Bigger Than the Tea Party? Strongsville's GOP Summit and the Delusions of the Trump Faithful

click to enlarge Attendees watch the Trump 2020 campaign kickoff in its entirety. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Attendees watch the Trump 2020 campaign kickoff in its entirety.

Shannon Burns is killing time. The President of the Strongsville GOP is tieless and sweating before a crowd of seated, God-fearing Republicans at Michaud’s Event Center on Pearl Road, and he hasn’t uttered a word about changes to the program.

It's Saturday morning. Over the course of the previous 48 hours, at least half of the day’s speakers had canceled. This was meant to be a “political summit,” an opportunity for Ohio’s diehard Trump supporters and Republican clubbers to hear and challenge the platforms of candidates seeking office in 2022: in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District, against the undisputed Republican In Name Only (RINO) Anthony Gonzalez; in the Senate Race, to claim the seat of wimpy conservative Rob Portman; and in the Gubernatorial election, to primary the tyrant Mike DeWine. High-profile national guests were slated to appear as well, in keynote capacities: Colorado’s gun-toting warrior-luminary Lauren Boebert, The Daily Wire’s Candace Owens, and Matt Gaetz, the Florida Congressman who was at the moment facing some unwelcome media attention.

The day before, one of Gaetz’ associates had pleaded guilty to six charges in a federal sex trafficking investigation. (Among other things, Gaetz is alleged to have had sex with a minor.) Later Friday, the Daily Beast published another explosive scoop. Gaetz reportedly snorted cocaine with a paid escort after a 2019 GOP fundraiser in Orlando, in a hotel room paid for by his campaign. The escort then turned her relationship with Gaetz into a “taxpayer funded no show job.”

Perhaps the Ohio candidates perceived that any Gaetz association might be politically toxic in light of the recent headlines. Or perhaps they recognized that appealing to, and answering questions from, a hopped-up rightwing fringe was a devil’s bargain. But for whatever reason, the confirmed speakers were dropping like midges. On the morning of the summit, it was unclear if anyone from the Senate race would even show up. Cleveland car dealer and tech entrepreneur Bernie Moreno was evidently on a flight to Florida. J.D. Vance, the bearded hillbilly whisperer and Peter Thiel's puppet or blood boy, was rumored to have backed out too. Ditto Northeast Ohio businessman Mike Gibbons. Congressman Bill Johnson was up in the air. Max Miller, the fratty scion of Cleveland’s biggest 20th Century real estate empire, Forest City, who is thought to be the candidate around whom anti-Gonzalez Republicans should coalesce in the 16th, submitted a video from his phone. Jim Renacci, the recurring Ohio candidate who is now considering a run for Governor, backed out after Gaetz was announced.

The event website had happily promoted that Mike DeWine, Anthony Gonzalez and Jane Timken (the former state GOP chair who's running for senate) declined to attend. But the more recent cancellations have yet to be conveyed to the ~500 guests who paid for the privilege of getting up close and personal with the state's rising stars. They may now be sensing something is afoot.

The Strongsville GOP had already pushed back the event start time. Doors were meant to have opened at 8:00 a.m., but at 9:30, a line of impatient Trumpists still snaked around Michaud’s exterior. The parking lot from which they sprang, resplendent in camo and Americana, foretold the flavor of the day. “TRUMP Won,” proclaimed an illustrative bumper sticker.

For this crowd, the default position on the 2020 presidential election is that it was stolen. The default position on Covid-19 is that Gov. Mike DeWine is a commie rat bastard. Any elected Republican who supported DeWine or his authoritarian lockdowns must be voted out post-haste.

The idle chatter throughout the morning was Covid-centric. Guests engaged in cordial one-upmanship about who respected the state’s health protocols least. It should go without saying that no one outside the press corps and the Michaud’s event staff was wearing a mask. Some may have been vaccinated, but they kept that quiet. Admitting you’d gotten a shot, to these folks, would be kind of like admitting you’d gotten an abortion, or gotten skeptical about the prevalence of automatic weapons. It's just not the party line. The crowd skewed older, though a few millennial couples (on dates?) and well-dressed zoomers, aspirant D.C. intern types, could be spotted as well.

It became clear that by and large, these were not your grandfather’s Republicans. Sure, they live in the suburbs and exurbs. Sure, they’re fond of catchphrases like, “You can have God without government, but you can’t have government without God.” Sure, they’re bananas for the sanctity of unborn life and the primacy of the nuclear family. Sure, they worship Trump and routinely say, almost as an oath, that he is “the greatest president of my lifetime.” And sure, with single-digit exceptions, they are white. But this contingent in Strongsville harbors far darker and more delusional views than the garden variety capitalism-worshiping conservative. They are militantly opposed to masks, vaccines, critical race theory and the majority of elected Republicans in Washington, whom they regard as disgraceful RINOS. Fewer and fewer of them even bother with Fox News. Too liberal.

