A year later, Ken Bone has finally made up his mind.
In case you don't recall, Bone is the red-sweater wearing undecided voter who became a pop culture sensation the evening of October 9, 2016, when he questioned Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about energy policy during the second presidential debate.
He still stubbornly refuses to say who he voted for (though he recently told HBO's Bill Maher that it wasn't Green Party candidate Jill Stein). But nearly nine months into the Trump administration, he's clearly not undecided anymore.
“Overall,” he told me recently, “I'm very unhappy with what I see.”
On issue after issue, Bone the very emblem of moderate political consideration has turned sharply critical of the President.
There's the order banning people from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US: “How could that realistically keep anyone safer?”
The border wall: “We invented something as a society a little while ago called the airplane and the ladder to defeat walls pretty regularly.”
Banning transgender Americans from the military: “Can transgender people go into the bathroom of the sex they see themselves as? Why not? Who freaking cares?”
Republican legislation aimed at repealing Obamacare: “My mom's a breast cancer survivor who has health insurance thanks to the exchange. So I don't want to see her lose her coverage.”
Trump's response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia: “I just don't understand why he has a problem with saying that Nazis are worse people than other people.”
Trump's relationship with the media: “The leader of the free world should probably be focusing a little bit more on the country, and less about crying about fake news. That's one thing I really, really hate, is when Trump is like, 'Oh, fake news is at it again. Fake news CNN.' Why do you care? You know?”
And, finally, allegations of Trump's campaign colluding with Russia: “At the beginning of the administration, I really am doing my best to, every story that comes out I'm like, oh I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt, there's no way it's that bad, there's no way it's that bad. And yet still the hits keep on coming. It's the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing coming out. And at some point, where there's smoke, there's fire. And if even 10% of this stuff is valid, then there's something to really be concerned about.”
Taken together, it's too much for Bone. And in this respect, he's come to represent middle-of-the-roaders throughout the American electorate, who as a group hold decidedly unfavorable views of the President. A CNN poll conducted last month by SSRS found 55% of independents disapproved of Trump's job performance, while only 38% approved.
Although Bone still won't admit who he voted for in last year's election, he says as things stand now, he's unlikely to vote to re-elect Trump.
“Almost anybody who is currently a Democrat in the Senate, I think I would probably vote for over Trump.”
“Almost anybody who is currently a Democrat in the Senate, I think I would probably vote for over Trump,” he says. He also said he would consider voting for former Vice President Joe Biden over Trump.
No one is more perplexed by his fame than Bone himself. “It's almost over,” he says, “and I still don't get it.”
Bone has experienced the rush and perils of instant celebrity over the past year. He served as a special correspondent for ABC's “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and walked the red carpet at a Hollywood movie premier. But he's also witnessed police in bulletproof vests sweep his house for explosives and endured withering criticism for comments he made prior to his time in the spotlight.
“Parts of it were a real bummer,” Bone told me. “Parts of it were the most fun I ever had.”
It all started last fall, when Bone, a married father of one living in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois, received a call from a Gallup poll researcher asking if he was committed to voting for either Clinton or Trump. He said he wasn't and agreed to have his name added to the pool of undecided voters under consideration to appear on stage during the upcoming town hall-style debate at nearby Washington University in St. Louis.
Bone, who works at a coal fired power plant, was eventually selected to participate. After CNN's Anderson Cooper, one of the debate moderators, gave him the floor, nearly 67 million television viewers watched an ordinary 34-year-old man ask a thoughtful question of two deeply-flawed candidates: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
Right away, Bone's red sweater lit up social media, with memes including one with a photograph of his chubby, mustached face above the question: “How will you protect my job as a card on Guess Who?” receiving tens of thousands of retweets. His name soon began trending online, and popularity increased further when video footage circulated of Bone taking photographs of the stage with a disposable camera. Less than an hour after the debate, New York Magazine declared that Bone's “vibrant red sweater, pure and earnest face, and enthusiastically delivered question about energy sources have boosted him to internet-celebrity status.”
Bone had no idea about any of this when he left the auditorium around 10 pm. When he reached the parking lot and turned on his phone, he noticed he had thousands of new messages on social media. Over the following days, he was interviewed on CNN, turned up on Comedy Central's @midnight with Chris Hardwick, appeared as a computer generated dancer on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and explained to Jimmy Kimmel that he hadn't even planned on wearing the red sweater to the debate. “When I got into my car, I split the seat out of my pants and destroyed my olive suit, and I had to do an emergency wardrobe change,” he said.
