Driving into Cleveland on a warm July Saturday to secure my press credentials for the Republican National Convention, I get a text from a friend in California, a guy in his thirties who knows what’s going on. He surfs the dark web. He gets how Bitcoin works. He’s a Mason, an actual Mason, in a lodge, and he loves to discuss the sort of trippy conspiracies that Masons were once accused of backing. Having learned from my Twitter feed that I’m in Ohio to cover the G.O.P.’s nomination of Donald J. Trump for president of the United States (does it get any trippier than that?), he wants me to check out a local underground-music scene — psychedelic trap — led by a friend of his, GoldfaceMoneywatch. Would I like to hang out with Goldie? Sure. The convention doesn’t start till Monday. Judging by the police presence downtown and the labyrinth of traffic barricades, I’ll want to avoid the city center until the last moment possible.
It’s dark by the time I set out for the address Goldie gave me on the phone, and I’m apprehensive. I’m white, and from talking to him I gather he’s black, and this is a grisly moment for race relations. Following the deadly shootings of two African-American males by white policemen in Minnesota and Louisiana, five cops were killed in Dallas eight days ago. (Three more will be killed tomorrow in Baton Rouge.) The press has been pushing an ominous story line concerning what to expect in Cleveland, including talk of a group of black protesters who plan to exercise their legal right to openly carry firearms outside the convention. Certain media organizations will be issuing body armor to their staff. Is this the best time to voyage out at night in a rented Chevy Malibu to meet a strange trap musician and his posse in an unfamiliar neighborhood? When my wife, back home in Montana, rings my cell phone, I don’t pick up. She implored me last night to skip this whole assignment.
To my relief, the house is quite large and handsome, and it sits on a tree-lined street in Cleveland Heights. Goldie greets me in the driveway. His dreadlocks reach his broad shoulders, but I’ve gotten his race wrong. My middle-aged bearing, short hair, and mall-store polo shirt seem to put him on edge. I don’t imagine he’s sober. His pupils are cosmic, bottomless, dark. I follow him into the house and down some steps to a basement rehearsal area with busted sofas and ashtray-covered speakers, where three other guys in their twenties — one white, two black, as if this matters; it doesn’t seem to, not to them, at least — are lounging around a drum set, drinking beer. I try to explain my presence: a traveling journalist in town for the convention, killing time. No response. To dissolve the mood, I ask what they think of Trump. My plan is to let them vent and then join in, forging an alliance. It doesn’t work. The gnomic white drummer doesn’t speak a word, while the two black guys offer thoughtful comments on the allegedly bigoted nominee, who doesn’t infuriate them as I’d expected. As for Hillary Clinton, they express some doubts. Their tone is impersonal, chill, farsighted. No mention of race. No tension. I’m surprised. Then Goldie picks up his guitar and plugs it in, his friend grabs his bass, and the drummer grips his sticks. The fourth kid watches as they start to play, improvising, jamming, their eyes squeezed shut, rattling a lighter that goes sliding off an amp.
For now I’ll say this about psychedelic trap, or at least the version I heard in Cleveland: it’s outlandish, it’s loud, and it follows no straight lines. If you think you can hear where it’s going, that’s you, not it. That’s you, feeling lost, anxious for a groove. But it is not anxious. Lost is where it lives.
I’m eating a doughnut near the western deck of an eerily empty mile-long bridge, where five thousand marchers, according to my source, will mass at two in the afternoon and start the madness by streaming across the Cuyahoga River into the pop-up police state downtown. My source is another reporter who couldn’t be here because he’s meeting a third reporter for coffee to gather intel on Trump’s campaign. That’s how it works at political conventions. Aware that no single observer can see the event whole, we media types trade info on what to look for and agree to meet up later to compile our stories and build one big one. The approach is a bit of a sham, for two reasons. First, it posits what it proposes to find: an overarching master narrative. (In this case, “Trump unleashes discord with his flamboyantly combative rhetoric.”) Second, it’s self-reinforcing, with everyone adding their bricks to the great pile that we’re all hoping will form a pyramid. Though we work for competitors, we’re here not to confound one another, but to collaborate on a product: history.
