I was scared. Everybody I knew was scared. Perfect strangers told me to wear a bulletproof vest. Friends who were attending told me their hearts were racing and they couldn't sleep. Judgment was at hand. The seals would open. The earth would split apart and swallow up our folly. This was it. Peals of thunder. The pale horse.
In that moment, it made sense. Just after midnight on July 5, a black man named Alton Sterling who was selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge was thrown against the ground and shot to death by a cop. On July 6, a black man named Philando Castile was shot to death in his car by a cop. On July 7, at the end of a peaceful police brutality protest in Dallas, five cops were shot to death. Seven other cops and two civilians were injured. If you watched any of this on television or heard it on the radio, all you could hear was death and screaming. It frayed the nerves of the whole country. The potential for civil unrest felt huge, a dry field in the summer waiting on a carelessly discarded match.
Donald Trump, who was about to become the Republican nominee for president, had been a conduit for chaos since his campaign began. Even before the convention, his rallies were known for being downright scary as hell. There is no modern precedent for how tumultuous the air around Trump can be. His campaign is run without the safety nets of civility or restraint. It gets dark.
And at the hot height of summer, the threat seemed very real that both 2016 conventions could be a repeat of the Democratic National Convention of 1968, when thousands of cops fought thousands of antiwar protesters, and Chicago briefly became a tornado of rocks and billy clubs and tear gas and despair. It was so bad we have a name for it — the Battle of Michigan Avenue. More than 650 people were arrested, and hundreds more were injured. And with Donald Trump running a campaign of big, angry, puffed-up strength against everything white America fears but cannot see, with Hillary Clinton fresh from defeating a take-no-prisoners socialist who brought an army at his back, with police and tumult visible on any screen, the ghosts of 1968 were drifting through the hallways, jiggling doorknobs.
I was bracing for dystopia. On the way to the airport, my hands were shaking. I found myself talking in the conspiratorial whisper that can only signify the worst-case scenario planning of real adult fear. The storm clouds were rolling in and there was lightning past the mountains. Three more cops had just been killed in Baton Rouge.
As people on my flight started attempting to sleep, a reporter in front of me opened up his laptop and pulled up his internet browser. There were 17 tabs open. One was news, and all the rest were pornography. Once some actual snoring began in the cabin, he got more adventurous, clicking rapidly between Reuters and the sign-up page for one of those cheat-on-your-wife websites. Later, he loaned the laptop to a rabbi seated next to him, without closing a single tab.
The first thing you need to know about Cleveland is that Cleveland is spelled wrong. It was founded in 1796 by a land surveyor named Moses Cleaveland, a stuffy, chinless Connecticut Yankee. He helped come up with the layout for downtown, centered around a four-block plaza known as Public Square. There's a statue of him there, which is stupid since he never came back after he founded it. By 1831, a local newspaper had changed the name of the town to Cleveland for space, and nobody seemed to mind. Maybe if he'd paid any attention it'd be spelled right today.
Cleveland’s nickname is "The Forest City." It's in the Midwest, so it's relaxed but stoic. People in Cleveland drink beer and eat chicken wings and have pizza spots they like. They're not always running late like someone in Los Angeles and they're not always on their way someplace like people in New York. They are regular, nice Americans and it's a regular, nice place, with lots of nice, old, historical brick buildings. Cleveland looks like it leaves the house at 8 a.m. and goes home at 5 p.m. and doesn't care a whole lot what you think about it. It gets very cold in the winter, and all the buildings in the city look like they've survived hard times and hard storms. It looks like it's seen better days but might be on the cusp of prosperity again. The Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA championship this year and 1.3 million people came downtown to see it.
I didn't know anything about political conventions before I came to Ohio. I had just been to a fringe party convention that largely consisted of old men shuffling around a hotel, but the big show I mostly knew as something on television I didn't watch. That was a good way to live. I recommend it.
After submerging myself in these huge steel drums loaded with snakes for two weeks and coming back alive, I can tell you with some confidence what conventions really are. Conventions are carnivals. Right down to the street performers and suspect corn dogs. By and large, the only thing that happens at them, as far as we get to know, is the presumptive nominees for president become the official nominees for president. Conventions don’t have a sense of place, really, because you’re mostly confined to arenas named after a bank or a cell phone company. It's not even really fun to be drunk at a political convention. It can become necessary, but it's never, ever fun. Also like a carnival, there's a lot of walking and so much sweating that you repeatedly ask yourself if this could ever in a million years be worth it while you wait in line for the beer tent.
The weekend I arrived was the deadliest weekend of 2016 in Cleveland. Five people were killed and at least twenty were injured by guns. There were tons of cops downtown. This was not reassuring. This was a sign that someone high up shared the fear I wanted to deny. There were snipers on almost every rooftop; it wasn't hard to find them if you looked. A burning dread was in the air, a feeling of invisible vultures.
And there were almost as many journalists as cops. Any remotely interesting person, any remotely interesting sign, any remotely interesting skirmish was covered by every single possible outlet from every single possible angle. If you dressed up like Jesus Christ, you got your picture taken and you got an interview. If you belonged to an organization like Bikers For Trump or Truckers For Trump, you got your picture taken and you got an interview. The entire worldwide press was looking for something on the ground outside, the real shit, the action, but nobody knew what it was or what it would look like, so the field was wide open.
When I got to Quicken Loans Arena, the GOP’s temporary epicenter of well-off whiteness was an ocean of business casual. It's easy to forget that conventions are not candidate rallies. The crowds are different, stuffier, more prepared to deal with cameras. They look like they own furniture with special cleaning instructions. They're not necessarily Trump's crowd, they're just Republicans. What descended on Cleveland was like a GOP trade show that Trump just happened to be headlining.
