Last week’s presidential debate was a surreal 90-minute episode of cognitive dissonance. On one side of the stage was Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, who, though a polarizing figure, is inarguably a serious and competent person who has devoted much of her adult life to public service. On the other side was Donald J. Trump, the erratic insult comedian and real estate developer who is best known for residing in an eponymous tower and firing Dennis Rodman on television before rising from immodest means to capture the Republican nomination. Clinton has ideas and experience. Trump has novelty hats and hand gestures. History will not absolve us.
Which debate moment was the weirdest? Was it when Trump claimed that his best asset was his temperament? When he implied that it was “smart” to avoid paying taxes? Maybe it was when he gratuitously insulted comedian Rosie O’Donnell? Or when he asserted that he had done African-Americans a great service by promoting the lie that President Obama had been born in Kenya? I watched the debate during a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York City, as did most of my fellow passengers, and every now and then a Trump statement or reaction that struck me as terribly stupid would be met elsewhere on the plane with vocal approbation. This, for me, was the strangest part of the evening: realizing that I was trapped in an airborne metal tube with people who were watching Trump flail, nodding to themselves, and saying, “This guy gets it.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the course of his madcap presidential campaign, Trump has done and said things that would have ended any other person’s political fortunes. Just in the past couple of months, he has insulted the parents of a decorated, fallen U.S. soldier, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the 2008 Republican candidate for president, and many others. He has urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email and repeatedly expressed his fondness for Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has asserted that President Obama is “literally” the founder of ISIS. And yet recent polling puts Trump inexplicably close to Hillary Clinton with a month to go.
Trump’s success is especially impressive given that he is the least focused major-party presidential candidate in modern American history. One moment he’s channeling Captain Ahab as he talks about his beloved border wall, the next he’s ranting about sex tapes, all with the discipline of a novice stand-up comedian who abandons his prepared routine to heckle the other comics on the bill. Yet these random salvos have resonated with disparate pockets of the Republican electorate, so much so that you have to think that Trump’s scattershot ranting is strategic—an attempt to unite a bloc composed of single-issue voters, some of whom have radically contradictory expectations of him.
Trump seems to speak in code, and when he is not signaling to racists, he is trying to please the other members of his coalition. I encountered this phenomenon firsthand while covering the Republican National Convention this summer. There I met an array of people who all saw Trump as the apotheosis of their very different individual obsessions. They have keyed on one specific aspect of Trump’s message and chosen to ignore the rest. (For our purposes here, let’s exclude folks motivated predominantly by racism, misogyny, homophobia, and sociopathy, whether or not they amount to more or less than half of Trump’s basket.) By standing for almost nothing specific, Trump becomes anything and everything that a voter might want him to be. This ideological plasticity has helped him attract a broad base of supporters; it also makes him look crazy to those who are steeped in traditional methods of politicking.
Over the past two weeks, I have found myself thinking back to my time in Cleveland, where I first started to fully grasp the contours and inconsistencies of the Trump coalition. On the third day of the convention, I spoke to a Trump supporter named James Bates whose comments captured the roots of the candidate’s appeal. “Everyone thought he was a laughingstock. They all said, ‘Oh, my God, this is a joke,’” Bates told me. “For what it’s worth, we’re looking at a new era. The people want a candidate that represents them.” As best I can tell, this is who “them” are.
The Prosperity Nostalgist
The first debate began with a rousing exchange on trade and the economy, and Trump scored early points when he criticized Clinton for her support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. “We have to do a much better job at keeping our jobs. And we have to do a much better job at giving companies incentives to build new companies or to expand, because they’re not doing it. And all you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving, they’re gone,” said Trump, before turning to Clinton with a critique and a promise. “I will bring back jobs,” he vowed. “You can’t bring back jobs.”
With this sort of rhetoric, Trump is attempting to appeal to Prosperity Nostalgists, people yearning for a past when America still made stuff, dammit; when stable middle-class jobs still existed and NAFTA was the show that came on after CHiPs. “We need to increase economic growth so everybody benefits from it, from the top to the bottom and mostly in the middle, where we’re really hurting,” Arizona state representative David Livingston, an apparent Prosperity Nostalgist, told me on the floor of the convention.
Not long after, I was wandering around Freedom Plaza, a GOP-themed souvenir market in the concourse of the baseball stadium abutting the convention hall, when I was greeted by the friendly proprietor of a charm-jewelry stand. “How do I know you?” she asked, and when she realized that she knew me from my multiple stints as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, she became very excited and insisted on taking my picture twice.
Her name was Nancy Basch, and with her company, Lady Jayne Ltd., she creates and sells nickel-free charm jewelry. Her wares on display at Freedom Plaza hewed to appropriate themes of patriotism, conservatism, and hypoallergenicity. She spoke wistfully of a bygone era when Providence, Rhode Island, was the center of the trinket trade, a mecca for charm-jewelry craftsmanship. Today, she said, the industry has relocated to Hong Kong, and all the former artisans in Providence are broke and idle. “I’m a Trumpster,” she told me. “If you don’t vote for Trump, something’s wrong with you.”
But Prosperity Nostalgists can never explain why Trump is the man to restore American prosperity, other than citing his dubious credentials as an ostentatiously prosperous person. And they are not exactly sure what it would take to put the middle class back to work. “Bring back the companies, bring back the jobs back to this country,” Alirio Martinez, an alternate delegate from Germantown, Maryland, told me. “You can’t have prosperity without jobs,” I replied, trying to make sure I understood his point. “Right, so we need that back in here, and we need back truth, established principles, and values in this country, and take the regulation, and, um, low taxes,” he said.
Trump’s own plans for restoring American prosperity are just as confusing as Martinez’s description of them, but Prosperity Nostalgists don’t dwell on the inconsistencies. Instead they place their faith in Trump’s (disputable) personal wealth and reputation as a shrewd dealer, and assume that Trump’s vision for renewed American greatness involves applying the principles of his own (disputable) prosperity to the wider world.
The Effort Fetishist
Donald J. Trump loves to brag about his success in business, almost as much as he loves claiming that his success was wholly self-generated, which is sort of rich, considering the helping hand extended to him by his father, a wealthy real estate developer. At the first debate, Trump reiterated this incomplete meritocratic narrative. “I built an unbelievable company,” he said. “Some of the greatest assets anywhere in the world, real estate assets anywhere in the world, beyond the United States, in Europe, lots of different places. It’s an unbelievable company.”
