On Thanksgiving morning supporters of President Trump’s doomed reelection effort descended on the Loop neighborhood of Chicago to raise the battle cry “Stop the Steal!” The “steal” in this tortured locution is the purported Democratic Party theft of the November presidential election, chronicled in a convoluted conspiracy theory that one conservative federal judge recently compared to “Frankenstein’s Monster,” as it is “haphazardly stitched together.” As Trump and his personal lawyers continue to dig in their heels and spin an ever more preposterous narrative justifying his defeat – seeking to disenfranchise black voters in particular by focusing on “corruption” in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia – Stop the Steal rallies have proliferated across the United States. The campaign is not new; notorious Republican operative Roger Stone registered the first Stop the Steal website in 2016, planning to wage a similar effort should Trump lose that election. Nonetheless, today’s Stop the Steal rallies offer a glimpse into the state of Trumpworld’s activist edge in the transitional period between his presidency and whatever comes next.
There is of course no chance that President Trump, his Pythonesque legal team, or even his most ardent supporters assembled en masse will overturn the results of the 2020 election. But that’s not the point. With his legal options exhausted and his eye on the next chapter in the Trump saga, the President is keeping the ruse of overturning the 2020 election going to save face – he’s no loser, after all – and to keep his most loyal supporters activated for however he decides to use them next. Similarly, lesser grifters than Trump who have monetized MAGA for upwards of five years have no intention of getting real jobs, and continue to feed off Trump’s carnage like pilot fish trailing a great white shark. Nor will organized power blocks like the US police and border patrol, whose unions endorsed Trump almost unanimously, give up flexing their political muscles on the national stage, as they have done with Trump’s encouragement, especially in response to the George Floyd Rebellion and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. The same goes for local petty bourgeoisie, who share with the police the desire to conduct their business as they see fit, free from state and federal oversight, and with as little taxation and regulation as possible. Their organized political blocs often overlap with organizing against gun regulations, which have dovetailed almost seamlessly into anti-public health protests, and the two share grounding in local right-wing churches, which organize members around preserving local power through these issues and others, like controlling women’s bodies by fighting access to abortion. And here and there you just might find just ardent Trump loyalists motivated by honest-to-God ideological dedication to white supremacy, Christian supremacy, xenophobia, patriarchy, and all the rest, but people rarely take action based on ideas alone.
Though national in scope, Stop the Steal rallies are local affairs, syncretizing with state-specific right-wing organizing, especially campaigns against Covid-related business and school closures. They also build on the success of Trump motorcades, Trump boat parades, and the ongoing pro-cop, anti-Black Lives Matter demonstrations held under the banner “Back the Blue.” The largest of these rallies was the so-called Million MAGA March in Washington D.C. on November 14th, which grew out of a broad coalition of right-wingers from ordinary conservatives to outright fascists, who traveled from around the country for a large and violent romp in which local symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement were vandalized and destroyed, and numerous antifascists attacked, including multiple stabbings. For his part, Trump made good on a Twitter promise and drove through the crowd and waved en route to playing golf, consistent with most of his public appearances since November 3rd.
Of course, the Stop the Steal movement has a looming expiration date. Two days before the Thanksgiving rally, it was dealt a near-lethal blow by the President himself, who reversed course and formally allowed for the transition process to begin. Luckily, Stop the Steal organizers had emphasized a local grievance – Chicago’s Covid safety regulations, dubbed the “Lightfoot Lockdown” after Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has generated considerable publicity advocating for masks, social distancing, and other basic public health measures meant to mitigate the lethal spread of Covid. Thanksgiving morning, organizers claimed, was chosen in defiance of Lightfoot’s toothless suggestion to limit Thanksgiving gathering to ten guests, which they claimed constituted the mayor “cancelling Thanksgiving.” National Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander, who has organized a number of these protests, including an armed march on an Arizona election office, announced that to protest Lightfoot’s imaginary “cancelling [of] Thanksgiving” he would skip his family dinner to protest in Chicago. Alexander predicted “over a thousand strong” departing from Trump Tower, and requested the attendees be “mostly men… because women should be cooking.”
Nothing like Alexander’s “over a thousand strong” materialized in the Loop. The streets were sleepy, with a light police presence for the rally and sporadic businesses still boarded up – either leftover from the summer’s looting, the post-election Civil War that never came, or anticipating whatever chaos is supposed to come next. When I arrived there were two dozen or so demonstrators milling around on a small slab of sidewalk on the northeast corner of North Wabash and East Wacker, across the Chicago River from Trump Tower. There was roughly one journalist for every two people in attendance, including a duo from the pro-Trump, Chinese dissident Epoch Times, who enthusiastically interviewed rally-goers. The rest had a distinct “who did I piss off to get this assignment” look about them. I must confess, a little voice inside my head remarked “So this is the fucking coup I’ve been hearing about for years on end!” The rally would reach about fifty participants at its height, replete with MAGA hats and Trump flags flopping around in the wind. It was opposed by a lively counter-protest about half that size, relegated to the opposite side of Wacker, who made as much noise as they could to drown out the speeches. Several vehicles plastered with anti-Trump slogans periodically drove by, blaring their horns. And contrary to Alexander’s wishes there were in fact a fair amount of women, including the core local organizers.
