For four days this week, I walked around downtown Cleveland during the Republican National Convention. Countless journalists from media outlets large (HuffPo, the New York Times, TIME, The Economist) to small (Nigerian television, student newspapers) asked me: Why are you here?
My sign made it clear what side I was on. "Trump Threatens American Values" is pretty straightforward, after all. But what brought me to Cleveland went much deeper than picking a side. I'm a lifelong progressive, yet it had never before occurred to me to attend a political convention, Republican or Democratic. Though I have definite opinions, and I believe there are strong differences between candidates from the two major parties, most politicians are politicians. But Donald Trump is different--and not in a good way.
My tipping point came when he began giving interviews promising to use torture on suspected terrorists. (He also briefly threatened to wipe out their families, but ultimately walked those comments back.) For me--and I like to think for millions of Americans--this proved to be too much. Here was the presumptive presidential nominee of one of the two major parties bragging about committing illegal acts. War crimes, actually. Not only is the threat inhumane, but also bad policy. Advocating torture just gives anti-American groups more recruiting fodder and puts our own people at risk of torture if they're captured.
This was the last straw in a now well-worn litany of offensive statements (no need to recap them here). To me, his most chilling policy positions play on anti-Muslim, anti-"other" biases. Besides the pro-torture comments, he wants a ban Muslim visitors and legal immigrants, states "Muslims know who the terrorists are" and should be forced to spy on their neighbors, and calls for a registry of all Muslims in the U.S.
Though not a Muslim myself, I live in a diverse community with many recent Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. I'm proud my country can provide a home for people fleeing desperate circumstances and give them a chance to start new lives. Their experiences mirror those of my own family, whose members came to America early in the 20th century from Slovakia, Italy, and Poland.
So I made plans to head to Cleveland. I packed up the car with sign boards, markers, and my wife, who insisted on coming along if only to bail me out should things turn sour. As it happened, the feared riots, melees, and mass casualties predicted in the media beforehand failed to materialize. If anything, the whole thing was surreal. It was an odd experience--in a city (briefly) filled to the brim with Republicans, I quickly learned this deeply Democratic region welcomed me (and my sign) with open arms.
In between a march on day one and a rally at the end of day four, I carried my sign around Public Square and the surrounding streets in the hot sun. Reporters seemed surprised to meet a middle-aged white guy wanting to talk about Trump's torture and anti-Muslim stance. On day four, I switched to a new sign decrying Trump's anti-NATO, pro-Putin position. Again, this is a topic I think Americans of all political persuasions can agree on, including several RNC delegates who gave me the thumbs up.
Many pro-Trump folks taunted me, but I chose to walk away. With them, I let my sign do the talking. And despite the constant looming presence of young men brandishing AR-15 assault rifles to demonstrate their love of Ohio's open-carry laws (and of Trump), the streets of Cleveland remained calm.
The violence was instead occurring inside the Quicken Loans Arena. Not the physical kind, despite some close calls during the chaotic rules fight of the #NeverTrump crowd. Rather, the violence of negative, nationalistic speechifying and hateful rhetoric--the kind that threatens real American values.
By the time Trump gave his messianic, "you're all doomed without me" acceptance speech, I had long since stopped questioning whether I'd made the right decision to come to Cleveland. If ever there was a time to step off the sidelines and make my views heard publicly, this was it. Whatever happens in this election, I will be able to say I took my sign to a (political) gunfight. What will you be able to say?