Illustration by Erin Taj

The RNC, the Gathering of the Juggalos, My Long-Lost Little Brother and Me

He showed up unexpected at my door with a homemade sword; I, in turn, took him to Ohio for a mix of Trumpalos and Juggalos

When I was 23 years old in 1999, I spent a weekend with a mother who’d abandoned me as a baby. I’d last seen her when I was two years old, during my parent’s traumatic divorce. My biological mother would never remarry, but she went on to have three more children, a boy named Vince and two girls, with two other baby daddies. My older sister (and only full sibling) and I were lucky enough to be abandoned by our mother. Her subsequent children weren’t so fortunate, particularly Vince. Almost immediately after picking me up from the train before that family reunion of sorts in 1999, my hardscrabble half-brother looked over at me and said casually, “You know mom’s crazy, right?” That line instantly established the tone of our relationship: We shared a mother and a formative trauma.

Vince then took me to Hot Topic to buy Insane Clown Posse merchandise. I saw his love of ICP as proof that in the battle between nature and nurture, “nurture” was clearly winning. We obviously had nothing in common. I was a staff writer for The Onion while still in college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was a Juggalo high school dropout from the St. Louis ghetto. And while I spent many of my teen years in a group home, my awful, traumatic childhood was way less awful and traumatic than Vince’s awful, traumatic childhood. I have a dad who loves me even though his multiple sclerosis and poverty kept him from being able to raise me after a certain point. My brother, on the other hand, once confided in me that his dad had a habit of showing up once a year messed up on methadone and spoiling for a fistfight.

But in the years that followed my meeting with my Juggalo brother, something unexpected happened: I became a Juggalo, too. What I once saw as proof that my brother and I had nothing in common, I now interpreted it as evidence that we were surprisingly similar. We were broken in the same ways, and found the same refuge from our brokenness in the music and culture of Insane Clown Posse. For my part, in ICP and its annual Gathering of the Juggalos, I discovered a working-class utopia devoid of judgment and self-consciousness, where everyone was single-mindedly devoted to having fun and to helping other people have the time of their lives. It became a place of uncomplicated, unambiguous joy. Sure, the drugs helped, but it went beyond that.

Even with my newfound ICP love, I didn’t think about my long-lost Juggalo brother too much in the years that followed. Then one night about two years ago, my wife wondered aloud if the brother I’d only met once 17 years ago, and whose existence I wasn’t even aware of until I sought out my mother in my early 20s, was on Facebook. I sent Vince a Facebook friend request that he quickly accepted. Soon, this tormented figure from my half-forgotten Midwestern gothic past was reborn as a super-enthusiastic social media companion, the kind who likes and comments on every post.

Our relationship stayed that way until two months ago. That’s when Vince, a welder, showed up at my front door unexpectedly with an enormous homemade sword he’d made for me. My brother didn’t ask if it’d be okay for him to drive from St. Louis to Marietta, Georgia, to see me. He just decided that it was happening, and nine hours later, this strange, sweaty and anxious man and his wife Pam showed up at the front door of the massive suburban home I share with my wife, my 19-month-old son and my in-laws and told my flummoxed mother-in-law that he was delivering art to Nathan Rabin, before explaining that he was my his long-lost half brother.

What do you give the long-lost brother you haven’t seen in 17 years? A handmade sword, of course.

That night my brother chain-smoked and pounded vodka straight as he told me story after story about his past and our mother’s past that collectively created a nightmarish tableau of emotional abuse and unrelenting psychological brutality. In the most vivid and oft-repeated story, he talked about our mother telling him that she wish she had aborted him. In a fit of rage and with tears in his eyes, he shoved a gun in her hand and begged her to pull the trigger if she wanted him gone so badly.

It was a hell of a way to be reintroduced to a sibling, but it was just a warm-up for what we planned to be our real reunion a few weeks later at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos in Thornville, Ohio — my fifth Gathering in seven years. Of course, it wasn’t lost on me that another ghoulish assemblage of macabre, reviled clowns would be taking place just a two-and-a-half hour drive away from the Gathering on overlapping days — the 2016 Republican National Convention and its Gathering of Trumpalos. And so, I spied the opportunity of a lifetime to spend an entire week doing things most people would pay good money to avoid, and to do it in the company of a brother I didn’t know but found darkly fascinating.

Originally, the plan was for me to go to the RNC by myself and to have Vince meet me in Thornville later in the week. But a day after the Convention began, Vince announced he was now in Cleveland, too. (His first question: “Why the hell are even the shitty hotel rooms $500 a night?”) So my brother and his long-suffering, saintly wife — and the mother of his teenaged children — decided to spend a few days sightseeing while I plunged myself into the craziness of the political scene.

