As a smattering of true believers gathered in Michigan to dunk on Joe Biden, a mini Trump rally revealed the odd, unpredictable tensions in modern Republican politics.
ORTONVILLE, Mich. — Compared to conservative catchphrases of the past few years, such as “Build the wall” or “Lock her up” — or the left’s tried-and-true “F— Donald Trump” — “Let’s Go Brandon” is downright clever.
If you’ve somehow missed out on the phenomenon: The phrase was borrowed from a NASCAR reporter’s improvisational suggestion that a crowd chanting “F— Joe Biden” was instead celebrating the first career win for the young driver Brandon Brown. As a slogan, “Let’s go Brandon!” has a schoolboy-esque, getting-away-with-it wryness that just barely cloaks its profane takedown of the sitting president. Over the past month and a half, it’s become a go-to conservative code word/slogan/rallying cry, appearing everywhere from (allegedly) a Southwest Airlines flight to the otherwise squeaky-clean environs of a Brigham Young University football game.
And on Saturday, for the top right-wing activist group in the key swing state of Michigan, it became a recruiting opportunity.
The Michigan Conservative Coalition, founded by Republican state Rep. Matt Maddock and his wife, state GOP co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, hosted its first-ever “Let’s Go Brandon Fall Festival” that afternoon. The purpose: To celebrate a “phrase [that] has become a popular way to politely communicate that Americans are fed up with Washington, D.C.,” per the group’s president. The place — where else — Brandon Township, Mich.
In the press release for the event, the MCC promised live entertainment, “Let’s Go Brandon merchandise,” and an appearance from “former Indy driver Ricky Bobby” (real name Rick Treadway, an IndyCar driver who is not affiliated in any way with the film “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and has not raced competitively in nearly two decades). It also featured a parade of speakers and activists peddling the rankest, bottom-of-the-iceberg conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, and collecting petitions for ballot initiatives to tighten voter ID laws and restrict the state’s ability to enforce public health measures.
Which is all typical conservative fare for 2021 — a year in which even with the Republican Party’s ostensible leader absent from the White House and Twitter, it’s largely just as beholden to the ferocious, unfiltered energy of former President Donald Trump’s base.
But that’s not exactly who showed up for Saturday’s festivities. I spoke to roughly 10 of the more than 100 attendees there on a bitingly cold, snowy November afternoon, and I was struck by how mild most of them were. Their politics, in person, sounded nothing like the conspiracy and vitriol that poured from the stage, and which ostensibly brought them to Brandon that day.
Even so, something about what the MCC was serving up this Saturday obviously drew them out despite the bitter weather —and as nearly everyone else in the area was surely glued to a clash between the top-25-ranked Michigan State football team and their hated rivals at Ohio State.
So what was it? And for those who were persuaded to show up, what do Michigan’s conservatives intend to do with them once they get them in the door?
The event’s relative mildness, at least compared to an official Trump rally, wasn’t exactly surprising to me. I grew up about 10 miles from Crossman Park, the charming community park in the incorporated village of Ortonville where the event was held. And although I haven’t lived in this part of Michigan full-time for more than a decade, these are still “my people,” with, or at least nearby, whom I grew up — casserole-making, camo-wearing Midwesterners who gather each weekend to cheer on the Detroit Lions over a Labatt Blue despite their eternally losing ways. They’re not inclined to let politics order their daily life, and certainly not their lifestyles or personal aspirations.
So more than anything else, it was jarring to drive north through the area’s back roads and pass a procession of nostalgic landmarks — the bar where a girlfriend and I once quasi-ironically drank margaritas on the patio on a similarly cold autumn day; the excavation sites and their towering commercial dirt mounds where my younger brother and his friends would sneak in to drink beers and roughhouse; the gas station where I would stop, bleary-eyed, for a coffee during my morning commute to an equally bleary call center — and less surprising to observe its Trumpian turn.
That was represented in the newer features of the landscape: a massive “Q” flag flying from a stone gate on Fish Lake Road, a triple-decker of Old Glory, a USMC flag, and a “God, Guns, and Trump” flag in front of a McMansion that was set back across 50 yards of unseasonably green turf. This is a conservative area: Despite the wealthy, well-educated Oakland County’s sharp swing toward Democrats in recent years, its rural-adjacent and exurban areas remain deep red. (My own hometown of Grand Blanc, just over the border in Genesee County, is cosmopolitan relative to its surroundings; most of its precincts went narrowly for President Joe Biden.)
