The Art of the Plain Deal: A Report from the RNC in Cleveland

By Tom Zoellner

CLEVELAND — An invisible line split the concrete plaza. On the north side, protestors with a megaphone clamored in practiced order, poking signs into the air. One read “Trump: An American Embarrassment.” Barely a hundred yards away, a tubby man in a cowboy hat spoke into his own microphone to tell the story of his son who had died of an overdose. “Donald Trump is going to protect our southern border to keep the heroin from getting in here,” he growled, before launching into the campaign ballad “We’re Going to Make This Country Great Again.”

The opposing crowds at these popup events eyed each other curiously from the plaza, as nearly a hundred police officers kept watch over both at the margins. As an exchange of ideas, it was a joke. But nobody was arrested; there weren’t even any arguments. The event had the air of a set piece performed by actors who knew their lines and spoke them with gently nasal Midwestern accents.

“I haven’t seen the Cleveland hellscape apocalypse the media kept telling us about,” said Dr. Bryan Hambley, the chief organizer of the Stand Together Against Trump rally, who said he gave credit to the “pro-Trump people” for the leeway. Television journalists from around the world eager to get the “mayhem” story their editors had anticipated swarmed small demonstrations in such multitudes that it was hard for them to avoid filming each other.

Politics is often described as a clash of competing interests, of which protests are a blunt-force version. But it was scenes of grudging cordiality that had unfolded all week in Cleveland, the beat-up and deindustrialized – but relentlessly gracious – city experiencing a brief spillover of national attention from the Republican National Convention.

For most observers in Cleveland, the Convention had the surreal flavor of reality television beamed in from elsewhere. As Scott Baio and other trivia-question celebrities delivered tributes to the nominee inside the Quicken Loans Arena, the rest of the city watched with a mix of bemusement and silent dread. They feared a riot or another police killing might put another dent in the reputation of a city that has already endured years of hard kicks.

Bad enough for Cleveland that its premier civic arena bore the logo of a company whose very name evoked the fast-buck mentality that created the mortgage collapse of the previous decade (perhaps this is why locals were so quick to dub it “The Q”). It was also that the rhetoric about a broken America trying to find its way back to former greatness is consistent with a local narrative about a once world-class city coping with a modern inferiority complex. “Cleveland has always been defensive about itself,” said local attorney Patrick DePace. “I’ve lived through so many bad incidents, but I will tell you that we’ve always had hope.”

Modesty was written into Cleveland’s character from the start. The first streets and a grand plaza called the Public Square were laid out in 1786 on a bluff above the marshlands by a surveyor named Moses Cleaveland, whose wildest dream was that the town might one day have as many people as his native Connecticut village (pop. 2,000). The founder stayed three months and never returned, and only one member of his expedition was confident enough to remain and build a cabin. The first newspaper, the Cleveland Advertiser, didn’t have room for the town’s full name in its banner and pragmatically dropped the “a” to make it fit. Another early newspaper, The Plain Dealer, screamed insults at abolitionists during the Civil War but went on in a more sober frame of mind to become the dominant daily. (Winston Churchill once commented it had “the best newspaper name of any in the world.”)

Cleveland thrived because heavy goods like steel and gasoline could be made on the Cuyahoga and shipped away on Lake Erie or the Ohio Canal. The mills took in iron ore from Minnesota, coal from Pennsylvania and fired it up into skyscraper girders and bridge supports. A thin-lipped Baptist striver named John D. Rockefeller built an oil refinery down at the mouth of a creekbed called Kingsbury Run; his Standard Oil would intimidate, rate-fix, and plunder its way toward a national petroleum monopoly. The oily gouge later became a dumping ground for the corpses of the drifters and down-and-outers mutilated by the 1930s serial killer The Plain Dealer called “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,” or, more squeamishly, “The Cleveland Torso Murderer.” He was never caught.

