Sometime around 3:30 PM, on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 20, the third day of the Republican National Convention, a loud bang ripped down Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
Police immediately swarmed out of Public Square and onto the streets, the press running close behind — days of stultifying boredom and the need for scoops sending people sprinting toward the first sign of mortal danger.
It was not the reckoning everyone expected would strike Cleveland, sowing chaos and race war at long last: A mustard-colored Kia Soul had blown its left front tire on the most policed street west of Pennsylvania Avenue.
While a dozen cops commenced the securest tire change in American history, eyewitnesses milled in the shade. Fears of the potential energy accumulating around nominating Donald Trump for president, in a city rife with racial tension, in a country packed cheek-by-jowl with spree shooters and lone wolves, had led the authorities to create rings of potential interdiction around any event that could go sideways.
Up to three thousand police officers from around the country could form movable walls of law enforcement wherever the temporary steel walls ringing the Quicken Loans Arena (The Q) would not do.
It was a question heard over and over again in Cleveland — from press, delegates, cops, bespoke hitmen, and smooth insiders — “Do you have credentials?” Which is to say, can anyone hear you?
In any ordinary year, political conventions obscure whatever dissonant passions lurk beneath the surface of American life. Official protest areas isolate the energy of crowds to prevent their feeding off each other. Metal barriers and closed streets funnel momentum away from the people’s representatives and to places distant enough to discourage anyone from making the effort of leaving to find them.
Security theater is as much about reassurance as it is about stage-managing that energy: given the right maze, the loudest voices will box themselves, without handlers needing to prod. When properly constructed, disparate groups are shunted away from each other, conflict reduced, their stories balkanized and drowned out by the one being told from the podium.
The real story of American politics pinballed through the host cities’ obstructed streets without credentials. The nightmare vision of the televised Republican National Convention, the feel-good pablum of the Democratic National Convention, and the wall-to-wall coverage of every sneeze and sniffle inside the restricted zone — each echoed like an automated announcement in an abandoned building, three one-sided conversations heedless of their audience.
In Cleveland, the apogee of two weeks’ events went almost unnoticed: one man on a stage, speaking past the people in the room, his voice pinging tinnily across the thousands of phones held by those kept outside the wall. Like footage of ISIS tooling around in captured Humvees, the convention broadcast a collapse of American power almost too humiliating to understand at first glance.
A political playbook that has, for four and a half decades, delivered most of the power in the country to the Republican Party, is suddenly shredded. Those hick subalterns the GOP thought they could wheedle forever are now calling the tune, having found a standard-bearer they feel won’t abandon them.
The racial animus, rank militarism, and economic warfare girding the Republican message since Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon is still in demand, but without qualification, without the wink which non-entities like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan specialize in batting. An authentic tribune, unafraid, who has reduced generations of political cant to a primal scream — this is the people’s voice.
The Democrats did not escape. Having aped the meaner economic qualities of their opponents while taking care to appear kinder and gentler, they put down the nasty pinko putsch unleashed by Bernie Sanders — a non-Democrat.
Booing war courtiers, mussing poor David Brock’s hair, walkouts: each was rhetorically elevated to the level of atrocity and escorted from the building, out-chanted, shouted down — any mean mechanical groupthink reflex to keep from confronting the energy of all their tomorrows streaming out the door across Philadelphia. These Democrats live on borrowed time, approaching their own perdition in a threadbare theater of the war, diluted, flabby, and ancillary to the Trump phenomenon.
2016 was the year the future finally happened. Old methods of control and cajolement prove inadequate, even as they persist; the gatekeepers have lost their keys.
Politics, the determination of whose say matters, is being contested outside the studio, and the thousands of journalists who descended on Cleveland ghoulishly desiring to witness the shot heard ’round the world, the cracking of the gun signaling the next Civil War, didn’t realize that the bullet left the chamber months ago, screaming toward a target they cannot yet identify.
If this is year zero, the only people worth interviewing are nowhere near a podium or a live shot. This was the story of Cleveland: A mob that the pageantry of the convention either willfully ignored or hoped to repackage into GOP voters as much as it tried to repackage Donald Trump into a GOP candidate — one party, one people, one vote, still bounded by the agreed-upon pieties. A great underclass, a growing socialist front, that despises Trump and his message. Alienated, baffled political operatives. Reporters no longer sure what they could report.
A mass of people with nowhere to turn their thousands of eyes but at themselves, and no idea where to go.
Everyone had their own personal journalist. Or almost everyone.
They came streaming down W. Superior Avenue toward Settler’s Landing Park along the curve of the Cuyahoga down in The Flats. The rubber-soled Rockport duck walk of khakied male print journalists, the toe-stepping birdlike anxiousness of women TV reporters in stylish shoes, the full-length boot stride of camera guys and freelance shooters, the nervous Hunter Thompson–knockoff serpentine of poseur war hacks and bloggers — The March of the Lanyarded.
It was Monday morning, the first full day of Republican National Convention festivities outside of procedural votes and intra-party legalese. Time for D-list celebrities and conflict, the battle of Fort Sumter in the new Civil War, and the troops had come upriver on Harley Davidsons.
The unspoken admission at the heart of everyone’s eagerness to see the Bikers For Trump was the desire to see if hell had come with them. In the shade of the Detroit-Superior Bridge, across the river from a rusting drawbridge angled skyward, they parked their hogs and stood awaiting the charge of shooters and boom mics. They couldn’t have been happier.
A few hard-bitten men in leather vests who looked like two-pack-a-day smokers stood among the Trump gang, outnumbered by plump Boomer types showing off their waxed toys for the cameras. A blonde man with a high-and-tight haircut stood with his arms crossed, wearing a red shirt emblazoned with the words “I Am Trump.”
Past the truck with the customized chrome “TRUMP” bumper stood a beautiful salt-and-pepper horse named Danny Boy. It was unclear what Danny Boy was doing there; he was not, after all, a motorcycle. He was harnessed to a pretty Disney princess open carriage: ivory white wagon wheels, American flag bunting, red embroidered seat cushions, floral and pine-needle garlands.
More than one biker sheepishly asked for permission to pet him. A middle-aged woman and older man, “Volunteers for Trump,” sat atop the perch.
“I like Trump because he can’t be bought,” said Dominic LoCoco, an avuncular gentleman with a mustache and glasses. “He’s got common sense.”
“I work two jobs, and I’m raising my kids. I’m a daycare teacher, and I also do this,” said Diana Von Loewe of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, holding Danny Boy’s reins. “I believe there’s still enough time to turn around the country … I like being able to make a difference, any way that I can. So I make a difference in the lives of my kids, and of the children that I teach as a pre-school teacher, but I also make memories and dreams come true with the horse and carriage.”
“She works at Small Hands, Big Dreams, taking care of about a hundred kids,” added LoCoco, chuckling at her modesty.
“And he,” she added with a smile, “is voting for Trump because he doesn’t want to see our country going backwards anymore, and having our guns taken away. The times of people taking advantage of the American people should definitely be … punished!”
Coming around the corner of a bridge pylon was Hector Vidal, a thirty-six-year-old Puerto Rican machine operator at a South Carolina textile plant who drove to Cleveland overnight to attend his first-ever political rally. With his wavy black hair, wire-rimmed glasses, trim tee, and “LATINOS FOR TRUMP” sign, you could spot him from fifty yards away. Everybody did.
