I WENT TO A “DANGEROUS ALT-RIGHT RALLY”
13 MIN READ
It’s about 4:45 PM on a Sunday. I’m headed west towards downtown Phoenix and I can see the monsoon rolling in over the mountains. I take a bite of my dinner for the evening, a comically large Slim Jim and try to relax a bit. I’m usually not late to events but having a baby definitely added a bit of welcome chaos to my schedule. I’m headed to the Arizona Federal Theater to cover the Unite and Win rally - an event featuring Kari Lake, Blake Masters, and Ron DeSantis as the main speakers.
I’ve never gotten a press pass before. I apply when I can (most events I’ve been interested in covering don’t have a public application) but this is the first event that’s granted me one. I wonder why that is. Perhaps the Republicans have shot themselves in the foot post-Trump - maybe the mainstream media is no longer interested in covering a group of people that constantly insults them. This would bear itself out, I didn’t see any major outfits at the event, maybe they were there, but I didn’t see them, I expected at least local news. Perhaps the Democrats don’t want any truly independent media to cover their events with any decent level of access - what if they don’t adhere to the prescribed talking points, what if a blogger goes rogue with their own unsanctioned opinions?
I’ve been trying to cover some political events as the midterms approach. I’m interested in figuring out why the country is so divided. We could use understanding more than solutions at this point and we are real hard up for understanding these days. I don’t know that we have enough information to solve the problems we’re facing, this doesn’t seem to slow people down in their solution-offering though. I know so many people that proclaim to “know how to fix it” - if only we could give these lofty individuals unilateral dictatorial power maybe we’d find our way out of this mess.
I’m seeking some understanding tonight. I’m not a “rally” type of person. This is far outside of my comfort zone. I need to go outside of my comfort zone, mix in with the vibe, and talk about that. I want to see how my own brain flexes and moves around this stimulus. Modern journalism is obsessed with terms like “implicit bias”. I’m full of that. I’m a walking bias. We all are - even more so the individuals that proclaim to be above it. I’m not trying to write around who I am. I’m unapologetic about what I’m writing because I am not motivated by anything evil, only my own curiosity and creativity - something that is feared when it surpasses a certain socially acceptable threshold. All of my essays are from my perspective and I am most certainly not a professional (writer or photographer that is), take it or leave it.
The line wraps three quarters of the way around the parking garage. I meld into the crowd shooting initially with my small rangefinder camera, just another attendee. A bubbly man with a massive mustache is selling shirts and hats with various anti-Biden sentiments on them.
It’s starting to drizzle, a rarity in Arizona, the rain here is either “on” or “off” so I know it’s time to get my camera equipment inside unless I want some very expensive paperweights. I spot an organizer and tell them I’m with press. “You’re late!” he cracks at me as he summons a security guard. The guard whisks me past the line and through a brief security check. I walk up to the press table and proudly announce that “I’m here to check in, I’m Josh Simmons covering the event for joshcsimmons.com”
More whisking. I’m placed in a press box that gives me a good vantage point through my zoom lens, but I quickly realize that this kind of long range setup is not really what I do, I need to be in the mix with the rest of the crowd. I quickly abandon my post and start walking around the venue.
I’m actually a bit surprised to feel like I don’t belong here, at all. Truth is I don’t know which way my politics align these days. My friends sit across a pretty even distribution on the political spectrum. I was a leftist hippie in college but I’m also from the Rust Belt so I see the value in a lot of conservative issues as well.
I’d say I’m Libertarian but I find that most people identifying with that term now are simply Republicans that are fed up with the Republican Party. My core belief is that we should have as few laws as possible - this generally puts me at odds with Republicans when they try to dictate what a pregnant woman can do with her body . This also puts me at odds with Democrats when they try to mandate medical interventions. Unfortunately, these days, it puts me at odds with both parties when they try to take away even more gun rights.
The general admission crowd skews a bit towards middle-aged but with plenty of college-aged attendees mixed in. Almost everyone is wearing red, white, and blue attire. I spot a few MAGA caps, some campaign shirts for a few of the speakers, and some of the joke tee shirts that the vendor was selling outside (he seemed nice and it makes me happy to know he must have made a decent chunk of change today). Floor seating must be entirely at capacity - I don’t see one empty chair.