By that time, Cleveland had arranged itself into hard geographic patterns of race and class: the Poles clustered around the steel mills of Fleet Avenue; the Czechs and Italians near the garment factories of Central Woodland; the Eastern European Jews on East 55th Street below the refineries. They worked hard hours, drank at the union halls, named their children after forgotten grandfathers, and decorated their two-story houses with curtains and side gardens. The managerial WASPs, meanwhile, got themselves away from the coke sludge of the mills as fast as the cornfields west of the river could be leveled to make space for detached houses. The Cuyahoga became the true cleavage of Cleveland: west of the river was understood to mean generally white; inner-east was generally African-American. Radiating at the center of it all was the fourth-tallest building in the world, the 52-story beaux-arts Terminal Tower at the southwestern edge of the Public Square and above the tracks of the Nickel Plate Railroad, crowned with a colored strobe beacon that could be seen from far across Lake Erie and helped guide planes into the airport.

The American industrial twilight of the 1970s also spelled slow ruin for the economic motors that powered Cleveland. Republic Steel closed down most of its local plants. The missile-building giant TRW, which started life as the Cleveland Cap Screw Co. in 1900, was sold to Northrop Grumman and moved away to California. Standard Oil of Ohio got bought by British Petroleum, which redrew the logo, merged with Amoco, and kept its home on the Public Square for the briefest of decent intervals until fleeing for Chicago. Between 1950 and today, Cleveland’s population dropped by nearly two-thirds. Comfortable houses of brick and Tudor half-timber got chopped into cheap apartments. Some of them burned for insurance money, and the inner-ring neighborhoods took on a gangrene look — the sign of long-term, systematic economic rot. The belle époque estates of Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue, once called the “Showpiece of America,” almost completely disappeared. Derelict lots, gyro restaurants, and a few lonely CVS drugstores now line the corridor; its grand mainline churches either went to sacred ivy-covered ruin or were awkwardly mounted with new signs announcing a struggling Pentecost assembly or Holiness temple. As if to seal the gloom, Cleveland lost its football team to Baltimore in a midnight move, and the totality of its awfulness in other sports left it without a national championship for 52 years, the longest drought in history.

Promised renaissances came and went. Developers opened a set of fratboy bars and nightclubs down in a set of warehouses called The Flats, but the air has gone out of their efforts in recent years. The grand Public Square — the centerpiece of Moses Cleaveland’s original urban plan — recently got a $55-million facelift and a Jack Casino now runs blackjack tables and slot machines in a lobby astride the Terminal Tower, which also features three levels of mall stores. Today’s big economic drivers are a combination of universities like Case Western and Cleveland State and hospital systems like the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital — what economists call “eds and meds,” which themselves rely on a significant amount of federal cash. Those who can get at least a little baccalaureate education can still cobble a living together, but the city’s overall poverty rate stands at 40 percent.

“No longer the mistake on the lake, we are a city on the rise — unless you venture into our forgotten, neglected neighborhoods,” said the Rev. Tracey Lind of Trinity Cathedral from her pulpit on Sunday. She said later: “We are a city out of alignment. We have some of the best hospitals but some of the worst mortality rates. Some of the best universities, but one of the worst literacy rates.”

Cleveland gets up for work and slogs on, like the nation that surrounds it, no matter what the feverish end-days prophets say. It can rightfully brag about the haute accouterments of a great city that it still possesses: the arts museum, the ballet, the spotless cars on the Rapid Transit Authority trolley system, its well-regarded orchestra — and its relative lack of racial tension. The boundaries between black and white neighborhoods appear to be fuzzier than those in most American cities of such scale.

