What it’s like to watch Donald Trump wage a war on Islam, live from the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
The floor might have been a prop for TV, but it was beautiful. Spotlights danced off the red, white, and blue bunting, off the tall, triangular signs spelling out the names of the states and territories, off the delegates themselves, equal and unruly, a republic made flesh. To stand on it gave one a feeling of chaos and joy.
The states were defined by red carpets running between them, and by their costumes. Guam wore tropical-print shirts. Texas had Lone Star flag shirts and cowboy hats and super-sized enamel pins. North Carolina seemed patrician and slightly aloof in their seersucker suits. West Virginia wore hardhats and pinstripes, waving “Trump Digs Coal” signs. Chunks of Colorado displayed a mutinous, die-hard love for Ted Cruz by walking out of the convention on Monday afternoon. The many-footed whip was walking up and down the aisles, handing out Trump/Pence signs, whipping up cheers of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” often settling for “USA! USA! USA!”
Moving around the Floor, delegates could brush past such legendary statesmen as Jeff Sessions, Newt Gingrich, and Orrin Hatch. They could attempt to peer into the epicenter of a 40-foot, 30-legged, many-cabled monster, at the center of which Chris Christie was milking the last few hours of his celebrity. They could catch a glimpse of Trump’s three-trunked family tree, a genetic menagerie seated like princelings in tiered opera boxes, before being admonished by an officer to “keep moving.” They could ride elevators with the party elect and watch longingly as they disappeared into the closed-off upper levels of the Quicken Loans Arena, known as the Q, on their way to the Founders Room, the 45 Club, the Senate Cloakroom, the House Cloakroom, and the Grand Old Party Suite.
Two rifts in the Republican Party still needed patching up. The first rift was between Trump and Cruz. The serious Tea Partiers considered Cruz to be more reliable than Trump, a “Democrat in disguise.” The Day 2 Melania/Michelle plagiarism flap didn’t help on this front, nor did the high drama of Day 3, when Cruz himself took the stage, espoused a fusion doctrine of Tea and Trumpism, slammed Obama for exporting jobs and importing terrorists, but, in the end, failed to endorse Trump. This might not have come as a complete surprise to the inner circle of Trump’s camp, but whatever information they had was closely held. The rest of the convention was stunned by Cruz’s impertinence and nearly drowned the end of his speech out with boos.
The Floor was choppy as the sea in changing weather. “All he [Cruz] had to say was Make America Great Again,” said Adrienne King, delegate of Hawaii, who was furious about Cruz’s betrayal. “He would have brought the house down.”
“Get off the stage!” hollered Clifford Young, an alternate delegate from California. A few minutes later, I asked him why he was so angry at Cruz. “It’s sour grapes,” he said. “He needs to go back to Texas. And stay in Texas.”
Cruz was finally out of the way. Trump had the nomination, but it would take some time before the hearts and minds of his people would belong to Make America Great Again, shortened to MAGA. Late on Day 3, after Cruz’s speech, one Cruz die-hard fired a text message off to her friend as she fled the Floor by elevator: “I’m done with these A-holes who are angry with Cruz.” Even at her moment of greatest anger, she did not type out the full expletive. It would be hard for her to come around to a man like Trump.
The second rift, a deeper one, though less conspicuous, was between Trump and the old-guard establishment of the Grand Old Party, many of whom had decided not to show up. John Kasich, Ohio’s governor, had skipped the convention after reportedly spurning Trump’s offer of the vice presidency. So had the Bushes, a blue-blooded, white-shoe mafia of bankers and oilmen. Trump had bullied Jeb Bush with merciless brilliance during the primary debates. Now he risked being shut out from the family’s fundraising apparatus, relationships that had been accumulating interest for three generations. There was no Mitt Romney, no Henry Kissinger, no John McCain. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the varsity captains, did show up and give serviceable speeches, and Marco Rubio appeared by video. The grandest old party man who Trump’s people could drum up was Bob Dole, who gave no speech, just a private luncheon at Morton’s steakhouse. It was said to be for his 93rd birthday.
Few have explained the essence of Make America Great Again with the clarity of Grandpa Simpson. “I used to be with it,” he said, to his son Homer and his son’s friend Barney, having caught them rocking out in front of a mirror. “But then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me.” Then came the curse: “It’ll happen to you.” Grandpa Simpson’s words echoed the two questions that Rudy Giuliani asked on Day 1: America! What happened to it? Where did it go? I looked to the delegates for answers.
