July 18th – July 21st
CLEVELAND, OHIO – The news broke over the radio.
Another murder in a long line of murders.
Another gaping wound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a reeling community that hadn’t the chance to heal from Alton Sterling’s tragic death twelve days earlier. Three officers killed, another three wounded. The gunman a veteran named Gavin Long who celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday by targeting cops in the streets.
The cable networks breathlessly speculated in the fashion that’s become so commonplace in our era of panic. How many gunmen? Who’s responsible? We’re just getting video – what is this exactly? What type of weapon are we talking about? What’s the feeling out there? It’s the same whether it’s Baton Rouge or Dallas or France.
The only relief came when they would throw to their reporters stationed in Cleveland. Are people nervous? they asked. What type of security measures are being taken?
An hour or so later Stephen Loomis, president of Cleveland’s Patrolmen Association, begged Governor John Kasich to suspend open-carry in the area outside the Republican National Convention, a request Kasich said he couldn’t meet. Following his answer – a denial Loomis bemoaned on every available network – the media speculated again, this time what kind of tragedy Cleveland could bore out if tensions ran too hot.
“I think they’re gonna burn down the city,” a caller said on talk radio. “I really do.”
By Monday morning the hottest picture to get in all of Cleveland was someone carrying a weapon in plain view of the entire world. The first I found was Jesse Gonzales, who was conspicuous because of the large halo of reporters. Holding court in the heart of them, Gonzales stood with an AK-47 on his back.
By my count there were at least four countries and three continents worth of cameras trained on him as he casually answered the most repeated question of why he would ever carry a weapon into a powder keg like this: “Because I can.”
Giving a similar answer was a group of Minutemen posting up on a corner outside Public Square. Decked out in body armor, combat boots, tactical communication sets snaking out of their ears, they pontificated on the police union’s “illegal request” and, when asked about the weapons, would only say three words: “It’s the Constitution.”
A few feet away were Ohio police officers in bulletproof vests. I asked one what he thought of the open-carriers and got a roll of the eyes, “No comment,” he said, “but it’s a pain in my ass.”
The scene was interrupted as a truck pulled slowly down the road with a digital screen in the back that sparked to life. Conspiracy theory mogul Alex Jones’ gruff voice avalanched out of the speakers and declared war on globalists.
Soon a passerby took advantage of the distraction and invaded the space, leaving the Minutemen visibly uncomfortable. He carried a sign and ordered random members of the crowd to join him for a picture. “You,” he said to a passing girl. “I don’t know you from a sandwich, but come on over here.”
As the picture was being snapped the Minutemen’s leader shouted their two-minute warning. Not long after they were marching down the sidewalk, crossing the street, their rifles bouncing as they stepped out of rhythm.
Everywhere symbols of hate. Confederate flags. A man dressed in Neo-Nazi paramilitary gear. Shirts and buttons and flags and towels with the most misogynistic pictures and slogans you could imagine. The new economy of intolerance and meanness that only Donald Trump could’ve conjured in 21st Century America.
Matching the symbols were moments of confrontation in every corner of the city. In the park random arguments sparked between ideologically opposed participants, the topics and people ranging from capitalism to eternal damnation, from the ubiquitous country club uniform of blue blazer, white collar, and khakis to a preacher standing on the steps of Public Square in an ALLAH IS SATAN shirt and carrying an ALL MUSLIMS ARE JIHADISTS sign. The latter was preaching to a crowd of people ignoring him when a Muslim woman climbed up and slipped him a joke pack of gum a protest group had been handing out earlier: ISLAMOPHOBIN, it said, MULTI-SYMPTOM RELIEF FOR CHRONIC ISLAMOPHOBIA. The man took it and told her she was going to Hell.
Down on East 4th Street, the choked thoroughfare where MSNBC and the Washington Post rented their headquarters, foot traffic was heavy and people squeezed against each other, bumping and shoving from time to time. At the end the bottleneck opened into Prospect Avenue, where impromptu protests were held in the shadow of Quicken Loans Center.
