As most of you undoubtedly are aware, the Republican Party held its National Convention last week in Cleveland, Ohio, The D&O Diary’s home town. In light of this special event right in our own backyard, we deputized a special events reporter to attend and report back for the benefit of this blog’s readers. Our special events reporter’s account follows below. Our reporter, Rob LaCroix, a May 2016 graduate of Middlebury College, will be attending Stanford Law School in the Fall. I should add that the Convention took place in Cleveland at a particularly good time in the life of the city. We just brought home the NBA championship a few weeks ago, and the Indians are in first place in the American League Central Division. The fact that the Convention went smoothly and without incident (at least outside of the convention hall) is a point of great pride for the city. Here is our special reporter’s account.
There are a lot of ways to attend a political convention. This past week, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I saw two of them: the hurly-burly of the public rallies and demonstrations; and the more genteel, festive approach taken by party insiders.
First, and most accessibly, the Republican National Convention was an occasion for a large number of protests, demonstrations, and rallies throughout downtown Cleveland. These ranged from one guy on the street corner, shouting into a megaphone that “we need a circumcision for our hearts!” (unclear what he meant by this, or what a circumcised heart would look like), to the at least somewhat-organized America First Unity Rally that I attended on Monday.
This rally was organized by various Groups for Trump (Asian-Americans for Trump, Bikers for Trump, etc.) under the aegis of Citizens for Trump, and took place at Settler’s Landing, a small park on the East Bank of the Cuyahoga River. Many of the speakers don’t merit comment, but there were some points of genuine interest sprinkled throughout the morning and early afternoon.
The event got off to a somewhat peculiar start when it became clear that the woman singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t actually know all of the words. Her errors were relatively minor—“the rockets red flare” instead of their “red glare,” “for the land of the free,” not “o’er”—but I was surprised to hear them in such an overtly patriotic setting. Later, the unfortunate songstress would be unable to present her creatively-titled song “Make America Great Again” due to a technical glitch. Luckily, another woman had performed her “Make America Great Again” earlier.
The highlights of the Citizens for Trump event, however, were the headline speakers: radio-host and noted conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones; political consultant and Trump friend Roger Stone; and Milo Yiannapoulos, the blogger recently banned from Twitter. All three men are gifted speakers, who spoke directly to the “Hillary for prison” T-shirt clad and open-carrying crowd that gathered to hear them. Mr. Jones praised Trump as a leader in the fight against the New World Order and the globalist conspiracy to take away our civil liberties, and led the crowd in a chant of the aforementioned anti-Hillary slogan, in what was the highest energy moment of the day.
If you were there for the sake of the sheer spectacle of the event, the most interesting speaker was Mr. Yiannapoulos, putatively the tech editor at Breitbart, although he never seems to write about technology. His new goal as a pundit, as he admitted during his speech, is to be a provocateur, and that he became a conservative because, in this day and age, the most provocative positions are found on the right. The fact that every word he said was ironic was lost on his audience—this was not the crowd for irony. They took his approach, the flamboyantly gay conservative, at face value, lapping up his diatribes against political correctness and Islam, especially, and somewhat surreally, his lengthy and graphic jokes about [phrase omitted], especially the one about doing it while facing Mecca (a complete video of his speech can be found here, very much NSFW).
It struck me during my time in the city during the convention that there were fewer people than one would expect, and this held true not just at the America First rally, but throughout downtown. I thought that I would find great crowds of protestors after leaving the river and returning to the area closer to the Convention itself, but I was disappointed. There were the obligatory sign-holders concerned for the mortal souls of “sodomites”; a few signs reading “I (heart) capitalism” and “socialism sucks”; more enigmatically, a mostly-naked man bowing to a cross in Public Square; and a group of people in blue spandex and hats, rolling around on exercise balls. Later in the week, demonstrations turned self-aware, as a man, holding the poster in his hands, displayed the message “I don’t have a stick for my sign.”
So much for the street scene, which was neither as crowded nor as exciting as someone observing from afar might have been led to expect. I turn now to the second Convention scene that I encountered, the events for the press and party insiders.
Just out of reach of the madding crowd lies a very different sort of convention, one with much better air-conditioning and, best of all, free drinks. Many media organizations rented out restaurants and banquet halls around downtown, especially on East 4th Street, a trendy strip of bars and restaurants right across from one of the entrances to the restricted convention space. On Thursday afternoon, I entered this more rarified world of semi-insiders, attending parties masquerading as press events at the temporary Cleveland headquarters of The Washington Post and of Politico, the former of which was hosted in the East 4th Street brewpub The Butcher and the Brewer, while the latter took up the entire top floor of the former Huntington Bank Building. Putatively, this sort of event isn’t open to the man on the street, and requires, at the very least, online registration in advance. In reality, if one shows up dressed appropriately and asks the right questions, one can walk right in, as I did, without any problems.
In addition to media sponsorship, these sorts of events have corporate partners that use them as a way to get some very targeted advertising done. The WaPo event was co-sponsored by Oppenheimer Funds, while Microsoft and Diageo chipped in to the Politico event. All of which meant that the food and drinks were not only free but that they were quite good.
The Butcher and the Brewer rose to the occasion by brewing, special for the convention, beers inspired by the thirteen original colonies. I enjoyed a New Hampshire white stout, which may or may not have affected the results of my participation on the Oppenheimer study on financial optimism. The study, which consisted of a few short video segments and follow-up survey questions, measured both attitudinal optimism, as measured by the survey, and biological optimism, as gleaned from facial response and measurements taken by a biometric wristband. As the technician put it to me, the readings showed that I am “incompletely self-actualized.” In essence, I claimed to be much more optimistic in two of the three categories tested than my biological response (universally grim) would suggest. Whether this means that I am in a state of denial, or just didn’t react to the study’s stimuli is an open question.
If one gets the impression that these press events were not especially political, it’s because they weren’t. Mostly, they were opportunities for various people tangentially involved in Republican politics to socialize.
Despite this, both press events featured interesting panel discussions, particularly Politico’s conversation on Republican criminal justice reform initiatives. In stark contrast to Monday’s rally, the panel consisted entirely of political talk that was high-information and low-emotion. Speakers generally eschewed rhetoric, speaking simply about, for instance, measures taken to reduce the prison population in Texas.
In short, over the course of the convention, I saw two different political worlds, the hot, sweaty mania of populism, and the roving press-event cocktail party, which both give an insight into the dual role that the convention plays. Not only does it function to drum up excitement for the candidate, but it also brings together party supporters from around the country, strengthening and expanding networks.
As a final note, as a near life-long Clevelander, I would like to express my pleasure at how my city acquitted itself this past week. Pundits’ dire prediction that the convention would be accompanied by strife and violence could not have been further from the mark. The atmosphere downtown was overwhelmingly friendly and polite, as Dan Zak captures well in his July 21, 2016 Washington Post report on the convention, here.