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Bread and Circuses in Believeland

The 2016 Republican National Convention. Don’t think of it as an archaic construct of the byzantine American electoral system designed to limit direct democracy and preserve the power of the oligarchic elites. Don’t think of it as a procedural laden cacophony of ayes and nays and roll calls and the bitter gaveling down of votes. Don’t think of it as a gathering of the forces of darkness plotting their overthrow of the barely functioning institutions of the American government.

As a Canadian traveling in a familiar but oh-so-strange land, I say, think of it as a cultural expression of the wonder that is middle America. Think of it as a festival of entitlement and the high-pitched umbrage of white privilege. At the very least, think of it as a chance to get to know Cleveland a little better.

Beginning July 18, Cleveland hosted over 50,000 out of town visitors, including 5,000 delegates and their alternates, thousands of other guests and hangers on, at least 2,500 police and security, swarming hordes of journalists from across the globe, low-wattage celebrities (two soap opera stars, a low-ranked female golfer who doubles as a swimsuit model and was fired from Celebrity Apprentice, and a past-his-prime television star from the 80s) and a noted Slovenian plagiarist. For four days, photographer Kyle Grillot and I wandered the city, drinking, eating, and talking to people: Republicans, Democrats, independents, and anarchists alike. We went straight into the belly of the beast and mingled with the delegates. We drifted through the pods of protesters. And we travelled off the beaten path to parts of the city where the RNC was an afterthought or a distraction. This is what we found.

Quicken Loans Arena

The arena in which the convention was held was a constant roil of bodies and sounds, with journalists lining up to interview the brighter, flashier delegates as they queued to eat at either the “GOP Bistro” or the “Republican Roadhouse.” Seriously. The food on offer is standard American fare (burgers, hot dogs, pizza, fries) for delegates dressed mainly in the traditional garb of Republicans. Most of the men were in blue blazers and creased trousers, their hair high and tight. The women sported well-tailored, modest dresses, and prim pearl necklaces.

There were some signs of life in the food lines. The Texan delegates had Lone Star Flag shirts, ten-gallon hats, and bright cowboy boots that clattered on the concrete floor. The Tennessee Delegates sported synthetic coonskin hats that were meant to honor Davy Crockett, but, if I’m being honest, looked a little more like a Trump-hair piss-take. Montana sent its people in denim vests. The Hawaiians had bright shirts and wilting leis. And amid it all were a few free-thinkers decked out in red, white, and blue from head to toe, or festooned with campaign buttons from long forgotten races. At least one man from Missouri dressed up as Abe Lincoln every day.

Freedom Square

Just outside the arena, but still safely tucked inside the security fence and behind lines of police officers, was the oh-so-subtly named Freedom Square. There, insulated from the chaos outside, conventioneers could mingle in the sunshine, as well as buy beer, wine, and food from a number of regionally-themed stands. There were pierogies from the Midwest, pulled pork and cheesy grits from the South, and burgers with a Western theme. And although there was some local beer, including Unconventional Ale, an extremely mild pale ale made for the event by Thirsty Dog brewery, it was more likely you’d see a delegate with their hands around a Coors Lite. I looked for, but could not find, an East Coast booth serving tofu and egg-white omelets washed down with a sip of Chardonnay. Also, unsurprisingly, there was no Mexican food.

We spent a lot of time mingling with the heart and soul of the Republican party over food and drinks. Many the attendees were wary of the liberal, elite, lamestream media and dismissed us with barely a grunt. But we managed to get a few to talk to us.

We met Diane Shindlebeck, a delegate from Michigan, as she was enjoying a Ketel One and cranberry under the hot sun. She was about as enthusiastic of a Trump supporter as could be humanly possible. Ivanka Trump herself might have told Diane to calm down a little and consider all the implications of his candidacy.

“I’m excited for Donald Trump to be our nominee and to take back [the] White House… Oh my gosh. Eight years ago, I was on his train before he was… I really appreciated and was attracted to his business sense. And then when he started to talk about his policies on trade and immigration, I just got on his train and every time I hear him, I love him more. He’s going to do what’s right for our country and I think he’s going to be the right person and he is going to appoint the right staff to have the people to work with every body throughout our world and just work together… I am his number one cheerleader.”

Theresa Manzella travelled from the Bitteroot Valley in Montana. Pairing red wine with shrimp, bacon, and scallion served over grits was not her only regret. She struggled to say positive things about her candidate, slowly finding words to through long pauses.