“I didn't have time to think about how weird it was.”
The initial crush of media attention, on top of his workload at the power plant, nearly overwhelmed him. “I did 20 hour days four days in a row,” he says now. “I didn't have time to think about how weird it was.”
He auctioned off the original red sweater made by Izod for charity. It raised $10,000 for Greater St. Louis Honor Flight, an organization that takes military veterans on trips to Washington. The sweater is now kept in the archives of Izod's parent company, PVH Corp., alongside other famous items such as the red Calvin Klein dress that actress Jennifer Lawrence wore to the 2011 Academy Awards.
There were opportunities to cash in as well. He sold nearly 4,000 official Ken Bone t-shirts, filmed a commercial for Izod, and shot a never-aired promo for a movie (which he's contractually barred from identifying).
He has a side job as the “chief people officer” for the fundraising app DonorDex, which matches political candidates with potential donors. And in that capacity, he's a rarity in American life someone who can show up at both conservative and liberal events and draw fans.
In February, he traveled with the DonorDex team to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington. On the exhibition floor, Bone drew such fanatical crowds that employees were forced to limit his time at the booth. One college-age woman fell into tears upon seeing him. “When people tell me, 'Oh I'm a huge fan,' I almost always tell them the same line,” he says. “'I don't know why I have fans, but I like it. It's fun.'”
The reception was just as warm in mid-August when he was at the annual Netroots Nation conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Atlanta. Over four days, some 3,000 fired-up liberals collected tips for surviving Trump's America during panel discussions (“Parenting in the Resistance” in Grand Hall room D), trainings (“D.I.Y Guerilla Video” in Embassy room E), and keynote speeches. (Elizabeth Warren: “And by the way, Mr. President. We're never, ever going to build your stupid wall.”)
Meanwhile, down on the exhibition floor, there was Bone a cuddly figure in his familiar red sweater, delighting even the most hardened activists by signing autographs and posing for selfies.
“I know Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison are here,” says one conferencegoer, “but I want to take a picture with you!”
“You were my Halloween costume last year,” says another.
Bone says he's earned about $150,000 from celebrity-related opportunities over the past year. Not bad for a power plant control room operator with a $105,000 annual salary. “I paid off my car and all my rotating debt,” he says. “We have a balance in our savings account that we've never really had before.”
But it hasn't all been so fun. Bone regularly receives prank calls where the speakers ask, “Who'd you vote for?” and hang up. Sometimes it's just heavy breathing on the other end of the line, other times it's more menacing. A couple days after the debate, for example, a caller recited Bone's address to him and said, “see you tonight.” Bone was frightened enough to retrieve his gun from the safe where he typically stores it and put in on the nightstand while he slept.
On another occasion, while he was driving home after speaking to students at St. Louis University, someone called the local police department and, according to the incident report, said he'd shot Bone and his wife. The caller said he was still in the house, which had been rigged with explosives, and he had a “gun waiting for the police.” He told law enforcement to be “on the lookout.” When Bone neared his driveway, he found a team of police officers wearing bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles on his lawn. He called inside and asked his wife to walk out of the house “real slow,” and the police retrieved his 13-year-old son, who was asleep, from his bedroom. “Then the three of us stand in the front yard in the rain while they sweep the house.”
Although no explosives were found on the property, unearthed comments from his past proved just as damaging to his public image. After he hosted an Ask Me Anything on Reddit last October, news organizations discovered his chat-room history and reported that Bone had called the death of Trayvon Martin “justified” and referred to pregnant women in swimsuits as “beautiful human submarines.” He'd also admitted to perpetrating “felony insurance fraud” by forging “documents to make it look like I had car insurance so I wouldn't get fired from my pizza delivery job.” And he said he'd viewed the nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence that were hacked and leaked online. "Maybe she should have been more careful with her pics, but the bad guys are still the ones who sought them out and looked at them," he wrote. "By which I mean guys like me. I saw her butt hole. I liked it."
