I’ve been wrong about everything this year. All my predictions, all my knowing, self-assured asides, all my cute, contrary prophecies, have turned out to be utter crap. Like everyone, I misread the spirit of 2016 on a grand scale. This time last year I was assuring my friends that Marco Rubio was exactly the kind of bland, blow-dried, poll-driven robot the delegates of the GOP most loved to nominate, and that come November he’d beat the broadly reviled Hillary by three points. Along the way I’ve thought Bernie would pull something off, that Trump would implode, that the email server thing would drag Hillary down, that the Warriors would sweep. I was wrong on every single count.
This is sad on a broad cultural level, but it feels sad for me personally, too. I once prided myself on my powers of political soothsaying. In 2004, I had no question that John Kerry’s weird Brahmin horse face would alienate the general electorate. In 2008, I was the first among my friends to call John McCain as the GOP nominee. Not since 1988—when I ended election night in fits of adolescent tequila-induced sobs over Dukakis—have I succumbed to dumb idealism or wishful thinking. I learned that night that only predictions based on cautious cynicism bore fruit. If I could simply remind myself every season how stupid and self-deceived people are, how fundamentally afraid, I would usually manage to get some fix on the probabilities.
Watching the rise of Trump, however, has been a daily embarrassment. I’ve been jerked around by every news cycle and fallen for all the fake obstacles the media has placed in Trump’s path. Only slowly have I come to realize what’s happening here—namely that people aren’t choosing fear and familiarity this time around, but rage and hate and the itch to burn the house down. 2016 is like 1968 without the peace and love, and all my normal, lowest common denominator metrics are no help. Which is why I’ve come to Cleveland for the GOP convention—to make one last stab at a prediction. I want to place a final bet. Will Trump, this avatar of crude greed and sadism, carry the new era? Or will the neoliberal meritocracy of Hillary Clinton hold the day? I’m already bored to death of this race, but want to get a grip on the new odds. More than the fate of the nation is at stake here; my own pride is on the line.
I arrive in Cleveland for Day One of the convention, and the scene is pretty dead. On the walk from the parking complex to the arena zone, iced coffee in hand, I see the outlying protesters are mostly of the typical crank variety: a guy in a janky, 70s-era RV plastered with horrific fetus posters; a flatbed hauling a billboard for a movie called “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party”; a mangy grandpa in an old pick up collaged with handmade signs adding up to a feral pro-guns/pro-Jesus call to arms. Around passersby’s necks are lanyards bearing placards of differing strength: white for delegates, blue for alternates, green for outer perimeter, brown for press, and a potpourri of others for everything in between. I made no effort to acquire any of them.
For the past week—which is to say in the days since the shootings in Baton Rouge, and two weeks after the horror in Nice—I’ve been fielding worried emails about coming to Cleveland at all, but I’m finding the vibe of the street not so worrisome. That’s maybe because there are more cops on the street than I’ve ever seen in one place in my life, bearing bright arm patches denoting their provenance. There are cops on loan from the California Highway Patrol. Cops from Georgia. Cops from Indiana. They rove in gangs of four or more, sticking to their regional teams. There are cops on horses, cops on bikes, cops in shorts, and cops in tan, belted jumpsuits reminiscent of the Ghostbusters uniform. As the crowd thickens, the cops marble the streets in ever fatter strands. Of course, a terrible event could come out of nowhere, but even if a sniper was specifically aiming for tall, skinny white guys with canvas totes and little note pads, I wouldn’t even be the first target.
East 4th Street is where the main crowd is churning. Lined with bars, the street forms a one block alleyway leading to the gates of the Quicken Loans Arena. MSNBC has kindly set up shop in the alley, broadcasting from a mobile booth crowned by big diamond-vision screens and serious speakers. There’s a fun effect as the reality of the anchorperson is siphoned into the screens above and the actual becomes informational, but anyone whose ever been near a camera can’t be that excited by the slightly hyperreal Doppler effect. I spot Tucker Carlson on the street, who’s shorter and squatter than expected.