Vidal excitedly defended Trump as half a dozen photographers rushed to take his picture.
“I’m supporting Trump because he wants to close the border, keep the drug dealers and criminals out. I speak to Mexicans everywhere, they say he’s racist. He’s not racist. I think Trump is very multicultural.”
Originally from Park Slope, Brooklyn, Vidal had moved south after 9/11 — “That’s when I woke up” — but he was always uneasy with the state of America.
“Ever since I was five years old, I knew something was wrong with this country. Look at pollution. We have technology that’s renewable and clean, and we’re not doing anything with it.”
Vidal saw a two-party system dominated by elites unconcerned with real problems and Trump as an outsider unafraid to take them on. Trump could go off the script of politics as usual, and he would be better on jobs.
For all his support, however, he wasn’t optimistic. Hillary was “going to get in because of voter fraud,” leaving people like him to look elsewhere for a movement.
As an Alex Jones listener, he thought his next destination was “the flat-earth movement and the conspiracy libertarian movement. I think it’s picking up steam, because the singularity’s coming closer and closer. AI [artificial intelligence] is actually dictating how we live.”
He allowed that it was sometimes difficult to explain this to people. “It’s complicated. [The earth is] not really flat like in Thor, the movie, it’s more like a spherical electromagnetic bubble, but the surface of the earth is flat.”
Asked whether he worried he’d thrown away his limited time off to drive to a party that might be crashed by protesters, Vidal seemed confident that things would remain orderly.
I don’t think Black Lives Matter really wants trouble, because they’re in the wrong, and they’re being paid fifteen dollars an hour to be here by George Soros. Not directly. I’m not racist, I love everybody, we’re all human, but I think this world has rulers that are not human. I think Soros is human, but he thinks God is Satan. But I don’t mean to sound crazy.
Vidal smiled and set off from the overpass to the green verge of Settlers Landing, a gentle slope running down from a sidewalk and a sparse line of trees at the top, to a black stage erected down on the riverfront sidewalk, in front of the wide, white ring of the disabled Cuyahoga fountain. He was excited to finally see Alex Jones.
In the meantime, a man with a Fu Manchu mustache, wispy beard, and a few missing teeth was waving down incoming journalists, with a cheery “Need any help?” and a handshake complete with curling skeleton rings cool to the touch.
Richard Morrison, a forty-eight-year-old from El Paso, Texas, was there with his wife Lorraine, the chief administrator of Truckers for Trump. Morrison had hauled livestock as a kid and driven a fire truck as a paramedic, and was now doing anything he could for the Trump campaign.
“When Trump announced his presidency, I was like, you’re kidding me . . . Before last year, before he decided to run, when I looked at the American flag, it was just an American flag. It was a disgrace,” he said. “Now I see an American flag … he’s brought it back. I’m in . . . I’ve been on his trail ever since last year.”
Morrison was animated and welcoming, and it was impossible to tell if someone had assigned him to greet the press or if he couldn’t help himself and did it by default. He also said something repeated frequently throughout the week: that as much as he’d found Trump on his own, the Republican Party had also driven him into Trump’s arms.
These liars . . . feed you the sugar . . . to get you to go for them, and then when they’re in there, all they do is throw you crumbs. They don’t really care about us . . When they look at you and they tell you a lie, and you know it’s a lie, do you respect the person after that? I don’t.
Below, emcees were nearly ready to hit the stage. It belonged to the America First Rally — named after a nativist black spot on American history without a shred of irony. A triumphant press release originally listed an organization named Eternal Sentry as a sponsor, before its leader was exposed as a white nationalist and anti-Semite.
The rally’s roster of speakers were household names to the kinds of paranoiacs who tape foil on the inside of their windows. The most recognizable name was the main sponsor’s, Alex Jones of InfoWars.com.
The event’s star speaker, Jones believes (among other things) that children are being kidnapped by Child Protective Services workers, 9/11 was an inside job and that “the bankers are putting poison in our food and water . . . [and] carrying out New World Order.” Jones’s crackling Texas snarl and tendency to go verbally nuclear at regular intervals make him sound like a cross between a Marlboro commercial voiceover and a fatal embolism.
The problem with Alex Jones is a problem shared by Trump: thirty percent of what he says is not insane.
When he shrieks about “false flag” attacks on children’s elementary schools, he is a lunatic. When he says the National Security Agency is spying on all Americans, the economy is rigged, and our military engages in a borderless war across the planet, he is regrettably correct.
It had been a very good Obama era for Alex Jones. Once a garden variety “Waco n’ Mexicans” Lone Star conspiracist, mustering patriots via Austin PACT/ACTV public access television, Jones’s brand of paranoia gained new resonance with 9/11 — an inside job, just like Oklahoma City, Sandy Hook, and the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords in Arizona.
His message carried the day: Jones’s newfound legitimacy had extended all the way to a December interview with Trump himself, apparently arranged by mutual friend and Nixon-era ratfucker Roger Stone. It was a new age, all right.
America First felt like it had been assembled by a satirist laying on the patriotic irony a little too thickly. The woman who sang the national anthem lacked the range and botched the lyrics three separate times.
After umpteen minutes of railing at leftist incompetence, another woman was unable to perform her song “I’m Ready to Make America Great Again” because she couldn’t explain to the sound guys that they had unplugged her computer.
A third song by “legal immigrated” teen Kate Koptenko, “Political Correctness/Make America Great Again!” garnered applause for what sounded like a t.A.T.u. side project about keeping out the goddamn Chechens.
Young men Periscoping from iPhones mounted atop six-foot poles recorded it all, looking like someone had cloned a creature named Gandalf the Vlogger.
The mistake most New York/Beltway journalists make in writing about Trump rally attendees — perhaps because it’s their first time seeing human beings like those in attendance — is vastly overstating their danger.
Trump rallies pale in comparison to the low-level aggressive hum of regular events, like SEC rivalry football games. They’re closer to boomer rock concerts: older white folks outside on a weekend, looking to feel good, get fired up, and hear the material they’ve learned by heart. When they weren’t mad at the things being castigated from the stage, they were enjoying a sunny day out.
The concert vibe explained the pastiche of Jones’s star appearance. He launched into a medley of his worn-out hits. Black Lives Matter was directed by George Soros, one of the globalists who directs everything else. “The answer to 1984 is 1776,” then, screaming: “Seventeeeeeen Seventyyyyyyy Siiiiiix!”
A “Hillary For Prison” chant, attempted twice, left two-thirds of the crowd with their mouths closed. “Hillary is a foreign agent of the Communist Chinese.” Government tyranny, cops on our side. “Donald Trump . . . has been absolutely over-the-top amazing.” “Thank you . . . for coming out here despite all the threats.” Turn tape over to hear Side Two.
Jones was well on his way to delivering a set more low energy than Jeb Bush asking the waitress if he could have the salad dressing on the side when Eric Andre, comedian and host of an eponymous Adult Swim television show, bailed him out by looming by the stage with a boom mic.
Jones invited him onstage to distract from the milquetoast set and badgered him about being from The Daily Show.
“You seem like you’re upset,” Jones said.