My brother’s overwhelming impression of the RNC was that there were way too many cops. Considering that our big week ended with him driving me back home to Marietta while smoking weed most of the way, I could understand why the intense police presence freaked him out. He had, and has, the poor’s inveterate distrust of cops. I, however, generally welcomed the police presence, even at a rally protesting police brutality.

As expected, the real insanity at the RNC was centralized in the crowded street leading to the entrance of the Quicken Loans Arena where the Convention took place. It was a riot of vendors peddling “Make America Great Again” merchandise, Christian zealots, cable news channels reporting live and various eccentrics intent on making their case to the American people, or at least those who wandered past them.

The one person there I’ll never shake was Craig Moss, a guitar-strumming man in a cowboy hat singing one of his many Trump-themed country anthems. Moss came to The Donald through a tragedy — the death of his son to a heroin overdose — that turned him into a vessel to spread Trump’s gospel. The CD I bought from his associate had 14 songs about Trump on it with titles like, “Americans We Will Win,” “Donald Trump,” “Let’s Make America Great Again,” “Trump Train,” “Hold Not Our Flag” and one song about his son. It was a strange combination of the political and the achingly personal. Inside the CD was a heartbreaking insert with his late son’s smiling face, a sorrowful reminder of better days. On the opposite side was a letter from Moss to his son on the anniversary of his son’s death.

Moss’s street-level juxtaposition of a parent’s intense grief and unabashed political activism was echoed disturbingly on a much larger stage by Patricia Smith, one of the first speakers at the Convention and the mother of an American who died in the Benghazi attack. Smith began from a place of shrieking rage — her grief still so fresh that it was as if her son had died a half-hour before her speech started. Her voice quaking with raw emotion, she told the story of her son’s death in ways designed to whip the audience into a frothing fury.

Four years later, there still was no logic behind her son’s death, just the unfillable hole he left in his mother’s life. Powered by burning rage, Smith bellowed of her son’s death and the deaths of all Americans at Benghazi—“I blame Hillary Clinton” to the roar of a crowd baying for blood.

The sight of this motherly angel of vengeance couldn’t help but make me think of my own mother, the one who had traumatized my brother and myself in profoundly different but powerful ways. It’s hard to overstate the role mothers play in our culture, psychologically and practically. They’re supposed to fight for you, to love you, and, in this instance, avenge your death. I suspect that a lot of my brother’s and my own skepticism about the world is rooted in profound disillusionment with the woman who is supposed to love you more than anything else, and to never stop fighting for you, even if you’re dead and the stage for that fight is a national political convention.

The Machiavellian slyness of Smith’s speech, however, was that it weaponized a mother’s grief. It took something heartbreaking — a mother burying her son — and transformed it into a tool to use against a politician. Angry cries of “Lock her up!” could be heard throughout the convention as delegates and Trumpalos savored the idea of not just defeating that evil, crooked witch Hillary Clinton but of humiliating and destroying her.

After experiencing Smith’s speech and the shit-show that was the long road to Quicken Loans Arena and Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president, I couldn’t wait to escape into the Dark Carnival and the Gathering. I was especially excited to share the experience with my brother and his wife, who drove me from Cleveland to Thornville. My brother had planned to wow me by renting a pimped-out vehicle with money he was sure he’d win after getting injured on the job, but like all Juggalo plans, that fell through, and we all ended up squeezed in a Toyota Yaris that had seen better days.

During the car ride, stories spilled out of him with a volume and intensity that made them hard to keep straight, particularly since he had a tendency to repeat them. Some of them I desperately wanted to hear, like when he told me he was once in a kickboxing cult, but many of the other stories were almost unbearably grim, particularly the stories about our mother. So after a certain point, I had to stop listening to preserve my own sanity. I wanted to learn more about my mother and my brother, but eventually I felt, if anything, I’d learned too much.

Brotherly hugs—the author (left) and his half-brother Vince.

My hope was that four days in the sunshine at The Gathering would provide an escape from the psychodrama of my brother’s life — and at times, it did. But the first night in particular my brother’s rage, sadness and disappointment followed him around like an entourage of dirt. (It didn’t help that we couldn’t successfully get him drunk , or at least stave off the nightmarish specter of sobriety: They don’t sell alcohol at The Gathering, so it’s far easier to secure hard drugs than a decent bottle of vodka.) A brutal life in the ghetto had made him wary. It took him a while to warm up to places. That first night he was clearly trying to determine whether people were going to fuck with him, in which case he needed to keep his guard up, or whether this was an environment where he could relax. Vince reminded me, more than anything else, of the guys I grew up with in the group home. My “brothers” there also were indelibly marked by parental abandonment, neglect and abuse. That was true of me and Vince as well, but it was particularly intense because in this case our tragicomic adventures began in the same womb, just a few years apart.

