By Joseph Bullington
The first thing I noticed about the Republican National Convention was the police, the shear number and variety of them. Cleveland city cops directing traffic, sheriff’s deputies coordinating with Secret Service members, formations of state troopers—called in from as far away as Montana—that marched like military platoons.
It was impossible to get within a hundred yards of the convention center in Quicken Loans Arena. A complex architecture of 15-foot security fences funneled those without delegate badges or press credentials onto streets like cattle chutes, artificially narrowed to prevent people from congregating.
On East Fourth Street, one of the main convention entrances, the atmosphere was like that of a sporting event but with the FBI involved. The street was lined with vendors, mostly black men selling Trump paraphernalia as casually as they’d sell Indians jerseys on the night of a playoff game.
Around half the stuff being sold was dedicated to defaming Trump’s foes. A crew of vendors sold t-shirts that read “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica” until their friend arrived with the new item: “Cruz Sucks, Hillary Swallows” shirts hot off the press, updated to the mood of the crowd since Ted Cruz had refused to endorse Trump the night before.
Public Square, the designated protest area several blocks from the convention center, had been partitioned with police barricades and human fences of officers. The barriers were arranged with the same care good architects use to make a small space feel open, only reversed to make an open space feel confined. When we first got to the square about 6pm chants of “black lives matter!” were rising from somewhere in the crowd but died out before I could spot the protesters in the sea of uniforms and cameras.
The protesters were hopelessly scattered. It seemed like a variety of leftist groups had arrived to protest for a certain cause but had failed to unite around opposing Trump. It wasn’t all their fault; in the space allowed them, it would have been almost impossible to get together. When it got dark, a couple dozen people carrying immigrant’s rights signs coalesced in a corner of the park and began chanting against Trump. As their energy built mildly a crew of bike cops swooped in to encircle them in a fence of bicycles.
“This is what democracy looks like!” they chanted, referring to their protest. But the sight of their tiny band outnumbered two to one by the crowd of cops and Trump supporters lent their call a dark other meaning. A twenty-something heckler shouted from the sidelines: “Democracy looks like Trump!”—a jeer that strikes closer to truth than many on the left will comfortably admit.
Confusingly, the heckler was then joined by a friend who wore a Black Lives Matter shirt. So he was not for Trump after all, but only heckling the protesters ironically. Two younger kids emerged from behind them, one in a suit and the other in a Trump t-shirt. One Trump Youth carried the same sign as some of the protesters, to mock them I guessed. But wait, no, the kids were talking friendly with the ironic heckler. So they were friends, and the Trump Youth were not Trump Youth but ironic hecklers themselves.
On another part of the square a middle-aged white man dressed in a makeshift burka carried on a stick a blow-up sex doll wearing a devil-eyed Hillary Clinton mask. Around his neck hung a picture of Hillary headlined by the word “SHAME.” A counter-protester had dedicated herself to following him around with a sign that read: “Oh dear I’ve embarrassed myself in front of everyone,” with an arrow pointed at the man.
These baffling displays were not anomalies. They illustrate pretty accurately, if dramatically, the state of discourse outside the RNC on its final evening.
There were people there in shirts that said “Hillary for President” and others that said “Hillary for Prison.” Except for the last word the shirts were identical, and in the crowded streets it could be impossible to tell which side the shirt-wearer was on.
Such details might seem unimportant until you consider the degree to which we choose who we talk to, who we smile at, and probably who we vote for based on these verbal and visual slogans. Until these signals became confused I did not stop to wonder why my mind was so eager to make these distinctions. I suspect that both the hecklers and the man with the Hillary doll sensed, in the overwhelming confusion of the scene, the futility of earnest protests and opted instead for sarcastic and shocking ones—because these, at least, might be heard. Which is also the method Donald Trump employed to keep himself lodged in the public consciousness for 13 months: say outrageous things and attack those you outrage with outrageous insults.
In his long-researched piece “Trump Days” for the New Yorker, George Saunders writes: “Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down.” A discourse that seeks always to snatch the last “gotcha,” the last laugh, has no hope of rebuilding the lines. It veers us ever further from communication’s sacred goal: to understand where the thoughts we each harbor in our individual head-fortresses are similar and where they are different.
Of all the slogans I heard and saw at the RNC it wasn’t until the end of the night that I saw one that I fully understood. As a crowd of supporters, detractors, and journalists gathered around a giant screen on East Fourth Street to watch Donald Trump accept the Republican nomination for president, a woman held up a sign. “This is bleak,” it said.
By Ariety Fried
In Trump’s acceptance speech on Thursday night, he promised change and he promised it would happen fast. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end.” He promised “We will repeal and replace Obamacare. You will be able to choose your own doctor again,” throwing in “And we will fix TSA at airports, which is a complete disaster.” The last line elicited possibly the largest cheer from the crowd we were standing in watching the MSNBC screen on East Fourth Street.
It all sounded pretty good, and for a moment, in the excited atmosphere of a crowd of happy Trumpers, I almost lost track of the fact that this was all a very bad thing. That lapse is what there is to be afraid of, where the tone of the scattered protesters comes from—a sort of mounting hysteria, a note of panic I’ve never heard before, like the feeling in a dream where you try to yell “help” but no one can hear you.
Being in a crowd of Trump supporters is about how I imagined it would be—surreal, annoying, intermittently depressing. Here were the people I have read and heard about, older white men in suits and those red “Make America Great Again” hats, people in violently hateful anti-Hillary shirts, a “TEEN FOR TRUMP,” a “LATINO FOR TRUMP.” But what was on their minds, what made them think so differently from me, I couldn’t hear or read by brushing shoulders with them. So I looked in a lot of people’s eyes for something familiar.
I found the same searching look in the eye of a filmmaker who I originally mistook for a Trumper because he was wearing a nice suit, which was definitely his intention. What’s strange is to find out that the world is suddenly like that, to find myself looking for a silent sign in another person that they are on my side—the filmmaker noticed my white liberal brand of cigarettes and asked to bum one, apparently the secret handshake of outsiders in the middle of an absurd and terrifying moment in history. When we said goodbye, we shook hands solemnly and wished each other good luck. He turned to leave through the crowd, but hesitated and said “If this does happen, and this is the end of the world,” (he glanced up at Trump’s giant face) “just remember—we were here.”
We left before the end of the speech to see if anything was still happening at the Designated Protest Area. A group of cops marched in formation down one side of the now empty Public Square and then it was quiet, a few vendors calling out reduced prices for their Trump souvenirs. A brief display of red, white and blue fireworks exploded quietly in the distance. As we walked back to the car, we were stopped to let a motorcade of shiny black Mercedes, Suburbans and cop cars speed past. Maybe it was him, the Trump.
In her speech introducing her father, Ivanka Trump said: “Over the years… I saw my father tear stories out of the newspaper about people whom he had never met, who were facing some injustice or hardship. He’d write a note to his assistant… and request that the person be found and invited to Trump Tower to meet with him. He would talk to them and then draw upon his extensive network to find them a job or get them a break. And they would leave his office, as people so often do after having been with Donald Trump, feeling that life could be great again.”
Near the end of his speech, Trump said “My opponent asks her supporters to recite a three-word loyalty pledge. It reads: ‘I’m with her.’ I choose to recite a different pledge. My pledge reads: ‘I’m with you, the American people.’”
As the motorcade passed, I experimented with the fantasy being sold. Had Trump heard of me, a struggling journalist? Could I be special? I pictured one of the shiny cars stopping and a short-fingered hand reaching out to invite me inside. “Are we going to Trump Tower?” I would ask. “No little girl,” he would say, and squint his eyes. “We’re going to the White House.”