by David Levi Strauss
Dispatches from the Political Conventions
Pre-Convention Dispatch: In Advance of the Brown Acid
Friday, July 15, 2016
As we begin to pack up the Jetta for the trip to Cleveland, an ISIS-inspired lone loser has devastated Nice by turning driving into terror, after the shooter in Dallas turned cop-killing into terror, and speculations abound about what particular kind of terror will hit Cleveland this week.
We credentialed ones will certainly be outgunned, as weapons are banned from inside the Q, but not on the streets outside, where Ohio’s Open Carry law is going to make it difficult to tell the Bad Guys with Guns from the Good Guys with Guns. Welcome to Trumped America, where everything is permitted and nothing is required. How do you like it so far?
Tim Tebow’s in, Tim Tebow’s out. Don King’s in and out. Sarah Palin’s cagey. Mike Pence is almost definitely in. It’s not Mike Ditka’s kind of thing. You’re all fired but me. I’m the new Decider. I do it with Tweets. I’m going to win so much you’re going to get sick of me winning. I’m winning good, aren’t I Mommy? Melania? Ivanka? I’m big and strong and good and winning, and everything is fine. Everything is tremendous. Believe me. Remember that.
500 Cleveland police, 2500 officers from California, Texas, and Florida, and 3000 Department of Homeland Security personnel. An extra $50 million for convention security. Jails for 975 arrested protesters, 12 judges set to work 20-hour shifts in courts open 20 hours a day. 2000 sets of riot gear, 2000 steel batons, 24 sets of bulletproof vests and helmets, 10,000 sets of plastic handcuffs.
For the first time in their history, Amnesty International is sending human rights observers to the conventions. CNN said, “The multinational human rights organization typically sends monitors to document elections, transitions of power and public unrest in countries around the globe riven by civil war or ruled by autocrats.” This time, Amnesty will have to decide whether to concentrate on the coup in Turkey or the one in Cleveland.
Permitted protesters in Cleveland include the Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas (“Thank God for Dead Soldiers”), and Andrew Purchin, from Santa Cruz, California (event name: “The Curious End to the War Against Ourselves”), in addition to Blood & Honor and Bikers for Trump.
“To get back to the warning that I’ve received, you may take it with however many grains of salt as you wish, that the brown acid that’s circulating around us is not specifically too good. It’s suggested that you do stay away from that. Of course, it’s your own trip, so be my guest. But please be advised that there is a warning on that one, okay?”
Dispatch 2: New Shootings
Sunday, July 17, 2016
An hour and a half into our ten-hour drive from the Hudson Valley to Cleveland, Mick Taussig called with news that three police officers had just been gunned down in Baton Rouge. He was worried that this might affect proceedings in Cleveland; that it felt like everything could break down into open warfare.
As we drove, facts about the shootings came slowly to light. Eventually, it was revealed that the shooter was a Marine veteran of the Iraq War who had been in Dallas three weeks ago, and had posted a video on YouTube proclaiming that protesting was not enough, and that eventually, “we have to fight back.”
When we arrived in Cleveland, the local nightly news reported that it was “a pretty quiet night in Downtown Cleveland,” with few protests so far. The loudest sounds came from an invitation-only RNC welcome event at North Coast Harbor dubbed “Rock the RNC in CLE,” where 12,000 VIPs enjoyed a Three Dog Night reunion and guests had access to “the world’s only Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.” A fireworks show ended the evening.
During the nightly news, the “Do Your Part—Stop Hillary” ad that the National Rifle Association made in support of Donald Trump aired. In response to the new shootings in Louisiana, the head of one of the largest police unions in Cleveland asked Ohio Governor John Kasich to suspend Ohio’s Open Carry laws for the four days of the convention, but the Governor, who has made it clear he will not attend the convention, refused.
The schedule for the convention has finally been released by the Trump people. The theme for the first day of the convention is “Make America Safe Again,” and featured speakers include Melania Trump, Rick Perry, Rudy Giuliani, and Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson.
The last headline I saw tonight was “2 People Shot at Stop the Violence Party in Euclid.”
Dispatch 3: Alpha Male in the Mist
Monday, July 18, 2016
Doctor, the conversion therapy is not working. I said, THE CONVERSION THERAPY IS NOT WORKING!!!* For eleven hours today, I talked with, observed, photographed, and commiserated with hundreds of Trump supporters. I talked with people I might have grown up with in the Kansas delegation. I remembered. At the end of the day, I sat amongst Florida delegates, listening to Rudy Giuliani and Melania Trump, while the old guy sitting behind me dressed in a baggy full-length U.S. flag suit and a red “Make America Great Again” hat punctuated every bullet point by Rudy and Mel by whistling shrilly in my ear, and the woman sitting next to me screamed at the top of her lungs and shouted “Hillary for Prison,” “USA, USA, USA,” and “Trump, Trump, Trump.” As we exited the Q, I felt like I’d been assaulted by an ugly mob of ducks.
