At the Republican National Convention, the camera is the only constant.
I’m not talking about inside the convention center, where the camera functions in a top-down, broadcast model, ready to suction up the delegates’ faux joy and smear it all over C-SPAN. No, I’m talking about networked, distributed, surveillance by camera phone. At the RNC, everyone is recording everyone. Everyone is recording themselves.
There are the cameras the delegates use to snap selfies. The cameras cops use to film protesters, and the cameras protesters use to film cops. There’s the camera clutched by the dweeb in the ill-fitting sports jacket, who, on Wednesday, swept through the row of crowded bars that had been rented out by tech/news companies, and demanded to speak to the “liberal media.” At every protest, counter-protest, and scheduled flag-burning, there were the more expensive cameras, recorders and boom mikes, that crowded like insects around the merest hint of conflict, such as when a Trump protester and an anti-fascist screamed at each other across a wall of cops.
“I kick the ass of the guys with 30 pounds on you on a weekly basis,” said the man in the black bandana, and his friends filmed him.
“Build a fucking wall,” shrieked back the adolescent in the too-big suit. His friends filmed him, perhaps for a show on YouTube.
The RNC had credentialed 15,000 members of the media, and thousands more flew to Cleveland on their own dime, in hope of selling a story later. Many were lured by the promise of photogenic riots, but as the reporters shoved their colleagues to get a better shot, it became clear that any violence in Cleveland would be done by journalists to each other.
I had never been to a political convention. I don’t cover electoral politics, but when The Daily Beast offered me the chance to cover the most hyped presidential nomination since Hubert Humphrey’s kicked off the Siege of Chicago, I grabbed my sketchbook and went. This was history, I thought. A neon-skinned huckster was going to crown himself as king.
Spectacle it was, though not in the way many in the media suspected. The protests were anemic and futile, in part because activists throughout the country had received pre-convention warning visits from the FBI. No tear gas clouded the streets of downtown Cleveland, and the journalists who brought body armor were unable to take the macho selfies of which they’d dreamed. In Public Square, there was an open corner for speakers, where beardy men screamed pornographic nonsense about Dallas shooter Micah X Johnson. At various times, a woman sold cookies printed with Trump’s face, a man danced in a diaper, and ostentatiously open-carrying gentlemen wiggled their American flags. On Wednesday, a group of immigrant activists put on ponchos painted with the slogan “Wall off Trump,” and linked hands. They had earnest, hard-working faces, the faces of a working class more real, and more demonized than the white working class that pundits claim support Trump. They encircled the square. They chanted in Spanish. Aqui estamos! Sin papeles! We are here. Without papers. Their bodies formed what one activist called a “wall of love, to keep out the hate.”
Soon, the activists disappeared behind a swarm of media, all shoving and jabbing and praying for violence, and I suddenly felt such shame that these decent, committed people should be fucked over by Trump, a man whom people voted for because they so deeply hated scumbags like us.
The Q, Cleveland’s massive contention center, was fenced off, and guarded by thousands of police, shipped from as far off as California. A man in a rubber Hillary mask stood just outside the perimeter. “Trump vs. Tramp,” read his sign. Next to him, the anti-war group Code Pink waved cardboard lady silhouettes, and sang to the end of war.
Inside the Q’s red-white-and-blue hellmouth, rubber-faced broadcast journalists dodged women holding tiny Trump dolls. Convention fashion combined two constants: ostentatious hatred of Hillary Clinton and omnipresent stars and stripes. Damn did these people fly the flag. Once, police arrested Abbie Hoffman for wearing a flag shirt (it was considered desecration), but inside the Q, flag leggings hugged asses and flag tee’s stretched over guts. Every photo I took featured an all-too-literal version of the famous Sinclair Lewis misquote: “When fascism comes to America, it will by wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”
I snuck past some inattentive volunteers to get as close to the floor as possible. A few Texas delegates milled about in their matching cowboy hats. On the mega-screen, the day’s slogan, “Make America Work Again,” sparkled against a Trump-style gold background.