What I can’t get a fix on is who will march today, or for what cause. In the meantime, I write in my notebook: “Very humid — shimmering heat waves — buzzing helicopters.” These pregnant details will surely serve regardless of what comes next, a raucous Black Lives Matter protest or a roaring parade of pro-Trump motorcyclists from the vast fleet said to be in town. I shade them in with a sketch of three black city workers, foreheads dripping as they idle beside a truck blaring a left-wing talk show. This image balances one I captured earlier: four paunchy white guys in open shirts drinking beer at a table on the sidewalk and joking about how they didn’t wear their Trump caps so as not to draw sniper fire “like in Dallas.”
At two-thirty, perplexed by the absence of marchers, I set out on foot across the deserted bridge with two California men. They’re turmoil tourists. They show me what looks like a police-department memo, describing an “America First” event. The heat, once so ripe with portent, turns drowsy, dull, and the hovering helicopters seem toylike, sprightly. At the end of the bridge, I bump into the partner of my Airbnb host. He’s returning from Public Square, a sanctioned protest zone, and tells me that he witnessed a few scuffles, but nothing serious. Someone may have thrown urine on someone. I rush to see.
What I find is a kind of law-enforcement Woodstock, a big blue be-in where state troopers from around the country mingle with local Cleveland cops. The style of policing they practice in the square, whose strolling crews of costumed activists are more Burning Man than Chicago ’68, is pointedly humane, the way I imagine it is in Iceland. The emphasis is on the heart beneath the badge, with lots of direction giving and patient listening. Treating the cops like soldiers home from war, passersby warmly thank them for their service and push in beside them to pose for smartphone photos. One guy with a face full of mold-colored tattoos and a piratical hoop earring requests a picture with an eight-man unit, which falls in around him like a yearbook swim team. Some of the cops ride horses and mountain bikes. The bike squads travel swiftly, in close formation, leaning hard into their turns, their streamlined helmets bristling with mics and miniature cameras and other gear. Their job here, I sense, is partly ambassadorial, like that of the Navy’s Blue Angels flying team. They make their besieged profession look clean and sporty, fueled by sugar-free Red Bull. The sight of them helps me envision, fleetingly, a best-case scenario for Trump’s America, where order and authority are hip.
I learn from another reporter that Trump has landed, come to support his wife, who speaks tonight. Eager to hear the Garbo of the campaign trail, I plot a course for Quicken Loans Arena, passing a cable network’s outdoor soundstage and the CNN Grill. The upper-caste political media seems unusually impressed with itself lately. Exposing Trump, that strutting fraud, that brute, that exploiter of underemployed white pain-pill addicts who refuse to learn to code and ditch stale Sandusky for effervescent Austin, has filled them with a sense of holy purpose. They can be heroes, just for one election. They can stop neofascism in its tracks. But why haven’t they yet? It’s July, and Trump’s still with us. To watch CNN and read the New York Times, you’d believe there is not a thinking person alive who could view this convention as anything but farce. As a student of the great satirists and skeptics, I can understand this sentiment. Twain, Mencken, Lewis, West, they all foresaw this time: He approaches, a huckster patriot on horseback! But foreseeing is not forestalling, necessarily, and a case can be made (and is being made, in fact) that dire prophetic narratives are dangerous, attracting the very outcomes they deplore. Stories are made of energy, not ethics. We want them to end — not morally, conclusively.
Melania’s smoky makeup is flawless, and her bird-of-prey bone structure stands up well to the Jumbotron. Her dress looks good, too, but it’s odd for the occasion. Slinky and white, with ruffled, puffy cuffs, it casts her less as a political wife than as ski-bunny assassin sent to the Alps after James Bond. This convention will deliver many such jarring moments that blur your memory of the customary ways. Sometimes the jarring new ways have merit, I think. Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy SEAL whose harrowing fighting days inspired the movie Lone Survivor, might not have been allowed onstage at a slicker gathering. The guy is a wreck. He bounces from foot to foot. His hair sticks up in back. He shakes. Rattled combat veterans and those who know them likely find his stressed affect unsurprising, but some in the arena are repulsed. (“That dude was seriously on meth.”) I am glad the country got to watch him. Our wars and their effects on those who wage them are well concealed, but not tonight. Men shake a little when they’ve been to hell.
Melania’s speech is smooth as lipstick. And like lipstick, it wipes off with a tissue. Still, her tribute to Trump’s determination exceeds my expectations, which are low for penthouse-dwelling former models. What a jerk I am. My guess is that many who watched her feel like jerks now. Reading to school kids in that fur-lined accent and stretching those long, lean legs to set a star atop the White House Christmas tree, she’ll slay as an old-fashioned First Lady, while the able brain that she displayed tonight combined with her kittenish exterior may make her a valuable intelligence asset. Drunk foreign leaders won’t realize she’s probing them as they flirt and gab.