A couple miles away, at an End Poverty Now rally on East 45th Street, a portable stage had been constructed on a vacant lot in a largely residential area. The goal of the rally was to emphasize economic injustice, and call attention to the working poor of America whose voices so easily go silent every time presidential campaigns devolve into clashes of personality. Under a tent, a woman held a sign saying "DEPORT TRUMP'S HATE & HIS WIFE." The best was one that simply read "TRUMP HATES KITTENS." The guy holding that looked like he was in a good mood. He even drew some kittens on it. NARAL was there with a woman on stilts in a giant purple dress, trailed by assistants carrying a great, big poster-size rendering of a vagina and the words "TREAD NOT."
There was also a bearded, older guy there wearing a giant, black boot on his head and a tie and a vest over a t-shirt. He was seeking the Republican nomination for president: "I'm cautiously optimistic that I'm gonna be able to flip some of the Cruz delegates on the third ballot." His name was Vermin Supreme. He explained that he gave safety information to the crowds, informing them of what to do in police attacks. I asked if he thought anything was going to go terribly wrong.
"Well, the crowds are so light, and I don't know why. I'm on the verge of deciding whether or not to declare protest dead in America."
Up on the stage, it became impossible to ignore the fact that Chuck D was there with his new supergroup, Prophets of Rage. That’s why lots of folks were gathered in the lot — not as a political statement, but to see Chuck D. But there were plenty of activist groups there in an official capacity. Most visibly, communists. It was difficult to talk to the communists. A spokeswoman referred me to a man she repeatedly called "the notorious flag burner." His name was Gregory Lee Johnson, but he went by Joey, and he burned a flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention.
"So you're burning another flag, huh?" I asked Joey. He said yes, and said it would be at 1 p.m. the next day, a few blocks from the arena. I asked him why.
"I still see it as a symbol of international plunder and murder," he told me.
I asked why poor whites are gravitating to Trump.
"Trump is not some kind of aberration in America, he's a concentration of the ugly social relations and economic domination, plunder, that this system … I think people that dismiss the possibility of him being elected are, like, delusional, you know?"
I stopped at a convenience store for water. They had loose porn DVDs at checkout — we're talking gutbucket, hundred-proof pornography, just sitting out on the counter to buy — and the refrigerators were largely decorative. It was one of the only businesses I saw that didn’t clean up for the out-of-towners. The honesty was refreshing.
There was a bunch of off-brand Trump merchandise for sale at Settler's Landing, a nice grassy hill on the banks of Lake Erie. A man with his face painted like an American flag was arguing with someone about Alex Jones. "He's got all the documents! He's exposing everything! He knows airplanes don't knock buildings down!" he said, even though they do, they knocked down the World Trade Center.
I turned away and introduced myself to a black Trump supporter named Kenneth. Naturally, there were several people waiting for their opportunity to interview Kenneth. He was wearing a "Hillary For Prison" shirt.
"Tough to be a black guy supporting Trump?"
"No, it's not, because what you have to understand is that the powers that be, the media, and it could even be other countries, they control the message people are getting. They've always been playing us against each other and that's what the whole trick is, to have us fighting among each other so we can't focus our attention on the power brokers."
I asked him if he had any thoughts about the state of law enforcement. That's when he saw my MTV lanyard and told me people need to stop watching MTV, because "the CIA took over rap music about 30 years ago." It'd be nice if he was right. It'd be fun to say I worked for the CIA. I'd tell everybody.
Soaking in the ambience, I walked along the sidewalk for a while and found the "RNC FUN ZONE 2016," which featured a dunk tank and huge, unopened bags of plastic balls for an unfinished ball pit. I passed a man born after Ronald Reagan left office wearing a Reagan/Bush ’84 shirt. He was walking up the hill with his buddy, who was practicing his right to open carry. The man with the gun turned to the man in the Reagan shirt and said, "Whatever — let's go fucking eat."
Meanwhile, inside the arena, Never Trump delegates were trying to derail the Trump train by forcing a roll call vote. But that whole thing sputtered out, and by nightfall Trump was walking onto the stage to "We Are the Champions" in a cloud of blue smoke. The whole thing felt off; it felt off that there were no ex-presidents, no iconic Republicans on the scene. It felt like the party itself was going dark, surrendering to an unstoppable force of personality.
And outside, pandemonium stubbornly refused to break out.
As I left for the night, with the crowds long gone, I saw a man approach a group of cops, puffing his chest out. He made too much eye contact. "Guess WHAT?! I'm a SATANIST!" he told them, smiling. Then he started rolling up his shirt sleeve, revealing a Batman tattoo. It was the most police agitation I saw that day.
The following morning, I went to the appointed place at the appointed time to see the communists burn the flag, but there was nobody there. I panicked. The communists gave me bad intel. I walked around the corner and past another march. I talked to the most tired-looking guy there. His name was Tony. He told me he was marching for Martice Milliner, a black man killed by cops in Chicago "in front of 40 people at a birthday party, shot six times in his back."
I asked about the election, if either of the candidates could change anything.
"It's gonna take us to change us. I could care less about the election. They both the same." Then he walked off.
I headed for Public Square. I was walking side by side with a California highway patrolman, one of a horde of out-of-state law enforcement officers imported for the convention.
"You nervous? Anything bad coming?"
"It only takes one lone wolf. That's all I'll say. Just one."
It was burning hot and humid and Public Square was almost at capacity. There was a guy selling a painting of Trump next to a bald eagle in low-Earth orbit, draping an American flag across the whole planet. An old, bearded man wore a shirt that read "LIAR LIAR" and showed Hillary Clinton surrounded by flames. Kenneth was back too. He was wearing a shirt depicting George Washington holding an improbably modern gun. It said "The 2nd Amendment: Last defence [sic] against tyranny." Somebody was filming him.