This story is designed to appeal to the Effort Fetishist, the Trump supporter who believes that all the world’s problems would be fixed if only everyone else worked as hard as he did, and who carries himself as if forever resentful that his pathological self-reliance has not yet been recognized with a Congressional Medal of Honor. He prefers simple, self-valorizing stories—you get out of life what you put into it, the whole Horatio Alger thing—and, by extension, imputes sloth and weakness to those who are unable to bootstrap. Effort Fetishism implies that failure is a moral flaw, since the world is a flat surface free from nepotism, racism, and institutional bias. On the final night of the convention, Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, asserted that “when run correctly, a construction site is a true meritocracy.” Effort Fetishists love the idea of Making America a Meritocracy Again.
That same night, prowling the halls of Quicken Loans Arena, I met a dapper older man named Fred Jenkins, from Cumberland, Pennsylvania, who was wearing a creamy white suit. “What does prosperity mean to you?” I asked him, because he was clearly an accomplished fellow. “Prosperity is being able to, uh, have what you would like to have, and work for it,” he told me.
Each time I asked—“What does prosperity mean to you?”—I got many similar responses. “Prosperity means to me the ability to earn a living to the extent of my ability,” said Nevada delegate Christine DeCourt. “In order to prosper in this country, you have to work hard,” said New Hampshire state representative Eric Estevez. “I think that, uh, even though it may seem impossible, we still live in a great country, and you can do great things here if you’re willing to work hard.”
Effort Fetishism is a traditional Republican value, but it’s discordant with Trump, who also spends a great deal of time and effort trying to conceal evidence of his own incompetence, often by claiming that mistakes aren’t actually mistakes or deeming them someone else’s fault. In his first debate with Hillary Clinton, accused of stiffing an architect, Trump suggested that the man had done a bad job and, as such, did not deserve payment. “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work,” he said. “Which our country should do, too.”
The Motivated Yeller
My favorite part of the debate was when Trump repeated his line about how well suited he is to the highest office in the land. “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” he told viewers. “I have a winning temperament.” This is sort of like a job seeker telling a potential employer that his strongest asset is his chronic tardiness. This temperament might suit a television host or a carnival barker, but it’s hard to see it playing well at a state dinner or a trade summit.
Still, Trump’s choleric flamboyance holds great appeal to a variety of supporter I’ve come to call the Motivated Yeller. These people treat politics as a performance and admire Trump’s theatricality. Motivated Yellers know that a crowd responds less to the script than to the delivery, that it’s not about what you say so much as the conviction with which you say it. They want a president who projects confidence and decisiveness, and also projects his voice, loudly, all the way to the back of the room. In Trump, they have found a leader who is as much of a ham as they are.
At the RNC, the Motivated Yellers had come in costume. At any given moment in Cleveland, approximately two out of five delegates were dressed as if they wanted to be prepared in case someone abruptly asked them to lead a parade. They came in seersucker suits, smart red blazers, frock coats, American-flag garb in infinite variations. (This has also been true of every convention I’ve ever attended.) At least two men were dressed as if they had just come from the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Well costumed, too, was Milo Yiannopoulos, the Twitter provocateur, who swept through Media Row on Wednesday as if auditioning for a bit part on Entourage, wearing sunglasses indoors, his hair dyed an ostentatious silver. That same week, Yiannopoulos had been banned from Twitter for harassing actress Leslie Jones. Trailed by a camera crew, Yiannopoulos barged into the Twitter kiosk in Media Row and demanded answers from the flummoxed staffers who were manning the booth. It was all for show, as is everything the Motivated Yeller does.
My favorite Motivated Yeller in Cleveland was Michelle Van Etten, who spoke on the third night and who seemed like she might dismiss Sarah Palin as “too brainy.” Van Etten—very tan, very blond, and entirely uninterested in hewing to the text of the speech on the teleprompter—runs a direct-sales supplement company in Florida. She began by telling a long story about her childhood stint as the proprietor of an itinerant underage circus. “I recruited the neighborhood kids to be part of my circus,” she bragged, and continued in this vein for a good four minutes before veering off script to rant about the horrors of Common Core. “The American dream. Is being. [long pause] Denigrated now,” she summarized, passionately, in true Motivated Yelling tradition.
That same night, I ran into the radio host Alex Jones, who is a Trump supporter and an accomplished Yeller himself. The theme of the day was Make America First Again, and I asked Jones to explain what that phrase meant to him. “I think before America can be great again, it must be free again, and be free-market, and have low taxes to allow innovation,” he said. “I think Trump is a lot better than Hillary trying to start a nuclear war with Russia, and so for peace and stability I support Donald Trump.” This answer had little to do with the question I asked, which perhaps was to be expected. Motivated Yellers don’t listen very well. They are too busy waiting for their cue to speak.
The Lovable Lemming
Trump loves to boast about how popular he is. “What she doesn’t say is that tens of thousands of people that are unbelievably happy and that love me,” Trump told moderator Lester Holt midway through the first debate. As further evidence of his popularity and belovedness, he cited his numbers. “I saw the polls come in today,” he said, “and I’m either winning or tied, and I’ve spent practically nothing.” (Shrewd dealer, he!) There are plenty of people out there who support Trump, it’s true, but you shouldn’t necessarily read love and affection into those numbers. There are lots of Trump voters who have only grudgingly decided to give him their support. I call these people Lovable Lemmings.
Trump’s constant poll touting is a way to shore up his coalition and convince skeptical supporters that they have made the right choice—to gild his candidacy with a sheen of inevitability and convince the Lemmings to stick with the herd. The Lovable Lemming is aware of Trump’s flaws as a candidate but has decided to support him anyway. Lovable Lemmings are often reasonable people and can be of any political persuasion. They have resigned themselves to Trump by conceding that, even if Trump is a monster, at least he’s their monster. My party, right or wrong is the gist of their oft dejected argument.
There were lots of Lovable Lemmings at the RNC. Failed presidential candidate and current Trump supporter Ben Carson, who giggled like a schoolgirl when I asked if he thought Trump would be the most luxurious president in American history, is one of them, I think. So, too, is fellow also-ran Mike Huckabee, who seems personable and pleasant despite his moralistic politics. Huckabee has explained his reason for joining the Trump coalition, and it’s a telling one. “When we nominated people over the past several election cycles, some of us had heartburn, but we stepped up and supported the nominee,” he said in May. “You’re either on the team or you’re not on the team.”