The rally was emceed through a tinny megaphone by Ashley Ramos, organizer of local pro-cop “Back the Blue” rallies. At Ramos’s side was speaker and fellow Back the Blue organizer Emily Cahill, who disseminates far-right, pro-cop, and race-baiting propaganda through the Facebook page “Protest the Protesters.” Back the Blue rallies like those organized by Ramos and Cahill have helped build a base of civilian support for the political power of local police – already organized, for over half a century, by their powerful unions and connections to “law and order” politicians like Trump – while simultaneously allowing far-right activists and more traditional conservatives to openly mix and mobilize against the Black Lives Matter movement and the more general state of rebellion that has heralded its 2020 redux. Vociferous on social media, Ramos and Cahill struggled to be heard over the counter-protesters blaring sirens and banging pots, and the latter’s hands shook as she attempted to read brief prepared remarks largely drowned out by the noise.
Back in September, Ramos and Cahill rallied in support of Kyle Rittenhouse outside the juvenile detention center where he was held following his murderous attack on multiple protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Looking on as Cahill attempted to speak Thursday morning was Carl Arriaza who organized the Rittenhouse rally under the banner “Self Defense is Not a Crime.” Arriaza also serves as president of Illinois Gun Owners Together, itself something of a nexus of far-right militias like the Three-Percenters, the Back the Blue crowd, and the local Proud Boys. He also appears to spend a great deal of time on Twitter harassing and threatening antifascists half his age. The trio of Ramos, Cahill and Arriaza may succeed in passing themselves off as ordinary conservatives due to their avowed interests in the second amendment and sticking up for the cops. But they are key organizers in a dynamic, if small, far-right activist ecosystem that, intentionally or not, provides a conveyor belt from ordinary conservative issues into the fascist corners of the local right.
Also milling through the crowd was Edgar “Remy Del Toro” Gonzalez, president of the local Proud Boys. Though implicated in the chaos of Charlottesville – Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler had even been a member – the group survived the demise of the alt-right, and even gained steam in the vacuum it left behind, due in no small part to their multi-racial makeup and emphasis on national chauvinism over white racial purity. The mere sight of non-white Proud Boys like Gonzalez is enough to stymie the novice observer, who expects all US fascists to look like Richard Spencer. The Proud Boys served as a point of entry for more traditional conservatives into overtly fascist politics, offering beer-swilling camaraderie and rowdy street battles with antifascists as enticement to alienated young men eager to perform masculinity and experience homosocial belonging. For the Proud Boys, the proto-fascist milieu of Back the Blue is both the ideal recruiting ground and a place to operate in broad daylight.
Similarly harking back to the salad days of the alt-right was featured speaker Mike Coudrey. Back when he went by the name Mike Tokes, Coudrey was openly affiliated with the alt-right, associating with unapologetic antisemite Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, gleefully sieg-heiling on camera, and taking part in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Many in the alt-right believed that Trump’s victory meant they could soon openly espouse their white supremacist politics, and Charlottesville was supposed to solidify the unbroken link between mainstream US conservatism and the fascist fringes that Trump’s campaign had opened up, hence the name Unite the Right. After it accomplished the opposite, leaving much of the alt-right publicly disgraced, hobbled by lawsuits, and embroiled in embarrassing infighting, Coudrey successfully rebranded, peddling baseless conspiracy theories about the California wildfires, Covid cures suppressed by the fake media, and most recently, aligning closely with Alexander and hopscotching the United States claiming that Trump’s resounding electoral defeat was the product of a vast conspiracy. In keeping with the disjointed premise of the rally, Coudrey’s brief and unenthusiastic remarks – perhaps he imagined traveling for a larger crowd – soldered the usual Trump talking points about election fraud onto an anti-public health message emphasizing the plight of small businesses. He made no attempt to bridge these issues.
The rally also featured Pastor Steve Cassell, who unsuccessfully sued the State of Illinois over the shuttering of his Beloved Church in Lena, Illinois, as Governor J.B. Pritzker struggled to contain surging Covid cases earlier this year. Since Covid precautions began last Spring, protests against “the lockdown” have provided an ongoing base for far-right street mobilizations, encouraged by the President himself. Cassell’s initial defiance of the state made him something of a hero in local libertarian circles, and his remarks to the crowd underscored the publicity victory his federal lawsuit scored for the anti-public health movement, while downplaying the fact that it lost. To the untrained eye, the soft-spoken man of God may have seemed something of the odd man. But Christianity has long been the basis of white nationalist and proto-fascist organizing in the United States, if not just as a base of power for the local petty bourgeoisie, and where the alt-right failed to mobilize along lines of racial purity and antisemitism, a fascist movement that embraces Christianity as a common denominator might just succeed. Additionally, Cassell represented the grievances of small business owners who have been crushed by the US government’s failed response to Covid, but have organized against public health regulations instead of against a social order that made their hard work so disposable in the first place.
