Ex-CIA officer, QAnon acolyte, 9/11 truther, anti-vaxxer, COVID denier, antisemite, and “Big Lie” proponent Robert David Steele stiffed the production crew working his national “Arise USA!” roadshow out of some $50,000 when he suddenly claimed he was out of money after blowing enormous sums on luxury coaches and lavish spreads of Champagne, smoked salmon, and brie that he demanded daily, according to Steele’s former tour manager.
But collecting is going to be tough: Steele died in August from the very virus he claims was a hoax—which the tour manager, Jon Stensland, believes the “lying, deceitful conman” caught while out spreading his fringe beliefs.
“Robert Steele and his minions knew they were fucking over working-class people when they pulled the plug and refused to discuss any sort of buyout or severance on the employment agreement Steele signed,” said Stensland, an experienced road warrior who has worked with such artists as Poison, Stryper, and Ratt.
“For a group of people who claim to be good, family-oriented Christians, they certainly had no problem screwing over the crew that worked day in and out to make their events happen.”
Steele launched the Arise USA! tour last May as a way to call attention to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election-rigging, as well as “to illuminate for the public the treason and high crimes represented by the fake pandemic, unconstitutional lockdown, mask idiocy, and the deaths and sterilization and mutations associated with the untested toxic ‘vaccines’ that are neither approved nor warranted—junk science is now criminal science.”
“As a former spy intimately familiar with bribery, blackmail, and brainwashing, I have this to say: Elected and appointed ‘leaders’ at the federal, state, and local levels have become tools of the Deep State,” Steele wrote on a now-defunct website he created to promote Arise USA!. “Most—not all but most—are more often than not bribed, blackmailed with Satanic Pedophilia entrapment a la Jeffrey Epstein, or brainwashed (MKULTRA). Only the sheriffs, pastors, and LOCAL magistrates represent the interest and will of the local people.”
Along with Steele, the speakers who appeared onstage during the “tour of the century, riding for faith, family, and freedom,” included some of today’s most extreme conspiracy theorists. The lineup included at least one member of the so-called Disinformation Dozen, a group of 12 people that the Center for Countering Digital Hate says is responsible for roughly two-thirds of the anti-vaccine untruths spread on social media. Also featured was an Arizona “constitutional sheriff” who has been flagged by the Anti-Defamation League as a far-right anti-government extremist, and a devoted QAnon-believing anti-vaxxer lawyer for the Church of Scientology who filmed herself storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Last spring, an associate of Steele’s contacted Stensland and asked him to sign on to work the upcoming Arise USA! tour.
Stensland was to oversee the tour’s day-to-day operations, as well as provide production staff for the planned 110-day run. He said he had no idea at the time about Steele’s beliefs, and that after a year of inactivity due to COVID-19, he was just happy to be employed.
“He called me up and was like, ‘Hey, how do you feel about doing a political speaking tour?’” Stensland told The Daily Beast. “And then he told me this guy’s got a good budget. And I’m like, well, count me in.”
Stensland said that to him and the other three crewmembers, “it was just another gig. We didn’t care about the politics of the tour, we just wanted to work.”
Pre-production began in April, in advance of a May 17 start date. The tour was going to kick off in Atlanta, to be followed by stops in each of the 50 U.S. states. But almost immediately, there were issues.
“This tour didn’t go to real venues, because Robert couldn’t get event insurance,” according to Stensland, who said they often found themselves working in parking lots, retail stores, and disused hay barns. “I mean, I went to insurance companies that will insure a GWAR concert. And they wouldn’t touch Robert. But they had no problem insuring a band that was going to go in there and spray stuff all over the venue and destroy equipment.”
Still, Steele— “a prolific purveyor of antisemitism who…deems Jews ‘a secret society that believes itself to be exempt from all laws and customs of others,’” according to the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights—hit the road with six brand-new luxury tour buses, fully equipped with sleeping quarters and lounges for talent and crew.
Each bus was wrapped top-to-bottom in Arise USA! advertising featuring Steele’s face flanked by his sidekicks, and Stensland said Steele insisted they were only to be driven during daylight hours so people could see them clearly.
However, Stensland said nobody slept on the buses because Steele was paying for hotel rooms at high-end Marriotts every night, completely defeating the purpose of leasing the more expensive sleeper coaches.
“Everything with Robert was, ‘Nothing but the best,’” said Stensland. “‘We will take nothing but the best, we want the finest.’ I mean, I don’t know how many times I heard that.”
Steele opened his speeches by telling the crowd that he was near-broke, living on Social Security in his “soon-to-be ex-wife’s basement,” according to Stensland.
“And then he’d go back to his bus and drink Champagne and eat brie and smoked salmon,” Stensland said. “That’s what the man lived on, Champagne, smoked salmon, and brie—as he rides around the country on a million-dollar bus.”
Steele didn’t only foist his out-there views on audiences, he also did his best to convert those behind the scenes, Stensland explained.