On the final night of the convention, a large man named Mike Lachs moved through the hallways of Quicken Loans Arena wearing a battered hat shaped like an elephant’s head. It was covered in buttons from political conventions past and present. He bought what he described as “this stupid hat” at the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego and had worn it to every convention since, adding new flair at each stop. “I’m just having fun,” he smiled. He was soft-spoken, expressing his anxieties about job security and the country’s financial future. I began to wonder how this thoughtful person had come to support Donald Trump.
Trump had not been his first choice. Lachs began the election cycle supporting John Kasich. “I’m a Republican,” he explained. “I’ve been involved with helping people in primaries—sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And when you lose, and it’s the other guy’s candidate, you know, that’s the way it works. I share more in common with that person than the Democrat.” The Lovable Lemming wants the GOP to win the election, even if victory means following an unstable leader off an entirely avoidable cliff.
The Insecure Isolationist
Midway through the debate, Trump had the chance to harp on one of his favorite topics: the extent to which America is being stiffed and cheated by almost every other country on earth. “Just to go down the list, we defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries,” said Trump. “They do not pay us. But they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service, and we’re losing a fortune.”
With this line of thought, Trump is trying to appeal to a species of supporter I have dubbed the Insecure Isolationist. These people are often deemed racist xenophobes, and perhaps they are, but I think it’s just as much the case that they are suspicious that other nations might be taking advantage of us. These people want America to stay at home and mind its own business, because otherwise it might be tricked by double-dealing foreigners. If they ever traveled overseas, which they probably would not, the Insecure Isolationists would be the ones wearing their money in belts under their shirts, frantically scanning the horizon for signs of pickpockets.
On one night of the convention, I fell into conversation with three Maryland men congregating around a malodorous garbage can in the concourse of Quicken Loans Arena. I asked what Make America First Again meant to them. “Reestablish the fact that we are a sovereign nation, that we understand that America comes first before we start dealing with… when we’re dealing with foreign nations,” said Wendell Beitzel, a delegate from Accident, Maryland. “America becomes first. Not secondary. We’re not running around the world trying to promote things that really are not good for America.”
Trump bolsters the Insecure Isolationist’s fears by constantly talking about how China and other nations are eating America’s lunch when it comes to trade deals, and by maligning the purported freeloader nations of NATO. (There might be some projection in play here since the nonpayment he decries is the exact same behavior he boasts of in his own business dealings.) He also stokes these fears by portraying foreign nationals as slavering malefactors. Trump was unexpectedly gracious at the first debate in that he didn’t spend much time at all gratuitously insulting Mexicans or Muslims, but he has done plenty of that in the past. The rhetoric has resonated with the Insecure Isolationists. “Look at what’s going on with ISIS and with the immigration issue, with, you know, flooding Europe, and look what they’re doing to Europe,” Beitzel told me. “And so that’s why we support Trump so strongly. He wants to put America’s interest first.”
The Team America: World Policeman
Almost immediately after implying during the first debate that he would withdraw America from its international commitments and pursue an “America first” policy, Trump also said that he would lead the world into battle against ISIS. “I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and we have to do it fast, when ISIS formed in this vacuum created by Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton,” said Trump.
With this line of rhetoric, Trump is courting a strain of supporter I’ve christened the Team America: World Policeman. In sharp contrast to the Insecure Isolationist, the Team America: World Policeman wants the United States to be the greatest nation on earth and believes that greatness means global omnipresence. “Putting America first means we’re going to take a leadership role in the world. We’re going to take on the bad guys in the world, whether it be communist China or ISIS or radical Islam. We will fight them everywhere,” said Dwight Patel, an alternate delegate from Bethesda, Maryland. Echoed Arizona delegate Janine Kateff, “We’re going to be the country that is the strongest. We’re going to be the country that will be there to help the other countries that are in distress.”
Trump has encouraged the Team America: World Policeman to believe in his internationalist bona fides by constantly boasting of his worldwide real estate holdings and his long experience dealing with foreign leaders and dignitaries. (“He actually advocated for the actions we took in Libya and urged that Gaddhafi be taken out, after actually doing some business with him one time,” Clinton noted during the debate. And, indeed, appearing on Face the Nation in June, Trump bragged that “I made a lot of money with Gaddhafi.”) “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS,” Trump vowed in his convention acceptance speech, and he left no doubt that he would do so unilaterally, if necessary. During the debate, after Clinton praised the virtues of working with America’s allies to maintain global security, Trump said that “we’ve been working with them for many years, and we have the greatest mess anyone’s ever seen.” Team America wants to clean up this mess with broad-shouldered American strength, and they see Trump—his isolationist tendencies notwithstanding—as the man for the job.
The Terrified Pedestrian
The second half of the first presidential debate touched on topics of national security, and Trump had a lot to say. “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell,” he asserted. “You walk down the street, you get shot.” This line of rhetoric was meant to appeal to a type of supporter who spends very little or no time in the “inner city” but believes deeply that America’s streets are as dangerous as a battlefield.
It is folly to confront the Terrified Pedestrian with statistics on how, over the past few decades, America has become safer than ever, on how isolated incidents and a few rising-crime cities do not make a national safety crisis. The Terrified Pedestrian will vote for whichever candidate most vehemently speaks out in favor of good old-fashioned law and order. The Terrified Pedestrian would prefer if the president spoke loudly, carried a large and menacing stick, and used it as a truncheon.
There were plenty of Terrified Pedestrians at the RNC, and indeed, the entire convention apparatus seemed designed to heighten their paranoia. Above the highway leading into Cleveland, huge electronic signs urged motorists to vigilance: see something, say something / call rnc tip line / 1 800 call fbi. The city center was a maze of closed streets, metal barricades, fenced-off paths, and security checkpoints. The routes were guarded by scores of cops and federal agents sweating through their paramilitary attire, geared up to quash invading armies but reduced to dispensing directions to disoriented visitors. You could tell the Terrified Pedestrians by the way they loudly and pointedly thanked the officers for keeping them safe. It was mere days after police officers in Dallas had been targeted by a civilian sniper, but the praise was so lavish that it was almost as if these delegates wanted something to happen, wanted to see one of these officers overpower some rabid Code Pink protester so that they could film and upload the entire thing as evidence of the overwhelming dangers of daily life, as incontrovertible proof that Blue Lives Do Matter.
