Wednesday in Cleveland: A Full-Blown Roman Circus
Timothy Denevi Barely Survives Day 3 at the RNC
I’m sitting in the Winking Lizard Tavern, on East 7th Street, and it’s wood-themed décor feels unsettling in a way I can’t quite seem to place. It’s as if the whole room has floated in from the early 1970s, circa Miami: a zombie yacht with Richard Nixon at the wheel and AGNEW IN ’76 stickers plastered along the hull as far as the eye can see…
Yes. Ghosts from conventions past, and not a moment too soon:
Every time the Fontainebleau lobby started buzzing with rumors about another crowd of demonstrators bearing down on the hotel from the direction of Flamingo Park, the boats across Collins Avenue would fill up with laughing Republican delegates wearing striped blazers and cocktail dresses. There was no better place, they said, for watching the street action. As the demonstrators approached the front entrance to the hotel, they found themselves walking a gauntlet of riot-equipped police on one side, and martini-sipping GOP delegates on the other.
–Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail: ‘72
Today the protesters are cordoned again in Cleveland Square, the sun beating down. They are of two camps. Signs like GAY: GOT AIDS YET? on one end; WAR IS NOT PRO LIFE! on the other. And a line of very overheated police officers dividing both. So far it’s been a grim and weary scene, but by all accounts peaceful.
I’ll check back on the Square in a few hours. And then, possibly, it’s off to the convention arena itself, for some firsthand coverage. We shall see.
Right now I need to recount a troubling experience I had at an elite lobbyist event last night: a concert at Jacob’s Pavilion at Nautica that featured cover bands of Neil Diamond and Rick Springfield; for hours they belted out songs to a crowd of about a hundred—in a venue meant for perhaps ten times that.
There were three checkpoints to get in. I was searched—intimately—twice. And upon entrance I was struck by a tableau I still don’t understand: an auction table with huge imagistic portraits, arranged side by side, of Jack Nicholson, Donald Trump, and Muhammad Ali.
Inside, there were at least three-dozen congressmen. Also: free drinks. The event was sponsored by Uber and Facebook. The Rick Springfield cover-band singer wore a shirt that said THIS IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT. There was even a priest in the crowd, wearing that familiar black outfit and collar; he spent most of his time on his cellphone. Someone said: “She’s not here! She had to go back to Miami to pick up her baby!” Someone else shouted, “I love you Tom Jones!” just as the Neil Diamond cover band broke into “Sweet Caroline.” For a moment I thought it might actually be the real Neil Diamond on stage. I even went so far as to Google him, just to be sure.
The congressmen wore snakeskin boots and faded jeans with sprightly blue blazers. They seemed to be having a bang-up time, slapping each other on the back and singing along. I found myself beginning to question much more than my fashion choices in life… until, toward the end of the night, the Rick Springfield cover offered up a surprise: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
They screamed and bounced like much younger versions of the bros they’d become, these congressman. They knew every word by heart. It’s been a rough convention for them, I gather; most do not appear to be fans of Donald Trump; no New York representatives here. They’re Rick Perry men through and through. And as they shouted out the title lyrics, I had the overwhelming sensation that, in fact, this was exactly what they would do; there’s always another Uber/Facebook party on the horizon for this crowd, after all. They really were shaking it off—and all thanks to Taylor Swift.
To be fair, Elizabeth Warren and President Obama have also sung along to this particular song. And while I have no idea where you might come down on the recent Taylor-Kanye controversy, I’ll state upfront that I’m a Yeezy supporter through and through, and as the party ended, I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming desire to climb the stage, hijack the mic, and scream out the lyrics to Kanye West’s “New Slaves”—especially the second stanza, with its impeccable climax: FUCK YOUR HAMPTON HOUSE / FUCK YOUR HAMPTON SPOUSE!
- I’m aware that one white dude yelling rap lyrics at other white dudes is not really a rebuke at all.
- Still, the fact that Taylor Swift plays so well to this particular crowd—and that Kanye West clearly does not—should at the very least be noted by all those who’ve engaged so fervently in the recent controversy between the two, which in the end isn’t all that far from the real controversy we’re trying to escape, when we argue about celebrities in the first place.
- The real controversy is race.