I go down the alley and around the mouth of the arena, which is also pretty dead (“Did something just happen here?” a girl wonders aloud. “Or is this, like, it?”), and circle around to Cleveland’s Public Square where I’m told some civil disobedience might be on tap. The scene is dead there, too. On the far edge, a scrum of hillbillies preaches against Islam and homosexuality and espouses extreme love for the word Jesus. Their hats read “Fear God,” and for some reason a few otherwise rational-seeming citizens have taken the bait, getting up in their faces to argue about the fundaments of a good, moral life. Jesus! Tolerance! Jesus! Tolerance! The little knot of discord clings to the edge of the park like a tumor, but everyone outside of the ambit of hatred seems bored. I talk to a reporter from Ireland who confirms this is the extent of the action thus far.
A mild uptick of energy comes when two more aggrieved parties mount soap boxes in the park, and briefly there’s an overlap of amplified angry voices. One speaker is a Jesus guy, and the other is a guy in a suit representing something called Patriotic Millionaires, whose agenda seems to be campaign finance reform. And then the medieval Duck Dynasty guys raise their voices, and their opponents raise theirs, and a phalanx of cops intervenes to give everyone a little more breathing room. The cops move in on bikes and shove the onlookers a few yards back, and briefly we’ve got about 75 people encircling about 10 Islamophobes. The specter of some open-carry maniac with a quick trigger finger flickers, but very soon the hillbillies disperse, led away by their own private cordon, and the crowd, such as it is, disperses as well. It’s late afternoon. Muggy and hot.
I loiter in the shade near the MSNBC kiosk for awhile, then text a reporter friend to make a dinner date. I go have a beer on Euclid, near a gang of Bikers Against Illegal Aliens (as distinct from Bikers For Trump or the Sons of Odin, the other openly white supremacist types wandering the scene). These guys are performatively degenerate, with scrabbly beards and grungy vests with provocative patches sewn on (“We’ve got guns and stuff”), but in this context they are almost like celebrities, garnering fist bumps from various GOP goblins going by. Flush-faced delegates and their cripplingly blond wives pause and offer the gang-members congratulations and support. In my narrow margin of shade I can also see a silver mime, just past an indefatigable street band, and Jesus freaks everywhere in competition for souls. I realize that the only people stupid enough to come to Cleveland on spec are the Jesus freaks and me.
But as it turns out I’m not the only one! Soon a couple young dudes sit down near me and I strike up a conversation. One of them is a young, black financial manager from Cleveland, and the other is a young, earnest white fiction writer (“noir, so far”) from San Francisco, the latter on the exact same mission as me: sans credentials, he’s here hoping for some good material, apart from the normal stuff of the news. The two guys went to college together and the Clevelander has promised the San Franciscan he’ll help him crash parties tonight. They turn out to be interesting guys, especially D., the Clevelander, who reveals he’s worked for many political campaigns over the years, from the local to the national (How? He looks thirty years old!) and even once met Obama himself. He says he hated Obama at first sight. They met during a job interview, he says, and apparently Obama was high-handed, picking apart D.’s resume and making him defend his very existence. And for some reason D. decided to avenge himself by working for McCain/Palin in Ohio that year. He says he enjoyed working for McCain. With the GOP, he says, you always know exactly where you stand. With someone like Clinton, she might be nice, but then she’ll tell an aide, “I never want to see that guy again,” and you’ll never know the reason why.