On the third night of the Republican National Convention, I ran into a middle-aged man conspicuously carrying a large hand-drawn sign reading cruz delegates for trump. His name was Nick Stepovich, and he was the proprietor of Soapy Smith’s Pioneer Restaurant in Fairbanks, Alaska. I asked Stepovich what the evening’s theme, Make America First Again, meant to him. (Soapy Smith, in case you were wondering, was a 19th-century grifter who was shot to death by vigilantes when he refused to return a bag of stolen gold.) “Well, it means to make us where we can hold our head up and walk safely anywhere in our own country,” he replied. “Right now there’s a safety issue, and you can’t argue with that one, you know?”
For months, Trump has been singing this tune with great success. On the second night of the RNC, in a video that played on the jumbo screen in the arena, a hollow-eyed Trump promised that, during his presidency, “we’re going to restore law and order—we have to restore, and quickly, law and order.” The crowd roared.
The T-Shirt Witticist
Near the end of the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton brought up her opponent’s fondness for cruel insults. “One of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest,” said Clinton. “He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina.” Rather than apologize, Trump subsequently doubled down on these insults, posting on Twitter that the woman in question was “disgusting” and alleging that she had once made a sex tape. While many voters might find this kind of rhetoric grotesque, it’s sure to win points with a type of Trump supporter I call the T-Shirt Witticist.
The T-Shirt Witticist uses crude humor and simple catchphrases to formulate and communicate his opinions. He thinks primarily in cheeky slogans and finds them clever no matter how shallow or stale. He is a cousin to the sports fan who cares less about poring over team statistics than about painting his face, going to the stadium, drinking 16 beers, and yelling insults until he is arrested. He is into politics for the excitement of it and in Trump he has found the most exciting candidate of them all. The T-Shirt Witticist is often the life of the party, but it is rarely a party that you’d want to attend.
Donald J. Trump isn’t just the T-Shirt Witticists’ candidate, he is a T-Shirt Witticist himself, a master of cloddish epigrammery. His incessant sloganeering has resounded with the T-Shirt Witticists of America because you can imagine everything he says on a shirt or a hat or a bumper sticker. “Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her,” he said, and sure enough, his feud is already inspiring T-shirts.
The T-Shirt Witticist is terrified of encroaching political correctness. “We can’t afford to be so politically correct anymore!” Trump bellowed during his acceptance speech, to huge applause from the T-Shirt Witticists in the crowd. Political correctness encourages people to be sensitive to the effects of the things they might say, and this notion is anathema to the T-Shirt Witticist, who interprets the constitutional right to free speech as a mandate to be as abrasive as possible at every waking moment.
If the T-Shirt Witticist is capable of complex thoughts, he keeps them to himself. It’s one thing to say “I find Hillary Clinton unprincipled and untrustworthy, and here are the many reasons why.” It is easier to chant “Lock her up! Lock her up!” while wearing a shirt with a drawing of Donald Trump pushing Hillary Clinton from a motorcycle while himself wearing a T-shirt that says, if you can read this, the bitch fell off.
At times, the Trump campaign has seemed like little more than an excuse to make money selling novelty apparel. At the RNC, both inside and outside the convention grounds, you could barely walk ten feet without encountering an attitudinous T-shirt: girls just wanna have guns; god is great, beer is good, and liberals are crazy; i wish hillary had married oj. There were infinite variations on the make america great again slogan: make florida red again; make guns in america great again; make baseball fun again. Most popular were shirts demeaning or denouncing Hillary Clinton. One afternoon on my way into the convention, I ended up walking behind a young man in a T-shirt reading hillary for prison. This was a very popular slogan during the convention week, but T-Shirt Guy was nevertheless greeted as if he had coined the phrase himself. “Hillary for Prison?” one woman whooped. “I love you.”
I wanted to get in on the fun, so on the last night of the convention I arrived wearing a homemade T-shirt reading rich guv in trainig. (It was supposed to say rich guy in training, but I screwed up while making the shirt.) At the end of the night, a passing delegate paused, squinted, and then grabbed my coat and spread the lapels to get a closer look. I could see him parsing the words rich guv in trainig; I could sense him turning them over in his head. He removed his hands from the coat, looked me in the eye, and gave me a double thumbs-up. The T-Shirt Witticist sees what he wants to see in the slogans he encounters and doesn’t think too much about the motives behind them.
The Ambitious Panderer
Donald Trump is world-class name-dropper, and throughout his candidacy he has seemed eager to let the world know that certain renowned Republicans are indeed in his corner. “Mayor Giuliani is here,” he said during the first debate, referring to the former mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, who really ought to know better, and probably does. Giuliani is an Ambitious Panderer: a kissing cousin to the Lovable Lemming, yes, but the Ambitious Panderer is never lovable, insofar as he is clearly acting for his own personal gain. The Ambitious Panderer knows that Trump is unfit for the presidency; in many cases, the Ambitious Panderer has gone on record more than once saying as much. But that was long ago, and now the Ambitious Panderer has swallowed his or her objections and has boarded the Trump train because he sees something in it for himself.
A fantastically Ambitious Panderer is Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who caught my attention in Cleveland when he called the convention to order with a resounding THWOOMP! The noise was odd and alarming and sounded nothing like a gavel ought to sound. A gavel makes a thunk. It does not make a THWOOMP! It turned out that Priebus was striking his gavel on some sort of drum pad connected to the arena’s speaker system. Throughout the week, every time Priebus called the convention to order, he did so with this indecorous sound. With each amplified gavel strike, I was forced to recognize anew that our oldest extant political party is managed by a pandering factotum using a drum pad to call to order 10,000 costumed adults who have gathered to nominate a fearmongering narcissist for president. THWOOMP! is the official sound effect of Donald J. Trump’s loud and cacophonous presidential campaign—and, especially, of the Ambitious Panderers who have decided to get behind it.
In the weeks leading up to the Republican National Convention, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, had become Trump’s chief surrogate on the campaign trail, which makes him the Ambitious Panderer in Chief. Christie was the first of Trump’s primary rivals to endorse him. He had clearly hoped for the vice-presidential nomination. He did not get it, and to add insult to injury, the Trump campaign scheduled his convention speech for Tuesday night—which, in show-business terms, sort of made him the warm-up act for the warm-up act. When he took the stage, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, framed his speech as a mock trial of Hillary Clinton—a true Panderer’s move. Cataloging Clinton’s ostensible crimes and infractions in a call-and-response format, he would ask the audience to proclaim her guilt or innocence, and the crowd would shout “Guilty!” Occasionally, the delegates would break into a spontaneous “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Christie did not discourage this Motivated Yelling. “We’ll get to that,” he said with a grin. THWOOMP!