Ali Alexander was the rally’s headlining act, arriving fashionably late and flanked by an armed security detail. Despite his boyish looks, Alexander has been a controversial figure on the fringe-right since at least 2006, when he went by his given name, Ali Akbar. Thanks in large part to his harnessing the momentum of the Tea Party movement against Barack Obama, Alexander has managed to become something of an arch-grifter, even receiving funds from megadonor and Breitbart’s guardian angel Robert Mercer. This, despite dual convictions for theft and fraud and a consistent simmer of scandal surrounding his handling of funds, a habit of falsely designating his groups “non-profits.” Alexander also generated controversy as a McCain election staffer, by suggesting their presidential campaign engage in none other than… election rigging!
The notoriety Alexander earned in his early years seems to have spurred his name change. And despite being black himself, cutting his teeth as a writer at the now-defunct Hip-Hop Republican, Alexander was very comfortable with the alt-right in its heyday, even in its most explicit neo-Nazi form. Alexander keeps company with fellow grifters Alex Jones, Jacob Wohl, Laura Loomer, and has been pictured with the late Andrew Breitbart and Donald Trump himself. It’s unsurprising, then, to find Alexander at the center of the ultra-right issue du jour and its complex web of funding, since, in the immortal words of Willie Sutton, “that’s where the money is!” In chasing Stop the Steal funding Alexander joins fellow grifters Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and a string of lesser lights who have long monetized MAGA. And since getting involved, Alexander has already come under fire for falsely claiming in fundraising material the Trump campaign has endorsed his organizing.
Alexander, who often spends hours at a time livestreaming his meandering rants, delivered the rally’s most memorable remarks. “The Republican Party is MIA!” he declared provocatively, as the crowd booed the name of RNC chair Ronna McDaniels. “That’s why we have Lin Wood, that’s why we have Sidney Powell, that’s why we have Rudy Giuliani!” He bragged about phone calls from the capitulation faction within Trump’s White House, who told him to stop rocking the boat. To this he said “If we the people didn’t take the streets, Trump would have already conceded!” Similarly, he claimed, when “a top Trump advisor” told him to stop saying “stop the steal,” he flatly refused. By his estimation, the fate of Trumpism was now in the hands of Stop the Steal and the activist base upon it has been built. “The day after the election we were really fucked,” and it was only the action of the grass roots that kept Trump’s chances alive. In short, Alexander is more than prepared for a clean break between Trumpism and anything resembling orthodox conservatism. And as he bragged repeatedly, truthfully in this case, against all odds Alexander seems to retain deep ties to far-right donors, and will not stop organizing any time soon.
Toward the end of his remarks Alexander finally lost patience with the counter-protesters, and taunted that they were out doing the bidding of “a billionaire” (likely Soros – Alexander has a long history of antisemitism) who didn’t care about them. The irony of this formulation seemed lost on those dedicating their Thanksgiving morning to Donald J. Trump as he played golf, just as it did when a young white man in a MAGA hat derided the counter-protesters for not being at home with their families.
Besides Alexander, the speakers largely lacked the charisma and confidence to project their voices over a boisterous counter-protest and the commotion that ensued as a few young black counter-protesters crossed the street to antagonize the crowd up close. Rally-goers increasingly divided their attention between these skirmishes and the reheated conspiracy theories served up by the speakers, with many deciding it was more fun to hurl thinly-veiled racist abuse at the enemy than listen to boring speeches nobody could really hear anyway.
“Trump lost! Y’all are a bunch of losers!” the counter-protesters would say.
“You’re racist! Black babies matter!” one reply ran, evoking a common anti-abortion trope.
“Obama built the cages… Biden’s 1994 crime bill locked up 90% [?!] of black people!” ran another, drawing on the particularly Trumpian tactic of outflanking interlocutors on the left, from a position that’s undeniably hard-right.
“You Corona bitch!!” a young black woman, separated from the Trumpers by three high-ranking on-duty policemen, shouted to a man without a mask.
“Get off of welfare and America will be great!” an older white woman shot back.
“Do you kiss your pimp with that dirty mouth?” came another retort.
Two vocal Trump supporters, one black and one identifying as Latino, held up an American flag, the latter taunting: “Get triggered Marxists! Get triggered lefties! You can’t stand minorities holding the flag!” Another black man, waving a Trump flag, yelled: “You don’t have any black people! Where are the black people?”