That’s where I found self-proclaimed pick-up artist, and founder of the vile misogynistic website Return of Kings, Roosh V engaging with a small group of feminists chanting “rapist, rapist, rapist” as he filmed them and asked for more. Roosh, who has published articles about how to train women and stated a preference for girls with “skin tones within two shades” of his own, held his camera aloft to capture the event for his viewers at home and to the delight of his sad pack of an entourage, including one who told a woman “no one is ever going to rape you, you are so safe…unless you go to a refugee camp.” When she turned from him: “Aww, you got mad. You’ve got no emotional control.”
Elsewhere other Trump supporters interrupted speakers and protestors, laughing at them and mock crying when they ruffled. While a revolutionary group rallied against police brutality a pair of Trump supporters asked them if they knew the meaning of random words and chuckled at them.
In the street a group laid black tiles with protest language, gaining the attention of another pair who stood to the side, watching the project and saying they had no virtue. “These people don’t have a moral center,” one said. “Their daddy didn’t love them enough.”
It took a toll. I went into Flannery’s Pub, grabbed a table by the bar, ordered a Boddington’s. Immediately the television showed footage of Rep. Steve King of Iowa discussing rates and dividing the world into whites and non-whites: “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out: where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you’re talking about? Where did any other sub-group of people contribute more to civilization?”
Then footage of Antonio Sabato, Jr., idiot of General Hospital fame, saying he didn’t believe the president was a Christian.
Then that race-baiting rat bastard Rudy Guiliani.
All leading to Trump entering with a belching fog machine to “We Are The Champions” to introduce his wife Melania.
Enough to make you cry “Enough!”
I was in a stupor on the train ride back to my room. One day and already so much ugliness. I closed my eyes and listened to the wheels on the track. Then a couple in the seat across from mine, the two of them in their late sixties, Trump buttons on one lapel and a local race on the other, explaining Black Lives Matter to someone sitting nearby.
“They’re paid by George Soros and the Democratic Party,” the husband said.
The wife was nodding off beside him.
“They’re giving them guns and money and telling them to come to Cleveland and lay waste to the whole damn place.”
The damn thing was plagiarized.
Who would have ever thought we’d be sitting here talking about the nominee’s spouse lifting lines for a speech that’s only purpose was to soften their edges? Unbelievable and unprecedented.
It’s the only thing anyone wanted to talk about too. All down the corridor correspondents were bloodhounding anyone with a delegate lanyard and pinning them against the walls and fences, asking if it mattered to them at all. The ones who were already iffy about Trump nodded as they sucked on their bottom lips. “It’s a real issue,” they said. “This definitely gives me something to think about.”
Two hundred yards away were a group of combat veterans calling themselves Vets vs. Hate, an outfit mostly in t-shirts and shorts, a distinct contrast to the Minutemen from the day before. Ben, an Army vet, told me he came because he’s tired of how Trump talks about women and Muslims, saying, “These are people we served with proudly.”
There was little fanfare for Vets vs. Hate though. All the oxygen was being sucked up by a man dragging the American flag across the ground of Public Square. Quickly he was ringed by media and angry men and women who told him he should be ashamed of himself and occasionally snuck into the circle to pick the flag off the ground. When they did, the man nonchalantly dipped it back before returning to talking with reporters.
Before long a biker broke through and grabbed the flag, setting off a tense tug-of-war as photographers rabidly snapped pictures. Police, who had been monitoring the situation, wasted no time in breaking up the scuffle and leading both men away from the crowd.
Back on 4th Street I found another argument, this one fabricated for the benefit of a reporter. Roosh V and one of his cronies were holding court in a parking lot, Roosh playing a caricature of a social-justice warrior explaining to his MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat-wearing friend just how ignorant he was. A videographer taped the discussion but seemed perplexed: “I don’t get it,” she said, “why did you two come here together?”
I couldn’t stop myself. The heat was stifling and all of the noise and bombast was wearing on me. “This is staged,” I interrupted. “This whole thing.”