After Trump’s bizarre performance in the first debate, Priebus released a pandering statement in which he claimed that Trump showed himself to be “the only candidate in this race with the ideas to stimulate our economy, defeat radical Islamic terrorism, and keep our streets safe in every community.… Donald Trump showed tonight that he is the only candidate with the big-picture leadership our country needs.” The Ambitious Panderer’s inherent nihilism makes him the scariest archetype of all, insofar as he believes in nothing but his own advancement. As such, he will shift his beliefs and loyalty at will, as soon as he senses an advantage in doing so. And, Trump, of course, is the most Ambitious Panderer of them all.
As a novice politician, Donald J. Trump has used the past year of his campaign to distill the essence of his political brand, which currently hovers somewhere around belligerent ignorance and hateful nationalism. His acceptance speech on Thursday night of the Republican National Convention oscillated between dark references to the security threats posed by murderous illegals and blustery assurances that he alone was equipped to fix these problems. But, in business, the Trump brand has always been synonymous with luxury.
Few things are more important to Trump than reminding the world that he is very, very, very rich. “I’m proud of my net worth,” he said when he announced his candidacy for president last June. “I’ve done an amazing job.” His new golf course in Scotland is “the greatest in the world.” His real estate “redefines what is meant by luxury living, built to be the absolute best in the world.” If he could dip himself in gold and live to brag about it, he would.
What would it mean to have a Luxurist-in-Chief in the White House? How would a President Trump class up the joint? Were his surrogates excited to be nominating a man whose main qualification to hold the nation’s highest office is that he already owns a jet? On Thursday afternoon, I headed over to Media Row to find out.
I immediately spotted the comedian Joe Piscopo, deeply tanned and dressed in a smart dark suit with a stripey red tie. Piscopo, who is currently hosting an eponymous daily radio show, looked like the picture of success. I asked the Johnny Dangerously star, “Do you think Trump will be the most luxurious president in American history?”
“You know, it’s a great question,” Piscopo said with a broad smile. “We’ll see a little bit of the Kennedy-esque kind of fashion, yes.”
“The Kennedy-esque fashion, like Make America…,” I asked.
“Fashionable Again,” Piscopo said.
Piscopo started laughing. “It’s true. Everything will change. The whole tenor will change if and when he gets in.”
“We want everybody to go on the radio, every morning, 6 to 9 East Coast time, AM 970 The Answer and joepiscopo.com. Come see me!”
Rick Scott was doing the radio rounds on Media Row when I intercepted him. The Florida governor, who lives in a mansion that was designed by the same architect who designed Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, was looking sharp with a shaved head and a classic dark suit. “The Trump name is the ultimate luxury brand,” I told the governor, who is himself a man of means (according to his most recent financial filings, Scott is worth over $119 million). “Do you think he can rebuild America back into the ultimate luxury brand?”
There is a serious point at the heart of this deeply stupid question. In Trump’s lexicon, “greatness” seems to mean “overawing suckers with ostentatious displays of wealth and extravagance.” “Great” equals “classy” to Trump, and his evident disinterest in things like policy and details makes it reasonable to wonder whether making America great again just means putting a coat of wax on it.
Rick Scott, unlike the candidate he’s supporting, is disciplined and sticks to his talking points. “I think he’s going to make America great again,” said Scott. “And I think he’s going to get our country back to work. That’s the most important thing we can do. America’s a great country, but this election is about the very survival of the American dream, and he’s going to focus on that dream for every American.” Scott’s non-answer reminded me of Trump’s negotiation style, a steamroller of entitled obliviousness, ignoring and flattening everything it neither recognizes nor understands.
Speaking of obliviousness, I spotted hobbyist-exorcist and former brain surgeon Ben Carson looking serene as his handlers hurried him out of Media Row. “Dr. Carson! Do you think Mr. Trump will be the most luxurious president in American history?” Carson started chuckling. “No more questions. We’re done,” his aide announced as they walked on. “Do you think he’s the most stylish?” I pressed. Carson kept laughing. “Hey! No more questions!” his aide announced as he hustled Carson away.
Katie Couric was taking pictures with fans when I approached her to ask about the style of the campaign.
“Like, who wore it better?” she asked.
“Exactly. Is Donald Trump too tacky to become president?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Couric said. “I think he dresses pretty well.”
“Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty basic, isn’t it? Red ties, blue suit.”
“Under President Trump, will the White House become the Gold House?”
“I—I don’t—I don’t think so.”
Unlike Dr. Ben Carson, Matt Bevin, the very charismatic young governor of Kentucky, had time for everyone Thursday afternoon. He was posing for photographs when I grabbed him to ask his thoughts on Trump’s appeal: “Mr. Trump is obviously a man who believes in luxury, and living well. Do you think that’s a message that has resonated with the American people?”
“Look at how he’s raised his children,” said Bevin, who managed his family’s bell-manufacturing company before entering politics. (I can only assume that Bevin bells are used by plutocrats the world over to summon their butlers.) “As his son said the other night, he’s as comfortable driving a Caterpillar tractor as he would be riding in the back of a fine luxury car. I mean, he has raised his family to work—work with their hands and their minds—and frankly is not nearly what people perceive him to be. What they perceive him to be and what he has perpetrated in some measure is sort of a persona. It’s like a brand, used very intentionally and very effectively, to draw attention to his business.”
“Can we at least agree that he’s mildly more stylish than Hillary Clinton?”
“I think that would be a fair, uh, statement to make, yes, I do,” Bevin said, laughing. “I think we could very much agree on that.”
Bevin’s observation that Trump’s public persona is an act seemed inadvertently honest. But was it even possible to separate the image and reality of a man who lives his life in a constant trailing spotlight—the highest-wattage and classiest spotlight that is sold at the spotlight store? What, if anything, remains when that light fades out?
The legendary journalist Carl Bernstein was posing for photographs with young staffers born long after he and Bob Woodward uncovered the Watergate scandal that helped bring down the Nixon administration. If anyone here was equipped to opine on the implications of Bevin’s point, it was he. I stopped him on his way to the coffee line.
“I’ve just got one question,” I said. “If they turn off the cameras and the lights, does Donald Trump cease to exist?”
