In the late afternoon of day three of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, media workers and RNC attendees were blocked from exiting the security zone around the convention center. Past the concrete barriers, lines of police, and double layers of 10-foot tall steel-link fence, a protest was swirling. It was the American flag–burning hyped all day by members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a tiny Maoist-style group known for provocative but ultimately harmless political stunts.
From the security tunnel, apparently modeled on checkpoints dotting Israeli-occupied Palestine, it was difficult to distinguish protesters from media in the crowd of hundreds. Heated yelling drifted above the tightly packed throngs, but there was no smoke to be seen.
The mere threat of a piece of colored fabric being set alight was enough to trigger a lockdown. Rent-a-cops started herding bewildered media out of the tunnel. When two columns of beefy riot cops in full body armor began filing out to take up position near the protest, security swooped in to clear media out of a parking lot where the tumult could be observed.
On the scene was dozens of Bikers for Trump, loudly lecturing how the flag-burners would be killed in any other country. The imminence of violence is a refrain on a right that glorifies its weapons as instruments of peace. The previous day when I took a photo on the street near the convention of a knot of muscleheads all wearing the same 2nd Amendment t-shirts, one told me, with approving nods from his compatriot, “If it wasn’t for the First Amendment, I would have smashed your camera.”
These gun-clingers hadn’t figured out the Constitution is not an a la carte menu they can pick and choose from, and eliminating the First Amendment would usher in the tyranny they rant about as imminent.
But this moment fits into the hollowness of American democracy. One flag was eventually lit, giving the media dramaticimages to splash on their front pages and an opportunity for police to flex their muscle, unleashing pepper spray and arresting four. It also gave the RCP a chance to hijack an earlier immigrants-rights protest and art display to “Wall Off Trump” and his hate with hundreds of feet of canvas painted with brick walls and chain-link fence.
With protesters largely frightened off by police and FBI visits and the public gripped by fear of lone shooters, Black nationalists, and Neo-Nazis, the protests have been reduced to small packs moving through an empty downtown.
But the protests serve as a jobs program for media ravenous for a morsel of news given the convention hall is devoid of life for at least 18 hours day. And the protests serve as a real-life simulation for the police to test out all their weapons and tactics and electronic gear.
More important, with the government and media hysteria having squelched genuine dissent, these protestitos serve a role in maintaining the appearance of popular democracy under the control of a police holding the line against complete anarchy. The moment anti-Trump protesters come within range of pro-Trump demonstrators, police leap into action and isolate the two sides with democracy-free zones. Ideas must be contained, free from any potential contamination.
Any threat of violence is overblown. Alex Jones bellowed about his violent showdown with “Communist Black Lives Matter, when in fact footage shows him clumsily body checking a protester after being lightly pushed. But the purpose was served: cameras rolled, police sprung into action, and Jones got to play at brave truth teller for another day. And the audience at home imagines Cleveland is a crazed scene on the verge of open warfare when in reality it’s devoid of people other than low-age workers, hustlers, limelight-seekers, thousands of bored cops, and a stirred-up anthill of journalists scouring digital trails for any photo op, comment, or interview no matter how minor.
The protests mirror the inside of the Quicken Loans Arena where the RNC is being held. That the stage for a white-nationalist Republican Party is affixed with the name of a company accused of high-pressure tactics and predatory home loans in a city where the African-American community has been devastated by the foreclosure crisis beginning under President Bush and continuing under President Obama is a stellar example of image triumphing over substance. Just blocks away in nearly every direction are abandoned buildings, cracked streets, and the down and out.
Near the Wall Off Trump demonstration I caught up with Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. Widely praised for his coverage of the foreclosure crisis and Wall Street crash, Taibbi lamented of the dog-and-pony show, “We are in one of the poorest most fucked-up cities in America and we have 10 million journalists here and all they are doing is making a spectacle out of all this.”
The second night of the convention, entitled, “Make America Work Again,” should have been labeled a disaster. Thirteen months into his campaign, Trump has yet to offer one concrete idea of what he will to help the millions of Americans caught in poverty or barely keeping afloat. Nothing about how he will return manufacturing jobs or boost wages other than an incessant loop of superlatives: “great,” “amazing,” “incredible,” “tremendous,” “unbelievable.”
On the flip side, Trump has indicated how he will make the economy worse—by trying to deport 11 million immigrants, starting trade wars, and ratcheting up diplomatic tensions with U.S. allies.
But the top story for the media three days running is Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech. “Make America Work Again” was a rerun of the first night squeezed of the bloodlust: more Benghazi, more Clinton, more Trump family time.
There was never a golden age of American democracy, but as Cleveland is showing, even the pretense of it is dead. What remains is hi-tech cameras and cops circling a hollowed out public. Both parties and the Fourth Estate are complicit in this fiasco. This may be the most absurd election ever, but the real reckoning is yet to come.
Arun Gupta is a co-founder of The Indypendent and the Occupied Wall Street Journal. He is writing a book on the decline of America empire for Haymarket books.