As I recall, Prime Time began with the Duck Dynasty guy, wearing his signature flag headband and talking about how Trump would be good for his business and God bless that. Some time later came the woman whose son was killed in Benghazi, soldiers who fought in Benghazi, culminating in a film about Benghazi. Then there were a number of women and Black men whose sons and daughters had been killed by illegal immigrants. It turns out that one person is responsible for all of these deaths: Crooked Hillary. And Obama, of whom Hillary is a clone. I don’t know why people whose loved ones have been cruelly killed by Obamacare were not included. Perhaps tomorrow.
Politics is partly about grievances, and being aggrieved, and the litany of these tonight was long and heartfelt. Late in the day, but before the switch to Prime Time, an internally aggrieved group, the Dump Trump, Never Trump forces, staged a last-ditch effort to get a roll-call vote, to try to make it possible for pledged delegates to “vote their conscience” rather than honor their pledge to vote for Trump. I don’t know if this ever had a real chance, but the protest lasted only a few minutes and was quickly and decidedly quashed. In the hours after the “uprising” all of the Dump Trump t-shirts, hats, and signs I’d seen earlier vanished, replaced by the uniform Trump Pence red, white, and blue. Republicans have made their bloody bed, and now they’re going to have to lie in it.
Among the speakers this first night, there were a few at the beginning who tried to get a little rhetorical distance from the nominee by concluding their remarks with something like “We’ll see you down-ballot in November,” but those were washed away in the blood of later lambs.
Whatever else happens, this is a fight to the finish. Either he’ll win, or she’ll win.
* The Republican Platform this year is further to the Right than previous years. It includes a wholehearted embrace of “conversion therapy.”
Dispatch 4: A Cold Fear
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
When I first heard that Donald Trump was planning to have most members of his immediate family speak on his behalf at the convention, I took this as further evidence that his campaign was running on a right wing and a prayer.
His invitations to speak were rebuffed by a long list of celebrities, joining the unprecedentedly long list of prominent Republicans who had refused to set foot in Trump’s arena. So he decided to do it all himself, with a little help from the only people in the world he could still count on to lavishly praise him: his wife and progeny. It was the desperate act of a world-class narcissist.
Melania’s speech last night went well—white Presidential dress, check; cantilevered spanx, check; good immigrant story, check; unreserved praise of the Donald, check, check. But then young Jarrett Hill sent out his Tweet claiming that significant portions of Melania’s speech had been lifted intact from the speech Michelle Obama had given in support of her candidate husband in 2008, and all hell broke loose. It was the Tweet heard round the world. Those who rise by the Tweet shall fall by the Tweet.
The media’s sudden obsession with plagiarism was a thing to behold. All suspicions about the underlying illegitimacy of Trump’s successful candidacy were channeled into discussions of a speechwriter’s originality. It was all anyone at the networks was talking about today. The compulsion was so strong that it was repeated tonight, when The Daily Show tweeted that Donald Junior’s speech was also plagiarized, and one of the speechwriters came forward to say he’d merely repurposed some of his own published writing.
But something else happened tonight that is more disturbing and consequential in the long run: the emergence of a possible Trump dynasty.
First came 22-year-old Tiffany Trump, daughter of Trump and his second wife Marla Maples. Tiffany is described on her Wikipedia page as “an American heiress, singer, fashion model, and Instagram user.” At the Q, she and her voluminous hair came across as part throaty 1940s femme fatale, and part girl next door, making a credible contribution to the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine. Ivanka cried as her half-sister spoke.
Then came Ivanka’s brother, Donald J. Trump, Jr. He took the stage like the groomed scion he is—supremely confident, forceful, and at ease with his privilege. When he misspoke about “pouring sheetrock and hanging cement,” it didn’t hurt him because he shrugged it off with a perfectly timed and nuanced laugh. His speech was remarkably cogent and persuasive, as if someone had taken his father’s rants and distilled them into sense. His temperament was also refined, as if his father’s bullying hateful speech had been run through a less aggrieved and resentful filter. Donald Junior was good—Kennedy good.