- I’m pretty sure that half the people at this event were also on those yachts Hunter Thompson described in Miami. Except for that Rick Springfield impersonator.
Confrontations in Cleveland Square between protestors and the police. I was nearby—things tend to get tense here after 4pm—but a phalanx of police officers on horses cordoned everything off. There was also talk of a flag-burning demonstration. I tried to document the events on Twitter as best I could, but I’ve never been able to properly explain myself on that medium; my mind’s too slow for it. Nevertheless:
@TimDenevi: White supremacists yelled slurs at Black Lives Matter protestors, it seems
@honeybuns502: oh were called white supremacy when we protest… bull shit just white people
@TimDenevi: cf: West, K., “Who Will Survive in America,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010
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Who Will Survive in America Who Will Survive in America Who Will Survive in America Who Will Survive in America Who
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I’m camped out at the Renaissance Hotel Bar now alongside perhaps a hundred Republican convention-goers from the state of New York: men and women in boisterous and genuinely astonished merriment at their recent run of political fortune.
I’ve spent the last six hours inside Quicken Arena watching speaker after speaker climb the long alabaster staircase to the podium. At one point I even made it on to the convention floor. Almost. Earlier in the day I finagled a pass for myself through connections I’d rather not get into, here.
It’s been a long evening, to say the least. I’m very tired. And the whiskey in Cleveland is far cheaper than it should be, which is not a good thing for a person facing down a rapidly approaching deadline.
Let us turn, instead, to my notes, which I’m reproducing here, edited and slightly adjusted, with the necessary caveat that I’m in no way the most accurate note-taker to begin with…
Speaker: Michelle Van Etten
MVE: “My dream was to be an entrepreneur and a dreamer. And by the time I was six years old, I knew it. My dream was to be a circus performer. So I decided I was gonna have a circus at my house. I made tickets. I went door to door… and sold those tickets. I dressed my baby brother up like a clown. And I even taught my dog some new tricks…”
Me, to friend sitting alongside: “The fuck?”
Friend: “No child of mine will dress anyone like a clown…”
Quote from James Salter’s Light Years: “Peter Daro never walked to the sea. He died in November. At his funeral, in the coffin, was a face colored with cosmetics, like an invincible old woman or some kind of clown.”
MVE: “The American Dream is not dead!”
MVE: “There is only one man who can handle the circus that we’ve inherited for the past eight years. And serve as the ultimate ringmaster. There is only one man who can protect the American future for many generations. And that man is Donald Trump.”
Vox Headline: MICHELLE VAN ETTEN WORKS FOR A SHADY MULTILEVEL MARKETER THAT PEDDLES USELESS SUPPLIMENTS
Speaker: Pastor Darrell Scott
Scott: “We are here as Americans regardless of race, regardless of creed, and regardless of color. We are here as those who hold these truths to be self evident…”
On the floor, an usher in a neon hat is gesturing wildly at the nearly all-white delegates in his section to stand.
Scott, finished with his speech, shouts, “I’m out!” and walks away.
Walking the Concourse
Two members of the Hawaiian delegation are standing silently by a staircase. I talk to them for awhile about Manoa Valley, where I lived for five years, from 2002 to 2007.
Afterward, I say to a friend: “Trump will kill off the Hawaiians first, you know.”
“Come on Denevi.”
“Are you kidding me? Think about it. Whose land is more valuable than theirs?”
From a quote at the bottom of the card the chair of the Hawaiian leadership team handed me: “SHAKE IT UP”
Speaker: Scott Walker
“Why? Because America!”
Video Message: Marco Rubio
“After a long and spirited primary, the time for fighting is almost over. It’s time to come together… It’s time [unintelligible] Donald Trump.”
Me, to friend: “I guess you have to be here in person to see the gun being held to his head.”
Friend: “It’s a video message.”
Speaker: Ted Cruz
An elderly bald man sitting in the row ahead: “Come on, Ted. Come on. Give it to him.”
Boos for Iran.
Cheers for atheists (accidental).
Cruz: “New York different than Iowa… Diversity!”
Cruz looks like the animatronic Bullwinkle character they used to have at Chuck-E-Cheese—as if Bullwinkle came to life and instantly caught fire, his face melting before our very eyes.
Screens behind him are flickering. Imagined scene: hackers take over every TV in arena… and use the face of Ted Cruz as their symbol. Is there a better image to hide behind?
