What it’s like to be on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Quicken Loans Arena.
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
— Milton’s Satan
I am not a servile puppy dog.
—Ted Cruz (paraphrased)
I will be your champion.
“America! What happened to it? Where did it go? How has it flown away?” Three questions thrown down from the altar of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, by Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, patron saint of 9/11, to the 2,472 Republican delegates assembled on the Floor of the Quicken Loans Arena, also known as the Q. The day’s theme was MASA, Make America Safe Again, part of #MAGA, a popular hashtag among Trump’s online supporters, who call themselves the #TrumpTrain. MAGA is an acronym for the candidate’s slogan: Make America Great Again. The sound of MAGA, said aloud, brings to mind a pagan deity. Like: In the name of all that is good and decent, MAGA commands you, go forth and slay the barbarian hordes!
Before last week, I would have thought it naïve to ask what happened to America. But the holy terror of Giuliani’s speech (and please do watch it in full) has made the question worth asking.
Near the edge of the Floor of the Q, I found myself talking to Laurence Schiff, an Arizona delegate from the Kingman area. Schiff is a psychiatrist who heads up mental health programs in seven prisons, a Tea Party man, an early convert from Cruz to Trump, and a self-styled historian with his own talk radio show. He looked like a country doctor in late middle age, his neat, formal clothes neither new nor worn, his mouth turned slightly downward. His moist, earnest eyes fixed me through his glasses.
Schiff quickly turned our conversation to the breadth of MAGA’s appeal. “Donald Trump appeals more than you’d suspect to Latins and to minorities,” he said. “My wife is Latin. She is the biggest Trumpster around. Latins are extremely family-oriented. They tend to be pro-life. With African-Americans, they tend to be very law and order.” At this point, I hushed Schiff. Giuliani had taken the stage. He began by thanking the police officers in Dallas, Baton Rogue, and Cleveland. Giuliani’s love for the police was absolute and ecumenical: “Black, white, Latino, of every race, every color, every creed, every sexual orientation …” His questions came as an improvised solo, capping a steady build with a flourish of aggravation:
“It’s time to make America safe again. It’s time to make America one again. One America!”
Giuliani verified the count with a wag of his index finger. One.
“There’s a war on the police,” Schiff said, turning to me.
“What happened to …” Giuliani began, his pistons turning over once, not starting, and firing back up. “There’s no black America,” he said, waving to his left. “There’s no white America,” he waved to his right. “There is just … Ah-mehr-ick-ahh!” Two hands stretched out and throttled the air, as though Giuliani was a sorcerer and America a chimera or genie that he was summoning up from the depths. Then came his three questions, shouted over the cheers. “America!” The voice high and thrillingly urgent: “What happened to it? Where did it go? How has it flown away?”
“This is the most electrifying speech of the night,” said Sandra Dowling, an Arizona delegate. She had cropped red hair, an assortment of pro-Trump pins, and a steady, self-assured voice. She was around Schiff’s age, with a doctorate in education, and she had once served as Maricopa County superintendent of schools.
“I like the passion, the intensity,” she said of Giuliani. “The whole way that he sucks everybody in. He’s not lecturing to people here. He’s pulling them in and making them part of it.”
By this time, Giuliani had moved on, from domestic to foreign, police to military. “To defeat Islamic extremist terrorists, we must put them on defense,” he said. “If they are at war with us, which they have declared. We must commit ourselves to unconditional victory against them!” And from there, to the Iran deal, to Hillary Clinton, to Benghazi. He paused, taking in the thunderous chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
The followers of MAGA tend toward three-syllable chants, with equal and forceful emphasis given to each syllable. The “USA!” chant is a sunny reprise from more issue-specific chants like “Lock Her Up!” and the edgy “All Lives Matter!” (Matter, as delivered, sounds more like “Mahrr!”) Of the three letters in USA, it is the A, America!, that matters most to them, not the States, certainly not the United. The “U.S.” part of the chant may be a case of linguistic atavism, an immigrant’s nostalgia for the country she has long since left. That country is, to put it plainly, the past — some of it experienced, some of it romanticized, most of it imagined.
“Now listen to this!” said Dowling. “This is the only time, all day long, that all of the delegates have come together. This is what a convention is supposed to be about.”
“Overcoming your differences, you mean?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Look at this like a pie. You may not like the taste of the rest of the pie. But if you can find just one little sliver that you can latch onto, then you can latch onto the campaign. And that’s what I think he’s doing. He’s going through here and he’s just pulling in slivers. For everybody here. You can feel it.”
