Twenty years ago, as the country white-knuckled its way through a Florida recount to decide the fate of the race between Al Gore and George Bush, a group of expensively dressed middle-aged white men swarmed a government building in Miami-Dade county: “50-year-old white lawyers with cell phones and Hermès ties,” as the Wall Street Journal described them at the time. The crew was clearly made up of out-of-towners: folks in suit jackets and button-ups flying down from outside Miami to pressure and intimidate election canvassers. Their look was so distinct, in fact, that the protests were labeled the “Brooks Brothers Riot.” It was a moniker the crew wore proudly. “We all had Brooks Brothers blazers,” Brad Blakeman, who worked for the Bush campaign, told the Washington Post. “We could have popped out of the catalogue.” Today, the Brooks Brothers Riot is freshly relevant: Protesters in Detroit, Michigan, have attempted their own shutdown of the vote there, but the shift in attire can tell us plenty about the ways American politics has changed in the years since.
“Folks, they’re trying to Brooks Brothers Riot it in Michigan,” journalist Josh Marshall wrote on Twitter. “Mob action. They’re trying to shut it down.” The original Brooks Brothers Riot was a specific effort to stymie the Florida recount in the 2000 race, perpetrated by Republican operatives who tried to obscure their role in disrupting the vote. Marjorie Strayer, who at the time was an aide for a New Mexico Republican, told reporters she was “just a Virginian on vacation,” according to Down & Dirty, Jake Tapper’s postmortem of the election.
What gave them away? The Republicans were improperly costumed.
“Nobody was in guayaberas,” Joe Geller, the chairman of Miami-Dade’s Democractic Party, told the Washington Post, in reference to a piece of classic Miami fashion. “These were out-of-towners. They were tweedy. They weren’t dressed [for Miami]. Yeah, it was November. But they were dressed the way someone would in Washington in November.” (Spotted among the crowd: Republican clotheshorse, and Trump buddy, and longtime right-wing trickster Roger Stone, who claimed he helped organize the whole operation. Others involved challenge that claim.)
Stone and his posse are notorious for a seeming oxymoron: an obsession with clothes that nearly always results with poor dressing. It hardly feels like a coincidence that Stone’s obsessions lies with the rules of tailoring. (His book on politics and style is literally called Stone’s Rules.) But his adherence to bygone codes only makes him and his illiterati look old fashioned and out of touch. It’s notable, too, that Blakeman boasted about looking like the Brooks Brothers catalogue. The professional GOP uniform isn’t about self-expression.
Wednesday’s protest was a much more downmarket version of 2000’s Brooks Brothers Riot—in every way. The group who gathered around the TCF Center in downtown Detroit, where votes were being counted, didn’t exactly mirror their catalog-ready predecessors. Visible among the crowd of protesters: frumpy green polos, hoodies, and T-shirts emblazoned with the Betsy Ross flag. “JC PENNEY RIOT,” the journalist Leon Neyfakh joked.
Neyfakh was making a joke about the crowd’s relatively frumpy appearance, while tapping into the ways the GOP’s base has morphed over the past 20 years. This wasn’t a cadre of seasoned litigators—this was Facebook moms, conspiracy theorists, and happy “deplorables” all the way down. That’s not to say the current administration doesn’t care for fashion—it’s impossible to imagine Trump and his administration members in a J.C. Penney. Melania wears expensive Alexander McQueen skirt suits, Jared Kushner is a devotee of the skinny suit, and Trump’s inner circle has a taste for Italian tailoring brand Isaia. This is all a feature of the Trump experience: Trump spectates from private golf courses as the wealthy grow wealthier while his supporters demanding a stop to the count are judged to be J.C. Penney shoppers.
But that’s where the similarities between the Brooks Brothers Riot and today’s protest in Detroit end. For starters, Acker said that the group outside the TCF Center were specifically “non-lawyers,” unlike the ones who descended on Florida two decades ago. And today’s protests are largely incoherent: one group is chanting “stop the vote!” while another asks for the exact opposite. The scene almost exactly mirrors an episode of Veep, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus show about a pack of buffoonish politicos who crave power at any cost. The more important difference is what’s being contested: there was a minuscule difference in the race between Gore and Bush, while at the time protesters showed up in Detroit, Trump’s deficit was already at 40,000 votes and growing.