John Rosado, an Arizona delegate who had kitted himself as George Washington, complete with breeches, buttoned topcoat, and a tricorn hat, blamed it on Teddy Roosevelt’s progressivism. I asked for something in his lifetime. He offered Lyndon Baines Johnson. If only Johnson had been willing to stick it out in Vietnam, Rosado said, we would have won the war. “Walter Cronkite gave it away,” he said. “It was when he said, ‘We can’t win this war.’ We were winning. The politics gave it away.”
Thomas Stark, a middle-aged lawyer and delegate from North Carolina, wore white suede bucks and a seersucker suit. A few minutes into our conversation, Stark told me that he was the general counsel for the state party, an unpaid position. He said this with such humility that it almost sounded like an apology. He said the Democrats were the party of Hobbes — fear and top-down government. The Republicans were the party of Locke — government leaves man alone, man rises to his best. Stark’s enthusiasm for Trump was solid, but the mortar was still hardening. Trump was “transitioning,” Stark said, from businessman to policymaker. “I hope the country doesn’t lose its spiritual base,” Stark said in a quiet voice, one that held its own field but made no claim on others. “It really rounds things out.” I asked Stark what he meant by spiritual base. He seemed slightly taken aback, as though I ought to know the answer. “I don’t know if I can put it into words,” he said.
Drew Danford, a younger delegate from Texas and party precinct leader, makes his living selling insurance. He said that America’s decline began when people started identifying with a “subculture” or “microcosm” before they identified as Americans. A subculture could be a sport, a hobby, a race, or a religion, he said. Some were explicitly contrary to American values. “Disenfranchisement” was his name for this phenomenon. As a young man, he said, he had suffered at the hands of some police. “If I was black,” he said. “I would have thought it was racism.” As we spoke, Danford went out of his way to be courteous to passersby, but he was also watchful. He had heard stories of protestors throwing urine-filled balloons at police, something that was widely reported but difficult to confirm.
Sitting beside us on the concrete lip of Cleveland Public Square was Danford’s fellow Texas delegate Joshua Sanders, a forklift operator. Sanders told me that “the politicians have decided it’s suitable to give them —” by which I took him to mean Danford’s subcultures “— preferential treatment, in order to appease their cultural values.” I asked him for an example. He brought up sanctuary cities, where undocumented immigrants can live without fear of arrest. “In a sanctuary city, you can drive with no license and no insurance,” Sanders said. “Whereas if I were to drive with no license or insurance, I’d be arrested.”
Al Baldassaro, delegate and state representative from New Hampshire, Marine Corps veteran, adviser to Trump on veterans’ affairs, constant wearer of a camo Make America Great Again hat, is best known for advocating during a radio interview the killing of Hillary Clinton by firing squad “for treason.” He is now under investigation by the Secret Service. One night outside the bar of the Westin hotel he told me that some of his nieces and nephews were African-American and Puerto Rican. When he heard them speaking against the police, he knew America was on the wrong track. He blamed Obama. “He should be their mentor,” Baldassaro said. “Instead of this Black Lives Matter business, he should be standing up for the police.” He moved on to trade, and immigration.
I told Baldassaro about a study by the World Bank that found that immigration does not cause a significant decrease in host-country wages, and that it takes a generation or two for new immigrants to start competing with the rest of the labor force. By that time, most have gotten the right papers. Many have changed their names, Drumpf to Trump, or given their children first names from the dominant culture, like Rudolph William Lewis Giuliani. Some of their descendants may choose to dye the roots of their hair, shave the bumps off their daughters’ noses, and slick their sons’ hair back into a helmet, a haircut I saw on the heads of delegates of all races. The essence of the Trump brand is conformity, a genetic conversion from loser to winner.
Baldassaro parried away my beloved World Bank study with an anecdote about the undocumented immigrants he had seen gathering around open-air labor markets in New England towns. As for the Drumpf stuff, I didn’t have the wherewithal to say it at the time.
There were not many Muslims to be found in the Q. To the RNC’s credit, the Day 2 benediction was delivered by Sajid Tarar, founder of American Muslims for Trump. One person reportedly chanted “No Islam!” but these three syllables failed to catch fire. On Day 4, I spoke on the Floor with Amjad Bashir, a British Muslim born in Pakistan, and a member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire. As a member of the Conservative Party, he had come to observe the proceedings of his Republican cousins. He had a neat gray beard, glasses, and a dark suit. He said he had been displeased when Obama weighed in on Brexit, which he supported. Brexit was the business of the U.K., not the U.S.