“To a certain degree, we’re props,” Schiff said, cutting in. “Something that’s made for television.” He seemed to be suggesting that the convention wasn’t really about the Floor. He might or might not have been suggesting that it was a televised simulacrum of a bottom-up democracy, with the delegates shipped in on coach flights and diesel buses to be fed at the Marriott and spurred into partisan ecstasies by the ship. “Whip” was the word on the door of a kind of control room in the hallway behind the Floor, where a few tall and formidable-looking men in suits marshaled an army of cheerleaders in orange baseball hats (convention ops), white hats (regional whips), yellow hats (state whips), and green hats (alternate whips). Many looked to be college age. They all had earpieces and “Making America Great, Est. 1776” stitched on the back of their color-ranked hats. Like the Borg on Star Trek, the word “whip” can refer to any single member of the operation, or the machine as a whole.
Schiff seemed to have an internal whip, a governor who guided him back to the party line. After referring to himself as a prop, he paused and shifted gears. “You need 50, 60 million votes to win the presidency,” he said. “I’ve made a study of this. That’s why I think Donald Trump is the only one who can win.”
Giuliani, amplified, skull-headed, enormous on the screen: … She is in favor of even taking Syrian refugees, even though the Islamic State has told us they are going to put their operatives in with the Syrian refugees, operatives who are terrorists …
I asked Dowling which sliver of the Trump pie was hers. She said: “I want somebody, when they walk into the room, he or she, I want everyone in the world to know that they’re in charge …”
… they come into Western Europe, they come here, and kill us!
Dowling: “I want everyone to know that when they speak, the rest of the world listens.”
… there’s no next election. This is it! There’s no more time for us left!
“And with Donald Trump, the rest of the world will listen, and they will pay attention. National security is a big issue for me. I’m looking for strength, courage, and chutzpah.”
… No more time to repeat our mistakes of the Clinton-Obama years. Donald Trump is the agent of change.
“I want somebody to go in and go toe to toe with the president of North Korea and tell him the way it is and not be told, ‘Get on your hands and knees and beg me.’”
… He will be the leader of the change we need.
“I don’t want to be begging anymore.”
Rudolph William Lewis Giuliani did not serve as one of the principal investigators of the 9/11 attacks. He did not kill the man who carried them out. As New York City’s mayor on 9/11, Giuliani led the response, the cleanup, and the first phase of rebuilding. He came on the scene as the leader of a wounded city-state and emerged from the ashes a minor Republican statesman. His main role was to speak about the tragedy on TV. His first September 11, 2001, press conference was given while walking down the street, heading downtown less than an hour after Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. “People should remain calm,” he said. He gave two more press conferences that afternoon and evening. On September 23, he appeared at a prayer service at Yankee Stadium alongside Oprah Winfrey, who called him “America’s Mayor.” On September 24, he went on David Letterman. On October 1, he gave a moving and humane address to the United Nations. On that day, he did not talk about radical Islamic terrorism. Just terrorism — that one word was enough.
Having established a solid link with 9/11 in the public mind, Giuliani’s relationship with the event underwent a shift, from mourner to owner. By 2004, his finances and connections and political prospects much improved, Giuliani was talking about 9/11 as though it were his property, an exotic pet, an exhibit that could be packed up into a suitcase and displayed at his pleasure. He showed it off with a victim’s righteousness and a prosecutor’s zeal, and started doing some heavy spiritual lifting for the Republican Party. Last week in Cleveland, he extended his proprietary 9/11 halo to Trump, “a man with a big heart.” Trump, Giuliani said, had donated money to injured police and firefighters. Trump had done so anonymously, and he wasn’t going to be happy with Giuliani for revealing his kindness in public. “Every time New York suffered a tragedy,” Giuliani said, “Donald Trump was there to help.”
Giuliani had assumed the mayoralty by mastering big-city racial politics. He was the electoral embodiment of Travis Bickle’s “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets” and Howard Beale, the-mad-as-hell news anchor. Giuliani had no problem with people of other races. His problem was with the panhandlers, the thugs, and the squeegee men. Patrick Moses Dorismond, who was shot by a plainclothes NYPD officer, was an actual altar boy. But to Giuliani (then running against Hillary Clinton for the Senate), he was no altar boy, he was a man with a propensity to violence and a sealed juvenile court record, which Giuliani proceeded to release. An arrest that happened more than 10 years before, when Dorismond was 13 years old, was, to Giuliani, highly relevant. The case of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed immigrant from Guinea who was shot 41 times by plainclothes NYPD, was, meanwhile, unfortunate. All four shooters were acquitted. Some years later, when Giuliani was no longer mayor, one of the officers was promoted.
(And yes, it is worth remembering the thousands of crime victims, disproportionately African-American, who died in New York and other big cities during the crime wave that ran from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. Crime rates fell in those cities, most dramatically in New York, during Giuliani’s 1994-2001 mayoralty. How much credit Giuliani deserves for that life-saving reduction is the subject of much debate. Less debatable is the effect of his “get tough” approach on the incarceration rate of black men, the killings of black men by police, and his attempts, in the Dorismond case and others, to turn those dead black men into votes.)
