Cleveland, Day One
Christian Lorentzen · At the Republican National Convention
I woke before dawn on Monday in Parma, a Ukrainian neighbourhood south of downtown Cleveland, and watched a lightning storm flash for half an hour over Lake Erie. In a world governed by the pathetic fallacy, the storm might have signalled that Donald Trump was angry or doomed or both, or that the Republican Party was angry or doomed or both. Trump has demonstrated that the GOP primary electorate can do without the three main planks of the conservative movement that’s had the party in its grip since Reagan. For a hawkish interventionist foreign policy, he has substituted a ban on Muslims entering the US. In place of globalised free-market fundamentalism, he has engaged in the rhetoric of nationalist protectionism and a xenophobic paranoia when it comes to the border with Mexico. Unschooled in the catechism of social conservatism, he has railed against the catch-all of political correctness. He made scorched earth of the party’s new policy of outreach to Hispanic Americans. Trump’s pick last week of the Indiana governor and former talk radio host Mike Pence as his vice-presidential candidate was seen as a sign of reconciliation with doctrinaire conservatives – at least until it was reported that Trump was making midnight calls to see if he could get away with ditching him.
In the afternoon I walked through downtown Cleveland’s festival of reaction, past hawkers of Trumpian kitsch: T-shirts with Trump on a Harley, Trump as Captain America, golden silhouettes of his hair, and Hillary for Prison; Trump Flakes cereal; Trump condoms ‘to keep you safe like the wall’. I missed out on the early pro and anti-Trump rallies, but I did see a man walking another man on a leash, his ‘Trump dog’, their message not entirely clear. I bought a sandwich and sat on a bench beside an elderly African-American man with a few Trump T-shirts to sell but making little effort to do so. A young African-American man passed by and started yelling at him: ‘I can’t believe your black ass is selling a motherfucking Trump shirt. You’re blacker than me, you stupid motherfucker.’ The man beside me was unfazed.
Around this time, inside the Quicken Loans Arena (the Q, as it’s called), a faction of anti-Trump delegates had made a last-ditch effort to thwart Trump’s nomination by demanding a roll-call vote. They were halted by the officials running the convention, and speaking to C-Span after the evening’s festivities, the vice-chair of the Utah delegation (Mormons being the least susceptible of Republicans to Trump’s charms) was still confused as to how they were outmanoeuvred. But the lesson was that the #NeverTrump movement had breathed its last gasp.
The evening’s speeches in the Q were kicked off by Willie Robertson, a star of the reality show Duck Dynasty, which I’ve never seen but apparently documents the hijinks of a Louisiana family that has amassed a fortune by making duck hunting decoys out of salvaged swamp wood. Robertson wore a long beard and a Stars-n-Stripes bandana and extolled the way ‘rednecks’ would always have each other’s back just the way President Trump would always have America’s back. ‘It’s been a rough year for the media experts,’ he said. ‘They don’t hang out with regular folks like us, who like to hunt, and fish and pray, and actually work for a living.’ Robertson was followed by the has-been celebrity Scott Baio, star of the decades-old television sitcoms Happy Days and Charles in Charge and such films as Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. For a Republican gathering, the evening was light on welfare scapegoating, but Baio insisted: ‘To be an American – it doesn’t mean getting free stuff.’ He owes his status as a marginal right-wing icon in part to a 2010 tweet: ‘Taxes are DONE . . . That should feed, house & provide medical for a few lazy non working people at my expense. Have a great Monday!’ After some boilerplate Clinton-bashing, Baio blew the evening’s most blatant dog-whistle: ‘Let’s make America America again.’
Two-time erstwhile GOP presidential primary also-ran and former Texas Governor Rick Perry appeared to ring in the evening’s long apocalyptic ‘Make America Safe Again’ theme. He said a few words introducing Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy Seal, who advocated better care and policies for returning veterans before lapsing into sentimental incoherence. Luttrell complained about the teleprompter: ‘I’m so used to speaking from the heart that when I read this it goes wrong.’ Then he called on a new generation to take up arms to fight a shadowy enemy within. Was he talking about IS-inspired shooters, undocumented migrants, or academic enforcers of political correctness? It was hard to tell. ‘The world outside America’s borders is a scary place,’ he insisted, suggesting that his passport lacks stamps from countries with gun control laws.