Instantly they dropped the façade, seeming more disappointed than anything. “Why’d you have to do that?” Roosh asked.
Right before Trump was given the official nomination a protest built in the park. The revolutionary outfit had returned with larger numbers and soon the police had weaved through the gathering and separated them, the maneuvers nearly causing more problems when they knocked over a pair of African-American men who got up and shared words. Then, Dr. Cornell West waded into the throng and stopped everything.
“There will be no peace until there is justice,” he said, a megaphone carrying his voice through the square. “No calmness until justice.”
And then Donald Trump became the nominee of a major political party for President of the United States.
Earlier in the day news broke that Milo Yiannopoulos, renowned troll and self-described “most dangerous faggot,” had been permanently banned by Twitter for his role in berating Leslie Jones, actress in this year’s lightning-rod remake of Ghostbusters. Divisive by design, Yiannopoulos has made an incredible living and built a fervent following by touring the country and trolling everyone and everything.
As a result, his personal brand is red-hot with the alt-right, a group of young, aggressive conservatives who are much more willing to spout their xenophobic, racist, anti-feminist hate speech at the top of their intolerant lungs. If this group doesn’t constitute most of Trump’s platform it certainly maintains a very solid and significant plank.
The so-called hottest ticket for the alt-right was Tuesday night’s WAKE UP! Gays For Trump Event, and the center of their world a ballroom on Cleveland State University’s campus. Hoofing it down the sidewalk, ears still ringing from Chris Christie’s bullish prosecution of Hillary Clinton, journalist Jerad Alexander and myself were surprised by a voice we recognized: “These guys.”
We turned and found Roosh and his pack of supporters breezing in around us.
“What are you?” he asked. “Some kind of white knight?”
They kept pace with us for the next two blocks, explaining that the reporter from earlier deserved to lose her job, until we arrived at the building and fell into line. Skipping nine-tenths of the people waiting, Roosh and his men waltzed inside like VIPs. It was obvious right away that this was their party, as well as the party of the InfoWars t-shirt wearers who stood outside and talked animatedly about taking down the infrastructure of freedom-hating globalists by any means necessary.
Inside the walls were lined with pictures of rail-thin models in various stages of undress. The only consistent article of clothing: the signature MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat of the Trump campaign. To go with the artwork – including a Gadsden flag hanging over the DJ booth – were TRUMP PENCE 2016 signs. Conspicuous as hell was the name of the governor of Indiana, who in his congressional years supported a shift of money from AIDS research to conversion therapy for homosexuals.
There weren’t enough drink tickets to stand around and listen to the assembled discuss taking back their country, or to watch them dance awkwardly on the small dance floor in front. A few beers in, I moseyed up to the front as a speaker introduced the first headliner: Dutch politician and founder of the Party For Freedom, Geert Wilders. Considered by many to be the Donald Trump of the Netherlands, far-right and anti-Muslim Wilders came bearing warnings of “Eurabia,” a Europe that had been “overrun” by refugees and Muslims. Congratulating the crowd on taking a stand, he told them, if he becomes the prime minister of his country, he’d be opposed to even a solitary new mosque being built in the Netherlands.
The main event, of course, was Yiannopoulos. He came out wearing sunglasses and a tanktop with a rainbow Uzi and the words WE SHOOT BACK. He made light of his Twitter banning, the impetus being a fight with a “black Ghostbuster,” saying, “What a humiliating end to a wonderful run. It could at least be getting into a fight with somebody serious, but no, no, it was the tertiary star of a fucking terrible feminist flop.”
The crowd hung on his words, especially as he tied a knot meant to bind the LGBTQ community with the forces of bigotry, the shooting in Orlando serving as the lace, the only problem being that the ballroom was half-full, and the people in the back were more concerned with their drinks and socializing than the shitshow on stage. Repeatedly the crowd of alt-right diehards, the majority of them the same straight kids who’d been following around the likes of Roosh and his cronies, were turning around to tell them to shut up. But it didn’t matter. There were better things to do and better places to do them. Soon they were leaving Yiannopoulos and his sycophantic assholes to their hatred.