But Melania defeating her patronizing doubters will not be tomorrow’s big story, my wife predicts when I phone her before bed. Despite being eighteen hundred miles away, she tells me the scandalous headline out of Cleveland (“Check the internet”) will be that the speech I personally watched and analyzed was partly lifted from one Michelle Obama gave during her own get-to-know-me phase some years ago. I tell her she’s mistaking a web kerfuffle for actual news. I tell her I know this because I’m on the scene. I add that at a time when serious people are seriously concerned that fascism is coming to America and that Cleveland will be its port of entry, I highly doubt that the country and the press will make some huge issue of pilfered feel-good rhetoric.
The plagiarism furor rages all week.
I skip Tuesday’s speeches on the principle that gathering firsthand impressions in an age of up-voted, trending, crowd-sourced mega-judgments is a lonesome, myopic way to go. (Next time I’m asked to report on a convention, I’ll do it via Facebook from Waikiki and have a clearer take.) Instead, I attend an off-the-record dinner with a well-connected right-wing columnist and two of the world’s best sources for inside Trump dope. The big shots share many illuminating tales that trigger some oddly poignant insights into the psyche of a restless man who barely sleeps and basically lives alone on a big plane. That’s all I can say. I swore an oath. Though here is a meta-conclusion I can pass on: What can’t be retold is best not listened to, just as what can’t be excreted is best not eaten. Retained information bloats you. It blocks your chi.
On Wednesday I embrace the randomness that feels like the convention’s emergent theme and may explain why the marchers haven’t marched, the press is hung up on a silly cut-and-paste job, and the delegates seem like guests at the wedding of a rich relative they barely know and whose marriage they don’t expect to last. In Public Square I kill an hour watching a series of agitprop performances that range from the bizarre to the nostalgic. Three frayed Brooklyn hipsters who produce a podcast read a Whitman poem, play a banjo number, read again, play again, and finish up by gravely informing the crowd of eight or nine that there is a secret hole in the Pope’s throne for his dangling naked testicles, which a crouching minion sometimes licks. A dozen women from Code Pink, costumed in pageant gowns and sashes, are mock-molested by a figure wearing a lurid cardboard Trump head. A raw-boned folk musician tries to whip up a union-hall sing-along but fails. And so on. I walk off feeling strangely protective toward free expression but concerned that it hasn’t advanced much since the Sixties.
In the parking garage adjacent to the arena is a long, slapped-up arcade called Media Row. Radio talk shows broadcast interviews with governors and senators and old convention hands such as Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, and Carl Bernstein. The sight of this trio of stalwarts sends me back to my small hometown in Minnesota, 1972, election night. I’m in an upstairs bedroom in a house owned by a handsome young Democratic couple whose parties my Republican parents love. I’m ten, and the bedroom is full of neighbor kids wearing pajamas and sitting up on bunk beds or squishing together on beanbag chairs. A portable TV on the floor is tuned to the same news show the grown-ups with their cocktails are watching downstairs. Nixon versus McGovern. I want Nixon. An older girl I’m intrigued by likes McGovern. I don’t think the other kids care as much as we do, but everyone seems jazzed. Popcorn. Pepsi. Suspense. America! A bag of balloons to blow up and bat around and — when the handsome TV man announces the winner (I can tell by the way he’s squaring up his body and by the silence from downstairs that the news is coming any second now) — squeeze until they pop.
Dan Rather, older now, smaller, stooped, but definitely him: the man who made us jump up and hop around and burst balloons like a bunch of crazy dummies (except for the girl, perhaps; too serious). What fun that night was! And our parents just went on drinking, happy Republicans, glum Democrats, and didn’t come get us until very late.
I should go over to him and tell the story. Not that it’s much of a story. It’s more a picture. And pretty sentimental. Is it real? Weren’t we all at one another’s throats back then, just as we are now? Well, he’d be the expert. I’ll ask him.
But I don’t. Pleasant political memories are rare, and the prospects for forming new ones swiftly dimming. Trump doesn’t scare me; he can be contained. What scares me is the vacuum that sucked him onto center stage. The space he occupies held something else once, but it has vanished.