Bone says the Trayvon Martin comment was taken out of context. His full post reads: “It doesn't have to be one way or the other view here. From what I read about the case the shooting of Trayvon Martin was justified, but from what I've learned of Zimmerman through statements, interview and behavior he is a big ole shit bird. Bad guy legally kills kid in self defense. Sucks for everybody, including us due to the media f---ery.” The remark about pregnant women, he says, was meant as a joke. He says his insurance fraud claim was never actually true. It came in response to an AskReddit question in which users were encouraged to admit the most illegal thing they've ever done, and Bone says he exaggerated the truth to impress other Reddit users. “Everybody's trying to tell the best story they can tell, and when you look at that in a vacuum, it looks a lot worse than it really is.” While he did forge a car insurance card and showed it to his boss at the pizza shop, he says he never used it to fool the police or file an insurance claim. Finally, he admits to viewing the Lawrence photos but says his comment was meant to express his regret for having done so.
“If you're a public figure, you should make a new account that has no history.”
In the end, he considers the entire Reddit experience to be a teachable moment for people who suddenly become celebrities. “If you're a public figure,” he says, “you should make a new account that has no history.”
The danger of fame has been a fundamental lesson of the whole experience. Last winter, Bone attended a St. Louis Blues hockey game and between periods his face appeared on the JumboTron. “It was the biggest cheer of the night 20,000 people screaming and chanting your name,” he says. “It's addictive, you know?”
Bone says he's been careful not to get hooked on his celebrity. He's never hired a manager or a publicist to maximize his exposure, he says, and all of his public appearance and sponsorship opportunities have been incoming. “I don't want to become the person that's scratching and scrambling,” he says, “trying to get people to pay attention to me.”
Trump's relationship with fame, he says, is less healthy. “He's almost like a cautionary tale for what fame is, when you just can't stop being famous,” Bone says. “He can't help it, and he'll do anything to continue driving it.”
It's not as if everything Trump has done in the White House has been wrongheaded, Bone says. He credits the President for ordering the cruise missile strike in Syria this past spring, in response to President Bashar Assad's chemical attack on his own citizens. “You can't just let a big human rights violation like that go,” he says. He applauds Trump's recent efforts to reach across the aisle to negotiate an immigration deal with Democrats.
As for Trump's response to the Las Vegas shooting massacre: “In the face of an unbelievable tragedy like that, I don't really know what you expect from a president other than for him to say, 'That sucked. Thank you to the cops.' What else is he going to say?”
But Bone is troubled by all the energy Trump spends on issues that seem trivial when compared to the presidency's awesome responsibilities.
“If maybe he would focus on actually making the country better instead of crying about the news telling you that you're not making it better, you could be more effective,” he says. “It's ego. You can't have, like, headlines coming out saying that you're a dummy or a clown, and reconcile that with thinking that you're the greatest human in the world. So instead of taking the high road and not paying attention to it, or trying to change people's minds through action, he lashes out with words, which strikes me as kind of childish, which is not a quality I'm looking for in the leader of the free world.”
On the final afternoon of the Netroots Nation conference, the vendors on the exhibition floor begin packing up their “Ban Fracking Now” bumper stickers and “Impeach Trump” buttons. As the hall empties out, a nervous looking teenage boy approaches the DonorDex booth with a Ken Bone t-shirt and a pen. “It's so nice meeting you. Do you mind signing this?” Bone autographs the shirt and chats politely with his young fan. It's the third time he's stopped by to visit Bone.
Although he still gets recognized when he's out in public, the media inquiries and commercial opportunities have slowed considerably. “I'd say in six months, probably the phone just doesn't ring anymore.”
Bone says he's OK with that. He still works at the power plant, and his large social media presence he has 200,000 Twitter followers keeps him busy. People are constantly reaching out to him through Twitter or Facebook for his thoughts on the latest political event.
“I wish people wouldn't get so hung up on celebrity. I'm an extremely minor D or E list celebrity, and people still seem to value my opinion far more than they should. It's almost troubling.”
“I wish people wouldn't get so hung up on celebrity,” he says. “I'm an extremely minor D or E list celebrity, and people still seem to value my opinion far more than they should. It's almost troubling.”
But since they do, he feels obligated to keep himself up to date on current events and respond to as many social media inquiries as possible.
And some day, when even those fans go away, he'll still have one hell of a story to tell.
Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine. On Twitter, he's @lmullinsdc
Illustration by Ken Fowler