Cleveland was still awake outside. Delegates were stumbling from bar to bar with drinks and cigars in hand. Street musicians were still banging drums and strumming guitars on the corners. And, tucked into the corner of campus were a group of protestors displaying a banner: QUEERS AGAINST RACISM.
“We’re here,” they chanted, “we’re queer, your politics are really weird.”
In the morning, one more disaster for Donald Trump.
Pissed off by Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort calling him a disgrace for not coming into the convention, Governor Kasich went straight to The New York Times and told them he’d been approached about the VP job before Pence and that, included in the offer, was the possibility of being “the most powerful vice-president in history.”
Supposedly Donald Trump, Jr. had been in charge of the discussion and assured Kasich he’d be in charge of both domestic and foreign policies.
And what would Trump be in charge of?
Making America Great Again.
Just stunning. Two days in and the legitimacy of the candidate and his campaign had been not just questioned but utterly undermined. The only thing more astounding than the revelation was the lack of concern the Trump operation showed or, in concert, how little his supporters cared.
Meanwhile, the cover story for Melania Trump’s plagiarism had changed somewhere in the area of four separate times. It’d been a misunderstanding. A common mistake. A non-story. Melania’s fault for writing the speech herself. And finally, mercifully, some speechwriter claimed responsibility, offered her resignation, but was given a reprieve.
The story dominated the cycle even two days later, taking any and all attention from the unbelievable tale Kasich had giftwrapped the media.
But there were other stories to tell. Like Trump Force One, Donald’s 757 campaign craft, coming in for a landing. All the news networks interrupted their coverage for close-ups of the plane entering airspace. When it touched down, a delegate at the bar where I was having lunch and nursing an early beer applauded. Trump climbed down, said a few words with Pence, and then retreated to his private helicopter, also bearing his name, and choppered off for the city proper.
As it disappeared into the distance, he clapped again. “There he goes,” the man said. “The next President of the United fucking States.”
I’d been covering an argument between a man wearing a shirt that said YOU WHORE and everybody in the world, sweating and feeling terrible about pretty much everything. The fights had devolved to the lowest common denominator. Ignorance and ad hominem attacks. I peeled away feeling sullied and dirtied. I was mulling over whether people had a point when they said the system was beyond saving, that Trump represented a deep and buried psychological defect in the species, when a sound erupted, earning the attention of everyone in the vicinity.
Some ran for cover.
I hustled across the street, listening to a nearby officer say into his walkie-talkie that he’d heard a gunshot.
A rush of people toward the sound, some with guns and some with cameras.
When we got there we found a car with a blown tire. The driver outside smoking a cigarette while police worked the crowd and replaced the tire. Inside the car, in the passenger seat, a smiling man displayed his photo ID to journalists asking how to spell his name. The job was done and the driver returned to the wheel and drove off into afternoon traffic. The crowd cheered the police who shook hands and got back to work.
Let it be known: the assembled law enforcement in Cleveland, Ohio are the only ones walking out of this mess with any credit. Ugly and disgusting were nearly every other facet at play. The people antagonizing and harassing one another, the media gladly lapping it up, the Republican Party reveling in the slop their organization has become. The police were quick, well trained, and saved these people from themselves.
The only hiccup I saw came that afternoon when the revolutionary group returned for an impromptu flag burning and officers crashed into the crowd to arrest the perpetrator despite it being a Constitutionally protected right. Some argued it constituted a fire hazard while others cried fire hazard, but it was in the aftermath that things got hairy.
Just a few feet down the road another spokesman for the group held court on the sidewalk, telling reporters and rubberneckers what they’d hoped to achieve – nothing less than a total overthrow of the system – before attempting to set fire to another flag. The police intervened again and this time clashed with the reporters covering the event, pushing them against barricades and parked cars
A fleeting moment, perhaps, an excusable trespass in the face of so much chaos and madness. I left feeling sore about it anyway, or maybe it was the drink I’d left behind when the sprinting swarm had raced past the bar and I’d had to chase after.
