CLEVELAND — What does it feel like to be at the Republican convention, as the country moves closer to deciding its future?

It feels like a street festival. One celebrating the great American virtues of resentment and loathing.

Outside Quicken Loans Arena this week, everyone is distracting themselves with booze, with corporate-sponsored panels that aped Aspen and Davos, or with the passionate performance of protest. On Monday evening, some of the great tribes of grievance converged at the intersection of East Fourth Street and Prospect Avenue.

From the west, Code Pink activists were carrying antiwar signs.

From the east, College Republicans in pleated khakis heckled anyone who dared waste their lives protesting the great and powerful America.

From the north, bearded wrath-of-God types advanced with megaphones spouting damnation for all.


In the middle, a multiracial group calling themselves Revolutionary Communists hoisted a banner with pictures of citizens killed by police.

A line of cops cupped around them all in a semicircle. Another line of cops appeared on horseback, forming a stoic row in the street.

“If you vote for Trump, you’re a racist b—-!” yelled a black man drinking a purple Vitamin Water on the sidewalk.

“Thank you for the mansplaining, for the testosterone,” snarked a Code Pinker as a posse of baby-faced Trump bros held forth on how some wars are necessary to defend America.

“You’re an abomination to the Lord!” shouted one of wrath-of-God types, at everyone. “God – He hates this!”

A man who had been standing near the group protesting police killings left the throng and wandered closer to the officers on horseback. One of them looked down at him.


“You can pet him,” the policeman said, nodding to his Clydesdale crossbreed. “He likes that.”

And the protester silently rubbed the horse’s nose.


From the beginning, this has felt like a reality show. That was the criticism, right? That a reality-show star had been propped up by a media-industrial complex who saw him as a funny, ratings-boosting Muppet, and then suddenly he’d swept a dozen states.

And here was the culmination of all that: an event to which an estimated 15,000 journalists had come to witness and report. The newspapers and networks took over restaurants and bars along the block outside the convention center. MSNBC erected a giant screen on the sidewalk to graciously share its broadcast with the public, bathing the area in the spectral light of a billion pixels. The eerie, garbled echo of Brian Williams battled with the voice of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who paid to have trucks drive around broadcasting his hysteria through giant speakers.

“You are the resistance!” he bellowed on a recording.


Anti-Trump demonstrators carry signs and yell as they march down the streets of downtown Cleveland on Monday. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

Anti-Trump demonstrators carry signs and yell as they march down the streets of downtown Cleveland on Monday. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

The civilians themselves are broadcasting their every move – on Snapchat, on Periscope, on YouTube. One man who appeared to be homeless and mentally ill had a GoPro camera attached to his helmet.

The America that complained about the media had now come to perform for the media, trying to get their causes and their ridiculousness on camera.

PETA activists who were dressed as nuns tottered around on stilts, encouraging reporters to write about vegans. A man in a dress asked people to channel their Trump frustration by kicking a man in a diaper. At least two people were dragging giant wooden crosses around town, talking on the Lord’s behalf about how there’s no such thing as a lesser of two evils.

“Trump condoms!” hollered one enterprising vendor. “Make America safe again!”

There have been parties – terrible parties! – fueled not by celebration but by grievance.

BuzzFeed held a party to whine about being banned from covering the Trump campaign. Gay Republicans held a party to indict the entire religion of Islam. Republican women hosted a brunch to remind the world that they exist.


Getting to these parties requires endless security checks: perimeter badges, bomb-sniffing dogs, miles of roads cordoned off with cement blockades. To get to a place called Freedom Plaza, you have to go through two checkpoints, a metal detector and a vigorous wanding.


The ratio of law enforcement to civilians in downtown Cleveland seems about 1 to 1. There are cops on foot, cops on bikes, cops on horses, cops in riot gear, cops in golf carts. There are droves of visiting cops; California alone sent 300 officers. Snipers peer from the roof of the county fiscal office on East Ninth Street.

The man at the center all of this, Donald Trump, has spent his limited time in Cleveland at the Westin Hotel, the lobby of which smells of mint and cologne. It is here that “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault, Trump’s new director of African-American outreach, gives interviews extolling the new Trump golf course in Scotland.

Inside the arena, it feels like no one’s really in charge. The Colorado delegation picked up and walked out. Melania Trump suddenly started spouting Michelle Obama’s words and then blamed it on a former ballerina. Some of the crowd booed the Muslim man who gave a benediction, and cheered when a Christian pastor implied that God was partisan.

At times, it’s all funny. Ben Carson talked about Lucifer. Delegates toddled around in their garish state-pride regalia – Rhode Island’s infantilizing sailor caps, Washington state’s goofy foam hats in the shape of evergreen trees – like they were Disney staffers in a domestic version of Epcot. It’s all very funny until it’s not funny, like when the street-vendor buttons for sale don’t just say “Elect Trump” but also say “KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts, Left Wing.” It was funny like your uncle is funny after three drinks at a wedding, but how after five drinks he hits things, hard.


Tuesday evening, during the tally of votes to officially nominate Trump, a Mississippi delegate sat in her seat and read the Bible on her iPad. She swiped through the Book of James and seemed to linger longest on the page for “Rich Oppressors Will Be Judged.”

The vibe on the arena floor was somewhat celebratory, but somewhat somber, with whiffs of denial, indignation and jubilation. When Trump’s tally reached the threshold for the nomination, the convention band played an elevator-music rendition of “New York, New York.” There were no kick lines in sight.

In the men’s bathroom, two besuited delegates straightened their ties in the mirror.

“Where you from?”

“Arkansas. You?”

“Georgia. Southerners! Real America.”


Which is the question of this entire election: What is real America? Where is it? Have we found it in Cleveland, where pro-Trump factions bellowed “Make America Great Again” and other protesters chant “Five, six, seven, eight: America was never great!”


At its party on a downtown rooftop Tuesday night, BuzzFeed was projecting old black-and-white footage of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Several blocks east, in a dingy multipurpose room on the Cleveland State University campus, the gay party featured Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who calls Europe “a living hell” of fear and violence wrought by Islam.

“It gets worse,” Wilders said to a community that normally tells its younger generations “it gets better.” The partygoers called for a war on Islam while drinking cheap wine and listening to Rick Astley. Was this entire party just one big rick-roll?

The next morning, over in Public Square, immigration activists formed a human wall, using fabric ponchos painted like bricks, and chanted “Wall off Trump!” They paraded down Euclid Avenue toward media row and the convention arena.

The protest passed by a 10-year-old African-American girl who was hawking Trump hats and T-shirts that said “BOMB THE S— OUT OF ISIS.”

In this cauldron of complaint, at least we can all agree we hate ISIS.

“We take cash or credit,” the girl said.

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