“I want you to have sex with my wife,” Andre replied, before offering him a hotel key. Then, moments later, “Why does my peepee come out yellow?” Maybe it’s funny on TV.
Andre rescued Jones with two lines that thudded to the stage dead. But instead of egging him on and letting Andre win the flop-off, Jones immediately launched back into his greatest hits, labeling him an “agitator trying to shut down free speech.”
It threatened to go on forever. It would take another day for Jones to have any impact on the RNC, unwittingly using his face. But for day one, it was enough. Jones had convinced a couple hundred people that the globalists had co-opted everyone on stage but Trump and funded every leftist marching outside.
For the true believers, everyone they met and every message they heard after walking past the merchandise tables in the back was, by definition, illegitimate.
They kept the swag back up the hill. Card tables offered “HILLARY FOR PRISON” shirts, and a cardboard box teemed with “THE SILENT MAJORITY STANDS WITH TRUMP” signs.
A young vendor holding a sign reading “US FLAGS – $1 OR $5 FOR 4” eyed a TV interviewer, while Ohio native Jewel Kingsley manned her concession tables, offering the most reasonably priced item for an outdoor political event — two dollars for a twenty-ounce bottle of water.
Kingsley had volunteered for McCain, and her husband had toured with the campaign doing audio, but she “really didn’t even support him. [He] was just the lesser of two evils.”
Hillary Clinton was not an option for her, but she wasn’t sold on Trump, instead following her constitutionalist heart and leaning more to libertarian Gary Johnson. But the Trump and Jones message were getting through.
“My husband didn’t want me coming down here without body armor and open carrying, because of the paid agitators.” She claimed that earlier that day her husband had been stopped at a closed intersection when, just as cops opened a barricade and waved him through, “lefty protesters” threw a spike strip under his car, and he “had no choice but to drive over it.”
Her experience had been better. “I’ve been here since 8 AM, and it’s been great,” she said, but she didn’t know what would happen to everyone in the crowd if Trump didn’t win. “I feel like it’s all falling apart. I think they’re going to be angry and support the next GOP person, honestly. I think the whole situation’s pretty grim.”
While Jones barely held onto the crowd, Roger Stone’s country-club outrage delivery started hemorrhaging it, his speech a tepid old wheeze that might have sounded scandalous around the Beltway but felt like a lifeless dad cover band compared to Alex Jones. Reporters streamed back up W. Superior Avenue in search of anything, pulling InfoWars fans in their wake.
If bored reporters had been more enterprising, and if InfoWars wanted a fight as much as their rhetoric suggested, they might have gone across town.
Whatever alternative to Trumpism that America ultimately creates will come from somewhere like the grass field in Midtown Cleveland, where the “End Poverty Now! March for Economic Justice” brought together a dozen local civil society organizations to protest the boat-shoe Republican hootenanny transpiring two miles away.
They would be marching downtown in a few hours, but they might as well have been starting from Mars, such was the difference from downtown’s Fourth Street, a kind of temporary Mardi Gras of delegates and media members walking up and down and recognizing themselves between restaurants rented out for parties.
This was a lean and mean operation, a few hundred people and fiery speakers and rappers rotating onto the stage, while Food Not Bombs peaceniks traversed the lawn with wagons full of vegan casserole. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, a union comprised of janitors across the city, was easy to spot in the crowd, with their bright purple shirts.
In two years, Public Square in downtown Cleveland had been refurbished and pedestrianized in time for the convention. The costs of other redevelopment downtown, such as the boom of pricey condos, hurt the union, as union janitors were no longer needed in buildings that switched from commercial to residential.
“Working people have had to turn to jobs outside of the city, where they are earning less,” added SEIU member Jennifer Metz, a janitor in the IMG Center. Jennifer had seen many fellow union members lose their jobs as the city has been transformed.
Kathleen Policy, an SEIU spokeswoman, noted that urban renewal did not come without its own displacement elsewhere in the city.
“People that own the buildings, they’re the ones making the money. Working people aren’t getting anything,” she said. The trade-off is “abandoned lots, empty buildings, a lot of work has gone.”
Before Chuck D took the stage with his new group, Prophets of Rage, Sandra Ellington, a janitor and executive board member of SEIU Local 1 explained:
Before being in a union, I was teller, I was a cashier, I had multiple jobs. They were all non-union. I had never had healthcare on my own. I never wanted to depend on the system, but I had no choice because the jobs that I had, the insurance was so high, I couldn’t afford it. But being part of a union, I could have affordable healthcare.
The SEIU had given Ellington’s family that much, but it was not Donald Trump who had tried to strip Sandra and her fellow public sector-workers of their collective bargaining rights; it had been the “good” Republican, heroic John Kasich, the ex-Lehman Brothers panjandrum who was hilariously crushed 61 percent to 39 percent in a ballot initiative rejecting the union-busting bill.
“You must be doing something right to get them creating a law to stop other organizing,” said Ellington. “You can’t keep ripping at the pocket of the working class … the bottom holds up the top. Eventually, we’re gonna tumble, if this movement doesn’t continue to happen across the country.”
If, as Tip O’Neill said, “all politics is local,” the organizing groups of this event had their eyes on the prize: the Fight for 15 and battle for improved wages, for all Clevelanders. While most of the America First rally attendees had come from out of state, the End Poverty Now! activists were predominantly Ohioans.
Talk focused on the community and social justice issues that predated Trump’s rise, and which will persist after the convention: the minimum wage, battling immigrant deportation, the increase in Cleveland’s homeless population. Later, rapper Son of None exhorted the crowd to repeat the names of young black men killed by the police:
“Tyrone West . . . killed by Baltimore Police . . . Freddie Gray . . . Tamir Rice ….”
Back at Settlers Landing Park, vendors began asking for help disassembling tables. The woman who triple-flubbed the national anthem gingerly picked her way across the street, in Gloria Swanson sunglasses, clutching her purse close, trying to avoid stepping in horseshit.
Four large lads in tank tops and red “MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN” hats offered bottled water to the cops. All four meatheads wore sidearm Glocks, one in an elaborate holster that looked like an orthopedic leg brace.
It was not immediately clear whether the “Republican Convention Fun Zone” was real, even as it stood there, a bit removed from the action along the walkway to the Rapid Transit station. Perhaps it was a mirage, incited by synapses boiling and short-circuiting in the July sun.
Dancing along this fenced-off parcel of the park, with enormous mesh bags of multicolored plastic balls stacked on the grass, and an empty, Chuck E. Cheese–style ball pit beyond, was someone in a giant polar bear costume, brandishing a green and purple plastic flower, with a red “DONALD TRUMP 2016” button pinned to its breast.
The polar bear pranced in front of a dunk tank, the kind where traditionally you drill a big button with a softball to drop a clown into the adjoining tank of water. But it wasn’t a clown climbing onto the trap seat.
He spoke with a South Asian accent in broken English, saying he was from Michigan. He wore a white kufi on his head, and a white flowing robe. The dunk tank was transparent to the water line, decorated with pictures of tropical fish, and a sign saying, in goofy funhouse font, “DUNK HIM!”
“Are you going to be doing the dunk tank today?”
“I’m just doing dunk tank,” he responded. “My uncle, he know Paul. And Paul want to do this. He Republican.”
“He’s over there,” he said, gesturing back to the funhouse stands.