Aside from a Mike Pence speech that was only notable for being unnotable – other than a woman who lingered next to me on the street, craning her neck and saying, “He’s a good, good man, I can tell…maybe he should be president.” – the real action Wednesday night was Ted Cruz’s address of a divided Republican house.
Word had been spreading all week that a contingent of Cruz supporters, most of them wearing pins or medals bearing his campaign logo, had been making life hell for the pro-Trump crowd at every turn, including a tense moment when Colorado walked out of the convention following a contentious roll call that shut down the long-ballyhooed Never Trump Movement in one fell swoop. Otherwise, Cruz supporters were throwing as many wrenches into the gears as they could find and generally making their disapproval known.
The hope, in Trump circles anyway, was that Cruz would step up to the microphone Wednesday night and put to rest any rumor of division or rancor, a hope that Cruz toyed with for the duration of his address. At times he seemed right on the precipice of endorsing and the speech was finely tuned to stoke expectations. And then, as it wound its way to conclusion, and it became apparent, they booed the living hell out of him.
Pence’s speech became an afterthought, even more so than it would’ve been anyway. In the bars and in the streets all people could talk about was Cruz’s betrayal. “Fuck Cruz,” someone spit and slapped a bar in a nearby pub. Happy though were the delegates with those pins. They came streaming out of the convention as the vice-presidential nominee spoke.
The damage had been done.
The hemorrhage that had been bleeding the Republican Party for so many years now showed no signs of abating.
The morning began with more news: Trump had declared he wasn’t sure he’d honor all of America’s NATO commitments. Reaction in the armed forces community was swift as commanders and strategists alike condemned any insinuation that we wouldn’t continue to support the very organization that had maintained a tenuous peace since bringing Communist Russia to its knees.
Debate in the streets was less nuanced. Everywhere you went the residents of the polarized political spectrum were getting in their finals licks. They argued about guns. About supply-side economics. Religion. Everything you could imagine.
I was watching two men disagree about Israel and Palestine when I caught wind of a pair of Trump supporters in HILLARY SUCKS BUT NOT LIKE MONICA and DONALD FUCKING TRUMP shirts orbiting a man sitting on one of the square’s steps. The rhetoric was heated and personal.
“You’re a fucking scumbag,” one of them said.
“Come on,” the resting man said. “You’re not going to do shit to me.”
The men seemed to enjoy the altercation the worse is got. They laughed to each other about the other man’s appearance, his perceived sexual orientation, called him a pedophile and shouted, “Everybody watch your kids, there’s a convicted pedophile over here!”
Afterward I talked to both parties.
The pair, Chris and Levi, were from Michigan and had driven down to antagonize protestors and for the Kid Rock concert that night. “This woman over here,” Levi said, gesturing to the man sitting feet away, “I’m trying to wake that idiot up. Soros is paying him and everybody else and they want my fucking money. They’re playing games and I want people to wake up. I don’t care if you puff peters or whatever, just get your hands off my paycheck.”
Jimi Ginnatti, a photojournalist out of Tucson, said the incident began when he interrupted another confrontation across the square and the men followed him back to that spot. He said a friend of his had been assaulted at a Trump rally earlier in the year and this wasn’t a surprise to him.
“I was at Kent State yesterday,” he said, “and getting yelled at by xenophobic, racist misogynists is nothing.”
Asked why he was here he paused.
“I’ve always believed that when the devil’s at your door you have to tell him to get the fuck out.”
By design Thursday was intended to be Donald Trump’s victory lap, a chance for the insurgent to stick it in the eye of the establishment one last time and revel in his victory. Similarly, the crew at InfoWars, a new-media empire based in Austin, Texas and built on the potent brew of paranoia and mainline capitalism, enjoyed a comparable celebration in Cleveland. Alex Jones, the Pope of American Conspiracy Theories, had built an unlikely bridge between his fringe organization and the nominee of a major political party, cementing the strangest partnership in recent memory. The foundation is based on Roger Stone, longtime Trump confidant and infamous Nixon ratfucker who did the Old Man’s dirty work with a smile on his face.