The people I spoke with at Crossman Park came from all across the state: the well-off Detroit suburb Farmington Hills, the western Michigan college town Kalamazoo, or, for many of them, from just down the street. For almost all of them, the social aspect of the event seemed to supersede its immediate political relevance.
A somewhat haunted-looking, older man from Farmington Hills — who came to the event by himself — described how every Tuesday, at 7 Mile and Farmington Road in nearby Livonia, he and a group of friends assemble, to wave flags and show their support for the former president. But… mostly to hang out and drink.
“There’s probably about 25 or 30 of us, and then we go to the bar across the street after and it’s really fun,” he said. “When the people drive by, I can’t believe how many people honk their horn and stuff.”
Two middle-aged men, one from the nearby suburb Lake Orion and one Brandon native, huddled under a massive “thin blue line” flag on a preposterously tall flagpole. I approached them because the latter, who identified himself only as “Sean,” was wearing a cap with a message I couldn’t help but strike up a conversation about: “Everything woke turns to shit.”
Sean described his concern over the issue as stemming from “the newscast, seeing what was happening, and a lack of trust for the current administration.” But when it came to his own kids’ schools, he was considerably more sanguine.
“My son goes here, to Brandon [public schools]. I’m really happy with Brandon schools, I couldn’t be happier. … I graduated from Brandon High School; I don’t think it’s happening here in Brandon,” he said. “But I’m still concerned with all the other communities where it is happening.”
His kids were alright. But how could you pass up the opportunity to gather with like-minded individuals, and transmit your Brandon-ness into the ether for all those fighting the good fight in less comfortable environs?
Despite proclaiming my status as a hometown boy, or close enough to one, it wasn’t easy to get the event’s wary attendees to warm up to the rare national political reporter coming through the area. (It didn’t help that, realizing I had worn my normally tweedy attire, I attempted to ingratiate myself by slapping on a Detroit Tigers cap that happened to be in the back seat of my car — which only had the effect of making me look like a sort of millennial-hipster Michael Moore.) So I was especially grateful when an intense-looking man who I had noticed observing me earlier complimented my sneakers as he walked by with his wife. He introduced himself to me as Mike Steger, a self-described “activist” and one-time Democratic House candidate who had moved to Kalamazoo just six weeks prior from California.
I soon learned that in addition to being a welcome conversational oasis of familiarity, theseurbane, vaguely hip-seeming younger people were rare birds in the political world: honest-to-god LaRouche-ites
“The first [Trump] rally we went to was in Phoenix, and what was most striking was the type of people who were there, and the sacrifice these people were making. They had this sense of something deeper, and they had a lot of conservative style and a sort of nihilistic tendency, but the stuff that’s underneath it was really substantial,” Steger said. “There’s not a lot of ideology there, it’s a lot of single-issue stuff, or if it’s not, they’re actually concerned about: What are their grandchildren going to have for their way of life?”
As unexpected as it was, encountering a pair of LaRouche-ites in the wild there felt appropriate. Steger and I discussed how Trump had scrambled traditional politics, coding what was once the left’s anti-imperialism as “conservative,” and state control over medical decisions as “liberal.” The “Let’s Go Brandon” Fest attendees weren’t there out of an undying commitment to the Reagan Revolution, or their desire for a Vermuele-ian diktat of the “common good.” They picked their motivating causes a la carte: some wielded signs protesting critical race theory, some Covid lockdowns, some sheer cultural animus toward Democrats. They showed up because this was where their people were.
That made it jarring to consider that the actual purpose of the event was, in reality, as rigidly partisan as possible: to ensure that Republicans might never again lose a competitive election.
The Maddocks, who founded the MCC, led groups from Michigan to Washington on Jan. 6, as did current MCC President Rosanne Ponkowski, the vice chair of the Oakland County Republican Party. Former State Sen. Patrick Colbeck bragged onstage about his ban from PayPal, and playing a role in getting Lou Dobbs’ Fox News show cancelled for his aggressive peddling of 2020 election conspiracies. The apocalyptic rhetoric was all the more odd coming from a politician with his particular brand of awkward-dad anti-charm.