He’s obviously a pro, and innately cynical, which is a posture I trust. So I ask him: what do you think is going to happen this year? Who’s gonna win? His theory, rapidly delivered: the GOP establishment will run a half-assed campaign for Trump, in the hopes he loses, and then the elites will take back the party and proceed as before, with their eternal message of tax-revolt and coded racism in place. He likens the situation to the Chris Rock movie Head of State, in which the party runs a black guy as a sure loser. This makes sense to me. Hillary will probably win, I agree in this moment, and the GOP won’t do any of the reflection and reformation as imagined by Thomas Friedman and David Brooks. The same insane obstructionism and hypocrisy will prevail, the same bullshit pseudo-ideas that were only ever a shell game for the maintenance of the status quo. Of course, in Head of State, Chris Rock actually wins, but…
By now I’m having some fun, making new friends, talking politics, and then my reporter friend comes along, and things get even better. He’s a real pro, having already filed a story for the day, an accomplishment that I find absurdly cool. He tells me about the press conference with Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager and main consigliere these days, his mad dog stare and rapport with the Wall Street Journal clique. We talk about politics with practiced leftist self-recrimination. Obamacare is a major failure so far, we agree. People have a good point about that. And Obama is arrogant, maybe even high-handed, it’s true, his whole DuBois-ian Talented Tenth ethos dovetailing a little too easily with the Clinton-Goldman Sachs party line. Why aren’t the shantytowns in cities called Obama-villes? we wonder. They called them Hoover-villes back in the 30s. Why does Obama get a pass? We agree that Bill Clinton seemed pretty comfortable with the slop of humanity, whereas Obama and Hillary, not so much. The people who can’t really take care of themselves, who don’t have a lot to offer society as measured by GNP, they don’t seem to count in the Obama/Hillary party.
We drink more beer. We talk politics. And down the block, the silver mime is getting angry. He bawls out a clique of Jesus freaks. “Don’t bless me!” he yells at them. “You don’t know Jesus!”
My reporter friend has to go back inside the arena so we stroll down E. 4th. At the end we stumble onto an impromptu press conference with Roger Stone, one of Nixon’s original ratfuckers, now infamous for having a tattoo of Nixon on his back. As reported elsewhere, Nixon is in the air in Cleveland this year, and in this case he’s here almost in the flesh. My reporter friend informs me Stone claims to have brokered the union between Trump and Manafort, a not-so-humble brag my friend assesses as “probably about a third true.”
My friend joins the scrum and asks Stone a few questions, and then a moment of real democracy ensues. He asks Stone about Manafort. “Manaforté” Stone corrects him. “He changed his name.” Ha! Stone even takes jabs at his old pals. I note Stone’s suit is pilling in spots and he might have hair plugs. He wears old saddle shoes, like a real pol. My friend asks about the Bush dynasty and its importance to a Trump victory and Stone takes the opportunity to deride the whole Bush clan. “Look at Jeb’s campaign,” he says. “It flopped. It was a disgrace.” The Bushes are over, he says, they’re nothing. W. was a failed president. He took us to war for no reason. Stone pivots as another question comes in, and he derides the War on Drugs. He accuses Kasich of being a weed smoker, Bush a druggie.
To see the right wing come apart before one’s eyes like this is thrilling. I’ve waited my whole life to see the GOP hemorrhage and die, and here, at last, it seems to be happening. Never mind that the monster climbing from its ribcage is even worse, a red-eyed, leather-winged beast— in this moment, I’m thoroughly entertained. Roger Stone is a buffoonish Libertarian Nixon hack, a dirty trickster, but here on the corner in Cleveland he’s entertaining as shit. If he’s got some traction this year, more power to him.
My reporter friend heads inside the arena, leaving me to the rabble on 4th. I talk to a guy selling old copies of the Plain Dealer with the champion Cavs on the cover, hoping for twenty bucks an issue. I shadow a couple of prostitutes to an assignation at Pickwick & Frolic, one of the restaurants on E. 4th. I spot a kid with a camouflage yarmulke walking by. Eventually I go into a bar and get a beer, where I chat briefly with a friendly NPR reporter on deadline, preparing to bang out her morning copy with a drink “like an old AP newspaperman.” I flirt with some young women, one of whom wears a Code Pink sticker that reads “Make Out/Not War.” The message strikes me as a bit tepid, a diet version of the 1960s slogan, but still, I like it. Plus I’m old enough that any attention from a 28-year-old is enjoyable. I listen amiably as she tells me about a friend who got her shoes stolen in Missouri, a musician pal in Portland, and the great lure of the beautiful city of San Diego.