A crowd began gathering in the center of the square, around a black man with a bullhorn and his daughter.
"Tamir Rice was MURDERED by the CLEVELAND, OHIO, POLICE! My name is Tamir Rice!" the man said, before lying down on the concrete with his daughter. He motioned to a couple nearby cops. "Mr. Policeman, I am Tamir Rice. Why did you murder me? I wanted to grow up. I was 12 years old!"
The cops applauded. They were generally being hyperpolite. One of them gave the daughter a piece of candy, which she ate with a huge smile on her face.
"She say she wanna be a good cop so she can put the bad cops in jail," the man with the bullhorn said. "She's 4."
As the afternoon wore on, Public Square became packed with every possible cross-section of convention attendees: Tea Partiers and magicians-for-hire and communists and enough law enforcement to put down Pablo Escobar. And soon enough, it all went to shit. It didn't go to shit like a billion cops were expecting, it didn't go to shit like every Cleveland local I spoke to was expecting, and it didn't go to shit like the press was expecting. It was a lone wolf, but not the kind the highway patrolman was expecting.
It went to shit because of Alex Jones. Infowars. New World Order. You know Alex Jones. He yells a lot. Infowars fans exist so far outside party politics you'd never think they'd have a moment in the sun, but in 2016 they got one: Alex Jones is supporting Donald Trump. Donald Trump has been on Alex Jones's show. He has given Infowars legitimacy. He’s rounded up zero moderates, but he's taken all the far-right fringes and unified those. He's thrown right-wing radio into the sunlight in a way no one ever has. You may want to dismiss Infowars, but in this election, it matters. Alienated, conservative cynics who look at a dude like Paul Ryan and rate him as a puppet, they matter.
Jones rolled in out of nowhere like a tank, barking in a megaphone, here to teach those communists a lesson. He had his boys with him, a bunch of dudes in sunglasses who looked like they could be on one of those cable reality shows about motorcycles. He waded into the crowd.
"WHAT YOU'VE GOT IS BIG, GIANT MEGA-BANKS FUNDING A BUNCH OF COMMUNISTS AND COP-KILLERS AND OTHER ORGANIZATIONS THAT WANNA START MARTIAL LAW IN THIS COUNTRY," he offered.
"THE COMMUNISTS ARE A BUNCH OF MURDERING SCUM WORLDWIDE AND GEORGE SOROS IS A NAZI COLLABORATOR FUNDING THESE ORGANIZATIONS TRYING TO BRING IN TOTAL TYRANNY," he added, a little more hesitantly.
"You're the evil in this country!" someone yelled at him. Then Alex Jones plugged his website. You can buy things there.
Some of the communists started chanting "NAZI SCUM! NAZI SCUM! NAZI SCUM!" at Alex Jones. Cops swarmed, enough to put all of Public Square in jail. Everybody was packed in too tightly, too many different factions too close together.
In front of the gate to the arena, a woman in an American flag minidress held a sign that said "I'M ON TINDER" and a man held a sign that said "CONSERVATIVE BUT DOWN TO FUCK." And inside, Donald Trump formally became the Republican nominee for president. Chris Christie talked about how he'd prosecute Hillary Clinton, and the crowd chanted "GUILTY!", and the crowd chanted "LOCK HER UP!"
That night, on the way back to my hotel, I passed Alex Jones and his entourage again. People approached him and nervously asked for pictures, like they were 14 and he was LeBron James. He obliged them gracefully. I asked what happened in the sea of people that afternoon. He told me that one of the communists pushed him, and he pushed back, and then he was taken away to a car. Videos backed him up. It probably drove good traffic to his website.
The craziest reality of the 2016 RNC was not that Trump, a manic and dangerous liar who believes nothing, had ascended to the nomination, but that the loudest confrontations while that was going on took place between some mischievous communists and a man who loudly believes 9/11 was an inside job. That could have happened anywhere. It didn't represent any of our country's true malaise. It was just fringes colliding.
If you have to go looking for action at an event of such spectacular size, there really isn't any action. So I sat down by the bus stop. The Republicans had done a terrible job of being worth noticing. They had booked barrel-bottom celebrities and men with sundowning careers and Donald Trump's immediate family and it just wasn't worth watching. It wasn't even worth hate-watching. No careers were being made at the 2016 convention. It felt like I was watching a show that had already been canceled and I was burning through its last few episodes out of obligation.
Then I got a call. The flag burning was back on. The communists were coming.
I weaved through blocks and blocks of concrete and little pizza places and cafés and past countless camera crews. The road to the arena was bottlenecking pretty bad; the cops knew what was about to happen.
Then the communists came. Maybe a dozen of them, I couldn't tell. There were too many people. They formed a circle in their black shirts, surrounded by a million cameras, and in the middle of the circle, Joey prepared to burn that flag.
"1, 2, 3, 4! Slavery, genocide and war!" they chanted.
"5, 6, 7, 8! America was never great!"
Then Joey tried to set the flag on fire, I guess. I couldn't see down that far. I saw some smoke. I heard somebody say he set himself on fire. I was smashed in a big pile of people. A lady sang "America the Beautiful" by herself and nobody sang along. Someone chanted "Hail Satan! Give Texas back!" Someone else started dancing. It was all over in about 10 minutes. It was the most disappointing flag burning I've ever seen.
That night, inside the arena, Ted Cruz said we need to defend freedom, and he smiled his horrible smile, like a blow-up doll of Ronald Reagan you win at a county fair from a selection of toys made by chain-smoking counterfeiters.