Tonight at the Q, Paul Ryan looked like the past, and Donald J. Trump, Jr. looked like the future. Up to now, I have not been truly afraid of Donald Trump, because I’ve never really believed that he could, finally, be elected. There are just too many negatives for too many voters. But tonight, watching his heir rise, and watching the effect his son’s speech had on the crowd, how their faces and body language were transformed, a cold fear washed over me.
Dispatch 5: Trump City
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
As far as we can tell, projected massive protests at the Republican Convention have not materialized—at least not yet. On the first day of the convention, we walked out of the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland into the new Public Square, and found . . . nothing. A few groups of three or four people each were scattered around the square, holding signs and talking amongst themselves. There was a stage at one end of the square, and people had signed up to speak from the podium at designated times. We listened for a while to a woman describing the death of her sons in a police shooting. She was impassioned and clear as she called for peace in Cleveland, but there didn’t seem to be any question about peace on the lips of dozens of heavily armed, be-kevlared peace officers looking on. A little further on, a group of them warily eyed one backwoods citizen with an ancient assault rifle slung across his back, asserting his legal right to carry. He didn’t need to speak.
Before we entered the ultra-High Security Zone of Quicken Loans Arena yesterday, we paused to observe the small “protest zone” outside. An earnest man with a bullhorn and a speech defect exhorted the passing delegates to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, enacting an extreme case of preaching to the choir. Behind him stood a little group of Trump supporters with a sign that read “Trump’s Wall Brigade.” These “protestors” were protected by a phalanx of armed police officers.
The entire area of downtown Cleveland hosting the convention, from the Tower City-Public Square area to Quicken Loans Arena to the far-flung Media Center, built into a converted parking lot/bunker under the Cleveland Convention Center, has been scrubbed of all civilian presence. There is no one here but the credentialed and the cops.
Within this Green Zone—a highly fortified encampment carved out of the city—a network of heavy metal grid fencing has been built, ten feet high, to make it impossible for vehicles or pedestrians to move freely within the Zone. When you enter the Zone, you’re theirs.
The armed officers in the security details that check every bag as we pass through three levels of metal detection are totally dedicated to their task. No water bottles, no umbrellas, no whole fruits.
Inside the Arena, there is an extensive network of Secret Service operatives who stand at all entrances and passageways, looking for trouble. And there are volunteers in neon yellow hats who control their areas completely, scanning for any sign of non-compliance. Their authority is absolute.
The only other time I have seen this level of security at a political convention was at the Republican Convention in Madison Square Garden in 2004. In that case, there was still plenty of city for us to march in, and 500,000 of us did.
The security planners for this Republican Convention in Cleveland were prepared for Armageddon, and it didn’t happen, or hasn’t happened yet.
Dispatch 6: Cracking the Black Mirror
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
By the time “actress and avocado farmer” Kimberlin Brown took the stage on Tuesday night (“for all you guacamole lovers!”), it had become clear that something had gone terribly wrong with the speaker selection process leading up to Cleveland. And when people bolted for the exits immediately after Melania’s speech that night, leaving Lt. General Flynn and all who followed to speak to an empty house, it was clear that planning the order and sequence of speakers had also gone wrong. But the larger problem was foreshadowed when Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell (“the Turtle”) was roundly booed when he took the stage to announce the nomination of Mike Pence to the office of Vice President.
Tonight, these problems were magnified and concentrated in a literal and figurative breakdown of the images being projected. The two key moments occurred when Eric Trump and Ted Cruz spoke. Eric Trump, the number two son, inherited a high unlikeability quotient from his father, and Cruz had already broken the record for unlikeability on a massive scale.
Eric Trump’s speech itself, and his technical delivery, were not bad, proving that money can’t buy everything, but it can buy really good speechwriters and speaking coaches. But his face betrayed him, revealing the underlying meanness and preternatural arrogance that drive him. We’ve all seen that kind of face before, on autocrats and dictators throughout history.
In this instance, the contradictions between what he was saying and what his face and body were telling us seemed to cause an actual breakdown in the image. The images on the video wall behind him began to black out, square by square, sputtering maniacally to the cadences of his speech.
Observing cameras cut away to pick up Eric’s father, watching the debacle with a strange mixture of pride and fury. He was proud of his son, but whoever was responsible for the maintenance of the image was failing, and would be fired.
Eventually, the image behind Eric Trump failed entirely, and went blank, so the last part of his speech was delivered in front of a black mirror. The floor lights in front cast his shadow on the black screen, his arms rising and falling like ineffectual wings. Without the images on the screen, his words were revealed in all their desuetude. The dynasty narrative was broken.