“No.” Bernstein said, in a slightly annoyed tone. “He’s the nominee of the Republican party.”
That he is, and on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena, the party was his, and the conventioneers got a true and accurate look at the man whom they had nominated: a man who lives by the motto “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
To introduce Trump, the speakers touted his success in business, his famous and classy buildings, his long stint firing people on television. A series of videos, whose theme seemed to be “A Tribute to Trump Tower”—blared into the arena. “Everything my father does is first class,” Donald Jr. said, bragging about how the Trump brand has risen “to global excellence, dominating the world of luxury hotels, dominating the world of golf, and now the world of politics.”
In preceding evenings, the Quicken Loans Arena had not seemed particularly luxurious—the hallways smelled like sweat and old popcorn; the toilet paper was single-ply. But in preparation for his appearance, the Q got a Trumpian face-lift. The stage was refashioned as a giant hotel lobby, with ersatz gold stanchions framing the word TRUMP rendered in 45,000-point font, and a jet-black speakers’ podium that evoked the check-in counter at a high-class Hyatt. The Trump family box, which looked like the sort of place where Tony Soprano would sit if he were elected emperor, was also done up in black with gold accents, with five ostentatious gold stars as if to show that the candidate had been given the Mobil Travel Guide’s highest rating. About an hour before the convention began, half a dozen staffers busied themselves furiously polishing the box’s black-marble-looking railings so that its inhabitants would be able to see themselves in the shine.
After spending a dizzying week in Cleveland watching the Trump phenomenon up close, I came away certain of one thing: When Donald Trump says that he sees America returning to greatness, he is just admiring his own reflection. When others see themselves in his image, they have been fooled by a trick of the light. For the Luxurist-in-Chief, the United States is just another vanity project, a plot of real estate to be razed and rebuilt and marketed to those who can afford it, and lusted after by those who cannot. It is just another set piece in the self-promotional video that plays on infinite loop in the gilded hallways of his mind.
(Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Banal interviews are the lifeblood of America’s political conventions. Reporters ask politicians and celebrities to opine on the news of the day and treat those responses like gold nuggets. On Wednesday afternoon, I headed over to Media Row to conduct an experiment: Could I get “newsmakers” to say something “newsworthy”?
Media Row is on the second floor of a parking garage adjacent to Quicken Loans Arena. To call it a “row” isn’t quite accurate. It’s more of a warren of AV setups, card tables, and banners touting the names of various radio and television networks and programs: CNN, PBS’s NewsHour, EWTN News Nightly, The Joe Pass Show (“talk radio doesn’t have to be boring”), Ox in the Afternoon on KNSI (featuring “Ox-clusive campaign coverage”). All day politicians and dignitaries cycle in and out, sitting for interviews, getting free coffee and scones from the Google free-coffee-and-scones kiosk. If you want to talk to someone important about something important—or to someone vaguely famous about something really stupid—this is where you come.
As soon as I arrive I spy Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee, getting up from an interview with some radio station. “Hey, Mr. Steele! Justin Peters from The Atavist Magazine. How do you think G.E. Smith is doing leading the band?”
“Leading the band?” says Steele. “Oh, the music has been kicking it. I love the music. The sound, the presentation of it, just some of the covers they’re doing. Just great, man. I’m loving it.”
We talk a bit about the music. “I think that a lot of delegates on the floor like it,” Steele says. “Someone joked to me: ‘There’s, like, no country music?’ You know, for a Republican convention, that’s a big deal.”
“There’s people who are dancing,” I say. “They were telling them to shake their booty last night, and people were complying.”
“And I want to let you know: I was shaking my booty,” Steele confers. This counts as a scoop.
Soon after Steele, I spy Ben Mankiewicz—best known to me as the guy who isn’t Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies—in glasses, stubble, swept-back longish hair, and rumpled suit. Mankiewicz is here with the talk show The Young Turks, but I don’t bother to ask him about that. Instead, I ask the question that the world wants to know: “What’s Robert Osborne like?”
“First of all, just what you’d think he’s like. Smart, and thoughtful, you know, meticulous. But we don’t see each other much, because we have the same schedule,” he says. “But let me tell you this: Everybody who works there—and they’ve been roughly the same people for twenty years at TCM—they revere him.”
There’s another television star in Media Row, too: Chris Soules, who starred in the 19th season of The Bachelor. Soules is young and tan and muscular and better dressed than almost everyone else here. I feel an immediate kinship with him, since I, too, was on a television program hosted by the dapper Chris Harrison (in addition to hosting The Bachelor, Harrison currently hosts Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, on which I appeared last year), and I, too, am better dressed than anyone else here. Soules is here to talk about ethanol, but instead I ask him something that only we television stars could understand: “What did you do with all the downtime on the show? There’s a lot of waiting in television. What did you guys do when you weren’t on camera?”
“Um, there wasn’t a lot of downtime, from the bachelor perspective,” he says. “But as a contestant you spend a lot of time just hanging out with the other contestants, and, you know, consuming alcoholic beverages and hanging out.” What’s his alcoholic beverage of choice backstage? “Um, you know, I’m a whiskey guy.” Yes, but what sort of whiskey? “I’m bourbon whiskey.” What’s his brand? “Bulleit.” That’s my brand, too! I erupt in cheers. We TV guys think alike.
There are loads of important-looking people around, but they move too fast for me to read their name tags. And most of them don’t even have name tags, which makes it even harder to tell who is and is not important. On the other end of the complex, next to the CNN free-coffee kiosk, I run into Ted Koppel, who doesn’t seem to have all that much to do, so I decide to ask him for some reporting advice. “I don’t know who anybody is,” I tell him. “Can you give me any tips?”
Koppel laughs. “I don’t know. I mean, the people I know, I suspect you would know, but they’re all over the age of 80.”
He laughs again, and I laugh, too, and try again with another question: “I’m not getting into any of the parties here. How do I do that? You’ve been to so many of these.”
“Well, that’s true,” Koppel acknowledges. “And all I can tell you is that after you’ve been to as many as I have… you’ll still be confused.”
I feel better. I devise a strategy for figuring out who people are. When I see someone being interviewed by someone else, I lurk in the background and listen to see if I can catch the interviewee’s name. Then I pounce. That’s how I snagged Sean Reyes, the attorney general of Utah, as he walked from one on-camera interview to another. Reyes is young, clad in a dark blue suit with a red tie. “Have you found any time to hang out with any other attorneys general while you’ve been here?”
