CLEVELAND – OK, full disclosure: There is not a single person I know well who has, to my knowledge, declared themselves a Donald Trump supporter. In the county where I have spent most of my life, the Republican candidate has taken less than 30 percent of the vote over the last two presidential elections, and that does not represent a big shift from where the local electorate has been since Ronald Reagan left office. All positive comments about Trump’s presidential campaign I have overheard in person can be counted on two hands, or maybe one. The Trump Train exists in my life the exact same way a television series does: On electronic monitors that can be turned on and off at will.
So color this bubble boy unprepared for what for the marvels to be seen, touched and heard once I arrived in Cleveland to witness Trump’s coronation at the Republican National Convention. When you like to think of yourself as a humanist, you want to treat the Trump supporters you meet, like everyone else, with dignity. The circle jerk of negative commentary about right-winged America had begun to bore me. Surely there was something more to what made these people tick than their racist sense of otherness, right?
Well, after a full day of interaction and witnessing the way delegates and guests reacted to the RNC rhetoric in person, I still have no clue to determining what flag these folks are saluting if racism isn’t at the crux of their values.
If I may treat Trump Republicans as a giant monolith for a moment (and they’re not; the mix of faces at Quicken Loans Arena last night – like most GOP conventions, I’d imagine – was pretty evenly divided between what you’d expect to see at a posh country club and a dive honky tonk bar), the pitfalls of white supremacy are never going to be honestly explored because Trumpites aren’t even close to the first step – acknowledging that it MIGHT be an actual thing. Like most social concerns, it’s thrown in the bin of “political correctness,” a catch-all dismissal that covers seemingly all bases. Even discussing issues based on objective data seems fruitless. Before entering the arena, a Trump-supporting tee shirt vendor and I engaged in what felt like a civil conversation about Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter when he told me that whites are being killed by police at a higher clip than blacks.
“Google it!” he pled. I did, and recited the recent Washington Post findings that 50 percent of victims in 2015 fatal police shootings were white, while 26 percent were black. The only retort needed, of course, is that for every black American, there are more than five white Americans. Not only did the vendor openly dismiss this but left the discussion insisting he had a full grasp on how statistics were researched. Observing slightly less pleasant debates on the streets of Cleveland this week, this was no stark exception from the norm.
Being in that environment made me reconsider the necessity of criticism for what Trump represents. The scorn for it is monotonous and simplistic, sure. But everything about Trump support feels simplistic. The resentment of condescension from so-called urban elites is very real and worthy of everyone’s consideration. But nothing new has been articulated in the Trump movement to appeal to newfound respect. Collectively, it’s in the exact same emotional space it was when the campaign kicked off 13 months ago with the “Illegal Mexicans are rapists” speech, no matter what has happened in the world since. Lumping and then trivializing thousands of people for how they act in an arena isn’t what I wanted to do last night. But when most non-journalists in my section vociferously cheered Bengazhi veteran Mark Geist’s gross analogizing of taking human lives with playing whack-a-mole, I couldn’t help but ask, “if these people aren’t shit-kicking cowboys, then what exactly are they?” Sorry!
The first night of the RNC had a lot of items that I associated with my childhood: The pledge of allegiance (beginning of school), a Catholic prayer (Sunday morning rituals), “USA! USA!” chants (rooting against bad guy pro wrestlers from foreign lands), Scott Baio (“Charles In Charge” re-runs). The delegates from Texas even had matching uniforms that looked like a snazzier version of what I wore for Halloween when I was eight. Maybe that underscores the personal disconnect. Some humans don’t want to cherish the same things all their lives. Others remember their earliest experiences as so gloriously carefree they can’t see a good reason to give much thought to anything that might reshape their perceptions of the way the world should be.
When a generation of kids who grew up in the new economy become adults, that grip on nostalgia may loosen significantly. Until then…white people, man.
—As the world wonders how Melania Trump’s obviously cribbed speech from Michelle Obama could have possibly slipped through the cracks, may I throw out an alternative theory that it wasn’t a mistake at all? A thickly-accented supermodel from Eastern Europe doesn’t exactly fit the presumed ideal a Trump supporter has of what a First Lady should be, and the lack of sentimentality the live crowd had for her words was palpable. Planting something in an otherwise wholly unremarkable speech that will get that mean ol’ liberal media on her case can only endear her to the base. Come on, tell me that tactic doesn’t sound like something in Trump’s wheelhouse.
—Police roaming downtown Cleveland this week have been keeping close company. Outside of traffic cops, most have traveled in huge flocks, often ranging from 10 to 50 in a group. Their behavior under close watch, their general disposition to the public has been casual and unusually merry. It will be fascinating to see if this keeps as more people flow into the city and things get angrier as we countdown to the official nomination of The Donald.
(Brian Coburn will be reporting from the Republican National Convention all week.)