The "New Uncle Sam" poses outside of the North Charleston Coliseum during the sixth Republican presidential debate
“Who is this for?” I ask myself as I walk through the packs of supporters and news crews outside of the Republican presidential debate in North Charleston. Whether Republican or Democrat, have any of these debates actually swayed any undecided voters — or do they just serve as political pep rallies and ratings events? Not sure of the answer myself, I decide to talk to the people waiting for the debate to begin.
Earlier in the evening, a small aircraft flew above North Charleston, carrying behind it the Confederate battle flag and a banner that read, “No votes for turncoats,” clearly in reference to the lawmakers who voted to remove the flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds last summer. With the bar set pretty low for the evening, I first speak with one of the gentlemen positioned in front of the North Charleston Coliseum with a sign informing passersby, “Don’t believe the liberal media.”
Call it journalistic curiosity or simply the desire for an ironic bumper sticker, but I feel compelled to talk to this man. His name is Bryan, and he’s with a group called the Media Research Center. According to the organization’s website, the center was founded to prove “through sound, scientific research that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values.” Bryan came to North Charleston to spread this message — preferably with the hashtag #TTT16, which is shorthand for “Tell the Truth 2016.”
The Tell the Truth campaign’s main objective is to prevent the “liberal media” from rigging the upcoming presidential election, which seems like a worthwhile cause. I can understand why someone would want to defend the democratic process from any perceived attack, and Bryan is a friendly guy from Greenwood, S.C. I ask him to tell me more about his organization and what he hopes to accomplish. This is his opportunity to really get his message out there, I say, but Bryan opts to not to divulge much more than his first name and hometown. Bryan says he is not the mouthpiece of his group and does not want to get in trouble.
Bryan of the Media Research Center promotes his cause outside of the sixth Republican presidential debate
Let down by the one person I was sure would tell me exactly what I’ve done wrong, I turn to the group of activists protesting what they call the Republican message.
“We’re here because we want to send a positive message that you’re not hearing from the Republicans,” says Merrill Chapman. “The xenophobic rhetoric that we hear is scary and it’s hateful and it doesn’t belong in Charleston of all places. We say, ‘Enough is enough.’ We are for gun sense, for logical changes to closing the loopholes, and changing things up a bit.”
Chapman is joined by John Gruber, regional organizing manager of the Brady Campaign, an organization that aims to reduce the number of gun deaths and injuries in the U.S. Traveling from Chicago to Charleston following the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME, Gruber has been able to examine the causes of gun violence across the country.
“In Chicago and in Charleston, S.C., there is actually one problem that links the two and that is bad-apple gun dealers. Nationally, 5 percent of gun dealers sell 90 percent of all crime guns,” Gruber says. “So the guns you see in the streets, whether they are fueling the violence you saw at the Emanuel shooting or they are fueling the violence in Chicago, these specific gun dealers aren’t doing enough to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. We’re for asking corporate gun dealers to act more responsibly. When I come down here and I see the same problems, it’s a tragically affirming finding that these gun dealers are causing problems all over.”
Breaking away from that conversation, I set out to find people who are at the debate because they actually support a candidate on the stage. On my way, I stop a man wearing a hat with Donald Trump’s slogan: Make America Great Again. I ask him why he supports Trump’s bid for president, but he replies, “I’m a vendor. Come by later and get a T-shirt.”
After him, I speak with an older man dressed as Uncle Sam. He’s a veteran who doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the debate. We briefly talk about his music career before he gets pulled away for a picture.
Finally, I head to the “Free Speech Zone,” which houses the most vocal supporters and also serves as an absurd insult to the First Amendment. Fenced inside a small area at the side entrance of the building, Ted Cruz fans attempt to out-shout a group of Marco Rubio supporters. Both camps play it up as the news cameras roll, but the small team of Jeb Bush supporters at the back of the pen fail to muster much of a rally. As the debate kicks off, supporters from all camps begin to scatter, but I manage to speak with Anna Ducker from Johns Island, who minutes before told a nearby police officer that he looked like a “Cruz man.”
“He has the values that appeal to me. Every value that he has is my value,” Ducker says when asked why she supports Cruz. “One is Israel. We have to support Israel. It is a commandment that we may not break. Obama has broken every single one. We need to clean up the White House and I believe Cruz is the man to do it. I believe that he will do what he says he’s going to do. I believe he is not a liar like some. I believe that he is honest and a good man and full of integrity, and I believe he’s our man for the job.”
Ted Cruz fans support their candidate inside the "Free Speech Zone" during the Republican presidential debate
Moving away from the Free Speech Zone, I try to think of at least one person that I’ve met during the evening who hopes to actually get something from the night’s debate, someone who isn’t there to campaign or peddle, but to learn. Then I remember the crowd of young men huddled outside the front doors of the venue. They all wear matching blazers with matching crests embroidered on the breasts, and they all seem excited.
“We all support different candidates, but we’re all really active because we can finally vote for this one. We’re all turning 18, so we’re all pretty involved,” says Harris Krogh of the Young Republicans’ Society at Porter-Gaud.
After spending the evening speaking with silent media critics, costumed performers, and fanatic political supporters, this was it. These young men acknowledged that they supported different political candidates, held different opinions, and still managed to stand together. Maybe there is hope for the future. It just depends on who gets elected.
“Politics is more of a new thing for me since I’ve come of age to vote. I’m finally old enough to understand everything that’s going on,” Krogh says. “It’s really exciting. It definitely gets all of us more excited. We’re so honored to be able to come here.”