This détente was put to a severe test on November 23, 2014, when a police officer named Timothy Loehmann, later described as “emotionally disturbed,” answered a call about a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice reportedly pointing a gun at people in a public park. The officer jumped out of his car and shot Rice to death within two seconds; the boy’s gun was an Airsoft toy. The District Attorney declined to prosecute Loehmann with a carefully written report widely considered a cover-up, and yet Clevelanders did not riot. That isn’t their way. When the long-suffering Cavaliers won the NBA championship earlier this year, 1.3 million people choked downtown for a celebratory pan-racial parade with a bare minimum of trouble; the politeness was almost as much a source of local pride as the basketball triumph. The common wisdom about the GOP convention — held smack-dab in the middle of a month dominated by news of overseas terror attacks and domestic police violence — held that, if trouble were to start, the fuse will have been lit by those coming from the outside, and certainly nobody from here.

On the Sunday before the start of the convention, and just two hours after news broke of the murder of three police officer in Baton Rogue, several thousand people spread across the Hope Memorial Bridge — named for the father of comedian Bob Hope — for a half-hour of silent meditation overlooking the convention center where all the spangled tumult was about to start. “All reminds me of the fall of Rome — people are becoming shallow and angry,” said a woman named Judy Slivka, wearing a T-shirt from St. Malachi Catholic Church. “Our character as a nation is just flowing away, along with respect and courtesy for others. The new economy has hurt people. If there’s no jobs, people go to the lowest denominator.”

A few minutes later, a nun named Sister Rita Petruziello instructed the crowd through a megaphone: “We need silence if we’re going to touch souls… So you’ve showed up. Now you’re going to shut up.” And then after the giggles and murmurs had passed, a double-chain of Clevelanders held hands and kept quiet on the bridge overlooking the Quicken Loans Arena. The only consistent sound was the buzz of a light airplane which had been hired to circle downtown trailing a banner reading “Hillary for Prison 2016” — followed by the web address for the voluble Texas conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who later almost got himself arrested after a scuffle on the Public Square. After an air-horn sounded ending the silence, dozens of Clevelanders shook hands one-by-one with the police on bicycles assigned to guard the event, an impromptu line-up reminiscent of two Little League teams slapping hands in sportsmanship after a game.

Republicans picked this likeable, careworn city as their coronation site back in 2014 not because of the Democratic machine that has essentially controlled municipal politics here for generations. The big Republican power and money lies in the white-flight suburbs, where Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald lobbied the GOP on the premise that it lie at the top of Ohio — one of the six states that usually decide the presidency. That was the same year FitzGerald lost a race for governor to John Kasich after an electrician spotted him in a parked Ford Focus at 4:30 a.m. and called the police. The woman he was with was not his wife, but what made the incident public was that FitzGerald, a former FBI agent, had been driving without a valid license.

Understandably wary of truck bombs, rioting, assassination or a thousand other unpleasant outcomes, the city police and the U.S. Secret Service took extraordinary measures to create a labyrinth of metal-mesh fences, hydraulic vehicle blockades, swinging gates and pat-down checkpoints called the “hard zone” around the Quicken Loans Arena, with borrowed officers from Kansas, California, Indiana, Wisconsin and many other jurisdictions positioned outside, along with an unknown number of undercover officers wandering around like awkward demonstrators or lost tourists.

Inside this fortress of concentric circles was the husk of the Republican Party, missing 18 of its senators and many of its elder statesmen who — for reasons both electoral and personal — wanted nothing to do with the Trump D-list celebrity freakshow. Today’s rump parliament was a shadow of the Republican Party of just twenty years ago, which used to fancy itself the guardian of the sober Volksgemeinschaft: the afternoon lemonade and the evening newspaper; the bank vice president and the Presbyterian church picnic; the genteel polity of thrift and prudence that thrived in Cleveland’s leafy ring of freeway suburbs like Kirtland, Seven Hills, and Lakewood (where FitzGerald had been the mayor).

Founded as a protest movement in 1854 against the weak-kneed Whigs, the Republicans stood opposed to the expansion of slavery into Nebraska. The election of their nominee Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 triggered the flight of southern states. For generations in the northern tier of industrialized states, the Republican Party became a convenient device to wire up the county courthouses and ensure local patrimony in the multitudes of Clevelands and little farming towns that dotted the country.

