On Monday, President Donald Trump blitzed the Midwest for a trio of rallies aimed at pumping up his base for Tuesday’s midterm elections.
At the day’s first event in Cleveland, the president came on stage as thousands of supporters filled the cavernous indoor space on the city’s west side with rock-show enthusiasm. In his comments, Trump unloaded his full rhetorical payload on Democrats, stringing together personal attacks, immigration fearmongering, and dark economic premonitions into a 56-minute final pitch to voters.
A familiar figure - eyes behind sunglasses, wrapped in a Trump-Pence T-shirt, a neck medallion and fat gold wristwatch glinting off the overhead lighting as he whipped around a campaign sign - was visible in the Cleveland crowd at Trump’s right elbow: "Michael the Black Man."
"Yeah, that was me," Michael - known variously in the past as Maurice Symonette, Michael Symonette, Maurice Woodside and Mikael Israel - told The Washington Post on Monday night.
Ever since Trump bulldozed into the American political scene, the gold-plated, reality TV, real estate tycoon has pulled in his wake a sideshow of hangers-on and superfans, also-ran political hacks and Internet celebs. You’ve got Diamond and Silk, the North Carolina sisters turned YouTube stars; Carter Page, the low-profile foreign policy expert who’s popped up in the investigation into Russian hacking investigation; and Jon McNaughton, the commercial painter creating the iconography of the Trump era.
All of them sit in the twilight zone between mainstream obscurity and MAGA fame.
Symonette might be Trump’s most high-profile African American backer. Regularly spotted in rally crowds hefting a "BLACKS FOR TRUMP" sign, he’s become a minor celebrity in the far-right media. His full-throated support of the president has also pulled the Florida resident into the orbit of other conservative figures, including former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Rick Santorum, and then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
In the 1980s, Symonette was a member of a Miami cult that eventually was tangled up in a violent murder conspiracy, according to the Miami New Times. He’s since reinvented himself as a far-right activist - part conspiracy theory evangelist, part liberal antagonist. He once picketed an appearance by then-candidate Barack Obama with signs reading "Obama endorsed by the KKK." He’s referred to Oprah Winfrey as "the devil," The Post reported last year.
And now, as the 2018 cycle enters its final hours, he has traveled across the country to again support Trump.
"The real problem is the independents are divided from the president by the dog-whistling from the press, because a lot of them are hippies," Symonette told The Post, sizing up the Republicans’s midterm chances. In his analysis, Trump is not a racist, and his rhetoric is not meant to tap into buried prejudices. Rather, he said, it is the media and Democrats who are using race to terrify independents away from the GOP.
"They’re afraid of that Helter Skelter thing, that there’s going to be a race war and the black man is going to kill all the white people," Symonette said. "George Soros and the boys know they have to dog-whistle the independents to split the vote, because if they can split that vote, they can win."
Symonette explained that as an African American, he hopes his presence is a visual rejoinder to accusations about Trump’s racism.
"I feel that it’s my obligation to let the world know there is going to be harmony," he said. "I have to calm my brothers’ fears down about this so called race war, which is what independents are worried about."
A conversation with Symonette involves biblical references, historical allusions, and abrupt topic changes. On Monday night, he explained that his admiration for Trump stretched back to 1984, when he was a follower of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, a former black nationalist turned pulpit-pounding preacher from Miami. The religious leader told Symonette to watch Trump.
"Ben Yahweh said, ‘That’s the man, that’s the one who will fight for you,’" he said.
Ben Yahweh - real name Hulon Mitchell Jr., according to New Times - preached a strict and fiery brand of religion. The Miami publication reported that when Symonette’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1985, Ben Yahweh forced his follower to deny her medical treatment in favor of "vegetables, nuts and herbs."
The cult allegedly had an even darker side. In the mid-1980s, the Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize tying the group to a series of murders. Symonette, Yahweh, and 13 others were later charged by federal authorities on a host of criminal charges, including racketeering and conspiracy to commit 14 murders.
Symonette’s own brother testified in court that Symonette had helped beat a man who was later killed, and stuck a stick into another victim’s eye. Symonette, however, and six other followers were acquitted. The cult leader was convicted and sent to prison for 20 years, New Times reported.
The journey from bloody religious cult to Trump rallies included a few more odd detours.
In 2008, the Miami New Times reported Symonette later worked as a singer-songwriter and recorded with Philip Michael Thomas, the star of "Miami Vice." The paper reported he later started drawing a local following as an on-air personality at a Miami FM station, where he would regularly rant about the "Demon-crats."
Symonette has been a fixture at Trump appearances since the 2016 election. Often he could be seen sporting a shirt advertising his website, Gods2.com. The site features links to videos laying out conspiracies, such as "KKK Racists Are Revealed as Cherokee, Arab & Democrats," "Pres. Trump & Kushner are the Greatest Helpers of the Hebrews Since the Biblical Kingdom of Persia," and "PRES. ROOSEVELT & DEMS, STARTED VALKYRIE in 1944 to keep DEMS. SECRET SOCIETIES, & CENTRAL BANKERS in Control of America."
Despite his profile in the Trump world, Symonette has reportedly been hampered by financial difficulties as of late. This fall, the New Times reported Symonette had filed for bankruptcy; in court filings, he claimed to have an empty bank account and that financial institutions were going after four South Florida properties he owned worth a total of $2.9 million. The paper wrote Symonette accused the judge in his case of being racist in court filings, and also claimed he was only targeted due to his Trump support.
The judge, however, found that Symonette had filed for bankruptcy eight times since 1995, and that he had "never performed his obligations as a debtor in any of his bankruptcies." The judge dismissed the case and ordered Symonette to not file another bankruptcy for five years.
Symonette brushed aside his recent money problems on Monday, but acknowledged, "right now I don’t have cash." For his treks to Trump rallies, he said he raises "a little money from my brothers" to travel. He says he has never taken a payment for being Trump’s friendliest African American face in the crowd.
"I don’t want nothing, I don’t want to get paid, I’ve never gotten paid," he said. "I wouldn’t let you guys put me in the position to be excoriated and hated by everybody."