Conroe, Texas — The Donald Trump train made its second stop here this Saturday with a coterie of politicians, conspiracy theorists, and grifters in tow. It came on the heels of a Lara Trump rally in north Texas this past Thursday and just two weeks after a similar rally in Phoenix, Arizona. Meanwhile, six hours south at the border, the disgraced QAnon peddling general Michael Flynn and other far-right figures held an event at the exact same time followed up by a caravan to the border on Sunday. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who spoke at a QAnon conference in Dallas last July, was featured as a speaker at both events.
This confluence of events in Texas demonstrates the sort of far-right politics that is coalescing here: paranoid, obsessed with or tolerant of bigoted conspiracy theories, eager to appeal to violence, and convinced they’re fighting against a secret Marxist plot. If this sounds familiar, it’s because similar politics emerged during the Weimar period in Germany, were honed by the Nazis, and later trafficked into mainstream politics via the John Birch Society — one of the sponsors of the event at the border.
Dozens of politicians from across the state and country turned out for the rally, seeking to ride on Trump’s political coattails. Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and State Senator Dawn Buckingham all spoke glowingly of Trump and touted their endorsements from the former president.
We were in one of the reddest counties in one of the reddest states, and it showed: When I arrived at the press check-in station, the first thing I saw was a merchandise vendor with a Confederate flag — the banner of a nation that lasted only 4 years before being routed out of existence — that says “Come And Take It.” It was set up directly across from a wooden cross.
Having attended the prior rally in Arizona and the Lara Trump event on Thursday, a twisted sense of deja vu came over me when I got into the venue and began to hear the same songs, watch the same videos, listen to the same speeches, and see the same people. There were many familiar faces — election conspiracy peddling MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and the JFK Jr. obsessed QAnon cult leader Michael Protzman — and in some instances, near word for word repeats of previous events.
Trump opened the Houston rally in the exact same manner as he did in Arizona: saying it’s the biggest rally ever, that the media is fake, and that they won’t turn their cameras around to show the crowd size. He even repeated the false claim about a 29 mile long line of cars, but this time it was 30 miles long. The crowd began to jeer at the press. When I turned around to take a photo of the overflow crowd, someone flipped me off.
From inside the press pen I was able to observe Michael Protzman, aka Negative 48, and over one hundred of his followers secure prime seats directly to the left of the stage. The Protzmanians arrived over a day early and began lining up for the event the night before, just as they had in Arizona. The group was in rare form, dancing and singing together. They wore matching red ties and shirts depicting Donald Trump, JFK, and JFK Jr. Prior to the event, Protzman predicted to his group that who they would be seeing speak at the event was not actually Trump but JFK in disguise — a claim they’ve made before regarding the Rolling Stones concert in Dallas, Texas.
When I approached Protzman and asked him what he expected to see, he responded cryptically. “You never know,” he said, before bopping off to tend to his flock and dance with one of his lieutenants, Stephen Tenner, who at one point shook hands with Mike Lindell. As of late the Protzmanians have taken to compiling a variety of non-standard calendars to ensure they have every combination of possible dates to check against their “decoding” of the numerology. This is because none of their dates or predictions have panned out.
The entire scene — replete with more merch vendors than a Grateful Dead concert — made me think of the Church of Unlimited Devotion, the infamous subset of Deadheads who believed Jerry Garcia was the second coming of Jesus. One of the central claims of Protzman’s belief system sounds awfully similar: JFK is the second coming of Jesus Christ. They also traffick in fascist propaganda and Holocaust denial.
The Protzmanians, like the Church of Unlimited Devotion, are a relatively small sect. Neither are fully representative of the larger movements from which they emerged, but they demonstrate what can happen when magical thinking and cults of personality collide and provide us an understanding of how far some folks have fallen off the map. Even if only a little over 100 out of the thousands of people at the Trump rally truly believe that JFK Jr. is secretly alive or somehow related to Christ, many attendees seem to be willing to believe other things that aren’t true, like that refugee immigration from crisis-stricken countries is a part of a sinister Marxist plot or that murders have gone up one thousand and nine hundred percent.
This strain of political thought, particularly the notion of a secret Marxist plot, isn’t new in this country. The paranoid anti-communism of McCarthyism gave way to the John Birch Society, which has sought to mainstream its far-right ideology for decades. In Conroe, I witnessed the fruits of their labor. Hats and shirts for sale that simply say “God, Guns, and Trump” and speeches that I can only describe as full-blown Bircherism.
Without a hint of irony, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said the upcoming elections are a race between “Patriots and Traitors,” suggesting that the side that isn’t on trial for seditious conspiracy is the traitorous one. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said the election was stolen and that Marxists want to “take away the country from us.” Gov. Abbott made an abstruse comparison between Biden’s response to the Russian army at the Ukraine border to the Texas-Mexico border, doubling down on the idea that immigration is a part of a planned invasion. The crowd chanted “build that wall,” which Biden has continued to do in some parts.
When Trump finally took the stage after hours of patience, the temperature had dropped significantly. My toes were cold and my soles regretted the choice of cowboy boots. Trump repeated much of what he said in Arizona but mixed in some of his trademark stream of consciousness riffs to keep things fresh. Less than an hour into his speech, the crowd started to thin out. I’d heard it all before, so I decided to follow suit.
(Indeed, it was more than an hour into his rambling speech when Trump offered something new: teasing a 2024 presidential run and dangling pardons for Jan. 6 rioters if he retakes office.)
As I approached the main exit, Trump was talking about Hillary Clinton. “Lock her up!” the crowd chanted. A woman walking beside me said to no one in particular, “Clinton’s a witch, that’s why they’re never going to lock her up.”
And as I approached the parking lot by the nearby baseball fields where I’d parked, I overheard a conversation between two older women. “How does Trump expect us to stand around for five hours?” one said to the other, referring to the ban on any form of lawn chair at the event. “By the time he started talking, we were hurting.” For the first time all day, I agreed with what I was hearing.
Later that evening, I went back to a pizza place by my hotel about 40 minutes south of Conroe in an upscale suburb of Houston called The Woodlands. I got to chatting with my server, a young man with a ponytail and glasses. When I told him I’d been in Conroe, his eye twitched. He said he grew up in Conroe and that his eye had twitched for a reason. When I told him what I had seen there, he asked me if I wanted a free shot of whiskey. I wish I had asked for two.