He didn't endorse. He was roundly booed for doing so, but it didn't faze him. It made sense, at the time. Trump gave him the nickname "Lyin' Ted" and repeatedly, for no reason at all, suggested Cruz’s father was complicit in the JFK assassination. An endorsement would have been an act of monumental cowardice, one even Cruz diehards would be morally required to hold against him. But it’s not like it mattered. It was all a trap. Trump's endgame was to let the man set himself on fire, and he did. Cruz couldn’t pass on that stage time. He wants to be president too badly for that.
Then, from nowhere, as if by magic, Trump himself materialized in the wings, with the unexamined charisma of a pit boss who can kill anybody he wants but hey, let's talk about something else, OK, let's talk about something nice, we're trying to have fun here, I run a nice place. The look on his face was unmistakable. I pulled it off. You didn’t.
Two months later, Cruz endorsed.
When the world didn't end on Sunday, people said it would happen Monday, and when it didn't happen Monday, people said it would happen Tuesday. It was Thursday now, the last day for the world to end in Cleveland, if it had a mind to.
That afternoon, I was a couple miles away from the arena on the Hope Memorial Bridge. An activist group called Stand Together Against Trump, composed largely of Ohio-based medical professionals, was going to march across the bridge, and they were going to do it up right and legal, with nice signs and permits and everything. They were handing out free watermelon and veggie wraps. There were a hundred or so folks who turned out, a respectable number given the blinding heat, but the streets were deserted, no spectators on the bridge.
The protesters started walking, chanting things like "No bridges! No wall! America is for us all!" to an audience of zero. They waved nice signs like "I kissed an IMMIGRANT and I liked it!" with hearts dotting all the I's, and a big one that said "LOVE TRUMPS HATE." There was an unshaven guy in a flannel shirt walking a bit slower than the others with his eyes to the ground, with a half-burned cigarette dangling in his mouth and a sign that just said, "I am afraid."
I asked one of the bike cops gathered on the bridge if he was even listening. "I don't know anything, I just pedal where they tell me to," he said, before pedaling where someone told him to.
Everybody crossed the bridge and sweated a lot and then they turned around to go back to their cars. They applauded themselves when they finished. You could scan the whole horizon without seeing a single person looking at them.
The city was dead quiet. Nothing was worth noticing. Even the countless wayfaring dudes selling bootleg GOP merch on card tables weren't into it anymore. Cleveland had become deafeningly lonely, so I went inside the arena, where a whisper on the wind, a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy, told me there was air-conditioning.
I made camp in the dead back of the top floor of the arena. There was a dull hum of overlapping conversations from the ground below, not a ton of energy in the room. It was dark up there. I took my shoes off. I waited for Trump to speak. I wasn't scared of him or pissed off at him anymore. It felt like one of those Beach Boys shows that don't have any of the real Beach Boys, and you’re just there because the bank was giving away tickets and at least you know all the songs.
Now, let me be as objective as possible, as apolitical as possible, when I tell you that this speech was bad. It was way, way, way too long, Trump got edgy with his teleprompter, and the message wasn’t about us. It was about him. America is weak and I will make it strong. Trump, the 70-year-old guy from Queens with the casinos and the TV show and the infinitely erupting ego from hell, had gone as far as you can go on a gambit that was even then burying what was left of the Republican Party in a little pine box.
"I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, COME TO AN END," the improbable nominee hollered from the distant stage. "Beginning on January 20th of 2017, safety will be restored." That was a real crowd-pleaser. The people in that arena named after a mortgage lender wanted muscle. And they didn't care how safety could possibly be restored in a day.
If you watched the speech on TV, you could easily believe that the arena was hosting a neo-fascist rally, headlined by a grotesque and thundering strongman. But it wasn't like that in the room. In the room, it was just a man projecting his voice and his brand for a gigantic building, all selling, all winning, an end to crime, a return to work, a return to the mythic America, a return to dads mowing lawns and moms in flour-misted aprons giving them cold beers, but no plan for getting us there. An escape from our sadness and fear and weakness.
And when I let my guard down, I felt it for a second.
I thought about my brothers who unload boxes from a big-rig in the middle of the night, and the people I've seen destroyed by drinking and drugging and hopelessness in the towns where the work dried up, the places that used to be strong and prosperous and aren't anymore, the places they can't afford to leave, the places where you just have to hold on.
Lots of people don't have great lives in America. A lot of us were raised for jobs that aren't there anymore, groomed for gone economies, taught to move and breathe in a country that isn't what it used to be. People need to talk about the working poor, and talk to them, in a voice they understand.
But that night in Cleveland, it didn't feel like the beginning of something. It felt like the end of something. Remember that H.L. Mencken quote?
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."
Everything is a hobgoblin for Trump. The Muslims and the Mexicans and the Syrians and the Democrats, all out for us, closing in on us, waging war on us, climbing up our hill. It's a bitter, horrible, goddamned lie because it's easy to believe and it's easy to say. It's easy to make us fear the things we cannot see. It's easy to talk to our insecurities and our suspicions and our paranoia and our fear and doubt and inborn cruelty.
The balloons came down and Trump vanished, and people filed out into the humid and oppressive asphalt night, and they stepped on the balloons, and the balloons popped like bullets.
I rode out the night at a bar down the street, and at last call I asked the doorman what he thought about this ostensibly historical week in Cleveland. He sighed.
"They said it was gonna be so much shit, and then it wasn't shit."
Everybody was gone now. On the dark road in front of us, a street sweeper blew cigarette butts into the air.