The tour had barely gotten underway when Steele insisted that everyone on the crew was being bombarded by electromagnetic fields—so-called EMFs—and needed to protect themselves.
To do this, Stensland said Steele told them they needed to buy an anti-EMF bracelet from him for $20. (EMF blockers are pure quackery, according to experts, who say that everyday levels of EMF radiation are not harmful in the first place.)
Stensland told Steele that he had spent most of his life as a roadie around all manner of radio-frequency-emitting devices, and refused to spend his money on such a device.
“I walk around with an earpiece in my ear all day,” Stensland laughed. “If EMF is what’s gonna kill me, then I’m too far gone.”
In mid-July, Steele “started bitching about money,” said Stensland, who resisted the urge to say, “I told you so.” But he kept his feelings to himself, hoping to tough it out until the end so he could earn the rest of what he had been promised.
On July 20, Steele called a meeting and informed everyone he was cutting the tour short five weeks early due to his dwindling finances.
The final event would be held on July 30, said Steele, giving the crew only 10 days to find other gigs. Later that day, Steele changed his mind and told the crew that the following day would be their last.
“I’m like, ‘You’re giving me less than 24 hours notice to tell my crew they’re out of work?’” said Stensland. “And I laid into him.”
Knowing that all other tours were already fully staffed, making it next to impossible for anyone to get hired on for the remainder of the season, Stensland demanded that Steele make a good-faith severance payment to the crew.
He told Steele that paying everyone for the remaining five weeks, as specified in their contracts, would be ideal. “I said, ‘Three weeks would be very noble of you.’ And I said, ‘Two weeks is what we’ll accept as a last resort.’”
Stensland asked Steele to sign a promissory note that he’d make good on the deal. In return, Stensland told Steele that he would “overlook the breach of contract.”
Steele’s final offer was $10,000 cash, $39,000 short of the $49,000 the crew was owed.
“So we all walked away, the entire crew walked off,” said Stensland, who began booking flights home for himself and his team. “And Robert is shutting the [credit] cards off, as we’re booking flights.”
They eventually managed to get tickets home, on Steele’s dime.
By this time, some of the speakers—including Steele—began to get sick with what Stensland, who is fully vaccinated, believed was COVID. But Steele blamed his persistent, hacking cough on having recently quit smoking cigars.
Steele continued on as a one-man show, driving his car to the remainder of the dates for town hall-style meet-and-greets in the lobbies of hotels and other such spots. And, in fact, he had come down with COVID during the tour—even as Steele continued to dismiss the virus as nonexistent.
Steele died from COVID-related complications a few weeks later in a Florida hospital, at the age of 69.
“I will not take the vaccination, though I did test positive for whatever they’re calling ‘COVID’ today, but the bottom line is that my lungs are not functioning,” he wrote in his final blog post.
Karen Staley, a conspiracy-minded singer who performed on the Arise USA! tour, claimed on Facebook that Steele had in fact died from “non-COVID pneumonia & heartbreak.”
“The only good news is that he said he met Jesus on our tour,” Staley posted. “So we feel certain God’s got him. After the heartbreak of some extreme betrayal AND the tour manager embezzling $300,000 (which shut down the tour) I’m glad he is out of pain.”
Stensland called Staley’s embezzlement claim nonsense, noting that he has toured with professional bands and crews for many years without complaint. Any monies that were “lost” were simply wasted on unnecessary expenditures by Steele, said Stensland.
He’s now hoping the courts will help recoup the money owed him and the others, filing a complaint with county authorities to get remunerated by Steele’s estate.
“Then finally, after we did that, Robert’s wife reached out to me via email,” said Stensland. “I’ve spoken with several attorneys. I will put a lien on [Steele’s] house if, by the end of January, we don’t start seeing something. I’ve sent certified letters, and my attorneys sent certified letters, with no response.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, Steele’s widow, Kathy, acknowledged that Stensland and the crew have not yet been made whole, but said the issue is largely out of her hands.
“Mr. Stensland’s arrangements were with my husband’s nonprofit company, [Earth Intelligence Network], which my family and I have no involvement with,” she wrote. “We have informed Mr. Stensland multiple times that Robert’s company is still undergoing review by his accountant before any actions can be taken. We have told Mr. Stensland that we will keep him informed of this process as we learn more, and have responded to each of his many emails.”
The accountant listed in the Earth Intelligence Network’s most recent tax filing, Elizabeth Moffett, told The Daily Beast that she “disengaged” from Steele’s organization in 2020 and was unable to provide any further information.
Stensland, who himself came down with COVID last month, has managed to get a few weeks of work and had some savings to fall back on, he said. The other crewmembers who were on the Arise USA! tour, however, haven’t been as fortunate. To help them make ends meet, Stensland launched a GoFundMe campaign, which, as of Friday, has yet to receive a single donation.
“It hasn’t gained any traction,” said Stensland. “Because people either love Robert or think that everything associated with his name is a joke.”