“Gotcha. Uh huh. Okay. So, you’re just gonna hang out here the afternoon doing that?”
“Do you feel okay about this? Does it feel weird at all, to be, you know . . .”
He smiled. He didn’t get it. “I like it because it’s hot. And the water’s cool!”
A Young Republican type in a blue blazer and red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat stood glowering a couple feet away during the whole exchange and finally screwed up whatever gunless courage he could muster to say something.
“You’re really stretching yourself, man.”
“You’re dunking a Muslim guy—”
“You’re clearly stretching. This is his business.”
The Young Republican shouted “liar!”, stalking and sulking, sore at the interruption of his fun day at the park pretending to drown Muslim immigrants.
Up the hill, closer to the official events, a “Stop Trump” march turned from E 12th Street and began heading southwest down St Claire avenue. A few cops along the sidelines protected marchers, with Cleveland PD bike patrol bringing up the rear.
Cops stood on the street corners to prevent counter-demonstrators from cutting across and getting in front of the march, while Amnesty International observers and people in yellow “peace team” jackets kept a vague perimeter.
Fox News’s unnaturally hued attack mannequin Jesse Watters walked with his customary too-straight, I-am-definitely-not-trying-to-look-as-tall-as-possible posture, God’s gift both to L’Oreal concealer and, presumably, a chain of unlicensed spinal-straightening clinics. He appeared thoroughly fed up that nobody with long hair or an excess of melanin was doing anything that could terrify people who live in neighborhoods with gates around them.
The march finally came to a halt in the fountain in the Mall, where it was confronted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church (or their knockoffs; it doesn’t matter) squawking the latest in eighties anti-science about “Gay Bowel Syndrome.”
Detailed information about prolapsed anuses and the need for gay people to wear diapers to Wal-Mart dripped out of the bullhorn. Anti-Trumps chanted “Black Lives Matter.” Westbozos shouted, “The bulldykes will not take over the rally.”
Steve Carr, a fifty-eight-year-old from Shiloh, Illinois, walked between the groups carrying a ten-foot Christian cross against his shoulder. He and his friend Mike had to make it specially to come apart and fit on the train.
“We’re not here to represent any group . . . we’re just here to share the love of Jesus” he said. “We’re not trying to rile people up. We find a quiet message is louder sometimes.” It was his first political rally.
Across the quad, twenty-five-year-old Floridian Andrew McClung leaned against a low wall, unfazed by the heat and smiling at the hubbub. With a purple daisy in his teeth, his pale skin, goatee, shoulder-length brown hair and a purple dress shirt unbuttoned halfway and revealing a tuft of chest hair, he looked lifted from the band photo of an early seventies British supergroup. An occasional well-wisher at Occupy Miami, his presence was nearly an accident.
“I’m just up here visiting family, and I figured I don’t like Trump too much, so why not kill two birds with one stone?” he said. “I’m for immigration reform, but I was just hanging out twenty minutes ago, walking with these guys, and they gave me a sign, gave me some flowers. The cops have been really nice. It’s really chill.”
It was. The fundamentalists and Stop Trump forces shouted past each other in the shade — beginning an absurdist dialogue that would never intersect over the next few days — eventually parting ways not by force but by a kind of aimlessness.
Some protesters returned to Settlers Landing to pursue whispers of an antifascist demonstration. They found a phalanx of cops protecting another of the clone-stamped precocious vlogging teens that conservatism horks up for every convention: a high-pitched turbonerd squeaking tautologies from somewhere inside the collar of his too-big blue blazer.
He yelled, protesters yelled back, some antifascists yelled louder, and the remainders of InfoWars yelled back just as loud, until people began to melt away again, beaten not by each other or the police but by the futility and heat of the day, with nothing particular left to do and no particular place to go.
In what was meant to be a clash of thousands of cops, shouting leftists and the working-class jeering of resentful Trump voters, the soundtrack to the tensest confrontation of the RNC was the struggling, plaintive speech of an elderly woman.
Everyday, everyone came to the Public Square, because, in the absence of anything to do, that was everyone’s best guess. Adjacent to the Mall down Rockwell Avenue, just around from Prospect Street and a quick turn up Ontario from the main delegate entrance to The Q, and a short skip along Euclid from the media eyefucking fiesta of 4th Street, the Square became a four-day limbo for people stopping on their way from Nothing before setting off for Nothing Else.
The recently renovated Square provided a public venue for anyone looking to speak his or her mind. Activists could sign up for twenty minutes’ time at the “speakers’ platform,” a mic’d podium behind metal people-barriers; all they needed was a valid address and a speech title.
A curve of raised planters of trees and groundcover limned the back of the Square, with a bench on the planter’s north side for those who wanted to watch the speakers’ backs from the shade. From the platform, speakers could look down on the flat open space of the Square, out to another raised step at the north side bordering Rockwell Avenue.
To their left, speakers could gaze at the Square’s southwest corner, where protesters and journos alike sat on varnished picnic benches to a restaurant staff’s annoyance. To their right they could see the Cleveland Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Monument, a solemn and beautiful shrine to the triumph of equality and the federal government, restored and maintained by the predatory and socialistic hand of public works.
Around 3:50 PM, Alex Jones appeared at the north end of the Public Square and pushed to the center of the loose crowd below the steps leading to the speakers’ platform.
Supporters in InfoWars t-shirts immediately formed a ring around him, as malingering antifascists and journalists waiting in the sparse shade of young trees for anything to happen immediately descended on the InfoWars circle. Photographers and cameramen sprinted to the top step just in front of the platform and aimed their lenses down, a cordon of bodies blocking sight of the crowd below.
Every cop in the Square had suddenly shifted his or her weight, ready to break into a sprint if the call came over. A middle-aged ranking officer of the Ohio State Police, wisps of gray matching his uniform, materialized on a raised planter to the side of the speaker, an elderly woman named Donna Woods, who until then had been pleading for a full investigation into the medical coverup of the death of her husband in a voice crackling and wavering against the effort not to dissolve into sobs.
“What’s going on?” came a voice over the officer’s portable radio. He scanned the crowd, squinting, thumb hovering over the call button, ready to press it home the moment he had the faintest idea. A reporter standing below him interrupted.
“It’s Alex Jones from InfoWars. Radio guy. He has a bullhorn. It’s just a stunt.”
“Who are you with?” the officer said.
The reporter, working on an assignment for the magazine and figuring a cop might be more apt to trust a name brand, replied, “Rolling Stone.” The officer nodded and toggled the radio.
“Guy in there with a bullhorn. Alex Jones, from Rolling Stone.”
“No, InfoWars. He’s from InfoWars. Conspiracy crap. ‘All the people on the news are reptiloids.’ Shit like that. He’s just trying to get people to scream shit at him so his people can film it and put it on YouTube.”
The officer issued a correction and elaborated, and every cop in the Square stood down. For about a minute.
While still in the scrum, Jones shoved an antifascist, who responded by clocking him in the cheekbone.
After a day and a half of fervid expectation of — and in many journalistic cases, open desire for — violence, no one was prepared for it. A sudden surge of push and counterpush sent a wave of recoil through the crowd, like circles radiating outward from a stone plunging into a pond, riding up toward the speakers’ podium until the entire cordon of cameramen reeled back and nearly toppled off the highest step.
