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The Circus Comes to Cleveland

Feature: Pseudo-events at Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention

Stop Trump
Demonstrators march during the Shut Down Trump & the RNC protest / AP
• July 18, 2016 8:10 pm

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CLEVELAND, Ohio—It is flattering to be in Cleveland for the GOP convention as a member of the press, because everything that happens here is really for me. Not me specifically, of course, or even primarily for writers at online newspapers—TV stations with large audiences are obviously higher up on the press heap—but the media as a whole, with its ability to broadcast events and to shape public opinion about them, is the whole reason-for-being of this vast, tense pep-rally.

Nothing is actually going to happen here, politically speaking, so if it weren’t for us, what would be the reason to hold this expensive, disruptive get-together? The failed effort to force a floor vote on the rules package, which, had it succeeded, would still have failed to stop Trump’s nomination, will likely be the closest thing this week to anything resembling political "news" in the strict sense. And, again, it failed. As most expected, the will of a plurality of GOP primary and caucus voters will be respected, Trump will be crowned, Scott Baio will speak, and the Republican Party will continue its hard tack toward authoritarian, blood-and-soil populism.

But what’s important is publicity for the candidate and the campaign, and we, the press, will provide it. What’s important for the protesters outside the Green Zone—a wholly just comparison, as Cleveland is an occupied city, with regiments of police and federal officers and a fair few troops from the National Guard on hand—is just the same: attention from the press, in the protesters’ case preferably at a level all out of proportion to their generally small numbers.

Cleveland in 2016, despite some hope in recent weeks that something might actually happen here, will be, like all modern political conventions, a manifestation of what Daniel J. Boorstin called "pseudo-events"—events that masquerade as "news" but in fact are carefully controlled gambits for attention. A pseudo-event’s relationship to actual events is that of the circus to military battles.

Politics aside, if anything is going to happen here it is likely to be outside Fortress Quicken Loans, hopefully not in the form of a terror or anti-police attack, and more likely in the form of some sort of unrest between pro- and anti-Trump activists in the streets. But to achieve a "chaos in Cleveland" narrative (there’s a good pseudo-event word) the anti-Trump protestors, judging by what I have witnessed, will need to up their game considerably.

Monday’s principal protest, a "Stop Trump" march from a downtown park to the main pedestrian entry point of the RNC, deployed a few hundred noisy but relatively well behaved demonstrators, shadowed by a substantial number of police and scores of photographers. More police were in reserve, hidden away in the lobbies of public buildings downtown. I watched about a hundred or so slip inside one from a convoy of school busses that came from who-knows-where. The police are keeping large formations out of sight until needed, and can appear very quickly when the need arises. It is surprising when you see large numbers of them, because they seem to appear out of nowhere. Last night I observed platoons of them gliding around the industrial river-side flats on bicycles, all wearing matching headlamps and doing who knows what, besides contributing to the generally surreal sensation that prevails here.

It would be bad for Cleveland if chaos breaks out downtown in the next few days. People here are worried: a waitress at a restaurant near the RNC told me that three cooks no-showed for work today out of fear for their safety. It’s not clear to me that it would be bad for Trump. Chaos in Cleveland, if it comes from the left, would very likely strengthen Trump’s appeal as a law-and-order candidate, and motivate his supporters to vote for the man who claims he will reverse the slide towards disorder and public anxiety under the Obama administration.

Trump and the protestors are, in this way, symbiotic—and both have a similar understanding of the importance of the media. At least two of today’s demonstrations provided press contacts, and even small groups of agitators understand the game perfectly well. A small group of men, no more than ten, one of whom told me they represented "Jesus’ Church" gathered in Cleveland’s Public Square this afternoon. A few wore "FEAR GOD" hats and wore military equipment, though I didn’t see any guns. The ringleaders then proceeded to shout some nasty, Westboro Baptist Church style arguments regarding who was going to heaven and who was getting the spiritual shaft, so to speak.

This of course immediately attracted the attention of some college kids and a small number of ANSWER Coalition types who were hanging around the square. Words were exchanged. Things got tense. The press gathered.

Then came a few dozen officers on horseback—again, seemingly from nowhere—and several dozen more on bikes, from departments across Ohio and the Midwest. In a manner reminiscent of the Roman Legions on an easy day, the leaders of the bike contingent shouted some orders ("SINGLE LINE! COLUMN OF TWOS!") surrounded the Westboro-types, and then escorted them out of the park. One of them thanked an officer within my hearing for the efficient tactics of the detachment of cycles. I saw on Twitter that the Westboro-types had set up shop a few blocks away, aiming to repeat their success at gaining attention.

It is a cliché to observe this, but only because it is so often true: many, many more reporters were watching and photographing this theatrical production than there were actors in it. But that’s the game—say something outrageous, cause a ruckus, get noticed by the press, and achieve some sort of influence on account of the notice.

It is no exaggeration to say that Trump has built his career on this tactic—he’s not the king of New York real estate, as he once boasted he wanted to be, so much as the king of pseudo-events, of "publicity stunts." Showing up to talk at the convention tonight, an unprecedented move by a presumptive nominee, is a perfect example of his stock in trade. The reaction of the press, which loves to cover "surprising" micro-transgressions against the customs of pseudo-events as though such matters actually constituted news, is entirely in keeping with the rules of the game.

Trump and the protestors may or may not need each other, but they both need the media. Trump needs the media even when he’s abusing its members for being unfair to him, to transmit this very abuse of the press to his voters, and get them angry at yet another coastal elite driving the country in an internationalist direction. And the media? Well, we need them all.

Published under: 2016 Election, Donald Trump, Feature