Watching the crowd mill by, I realize I haven’t talked to a single Republican today. I just keep gravitating to people I can deal with, like myself. I came here on some level to commune with the GOP, but every time I butt up against a delegate, I recoil. It’s either some teenage Diane Arbus grotesque, or some newbie Chicago school Econ major with a Socialism Sucks poster, or a mentally deranged Texas woman encaged by patriarchy, or a crowd of country club dicks calling each other “my brother.” The one guy I talked to was a data harvester from Fort Lauderdale, hawking an app for doing online surveys. “We call it ‘the big scrape,’” he said proudly. In the post land-line era, this will be the future of data collection. He’s a close friend of Jeb, he said, and boozily regaled me with his talking points. “People are so sensitive these days. Donald Trump is not a racist! Have you ever built a real estate empire in Manhattan? Believe me, you can’t be a real estate developer in Manhattan and be a racist.” Is that so? He also claimed he wished Obama had used his political capital to institute a massive public works program a la the WPA instead of frittering it away on health care. I doubt that. Then he told me about his data harvesting start-up again, too drunk to remember the conversation of four minutes ago. The guy was basically a greasy schlub with no particular ideological disposition except money, and a paragon of the one kind of cynicism I don’t like. Even his so-called charity work—underwriting a pro-cop pop ballad and providing free sheet music to schools and churches—sounded ridiculous.
I realize I just don’t want to talk to those assholes at all. I can get my fill on the MSNBC screen a few yards away. Pat Smith is up there in a Princess Leia smock, blaming Hillary for the death of her soldier son in Bengazi. Soon comes Guiliani, laying into black America for its crappy morals. The crowd is drinking up the hate-laced invective. I know many writers have come to these events and discovered some shred of humanity in the whole Trump scene, finding normal, everyday citizens trying to make sense of their tattered lives, but I’m not going to take any high ground here: I hate these people and everything they stand for. And I hope they can feel my hatred. I hope they feel it all the way back home in their sterile McMansions, driving around in their bloated cars, eating their shit food, listening to their idiots on the radio. I hope my hatred becomes the very air they breathe, and slowly ruins them from the inside. I hope their children revile them.
I’m happy when a row of anarchists marches through. They come cruising down 4th with bandannas on their faces, handing out slips of paper with Edward Snowden on them, followed by at least twice as many police. The sound of helicopters beating the air suddenly presses from above. I’ve been waiting hours for some kind of action, some friction, a sign, nothing bloody, but maybe something that will point behind the curtain and reveal the machinery at work, something that will cast a blade of light into the future, and so I make my hasty goodbyes and follow the wedge into the crowd.
By the time I arrive at the end of the alley, though, the anarchists are gone. The cops have formed two rows in order to clear an aisle on the street, and out of the chain link fence the delegates are ambling from the arena. The first day of the convention is over, and out they come in gaggles and clusters, an army of Lone Star shirts, seersucker suits, high heels, Hillary for Prison shirts. I watch them with disgust, but I’m pleased to see no real exhilaration on anyone’s faces. They seem happy enough, but just happy to be together, and grateful for the cops (judging from the constant “thank you for your service” nods and high fives, anyway)—but intoxicated by their party and its platform of blame? Not really.
“Trump condoms!” an enterprising Clevelander is yelling. “Keep America safe! Trump condoms for sale! Get your Trump condoms!”
I’m not going to the parties tonight. That would involve talking to Republicans, after all. But I do make one last trip to the Public Square in hopes of some spark of rebellion. The restaurant on the edge of the park is still open. It’s called Rebol. Rebel? Rebel Bowls? I don’t really get it, but the more the brand identity sinks in, the more I come to despise the place. Is that really a Shepard Fairey style portrait of Mark Cuban on the wall? Is that really a quote by Steve Jobs stenciled over the counter? Are these guys really leveraging Silicon Valley capitalism to sell their quinoa bowls? At moments like this I can feel why a certain person votes Trump. We live in a poisonous world. Our economy is toxic, on some deep level, to the human soul. Why not just burn it down?