The older officer issued a go-code, hopped off the planter, sprinted and was swallowed by the crowd as hundreds of cops converged, finally, on Something To Do.
In seconds, the Square filled with the most people it had seen to that point. Columns of police rushed up Ontario, over from Euclid and from two directions on Rockwell, including a flying column of Indiana State Troopers wading in ahead, trying to put themselves between the crowd and the stage.
To the south of the Square, journalists and protestors frantically ran in, following police movement or tipped by text message. Police set up a ring around the Square as Cleveland PD bike cops formed lines with their bicycles and diagonally bisected the crowd twice, like a giant X-Men symbol, separating the protesters from each other and creating a law-enforcement firewall against a stampede or anyone sneaking in to escalate violence.
“No violence. I beg you, each and every one of you, no violence,” quailed Donna Woods, straining at the upper register of her voice.
Before the cops could complete their encirclement, a knot of people broke away toward the northeast, suddenly picking up speed until photographers and gawkers were running away, trampling the gardens, leaping over the low granite walls. Police pushed back the pursuing crowd, as the escapees piled into an SUV that wheeled around west onto Rockwell in a long loop, tires squealing, and was gone.
Observing the escape, a beefy, bearded photographer with a press pass named James Woods admired Alex Jones’s clip. “He looked like he could run the forty in a flat two.”
Jones had, not for the first time this week, proved no slouch at garnering attention.
“He was up there, he tried to get on the steps,” said Woods, “and the Communists wouldn’t let him get up there. Someone threw a punch, and it just kind of devolved, and the police pushed everybody back.
“And then he got — I don’t know if you saw, he has four security guards who look like they played linebacker at Clemson? And they just, like, made themselves a human shield. There was a push, somebody pushed him back, and security blew them out.”
The New World Order had seen fit to spare Jones — indeed, to offer him its protection.
We were all used to tough talk from the freedom fighter behind documentaries like Police State 3: Total Enslavement — right up until the moment he picked a fight with the hangdog geeks of the Revolutionary Communist Party, got clocked for his troubles and wound up hauling his ass at high speed back into a rented Honda Pilot, flanked by enough blue and gray state troopers to occupy the Vatican.
Jones knew which side his bread was buttered on, exultant that it had all been captured on tape. It was all that mattered.
For all his convulsions, his histrionics, for all the fervor he inspires in his disaffected followers, Jones is an all-American charlatan. As with his new hero, Donald Trump — an interview subject for whom Jones dispensed with his usual bile in favor of being a fawning kiss-ass — the insanity he peddles, the conspiracies he spits out, always coexist comfortably with a profit margin.
His followers wouldn’t be in on the joke. They’d be too busy paying fifty-three dollars (sale price) for a bottle of InfoWars Life Super Vitality Pills: “Used by Alex Jones in order to maximize vitality when working up to twelve hours a day or more in the fight for freedom.” Or while sprinting scared shitless from the most heavily policed quadrant in the Midwest.
After engineering a conflict among the crowd to goose the YouTube view count, the rest of the assembled representatives of politically concerned America were left to deal with Jones’s aftermath.
Incredibly, Donna Woods was still speaking, gripping the sides of the podium with both hands, fingers digging in, cords of muscle in her forearms tense beneath age-slackened skin. For minutes she pleaded for herself and for her dead husband. “Please, no violence. Violence can’t bring back the one you love.”
Behind her suddenly, to her left, a confident voice.
“What’s happening?” said actor Tim Daly, formerly of Wings, lately of Madame Secretary, standing atop the stone bench ringing the planter behind the speakers’ podium. Again, the same reporter was drafted suddenly into explainer journalism.
“I recognize you.”
“Yeah, I’m kind of recognizable,” he said, not biting, waiting for an explanation. He stood, hands on hips, looking unnaturally comfortable in a dark suit in 84-degree heat, and listened to the disposition of the troops and the origins of the scrum.
“Huh,” he said, then hopped off the bench, skipped to the step in front of the podium and tapped the shoulder of a man standing just behind the cops.
The man turned, another familiar face, hopped down, and together they made their way briskly back to 4th Street: Tim Daly, Obama voter, there to speak about increasing funding to the arts, and Stephen Baldwin — bargain Baldwin — a celebrity Tea Party and fiscal responsibility advocate whose activism was minted in the same year it was revealed that he was millions of dollars in debt and owed over $1 million in back taxes.
Donna Bell, a local and employee at lobbying heavy-hitter Squire Patton Boggs, stood near where Daly had been. Smiling at the crowd, she’d taken a walk to the Square to see what the RNC had made of its interruption to her city.
“I’m not here for any political stake,” she said. “I just want to see how we’re doing.”
Out in the Square, the cops had further subdivided the crowd into triangles, more buffers of cops either shoulder-to-shoulder or with bikes tire-to-tire. Trump supporters flattered them and tried to egg them on, while antifascists tried and failed to bait them, hurling standard issue police-state imprecations at faces keeping eyes front and level.
The only cop to take the bait was a black officer of higher rank, moving freely among the lines, who appeared to think he outranked the blanket Do Not Engage order. He raised his voice at a protester over the shoulders of two cops in front of him, repeating himself, before turning in exasperation and walking away, leaving the protester to yell across the barrier at his disappearing back.
“I think we’re doing great.”
Donna Woods, hunched and wavering, was led away from the speakers’ platform, volunteers gently placing their hands on her shoulders and helping her with the giant posterboard visual aids on which she’d outlined who she believed had denied and obscured what killed her husband.
An hour later, the Square was quiet again.
On Wednesday, they were going to burn the flag.
They had meant to do it on Tuesday, but it had been found out or delayed. No one knew. But it would burn sometime that afternoon. Stars and Stripes and fire, somewhere, TBD.
The swells didn’t know. If it wasn’t on an official schedule, most didn’t know about anything anywhere not air-conditioned. While the press pecked away at Facebook and text group chats, scavenger hunting for an endangered flag, delegates and higher-ranking party members were invited down to the lakeside for drinks, snacks, and an exclusive tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A few also knew that Trump would be there. After buzzing Ted Cruz’s speech that morning with his plane, Trump planned to buzz the Great Lakes Science Center with his helicopter before landing for a private meeting with senior staff and a few friends.
A few writers took off on the Long March For Content north on 9th Street, passing delegates who’d forsaken delayed Ubers to walk to lakeside just slowly enough to hold off sweat. Everyone, on some level, likes watching aircraft take off and land.
The Trump fans found themselves lined up against a chain-link fence to the left of the Hall of Fame, looking down an access road from which the Trump motorcade would emerge. Volunteers passed out water bottles, and spouses took pictures as delegates and party chairpersons waited for their rockstar candidate like suddenly aged teens waiting for the Beatles to touch down.
One, David Hogan, a thirty-eight-year-old delegate and executive pastor from Houston, had power walked in a blue suit and aviators with long strides down 9th, blowing past the traffic cops and observing instead the “motorists yield to pedestrians” signs and exhorting his wife Amy to hurry up.
Hogan’s attitude may as well have been the default of the official RNC attendees.