As Cruz delivered his snub speech, and the shouts and boos of the assembled faithful rose to drown him out, the image behind him also began to disintegrate. And this had larger implications, mirroring the ultimate breakdown and disillusion of the Republican Party.
What has been proven so far at this convention? That there are enough Trump supporters, rabid or reluctant, to fill, or nearly fill, a large arena. The question remains: Are there enough of them to elect a President? It is a part of the ethos of this movement not to reach out beyond the hard core, and not to do anything to appeal to those who don’t share your convictions. So far, there is no ecumenical side to the movement, and the fault lines are becoming more and more visible. Even Mike Pence can’t change that in time.
Dispatch 7: Befriending the Bewildered
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Donald Trump just finished his “acceptance” speech at the convention. With this speech, translated from the original German (thank you Molly Ivins) onto teleprompters, Trump swept away all the tentative attempts at unity and understanding and diversity, most of them offered by his own family, over the past four days. He took all the vitriol and pomposity and demagoguery spewed in his primary campaign rallies and turned it up a notch. This speech was fueled by xenophobia, nativism, protectionism, and nationalism. It used catchwords and phrases from the history of these tendencies: “Make America Great Again” from Ronald Reagan, “America First” from Charles Lindbergh, “Law and Order” from Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, and “I am your Voice,” and “the time for action has come,” from Mussolini.
He began the speech with a little humility and a little humanity, but then started to veer off. The message rapidly became: You are in danger. We are all in danger, and the danger is increasing, both domestically and internationally. The danger comes from the outside, from foreigners—immigrants and terrorists, or immigrant/terrorists. You need me to protect you. I am the only one who can protect you. “I will restore law and order to our country. Believe me. Believe me.” “On January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.” “I will build a Great Border Wall.”
This litany of fear was larded with attacks on his opponent, Hillary Clinton. She does not understand the danger, and so is not fit to lead. She is weak. She must not only be defeated; she must be imprisoned for her “great crimes.”
The rest of the opposition is led by “censors, critics, and cynics” in the media and in politics, who said from the beginning that Trump didn’t have a chance. “We love defeating those people.”
As he spoke (the speech lasted an hour and fifteen minutes; the longest acceptance speech since Nixon’s in 1972), I scanned the faces of his family. Malania was completely inert and robotized. Eric was gleeful. Ivanka and Donald Junior had looks on their faces that I could not read. But of course they’ve all been hearing this demagoguery regularly for a long time, and have accepted it in their own ways.
At least now things are clear. The conservatives and reasonable Republicans that have rolled over for Trump must now know exactly what they’re supporting, and what the election of Trump would mean for America and the world.
Dispatch 8: Pay, Pal
Friday, July 22, 2016
One of the many future horrors of a Trump Presidency glimpsed last night was an unholy alliance between Trump and Silicon Valley. Unctuous tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, looking and sounding like the ghost of Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn, said, “I build things. So does Donald Trump. And we need to rebuild America.”
Thiel co-founded PayPal, invested early in Facebook (he’s the character in The Social Network that writes Mark Zuckerberg a half-a-million dollar check to get him to betray his partner), and now runs Palantir Technologies (“Palantir,” from the seeing stones in The Lord of the Rings), a mass surveillance software company with a lot of government contracts, with the DOD-NSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the CIA. Their big data analysis is also used by big banks, hedge funds, and financial services firms. Palantir has been valued at $15 billion dollars, and Thiel is its largest shareholder.
Though gay, Thiel has supported candidates like Ted Cruz who has advocated the most extreme homophobic policies, and Thiel himself is an outspoken opponent of multiculturalism and political correctness. He co-authored a book about it, titled The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus. Imagine, for a moment, what would happen in America and in the world if Trump joined forces with men like Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Peter Thiel.
One of the many things Trump & Thiel agree on is their shared contempt for the Free Press. Trump has called the press the “world’s most dishonest people,” and said (Tweeted): “The media is really on a witch-hunt against me.” One of the planks of Trump’s unofficial platform is to change the libel laws in the U.S. to make it easier for aggrieved persons to sue journalists when they don’t like what they say about them.
As we know, Thiel recently secretly funded the many lawsuits intended to put web publisher Gawker Media out of business. Trump has made it clear that the “censors, critics, and cynics” in the Liberal Media will do and say anything to keep the rigged system in place. They must be stopped.