The only steady thing in his life, as far as I could tell, was his wife, whom he met not long after turning 18 and whom he clearly adored. He was a man-child, and she was his responsible maternal figure. I, for one, took comfort in how well she cared for him — and me. She was our perpetual designated driver during The Gathering, staying completely sober (she didn’t drink or use drugs, yet never seemed to judge my brother when he did both aggressively) while we were exploring sensory derangement the entire festival. And her patience bordered on preternatural. I know for damn sure that my own wife would never stay awake until 5 a.m. so her husband and his brother could see their second-favorite Insane Clown Posse side project. But Vince’s wife didn’t complain at all when we stayed up until the sun rose so we could see Psychopathic Records supergroup Dark Lotus.

Somehow she even found it in her heart to care for our mother, who my brother told me was dying a slow, painful death in East Saint Louis. The Red Witch, as my brother calls my mom, with just a hint of weary affection, had done such a number on my brother’s psyche that I suspected only her death could free him of her influence.

By Day Two, however, things got much better and a couple of very different brothers found unexpected common ground in their shared desire to smoke a fuck-ton of pot, eat a fair amount of beef jerky flavored molly (a half-assed invention I’ve pioneered) and enjoy the music and culture of the Psychopathic Records family.

I was particularly excited about Insane Clown Posse’s “seminar” because it was The Gathering’s equivalent of a presidential candidate’s convention speech. But unlike Donald Trump’s speech at the RNC, Violent J’s message to the assembled Juggalos was full of hope. YOU could be anything you wanted to be. YOU could stop smoking. YOU could lose weight. YOU could get a new job. YOU were only limited by your imagination. Violent J enthusiastically proclaimed that he and Shaggy 2 Dope had only just hit their peak creatively and were doing the best work of their lives. Juggalos started chanting “ICP! ICP! ICP!” at which point, ICP started chanting “Juggalos! Juggalos! Juggalos!”

Then came the big announcement: In a historic attempt to illustrate to the world that Juggalos weren’t the monsters history (and the media and the FBI) made them out to be, on September 16, 2017, Insane Clown Posse and their fans would be marching on Washington MLK-style, but with less dignity and more face paint. In a fit of ambition, Violent J even vowed to plant the Hatchet Man flag on the White House lawn.

It felt, of course, like the culmination of everything Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope had ever done. Five years ago, the FBI had radicalized the duo by labeling Juggalos as a “loosely organized hybrid gang,” something that has serious legal ramifications for Juggalos dealing with the court system. Say, for instance, you’re a poor Juggalo fighting for custody of your children; it doesn’t help your case if the other parent tells the court that the Hatchetman tattoo on your lower leg indicates your membership in a nefarious “loosely organized hybrid gang.”

As a result, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope had become politicized. They didn’t bring the fight to the FBI. The FBI brought the fight to them, and now they were planning their boldest, most political move yet. By marching on D.C., ICP was legitimately becoming a movement.

Overall, the contrast in tone and message between ICP and the Republican Party couldn’t have been more dramatic. ICP made the world seem like a great place that’s only getting better. Be kind. Be generous. Be a force for good in a fucked-up universe. Be a Juggalo, not a Trumpalo. Republicans, on the other hand, were promising an apocalypse unless Trump becomes all-powerful dictator for life.

ICP’s evangelical zeal was driven home most bluntly in “Thy Unveiling,” the final song on The Wraith: Shangri-La and the last, most important track on the six ICP albums that constitute the first pack of Jokers Cards. Texturally as well as thematically, the song is a big change of pace. The vibe for the epic song is oddly psychedelic and wistful as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope ramble through the history of their own unlikely career before delivering a message as blunt as it is powerful. His voice quaking with intensity, Violent J raps:

“This ain’t no fucking fan club, it ain’t about making a buck! Don’t buy our fucking action figures, bitch I don’t give a fuck, it ain’t about Violent J or Shaggy or the Butterfly, seventeen, when we speak of Shangri-La what do you think we mean? Truth is we follow God, we’ve always been behind him, the Carnival is God and may all Juggalos find him.”

True, I was on a substantial number of drugs at the time, as was Vince (who’d experimented happily with not drinking the final night of The Gathering, an effort made easier by the drugs in his system) but as confetti and blasts of Faygo rained down, fireworks exploded in the night sky and the unlikely father figures of an entire subculture implored their reviled, mocked and persecuted followers to love God the way they love each other, ICP and themselves, I began to weep.

There was something about the brazen earnestness and positivity of ICP’s music and message that particularly resonated with me after spending several awful days at the RNC that left me despairing for our nation’s future. I began the week in such a place of darkness and confusion and incoherent anger, in a country that’s changing and devolving in ways that are terrifying to me. But I ended my adventure in a place of pure positivity, where a broken man with a broken mind and his even more broken long-lost brother could come together, momentarily forget their troubles, and bliss out on some pure Clown Love.