On Saturday, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee came to Austin to speak at a day-long conference attended by some six or seven thousand of his most passionate fans and supporters. In Ye Olden Days, that first sentence would be followed by a description of the future candidate’s remarks on politics and policy. But this has never been the way to cover a Donald Trump speech, and yesterday there wasn’t any new material. The only mystery was why his fans would wait for so long to see him, lining up before dawn to secure good seats.
Saturday’s riffs included an extended description of the contracting process for the replacement of Air Force One, and the story of how Trump crushed ISIS with the help of a general he identified only as “Raisin’ Cain.” I have been to a dozen or so Trump rallies, and these are stories I’ve heard several times. As had members of the audience, apparently: when Trump described how nervous he was flying into Iraq to visit troops, a man called out the punch line—“perhaps I should have been given a medal”—before Trump got there. When the former president caught up, the man laughed twice as hard as his neighbors.
Far more interesting were Trump’s supporters and allies. The conference, featuring speakers such as rock musician Ted Nugent and attended by allies such as Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, showed a movement falling deeper into a suffocating circle of televangelist-adjacent scammery—while its adherents grow ever more comfortable with the idea of the need for violence to triumph over their political opponents. Things are going great, in other words.
In late January, Trump held a rally in Conroe at the high point of the Texas’s GOP primary season. That rally, like most of the former president’s, was held by the joint fund-raising committee of Save America, an extension of Trump’s former (and possible future) campaign. Huge billboards hawked Trump’s new book, but the event was relatively civic-minded. He read, from the teleprompter, a careful speech endorsing all the requisite Texas GOP candidates.
By contrast, the event Saturday in Austin, at the city’s convention center, was a project of the American Freedom Tour, a for-profit traveling show that brings speakers to MAGA-heads around the country. The purpose is not to back candidates or even to get out the vote but to sell tickets. Trump was the headliner, while the undercard was filled out with relative heavyweights like former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and lighter weights, such as Kevin Sorbo, the actor who once starred in the nineties shlock show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. While the turnout of seven thousand might not be impressive in another context, it was large given that each attendee had paid quite a bit to be there. The cheapest tickets, for the seats at the very, very back of the warehouse space, sold for between $45 and $95.
Attendees could purchase a seat halfway to the stage with a ticket at the “VIP” or “Delegate” level, at some $800 to $1,000, respectively. Both came with access to a breakfast with Dinesh D’Souza—the conservative filmmaker whose new work, 2000 Mules, makes the case that the 2020 election was stolen—and an invitation to an afterparty with Donald Trump Jr. Only the Delegate level, though, came with a “Full Color American Freedom Tour Program,” which turned out to be a mostly blank booklet in which attendees were encouraged to write notes about speakers’ remarks. The best seats, however, were reserved for the “Presidential” ticket holders, who paid some $4,000. As it turned out, attendees could actually pretty much sit anywhere. I walked in without a wristband and sat in an empty seat that was supposed to cost $3,000.
With this kind of cash exchanging hands, you might think that the American Freedom Tour was a fundraiser for conservative causes. Many folks who shelled out for a ticket doubtless expected this to be the case. But there is no information anywhere on the tour website about how the proceeds will be distributed. It is not a PAC, of course. The money goes to the speakers—including Trump and Trump Jr., presumably—and the folks who put the rally together.
The only stated goal of the American Freedom Tour is to hold more incarnations of the American Freedom Tour. Its website’s FAQ doesn’t explain exactly what the money is used for, but it does helpfully emphasize that no recording of any kind is allowed inside. There is a cursory “our values” page that explains that the four pillars of American Freedom are “faith, family, finance, and freedom,” which each are given a short paragraph. “Men, in particular our fathers and husbands,” it says, “are under attack, being maligned and parodied in popular culture.”
In the past, I’ve written that the marketplace for well-compensated speakers and evangelists for the right—sometimes derided by the left as an ecosystem of “grift”—is an enormous asset for conservatives. If oleaginous liberal would-be demagogues could make a healthy living touring the country, all the while firing up Democrats in tent rallies, the party might be in a better place. But there are limits, man. My jaw dropped a little when Brian Forte, CEO of the American Freedom Tour, got on stage for a fund-raising appeal for his own company. A giant QR code appeared on screen directing attendees to a donation page, and the older folks around me struggled to make it work. Forte, a thirty-year veteran of the motivational speaking industry, was asking for money from attendees who had already paid to be there.
He did it in unbelievable terms. “Freedom is not free! Think about that,” he told the audience, appropriating a phrase typically used to refer to the sacrifice made by dead American soldiers. He urged the audience to donate at least $20 for Trump’s sake, but the donation page offered options of up to $5,000. “You can’t afford to not do this,” he reasoned, “because America is at stake!”
He went on. “If you see someone next to you who does not have their phone out,” he said, give them the hard sell. “Tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Come on, let’s do this together.’ Go ahead and do that now. Everyone should have their phone out.”
He wasn’t done. “This is your chance. We need you now. The president needs you now! America needs you now! It’s now or never! We’re warriors on the front lines to save America,” he said. “This is a battle between good and evil!”
The spiel went on for several more minutes, without Forte ever saying what the donations were for. Anyone who has ever been exposed to an evangelist of the Righteous Gemstones variety recognizes this kind of preaching. “Give me money and you’ll get into heaven” becomes “give me money and the country will be saved,” and it’s a more effective approach when you don’t explain the how.
Solicitations aside, what were patrons treated to? The Austin Convention Center, most famously the home of South by Southwest, was a hermetically sealed fortress on Saturday. The rally was held in the windowless interior. An abortion rights march, being held downtown, looped the convention center in the afternoon, before Trump took the stage. From the hallway inside, protesters could be seen but not heard.
Instead, the attendees were treated to the music and words of Ted Nugent. The Michigan-born classic rocker, who has said he pooped his pants to get out of the Vietnam draft, has been kicking around Texas for a couple decades saying and doing stupid things, but on Saturday he outdid himself. After playing guitar for a while—mainly, a subpar version of the electric “Star-Spangled Banner” Jimi Hendrix became famous for—he started to speak. It was not enough merely to attend events like this without turning it into action, he said. “I love you people madly, but I’d love you more if you went forward and just went berserk on the skulls of the Democrats and the Marxists and the Communists,” he said to riotous applause. Those in the room were the good people: the people outside, in Austin and the nation, needed to be crushed. Nugent was the best-received speaker of the afternoon, after Trump.
Earlier that day, an eighteen-year-old who was radicalized on far-right message boards walked into a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, and killed 10 people—an echo of the 2019 shooting by a white supremacist at a Walmart in El Paso that killed 23 and a 2018 shooting by a white nationalist at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11. All three shooters believed in the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, the idea that demographic change in America is being engineered by pernicious forces—perhaps Jews, perhaps Democrats—to snuff out the political power of white America. It’s a theory that has been adopted, in varying forms, by top Texas Republicans, most loudly by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
There’s rarely a direct link between what political leaders say and what extremists do, but that’s precisely why political leaders are supposed to be extra careful. The Buffalo shooting was briefly mentioned by Trump, in a discursive remark: “I think they had a tragic event in Buffalo, just as I’m coming on the stage, tragic event in Buffalo with numerous people being killed. In eighteen months in Afghanistan we lost nobody.”
Sometimes it feels like we’re already living in a period with a high level of political violence. While we’re nowhere near the heights we’ve reached in American history, in Austin, on a perfectly lovely Saturday afternoon, it was possible to see a pretty bleak vision of the near future unfolding. There was money to be made in ramping up anger and calling for political violence and none in deflating it.
The negative feedback loop spins. Round and round it goes—where it stops, nobody knows.