I was not ready for Philadelphia. I had never been anywhere near any of the grand old eastern cities, and I had no natural appreciation for Philadelphia’s history, which is the history of the whole country. Philadelphia is older than the United States of America. It was started in 1682 by William Penn, a Quaker, real estate entrepreneur, and philosopher who grew up in London under Oliver Cromwell, back when kings still got beheaded. He wrote things like "O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand," and "to be a man's own fool is bad enough, but the vain man is everybody's."
A million and a half people live in Philadelphia. It used to be a major manufacturing hub but it lost a lot of those jobs in the ’60s and almost filed for bankruptcy in the ’80s. Drive away from all the big new buildings and gentrification and you'll see lots of factories and warehouses surrendering slowly to weeds. The Declaration of Independence was signed here, the Liberty Bell is here, a million billion monuments of dead men dressed real fancy are here. Ben Franklin spent his life here. There are a bunch of great big statues of him to remind you. This year, more than 200 people have been murdered in Philadelphia, about 5 percent more than last year.
Monday, after two days of calling people just to hear human voices, I headed up Route 38 in New Jersey, past strip malls and shuttered gas stations and little diners and Wawas and funeral homes and a bar that looked like a church; past discount liquor stores, big empty brick buildings, and a massive brutalist apartment complex towering above a dollar store; and over the Ben Franklin Bridge across the Delaware, only to stand in front of the overwhelmingly fuck-off-no-way splendor of City Hall and find … nothing.
Where the Republican National Convention was packed around the arena, the Democratic National Convention was way more spread out. City Hall, Independence Hall, and all the other obvious and viable urban congregation points were over three city miles from the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers and the 76ers play, where all that history was being made. The cops had more ground to cover, so Philadelphia didn’t feel like a provisional police state. It was theoretically possible to keep your head down and do your job and go home and not notice that the convention was even happening. Besides, it was almost 100 degrees, and not the sleepy, dry kind. It was the kind of heat you wade through. Bad weather for chaos.
The story of the Republican National Convention was one of a country that misread its cloud formations and went to the storm cellar too early. People didn't get as worked up as we thought they would, and Trump the Post-Prosperity Strongman dissolved before our eyes into a salesman who knew how to get his foot in the door but forgot to bring a product.
It was different for the Democrats. The kids — the people who had never voted before, the people who believed in something and distrusted all institutions, the people who weren't scared of the word "socialism" — wanted Bernie Sanders to be the nominee. His was a populist uprising of unprecedented proportions. You could set the whole thing to a montage soundtracked by Woody Guthrie. And it almost happened. When it didn't, lots of people felt cheated.
But at the end of the day, Hillary Clinton won the nomination on the back of old politics, the regular scheme, playing to the base but making compromises for the country at large, taking big checks, and going exactly by the book in a year when that was the least cool thing a politician could possibly be doing. Lots of folks I talked to don't see Clinton as a flesh-and-blood person. They see her as an organization, as a representation of the ruling class, a member of something very out of vogue in 2016: a dynasty.
I just saw her as unknowable. I'm from conservative stock but not political stock. We didn't watch much news growing up. We didn’t know Democrats, we didn’t know how to talk to Democrats, we didn’t understand that side of America. They lived in different neighborhoods and different cities. And that’s all pretty normal; conservatives and liberals move in separate spheres and understanding is an uphill battle for both sides.
So I didn't have much to go on, but I was determined to ask everybody until I got an idea.
When I got to City Hall, there were no signs of Clinton supporters, none at all. But there were plenty of recurring characters from the Republican National Convention, which made the whole thing feel like a road show. The mean religious demonstrators with the grim, black signs were back. The merch guys were back. Vermin Supreme was back. Even Kenneth was back, for another four days of interviews.
Bernie Sanders owned downtown Philadelphia. "Bernie or Bust" signs were everywhere. Across from Reading Terminal Market, a Sanders march was in progress, with signs reading "It's Class War, Whose Side Are You On?" and "My VOTE and MILLIONS of others were STOLEN by the Dishonest Nefarious Corrupt. I'm Still With Bernie!!" and "GO FRACK YOURSELF."
I asked a woman trailing in the back of the march if she could ever vote for Clinton. She replied instantly, "No. Never. Under no circumstances. Never." She then walked off. I asked another woman behind her. "The system was rigged by big money. She bought the nomination." On and on it went like this: "Clinton took big, insane money from Goldman Sachs," they told me; "She voted for the Iraq War," they told me; "She bought superdelegates," they told me; "She let innocents die in drone strikes in Pakistan," they told me.
(During Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the CIA killed 2,192 people in drone strikes in Pakistan. 226 were civilians, that we know about.)
I sat down on some steps across from Independence Hall. I thought about looking at the Liberty Bell, but there was a line. A tired woman in her fifties with a bum knee sat down next to me and lit a Virginia Slim. She was wearing a Sanders shirt.
"Could you vote for Hillary?" I asked.
She took a huge pause, like she might never answer.
"I will vote … for the candidate … who has the best chance of defeating Donald Trump. I'm … not anti-Hillary. I just … I really, really, really, really, really, really, really like Bernie. The change that he stands for is the change we desperately need in this country."
She got up and crossed the street, and the most enthusiastic Clinton supporter I would meet that day was gone.
The day was winding down, at least downtown. I heard rumblings of Sanders delegate revolts inside the arena named after the bank. I got a car and headed toward the arena, where a big Sanders rally was planned in nearby FDR Park. There was thunder in the distance. Parked nearby was a Ford van on which someone had painted "The Bern Machine" on the side and "Talk Bernie To Me" on the back. It started raining so much I was spitting water out of my mouth when I tried to speak.
An emergency flood warning sounded through my phone, something I didn't even know phones did. People were running past me, going both ways, some back to their cars and some to the rally that couldn't possibly be happening now.
"Shit! There's no cover!" a man's voice said.