The political convention scam used to go like this. Corporations paid the bill, which meant the DNC and the RNC were yet again in the hock to their sponsors. The convention itself served two purposes: a long weekend for the party faithful, where they could drink, have their egos petted, and maybe fuck in a hotel room away from their families—and a televised spectacle in which the party faithful could wave pre-printed signs. Meanwhile, in the private parties, lobbyists and politicians did the real business of politics.
But those were the old days, and we live in Trump time now.
Trump humiliated a century-old party with techniques borrowed from Daddy-doms, carnival hucksters, and the KKK. Like any con man, he identified insecurities. He used what everyone knew—the Iraq war was a disaster, our trade deals were rubbish, and both parties were in the hock to corporations. He saw a white America who felt their world was slipping, and, like any good con man, he made them feel strong again.
In the words of a pink man selling Christians for Trump merchandise, he was a “real alpha,” “flamboyant,” filled with the “male characteristics” the way God and Jesus intended.
The convention is a show, but why did Trump, master of the social media reality TV era, need such a distinctly 20th-century spectacle for his coronation? Why the balloons? The gift bags? The 25-foot-high jumbotron showing an elephant prancing on a guitar? The smug security guards, who lounged next to me, smirking about Syrian refugees they would never meet, refugees more clever, tougher, more educated than they’d ever be? In 2016, a political convention seemed like nothing so much as a potlatch consuming excess wealth of a no-longer-quite-so-wealthy country. No one could pretend this was for democracy.
I fled the center in favor of a local bar. It was empty. In addition to approximately $20 million for security, Cleveland had gotten $30 million to spruce up downtown. Little of that had trickled back to local businesses. Many were barricaded off, shuttered, or just empty, and their employees had had their hours cut. Ra Washington, a writer who owns a popular activist bookshop, told me if he had one thought on the convention, it was “hurry up and go home, so we can go downtown and enjoy all the money you spent making it nice.”
Onscreen, Trump accepted his nomination. Unlike the media, he wasn’t in Cleveland, and so gave his speech from Trump Towers. The two young black bartenders laughed at the audacity. He’d humiliated the establishment, and now that they had to crown him he cared so little for the ritual he hadn’t even bothered to show up. “All those people who are kissing his ass were crucifying him,” one bartender told me. “People our age don’t care who they say is good or bad, don’t care about party.”
I came back to the bar the next night, and the night after. I hid from journalists. I draw hard. I drew, because it seemed the only way to make sense. I drew a squamous, gibbering Newt Gingrich, and the unholy pundits, and Trump’s two sons, fascist and identical, whom Daily Beast editor Michael Weiss nicknamed Uday and Qusay. I read about the airstrikes in Syria in my phone. Nearly a hundred civilians dead in Manbij, but the T-shirts here still promised Trump would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” I watched as a billionaire New Yorker labeled himself a “Fifth Avenue redneck.” Bush may have been a Connecticut Blue-blood, but he played that cowboy card so hard that we New Yorkers could blame his existence on Texas. Trump offered us no such comfort. He was vat bred from our city’s elite hucksterism, where nothing is true, and everything is permitted.
On the last day, I found the iconic totem of the RNC. The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber had 3-D-printed a life-size Trump bobblehead from gold plastic, then displayed it in a tent belonged to the American association of manufacturers. In this sea of “Hillary for Prison” shirts and “Trump that bitch” buttons, it was sadly wholesome, presented in the belief that somehow, Trump would bring jobs back to America. Manufacturing would blossom. America would be great again.
On coronation night, Trump grabbed Ivanka’s ass like it was power. Then he gave one of the longest nomination speeches in U.S. history. For over an hour, he pouted, wheedled, bellowed, screamed. He spelled out a vision of a racist welfare state. He demonized Muslims, immigrants, Black Lives Matter—along with corporations and free trade. He clumsily added LGBTQ to the Republican Party’s lexicon. He promised vengeance. He sucked up Bernie voters. He invoked the word “humiliation” like an Arab dictator. He stared into the eyes of all those cameras, and promised that he sees us, that he would fix everything, give us everything, without telling us how, and that we must, must believe. Trump told America that daddy loved it. Daddy would make it OK.
When it was over, balloons fell from the ceiling, on all those soft white people who had felt so grievously wronged. Outside the bar, the sky exploded into a glory of fireworks.
All the car alarms went off.