“I think after today you heard the last stand of the [opposition], and it’s time for everybody to come together,” he said, dismissing intra-party eruptions on the convention floor. It was a sentiment commonly echoed, more out of a desire for it to be true, as was his belief about the aftermath of a potential Trump loss.
“The people who have taken a staunch stance against him, I think those guys are done, because they were completely out of touch with what the grassroots want from the Republican Party. And if Trump doesn’t win, I think you’ll see Ted Cruz step up.”
It was a familiar tune whistled past the graveyard. Trump had destabilized — humiliated — the establishment, but the establishment could respond to a loss by compromising and mainstreaming the counter-establishment. The authorities the grassroots had rejected could co-opt them via the same civilizing forces that they had rejected.
For Hogan, there would always be a place, but then again, after the Trump motorcade blew past, Hogan and his wife had someplace to go: through a security checkpoint and into a Hall of Fame.
For everyone else, there was outside. By now, word had circulated that the flag would be burned on Prospect Street at 4:00 PM, which could only mean somewhere near the official delegate entrance at the intersection of 4th.
Any further west, and it would be out of the line of sight of important passersby and just down Ontario, along which bike cops could charge. Any further east, and it threatened to enter a kind of dead zone, where the day before two reporters barreled down the sidewalk interviewing a hurried Cory Lewandowski, former Trump campaign manager, without anyone even so much as doing a single-take. (Lewandowski’s mood? Confident.)
Moving up 4th from Euclid, it became evident that everyone else had already gotten the news. Cops from at least six jurisdictions lined either side of the narrow roadway, starting from the elevated MSNBC temporary studio and down to the delegate entrance, where other cops fanned out to the side.
People with notepads, recorders and telephoto lenses stood sweating and waiting, hoping, in the heat, that spontaneity would go off on schedule.
Protesters trickled in over the next half hour, mingling with the crowd of expectant journalists, until after a critical mass, the RCP marched in, bringing familiar signs. At a signal, they all crouched low, forming a tight circle, until finally distorting waves of heat could be seen over their shoulders, then trickles of black smoke.
The police immediately descended on the burning, displacing idle journalists, as everyone held cell phones aloft and formed rings of people getting a great shot of someone getting a great shot, etc., of hunched shoulders.
Police barked “STAND BACK,” and a wave of motion dominoed through the bodies of onlookers, sending everyone retreating two or three steps. Once more, “STAND BACK,” once more another wave, with the nervous skittering out of the way.
Again and again, the curious and the credentialed retreated a little more and kept their phones held high to record the only thing that promised to happen outside a barricade that day.
“What’s thiiiis, ‘America Was Never Great’?” The voice belonged to a senior Trump staffer who had spoken earlier off the record, and who now stood on the curb with a furrowed brow and an irrepressibly bemused expression, reading the RCP’s banners.
“It’s the Revolutionary Communist Party. They’ve been waving those the last few days.”
“I don’t think I agree with that,” he said.
“What about the Civil War? At least half of America wasn’t great.”
“Yeeeaaaaah, I don’t know about that.” But whether he really meant it or just considered it good electoral business to take that position was impossible to tell.
Trump supporters had gathered behind the cops as they handcuffed and yanked the RCP out of the scrum, hurling epithets and offering to beat their asses on the cops’ behalf. Meanwhile, from the makeshift patch of hay that was the Ontario Street temporary feed lot, mounted police emerged behind the crowd on the west side of Prospect, stretched in an ominous line across the empty roadway, and slowly closed on the mob of journalists and protesters.
“Why horses?” the Trump staffer asked.
“Less invasive. And most people won’t rock a horse.”
From along the south sidewalk near the delegate entrance, Iowa conservative Christian kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats picked his way through RCP members wearing bandanas and jeering at the police. They didn’t notice.
“Hey, Bob,” the staffer said, “you’ve gotta check this out.”
Vander Plaats, clad in a light gray suit and possessed of the ability shared by both wealthy and older gentlemen to appear unwrinkled and cool in even the punishing summer sun, looked on with delight as he learned what an antifascist medic looks like and other distinguishing features of demonstrators with whom he shared no kinship.
He consented to an interview only if he could get back to the delegate entrance, now walled off by mounted police and rings of other officers trying to separate the RCP from Trump supporters.
Despite being national co-chair for Ted Cruz, Vander Plaats cited a years-long association with Trump and private conversations on social issues as inducement to ultimately throw his support behind a man with three marriages and two dozen Howard Stern appearances.
Based on his own outreach among evangelicals in Iowa, Vander Plaats was convinced that the issue of Supreme Court justices as well as the selection of Mike Pence would be enough to bring evangelical voters into the Trump tent nationwide.
What to do about the rest of the new Trump voters was a different matter.
“Trump is an atypical candidate, so you can’t put norms on him,” he said. “Trump . . . tapped into an emotion with the American people, because they’re frustrated.”
But while Vander Plaats nailed the diagnosis, like David Hogan, his prescription for the future, should Trump lose, sounded as wishful as it was questionable.
“If this is a movement, it will transcend a personality. The movement he tapped into is just tired of the politically correct politics as usual . . . You harness it by saying conservative principles work. They’re going to work for us,” he said.
The problem is, Trump likely would not have succeeded if this were true. The GOP default for every election cycle in the last generation has been to sing hosannas to ever more rigid conservative principles, resulting in a 2016 field whose only apostates were George Pataki, Jim Gilmore, and the nominee himself. Everyone else lost.
Vander Plaats’s solution seemed to be to harness the new, disaffected Trump voters by telling them their chosen candidate was a Christian conservative all along, just like everyone else they ignored.
Vander Plaats had followed his interviewer down an alley and back into 4th Street, where the garden party atmosphere of media and politicians seeing and being seen drowned out the sound of cops and conflict just a few hundred feet away.
He smiled and shook hands with delegates, pausing to chat every dozen steps or so as he moved down the left sidewalk of 4th Street, before he finally crossed Prospect, flashed his lanyard, and vanished into a dark walkway, behind a line of security — just a dozen paces from where antifascists and Trump supporters had long since trampled whatever ash had been cast off the burning flag unidentifiably into the concrete. If Vander Plaats saw any new Trump voters on the way, he did not recognize them.
One-thirty in the afternoon, the Lorian Avenue Bridge. Ninety degrees, fifty percent humidity. The “March to Nowhere” was on, and it was a vicious, underhanded trick.
The city had issued permits for a march organized by the group STAT (Stand Against Trump), but only for a one-mile march in the blazing sun into a derelict industrial zone, free of TV cameras and drunk Trump delegates.
As Christine Link, the executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, later told the Intercept, “There’s nowhere to get a bottle of water, and it’s a long way back to your car.” It was the sort of fact most people needed to read the news to discover: While a few cops milled around the bridge, waving traffic to the right, those who drove to the end of the bridge looked up the long path of uninterrupted pavement shimmering in the heat, then drove on.
There was no refuge inside.
If there was one place in Cleveland safe from a Republican cocktail mixer, it would surely be a Lebanese restaurant. Wrong.
Nowhere was safe from the alien horde that paratrooped into the city. A cable news fixer gets you into a skytop lounge, and there you discover half of Fox News, poor legal analyst Kimberly Guilfoyle being drunkenly groped by a pig delegate from Colorado in a Stetson.