Of Trump, he said, “Whoever you choose, we will respect.” He said that Islam was a religion of peace, and that “any sort of terrorism has to be condemned.” I brought up Giuliani’s speech, and his repeated use of radical Islamic terrorism. “Speaking generally,” Bashir said, “I am critical of anyone who singles out any community, or any faith. … I think people should be very careful.”
Some have compared Trump to Hitler. I think that’s a stretch. When Hitler spoke, he was feeling it. He was buying his own bullshit, as the saying goes. Nazi rallies, I imagine, had the vibe of a really good rock-and-roll show, something like the Beatles or the Monks during their Hamburg club years. “The applause was so loud and insistent that I had to respond with several encores,” wrote Leni Riefenstahl, who directed “Triumph of the Will.” “I was numb with happiness.”
The applause for Trump at the Q was loud. Sometimes it was insistent. But at other times it had an obligatory, whipped-up feeling. There were no encores. Like late Chavez, late Castro, and late Dylan, Trump seemed to be going through the motions, expending just enough energy to convey a virtuoso image to his fans, those who are unwilling to look and see the tired man on the stage in front of them. On TV, it might have looked like charismatic ecstasy between the altar and the pews. On TV, whipped-up might have passed for fired up.
Did I see what I saw, or what I wanted to see?
Trump took the stage around half past 10 on Day 4, Thursday, to deliver a speech that the next morning’s papers would call “dark.” (Giuliani’s was “fierce.”) By now, I had heard Trump boosted up as a “blue-collar billionaire,” “a true patriot and champion of the common man,” and “the ultimate ringmaster.” Giuliani, in video form, got a massive cheer. “He [Trump] can make us feel like what we should feel like,” Giuliani said.
In addition to clumsily grafting a bit of Michelle Obama onto Melania Trump, whoever was writing the teleprompter copy was trying to soften up Trump the man while hardening his platform. It wasn’t easy. The many members of Trump family who appeared on stage all emphasized the father’s kindness, but other than Giuliani’s testimony about Trump’s de-anonymized donations to police and firemen, specific examples were hard to come by. Ivanka, the lady-scion, who could pass for the Princess Diana Kardashian, who had Manafortian influence over her father and his business, talked about Trump’s habit of clipping out stories from the newspaper. The stories, she said, were about people in some kind of distress. Trump would then summon them to his office to give them charity. Not one of these recipients could be found to testify firsthand about the goodness of their alleged benefactor.
Trump’s life, Ivanka said, was one of deals, of building. “Judge his competency by the towers he’s built,” said Ivanka. “Only my father will say, ‘I’ll fight for you.’”
TRUMP. The five letters of #MAGA’s chosen one manspreaded on the high screen. The low screen offering a digital backdrop crowded with flags hanging slack on their poles. I had never seen Trump’s face projected at such size. I was most taken by his mouth, expressive and elastic. The mouth had only two expressions, satisfaction and contempt. One for profit, one for loss. Then there was the automatic smile when he felt obliged to display some warmth. I thought of the way that Donald had hugged Melania, grabby and abrupt, then the stagy ‘Look at her!’ point of the finger, accompanied by a half-smile. The half-smile had a diamond shape, like a kite. The chin formed the bottom point and the mouth formed the cross-spar. The creases running up and down, on either side, were the sides.
… I am your voice … I know the time for action has come …
Trump’s eyes were small and blank. They looked to be blue-green. The face, red, elastic, and now rather sweaty, was trying to compensate for the deadness of the eyes with its reluctant caricatures of unfelt emotions. At times, Trump’s patronizing manner threatens to simmer over into outright mockery of his audience, as though he can’t quite believe they are actually stupid enough to buy into such a weak charade.
Then came the rhetorical scalpel, the heart of the speech, the keystone that was held back from the pre-released remarks. In 66 words, Donald turned Drumpf to Trump, loser to winner, immigrant self-hatred into nativist superiority.
America is the nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics! Remember, all of the people telling you, “You can’t have the country you want,” are the same people that wouldn’t stand — I mean, they said, “Trump doesn’t have a chance of being here tonight. Doesn’t have a chance!” Oh, we love defeating those people, don’t we?