In the fountain, a black kid and a white kid are playing, and that seems nice. The scene engenders a moment of genuine reflection on my part. The kids are really enjoying themselves out there, romping in the water. We have these water features in Portland, too, and I just saw one in Columbus the other day. A wide cement apron dotted with synchronized water squirts, shooting little arcs and geysers that fall to the ground in percussive splashes. The kids love it. Every city should have one. Watching these kids go from arc to arc, splashing around, basking in the shifting lights, I find the image of peace a welcome punctuation to the day. Even though these kids should probably be in bed by now.
I try to see the image through the eyes of a liberal, and immediately it becomes bittersweet. How sad that the forces of economics, history, and culture will eventually pull these kids apart. Their fates will diverge, and as adults, they might well never find themselves in the same room. To the liberal, there must be way of assuaging the problem. There must be policies we can enact. What is the point of living in a society together, if not? And through the eyes of a conservative? The only feeling I can generate is one of pure sentimental racism. At best: awwww, two little kids, as all notions of economics, history, and culture fall away. At worst, well, you can listen to Rudy Guiliani. Fuck that black kid. And don’t be so sensitive while I’m standing on your fucking neck. Faced with a white kid and a black kid romping in a municipal water feature, the conservative mind goes blank or rageful, the heart gooey or hard. No amount of “compassionate conservative” tinkering with the party platform will ever change that.
So what path is it going to be this November, I wonder? Which structure of feeling will the country choose to follow? In this moment, on this day, after hours on the street, witness to no aggression but little enthusiasm, either, I feel like maybe America’s bloodlust has been sated for the moment. The murders of the last few weeks seem to have chastened people here a little. No one seems squirming for a fight. And if nothing else, the story of Trump is getting boring, isn’t it? Most intelligent people in Cleveland have registered their opinion by their rank disinterest. I’m thinking, heading back to the car, that Trump is not the bizarro Obama I’ve sometimes feared. The energy he brings isn’t that widespread, and it is salted with pronounced embarrassment and disaffection.
The smart people who I’ve asked to handicap the coming election today have generally hedged their bets. “Oh, I can’t say who’s going to win,” they say. “I can’t see past my own prejudices.” But I feel like that’s a cop out, even now, in the blinkered present. The pleasure of politics is precisely in the prophesying, after all, the divining of the future’s shape and trajectory. As in fashion, art, and music, politics invites us to trace patterns and narratives, to figure out the lineaments of the next big phase. To know the future is a powerful and enjoyable feeling, possibly even the exact opposite of the confusion and fear that drives people to embrace the vicious ideology of Trump.
So for what it’s worth, here’s my best guess: Hillary in an electoral landslide. The popular spread will be 4 points. The downticket GOP candidates won’t be hurt that badly, so she’ll face a GOP Congress. On her watch, more Clinton-villes will rise throughout the country, and the construction of spec homes and mixed-use condos will slow and stop. The economy will shudder but no banker or real estate developer will go to jail. Trumpism will continue to fester as large swaths of the population sink to Russian-level depths of nihilism and addiction. Random acts of bloodshed will erupt in schools, government buildings, and patio restaurants across the land, and will be avenged a thousand-fold in far-distant lands. Passing by the rows of cops, the Jesus freaks, the bobble-head vendors, I think I can safely say this: some of us will prosper regardless of the nation’s spiral of disparity and unreason while some of us will wallow in bitter self-deception our entire lives.
Jon Raymond is a writer living in Portland. He is the author of the novels The Half-Life (2004) and Rain Dragon (2012), and the story collection, Livability (2009), winner of the Oregon Book Award and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. Two of those stories were made into the films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. He is also the writer of the film Meek’s Cutoff and cowriter of the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. He is an editor of Plazm magazine, and a contributing editor to Tin House magazine. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Bookforum, The Village Voice, and many other publications.
Cover Photo: Getty Images