Bridget Callahan is in Cleveland covering the scene surrounding the Republican National Convention. The story begins here.
My favorite part about this whole Cleveland trip has been riding the bus. I like the fact that I never have to look up a schedule, that it’s always packed when I get on, and that everyone is friendly, but not too friendly. That’s key on the bus. You wanna be able to say hi, be neighborly, and then zone out. Cleveland bus riders are awesome at that. They understand the Midwestern pattern. Neighborly, but not invasive. That’s the goal. None of this treacly shit. Don’t be an asshole. Just be nice and shut up till you get there, and it’s over, and we all go back to our regular lives.
If you want to feel surreal, be on a packed bus in a poor city, listening to everyone assume we’re going to war because of the bunch of rich white guys meeting downtown right now.
I went to the Clark Bar with my mom and her friend for lunch. It’s a little dive bar on the outskirts of the steel mill valley. It sits right at the top of a beat-up hill where you can see the smokestacks and around the corner is the even divier dive bar that opens at 5 am for the third shift workers. They have something called a Big Boy Combo which is basically a recreation of a Big Mac and fries, and which the bartender automatically ordered for me because that’s apparently what we were all getting. My mom and Kathy are both retired nurses, which is the kind of person you can say anything around, and they might cringe a little and tell you not to curse so much, but they’ve seen stuff that would put basic cable horror to shame. Everyone in the bar was a neighborhood regular, bikers and old guys and retired nurses and guys with dogs who just go to the bar too much. My mom gave a box of blueberries to the bartender. Kathy gave my mom a pair of shorts with an elastic waistband she had found cleaning. Mom complimented her on her buttercup yellow L.L.Bean t-shirt. There’s a lot of trading very plain-looking clothes among the older ladies of Cleveland.
Kathy was telling us she had not been able to stop watching the convention.
“I don’t know what it is, but I’m just so into it,” she said in her raspy smokers voice.
“It’s the weirdness. It’s just so weird,” my mom replied.
“I saw that kid of his speak the other night, and I thought, well, I would vote for you over your father,” Kathy said. She meant Donald Trump, Jr. “He just seems to have a much better grasp of politics, like, he really understands how it works.”
“Isn’t he the one who referred to his father as a ringmaster?” I asked.
“Yup, that seems right,” she said.
It wasn’t right, though, it wasn’t him, it was some small business owner who spoke earlier. Just shows you how much attention we’re paying, but also why bother at this point? It’s just adding to the already fast-flowing flood of excrement.
The overall opinion in Cleveland on the last day of the convention was that for most people it was both a relief and disappointment. They were happy nothing particularly violent, awful, or crazy had happened. And they were disappointed no one really made any money off it unless they were actually in the security zone. Nobody had interacted with delegates much, and for the most part it seemed the Republicans stayed in their little safe, fenced-off zone, and only left to go on specific bus trips and events. The thousands of protesters the Republicans promised would come out to yell at them never materialized. There was not a lot of bleed over into other local businesses, and in fact they lost money because the regular night and weekend crowds stayed far away -their apartments were rented out for the week and they took their vacation hours to get out of the city – a blow for service industry people over-scheduled at work, and a blow for the city that spent millions of dollars getting a face-lift for this event and will probably come out of it owing money. Lesson learned: don’t believe the hype when the GOP promises economic growth.
We tried to get into the Daily Show, which was filming at the Catholic high school my little brother and about half my grade school friends went to, but even after showing up three hours before scheduled time, the line was so long we didn’t get in. The producers were very nice about it, giving water to the crowd, and giving everyone VIP passes to the show tonight. But the group of people I was with couldn’t stop themselves from pointing out it was a very Cleveland experience – to wait in line in the sun for three hours, only to not get in at the last moment, and still basically be okay with it. A sports radio guy who was standing in line with our other friends met a girl in line, Scott was super excited he got them talking, and then when the two of them didn’t get in either, they went off to have a first date. So I like the idea that there was love found in the Daily Show line, or as Scott put it– “They found love in a hopeless place.”
Maybe the most poignant lesson of this whole week for me is how much I miss living among Midwestern liberals. (That is a very specific thing, because I don’t miss Northeastern liberals or California liberals). In line, the people around me talked about the success rates of neurosurgery, and the housing crisis in Colorado, and would you rather be smart or attractive? When they were all told they weren’t getting in, everyone just kinda shrugged, accepted it, and moved on. A guy at the bar told me he wasn’t really bothered by the convention because “up until recently, only really depressing stuff has come out of the Q anyway.” It’s this crazy half-defeatist, half-optimist vibe, and my body forgot it operated naturally at that frequency too. My Uber driver and I had a conversation about this book he recently read, 11 Nations. One of the points of the book is that the Internet, though it allows for greater dissemination of knowledge and culture, has also led to people knowing about and therefore moving to places where they feel their views can be more accepted, unwittingly making us more regional and partisan because we all go consolidate. And, that’s definitely how I’m feeling right now. I just want to run home to Cleveland and be among the nice, not-crazy folks who aren’t voting for Trump.
