It was 11:28 Monday night, just beyond the security perimeter at the Quicken Loans Arena, and Republicans fleeing the interminable politicians’ speeches that followed Melania Trump’s debut were greeted by a spectacle: more than a dozen Cleveland police clustered in formation around a single skinny protester, with 30 or 40 people standing around gawking, certain something was happening or was about to happen. Three more police personnel angled in with digital cameras, recording the incident; three young people in yellow T-shirts reading “Legal Observer,” well, observed. Finally the protester muttered something about “all you assholes,” and things began to disperse. A pedestrian passed appropriate judgment: “All this for some drunk asshole with a bullhorn.”
Nice symbolism for the first day of the Republican convention. When I announced I’d be traveling to Cleveland to cover the event, it soon became a matter of obsessive fascination for my friends and family on Facebook: “Bring a bulletproof vest,” one person after another half-jokingly advised. Readers of my books expressed their gratitude the historian would be there to record what all agreed would be truly historic. The day came. My mother texted me: “The convention seems like there is a lot to write about.”
By then I had already been through security, an experience no different or perhaps even milder than the three previous Republican conventions I’d attended, and had already been pleased to observe that the scene outside the perimeter felt relaxed—quite the contrast to New York in 2004, where police vans rounding up dissidents seemed to be everywhere; Saint Paul in 2008, where the militarized police presence was especially ostentatious and the security zone you had to traverse before entering was exhaustingly colossal; and Tampa in 2012, where I took out my recorder to do an interview some 50 yards from the arena and was immediately set upon by a security guard who chased me away, saying I was on private property where no interviews were permitted. Those cities were the ones savoring of fascism. Cleveland, though, feels like a festival.
But you can’t say that on TV: The story everyone’s desperate to tell is one of cataclysm, foreboding, “chaos.” That was the word I read in headline after headline once I entered the hall around 5:30 about the doings an hour-and-a-half earlier, when things briefly went jiggy for 90 minutes as the pathetic #nevertrump remnant attempted to force a recorded vote that might have embarrassed Trump, and the chair deployed some subterfuge to derail them. I watched the video of the “chaos” and sighed. A similar kerfuffle over a voice vote versus a roll call—this on the question of Israel/Palestine—ruffled the smooth functioning of the Democratic Convention last time, and some business about a rules insurgency by supporters of Ron Paul at the Republican gathering, too, but in 2012 these hiccups didn’t get saturation coverage. They hardly got any coverage. But then, in 2012, the narrative wasn’t that we were witnessing the Most. Insane. Convention. Ever.
“Weirder Than You Thought It Would Be,” reads this morning’s headline on Talking Points Memo: I don’t think so. They’re all weird, conventions. People are tittering about Scott Baio’s pro-Trump speech, but D-list celebrities provide unintentional comic relief at every Republican convention. (Last time it was an ensemble member from the TV show Northern Exposure, which hadn’t been on the air for 17 years.) And, oof, those awful pop stars the organizers manage to coax by hook and crook onto a Republican stage! (This year it was an evangelical Christian Mumford & Sons rip-off with a lead singer who sang out of tune, then rapped.)
What struck me when the speeches started was how the rhetoric could have been Mad Libbed by inserting the name of any Republican nominee: Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson promising John McCain, oops, Donald Trump “will have your back”; Rick Perry revering veterans; the token black man saying Republican things; the Democratic incumbent disarming us; law and order—lock up your daughters! This isn’t newsworthy.
Yes, the parade of grieving family members—three speakers in a row identified as “Victim of Illegal Immigrants”; the conspiracy-theorist mother of one of the soldiers who died in Benghazi—was creepy in its maudlin exploitation. The 20 minutes two survivors spent narrating the battle of Benghazi with a meticulousness that would have bored Edward Gibbon was another false note. But, hell, the entire 2012 convention, where every speech was pitched by, for, and of business owners (“I built this”), was a false note.
And did Rudy “Noun, Verb, Radical Islamic Terrorism” Giuliani sound about ready to be fitted for a straight jacket? Par for the course. Watch Zell Miller rant about John Kerry as an “auctioneer selling off our national security,” proposing to defend us with “spitballs”; then challenging MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to a duel: I rest my case.
Monday was security night. And on matters of national defense, Donald Trump was supposed to represent some kind of radical departure for his party. But a pundit from Mars dropping in on the “Q” last night without any context would have been hard-pressed to spot the discontinuity. The whole thing, in fact, felt outsourced to the Republican National Committee—if to be sure, the RNC’s B-team, for the main difference with conventions past was more ineffectual staging: no way, for instance, they intended for the thing to end near midnight.
Chaos! Unprecedented weirdness! Apocalypse! Maybe that will come. For today, though, when the stories lead with the candidate’s wife borrowing a few sentences of candidate’s wife boilerplate from another candidate’s wife, you know you’ve been sold a bill of goods.