Yet the evening only grew more insane. It was hard to watch Patricia Smith, mother of Sean Smith, one of four Americans killed in Benghazi on 11 September 2011, and not be concerned for her mental health. ‘The American people lost the truth,’ she said of the Obama administration’s confused messaging in the aftermath of the attack, an issue long since officially clarified. ‘I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son . . . She lied to me and then called me a liar . . . How could she do this to me? . . . Hillary for prison. She should be in stripes.’ She was followed by Mark Geist and John Tiegen, a pair of Marine Corps veterans of the battle of Benghazi, who seemed to be engaged in a high-concept comedy routine, except they were talking about corpses, tourniquets they’d tied to staunch life-threatening wounds, and their escape to the airport with the help of Gaddafi loyalist militia forces, ‘the ones that Hillary wanted to get out of Libya’ – probably not a line that would have flown at previous GOP conventions. Geist and Tiegen lulled their audience into a stupor before leaving the stage to everyone’s relief.
And then the crowd was treated to tales of a more rousing scapegoat: undocumented migrants entering via the Mexican border. A live feed from a pair of ranting law enforcement officers on the Arizona border electrified the crowd. Antonio Sabato Jr., a star of the soap opera General Hospital, spoke of his immigration from Italy in 1985, his naturalisation in 1996, and how ‘others who want to come to the US should follow the same rules.’ Next a trio of ‘immigration reform advocates’ whose family members were killed by undocumented migrants, whom they insisted on referring to as ‘illegal aliens’. Two of these died in drunk driving accidents, one in a shooting. Jamiel Smith, the father of the shooting victim, said: ‘Only Trump mentions Americans killed by illegals.’ Smith accused Obama of being a hypocrite for engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement but ignoring his son’s death.
The crowd entered a blissful state of rage. Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County, an African-American, took the stage and intoned: ‘Blue lives matter!’ He cited the three dead policemen killed by a shooter on Sunday in Baton Rouge; mentioned the ‘malicious prosecution’ of the officer acquitted in Baltimore in the Freddie Gray case; then the sniper shootings of police in Dallas. He said he believed the protests of the Occupy and Black Lives Matter amounted to ‘anarchy’. The cheers died down when he tried to enlist the memory of Martin Luther King in his diatribe. Nothing was quite as effective as telling the crowd that all, blue, or anything-other-than-black lives matter. The Colorado Senate candidate Darryl Glenn, also an African-American, had this in mind when he referred to ‘the new Black Panthers outside . . . They don’t speak for black America and they don’t speak for me . . . All lives matter.'
Tom Cotton, senator from Arkansas and the politician deemed most likely to pick up the Trumpian torch in subsequent elections, was a resounding disappointment. ‘We don’t fight because we hate our enemies but because we love our country,’ he said to a crowd already jittery with hate. He kept repeating the catchphrase ‘Help is on the way,’ seemingly unaware that it had been John Kerry’s slogan when he ran for president in 2004. The crowd seemed about to start snoozing again until he started to talk about the founding fathers. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama did much the same: sent the crowd to sleep by invoking statistics on immigration and jobs, rather than simply branding undocumented migrants criminals. But he did rouse the crowd with his closing lines: ‘The president has the power to suspend immigration. This election will make it happen. That’s why we need Donald Trump. Donald Trump will kill Obamatrade. Donald Trump will build the wall. Donald Trump will make America great again.’ He ceded the floor to the evening’s true psychotic, Rudolph Giuliani, who in a flurry of not un-Mussolini-like gesticulations managed to restrain himself from touting his presence in Manhattan on 9/11 and reverted to a hallmark of an earlier phase of his career: a healthy sundae of race-baiting with a pro-police cherry on top.
The house band struck up ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’, but in a move familiar to fans of pro wrestling the song was interrupted by Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’. Donald Trump, violating the tradition of withholding the nominee’s presence until after the vice-presidential nominee’s Wednesday night speech, walked to the podium and said: ‘We’re gonna win so big.’ He said it again and again and then he introduced his wife, Melania. I thought her speech was boring, but as I was walking out of the Q a Southern woman next to me said: ‘I bet he’ll get a lot of votes just from his wife and his daughters speaking.’ By the time we cleared the security barriers, it was already being reported that Melania’s speech had been plagiarised from Michelle Obama’s in 2008.