As for the Muslims, Giuliani said, he would limit his rage to the barbaric terrorists who attacked us … people and forces who hijacked not just airplanes, but a great religion and turned it into a creed of terrorism dedicated to killing all of us. Those last words are from his previous red-meat speech, delivered on the first day of the 2004 RNC, in New York City. Giuliani didn’t want to kill all the Muslims, only the bad ones, the ones who are with the terrorists. He compared the pre-9/11 view of Islamic terrorism to Europe’s appeasement of Hitler during the run-up to World War II.
Long before Cruz dreamed aloud about carpet-bombing the Islamic State, Giuliani had taken the semi-sublimated racial animus of the Republican Party’s George Wallace wing (“Stand Up for America” was Wallace’s 1968 slogan) and attached it to a new and more fearsome target, al Qaeda. He used it to frame the country’s Bush-era adventures as a kind of war of righteous vengeance. The new war sounded at times like a holy war. Once, George W. Bush used the word “crusade.”
On Monday night, standing on the high altar of MAGA, Giuliani defined America’s enemy this way:
“For the purposes of the media, I did not say all of Islam. I did not say most of Islam. I said Islamic extremist terrorism. You know who you are and we’re coming to get you.”
For the purposes of the media. Either Giuliani wanted to make it clear that he was only talking about a subset of Islam. Or he wanted to make clear his wish to declare war on all of Islam, and his frustration at not being able to raise this flag in public. I believe that he was doing both, at once. Unlike Trump, Giuliani has a prosecutor’s mastery of rhetoric. He knows how to communicate a message and deny it at the same time.
Here is Giuliani on Larry King talking about Iraq during his brief run at the presidency in 2006:
The whole strategy has to be a strategy of not just pacifying places but holding them, and holding them for some period of time. It reminds me a little, on a much bigger scale, of what I had to do to reduce crime in New York City. We had to not just go into neighborhoods and make them safe, which the city had been doing for years, but the city had been going in there, making them safe, and then leaving. … I’d take out Saddam Hussein in a second again … here’s what I would change. Do it with more troops. Maybe 150,000.
Making them safe. We need someone to bring law and order to the neighborhoods.
Trump, who has taken advice from Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, two of Richard Nixon’s henchmen, has borrowed from Giuliani’s classic obsessions and added illegal immigration to his witch’s brew. Trump may not know or care to know that Barack Obama has spent eight years pounding on al Qaeda, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also through the use of drones and other covert campaigns in Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. In his two terms, George W. Bush ordered 49 drone strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban-associated targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Obama, during his first two years in office, ordered 174. These are facts, but to Trump and Giuliani, they may not matter. After all, what good does killing radical Islamic terrorists do if Obama refuses to call the enemy by its name?
The crowd in Cleveland was primed for Giuliani. They howled with pleasure upon hearing from Milwaukee’s sheriff, David Clark, that “blue lives matter.” The slogan sounded more credible when enunciated by an African-American. Clark has told the people of Milwaukee that obtaining their own firearms is preferable to calling 911, part of “a duty to protect yourself and your family.” On Monday, he lumped together Ferguson and Baltimore (mass street protests) with Baton Rouge (the lone-wolf murder of three police officers) as “a collapse of the social order … I call it anarchy.”
This was Giuliani’s task on Monday: Raise the emotional temperature. Melt down the differences that separate the factions. Fuse them into a mass. Political conventions customarily open with red-meat speeches, but providence saw fit to disrupt the opening nights of 2012 (Tampa, Florida) and 2008 (St. Paul, Minnesota) with hurricanes (Isaac, Gustav). The opening night of the RNC’s 2004 convention had also featured Rudy Giuliani, at Madison Square Garden, with a presidential run still in his future. “They heard from us,” he said, claiming victory in Iraq in Afghanistan.
The Giuliani of 2016 was more familiar, with less to lose. The climax of his speech came about a minute in, just before the three questions about the whereabouts of America. He was talking about the police and the firemen:
… when they come in to save you. They don’t care what color you are! When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you’re black or white. They just come! To save you!
Save you from who? Was Giuliani talking about Ferguson, or Baton Rouge, or Dallas, or the World Trade Center, or al Qaeda, or the Islamic State, or Benghazi, or the mother whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant, or the Islamic State operative who had come in over the porous border with Mexico? (This last scenario has never actually happened.) Giuliani was talking about all of these things, and injecting into each of them the image of two burning towers, and the wall that Trump would build around his republic of Make America Great Again to keep all of them out.
What we saw from the floor of the Republican National Convention, in two parts.