“Well, he was the last man standing… He is certainly better than the alternative… His strengths [are] that he is a political outsider. He is decisive. Strong. He has leadership skills… He is impulsive. Probably some of the same things that are his strengths are also his weaknesses. The fact that he is decisive, maybe a little too decisive, to be a world leader. Possibly. I guess that remains to be seen.”

But, despite misgivings, some of those who voted for others in the primaries recognize that Trump has a unique set of political skills and appeals to a particular group of voters. We spoke with Mike Baker, an alternate delegate from Pennsylvania, at a table next to the central bar. He supported Ohio Governor John Kasich, but looked forward to leaving the primary strife behind and getting into the national presidential campaign.

“November is three lifetimes away at this point. You know, it depends on what happens come October, what’s the economy like, what world events happen between now and then. When he says, you know, our trade agreements are not working, people get revved up about that …You’re looking at a lot of middle class people who are losing their way of life. They want to be productive. They want to contribute. They want a job. They don’t want a handout.”

We kibitzed with Timothy Bendel, from Chugwater, Wyoming, as he waited for his burger and Coke. Timothy was dressed in black leather and denim from head to toe and was tired of Republicans caving to Democrat demands. He was prepared to get behind Trump but he was deeply frustrated with the party at large.

“He’s not my first choice but I actually agree with most of what he says. He’s just a very abrasive person but I can look past personality and skin color and bad hair. And as long as he keeps his promise he’ll be fine, we’ll be happy with him… We’re sick of wimpy Republicans that give the Democrats everything they want…. We’ve got to resist all gun control. What happens is Democrats just chip and chip and chip… And over the course of several decades, we won’t have any rights at all. …People go to Washington and then they stab us in the back…. As a Cruz supporter I am not especially thrilled…but like I said if he just keeps his promise the party will survive, hopefully the country will survive.”

Fourth Street East and Euclid Avenue

It can take forever to get out of the perimeter, standing in a hot, sweaty line with hot, sweaty Republicans and hotter, sweatier journalists lugging cameras and wires and make-up bags. Once you do make it out and through a gauntlet of police, you step into the carnival of chaos that is 4th Street East.

Under normal circumstances, any top-ten list of Cleveland restaurants will send you five or six times to somewhere around this street. Iron Chef Michal Symon, for example, has two joints on the east side of the street. But for this week, many of the restaurants have been bought out by media or political establishments looking for prime real estate to set up operations and ply their wares.

Spilling onto Euclid Street for a few blocks in either direction are tables with vendors selling Trump t-shirts, buttons, hats, posters, life size cutouts, paintings of Eisenhower, and some Cleveland Cavalier swag for good measure. Threaded throughout the positive political messaging is a tremendous amount of virulent anti-Hillary Clinton material. There are calls for her imprisonment. There are buttons ridiculing the size of her breasts and thighs. There are t-shirts with lewd references to her and Monica Lewinsky. She’s called a bitch and a traitor.

We met Jeff when he shouted out that he was selling cold beer. He wasn’t. It was water. He had come up from North Carolina to make some money. He also sold Trump t-shirts and was wearing one that said “Anybody But Hillary.” He is planning on traveling to Philadelphia for the DNC next week where he’ll change shirts. Thomas was a passionate Sanders supporter. He was lukewarm on Hillary. He was deeply suspicious, even conspiratorial, about Trump.

“I think he has an another motive, ulterior motives. He’s a billionaire. So the office of presidency is under his pay grade. He didn’t need it for fame and notoriety because his face is everywhere. So why’s he doing it? That’s the question. He didn’t even have a platform. He just insulted people on the way to the top. …So that tells me, being of sound mind, there’s another plan.”

Public Square

For those of you keeping track at home: the area where the delegates sip beer and eat burgers far from the madding crowd is called Freedom Square. And the part of downtown where the protesters and demonstrators rail against the RNC, the Democrats, each other, sin in general, and anything else you can imagine, is called Public Square. I swear I am not making this up.

Public Square has roots in the very founding of the city. It is a sprawling plaza of concrete and grass in downtown Cleveland, just a few blocks from 4th Avenue East. Demonstrations rise and fall and ebb and flow in the square with little organization or co-ordination. There is a dazzling array of causes and movements of different import and complexity. Code Pink. Black Lives Matter. Anti-war. Anti-poverty. Anti-vaxxers. A whole lot of Jesus-based offerings, some loud and laced with the imminent threat of divine retribution and the violence of fiery afterlife. Armed militia. Free huggers. Fringe candidates. Performance artists. One man whose sole mission in life is to raise awareness of the risk of smartphone induced stampedes at NFL games. And a few dozen other assorted free-thinkers, oddballs, and misfits.