A friend of mine works in one of the more expensive downtown hotel restaurants, 80 dollar steaks etc, one of the few places to actually make money because they were in the security zone, and putting up most of the heavy hitters in town. We talked when they got off work last night, around 1:30 am and I asked them about the experience of the week:
“I think for most people at my job, probably the bartenders more than the servers, it was good. They’re still there, cause we’ve had a 4 am license all week. It’s been pretty crazy, and for us it started last week, it started a while ago, cause we’re in that heavy security zone. So secret service has been there for a while, we’re under heavy security. Last week it started out on an incredibly annoying note, because it was all the lackeys and set up people. Aides of aides, etc. They were, honestly, the most horrible people I’ve ever dealt with. They were super-entitled, super-rude, super-cheap. They were just a bad combination of all those things. And they said ridiculous things, like people were trying to force us to give them drinks, and serve them when we were already closed, and saying stuff like “This wouldn’t happen in NY, this wouldn’t happen in DC, blah blah blah.” Or saying things like “Oh, we haven’t spent enough money to sit here for longer?” and the server wants to say “No, no actually you haven’t. Not even close, actually.
“That changed clearly with the actual beginning of the convention, because that’s all big big big money donors, reporters, politicians, etc. They were much nicer, and much more careful. Some of the more interesting people I waited on were Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson for a while. But I will say this about Ben Carson – he’s legitimately crazy. He’s crazy enough that I would never say this to a big news outlet or TV, because he’s crazy enough I actually felt for him. I got this sense that people were just taking advantage of him because he had money, and maybe even made him run or encouraged him to run, because the people around him were shitty. There were times when he just repeated words over and over, almost Tourette’s like. I felt for him.
“Newt Gingrich was very nice, of course. Very weird. Seemed like a drunk old uncle, you know? But nice. I noticed that in general people were shutting up at the tables, which normally you can just learn anything about people, but they were being careful. But his aides were there with his wife before he arrived, and one of them was openly talking about how he felt the way the convention was going so far was too bombastic, he thought they were making mistakes. If Newt Gingrich is the most normal politician at a convention, then what the fuck? But they were honestly the only group I heard direct and truthful criticism from. He was nice, he took me aside, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and said ‘Thank you, you’ve been very nice.’ And I was like ‘Sure Newt Gingrich, no problem.’
“We did not make nearly what we expected to. Maybe the bartenders did. But we’ve also had the young Trump thing for the past three days, and the most interesting thing to happen with that is both Eric and Donald Jr. were in together for dinner, and an aide and secret service came in first, which is normal, but they emphasized that we had to separate Tiffany Trump, who was with her mother Marla Maples and her boyfriend, and Donald Trump Jr. Like, they couldn’t even be in the same part of the restaurant. So we put Tiffany in a private dining room. I thought that was really fucking weird. Everyone got the sense she was the odd child out. But incidentally, Marla Maples is the nicest person on earth. I was like, what the fuck, Marla Maples, you’re so goddamn nice, how is this happening?
“I didn’t really have any problems with people, except I did have a table of Tea Party patriots, and I had to work on them a little bit, in that server hospitality way, because when they first sat down they were just such uncomfortable people. They were so tense, and so wild-eyed, I just had to schmooze them to get them to relax. But the best tip I got tonight was from Mark Grier, who’s from Prudential. It was the donors who really spent the most money. Like, Timken Steel, and the guy from Prudential, those people don’t give a shit.
“It did feel like this really compressed entity of people, like they were all in the same corporation, they’re all in the same business, and they were all trying to climb. So there were definite go-getters, the harried people, but there were also a platoon of men between 27 and 40 that all looked like they were there for central casting and someone was like ‘I need an 80s rich asshole for this movie.’ It was like James Spader everywhere. Beautifully dressed, slick hair. I said to one guy ‘Hey, your jacket is great, I really like it.’ And he was like, ‘Thanks. It’s linen.’
“The ordering was split. Mostly steaks, really. The harried people, the lower people, they ordered a lot of salads, they shared stuff. They definitely didn’t have the money, but wanted to be there, you know? Even though they were jerks, I felt bad for them, like yeah, that has to be a pain in the ass.
“The thing that struck me the most, besides just the weird human moving mass of it, was the security. Everyone was so worried, myself included, but it was maybe even easier for me to park and be downtown and walk back to my car because there were fucking police everywhere. Every single day, I’d be like ‘Hey, group of officers from Michigan, hey group of officers from Wisconsin.’ It was nuts. Because we were under such tight security, there were secret service everywhere, and they were so great and so thoughtful and conscientious. They kept apologizing for stuff, like sorry you have to wait, sorry you can’t go yet. Because you know, we couldn’t go anywhere. Like, if we went to the break room, and they were moving Trump through, we had to wait. Or if you were at the light, and a motorcade was coming across. I’m not an idiot, I know there’s many good police, but it was just an overwhelmingly positive experience that way, which I’m not used to.”
And we’ll end with this image, which I think neatly sums up Cleveland’s entire reaction and experience to this week:
“The first night, Donald Trump was being taken through the basement of the hotel with Melania, because he was going to introduce her. And he was going through the basement waving and waving at everyone, and literally nobody waved back, it was unbelievable.”