At the Republican National Convention over the past four days and nights, the media has been tolerated, but not welcomed. Access is grudgingly given, but always within strict bounds. The bright yellow-hatted whips on the floor, who orchestrate all “spontaneous” movements and outbreaks among the delegates (and throw out all unauthorized outbreaks like the one by Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin during Trump’s speech), and all images, keep a wary eye on photographers and other journalists. If they don’t like how you look, you’re out. My Secret Service credential has this disclaimer printed on its back: “This pass is a nontransferable, revocable license that may be revoked at any time for any reason.”
Imagine this extended outside the high-security Q, to the world at large, under a “Law and Order” Trump Presidency.
Dispatch 9: Agree? Reach Out to Me
Saturday, July 23, 2016
It was only upon leaving Cleveland that I realized how utterly strange the set-up there had been. As we drove out of the city, Jon said he didn’t think he could tell people that he’d actually ever been in Cleveland. We weren’t in Cleveland; we were in Trump World, where everything was scrubbed, locked down, and managed. The rules were different there. Facts don’t matter; only what you believe matters. The Enemy is all around us, trying to come in from the outside (“Build the Wall, Build the Wall”), but they’re also inside, rigging the system. They’re like cockroaches: turn on the lights and they run like hell. We don’t want to torture and kill them, and kill their families, but we have to do it. We have no choice. We have no choice! I am the only one who can protect you. I am the only one who can fix everything. I am the only one you can trust. I know how the rigged system works because I helped rig it. I was one of Them, but now I’m your Voice.
The security and surveillance in Trump World was so intense that a collective Stockholm Syndrome eventually set in. Even I acquired an unprecedented volubility around police officers, greeting them as if they were old friends, asking about their families, and commiserating about the heat and long hours.
Just before going through the biggest security check on the way in to the Q, everyone walked down a short section of Fourth Street filled with vendors selling Trump souvenirs—Trump playing cards, thousands of buttons, t-shirts reading “Hillary Sucks, but not like Monica Lewinsky”—a singer-songwriter with Trump stickers on his guitar, preachers, comedians, impersonators, “protestors,” etc. It was a block-long display of “diversity” and “street life” for our delectation before entering the inner sanctum. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if “Fourth Street” only existed on the Holodeck.
As far as I can tell, the only two spontaneous actions that happened at the Republican Convention were the two Code Pink eruptions, and both of those women were pounced on, silenced, and removed instantly. One of them was tackled and cocooned in an American flag before being carried away. The only other possible unscripted acts involved my fellow Kansan, 93-year-old Bob Dole, but I’m still sorting that out.
Speaking of crusty old codgers, the one sitting next to me on the penultimate night of the convention, up on the top tier, gave me his card, reading, “Democracy won’t work!” in large type, and then “51% voting to Rape, Pillage and Rob the other 49%. —Ben Franklin.” And on the other side: “Our Representative Constitutional REPUBLIC. Agree? Reach out to me. Bill T. Davis.” When Bill rose to leave, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “The only three I’ve seen in my whole life: Goldwater, Reagan, and this one.”
A Trump Bump on Bernie Night
Monday, July 25, 2016
I awoke this morning to the sounds of Democratic discord, as DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz tried to speak at a Florida delegation breakfast and was jeered off the stage by Sanders supporters. Yesterday afternoon, Jon went down to the Convention Center to see thousands of energetic Bernie supporters march to the Wells Fargo Arena in 96-degree heat.
The people he interviewed, who are representative of the whole group, will have a very hard time voting for Hillary. Everything these voters say about Hillary is true, unfortunately. For them to switch and vote for her, they’re going to have to set all that aside. They may do that, but they will do it reluctantly. They are officially Depressed Voters, and there are a lot of them.
CNN polls now have Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton by five points, if the election was held today. The post-convention Trump Bump swelled to nine points with independent voters. Sixty-eight percent of likely voters now say they don’t trust Hillary Clinton.
In what increasingly appears to be the New Normal, another mass shooting occurred in Fort Meyers, Florida, with two dead and up to 16 wounded.
Michael Moore’s blog in The Huffington Post on Saturday lists “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win,” including, “Midwest Math, or Welcome to Our Rust Belt Brexit” (Trump will win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to put him over the top), “The Last Stand of the Angry White Man,” “The Hillary Problem,” “The Depressed Sanders Vote,” and “The Jesse Ventura Effect.”
The last reason is one of the most convincing. “Finally, do not discount the electorate’s ability to be mischievous or underestimate how many millions fancy themselves as closet anarchists once they draw the curtain and are all alone in the voting booth . . . Millions are going to vote for Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can. Just because it will upset the apple cart . . .”
