CLEVELAND _ It’s two o’clock on the first day of the Republican National Convention, and I’m at a divey sports bar called Panini’s about five blocks from the convention hall. I came here because I was hungry, and they serve these killer pastrami sandwiches on sliced Italian bread with fries and coleslaw all mashed in. I used to eat them all the time in college when me and my buddies in Akron would drive to downtown Cleveland and booze. That’s why Playboy got me credentials for the convention and paid for my rental car from New York. It wanted someone who knew the city to be here writing about it.
Of course that means I can’t just sit around eating sandwiches all day. I have to do some actual writing. I was told there’s some space set up for journalists in the convention hall, but the line to get in there was two blocks long and wasn’t moving. So here I am in a wooden booth surrounded by framed Browns and Indians jerseys. One of only two people in place—the other an old-timer regular with a cane who’s drinking a vodka neat. Black Eyed Peas “Boom Boom Pow” blasting on the speakers.
The way the reporter is hurriedly walking backward and gesturing frantically with her arms…fucking hilarious.
On one of the dozen TVs a live CNN broadcast of an anti-Trump march. The reporter who’s walking with the group looks super intense and frazzled, and now there’s a split-screen with an anchor who looks to be asking her very urgent and serious questions and looking concerned about her colleague’s safety. Which is pretty hilarious considering I just saw that same march pass by Panini’s huge picture windows. It wasn’t big. Maybe a hundred people. Most of them nerdy-looking college-aged kids. Not the least bit menacing. No one covering their faces with bandanas or Anonymous masks. But to look at this CNN broadcast, the way the camera is zoomed in close to make the crowd look bigger than it is, the way the reporter is hurriedly walking backward and gesturing frantically with her arms…fucking hilarious.
I’ve been walking around downtown for the past three hours looking for stuff to write about. But, to be honest, there isn’t much that seems like a real story. There definitely are a few characters. The old longhair with the denim vest carrying a homemade cross that reads “Vote For Jesus” and playing a harmonica. The dude in the furry polar bear costume walking around with a sign about climate change and totally sweating his balls off in this 80 percent humidity. This 26-year-old guy from nearby Lakewood named Jesse Gonzales wearing a camouflage Make America Great Again hat and a T-shirt of the old Nintendo game Duck Hunt and an unloaded AKM247 strapped to his back.
Here’s a good story, I thought. There’s been all this talk about Ohio’s open-carry law and how there are going to be all these guns at the convention. But until I ran into Jesse, I’d only seen two, both small-caliber pistols. Nothing you wouldn’t see on a trip to the mall in Ohio—where, yes, people absolutely still shop at malls. I asked Jesse a couple questions about his AK clone. “I got it two years ago,” he said. “Five-hundred bucks. Shipped to a license dealer. Did a background check. Procured absolutely legally. I’m carrying it downtown at the RNC, one, most importantly, because I can, and, secondly, because I think if you stop exercising rights they disappear.”
But before I could ask him any more, a photographer from some news organization whose name I didn’t catch jumped in and requested a quick portrait. Then another reporter all the way from Germany asked for an interview.
“There’s been like 15 mics, dude, following me around,” he said to me by way of apology. “I’ve been standing in this same place for like an hour.”
So far there are a lot of journalists in Cleveland and not a lot of stories. It was the same down at Settler’s Landing Park, where there was a rally for something called the America First Movement, which is apparently a conglomerate that includes a dozen groups like Tea Partiers for Trump, Bikers for Trump and InfoWars. There were a few dozen spectators listening to speakers like Kelli Ward, who is challenging John McCain for his Senate seat in the Arizona Republican primary. Most of the spectators were biker-looking dudes in ball caps and NRA or InfoWars T-shirts. But there were way more journos. You can tell because they all wear their press badges around their neck. You don’t need to. Not unless you’re going into the convention hall.
Pretty much everywhere else downtown you can walk around without a badge. Security is actually pretty loose. There are shitload of cops and some road closures and fences. But it’s way easier to get around than I figured it’d be. Yet even as I look out the window of Panini’s right now I see all these people walking around wearing their lanyards. They’re all so proud of themselves for being among this super-select group that got special access to the most important news event of the year. And there we were, a bunch of the chosen ones, gathered in this park at the edge of the Cuyahoga River. Doing stand-up reports in front of cameras. Sitting on the grassy hill typing into laptops. Scribbling into notebooks. But reporting what? Scribbling what? Photographing what? Nothing was happening. Nobody was saying anything we haven’t heard a hundred times in the last few months.
One thing I definitely did not expect was that I’d start to sympathize with the right wing’s hatred of the so-called biased liberal media.
Trump is going to bring jobs back and stand up for vets and all that. What was the story here? There wasn’t one. But all these big media companies had paid all this money to fly in all these journos and put them up in price-gouging hotels and pay for their meals. What, were they supposed to not do their jobs? Were they supposed to not use their pens and cameras? Were they supposed to just sit there like me looking at the Nautica Queen party boat and reliving high school prom? That all-white tux with the tails that I wore. How I couldn’t drink because I was taking Accutane for my acne, and that shit fucks with your liver. How beautiful it was standing at the prow of the boat and all the people from outdoor bars along the river yelling congratulations to us as we passed. Of course you can’t write about that. Nobody gives a shit about that.
I expected a few things from this week in Cleveland. Meet some protestors. See some marches. Maybe get tear-gassed. But one thing I definitely did not expect was that I’d start to sympathize with the right wing’s hatred of the so-called biased liberal media. The Lanyards. I admit I thought I was special too when I found out I was going to the convention. I admit I felt proud when I told people I was going. Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer and all that. But actually being here, it just all feels so condescending and exploitive and intentionally circus-like and utterly unrelated to the problems that real Americans are facing everyday.
But if the media is fooling much of the American public, they’re not fooling Jesse Gonzales. As I left him, he was talking to a leggy blonde TV reporter in a tight red dress.
“What do you shoot with that gun?” she asked him. “Clay targets?”
“Not in a while,” he said. “But what are you doing the rest of the week? Maybe I could take you.”