The Republicans became the party of big corporations after the 1896 election of the Ohio coal-mining lawyer William McKinley, and then the party of soft segregation after the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, who campaigned on a platform of “states’ rights,” which was always code for nullifying race-mixing schemes, and “law and order,” which meant silencing dissent. (N.B.: on the first day of the convention, Trump advisor Paul Manafort told reporters the campaign was looking explicitly to Nixon’s message as an inspiration).

By the 21st century, Republicans had come to embody traditionally Southern political values: visible patriotism, distrust of cities and their ethnic coalitions, celebration of the individual striver, broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, opposition to anything that smelled of income redistribution, hostility to federal programs of justice or equalization, and wariness of spending by any government agency except the military.

Then three key technological advances exacerbated the agonist narrative. Sophisticated mapmaking software made it easy for state legislatures to draw spiky Congressional districts nearly house-by-house, ensuring at least 227 complete or nearly complete safe seats for the GOP in the House of Representatives, allowing these lawmakers to “govern” without thought of compromise or moderation. Meanwhile, the Internet had broken the backs of the television networks and the big-city newspapers, ushering in the proliferation of rancorous pamphleteering of a sort that hadn’t been seen since the administration of Andrew Jackson. Sites like Newsmax, the Drudge Report and The Daily Caller pumped out streams of stories that cast doubt on President Obama’s background and greeted his every action with moral outrage (Brietbart: “Obama’s Disrespectful ‘Latte Saulte’ Shocks and Offends”). Compromise and horsetrading — the standard route to getting anything done in a legislature — became impossible. And most visceral of all: cell phones with video cameras became as standard as belts and wallets, allowing bystanders to capture the kind of routine police violence against black people that had been going on all along. Despite years of steady economic and legal progress, during the two-term administration of its first black president, the country has been rocked by the sense that race relations have never been worse.

These factors — gerrymandering, pamphleteering, and racial bias in policing — have plagued the nation since its founding, but they have been supercharged by technology. The culture of moderation and shared destiny that had bound our disparate communities is weaker than ever. Into the breach stepped Donald Trump, the publicity-crazed real-estate promoter from Queens who had first inserted his name into national politics by sending a team of detectives to Hawaii to ferret out the truth about Barack Obama’s birthplace. On June 16, 2015, he announced his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and then won an astonishing number of primaries by eschewing the traditional methods of flattering county chairmen, attending church suppers, and paying teams of consultants to sand down a canned message. Instead, Trump flew himself into rallies in downtown convention centers with something like the political version of the traveling medicine show, the paranoid culmination of which played out at the Quicken Loans Arena this week. How else to describe an event at which one of the invited speakers is soap opera star and underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr., who tells reporters that Obama is “absolutely” a Muslim and is “with the bad guys”?

There was a moment in the pre-birther career of Donald Trump that seemed to capture the mysteriously appealing blend of bad taste, simple-mindedness, and greed that has characterized his presidential campaign. In the first season of his reality show The Apprentice he had sixteen young adults perform symbolic business tasks in competition for a “job” with the Trump Organization. After surviving fifteen episodes, a young man named Bill Rancic emerged at the top of the pyramid and was handed the keys to a Chrysler Crossfire convertible (“A brand-new car!” in the parlance of game shows). With arms outstretched, Rancic bounded down to the sidewalk toward the driver’s side door of the shiny blue car. “Unbelievable!” he screamed.

The final credit sequence showed Rancic’s beaming face on a dash-cam as he piloted his gift through the electric ziggurat of Times Square, on his way toward Trump Tower. The sum of our basest yearnings crystalized in that moment: there he was, our benefactor, with his winner’s thirst for the kill and a magic-button solution to Make America Great Again by rescuing us from the alliance of treacherous elites at the top and parasitic minorities down below. He’d put us all into American-made luxury convertibles for a ride down the avenue of dreams. We know in our hearts it cannot be true. But something in us loves a scoundrel and hungers for simple answers.