"No! Don't stand under a tree! You will fucking die!" a woman's voice replied.
Lucky ones with umbrellas shared them with others, groups of six and seven people would huddle underneath. Signs were trampled into the mud. When I got up to the arena gate on Broad Street that separated the long-suffering protesters from the credentialed convention attendees, those blissfully unaware sons of bitches with lanyards, people were still chanting, drenched and dirty and miserable.
"This is what democracy looks like!" a protester yelled, and it looked an awful lot like being stuck behind a fence, soaking wet in the pounding rain, unheard.
The first night of the Republican convention had featured zero good speakers. The Democrats had three: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Michelle Obama. Senator Warren did something magical. She called Trump's wall "stupid." She just said it was stupid. She didn't say it was evil or appalling, she didn't stomp and holler at his moral failings, she just said it was "stupid." It's such a simple word, but you don't hear people use it in politics enough. People always get caught up in their own righteousness, in proving how much better they are, shooting fish in a barrel. There’s so much social pressure to play the part-time preacher, but it's simpler to call him stupid, and it works better.
The First Lady gave a hell of a speech, natural and tonally earnest, a rarity on any stage of that size. In a tight 15 minutes, she gave us the mission statement of the convention ahead: talk past Trump. "When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is 'when they go low, we go high.'"
Bernie Sanders, the man who stood against the Clinton war chest and didn't blink, closed out the night. There were tons of people in that room who wanted him, and only him, to be president. And he talked to them. He didn't push Clinton as a savior. He told people to vote for her, which they didn't like. But he did get to talk, and talk right, about wealth inequality in our country, about "understanding that if we do not transform our economy, our younger generation will likely have a lower standard of living than their parents."
He's keeping that discussion alive. He's made it as mainstream as it has ever been. Now his job is to keep it going, and stop the political class from sidelining it. His job is to remind everyone that it is hard to make it in America, and no amount of populist sunshine and optimism can erase how punishing it is to exist here as so many do, underwater on minimum wage. Our country is still broken, and we cannot hide from that.
Out by City Hall in the morning, the rain gone and the heat back, political tourists were enjoying micro–celebrity sightings.
"Dude, that's Gloria Allred!"
"Gloria Allred. I think she's a feminist."
"Is she famous?"
"Uh, kind of."
Around the corner, while I waited at the crosswalk, Gray Davis was standing on the corner looking like a ghost. In 2003, he was unseated as the governor of California by a smooth-talking, charismatic entertainer who exploded onto the political scene to nationwide disbelief. He’d probably have a thing or two to say about Trump. But nobody recognized Gray Davis.
Across the street from City Hall, there was some sort of pro-Sanders marijuana activist event wrapping up. There were a few guys getting good and high in the middle of the burning afternoon. An old guy with a big, white mustache stood in front of the Government of the People statue, which looks like a big ol' granite pile of arms and legs. He was wearing a white t-shirt with the molecular formula for Ibogaine, a psychedelic, on the front. He had his arms on his hips and his jeans were tucked into his cowboy boots, in an appalling breach of cowboy boot etiquette.
Just then, about 15 communists crashed the place with their bullhorn. I wasn't really listening. I was pretty busy being pissed about those cowboy boots. But then the communists said things like "Fuck that shit!" and "Burn the goddamn … uh … flag." I rapidly remembered that there was definitely someplace I had to be — far away, probably.
FDR Park is beautiful when it's not hell-storming. Big, huge expanse of trees. Good place to ride a bike on a Sunday. People sat in the grass in their Bernie shirts and hung out, nice and low-key. Anti-DNC sentiment was everywhere. People were casually discussing election fraud. One protester had a sign that just said, "FUCK THESE GUYS."
Eventually, another crowd started to gather at the fence that separated them from the arena. They were slamming their Bernie signs against it, sounded like a bunch of snare drums. There were chants of "Hell no, DNC, we won't vote for Hillary!"
On my way out of the park, a guy was selling Bernie buttons. "The campaign is dead but capitalism is not!"
If you only watched the DNC from outside the arena, you’d think the whole thing was a Sanders festival. I walked 10 miles and saw more actual communists than Clinton supporters. I spoke with dozens of people and saying she was the lesser of two evils was about the peak of their enthusiasm. I still couldn't grasp her as a person.
That night, Bill Clinton set out to undo all that. Bill Clinton's a charismatic dude. His rambling, rowdy, sideways-glancing speech approach is always relatable. He's the Johnny Carson of the campaign circuit, and that night he was tasked with rebooting his wife, introducing her to regular Americans in regular towns, people who will never visit New York City, who don't know what a Secretary of State really even does, who, like me, think of her as an abstraction.
His first line was a good one: "In the spring of 1971, I met a girl." And with the height of folksy conviction, he set out to introduce Hillary Clinton, an actual person who fell in love and got married and became a mother and a grandmother. He brought her down to earth. It was an endearing and really, really, really, super long love story.
Critically, he also admitted to watching all the Police Academy movies. Of course you did, Bill. We knew. We always knew.
"I'm all right with Hillary," the woman outside the subway told me. "I always vote Democrat. I'll vote for her. She's qualified. She got job experience. Trump don't have any. But, just, it's all so bad now. The whole country needs to get right. Like when you get out of a relationship. You go to the gym, you eat salad, you pray, you get right with Jesus, learn to feel good about yourself. We need to do that before we're even qualified to vote for a president." I liked her.
I was just walking around, watching the city move. After about an hour of this, a man ran up to me, seeing my lanyard identifying me as press. "YOU SEEM SMART, LOOK UP THE BILDERBERG GROUP" he said, before running away. It was the last interesting thing I saw in Philadelphia, unless you count the guy who circled City Hall on a bicycle standing on top of his seat and handlebars for a full block, an act which is resolutely apolitical.