This is Bernie’s night at the Convention, and he has his work cut out for him. He likes that. This week in Philadelphia, the Democrats are going to have to wake up and get it together. If they don’t, the past fourteen years of your life will hereafter be known as your Weimar Period.
Dispatch 11: Troubled Water
Monday, July 25, 2016
Conventions are, of course, conventional. These elaborate quadrennial pageants are designed to bring the disparate and unruly emotions and needs stirred up in the primary campaigns into line with Party orthodoxy. Ideally, these underlying drives are focused and sharpened into coherent and compelling positions that can achieve enough broad popular support to prevail in a general election. The Democrats are currently behind in this process, and this is reflected in polls that show the Republican nominee up by 6 points.
The first half of the first night of the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia was not dissimilar to what we saw in Cleveland, from the other side. Traditional Democratic topics were broached, sometimes articulately and sometimes clumsily, by the party faithful, in a desultory stream.
Things began to come into focus when Senator Cory Booker took the stage. He began: “Two hundred forty years ago, our forefathers gathered in this city and declared before the world that we would be a free and independent nation. Today, we gather here again, in challenging times, in this City of Brotherly Love, to reaffirm our values, before our nation and the world.” In the end, Booker’s speech did not quite rise to the level of Barack Obama’s at this convention in 2004, but it did introduce a future national leader to a larger number of Americans. It also made some of us wince at the lost opportunity of Hillary’s choice of running mate. If she had taken a chance with Booker or Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders, this might already be a different kind of race.
The big donkey in the room tonight, of course, was the reluctance, or possible inability, of Bernie Sanders’ 1824 pledged delegates, and many more supporters among the 20,000 or so gathered here, to switch their allegiance and get behind Hillary Clinton. Tonight, they booed, hollered, changed Hillary signs to read “Bernie Trumps Hate,” sat on their hands, and finally wept, as their champion tried to move them into the mainstream of the Party. The Wikileaks/Russian email dump (now we care about your damn emails!) proved what Sanders had claimed all along, that his campaign was discriminated against by the people who make the rules, and this stoked the feelings of betrayal among Sanders supporters to a white heat.
This first night was designed to placate, assuage, and convince them. Sarah Silverman didn’t aid in this by saying their resistance was “ridiculous.” It is not ridiculous to believe that things can change and to fight for it. These Bernie supporters are the future of the Democratic Party, if they have one, and the leadership needs to recognize that, if they are to survive this election.
Michelle Obama recognizes it, and she gave one of the best convention speeches of the modern era. “We cannot afford to be tired or discouraged or cynical,” she cautioned, because the stakes are too high. Her argument against Trump was based on a plea for the protection of children, and she made the strongest case I’ve yet heard for a Hillary Clinton presidency. She also lifted the entire proceedings into a higher realm when she said, “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves.” If the Democrats don’t make and distribute a stark comparison between the speeches of Michelle and Milania, aside from the plagiarism, they should be prosecuted for malpractice.
For me, on the floor tonight, the best moment happened when Paul Simon came out of retirement to sing “Bridge over Troubled Water” like it’s never been sung before, as blue light softened the faces of the delegates and obscured the messages of competing floor signs. He was singing, not just to aggrieved Bernie supporters, but to all Democrats, and even more to all eligible voters, in the hope that they will wake up and get serious about the real threat of the Trump candidacy, before it’s too late.
Dispatch 12: Breaking the Machine
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
When we arrived at the arena tonight, a large group of Bernie supporters were protesting just outside the entrance. We learned that 120 Bernie delegates had walked out after the Roll Call vote. Jon interviewed one of these delegates, Carmen Hulbert, from Red Hook, Brooklyn. A Peruvian immigrant, she is the co-founder of Latinos for Bernie, NY, and has worked in the trenches for Bernie for over a year. When she was elected a National Delegate for the 7th Congressional District in Brooklyn, she mounted a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money for her travel to Philadelphia for the convention.
As Carmen spoke to us about what had just happened, she began to cry, out of frustration and disappointment. “The Revolution belongs to us,” she said through her tears. “We started this movement, inspired by Bernie, but he chose to give our votes away, to Hillary Clinton. She is a substandard candidate, so Trump will win. I cannot vote for her.”
A long double row of police officers had set up inside, to contain a growing number of angry Bernie supporters as they walked out, as if to protect the rest of the delegates from contamination.