Though Trump’s career of hotel-branding has been checkered with exaggerations and lies, it does not seem to bother his admirers, who see in him a refreshing willingness to say what many are already thinking. Years of low-wage labor has brought them nothing but debt and uncertainty, and they resent the government entitlements (even the word rankles) given to those who don’t seem to be even looking for a job. A typical politician — the lowest of insults — would not dare stand up to this scam.

“Trump has a backbone,” said Michael DeFrancisco, a dispatcher for a Cleveland-area courier company. “He doesn’t care about being politically correct. He’s not a politician. You’ve got people working their asses off for five and six dollars an hour, and the immigrants are even taking those jobs. Politicians have run this country into the ground. This $22-trillion deficit, I don’t know about anybody talking about this besides Trump.” DeFrancisco has worked in the same job for fourteen years and received a raise of just 43 cents in that time. “I work my ass off and I can barely stay above water to here,” he said, pointing to his chin. He used to be a huge sports fan. Now he listens to political talk radio; for him, its emotional intensity has replaced those of baseball and football.

Though a typical Trump speech is a farrago of insults, self-praise and ADHD-like topic-switching, some old-line conservatives see enough policy content to persuade themselves he must have some bona fides in there somewhere. “A vote for him is a vote for a conservative who can win,” said Dr. Laurence Schiff, a Trump delegate who works as a jail psychologist in Kingman, Arizona. “You have your establishment guys like Jeb Bush and they don’t understand how you talk to those millions of people who stayed home when Mitt Romney was on the ballot. There’s a disconnect between the Washington elite and the voters.”

I spoke to Schiff at the Doubletree off Interstate 77, one of the dozens of local hotels swarmed by well-dressed delegates, many of whom had paid approximately $5,000 for the privilege of sitting for hours inside the Quicken Loans Arena watching Rudy Giuliani, once a Republican moderate, wave his arms and screech an ominous warning: “There’s no next election! This is it!”

Outside the hard zone, a protestor from the feminist group Code Pink yelled into a megaphone about gay marriage and abortion rights at a group of evangelicals until she seemed to run out of things to say. She took a deep final breath and ended with a simple half-hearted: “Fuck you!” Nobody paid attention. Nearby, a sunburned man preached about the evils of pornography and anal sex, while a counter-protestor held a sign over his head reading, “This hate is just visiting. Cleveland Loves.” The man holding the sign said later that he and the screamer had a cordial exchange during the standoff. Each understood the other’s game. At the Public Square, pair of young men paraded around carrying a sign reading, “Socialism Sucks!” — an act partisan performativity designed not to convince but to provoke. “I just had a 20-minute debate with a neo-Nazi and we agreed on nothing,” exulted 19-year-old Timon Prax. “But I loved it. This is what this city is all about!”

This was not the worst epigram for a GOP convention heavy on pessimism and light on cheerfulness, and it was certainly better than any unhinged proclamation or embarrassing act of bloodshed that would have clashed so radically with what this resilient and decorous city has stood for. Cleveland has spent more than four decades, for example, trying to live down a minor but photogenic incident. On June 22, 1969, a passing railroad train threw down some sparks onto an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River outside the Republic Steel mill. The blaze was quickly extinguished, but the photographs that ran in Time magazine served to fix Cleveland in people’s minds as a broken city with a hellish physical environment. Visibility in the river was barely six inches on a good day, and the industrial sludge on the surface had sprouted flames many times before.

Today, though, the river is far cleaner, downtown is spruced up, the Cavaliers finally won their championship, and crime rates are historically low, even among a thinner population, which will still be punching a clock and patching together a living even after the red-white-and-blue banners are taken down and the political jamboree leaves town. “I’ve never felt better about Cleveland,” said Patrick DePace. “The defeatism of the previous generations seems to have lifted.”

For an America that seems to be careening in the opposite direction, with one of its major parties pushed to the edge of despair and wailing hysterically about our collective decline, Cleveland’s strong bones stand as an example: it is one of our realist cities, and it endures.

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