The VIP crowd is a different beast. I wonder how expensive a VIP ticket was. This section definitely trends older. The VIPs are better dressed - church casual - women in blouses, men in blazers. I tried to get some conversation going with a few VIPs in the line outside (I mistakenly thought it was the GA line) but most were standoffish and very suspicious of my camera. Understandably so, I guess .
I’m dressed very plainly in slacks, a plain shirt, and a green baseball cap but I wonder if people here are inherently distrustful of me because I have a camera, therefore I am the “media”. I feel a bit more uncomfortable when Kari Lake is speaking and vilifies the media to a round of thunderous applause.
As you might expect, the event is opened with the Star Spangled Banner, a prayer, and then the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge is a bit overkill, but I recite along - I’m here to immerse myself and see not only what’s going on, but how it feels to participate.
There are a few local speakers before the show really gets going. They don’t say much of anything, their speeches are primarily to get the crowd hyped up for the “main acts”. Charlie Kirk starts to transition the topics to more of a focus on political issues and segues nicely into the candidate’s portion of the event.
I post up right next to the stage off to the right. Senate Republican candidate Blake Masters begins his entrance so I run-walk towards the barricade and get off a few exposures. He’s thinner than he looks on his TV ads. His speech is charismatic, he seems comfortable up on stage. Masters is unapologetic about his views during the speech. He points out that Mark Kelly (the incumbent he is challenging) has changed his tune on border security. There is some truth in that and I feel it is a weak point in Kelly’s campaign. I feel at liberty to change my mind as a writer and thinker, but we expect politicians to represent static views, maybe this is wrong, but it’s what we expect. Masters follows this criticism up with some jokes about Kelly’s former career as an astronaut, maybe this is just some light ribbing, but I can’t help but abhor these kind of ad-hominem attacks from politicians, it just seems unprofessional to me.
I’m familiar with Masters’s resume, he strikes me as incredibly intelligent so it’s a bit jarring to hear him speak in such a simplistic manner to the crowd. This style of speech would permeate the evening so I believe it’s more out of necessity to speak to the “average attendee” than any kind of Machiavellian posturing. Nevertheless I find this to be a concerning trend - not just at this rally - and not just among one political party, but rather the whole game. Our country is facing extremely complex problems that will require equally complex solutions - how are we supposed to achieve these solutions if the general public can only understand at the resolution of “blue/red party bad.” This kind of oversimplification of things encourages an “us vs. them” mindset and ultimately keeps citizens angry when simple solutions fail time and time again.
Kari Lake, Arizona’s Republican candidate for Governor is up next. I do my usual ducked speed walk up to the barricade and get a few shot of her before she settles at the podium. She mostly hits the same talking points as Masters - the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, COVID restrictions, and the problems facing Arizonans. She jokes about DeSantis having huge balls without saying it - the joke lands and the crowd goes wild.
The press coordinator taps me and lets me know that he got the photographers pit access for DeSantis. He walks out as I’m grappling for vantage points in the pit. He’s chubbier and less smooth than he looks on TV. I don’t think that’s a unique DeSantis thing, I notice this any time I see a TV personality IRL for the first time. I’m hyped to get some good, very up-close shots. Charlie Kirk comes back out to pose with Kari Lake and Ron DeSantis. Click - I get a few shots. As DeSantis saddles up to the podium, I see a great framing - I smash myself up by the stage and get a shot of him facing the speaker wedge that is reflecting his mic input back at him as an audio monitor. I think this is a great photographic representation of where politics are at in 2022 - mostly politicians speaking to a mic on some kind of intensifying feedback loop.
DeSantis hits mostly the same talking points as his predecessors. It’s clear he has more media training though. The way he carries himself and cadence with which he speaks seems like he’s having a conversation with a friend over a beer. There’s much less posturing. Is he more comfortable in his own skin than Lake and Masters, or is this actually an insane amount of posturing, it’s impossible for me to tell, and maybe that’s an illusion that needs to be broken for us to get back to authenticity as a country. It’s very difficult for me to tell what is real anymore. This is deeply concerning to me as someone that holds the truth in high regard.
