Providing "the neighborhood’s only explicitly political street entertainment," a former liberal named Michael DeBari draws both fans and fire at his outpost near the French Market.
-by Andrew Cominelli
-photography by Ellis Anderson
He looks out over the wet street. Raindrops roll down his plastic cutouts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “At least we know the NSA and the CIA are trying to starve me, now. It’s a conspiracy to keep me off the streets.”
He lowers himself into a display hammock outside a French Market textiles stall. He produces a Lara bar from his insulated zipper lunch bag and eats. He resumes a free-range monologue that touches on the following:
Badass Uncle Sam, whose driver’s license reads Michael DiBari, is the French Quarter’s most political fixture - really, the neighborhood’s only explicitly political street entertainment. He’s been selling his satirical cartoons on the street for the past seven years, first on Frenchmen, now at the foot of Ursulines across from the French Market.
At 10 a.m. today, DiBari, 72, arrives by bicycle, towing his Badass Uncle Sam mobile store - an apparatus roughly seven feet high, five feet long, two feet wide, designed to display his right-leaning political cartoons. The wheeled rig has a welded steel frame DiBari had custom made, and waterproof paneling. Two small U.S. flags sprout from its roof.
He pulls tarps off the broadsides of the rig to unveil all his display cartoons, plus two cutouts well known to locals. The first: a grinning Donald Trump dressed in an American-flag suit, giving two thumbs up. On his lapel, a sticker reads LOCK HER UP.
The second cutout is Hillary Clinton. She wears a prison inmate’s orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. Her face is grotesquely rendered, with rodential bug eyes. Her expression is that of one caught at some lewd act. On her crotch there’s an X. In the past, the Hillary crotch region said GRAB HERE.
DiBari stands the cutouts next to each other, propped up by homemade PVC stands. They get DiBari lots of attention, much of it friendly. Passersby start to chuckle. Some sidle up and pose for photos.
DiBari greets folks, asks them where they’re from. Or he says, “If you’d like to leave anything in the Bulletproof Vest Fund, it’s always appreciated,” referring to his tip jar. A couple and their teenaged daughter gravitate toward the cutouts, and DiBari offers to take a picture.
“Get the whole family in there,” he says, waving them into the frame. Before he snaps the photo, he gets the family to shout “MAGA!” instead of “Cheese!”
The morning’s off to a quiet start. DiBari suits up. Before his transformation into Badass Uncle Sam, he wears khaki cargo shorts, a short-sleeve white button-down, red-white-and-blue boat shoes, and a sun-faded red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN ballcap.
Now, he pulls a pair of flag-striped red and white costume pants over his cargo shorts. He loops American-flag suspenders over his shoulders and clamps them to the pants. As he dresses he sings a little snatch of the spiritual “You Gotta Move,” made popular by the Rolling Stones. He knots an American-flag ascot around his neck. He swaps out the MAGA ballcap for an American-flag pattern cowboy hat with upturned sides.
Later he will tell me, via email, “Although America has its flaws, it's still one of the best political venues ever devised. And it deserves defending. And right now it's under attack.”
He completes his ensemble by taking up a wooden staff with an American flag wrapped tightly around it. Its pommel is a bald eagle’s head.
Ostensibly here to sell political cartoons, DiBari has settled into the role of gruff, rightwing street provocateur. He’s known locally as “the Trump guy who screams at people.” He considers it activism more than work.
“The money’s a side thing,” he tells me. “Would I like to make money off of this? Sure! Who wouldn’t like to make money off their artwork and their activism? But it’s not the main focus. The center of action is the people. The fight.”
This is the guiding premise of the enterprise: Real politics happen in the street, in the public square and not in the illusory realm of mass media.
“This is just me being on the frontlines,” he says. “This is the frontlines, here…. the streets are the frontlines. I’m like a canary in a coal mine.”
This entails endless political conversation, and sometimes confrontation, with passersby, tourists and locals.