You’re looking for a place to take a piss inside soaring, beautiful Terminal Tower, and you run into lobbyist and smear artist Josh Block, greeting attendees at the doors of the English Oak Room, a placard reading: “A CELEBRATION HONORING PRO-ISRAEL STATE LEGISLATORS — SPONSORED BY THE ISRAEL PROJECT AND THE ISRAEL ACTION NETWORK.”
Over and over, one wrong turn could put you into the jackpot, into any of the hundreds of side deals, after-parties, and hush-hush soirees germinating around the restricted zone. The trade wasn’t as brisk as recent past conventions: “Fewer regulars came,” lamented one glum, anonymous lobbyist, as he and his pals pointedly jetted back to DC a day or two before Trump’s grand finale.
But while the big corporate money’s avoidance of Trump may have depressed the usual racketeering done in the dining rooms and antechambers of the convention, attendees still wanted to have fun.
There, in the Lebanese place on West 6th Street, just removed from the main convention action, the room suddenly filled with connected people. A Beltway nonprofit called the Lebanese Information Center hosted the Monday night dinner, and its star headliner was the most prominent Lebanese-American member of Congress.
Representative Darrell Issa (R-Please Step Away From The Vehicle), a robust man with a broad smile, took the mic to make corny jokes about his native Cleveland, ribbing fellow Representative Mike Turner (R-OH) on his marriage to a beautiful Lebanese-American natural gas lobbyist, before turning to some bland pablum about the future of Lebanon.
Issa is the wealthiest member of Congress, having earned his fortune (estimated anywhere from $299-$768 million) from car alarms. Issa did not discuss, over the skewers of shwarma, why, in 1982, he increased the fire insurance on one of his factory’s policies by several hundred thousand dollars, several weeks before it burned down in a blaze deemed “inconsistent with an accidental fire.”
And while one does not expect to have their lamb dinner interrupted by a death squad, Walid Phares is a man of some import. Phares stood across the dining room, stolid and placidly glad-handing in a dark suit.
A comfortable Beltway neoconservative and an Islamophobic Fox News fixture who advised Mitt Romney on foreign policy during his quixotic campaign for president, Phares is also a former leader of the Lebanese Forces, a brutal Maronite militia that waged a bloody, sectarian war of ethnic cleansing during the Lebanese Civil War.
Responsible for inculcating his organization’s fighters with grand visions of a Christian Lebanon, exhorting them to wage war against their Muslim countrymen, Phares is now one of the foreign policy advisers Donald Trump cited in his sit-down with the Washington Post editorial board. Phares glided out of the restaurant and disappeared onto the street, whisked away in a dark car to continue doing the Lord’s work, presumably forever.
It was safer to be outside, but there was nothing new anymore under all that sun.
Trump supporters, InfoWars and Westboro Baptist (or its ersatz) had clashed daily with Black Lives Matter, antifascists and people who prefer a little variety from their trolling. The repetition became punishing.
During yet another sweltering mid-afternoon, a man in a “Young Turks” shirt asked a group of Trump supporters a question via a long sarcastic up-talking statement that he expected to see denied, then theatrically folded his arms and smirked.
Ten minutes later, the same shit-eating expression on his face, he let a Christian fundamentalist rant about homosexuals before responding, “Your tattoos. What about . . . Leviticus?” and again stood back and waited, as if he expected the fundamentalist to disappear in a puff of “pwnage” or be struck down by Richard Dawkins’s terrible, swift Amazon-purchased katana.
It was like being stuck in the longest live-action message board debate, where virtually no one was as fit and sexy as their avatars, and everyone had a giant signature file they couldn’t stop restating. A pair of journalists nearby began audibly speculating that they had died on Monday morning and may only have just then realized that they were in Hell.
By Thursday, right-wing protesters’ habits of crossing sidewalks and roadways or interrupting their own protests to lavishly and loudly praise and thank the police had transcended smarm into a logarithmic version of Eddie Haskell stretching into some toadying dickhead infinity.
It didn’t work. Cops who asked that their names not be used admitted only to listening for keywords and tone and otherwise tuned everything out. They said it was easier that way.
People who didn’t recognize each other on Day One were now nodding at each other with sick familiarity, able to chart the heat and humidity of the day by the structural failure of each other’s hairstyles. Pundits accustomed to green-room comforts stalked 4th Street in search of some phantom cocktail-mixed refuge, the hunch of John Podhoretz now a familiar sight, as if he’d woken to wearily read Twitter mentions calling him a “Jew cuck,” then went outside to hear it rain down on him from various Trump supporters.
Because if there was one constant every day that seemed to thrive in the misery, it was the neofascists.
Earthquakes don’t usually afflict the Midwest, but Trump was enough of a Richter event for the far-right to skitter out into daylight. At night, Marcus Epstein, the erstwhile Pat Buchanan researcher and far-rightist who was exposed for violently attacking a black woman in 2007, caromed down Euclid Avenue.
Other, less notable ultra-right skells had come to peddle their wares in Cleveland — weedy, whey-faced burglars, sweating sex tourists and ginger-bearded misanthropes clinging to the new alt-right movement as a last desperate measure to fend off media irrelevancy.
Convergences. A tipster on the street claimed that cops had been dispatched to the Independence, Ohio Holiday Inn, where the Ku Klux Klan klavern staying on the third floor needed separation from the New Black Panther Party conclave on the fourth. A sports reporter warned of skinheads with spiderweb and “88” neck tattoos gathering in Public Square. Undercover cops trawled the same streets, one day in red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats, then in the scuzzy uniforms of the anarchists, winking ironically at local journalists in the know.
At 4th and Prospect, the closest thing the Cleveland streets had to a center stage, Richard Spencer, Aryan nonpareil — along with metroquisling Nathan Damigo — stood and waited to be baited when they didn’t stand in the Public Square in anticipation of the same thing.
Spencer didn’t have anything as gauche as tattooed SS lightning bolts with “88” rockers creeping above his collar; the white supremacist was mannerly, tastefully attired in a light beige sport coat and brown light-denim shirt, a pleasant Texan lilt in his voice ready to disarm all comers.
Spencer was one of the new movers and shakers in the swamp of online racism — a courtly fascist, like if one of Paula Deen’s sons had been nursed on a diet of mother’s milk, sauerkraut, and talk radio.
“Donald Trump has brought an existential quality to politics that wasn’t there before. He’s asked these big questions. Are we a nation? If we’re a nation, we have borders,” he said.
The thought process presented a strange and, with the attendees at least, an all too-common-bifurcation: “America” is more than the sum of its parts, far more powerful and loaded a concept than a mere expanse of land, but it is a weak enough nation that migrant workers can, merely by crossing the border to pick lettuce, destroy the foundations of the country.
Spencer was slick; he understood that while his ideas were hardly mainstream, they were starting to seep into it. He gestured to the Black Lives Matter protesters, both literally and for the sake of co-optation.
“Look, they are black identitarians. Identity is the future. I in a way understand them. I in a way respect them, for who they are. They have a sense of themselves as a people . . . Millions of white voters have been waiting for Donald Trump. It’s a nationalism that dare not speak its name . . . They want to vote for somebody who really cares about them.”