“Yes, we actually have a booth with the Republican Attorneys General Association.” What do they talk about when they aren’t talking politics? “Pokémon. We just did a… I was teaching them all a little bit about Pokémon Go.” He pulls out his phone, on which the Pokémon Go app is already open, and points at a tiny avatar on the screen. “So right here, there’s a Rattata.” What is a Rattata? “It’s just a lower-level, annoying… rodent Pokémon. And I’m not doing well here trying to actually capture him.” Reyes is trying to maneuver the obnoxious rodent inside a floating red ball. He succeeds. What’s one thing he’d like the world to know about Pokémon Go? “Uh… fun, but be safe.”
Next, I wait ten minutes to ask former senator and frequent presidential candidate Rick Santorum a hard question: “Senator Santorum! What foodstuff from Pennsylvania doesn’t get enough attention?” I yell from behind him as he strides through the hallway, surrounded by a protective entourage. I get no answer. “Senator, answer the question!” I scream.
Right after that, I spy Kansas governor Sam Brownback finishing an interview with a television station. As the broadcast reporter concludes, I accost Brownback. “I’m with The Atavist Magazine. We’re a longform website,” I tell him. “What’s one perk about being governor that most people don’t know about that you think is sort of neat?” Brownback pauses for five confused seconds. “That’s… I don’t… I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked that question.” he says. “One perk that is…” His train of thought is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a smiling Rick Santorum, who bounds over to shake Brownback’s hand. “Ricky!” Brownback says as Santorum’s body man pushes his way between the governor and me, possibly to stop me from asking Santorum more questions about food. The two men talk for a minute or two, then they both walk away. And now the world will never know what Sam Brownback thinks is neat about being governor.
After three hours of asking the kinds of questions that other correspondents seem unwilling to ask, I finally understand just how hard it is to get anyone here at the RNC to say anything, let alone anything of substance. As I’m running out of steam, I spy Dan Rather, who doesn’t really have time to talk to me, but who is nevertheless gracious when I thrust my microphone in his face: “Dan Rather, I have one question. There’s a lot of kids out there who don’t have much self-esteem. What would you say to kids out there who don’t believe in themselves?”
Rather grabs my arm and responds very earnestly: “Believe. You gotta believe in yourself. I know sometimes it’s hard, and you can fall into a downward spiral of lack of self-esteem.” I think here about Rather’s own downward spiral, precipitated by his erroneous reporting in 2004 about George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, and I realize he knows of what he speaks. “But, you know: Believe. Have confidence. Dream. Put a polar star, a navigational star out, and go for it.”
I decide to take Rather’s advice and ask him the hard-to-verbalize question that is really the only one that matters at this convention. “One more question: How did this happen?”
A long pause. “You mean Trump?”
Yeah. Trump. How did Trump happen?
A shorter pause. “Well, one, it happened because he’s smart, he’s shrewd, he’s cunning, and he understands the power of the new digital era, particularly social media.” A beat. “Take care of yourself.”
(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
East Fourth Street is the main artery leading from Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland to the entrance of Quicken Loans Arena. Inside, the Trump campaign is dealing with the aftermath of Melania’s speech. But outside the street are thronged with delegates, reporters, hawkers, protesters, lunatics, gadflies, and yelling enthusiasts. There are people playing instruments, people in costumes, people who want to share their theories about how the world works or doesn’t work, people who want you to read or purchase their novelty T-shirts. I call it Asshole Alley.
Political conventions are chockablock with folks who are just dying to be interviewed, and Asshole Alley is where the needy come to connect with the needier: reporters and cameramen in search of easy color and sound bites for their segments and stories. When I amble over, it’s about 3:45 in the afternoon, and it feels like it’s 95 degrees outside. I’m wearing a red velour jacket, which seemed like a good idea this morning but now feels like I’m being smothered by bordello curtains. “How in God’s name are you wearing a velour jacket on a day like this?” asks a man in a plaid shirt and khaki shorts. I’m making it work, I tell him. “You sure are!” he says and shakes my hand with great vigor.
We are standing outside the entrance to the secure perimeter, next to a loud and confusing face-off between three aggressively apocalyptic Christians and three liberal activists. The Christians tote long poles with black placards that read: “God Will Bring You to Judgment,” “REPENT (Turn from your Sin to Jesus),” “NOW is the DAY OF SALVATION.” Their leader wears a microphone attached to a bullhorn, through which he belligerently and loudly riffs on Bible verses. The activists try their best to drown him out, getting in his face and shrieking, “L-O-V-E! L-O-V-E!” One of them veers off-script and screams “Put down your Bible, speak from the heart, brother!” A flag-toting guy in a Trump 2016 shirt tries to get into the action, mean-mugging the activists and yelling “Hillary be gone! Hillary be gone!” at them, as if performing an exorcism.
The guy who remarked on my blazer approaches with an offer: “Would you be willing to part with the jacket?” I decline. “I had to ask, I had to ask.”
I head up the street, where a man and a woman hold tombstone-shaped signs above their heads reading “MRI? DO NOT DYE. Gadoliniumtoxicity.com.” Sensing my interest, or at least my attention, the man hands me a card directing me toward the afore-placarded website for more information. “We are sorry you had to seek out information about Gadolinium Toxicity, but we are glad you found us,” the website reads. The feeling is mutual.
About 40 feet from the gadolinium couple stands Zoltan Istvan, 43, the presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party, who along with a colleague holds a large banner bearing a likeness of his face. Istvan is a likable former journalist who has made his way into politics and now agitprop. What is the Transhumanist Party? “It’s like the Science Party, but the word transhumanist is more funky.” The Christian doomsayers come marching down the street, and Istvan steps in front of them to briefly impede their progress. “I had to do it, I had to do it,” he grins. How does it feel to hold up a gigantic banner with his own face on it? “Very weird. When I first started this, I couldn’t do it. It felt pretentious. But I learned.”
Farther down, Pittsburgh man Eric Saferstein stands in a referee-style shirt holding a small sign reading “Roger Goodell Hates my Guts!!! Learn Why.” I ask him to elaborate. “I want the NFL to tell people that they do not evacuate their stadiums via cell-phone messages,” he clarifies, handing me a business card that directs me to the website of the Artificially Generated Stampede Awareness Foundation. He says that he came to the RNC because there are a lot of bigwigs here, many of whom, he claims, are already aware of this issue: “It’s not rocket science.” Was the referee shirt a conscious choice or a coincidence? Saferstein laughs. “My mom gave me this!”