The protesters have a similarly varied choice of food. Along the north side of the square is an array of food trucks that change and shift position in line every day. There is an anti-GMO organic café in the corner where people on the opposite sides of political issues can sort out their differences through a game of ping-pong. And for those who are a little less well-heeled, Food Not Bombs, an anarchist collective whose mission it is to feed the hungry, pull a surprisingly well-organized series of wagons through the square offering free fruits, vegetables, sandwiches, and even a few brownies to the protestors regardless of their politics. Everybody has to eat.

We found Shaq standing in a cloud of rib-smoke at Beckham’s B&M Bar-B-Que. He’s been cooking ribs for 25 years and, except for telling us to cook on high heat and always keep flipping, wasn’t offering up any of the secrets that made them fall off the bone and balance the smoke flavor with the sweet-sour tang of the sauce. His primary focus was on making money during the RNC but he was guardedly receptive to the idea of Trump bringing change.

“We’re down here at the Republican Convention hopefully to learn a few things and make a little money in the process… Something different may be what we may need. I mean, who knows? I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and really think a whole lot about a whole lot of what’s been going on. I’ve been so busy, but something different may be what the nation needs.”

I spoke to Steve Carr as he waited in line at Papa Nick’s Calzone Zone. He was carrying his traveling cross. It’s hinged in six different places and folds up small enough to carry in a backpack so Steve can travel with it on public transportation. He has one at home that doesn’t have any hinges that he can only use within walking distance or if someone gives him a lift. He was careful to point out that Jesus did not carry an actual cross but just the top piece, which, as the good book tells us, was nailed to a tree. He didn’t say anything about the Bible’s position on calzones.

“Just came around to tell people about the love of Jesus. And point them in his direction… We’re not here on either side. In fact, we were just down at the pro-Trump rally and now we’re looking for the anti-Trump rally. Do I have an opinion? Yes. Do I think I know who’s most likely to win? Yes. Do I really care today? No. Today I am here about Jesus Christ.”

St. Clair – Superior

Sitting on the front stoop of the Slovenian Museum and Archives at St. Clair and East 64th, we could have been in just about any American city east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line. A long, straight, four-lane road pitted with potholes and cracked asphalt, lined with shuttered buildings and a few small businesses scattered here and there. Every little while an old 70s muscle car with thoroughly modern rims rumbled by. The RNC might as well be happening in a different city altogether.

The poverty and crumbling infrastructure is evident and is set off in stark contrast to the sharp and gleaming city center. The real story of these few days has been how great Cleveland is. It has an amazing energy and it oozes Midwest charm and openness. It really has pulled itself from the brink and avoided the collapse from within that has plagued so many other Rust Belt cities. But this stretch, and the many neighborhoods like it around Cleveland, have yet to be lifted by the rising tide.

This part of the city is a food desert. It is difficult for locals to get fresh, healthy, and affordable food. There are no grocery stores, no markets that sell much other than processed foods heavy with sugar and fat. Food Not Bombs usually holds a weekly community dinner here. But, to compensate for effect the RNC has had on transit and other public services, this week they’re having a dinner every day. It is nothing fancy. Hummus. Bagels. Cherries slightly past their prime. Some bananas browning in the sun in front of us.

Maggie is one of the organizers for Food Not Bombs. All week she’s been helping organizing the feeding of protesters downtown. A lot of her time has been spent negotiating red tape endlessly with city officials to get her permit. At the same time, she’s been supporting the daily community dinners in St. Clair-Superior. It won’t surprise anyone that Maggie is not a Trump supporter. But she’s not a big fan of the Democrats either:

“Food Not Bombs doesn’t support any party or candidate. We’re an explicitly anarchist organization. Both candidates are racist. Both candidates are pro-war. And I’m not real thrilled with the idea of either of them running the country.”

For more from the belly of the RNC beast, find Roads and Kingdoms on Instagram.

Benson Cowan and Kyle Grillot
Benson Cowan and Kyle Grillot Benson Cowan is a writer who lives in Toronto with his two daughters and a poorly trained Jack Russell. Kyle Grillot is an independent photojournalist based in Dayton, Ohio and Los Angeles, California.
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