The convention was going fine. Very few people tried to pull anything stupid. The city was breathing. If there was a secret message to people watching the thing on TV, it was "don't be scared to vote Democrat. We know you don't like it, but you got taken in by a TV salesman who probably didn't even intend to be in the race this long. Just let it happen. It's happening anyway. Hillary Clinton will be president." It was a necessary play. A Hillary Clinton presidency is something half the country doesn't want to see, but they'll likely get it because Donald Trump drove the damn bus right into the ravine.
So on night three of the convention, knowing the task was pain mitigation, the DNC went full-blown patriotic. Tim Kaine spoke, Joe Biden spoke, and Barack Obama spoke. They talked like they had to send the football team out for one more touchdown without their star running back, convince them to play through the anguish. It was so positive it was almost saccharine; it was also the best advertisement the Democrats could possibly get in 2016, and a great way to prop up Hillary Clinton, who has never been and will never be known as a great orator.
Strategically, Kaine was the perfect choice for Clinton’s VP. He's sunny and smiley and he looks — with every fiber of his being, and we all know it, and there's no other way to say this — like he loves going to museums. Kaine gave warm compliments to Sanders. He talked about civil rights, about justice, about God, about how steady his new boss would be. He said he trusted Clinton with his Marine son's life.
Biden, always a man of big conviction and real sadness, quoted Hemingway: "The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places." He left off part of that Hemingway quote, though, the part that said, "Those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially." Maybe he was short on time.
Biden knows we worry that we can lose everything. He said Trump is cynical, devoid of empathy, playing to our fear. "He's trying to tell us he cares about the middle class," he said. "Give me a break. That's a bunch of …" and then he said "malarkey" with his mouth and "bullshit" with his eyes.
The president gave one of his last big speeches, and looked like the two-termer he is. This was his opportunity to survey his work, get nostalgic, speak in sepia. He talked about how unemployment reached eight-year lows, but left out the part about how many people live paycheck to paycheck. He talked about how health care is a right, not a privilege, leaving out the part about the tens of millions of people who didn't get that right. He did allow that people are struggling, hardworking people who feel forgotten. He's not stupid or delusional. He doesn't think he fixed everything.
He talked about Clinton's work ethic, how she fights for us, how she knows the stakes and doesn't quit, how she's respected around the world. How she has experience. He asked people to join him, to "reject cynicism and reject fear and to summon what is best in us." He told us America is already great.
And he said Trump is betting that "if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election. And that's another bet that Donald Trump will lose. And the reason he'll lose it is because he's selling the American people short. We are not a fragile people, we're not a frightful people. Our power doesn't come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way." Obama put Trump down, and he put him down clean. Because he didn’t aim for Trump the man, who will probably not win, but Trump the campaign philosophy, that notion of making people afraid and leading them to strength.
This trick has won before and will win again. The blueprint is there. Somebody smarter, somebody cannier could easily take Donald Trump's playbook and do it right next time. There are any number of politicians out there younger than Trump, more disciplined than Trump, who can do all the things that got him votes and none of the things that lost him votes. Even now, Trump is inspiring people to follow in his footsteps, kids in high school who are laughing with him and nodding at him and buying his hats, who will grow up and go on to reverse engineer his campaign missteps and prodigiously avoid them. There are new Trumps gestating right now. We may not see them for decades, but there they are.
Later that night, I went for a walk on the Jersey side of the Delaware, past a Sunoco and an abandoned body shop and a funeral home and a florist that had more headstones on display than actual flowers. It was mostly dark. The best source of lighting was on a sign that said "Christ died for the ungodly." I went into a pizza place. A cook was cleaning up the counter.
"I wanted Trump to pull it off, but I wanted him to shut the fuck up a little bit. He should have his own conscience. He cannot keep pounding about the Muslims. It does not work. Get off it. Your followers are following you, it's OK. Now get the people who are mad and who are leaving you."
He paused awhile and looked out at the highway. "He should shut up. He should shut the fuck up."
Hillary Clinton finally spoke that night. I never did find any die-hard fans of hers outside. I kept forgetting, because of where I went and who I talked to, that the Democratic National Convention wasn't about Bernie Sanders. It was about how the party planned to win the country. For good or for ill, Clinton is in charge of that now. She walked onstage. She hugged her daughter. She stared out at a sea of waving flags and banners with her name on them. She'd been ready for a long time. If she was breaking a sweat, it didn’t show.
The contrast in presentation was potent. Donald Trump walked out in black, and Hillary Clinton walked out in pure, blinding white. The message was clear. This election was good versus evil. All week long, the Democrats had been cribbing off the Republican campaign template. They waved flags and the Constitution and applauded generals and small-town virtues and chanted "USA!" and here was Hillary Clinton, ready to tell us morning in America isn’t over. They were taking the city upon a hill back from Ronald Reagan, who took it from JFK, who took it from John Winthrop, who took it from Jesus Christ.
Hillary Clinton is one of the least natural public speakers in modern politics. She has no spontaneity at all. If you listen on the radio, her sentences sound like they were assembled by a text-to-voice program from a long-past reading of a dictionary. But the speakers who came before her were out to argue that her actions speak louder than her words, that politics is not speech-making, and she rode hell for leather that night on the subject of how qualified she was.
She reminded everyone how Trump said, in Cleveland, that "I alone can fix it," even though that doesn't happen in politics. And she said he took the Republican Party from morning in America to midnight in America, and she wasn't wrong.