“I would say 90 percent of the reactions I get are positive,” he says. “Most of the negative stuff is what I call ‘drive-by insults.’ They don’t try to engage. On a Saturday, I might get into 25 conversations. Maybe two or three of them will be confrontational.”
It’s common to see him barking at folks for their liberal beliefs, or chasing after someone who’s trying to stop talking to him and demanding they stay put and “have a conversation.” He calls his opponents “snowflakes.”
He shows mastery in accelerating conversations to vitriolic pitch. He bets people money, five or 10 bucks at a time, against their ability to prove him wrong. He keeps at hand a clipboard with website printouts, which he cites to back up his points.
And when he’s not working himself and others into a frenzy, he can riff endlessly on his doomed worldview, constructing a horrifying portrait of elite conspiracies, mysterious cover-ups, death and disease, global collapse.
“This is the soft fight, right now,” he tells me. “This is the cold war, as it were. Propaganda war, the war of words. It’ll get hot soon enough."
He shakes his head in disgust, continues: “Tranny book tours. Oh, you don't know about the tranny book tours? Look that up. They have transvestites going around to elementary schools... talking to five- and six-year-olds.”
A woman interrupts: “You get any crap for being out here doing this?”
“Not as much as you’d think,” says DiBari.
“Good,” says the woman. “We’re a proponent of you. That’s good.”
“Even in this liberal cesspool,” says DiBari.
DiBari was once a liberal himself. He was born into a “blue-collar, working-class Northeastern Democratic family.” They moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., when he was nine. As he graduated high school, the Vietnam War was raging. “Getting swept up in the then-burgeoning counterculture was a natural recourse,” DiBari says.
St. Petersburg was Jack Kerouac’s adopted home and the city’s mid-sixties arts scene attracted beatniks and hippies. DiBari soaked it all in, saw Kerouac give readings at the Beaux Arts coffeehouse.
Soon he left for California.
“On my second day in San Francisco, I was literally hanging out with Alan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Bill and Sandy Love, and other heavyweights of the sixties,” DiBari says. In Berkeley he immersed himself in the Free Speech Movement, getting involved in influential underground newspapers the Berkeley Barb and the Los Angeles Free Press.
While cutting his anti-authoritarian teeth in California, he was also “getting exposed to the underbelly of politics.” He read “None Dare Call It Conspiracy,” a 1972 book positing that world governments are puppeteered by elite international “Insiders.” The book made DiBari “start to crystallize my awareness of the Deep State.”
DiBari came to New Orleans in the mid-1970s to work on the river for a barge company. As he meandered from job to job, he mostly kept away from politics.
Sept. 11, 2001, rekindled his pissed-off political consciousness.
“Something about it didn’t seem right,” DiBari says of 9/11. It reminded him of Vietnam. He began to think the attacks were a calculated government ploy to justify “yet another endless war,” just like the “phony Gulf of Tonkin” incident almost four decades before.
He discovered Alex Jones, the bellicose and oft-banned radio host behind Infowars, and perhaps the highest-profile purveyor of the 9/11 “inside job” theory.
After 9/11, DiBari “kicked around doing a sort of one-man protest, writing, doing my art, and the like.” He started getting cartoons published in the New Orleans Levee, a satirical paper launched Aug. 29, 2006, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The Levee targeted politicians and government agencies for inept responses to the storm.
“It was a great newspaper that allowed me to have a platform for my work,” DiBari says. “I became a bit of a celebrity during that time. The Levee got up to 100,000 readers and made national and international news. I had politicians afraid of me.”
It inspired him to bring his artwork into the street. His rig is lined on both sides by rows of political cartoons in plastic sleeves, printed to poster size.
His current best-seller depicts Trump’s grimacing face with a hand flipping the bird, the words “POLITICAL CORRECTNESS!” across the bottom. And another one: the Twin Towers and Building 7, overlaid with the words: “2 PLANES 3 BUILDINGS DO THE MATH.”
DiBari turns a modest profit via the Bulletproof Vest Fund and artwork sales, but he also earns money off his robust online presence. He’s beloved on YouTube.
