Cleveland – I came to the Republican National Convention expecting the nomination of a possible fascist as candidate for arguably the most powerful office in the world to be a flash point for progressive resistance.
I was disappointed.
The largest march drew around 3,000 people, 5,000 if you count the bike cops forming a wall to keep protestors in a single traffic lane.
There were no police in riot gear, thumping their shields, donning gas masks or raising their tear gas guns to keep protestors at bay. Instead, they wore shorts and spent a lot of time chatting with one another. They looked like they were on vacation.
On Tuesday, July 19, a big march was supposed to take place on the Lorain-Carnegie bridge near the Quicken Loans Arena where the convention was taking place. My phone’s GPS kept leading me to closed off streets guarded by bike cops. But there was not a protestor in sight. I thought I was lost. I eventually ran into three protestors who told me the march had been cancelled because “like, no one showed up.”
They were from Cleveland, so they weren’t lost, or rather they were lost in the same bizarro world many of us are lost in these days in which Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate for president. And while there’s much handwringing about that, few people seem willing to take direct action.
The three protestors said they had friends who were planning to come but were worried about violence, especially with the large police presence and Ohio’s open gun carry laws. It was my biggest reason for maybe skipping the RNC too. I saw one armed civilian during my two days in Cleveland. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder. It scared the crap out of me.
At Public Square a few blocks from the convention, demonstrators of all stripes and ideologies, were gathered. Among them, were members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the virulently homophobic Topeka, Kansas-based church notorious for their God Hates Fags signs and racist preachings. At one point, a shouting match erupted when some protestors, many of them white, started a chant of “Black lives matter!”
The Westboro Baptist Church congregants (I guess you would call them that) shouted back that “all lives matter.” The tension was palpable. And police quickly formed a wall of bikes between the shouting factions.
Notably, representatives of Black Lives Matter – Cleveland were nowhere to be seen, deciding there was little use in protesting Trump, who has shown no interest in the group’s criticisms of racist policing.
There seemed a lot more individual protestors than organized groups or coalitions in Public Square. Police had carved up spaces of discontent with their bikes to keep people of like mind in their individual sections, and surrounded the perimeter to prevent others from getting in. The Trump supporters were easily identifiable in their Make America Great Again baseball caps and Clinton for Prison 2016 T-shirts. These appeared to be selling like hot cakes.
Mainstream media have been trying for months to unpack the psyche of Trump supporters, their coverage going from gawking at the circus around the Republican race to now sounding alarm bells. A common theme has been a kind of inversion of the F. Scott Fitzgerald maxim about the rich: “The Trump supporters are not so different from you or me,” Americans who are, at heart, decent people just trying to get by in tough times people who do not hate Mexicans or Muslims, but are scared of stagnant wages and downsizing and have lost complete trust in their leaders.
I did not meet these people. Nearly every person I spoke with was on one hand very friendly, and on the other, really damn racist.
I asked a dozen or so Trump supporters why they thought a billionaire, celebrity real estate mogul would make a good president. The number one answer, every single time, was some variation on the theme of keeping “the illegals” out.
They believed in the wall Trump has pledged to build across the U.S.-Mexico border. They loved the wall. They can’t wait for the wall.
They wanted me to understand they had no problems with Mexicans, but illegal immigration was the number one threat to the American way of life.
Number two on their list of fears was Islamic terrorism. They wanted to impress upon me that a ban on Muslims, which Trump has proposed – and also shrugged off as “just a suggestion” – would be “temporary.”
In these conversations, I brought up a young woman I had met earlier that day named Sandos Mishal. She couldn’t have been older than 20. She wore a hijab and her braces gleamed in the hot afternoon sun. She’s Muslim, originally from Palestine and a pre-med student at The University of Akron in Ohio. She had come to Cleveland to protest. In particular, she feared being forced to carry a Muslim ID card, something Trump at one point told Yahoo News he would consider. It seems impossible to imagine such a thing.
But a couple of Trump supporters I spoke with about Sondos’s fears, blamed the “liberal media” for putting scary fantasies into her head. When pressed a bit, they all professed to just want some kind of way to weed out the “bad Muslims.”
For example, when I asked retired school teacher Mary-Annice (I only was able to get her first name) what she thought about Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that American Muslims be required to take a test to demonstrate they don’t believe in Sharia Law, Mary-Annice answered nonchalantly, “Well, something has to be done.”
At one point, while Mary-Annice was explaining to me how a Muslim ban and Sharia Law tests were not racist, she paused, looked at my face and asked, “Am I boring you?”
I must have looked tired. I was tired – tired of people who could spew such hate with big friendly mid-western accents or Southern drawls, completely oblivious, seemingly, to their own bigotry.
My grandfather, a Jewish peasant from Austro-Hungary, immigrated to New York to escape the early 20th-century pogroms. He made a decent life for his family in Yonkers. He was one of “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free.” If America was ever great, it is when it lives up to the ideals in that famous poem inside the Statue of Liberty.
After a few hours listening to friendly racists in the square, I met an old friend at a bar a few blocks down the street. It was in its aesthetic a Hooters Restaurant, but the only place to get a beer near the convention. The friend was covering the convention for a progressive news outlet in another city. As we drank in a place we both would normally not be caught dead, I asked if he thought that maybe many progressives are exaggerating Trump’s fascist tendencies. He didn’t think. So why, I asked, did more people not turn up to protest. Shouldn’t everyone, from across the democratic political spectrum, come together to say Trump is simply an illegitimate candidate for President of the United States?
“It’s too late,” he said, with a shrug and ordered another beer.
Jacob Scheier is a poet and non-fiction writer. He will be attending Ohio State University as a graduate student this fall.
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