“I’ve been working for over the last year investigating what happened in the 2020 election, and all the evidence points to the fact that Brandon should not be occupying [the White House],” Colbeck said to cheers and whoops. “Our legislators should be doing a full forensic audit. … I’m tired of people putting on a good show during campaign season, and then not doing what they said they would do after they get into office. We can’t afford that anymore. Too much is at stake.”
Colbeck encouraged attendees to learn more about his “Election Integrity Force,” which has conducted a tireless effort to overturn Trump’s loss in Michigan and earned legal threats from Dominion Voting Systems in doing so.
People seemed excited, but not enough to deter them from eagerly patronizing the hot dog stands, or the makeshift bazaar selling “F— Joe Biden” hoodies. As the weather deteriorated, with light snow turning to sleet and then to a chilling rain, the crowd slowly diminished after Colbeck’s pep talk, especially as an eccentric radio host held forth interminably about conspiracies covering everything from the Kennedys to something inscrutable about the IRS and Quonset huts in Alaska. (Easily the warmest reception of the afternoon was for “Ricky Bobby” — who, red-faced and giggly, mostly just expressed his dismay at leaving the sunny confines of Daytona Beach for mid-Michigan in November.)
With still an hour to go in the festival, the crowd dwindled, and the main park area was populated by only a handful of true believers, including two men in Proud Boys regalia presumably asserting their manliness by toughing out the inclement weather. I approached a mother and her teenage son who, like me, seemed to be lingering at the event’s fringes, surveying the crowd for an in.
“I just kind of wandered over here from down the street,” said the mother, who pulled the fur-lined hood of her coat to her face against the cold. Both requested anonymity to speak to a reporter. “I’m not really political, but you know, this is a conservative area, so I’m not surprised. … I didn’t vote for Biden, but honestly, I feel like this is kind of embarrassing.”
Against the backdrop of an ambulance that was emblazoned with the slogan “Trump Save the USA,” I could see where she was coming from. Her son described himself as a Trump supporter, but he seemed somewhat abashed by the festival’s “f— your feelings” espirit, even as he earnestly registered with me his concerns about mail-in ballots in the 2020 election.
With a few noisy outliers — like a shaggy, wild-eyed man carrying a Gadsden flag, who punctuated Colbeck’s remarks with shouts of “they should be in prison” — the overall atmosphere was more like a family cookout, or a local radio festival than the noxiousness of an official Trump event. It’s difficult to imagine anyone like that teenage boy, or the Farmington Hills retiree, or the hometown-proud, anti-woke dad whom I spoke to, storming the Capitol, or the local vote-tallying center. But that’s the nature of a mob: You gather the basically sympathetic, but otherwise not prone to action, and incite them toward the aims of the activist few.
The vast majority of the “Let’s Go Brandon” Fest attendees were there because they were sympathetic to its central, humorous cultural conceit, or because they were fired up about a pet issue. Its organizers pitched the event because they thought it could help them grow their petition, or their mailing list. Even in the Tea Party era, that might have been aimed toward, for example, enforcing Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, or pursuing the quixotic effort to uncover former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Today, the goal is to elect Republicans at every level who appear overtly hostile to democracy.
“I don’t think people are angry,” said Steger, the LaRouche-ite-turned-Trumpian. “They just want to see politicians who will actually do something.”
A binary political system demands that Americans sort themselves into one of two tribes, and their choice is based mostly on cultural affinity. I happen to know this community very well, and despite the Trump-era Republican Party’s increasing extremism, the other side isn’t going to win it over anytime soon. So while cultural appeal remains static, the “something” that the leaders of each tribe aim to do changes, tilting in ever more extreme, and in the case of some Republicans, anti-democratic, directions.
It’s an unexpectedly ominous lesson from an event ostensibly based on a NASCAR-related joke slogan. But considering how even the people I spoke with who thought the event itself was a joke didn’t vote for Biden, it’s one worth considering. “Thank You, Brandon” probably isn’t going to cut it as a rebuttal.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the Brandon-ites’ assembly might offer a dark political lesson for Democrats that’s been apparent to families for years, especially in our polarized era: deep, uncomfortable grievance can still be the catalyst for a pretty strong community bond. In the spirit of the event, and to quote an early anti-PC cultural touchstone: Happy Thanksgiving, and Merry F—ing Christmas.