Those people. Naysayers. Terrorists. Anarchists. Barbarians. Hippies. Bill. Hillary. The Islamic State. The media. The ones who say, “Trump can’t win.” Against this universal enemy, Trump offered himself up as the embodiment of a universal grudge.
Day 1, Giuliani: You know who you are and we’re coming to get you!
Day 3: Cruz: What if this right now is our last time? Did we live up to the values we say we believe? Did we do all we really could?
Day 4, Trump: History is watching us now. We don’t have much time.
Of course Trump can’t win. Everyone from both parties knows this is true. It must be true. It can’t be otherwise. Is it a fact? Or is it a wish?
One hundred and twenty thousand balloons fell from the ceiling, particles in the void. We don’t have much time. They spread across the Floor in tricolor drifts, knee-high, waist-high. Two security men hustled Giuliani by me. The three men moved like a conga line. Giuliani was in the middle, his hands draped on the shoulders of the man in front, the man in back holding him up by the waist. I thought of a question that it would have been good to ask Giuliani, although now it was too late. Two days before, my colleague Alex Emmons, who is sure-footed enough to capitalize on such moments, caught Giuliani in the hallway leading to the Floor and interviewed him for three minutes. Emmons asked Giuliani to name one useful lead, one terrorism plot that had been thwarted by the years of Muslim profiling in New York City. “Of course I cannot,” Giuliani said, almost immediately. “That’s top-secret information.”
Giuliani told Emmons that Hillary Clinton might reveal that sort of thing. Rudy Giuliani, the former No. 3 in the Department of Justice, would not. He would release a dead man’s sealed juvenile arrest records to help win a seat in the U.S. Senate. But he would not explain what was gained by surveilling thousands of New York City Muslims in their restaurants, businesses, and places of worship. On Sunday, Trump suggested that he might issue a ban on Muslims from certain countries, including France and Germany, from entering the U.S.
The working-class delegates were loading onto their buses. The fancier people, the ones with downtown hotel rooms, were bottlenecking up around the exits. For a few minutes we were packed in between high walls of black steel mesh. Somewhere, people with better credentials were being whisked away to the Founders Room, the Grand Old Party Suite, the Senate Cloakroom, and the House Cloakroom, to their awaiting jets, borne in the back of their Chevy Suburbans, their pathway cleared by the motor officers’ sirens, gliding through the hidden over-world, a world with no lines or walls. The walls that trapped us upper-mid-level delegates and press had been intended to keep the un-credentialed protestor/barbarians from violating the party’s sanctuary. Now we were the ones who wanted to get out. The walls were making it harder.
On the train out from Cleveland I traded seats, aisle for aisle, with a young man in a Trump T-shirt. We knew which side of the line the other was on and treated each other with the grim courtesy that had kept the peace throughout the week. As the train approached Pittsburgh five hours after midnight on Friday, I saw the young man looking at a feed on his phone. I asked if I could follow him.
Sure, he said. I’m Martian Hoplite.
Hoplite, I asked. Is that a Vonnegut thing?
A hoplite is a citizen-warrior, he explained.
On his Twitter profile, Martian Hoplite describes himself as a “working class aristocrat. Partisan for truth. Pro-western. Aspiring Martian. Shitlord.”
Martian Hoplite’s avatar is Marv, the gun-toting noir hero from Frank Miller’s “Sin City.” One of Miller’s other graphic novels, “300,” is about 300 Spartans — hoplites, citizen-warriors — who kill many hordes of Persian barbarians at Thermopylae, not one of them a civilian. The 2007 film adaptation of “Sin City” grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. My guess is that the runaway success of “300” may have given Miller the freedom to devote his energies to connecting with a slightly narrower audience, what is known in Hollywood as a “passion project.” Miller’s 2011 graphic novel, “Holy Terror,” is about a war undertaken by a Batman-like superhero who graphically slaughters terror-minded Muslims. “For some reason,” Miller once said in an interview with National Public Radio, “nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth-century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw peoples’ heads off.”
Only my father will say, “I’ll fight for you.”
The train was pulling into Pittsburgh.
I asked Martian Hoplite if I could ask him a question for the record. He agreed.
“Are we at war with Islam?” I asked, the question that I had wanted to ask Rudy Giuliani. Martian Hoplite took a moment to think it over.
“We’re not,” he said. “But we should be.”
To read Part One, click here
What we saw from the floor of the Republican National Convention, in two parts.