Saferstein isn’t crazy. The denizens of Asshole Alley understand the inherently performative nature of a political convention—and this convention in particular—but lack the status to actually get inside. There’s a street or district like this at every convention, but here in Cleveland the difference between the assholes on the outside and the ones in the arena is very, very slim. After nearly two hours in the scrum, I feel exhausted from a deep cognitive dissonance. The convention is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: the concentration of the media implies that something newsworthy is happening. Without the media there’s no news, as a revolt by the Alaska delegation would demonstrate a few hours later when it threatened to derail the TV broadcast of the speaking schedule. I am part of the problem. I am also hungry.
I join a friend for a meal in the middle of East Fourth Street, where we start talking to Glenn Rose, a retiree from San Diego who came to Cleveland with his wife on vacation. He arrived at 3 p.m., now he’s drinking a Sapporo and enjoying the show. “Trump is a turd,” he announces. “We just came to see all the crazy people.”
(Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo)
It’s the morning of the first day of the 2016 Republican National Convention, and I am speeding down I-480. The free razor at the Super 8 was very dull, and as a result I gave myself an incomplete shave, with patches of hair remaining here and there, reminders that no matter how hard you try to succeed at something, sometimes you cannot help but fail. I keep this cheery message in mind, frantically and futilely scraping my chin with the razor. I am late for a 10:30 appointment to acquire my press credentials for the week. As I drive, I email my contact apologizing for my tardiness.
I arrive to find a long, lazy line of reporters trailing through the lobby of the Halle Building. “It’s a shit show,” a TV producer with a thick Boston accent announces. “There’s one person.” He gestures, with what seems to me like perverse glee, toward the room where a single RNC staffer is methodically dispensing passes for everyone credentialed through the Special Press Office. I rub my ragged face.
Every political convention I’ve ever attended has started like this: standing in a long line in a lobby or a hallway, watching enviously as the real reporters who work for places with “reputations” and “budgets” breeze in and out of well-appointed media lounges. The Special Press Office supervises those reporters whose employers are the Goonies of the political press corps. The man standing behind me carries a large roll of paper towels, which he uses frequently to blot his sweat. (It is not particularly hot in the lobby.) The man in front of me gives his trouser measurements to someone over the phone. “I’m a 33 waist. A 33 waist,” he reiterates, before pausing. “You might want to go 34.” The reporter in front of him appears to be in high school, and then it turns out that he is a correspondent for a children’s news agency. This information is greeted heartily by a jolly woman who starts to reminisce about her days as a staffer for a defunct outlet called Children’s Express.
The line moves very slowly. I’m not the only one to notice this. “She’s having a ten-minute conversation with everyone,” the sweaty guy behind me says, referring to the personable RNC staffer who does, indeed, seem to be really enjoying her one-on-one time with America’s least reputable reporters. “Just hand out the credentials!” Pants Guy gets off the phone and resumes a conversation with the kid journalist. “Congrats on getting a selfie with Trump!” Pants Guy tells him. “That’s huge.” After about 40 minutes, the RNC staffer emerges with a smile, an apology, and a promise to move faster. The ex–Children’s Express lady pulls her aside. “Question,” she says. “Do you have any comprehensive listing of what’s going on?”
I secure my credentials and parking pass. Next, it’s over to the 14th floor of the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House Building to pick up another credential, one that has been vetted by the Secret Service. I arrive at 12:15 to find a small, frustrated group of reporters milling about in the lobby. No one is being allowed upstairs. Another tremendously sweaty and loudly unlunched TV producer named Carl, who is here to pick up credentials for a colleague named Jim, cannot decide whether to stay or go. He talks constantly on his cell phone: “Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.” “Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.” “Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.”
After a while, a U.S. marshal appears to inform us that the Secret Service didn’t expect all these reporters to show up today—I am not sure why this is coming as a surprise, but apparently it is—and they’re doing their best. “Bear with us,” the U.S. marshal says. “We’re not the bad guys.”
Finally, we’re allowed to go up to the 14th floor. “No cameras upstairs. All you need is your credentials to get you upstairs,” another U.S. marshal says. “And your belt for your pants.” Cell Phone Carl commiserates. “You’re herding cats. I appreciate your pain,” he says as he goes through security. “Oh! I forgot my belt.” Upstairs the wait continues, with more and more reporters arriving all the time, until there are 30 or 40 people in off-the-rack suits standing there, fidgeting, complaining. Cell Phone Carl sweats so profusely that he is dripping on me. “The NBA Finals were a breeze compared to this,” a local reporter says. “This is nuts.”
“I just did an interview from the bathroom,” announces a reporter from Indian Country News.
“Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.”
“The thing about all the people here is we don’t take no for an answer. We’ve heard it all before.”
We might not take no for an answer, we intrepid members of the political press corps, but we also spend a lot of time just standing and waiting. The best way to neutralize a political reporter is to make him stand in line, and today, at least, my colleagues and I will get no real reporting done. By the time I make it over to Quicken Loans Arena, and then to the Convention Center, it is about 3:45, just in time to witness a failed rebellion by an anti-Trump faction. Boarding the bus back to the arena, a community news reporter from Colorado accosts me. “Got any angles?” he asks, smiling. “I’m trying to find one.”
(Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Hi, I’m Justin Peters. I’m going to Cleveland next week to cover the Republican National Convention for The Atavist Magazine. I’m a journalist, and have been for many years, but I’m not particularly qualified for this assignment: I haven’t been on the campaign trail at all this year, and I haven’t written regularly about politics for a long time. I did, however, appear on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? twice last year, which, in this weird postmodern election cycle, basically makes me cabinet material.
There’s a long-standing journalistic tradition of sending semi-outsiders to report on conventions, to indulge in the spectacle as a means of ferreting out substance. In this political season, more than any other I can remember, the spectacle is the substance. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, is an erratic former reality-television star and an accomplished ogler whose campaign philosophy can be reduced to two phrases: “I’m not here to make friends” and “Look at me!”
So maybe the best way to think about this moment, in our inherently performative political era, is as the penultimate elimination round of the greatest reality show in history. Maybe the answers to our national future lie not in the rules committee but in the spectacle itself. Maybe Donald Trump and I are both the right man for the right time. I’m going to find out.
(Photo: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Justin’s coverage of the Republican National Convention starts on July 18. Stay tuned!