Spencer was breezy in his attitude, flagging down a woman selling skincare products with one hand and hoisting an anti-Hillary placard with the other. He allowed he’d had a few Manhattans already that afternoon, explaining in the same lackadaisical tone why all undocumented families should be deported and why birthright citizenship was a sham to be reinterpreted by more pliable lawyers.
Pressed on the details, he admitted he “didn’t really give a shit” about the Constitution, shrugging, “Survival is more important than law.”
As with everyone supporting Trump, the biggest question was not what they’d do if he’d win, but what happens if he loses.
“Maybe that would be the best thing,” Spencer said. “I think, it might actually create a sense of urgency, a little bit of anger never hurt anybody. The sense that we’ve got to be more radical.”
Esquire writer Charles P. Pierce has a line he likes to use to describe Ron and Rand Paul. He calls it the Five Minute Rule: for three hundred seconds, either Paul will make sober arguments founded in historical reality, and at second 301 they will go completely insane. Over and over again, with Trump fans at the RNC, this process blew past lightspeed.
You speak to a Trump voter, and hear concerns about how neither party offers much more than lip service for the working class. True. You hear that free trade has hurt domestic manufacture. True. You hear that open borders can threaten the livelihoods of working class people. True.
You listen, and empathize, and then someone tells you that the world is flat and George Soros controls it.
You might laugh, but someone stoked this paranoia, and it is not unique.
Ask them if the Clintons control the Democratic Party, and they will tell you yes. Ask a conventional Republican voter if George Soros manipulates protest movements, and they will tell you yes. Ask former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, and he will agree to both.
And he should. His network has depicted the Clintons as masterful, sinister puppeteers since its inception, and ever since 2004 and Soros’s donations to MoveOn, his network has fueled the depiction of Soros as a peripatetic billionaire underwriting every outburst against white conservative hegemony.
It didn’t take neofascists or Alex Jones to incite this: You can look at placards from the 2009 Tea Party protests and see caricatures of Soros as a leech, the many legs of the Jewish international financier ready to encircle the United States as he takes the body of this nation into his mouth.
But while mainstream conservatism excites these impulses, it has no desire to give them any release. Beyond harnessing votes, this amorphous fear has no purpose.
When a Trump voter walked down 4th Street, snaking his way through clutches of important people signifying at each other, he could look up at banks of televisions, each tuned to a different cable news channel, each delayed by one second more than the feed to the left, and see each unctuous Paul Ryan head nod — then nod, then nod — looking like a phalanx of war droids rolling off the assembly line.
He could see an army of replicants stepping individually to the podium, sanctimoniously swearing fealty to a diseased politics their nominee spent nearly a year horsewhipping — acting as if they were the only people to know, somehow, that the world had not changed.
And if that Trump voter spied a representative he knew, he could open his mouth and reach out his hand, only to clutch at air as that party mandarin’s worsted-wool blazer melted into a jungle of security personnel.
There was only one convention attendee whose performance would be important, because there was only one who had ever acted like he had genuinely heard any of the voices coming from outside the gates.
Trump was bathed in blue light when we’d seen him — first as the apparition introducing Melania, then as the fuming pit boss gliding from the wings to step on the end of Ted Cruz’s sleazy speech.
Then, finally, there he was, under the bright lights. No more adornment. No more pageantry. Just you, and him.
Stripped, lean, shorn of the compromises and niceties, those qualifications deployed by the sixteen mediocrities who’d been so brutally dispatched during the course of the primary campaign — it was all there in his convention speech, his greatest public performance, ever.
A dark, grand address that stretched across the hours, inhabiting the realm of unalloyed evil like a roomy mansion, compelling in its ferocity. It was Trump in bloom: deadly nightshade, all inky poison and sinister beauty.
Trump had become himself, whatever that was. The benthic-low common denominator of his rhetoric made the man, not vice versa.
It was clear, watching the speech: Trump is our golem now — every nameless and disaggregated paranoia incarnated — lurching without apparent motive or purpose, driven forward by a warped psyche, but with a malign ideology well-suited to America at this particular moment.
Constantly improvising, empty, filling and refilling himself with formless invention, a beneficent plutocrat one second, an ardent Christian the next, then, a ruthless war criminal.
“I am your voice,” Trump said, to one of the most climactic rounds of applause of the night, and for many people, Trump is right. The hundreds of people outside the gates of The Q or standing in the Public Square in search of a lifetime’s-elusive recognition were ready to tell anyone this, in language too hasty, artless and punctuated with some flat-earth-like riff to be any less than sincere.
There are no inconsistencies to Trump in the eyes of his fans. Any gotcha question you can ask can be shrugged off. Trained for years by a conservative movement that condemns all reporting and excites their every terror without taking steps to alleviate it, they have adopted a commitment to dietrologia that would feel familiar to any shrugging Italian political wonk searching for the hand of intent behind government sclerosis, corruption and indifference.
They have internalized that “behindology” way of thinking, programmed by a system that orchestrates fanatical, verbally violent opposition in ultimate service to gridlock and stasis. They know that things are broken by design, because you cannot break something as vast as America without cooperation and a plan.
They understand on an elemental level that this is partially a game, and no amount of gaffe soundbites can strip away this understanding. There’s a reason why Trump begins every speech by updating the score. You cannot unhouse someone who believes that all politics is surface and all motive hidden by showing them a candidate who makes it so plain that he will say anything to close a deal.
Trump is in on the gag, and by listening to them, he has invited them to be in on the gag too.
Did they know that Trump used to donate heavily to Democrats? Of course he did, that’s how the system works. Did they know that he contradicted himself on two different days? Of course he did, lying is how you get elected. Did you hear him say this crazy shit? Sure, it’s hilarious. Do you care that he’s all over the map? No, because, when push comes to shove, he’s always said he’ll make America great again. That’s the deal he’s trying to close.
There is no answer for these people in the other party, and if there ever had been, the Democratic National Convention tore it apart.
After bearing witness to a near revolutionary insurgency in the Democratic ranks, they watched as the only other candidate who echoed their concerns, Bernie Sanders, knuckled under the power elite that Fox has spent nearly a generation telling them controls the Democratic Party.
They saw Sanders supporters shouted down by chants, as the Democratic old guard spent its final night force-marching the party toward the center, as raw and real a confirmation that both sides of the system congeal in an inviolate, unmoving mass as anyone could have wished for.
Donald Trump now owns the issue of our hollowed-out American economy by default, and he did it barely expending any energy. He did it as easily as a man walks into his living room. He got away with it simply by seeming to mean it — a tactic so simple, only Bernie Sanders also thought to try it.
We will be stuck with Trumpism for a long time, no matter who wins, either vindicated or aged with victimhood and rebottled into some sweeter vintage of human poison. It will be all things to all resentments, a protean sneer at the public record, an endlessly adaptive excuse for itself, a moment’s rootless justification for whatever is demanded next. It is now a faith nearly past the point of argument.
We have created these citizens, nurtured them in their resentment, enamored them of conflict, rewarded their energies with cant and inaction, and taught them to embrace only disbelief. We have locked them outside the walls and left them marching in circles near the marchers from the Left — two vortices of outrage spinning clockwise and counterclockwise, never meeting, chant and counter-chant proclaiming halves of two different conversations that the one is not bothering to have with the other.
At some point, we will have to decide if we want Donald Trump to be the only person listening and talking back.