Erick Trickey will be in Cleveland all week covering the Republican National Convention for Cincinnati Magazine. This is his first post.
Embarrassing ironies hang over Cleveland today as Republicans gather here to nominate Donald Trump for president.
The Republican National Convention, normally a choreographed pageant of unity, has become an awkward ceremony where the party will formally accept Trump’s hostile takeover. Cleveland, eager to improve its reputation as a welcoming host city, will be stuck policing plenty of guests it didn’t ask for: Angry protesters, some of them armed, rallying for and against Trump’s message of rage and resentment. That message has proven so toxic that many corporate sponsors have shunned the RNC this year, leaving civic leaders in this liberal city to beg a billionaire conservative donor for a bailout.
Amid the signs of celebration and boosterism, signs of conflict and tension also peppered the town this weekend, if you wanted to dwell on them. A plane trailing a “Hillary for Prison 2016” banner circled downtown. A “Protester Support” Winnebago cruised the streets, offering eyewash in case of tear gas. Its first-aid sign depicted stick-figure riot police clubbing a stick-figure protester.
Thousands of Clevelanders marched on the Hope Memorial Bridge to offer an antidote. The “Circle the City With Love” protest, organized by church groups, brought friendly people with white “Stand For Love” T-shirts to hold hands along nearly the entire span of the mile-long bridge. The official mission was “a demonstration of peace and love for the city and best wishes for a peaceful and successful convention.” But concern over violence and opposition to Trump’s message were also on some protesters’ minds.
“Especially him, and some of the things earlier in his campaign—the hatred,” said Dana Baker of Cleveland. “And then when you go to his rallies, how it would manifest to the point where you had to shut it down because of the fighting.”
“He’s stirred up the negative emotions,” said her friend, Marguerite Strickland of South Euclid. “With all his verbiage, it exploded.”
Meanwhile, cheery red-and-white banners covered blank facades and vacant buildings, touting Cleveland history and culture—the superhero movies filmed here, the purported invention of the traffic light. Thousands of delegates, politicians, and reporters crowded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a welcome party on Lake Erie. Stephen Colbert crashed the event and wisecracked, prompting delegate grumbling. Earlier in the day, curious Clevelanders strolled East 4th Street, downtown’s restaurant row, waving to the cameras as MSNBC broadcast from a sidewalk stage. Restaurants transformed into temporary headquarters for Bloomberg News, The Washington Post, and CNN.
At East 4th Street and Euclid Avenue on Saturday, Dave Gilbert, head of Cleveland’s visitors bureau and convention host committee, chatted with an out-of-town reporter, explaining that yes, Cleveland is a mostly liberal, Democratic town. Explaining such basics was easy for Gilbert compared to the debacle of the day before.
The convention host committee is $6 million short in cash, and last week, Gilbert sent a letter to Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, asking him to bail them out. “Over the past couple months, negative publicity around our potential nominee resulted in a considerable number of pledges backing out from their commitments,” read the letter, which also bore the signatures of four top Cleveland CEOs. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, FedEx, Visa, Apple, BP, and United Health had all bailed on funding the convention, said the letter, which was leaked to POLITICO.
Once the news broke, the embarrassed Gilbert repudiated his own letter. He promptly told to Cleveland.com that the CEOs hadn’t really approved it, and that some of the named corporations hadn’t really reneged on pledges but just decided not to donate as they had in 2012. But he didn’t dispute the $6 million shortfall or that Trump was the cause of it. Still unknown is where the cash will come from, and whether the fallout from Trump’s belligerent candidacy will leave Cleveland stuck with convention debt.
Security precautions are descending on downtown. Tall black metal fences now surround Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention will be held, and the secondary media and meeting location, the Cleveland Convention Center. In the “event zone,” which is all of downtown, a long list of items is prohibited, including tennis balls and water guns. But real guns are A-OK, thanks to Ohio’s permissive open-carry laws.