In addition to the three extraordinary women (see videos on Power2016.net) Jon interviewed outside the Muslim American Host Committee Welcome Lunch (did you know that Philadelphia is known as “Muslim Town?”), this moment with Carmen Hulbert brought all the hoopla of the conventions down to ground, to the individuals whose lives are profoundly affected by what goes on here.
Inside the hall, the litany against Trump and for Hillary continued. The Mothers of the Movement, comprising the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Sandra Bland, appeared, speaking with force and clarity about their reluctant membership in this movement when their children were killed. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced Ima Matul, from Indonesia, who had been commandeered into sexual slavery. Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, spoke about the real and present danger of returning to the time before Roe v. Wade.
The underlying theme tonight, building on Michelle Obama’s speech last night, was the importance of this election for children, who cannot vote.
There were moments of celebrity levity, too. Elizabeth Banks did a great robotic imitation of Trump’s fog machine entrance. Lena Dunham said Trump had rated her “A possible 2,” and America Ferrera added, “And he rated me a rapist.” Meryl Streep greeted the crowd with, “We’ve got some fight left in us, don’t we?” And Alicia Keys concluded her set with “Vote for Hillary Clinton, because love will always win.”
But the real star tonight was Bill Clinton. When he came out on stage and did a little dance skip step just before reaching the podium, the crowd erupted. When they finally quieted down, he began with the line, “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl.” As he told the story of his courtship of and marriage to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the whole arena changed. This massive space, filled to the brim with 25,000 excited activists, suddenly became Bill’s living room. The temperature changed. Bill Clinton broke the Machine.
Bill Clinton talked about Hillary like previous First Ladies have talked about their husbands. It was a transgender speech, and he pulled it off beautifully. This is a man who always knows exactly who his intended audience is, and tonight it was married women, especially suburban married white women, the group that Hillary needs to win and win big.
He called Hillary “The best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my entire life.” He compared her to Bobby Kennedy. He rubbed off all the hard edges of Hillary and made her into what everyone hoped she would be, and we believed him. We wanted to believe him.
Hillary’s biggest problems right now are Trust and Likeability, and Bill moved the needle on both. He said the Republicans couldn’t run against the real Hillary, so they’ve created a different one, a cardboard cutout image. He said it came down to this: “One of them is Real, and one is Made Up. Luckily, you’ve nominated the Real One.” It was the most astonishing bit of sleight-of-hand I’ve seen in years.
I don’t like Bill Clinton; I never have. I still blame him for moving the Democratic Party to the center-right during his Presidency—of giving up too much to stay in power when I didn’t think he needed to. But tonight I have to say it was a pleasure to watch a real pro work. He loves speaking and connecting with an audience, and they love him back. He told a compelling, believable story and created a different image of Hillary.
Unfortunately, at the end of the night, Hillary appeared on the giant screen, “Live from New York City,” and spoiled the image that Bill had so masterfully created. She appeared wooden and awkward, even as she received the tumultuous applause. Because she apparently couldn’t hear the applause and screams of the crowd in the arena, she didn’t respond to them, and her timing was all off. Once again, she seemed distant and aloof, even while surrounded by laughing girls and women. If only this change-maker could somehow change her own image.
Dispatch 13: Don’t Boo, Vote
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
If Hillary Clinton is elected President of the United States in November, she will have Barack Obama’s speech tonight to thank for it. Historians are already saying this was the most impressive speech by a sitting President to endorse a preferred successor in history.
Obama began by noting that he had addressed this convention for the first time twelve years ago tonight. What he didn’t say was that he has given amazing, stirring speeches at every subsequent Democratic convention over that time period. But this one was an extraordinary culmination.
Tonight’s speech, which ran about 50 minutes, began slowly and built in intensity to an explosive conclusion. He accomplished a number of related goals in this one speech. First, he made a singularly effective argument for electing Hillary Clinton. He reiterated that she is the most qualified candidate for President in history (“more than me, more than Bill, more than anybody”). He said that no one really knew how hard it was to be President until they sat behind the desk in the Oval Office, and said that, “She hasn’t been behind the desk, but she’s been in the room,” and added, “she hasn’t been on the sidelines, criticizing, she’s been in the arena, fighting, for 40 years.”
He eviscerated Donald Trump with cruel precision. His tone resembled the one he used when he roasted Trump, to his face, at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. In Philadelphia tonight, he presented the Donald as the small man he is. He said, “Donald is not really a plans guy. He’s not a facts guy either.” “He’s betting that if he scares enough people he’ll get just enough votes to get elected.” But then he broadened the critique, to show why what Trump is selling is actually against everything America stands for: “The American Dream is something no wall will ever contain.” And then came the estocada: “We don’t look to be ruled.”
