CLEVELAND ― On Monday, after futilely navigating the security perimeter at the Republican National Convention, a dejected and very sweaty Huffington Post reporter ducked into an empty bar for some consolatory chicken tenders.
There wasn’t much doing at City Tap on Prospect Avenue. A few locals made small talk about the crowds, and some waitresses languidly patrolled the empty tables, but otherwise things were pretty dead...
...that is, until the polar bear walked in.
Well, not a polar bear per se. Actually, it was a man in a fairly cumbersome costume, toting a sign that read “WHAT WILL YOU DO TO SAVE ME?” He was at the RNC with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit, to protest the Republican Party’s environmental platform. Watching this man sweat bullets while decked out head-to-toe in faux fur illustrated the plight of endangered creatures in a warming world far better than any sign possibly could.
For people who didn’t follow the RNC closely this week, it might have looked like wall-to-wall chaos, lurching from one disastrous moment to the next ― be it a plagiarism scandal or a roundly booed speech from a certain Texas senator ― and saturated with the pomp surrounding Donald Trump’s various arrivals, departures and speeches. But here in Ohio, the whole thing was defined as much, if not more, by prolonged periods of dead time, interspersed with flashes of the absurd.
These bursts of weirdness occurred with little warning. You might be walking out of a sparsely attended panel hosted by dry Beltway types, only to bump into someone holding up a sign calling 9/11 an inside job. You might find yourself listening to convention speakers going off-script for cringe-inducing lengths of time. Or you might be strolling across the convention grounds and suddenly spot a very unofficial bus with the words “TRUMP #WOMEN TRUMP TRUMP” painted on the side, and a vanity license plate reading “SCHLONG.”
Take the convention floors, which are often depicted as raucous and discordant goat rodeos ― where querulous attendees are mere seconds away from bashing in each other’s heads with placards, smashing their boater hats to smithereens; where party officials dart to and fro, frantically manufacturing moments for the camera; where NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is nearly drowned in celebratory balloons like the victim of some kind of super-twee mine collapse.
The thing is, a lot of the time, the convention floor at Quicken Loans Arena just felt like the early, boring part of a wedding reception ― the part where the band plays easily digestible Motown songs, and most of the older attendees sit stone-faced at their tables and cast disapproving glances at their new in-laws while picking at the surf and turf. Except in this wedding reception from hell, the old people never left, the band never moved on to fresher material, and if the audible snatches of conversation were any guide, the griping about the groom’s family never fully ebbed. “A real girl next door, huh?” quipped one North Carolina delegate during Melania Trump’s address Monday night.
Adding insult to injury, the whole thing was dry.
Things were particularly surreal in and around the VIP section, which, to extend the wedding analogy, served as the world’s most awkward sweetheart table. Delegates, reporters and party operatives filed past to gawk and yell encouragement at the convention’s keynote speakers ― all of them sitting perfectly still as they listened to the nativist diatribes emanating from the stage.
Can we know for certain what was going through their minds? No, we can’t. But to paraphrase the man who could soon be in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal, if you looked at the body language, there was something going on.
Everything is fine, Mike Pence’s unmoving face seemed to say, although maintaining that frozen half-smile for hours on end couldn’t have been comfortable. The things Ben Carson is saying are completely logical and appropriate.
Everything is fine, Eric Trump’s motionless expression seemed to tell onlookers as the electricity in the arena sporadically flickered out. These plunges into darkness are in no way a metaphor.
Everything is fine, Melania Trump seemed to broadcast in her characteristically poised way. Why wouldn’t we invite Antonio Sabato Jr., former star of “General Hospital” and erstwhile Chippendales dancer?
For all the hullabaloo about the hall’s belligerent response to Sen. Ted Cruz, discontent with the party’s standard-bearer simmered throughout the convention, adding a palpable discomfort to the proceedings.
“I was never on the Trump train,” one young attendee told her friends in the elevator. She pulled out a bright red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap. “But I got this hat,” she continued, “and so now I am.”
“Do some of you have reservations about Donald Trump?” Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, asked a Thursday reception celebrating the Young Republicans’ 80th anniversary. Hands shot up around the room, and about half the people grunted in reply, before Duffy proceeded to offer a defense of Trump.
“I understand what motivates people to go to Trump,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Bill O’Brien, a Cruz supporter. “The problem is that they identified all these problems and then they say, ‘Oh, it should be Trump.’ It’s crazy.”
“Trump is really not the guy that I wanted to support,” said Steven Goddu, a Republican activist also from New Hampshire. “It’s just that he’s not Hillary.”
A similar tension hung over the main protests in Cleveland’s Public Square, two blocks northwest of the arena, where police, demonstrators and Trump supporters milled about, waiting for a confrontation that never came.
It was a strange atmosphere. On Thursday night, as police from as far away as California lined up in columns around the city square ― some of them on horses, some armed to the teeth ― protesters and locals alike went about their evenings as if nothing were amiss.
Children played in a fountain, while at a wine bar facing the square, a protester and a Trump supporter squared off over table tennis next to people sitting on picnic benches, sipping wine and noshing on tapas. All of them seemed blasé about the possibility of imminent hippie-punching.
Ultimately, though, no hippie-punching materialized. And on Friday morning, as Trump let loose with a typically unwieldy and undisciplined press conference, the truth of this year’s RNC became clear. A week that would have been a historic catastrophe for any other candidate in any other year was, for America’s strangest presidential hopeful, just business as usual ― even, maybe, a little underwhelming.