DiBari films his encounters with four small, remote-activated cameras mounted on each corner of his rig. When he suits up as Uncle Sam, he clips the four remotes to the cargo shorts underneath his costume pants. He knows where each remote is, so when someone approaches and starts a conversation, he can secretly activate the appropriate camera by pressing its corresponding remote through his costume pants.
It’s legal to film people like this in public, but he rarely tells his interlocutors they’re on camera. He politely asks them to step in a certain direction to better frame them.
And, oh, yes, the bald eagle’s head on his staff has a microphone in it.
He cuts his daily footage into YouTube videos. At the time of this writing, DiBari has posted 1,415 videos which have collectively been viewed 891,561 times. His channel has an impressive 10,892 subscribers.
There are plenty of nice conversations up there, but his knockdown-dragouts with liberals get the most views.
Consider titles like “More Proof Liberals Are Cowards,” “Consensual Pussy-Grabbing,” and “Psycho Liberal Mom.”
Then there’s 2017’s “The Greatest Snowflake Meltdown Ever,” a saga in three parts. In it, a 20-something woman stands beside DiBari’s cutouts, holding a sign: “THIS MAN PROMOTES VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN. NEW ORLEANS DOES NOT.”
Hours of vituperation between her and DiBari ensue. At a certain point, the woman sticks one of DiBari’s cameras in her back pocket while his back is turned.
“I jumped over and I grabbed my camera out of her back pocket,” says DiBari. “Grabbed her arm, twisted it, took the camera out of her back pocket. I said, ‘Good, lady. Now you’re going to jail.’”
He called the cops, and later took her to court. Part One of “Snowflake Meltdown” is DiBari’s second most-viewed video, with 57,422 views.
Trump folks love DiBari. They’re prone to wander up, as though out of some dream, smiling as the rightwing humor of his cartoons dawns. He performs a kind of catharsis for Trumpers in the French Quarter. A sort of Shakespearian fool of Trumpism, Badass Uncle Sam boldly shouts what his fellow travellers are too hidebound by social niceties to shout themselves. He releases deep strong feelings held hostage at PC culture’s gunpoint, his rig a little oasis where Trump-supporting tourists can, for a few minutes, be themselves, politically speaking, before trudging back into the “liberal cesspool.”
“I just bought my husband and son some of these hats,” the Texas mother tells Michael. She’s talking about MAGA hats. “My husband said, ‘I don’t want to wear the hat, because I just don’t want the hassle.’”
Avuncular DiBari shakes his head. “What you find is, 95 percent of what you get is positive. I mean, I’ve been to Whole Foods with the MAGA hat on, and had people come up and say, ‘I like your hat!’
"And the few that give me any crap - like last week, I was in a parking lot. ‘You ought to be ashamed!’ Hey, get within arm’s reach of me and say that. C’mere. Just c’mere. Alls you have to do is confront them. The only time you have to worry about them is when they’re in groups.”
The woman nods. It’s a welcome surprise for her to find a stranger in this strange land expressing her own solemn fears, being brazen and public with beliefs she herself must hide on a daily basis.
That evening, DiBari posts a 50-minute video on YouTube. As with almost all his videos, he films a short webcam-filmed introduction. “Welcome back,” he says, thoroughly deflated. “I don't even want to welcome you to this mess.”
The video will show a heated argument between DiBari and a fed worker from D.C. “I assume he’s a janitor who cleans out the congressional toilets or something,” DiBari says in his introduction.
Again, he’s in a room, presumably alone, speaking into a webcam. “Can you tell I’m a little frustrated?"
He now addresses his YouTube audience directly: “Hey, how ya doin’? When was the last time that any of you signed up on my SubscribeStar, you know, and gave me five dollars a month maybe? Huh?
"When was the last time one of you went to my store and maybe bought one of my T-shirts? Hm? How many of you shared my videos to counter the censorship?”
It’s all pretty dark. DiBari seems lost and exhausted, just on the cusp of realizing that the void he screams into might never respond.