There were of course a number of black people counter-demonstrating, including a few who banged pots and pans, hurled insults, and mixed with rallygoers until police ordered them to back off. One young man in particular kept demanding to use the megaphone. A Stop the Steal organizer told him he couldn’t, and an argument ensued. Finally the exasperated organizer said “He just wants to get on here and say ‘Fuck America.’ Why don’t we let him?”
“Fuck America!” the young man shouted into the megaphone.
And so on.
After standing around on the sidewalk for over an hour listening to swapped insults and a string of lousy speeches, Ramos announced at last: “We’re going to march to Millennium Park, but before we do I want to play a song in honor of our president!” After a slight pause, her mobile speaker blared YMCA by the Village People – a disco song celebrating gay cruising culture in 1970s Manhattan, harried in its time by constant police harassment and violence, and gentrified out of existence by Trump and his fellow developers. It was a nice reminder that in contemporary mass politics, nothing means what it used to, if anything even means anything at all. Ramos then led the rally on a short sidewalk march, Trump flags waving, closely pursued by the counter-protest on the other side of the street, with only the latter hemmed in by a line of bicycle cops. Stop the Steal chants typically put right-wing spins on some left classics: “Hey hey, ho ho, lockdown Lori has got to go!… When I say lockdown you say sucks! When I say legal votes you say matter! When I say Donald you say Trump! When I say stop the you say steal!”
As counter-proteste rs chanted “No Trump, no KKK, no MAGA here today!” they were met with retorts of “USA” and of course: “Back the blue!”
Thus, as Trump prepares to vacate the White House, albeit kicking and screaming, he leaves in his wake an interconnected web of small-time hucksters, politicized police and border patrol, Christian chauvinists, ideological white supremacists and xenophobes, and local petty bourgeois prone to representing themselves as “the white working class.” While it might seem obvious to predict the impending collapse of such an unstable compound, it is worth remembering that Trumpworld has been through the fire for almost five years, and its collective parts, however incongruous with one another, seem to know a good thing when they see one, and don’t seem to have much interest in giving it up. And while Charlottesville constituted a setback for the ideological operators hoping to pull conservatives rightward, the kind of indistinct borderlands between conservatism and outright fascism is once again populous, thanks in no small part to projects like Back the Blue, Stop the Steal, and of course the greatest gift to American fascists in a generation, Trump himself.
At this point the reader might be imagining the above as something of a joke: a couple of two-bit hucksters, used car salesmen, cop-loving Karens, gun nuts, and wannabe fascist street thugs walk into a bar, proud of the fact they’re not wearing masks, and the bartender says: “Who gives a shit?” This is fair enough. But after some 73 million Americans threw in their lot with Trump, after watching him in action for four long years, I wager that it’s worth mapping the contours of the activist base his presidency leaves behind. While they do not pose any particular danger stemming from intelligence, ability, or even coherence, Trump managed with none of these qualities to summon a massive movement we will be stuck with for a long time. Especially after 2016, there’s nothing saying a shameless huckster can’t spin hot air into a substantive base of support, and real political power – especially when they are willing to throw in their lot with the latent white supremacy, xenophobia, and outright cruelty built into American social life.
As Covid ravages the US alongside protracted austerity and the reality of deindustrialization that no populist politician can reverse, a strident anti-establishment message offered by purported enemies of the existing social order poses a particular threat of gaining adherents – especially when it comes cloaked in the garments of homespun Americanism and speaks the language of civic myths drilled into our heads in public schools. The lack of a viable anti-capitalist left current cedes this ground, and left support for the kind of “diversity” on offer in the Biden administration will only make it easier for the far-right to hang the neoliberal Democrats around the necks of all who fight for real human emancipation. On the most basic level, with the Democrats back in the White House the MAGA movement now becomes the resistance, which compared to actually wielding power is easy and fun. The hat worn by one rallygoer Thursday betrayed not just the self-aware futility of Stop the Steal, but how little it matters when compared with keeping the MAGA machine going: “Impeach Biden.”
The march ended in the tourist hell of Millenium Park. The police corralled counter-protesters away from the rally, and they continued their noisy disruption as Alexander orchestrated a group photo in front of the park’s big Christmas tree. An older woman in a surgical mask approached Pastor Cassell and explained that she wasn’t wearing it to prevent the spread of Covid, but to protect everyone from a nasty cold she recently contracted. “The left is a social movement,” Coudrey declared, “but the right is a family.” And before parting ways, this family joined together to recite the Lord’s Prayer – save for a few, who ignored the praying and continued to trade insults with the counter-protesters, as East Asian tourists looked on with great confusion. Meanwhile, all across Chicago, families large and small were sitting down to eat their Thanksgiving dinner.