I head out as DeSantis begins wrapping up his speech. I feel a bit guilty for leaving my wife alone with the baby for so long and I want to beat the traffic out of the parking garage. As I walk towards the door a security guard says “Ready to leave sir?” First thought - since when did I become a sir? Second thought - am I ready to leave? The always-nagging voice in my head bugs me that I wanted to interview some attendees but I didn’t do that. A wiser part of me says that I got the piece of the puzzle I came to get as I step out into the light post-monsoon drizzle.
I feel a bit amped up as I walk in the dark. I deal with PTSD and I’m told that some amount of my hypervigilance is to be expected. I’m on edge as I walk through the dark parking garage with a couple thousand dollars worth of camera equipment. The garage is parked up but there isn’t another human in sight. I’m almost always carrying concealed in situations like this which brings me a sense of calm but firearms weren’t allowed in the rally. As I hop in my truck and lock the door I feel a bit of anger wash over me. It’s extremely important to me that I be able to defend myself and my family. It is allegedly important to the politicians I saw speak tonight - yet I was prohibited from bringing my firearm. The hypocrisy is not lost on me. Undoubtedly the venue would have banned firearms if the politicians hadn’t, but why wouldn’t they just choose a venue where they weren’t prohibited? The answer is clearly that they fear for their own safety. This is not a partisan issue either although it manifests in different ways. I am bombarded by news clips of Democrat politicians advocating for stricter gun laws or even bans while their private security detail carries weapons that I am prohibited from purchasing. It seems like the only issue that both sides of the aisle agree upon is that citizens should not possess firearms.
It’s about a 45 minute drive home - I sit in silence while driving through the dark Sunday night streets and let my mind stretch out and unkink itself. The truth is that some of what was said at the rally resonated with me. I admire Kari Lake for talking about how we cast aside men and masculinity in culture, often to the detriment of boys . I do think that it’s very important for us to enforce the border, i.e. the thing that defines what is and isn’t a country. I don’t think it’s good to vilify people that are seeking a better life - I’d do the same. I realize both of these statements back to back probably make me at least a little unpopular with everyone. I’ve seen this play out in my life pretty regularly. I posted photos of this rally to my Instagram. I didn’t post messages of support, just photos. I had a friend comment that she was very confused as to why I would post those photos (she strongly dislikes Kari Lake). I’m grateful that she broached the topic, that she would think our friendship valuable enough to chance stepping on a landmine to keep it real. How many other friends just shut down to anything I had to say past that point, unfollowed me, stopped reading my blog, etc.? I can name at least 10 friends that I’ve lost in the past two years over political views. An openminded and exploratory spirit is exceedingly rare in people. My friend and I have a conversation about why I went to the rally. There is friendly push and pull. I think she understands that I’m just trying to figure myself out and get a small glimpse at what’s happening in the country. We end the conversation still as friends.
The realization that only a few people, like my friend, can understand nuance in political views gives way to the idea that this is why politicians must polarize to succeed. Most voters want an emphatic black-or-white viewpoint to rally around and create an us vs them mentality. I feel myself consciously push against the desire to embrace a nihilistic view that all politicians are charlatans to their core. Nihilism is shutting down - it is intellectual suicide in whatever topic it is applied to. If we believe all politicians are frauds we will become calloused. If we become calloused how will we spot a candidate with integrity when they do come along? More importantly, if as a society we prematurely cut off the possibility that there can be a politician with integrity, how will we produce one?
 I put my personal views aside on this issue. I can think that something generally isn’t good to do and at the same time think that we shouldn’t make more laws based on whether I feel good or bad about something. Having feelings and a need for legislation are unrelated concerns and every politician would do well to remember this.
 I find it interesting that a lot of people are hostile towards street photography in public but tacitly consent to being observed by thousands of security cameras while out and about. Perhaps this is indicative of the level of trust we place in corporations compared to individuals…
 This is a pretty hot issue for me. I reached out to a number of PTSD support groups in my area last Spring when I was going through a rough patch and all of them notified me that I would not be allowed to attend since I’m a man - this in an age where gender is considered a construct (when it suits the argument being made at least). Is it really surprising that men are three times as likely to die from suicide as women? Luckily I have a good support system. How many men don’t and turn to drinking or drugs instead? I’m not making a “who has it worse” argument here, merely illustrating that this topic doesn’t get enough attention.