It’s difficult to assess how pervasive this strain of political thought really is, or how much thought goes into this strain of cultural performance. But this crew was described by one speaker, (a guy from Dublin, Ohio who helps organize Republican clubs across the state), as the tip of an expanding iceberg that's growing faster and more fearsome than the Tea Party ever did. Though the members of this movement have an array of pet causes — the convention of states, the availability of ammo, the persecution of white males — they are united in their devotion to Donald Trump. The ire for Gonzalez, it should be clear, has nothing to do with his legislative record or his responsiveness as an elected representative. It's all because he voted to impeach. (The Strongsville GOP currently has a resolution calling on Gonzalez to resign.)

By 11 a.m. the crowd has been guzzling coffee, nibbling on pastries and watching the Trump 2020 campaign kickoff in its entirety on YouTube for more than an hour. At first, the Trump video sort of seemed like part of the program, a thematic entrée to the day’s speeches that would communicate to the upcoming candidates, this is the bar. But as Trump’s remarks dragged on, the crowd grew visibly less engaged, talking amongst themselves with arms across their chests, etc. It was impossible to deny the video's actual purpose: stalling.

And now Burns is filling minutes any way he can. He has overseen an exhaustive repertoire of patriotic preambles: the presentation of colors, the Pledge of Allegiance, an Evangelical benediction, the National Anthem, and the formal recognition of the veterans in the room. Now, Burns is saying he’d like to take a moment to thank the people “keeping us safe today.” (It’s a bit of a jolt, but he is referencing the off-duty cops, not the Michaud’s staff sanitizing surfaces. Heaven help anyone attempting to enforce Covid-19 safety protocols in the presence of the state's largest grassroots GOP organization.)

When Burns finally does get around to introducing the day's first candidate, 26-year-old congressional hopeful Jonah Schultz, and the goateed Christian liberty warrior enters to "Eye of the Tiger," it's already almost lunch time.

As it turns out, Schultz is one of only five candidates to speak. (Candace Owens and Matt Gaetz did provide end-of-day keynotes as well.) One of them, the Black, Catholic, Widowed Republican Laverne Jones-Gore, whom Burns erroneously introduced as "Laverne Gore-Jones," was a last-minute addition. She's running a doomed campaign in the 11th District, where no amount of frothy rightwing support in a primary will matter in a general against either Nina Turner or Shontel Brown.

The others were undercard candidates at best. Businessman Mark Pukita? Pukita is running for Senate. He tried to get a leg up by accusing Moreno and Vance of ditching the summit because of Gaetz — he was the first, in fact, to openly acknowledge any of the day's absences — but the crowd didn't seem all that inspired by his anti-elitist schtick. Pukita was confronted by an audience member during his Q&A about a recent social media "mistake." He'd posted a picture of his grandchild wearing a mask. Would he explain himself, the questioner wanted to know? Would he atone? Pukita laced up his shoes and tried to stand on principle. He said that as a constitutional conservative, he believed in individual choice. And he gently advised the gathered crowd that if they didn't want to be judged for not wearing masks, they really shouldn't judge others for choosing to wear them. One might have thought that the Evangelicals in the room, at least, would have appreciated this biblical messaging. But no. This was perilous territory for the already little-known Pukita. No one applauded. As Senator, Pukita said that one of his chief policy prerogatives would be working to eliminate the Federal Departments of Education and Labor. When asked why he'd stop there, Pukita said that he'd be open to eliminating many other departments as well: Energy, Commerce, Agriculture. 

Farmer Joe Blystone is running for governor. He provided some comedic value later in the day but little else. "I have no experience," he declared, "but I can balance a checkbook and surround myself with God-fearing people. I'm a farmer, folks. I can run this state." When a ringing cell phone interrupted his remarks, he said, "Okay Devil, I'm not gonna let you win." He advocated refusing all federal aid to Ohio because it came with too many strings attached. Like others, he ardently opposed "critical race theory" in schools. Unlike others, he recounted in detail his dialogue with the Lord that led to his decision to run. 

The only serious (that is, well-funded) candidate in attendance was Josh Mandel, whose harrowing soullessness this publication has lately explored. Mandel's lowlight was an extended attack on Toledo Blade reporter Liz Skalka, mocking her tweets about Mike DeWine's Vax-a-Million lottery and making sure the crowd knew she was in the room. Mandel, like Trump, is a performer without any actual beliefs. He reveled in being "canceled" by the Cleveland Plain Dealer and encouraged Republicans to wear their cancellations — suspensions by Facebook, chiefly — as badges of honor. He identified himself as the "pointy tip of the spear" on issues that the Right cares about most and said he would be a "fighter" in the U.S. Senate. He was unequivocal that the 2020 election was stolen, that Anthony Gonzalez was "a bad guy," and that religious liberty is a fundamental American value, provided you are not Muslim or an atheist.  

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