He also summed up his time in office and defined his legacy in clear and forceful terms. He elaborated the “faith in America,” in “this great experiment in self-governance” that has guided him throughout his Presidency, and he expressed an unlimited belief in the strength and durability of the American people.
At the end, he spoke directly to the people in the room. These people are the foot soldiers of the electoral process. They’re the ones who do the hard work to get out the vote, and they’ve been doing it, for Bernie and Hillary, for a long time now. Obama spoke to persuade the Bernie supporters and shore up the Hillary ones. They are tired, and they need to be reinvigorated for the tough 100 days to come. He flattered them, he inspired them, and he honestly thanked them.
He said the only thing that kept him going for the past 8 years was they, the American people, who stayed with him and encouraged him. “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport,” he said. “You’ve got to get in the arena and fight.”
And a final plea: “I ask you to carry her just like you carried me. I’m ready to pass the baton.”
And then suddenly she appeared, from the wings, as if by magic, and finally looked radiant and relaxed, and the two embraced warmly. That image just might get this ultimate insider elected after all.
Dispatch 14: Reality Tunnel
Friday, July 29, 2016
On the morning after Hillary Clinton accepted her party’s nomination for the Presidency, Donald Trump is saying “I watched them last night, and they’re not talking about the Real World,” and Fox News is saying something similar: It was nice, but the world they’re talking about is not Real. Over the last four days, in a myriad of ways, Democrats have said the same thing about the Republicans.
The coming campaign, over the next 100 days, is not going to be about competing policy proposals and plans, but about the nature of Reality. It must only be a matter of time before people begin to pepper their political speeches with references to Plato’s Forms and Kant’s the “thing itself,” and the noumenal world as opposed to phenomenal knowledge.
Or perhaps someone will recover the term Timothy Leary coined in the 1970s, “reality tunnel,” to refer to the way each person constructs her or his view of the world according to one’s experiences and beliefs. The idea was developed further by Robert Anton Wilson, who said, Trumpishly, “reality is what you can get away with.” In the book Leary and Wilson wrote together, Neuropolitique, they say: “The gene-pool politics which monitor power struggles among terrestrial humanity are transcended in this info-world, i.e. seen as static, artificial charades. One is neither coercively manipulated into another’s territorial reality or forced to struggle against it with reciprocal game-playing (the usual soap opera dramatics). One simply elects, consciously, whether or not to share the other’s reality tunnel.”
Both parties are currently saying “not.” So the coming election, perhaps more than any other in history, is going to be an ontological referendum. And the two political conventions we have just witnessed have been ontological catalogues, limning two very different views of reality.
Last night in the Wells Fargo arena in Philadelphia, the Democrats framed the conflict as that between Love & Hate, and between Hope & Fear. Bernie Sanders supporters staged one last ditch protest against Hillary’s hawkishness, trying to shout down the assembled Generals with chants of “No More War, No More War,” but their cries were invaded by and dissolved in the competing three-syllable chants of “USA, USA” and“Hillary, Hillary.” If there is to be a Third Way this time, it will be left to the Libertarian and Green candidates to carry it forward.
Conservative commentator David Brooks, who I kept running into in Philadelphia, wrote a brilliant column last night for the New York Times, pointing out that Donald Trump has figured out “an ingenious way to save the Democratic Party,” by abandoning patriotism and allowing Democrats “to seize that ground.” “If you visited the two conventions this year,” he wrote, “you would have come away thinking that the Democrats are the more patriotic of the two parties—and the more socially conservative.”
Brooks concluded that the Democrats had a better convention than the Republicans, with better speeches and a much more substantive and coherent program. “But,” he cautioned, “the normal rules may no longer apply. The Democrats may have just dominated a game we are no longer playing.”
As I watched Hillary on stage last night, resplendent in a glowing white suit before white stars on a blue ground, with the capacity crowd enthusiastically waving their assigned signs and sign-sticks, I thought that the epic change we’re going through, from written and spoken language to the image, and from policy to perception, is making a quantum leap in this campaign, on both sides. Under the old rules, insight and thoughtful policy proposals mattered. In the New World of Tweets and leaks and bombast and bluster, all that matters are the images projected on the walls of your own particular Reality Tunnel.
These dispatches originally appeared online in real time as part of Power 2016, a hybrid multimedia project directed by artist Jon Winet. David Levi Strauss has continued to file dispatches after the conventions, on the vicissitudes of the campaigns, and will continue to do so right up to the election, at power2016.net and elsewhere.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.