The word is "we." Clinton was arguing that politics is no place for lone gunslingers. It’s a team effort. Nobody does it alone. For every Rocky, there’s a Mickey and a Paulie and an Adrian. A politician is a person with a job you have to train for, not a self-styled celebrity, and you have to be good at your damn job. "The truth is," she said, "through all these years of public service, the service part has always come easier to me than the public part."
This was all a sales pitch, of course, but it was also a reminder that reality TV and social media’s rolling bucket-of-blood bar fight have broken national politics. It’s all personality now. It’s all twists and betrayals and cliffhangers and fireworks and throwdowns and eviscerations. We spend too much time talking about who’s the most likable or more often who’s the most insane and not enough time talking about literally any other component of the job. Electing a president should require lots of hard, undecorated thought, constantly evolving, no conclusion ironclad. It should not be color commentary for a football game, and yet that’s how we treat it, mostly.
Clinton’s best line was a quiet one. She was talking about getting people job training, and easing the burdens on small businesses by making it easier to obtain credit. It was a line of quiet, working-class verisimilitude: "Way too many dreams die in the parking lots of banks."
Donald Trump spoke of an apocalyptic storm on the horizon, and cast himself as the only man who could turn the weather. Hillary Clinton spoke of working hard, working together at the boring realities of professional politics. We've seen both speeches before, and we'll see both of them again.
Late that night, after Clinton’s address, I was sitting on the curb outside a Walmart, waiting for a cab. The store was about to close; there was one guy outside tasked with emptying out the trash cans in the parking lot and replacing all the bags. His name was Sam. He was from Texas. He had a voice like a gravel quarry. He was 59 years old.
"What do you think of the election?"
He didn't hesitate.
"Anytime you got a man that's mocking disabled people … my youngest brother, he's in his thirties now. He lost oxygen to the brain when he was an infant. He ain't never been right since. I can still hear my mother screaming, that moment when his eyes rolled in the back of his head. When I see Trump do that, I ain't voting for him. You can't go with a man who says stuff like that. You just can't. It's not right."
He poured out a beer bottle that had been left near one of the trash cans and threw it away.
"A lot of times in this life, I just get up, and I come to work, and I mind my business. I hope that everything goes all right through that one day. Maybe for certain sectors of the society, it sits cool with them, maybe they ain't never had to work for a dollar. Words hurt people. When you say things like he says, it does hurt people."
I told him about the people I'd talked to in Cleveland and Philadelphia who seemed disillusioned about voting, who were opting out of a rigged system.
"You can't make somebody do something that they don't want to do. But if you don't want to vote, you just let go of your voice."
I thought I would come home with my blood boiling, ready to fight tyranny. But I didn't. I came home tired. I've spent every day since on the verge of sleepwalking. For awhile I thought it was physical exhaustion, but it wasn't. It was moral exhaustion. And it hasn’t let up.
We're supposed to look at what politicians will actually do. We're supposed to scour their maps and their plans and figure out if we like the roads they're asking us to take. But we hardly even look at the map. We have a world of information at our fingertips, but the loudest voices throw the farthest. This entire country needs to sit down under a shade tree and hear a quiet voice. I didn't know a whole lot about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton before this year. Today I know very nearly everything they want us to know about them. And I didn't come away with wisdom. I came away in a daze, like someone took a crowbar to my brain when I was turned around.
Trump has no attention span and he's a narcissist and he's a bully and he's a robber baron demagogue and he doesn't believe in a single thing and his heart is full of malice and his throat is an open grave and all the other lines you've heard already. But Trump has raised legitimate grievances for some people. He talks to the working poor in a way most politicians cannot, and he’s fucked them worst of all because he has no plan for them.
Clinton is an enigma. She shows people exactly what she wants to show people, which isn't very much, and I can't gauge how much I trust her. I know she's got the experience to be president. She'll probably be president come November. It'd be nice to pay attention to what she's saying instead of what people say about her, which is caught up in a whirlwind of baggage from the tenure of a president who left office the better part of 20 years ago.
The easiest response to all this, to the yelling and the lying and the pain, the natural response, is apathy. To lie down in a pastel heap of heavy blankets and sleep this whole thing away like Rip Van Winkle. But you remember what happens to Rip Van Winkle. He comes home to find his house in ruins. So we don't get to sleep. We have to fight to keep our eyes open, and we have to take small victories, and we have to stay engaged in making society function.
And really, that isn't all about the presidency. It’s not even mostly about the presidency. We'll never have a perfect president. Making America work is about us and the way we treat each other. We have to be attentive and alert. We have to get beyond the tiny little judgments and assumptions we make every day that put the people around us in boxes. The little things that make people around us feel unsafe or unfit or unable.
When the election is over, and it will be over, most of us won't be glued to our seats for every single State of the Union address or White House Correspondents’ Dinner. We have to get ourselves right. And that starts with how we treat people in parking lots and playgrounds, at stoplights and crosswalks and checkout lines. We have a moral imperative to seek peace and wisdom and decency, and we can't project all the things that make our lives a struggle onto one person, not even a head of state.
We still have to live here, in our bodies, breathing. We have our own damn lives to lead, we have to keep our own houses in order, we have to make dinner and fix our cars and break down boxes for trash day and manage the constant struggle of being alive and finding peace in a mean society where people will always get cheated and dead for no reason. The affairs of the body politic aren't one-tenth as dramatic as the day you look into a mirror and realize you are getting older. We're not here very long, and we all have to catch the same train.
Sam had made it to the outer edge of the Walmart parking lot before he really spoke again. "How you gonna hate somebody when you don't even know them? I never understood that concept. We all wake up the same in the morning. We all have to eat, keep breathing the same air."
He replaced the liner in the trash can and walked back toward the store. It was midnight.
"All right now, gonna finish this job. Moving it along."