I have a strategy for watching Trump when he delivers his big address tonight: I’ll clear my mind and set aside my doubts. I’ll use what the actor Margot Kidder, my former mother-in-law, calls “LSD eyes.” Because if there exists the slightest chance that tonight is the night when the madness became unstoppable, I want it to tug at me too, at least a little, so I’ll have a deep recollection of the turn. That, or I want to be struck aghast, which is impossible if I start already aghast. I tested this approach last night by giving Ted Cruz a chance. Instead of flinching the moment I saw the weasel, I opened myself to his reputed brilliance as a lawyer and champion debater, and when my nerves did curdle (it took two minutes, and the trigger was his twinkly you’ll-want-me-back-soon smirk combined with his lofty, horizon-seeking gaze), I knew in my mitochondria why he’d lost.
My seat is way up high, extreme stage right, in a row that has been empty until tonight. Four or five German TV people have come. I imagine they lean left and hold Mr. Trump in raw contempt. I also imagine a streak of latent nationalism is causing them to gloat inside. They advanced, but their old foe is slipping some. They might have to invade us at some point. These imaginings rouse my own latent nationalism. Under the vast ceiling, bound up in nets and set to drop soon, are thousands of balloons. Hitler used sky-piercing klieg lights. We use balloons. We’re puffy and bouncy, essentially. Case closed.
Out strides the big man. The crowd goes wild, but reservedly wild, it seems to me, as though they’re investigating their own enthusiasm. Not me. I’m pretending mine’s unbounded so I’ll know that it’s all on him if it subsides. But seriously, I’m riveted. First, the vintage casino-boss body language. He likes to pinch his suit lapels and snap them while leveling power stares. He likes to roll back his shoulders and stand tall and lift his chin and nod, then lift it higher. If he’s acting, he doesn’t know it, which isn’t acting — it’s conducting. His pauses are louder than his bursts of speech and create irresistible spaces for massive clamor. It’s working. The crowd had some qualms, but it has discovered within itself a capacity for full-blown mania. This must feel good. And when Trump strikes his organ keys — I’ll crush the enemy, I’ll bring back jobs, I’ll eject the stowaways, but mostly I’ll give you some of this, what I’ve got — he holds them down for a while, completely down. I can already hear tomorrow’s jabs, most of them voiced by reporters who aren’t here but huddled with peers and colleagues in viewing lounges where they can test their lines and jigger up a safe consensus instead of engaging with the thing itself. That consensus: Reminiscent of a pro wrestler. Few specifics. Rambling and undisciplined.
Not true. Maybe technically true but not essentially. Here would be my best shot, fired from the hip:
Run to the cellar, Ma! Hurry! Twister coming!
Political parties leave their great conventions much as soul departs body — instantly, entirely, gratefully. Some of the people with cars speed off that night. In Cleveland, though, because of all the choke points and crowd-control fences and mounted cops, dispersal is difficult. I find myself stalled in claustrophobic channels obstructed by wide-bodied men in cowboy hats. I question them over their shoulders: So? They liked it. Really? Not loved it? Well, some did. Some still prefer Cruz. I’m baffled. In my Method-acting trance, was I perhaps too receptive? Too open? No, I think. My hunch is that these guys are just tired. A delegate’s job starts long before the show and generally far, far away, in Jackson or Tulsa. But do you think he’ll win, sir? Yes, he might.
I’m lost. And in the morning I’m even more lost. The media loungers with their gift for telepathic quasi plagiarism have reached their verdict, and many of them pronounce it in the same words. Dark. Dystopian. Negative. A turnoff. My pal in California, the conspiratorial libertarian who’ll probably write in Frank Zappa on his ballot, would likely say, “I guess they got the memo.” But I didn’t see the memo. I’ve never seen the memo, maybe because I don’t work for the large outfits. I’m not a joiner. I lurch around, alone. My hunch is lots of Trump people once did, too, unhitched, insecure, divorced from the big, consolidated narratives.
I leave Ohio with a souvenir, not a ball cap or a T-shirt but the latest CD from GoldfaceMoneywatch. He laid it on me in his smoky basement, and I’m listening to it now. It’s unsparingly berserk. No through-lines, no verses, no strong melodies, but if you really get your head inside it, really lose yourself, you’ll hear something true. You’ll hear what’s going on.