That ridiculous irony is the source of growing tension as the convention approaches. Extremist groups who’ve said they plan to carry weapons while they march in Cleveland include the right-wing Oathkeepers, and the New Black Panther Party on the left. Add the usual anarchist convention-protesters, and the town is nervous about party crashers. Thankfully, a white supremacist group involved in a violent confrontation in California this year canceled its plan to visit. Yesterday, a planned gun-rights rally in Cleveland’s Public Square fizzled, leaving one guy as the poster boy for unnecessary military armament in city streets. He strolled through the square with a Bushmaster Predator rifle over his shoulder, drawing a gaggle of journalists.
Yesterday, after the murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the volatile president of Cleveland’s police patrolman’s union couldn’t take it anymore. Steve Loomis told CNN he wanted Gov. John Kasich to declare a state of emergency and ban people from openly carrying guns downtown this week. But Loomis’ disregard for the law—“I don’t care if it’s constitutional or not,” he said—not only underlined the futility of his request, it sounded downright ugly, since he represents a police force required by the Justice Department to curb its unconstitutional use of excessive force. Kasich quickly replied he had no legal authority to suspend Ohio’s gun laws.
Of all the weird ironies swirling through Cleveland as the RNC opens, the weirdest and most uncomfortable will be inside the convention hall. The Republican Party has come to Cleveland to nominate Trump, a presidential candidate that much of the Republican Party leadership views with disdain, horror, or great unease.
Trump won the Republican nomination by attacking the Republican establishment. So his appearance at the RNC this week will complete a takeover of the party by a figure who isn’t a Republican by most of the usual standards—he’s against free trade, against cuts to Social Security, and used to be pro-choice. His angry nationalism, authoritarian streak, contempt for Mexicans and Muslims, narcissism, and public cruelty stand in radical contrast to the careful rectitude of John McCain and Mitt Romney and the pro-immigrant, pro-moderate-Muslim rhetoric of George W. Bush.
The list of major Republicans skipping the convention is embarrassingly long. Bush, McCain, and Romney are all staying away, as are many Republican senators running for re-election. Ohio’s top Republicans, Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman, are coming to Cleveland but busying themselves around town, avoiding any show of solidarity with Trump. The drama around Kasich is especially intense—he, like all the other GOP presidential candidates, pledged to support the eventual Republican nominee, but now that it’s Trump, he says his values and Trump’s make an alliance unlikely.
Distaste for Trump is especially strong in the Ohio delegation: 66 delegates and their alternates, all hand-picked by Kasich. A Columbus Dispatch survey shows that 22 percent of Ohio delegates won’t vote for Trump in November, while 44 percent say they’ll vote for him but won’t work for his election. Three-fourths think he’ll lose to Hillary Clinton. Almost half think he’ll hurt other Republicans running this year. Many Republicans from elsewhere agree. “GOP insiders are dreading the Republican convention in Cleveland this week,” reports POLITICO.
The convention will include plenty of avid Trump delegates, but not a majority, once you peel away the pledges that bind them. Trump’s own campaign estimated that only about 900 of the 2,472 RNC delegates were personally loyal to him. Yet party loyalists, fighting for unity and bowing to the will of Republican primary voters, joined with the Trump camp to ruthlessly vanquish the Never-Trump movement in Thursday’s Rules Committee meeting. Many of their hearts weren’t in it.
“One person who helped Trump crush the uprising admitted that he wasn’t even sure if he’d vote for Trump this fall,” reports Jon Ward of Yahoo News. “Many others in the pro-Trump faction of this week’s fight evinced no enthusiasm for the work, signaling with their body language or with facial expressions—a roll of the eyes here, a shaking of the head there—that they were not happy about their task.”
Today, when the delegates meet to take up their official convention business, any final dissent will probably be quickly suppressed. But the real story of the Republican convention will be told in what the delegates don’t say—in their hesitations, faint praise, and swallowed pride.
Erick Trickey is a Cincinnati Magazine contributor, and has written for POLITICO, Smithsonian Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @ErickTrickey.