The two were inseparable at the convention and held countless rallies and events where members of the alt-right and preppers alike mingled and cheered on the destruction of the so-called globalist forces. They were inescapable. Walking down the sidewalk you’d suddenly get beaten by Jones’ voice machine-gunning out of a nearby speaker, or see any of the numerous InfoWars shirts, including the now notorious HILLARY FOR PRISON one that everyone, conspiracy loon or otherwise, sported in the street.
And then there were the operatives. You could hardly walk for running into wild-eyed young men carrying expensive camera rigs. They were at every protest event filming the proceedings before interrupting by screaming random questions about Clinton’s E-mails, her ties to Saudi Arabia, her obvious lack of respect for the laws of the country.
The latest was a Code Pink rally where a man identifying himself as a veteran trained his camera on the group and yelled “Bill Clinton likes to bite women!” and “he’s a rapist!”
Quickly he gained the attention of men nearby who told him to shut up and then the eye of his camera was turned their way.
He was spotted again that afternoon at Roger Stone’s book signing on 4th Street, a bustling event where Stone, wearing a shirt with Bill Clinton’s face and the word RAPE, partnered with Alex Jones in signing and addressing the adoring crowd. With a perimeter of ex-military bodyguards, Jones grinned ear-to-ear and delivered warnings to the global elite he and his supporters would soon topple.
Next to me a delegate chatted with the bodyguards about the New World Order, an illuminati plot destined to takeover the world and enslave the majority of its people. She handed Jones a book and when it came back with his and Stone’s signature, she hugged it to her chest. “I love you guys,” she said.
Before Jones and his posse sauntered away a Trump supporter handed him his flag and Jones proudly waved it as a symbol of the new coalition as fans and media alike snapped pictures.
I’m not sure what I expected from Donald Trump’s acceptance speech.
Walking from one protest to another I’d read the transcript. It was dark, ugly, the most pessimistic view of America a candidate had probably ever offered from his party’s stage. It was pure Nixon, only without the charm.
But watching it live in the middle of a crowd of supporters, it was so much uglier than anything I could’ve fathomed. The biggest cheers came from trumpeting of “America First,” a slogan that closely mirrors the popular “Britain First” slogan that preceded both Brexit and the murder of politician Jo Cox in England, a slaying before which the perpetrator screamed that very phrase. And when Trump was introduced I watched a pair of supporters in the crowd raise their arms multiple times in an unabashed Nazi salute.
I was stunned. It was the type of gesture that most Trump detractors could only assume his base would love to use, but here they were, in full view of the public, sieg heiling the Republican nominee for president.
Maybe I was just naïve. Just the night before conservative talking-head Laura Ingraham had made headlines by offering what looked like, from an angle, the very same salute. I saw her in a bar a few hours later. She walked in and headed toward the back, a table full of Republican county officials stopping yelling, “There’s Laura Ingraham! You kicked its fucking ass tonight! Mic drop! Laura Ingraham in the house!”
Now there was no mistaking what I was watching. Even if there was a chance, they repeated the gesture when Trump assured the crowd “I am your voice.”
The rest of the speech is a blur now. Just thinking about Trump lording over the street on the electronic board, his orange-face contorted in rage as his supporters cheered rabidly below is enough to bring back the feeling of sickness. Afterward they were cheering in the pubs and in the streets. Trump had positioned himself as The Law and Order candidate and somehow or another the post-speech polls showed overwhelming reviews.
In the distance they set off fireworks that couldn’t be seen for the buildings lining the street. They boomed loudly, the sound echoing off the sides and rumbling like an angry god.
A man walking ahead of me shoved his friend. “I’ve been waiting for this fucking thing my entire fucking life.”
The talk-radio caller I mentioned earlier had it wrong.
They weren’t going to set any fires.
The fire that threatened to burn the city to the ground had been burning all this time.