Suddenly everyone is booing. I don’t understand.
Me: “Are they saying ‘Boo’ or ‘Cruu-uuz’?”
Friend: “He didn’t endorse Trump! Holy Shit!”
Me, screaming: “CRUU-UUZ!”
Speaker: Eric Trump/Newt Gingrich
At this point, I traded my Level 5 pass for a Level 3, which allowed me access to a strange and many-leveled stairway, and, long story short, I found myself at the tunnel entrance to the rows of delegate chairs, and just as I was granted access to the floor, another security member arrived to halt all progress, claiming that the Fire Marshal was restricting movement for safety reasons.
A woman in a bedazzled hat: “I’m a delegate! A New York delegate! Let me pass!”
Cameraman: “I’m with CBS. You’re keeping me from doing my job!”
Woman in hat: “That man just pushed me! Why does he get to go by?”
Man who pushed woman: “You pushed me, lady. Push me again and I’ll have you taken out of here.” Secret Service/security earpiece is visible as he passes to floor—only person to do so yet.
Woman in hat: “Did you all see what he just did! He assaulted me! Security!”
Security: “These are the Fire Marshal’s orders.”
Me: “The only orders I follow are those of LeBron James—and he damn well earned the right to tell me what to do, after that comeback against my beloved Warriors.”
Someone makes a joke about walls. How we’re all behind a wall. “Look! Look! We already built the wall! The wall’s been built!”
Someone else: “Oh my gosh, I was just gonna say that! We’re the ones on the other side of the wall!”
Woman in hat: “Can’t I just get my purse? It’s right there. I can see it.”
Security. “But how do I know you won’t just disappear once I let you through?”
Woman in hat: “Because I won’t!”
Someone behind us: “It’s the media! They’re taking our space!”
Someone else: “Get someone over who can help us!”
Woman in hat: “Shhhhhhhhhhh.”
CBS guy: “It’s my job to cover the story!”
Me: “And maybe it’s about time you finally did it, eh?”
The crowd behind us keeps getting bigger. People pressing. I’m starting to get worried. I spot a chair someone’s just abandoned. I jump up on it. From this vantage point Trump’s son has suddenly been inflated to the size of what appears to be an enormous sloth with the slim hands of a squirrel. I check the screen: Newt Gingrich is now speaking.
Someone behind me: “Well I guess the wall is already built!”
Someone else: “I know! That’s what I said!”
I have a strong desire to flee. And also to scream things too. Compromise: Jump down, fall back, and shout for all these poor, impatient, floor-pass holders to hear: “Agnew in ’76! Who’s with me! Who’s with me! AGNEW IN ’76! And Peter King for Master of Sewers…”
Back in Section Five—the uppermost level of the arena—I rejoin my friends and say, “I really thought my Agnew joke would play better with crowd.”
Speaker: Mike Pence
Pence: “The people who know me well know I’m a pretty basic guy.”
Me: IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE IT’S TRUE!
Friend: If we leave now we can beat the crowd.
Me: “Did he just say ‘Senators, Romans?’”
Me: “Oh Blessed Emperor, I, Mike Pence, accept your nomination for the position of Syrian Legate in the Eastern Provinces.”
Me: “And it is only through your favor and divine will, Dear Emperor, that we might finally defend our borders from the barbarian threat and build a more secure empire for our children and our children’s children ALL HAIL EMPEROR TRUMP! MULTI-GENERATIONL EMPORER OF MY GRATEFUL ROMAN HEART!”
Well. I never did get to see Trump—fleeing as I was from that dark hallway to the floor just as he came out to introduce Pence.
Things are still going strong here at the Renaissance Hotel Bar. In the time since I started putting down these notes, no less than two U.S. senators have shown up and made strange, barely intelligible speeches I didn’t have the heart to follow.
It’s almost sunrise and they’re all still celebrating.
“Meatloaf,” one of them is saying. “Fuck. Fuck. The Meatloaf!”
Another: “I thought you were a tight end, bro?”
Another: “At the end of the day, Trump showed leadership.”
Another: “This is the moment, kids.”
Another: “Be respectful and move when I tell you to.”
Another: “Donald MOTHERFUCKING Trump!”
Featured image: Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme