CLEVELAND—No wonder Alex Jones seemed triumphant. The conspiracy-theorizing Texas radio host, writer, and filmmaker—who believes that 9/11 was an inside job and Barack Obama is the global head of Al Qaeda—used to be a fringe figure, yet there he was on Monday in Cleveland, a featured speaker at a waterfront rally for Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee for president of the United States. “Have we not defeated the people that thought they’d shut down our free speech?” Jones roared like a pro wrestler. “Have we not given them a big, giant red, white, and blue middle finger?” The crowd of several hundred people, many in T-shirts bearing the name of Jones’ website, InfoWars, thronged the raised black stage. As he spoke, three men from a Christian group blew shofars for emphasis.
Monday’s gathering, dubbed the America First Unity Rally, wasn’t an official Trump event, but it featured high-profile Trump surrogates. Its co-sponsors included Citizens for Trump, Students for Trump, and Bikers for Trump, some of whose members provided security, standing between the audience and the stage with folded arms and menacing expressions. (Originally, the white nationalist website Eternal Sentry was listed as a sponsor as well, but rally organizers cut ties to the group after negative publicity.) The crowd, heavy on beards, tattoos, and biker vests, represented the new, Trumpified GOP. “If we had Jeb Bush here today, this would be a totally different crowd,” Bikers for Trump president Chris Cox told me, “and it wouldn’t be such a dynamic and diversified crowd.”
Several attendees wore guns strapped to their legs. Dylan Mitrision, a 23-year-old from Erie, Pennsylvania, was carrying a Bowie knife. “I just figured I’d be the unique one,” he said. “Everyone else who’s carrying weapons, they’re carrying guns. I’d carry a knife.” Most of the Bikers for Trump, though, kept their weapons out of sight; Cox told me the Cleveland police chief had asked them not to carry openly and they wanted to show him respect. “We don’t want to be compared to Black Lives Matter or, for that matter, the Black Panther Party,” said Cox, who is scheduled to speak at the convention on Tuesday. His group, which plans to have over 1,000 bikers spread out over the city all week, thinks of itself as a kind of law-enforcement auxiliary and wants to cooperate with the cops. “We’re calling it ‘back the badge,’” Cox said.
At one point, Jones brought Tucker Carlson’s son, Buckley, up on stage, praising his father for moving in his direction politically. “That’s what’s exciting, is that we see the information we talk about, that was seen as radical, becoming mainline,” Jones said. “We have to be ready to win!” Then he saw the comedian Eric Andre, who he thought came from the Daily Show, and called him onto the stage. “Let’s bring the agitator in here!” he shouted. A shofar sounded, and someone gave Andre a violent shove as he made his way forward.
Once he had the microphone, Andre said to Jones, “I want you to have sex with my wife.” Then he asked, “Why does my pee-pee come out yellow?” Finally, he shouted, “Who put the bombs in Tower 7?” For a moment, he had Jones’ attention. “Well I’ve exposed all that,” Jones said. “I’m with you! I’m on your side!” Andre replied. “Well, you said something legitimate,” Jones conceded.
Jones spotted Mother Jones’ David Corn in the crowd and started reverse-heckling him, saying, “I seriously don’t know where this guy is with, but I know he’s from one of these dinosaur old-folks homes,” by which he meant the mainstream media. “Their power is dwindling faster and faster and faster, and all they’ve got is their so-called arrogance, but they know that the blood is all run out of them. They’re dead.” Corn refused to join Jones on stage, though he offered to talk to Jones if he’d come down to him.
A little later, former Trump adviser and longtime confidant Roger Stone spoke. “Hillary Clinton holds herself out as an advocate for women and girls,” he said. “She is an abuser of women and girls, because Bill Clinton is a serial sexual predator who has attacked, who has raped, who has bitten multiple, credible women.” He described Chelsea Clinton as “nasty, greedy, foul-mouthed, corrupt” and called the Clinton Foundation “the largest single money-laundering scheme in American criminal history.” The shofars sounded their assent. Bemoaning the fact that Hillary hasn’t been indicted, he led the crowd in a chant of “No Justice, No Peace!”
There’s been little if any violence so far, but many of these people see Black Lives Matter as the enemy, and if the pro-Trump groups collide with them, it could get ugly. Cox told me he expects anti-Trump protests to heat up as the week goes on, at which point his group might intervene. “It probably won’t happen until the end of the week,” he said. “They don’t want to get arrested so early.” He claims that a Black Lives Matter leader has said there will be tear gas, barricades and disruptions. “We’ve got to believe them,” he said. “If the leader is saying that, it’s probably going to happen. Our role first and foremost is to stand with the police department. What role we play remains to be seen.”
What’s significant is that they have a role here at all—unlike George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. This is their party now.