reminders of Trump floated by constantly. I cannot emphasize this enough. Partly because you will not hear a single solitary word of it from the so-called mainstream media.
In the 2016 election, 93 of the state's 99 counties voted Trump, the largest margin of any Republican candidate in Iowa since Ronald Reagan took 95 counties in 1980.
Iowa is not strictly conservative or liberal, despite its location at the center of the country, with so much farmland and so little commotion. In fact, that's a big part of why politicians shove themselves into jeans and schlep here. Iowans went wtih Obama both times. They even voted for Bill Clinton twice. George W. Bush in 2004, post 9/11. Reagan, both terms. Nixon. Lyndon Johnson. They chose Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Charles Hughes over Woodrow Wilson in 1912, but for the most part, Iowa has voted for the winning player. They even voted for Abraham Lincoln, twice.
Iowans tend to choose the politicians who speak to them. Someone who will become their voice. Genuine. With attention to liberty and freedom, individuality. Tradition. Or change. And principles. 77 percent of Iowans are Christian. And there's a flexibility to that conservatism. These days, Iowa has over 3,000 wind turbines, which generate 25 percent of the state's electricity. The Iowa Supreme Court has pioneered social issues. Women's rights and segregation. In 2009, Iowa became the third state to legalize same-sex marriage, a full six years before it was legal on the federal level.
Gabbard talked about separation. The dismantlement of America.
"This is so heart-breaking," she said, pausing just right, "because we love our country. I love our country. I love our people. It's why, after the terrorist attack on 9/11, I enlisted in the Army National Guard." When she said that, many passersby jerked their heads up, patriotically. Maybe they were thinking about the elderly man just outside the front gate, limp-armed as he offered mostly-uncaring people flyers about suicide prevention for veterans and soldiers. Did you know that an average of 20 veterans kill themselves each day?
Gabbard has served as a soldier for 16 years, beginning with basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Then to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio. Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She has deployed to the Middle East twice.
To which a man in the audience said, as if by accident, "Is that so?"
Then she had all the veterans and military families raise their hands, and she said, "Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. All of you."
Her voice had an oddly sonorous lull to it. There we all were at the kitchen sink and someone was cutting onions.
"The amazing thing that I felt," she said, "was that, those who I stood in that formation with, those who I served with, we all wore the same uniform, serving the same flag, focused on that mission that we have of serving our country, of keeping the American people safe. But there was no difference in that focus. That even though we came — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, conservatives, liberals, black, white, brown, different religions — we represented the diversity of this country, but we stood as one unit. With one voice. With one focus. On putting service above self, and putting country before self. This speaks to who we are, as Americans. This speaks to what unites us, as a country."
She said it so smoothly that people just listened. No clapping, no jeering. Maybe because the point of the speech was commonality, overcoming division, outfoxing dividers.
Photo by Sean Ryan
"And I think it's especially important for us to remember that now, as those who are in power seek to tear us apart for their own selfish gain, it is only when we the people stand up around this unifying principle of freedom, of justice, of opportunity, remembering those freedoms and inalienable rights that are enshrined in our Constitution, for every single one of us, those rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, when we come around these unifying principles, with love for our country and love for each other, there is no obstacle we cannot overcome, and it is only when we do that that we can begin to solve the great challenges of our day. And there are many. But we are starting on that common foundation. Coming together. Overcoming those partisan differences. Those ideological differences. And having conversations with each other based on respect, understanding that, when we care for each other, we'll find that we have far more in common than maybe we realized before."
Because it was 2:15 on a Friday at the fairgrounds, and, at 10:00 that morning, like every morning at the Iowa State Fair, the National Anthem blared from the dopey speakers around the SoapBox stage, outside the administration building. Or that, elsewhere at the fair, at that exact moment, there was a "Get Hooked on Fishing - Fish Local." Also, an "animal 'I Spy' activity" and something called "Oh My! It's Pie!"
Photo by Sean Ryan
Because the fair is American in a way unique to the country's middle parts. You won't find an "old-fashion hymn singing" class or a "milking demonstration" or a "thank a farmer magic show" in New York City or Los Angeles. Not unironically. Then, at noon and 6:00pm, Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the Maytag Family Theater. Because these days, ours is a country that is — everywhere, secretly — hurting.
Right as Gabbard started talking about the legalization of marijuana, a bald chap wandered by the crowd in a pizza restaurant's t-shirt that said "legalize marinara." Behind him, a group of seniors with overlarge yellow shirts bearing the sequined words "State Fair junky." One of them had "Granny" on the back as she scoured for where her friends went, then clapping and smiling when they reunited by a trashcan.
New installments to this series will come out every Monday and Thursday morning. For live updates, check out this page.