The theme of the night was “a wedding from hell.” I tuned in late, missing the national anthem, but just in time for the dancing, which I watched with a mixture of embarrassment and ire. The portly delegates wiggled and two-stepped in that white-person, clap-on-the-on-beat way to “Eight Days a Week” by the Beatles. A coded proposal, perhaps, to extend the work week? A reach, but I was still warming up. So were my Twitter companions, my close-in-age cousins for the evening, who I could sneak around back with for a cigarette or text under the table until it was OK to get up for another glass of wine. I felt pouty and captive, too hot in my dress.
“Hellllooooooo Republicans!” shouted Pastor Mark Burns, this white audience’s new black best friend. The energy in the room was low. Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the famous televangelist and president of Liberty University, had killed the vibe with his robotic and faltering delivery, his “yo mama” joke notwithstanding. (Before he died, Falwell said, his father had a dream in which Chelsea Clinton asked him what “the three greatest threats” were to America. Cleverly—in his dreams—Falwell responded: “Osama, Obama, and yo mama.”) Sheriff Joe Arpaio followed, looking lost and plagued by dementia. At one point he even twiddled his thumbs and looked around, like a confused man at a bus stop, and I felt bad for him until I remembered that he’s one of the most vicious racists in the United States. But Pastor Burns was screaming now, and people were paying attention.
“Those democrats,” he shouted—those “race-baiting Democrats,” he’d called them—“will do whatever it takes to keep focusing on the colors that divide us and not the colors that unite us! You know WHY?” Burns was yelling. “Because together, we will never allow Hillary Clinton to become the next President of the United States of America. Never! Never! Never! Shall never! Shall never! Never will she ever!” The repetition was sort of spellbinding, vaguely reminiscent of King Lear (“never never never never never”), and led to a consequent one-man chant of, “All lives matter! All lives! All lives! All lives! All lives!” The crowd cheered. Burns glistened with sweat. His oratory style owed less to the revivalist tradition than to Lil Jon, who finished third on the thirteenth season of The All-Star Celebrity Apprentice in 2013. Lip service was paid to Black Lives Matter, as Burns admitted he understood the desperation behind the movement. “But the thing is,” he said, his voice softening, “the way that we can solve this problem . . . is to create good jobs!” This, after all, was something Trump promised to do.
Lisa Shin, an optometrist with a private practice from New Mexico, spoke on behalf of Korean Americans for Trump. She looked young in her pearl-drop earrings, younger than the majority of RNC speakers, and she commanded the moral authority of an enraged mother at a PTA meeting. She cried that America was the land of opportunity and freedom, something her immigrant parents understood. Would they ever have thought, or dared to dream, that one day their own Lisa would be onstage at the Republican National Convention, defending the American Dream to the most American of Americans? It was a vindicating moment, the conclusion of a private assimilation narrative, and so baldly personal it was almost too much to bear.
The figure of the triumphant, light-skinned child of immigrants reappeared in, of all people, Peter Thiel. “Back when my parents came to America looking for that dream, they found it right here—in Cleveland!” he shouted. A smattering of applause, not quite the warm welcome this son of Ohio was likely hoping for. I don’t know what I expected from Thiel, but it wasn’t this claim to an immigrant identity, or the strange argument that “all of America was high tech” in 1968—an argument that implied that if only the government had funded more expensive missions like the Manhattan Project or Apollo 11, we wouldn’t need billionaire geniuses like Thiel to save it. His villainy was incommensurate with his position in the line-up, which really augured worse. His meanest dig, directed at LGBT activists and their few GOP allies, like Caitlyn Jenner, consisted of shouting “WHO CARES?” in reference to gender-neutral bathrooms, a debate he said was “a distraction from our real problems.” But even “WHO CARES?” was nothing compared with the bigoted spleen of 2008’s GOP, and the diss was tempered by his claim that he was “proud to be gay, proud to be a Republican, but most of all . . . proud to be an American,” a statement that eight years ago would have been met with boos or worse.
After a gentle motivational video narrated by Donald Trump Jr., who referred to his father as “dominating the world of golf”—an achievement I had missed—a tall, lean man with white teeth and a bald pate took the stage.
“This is a wow!” he said, pacing with the mic. He was Tom Barrack, CEO of Colony Capital, the third largest private equity real estate fund in the world. Like many of the speakers at the RNC, Barrack claimed to have been Donald’s friend for forty years, a number meant to impress (how loyal Trump must be!) but which gave the impression Trump had not made a new friend since 1976. The guy began to ramble, and everyone became confused.
Comments on Twitter converged around the same jokes: Was this guy selling a time share? Was he an estranged relative, called upon to give a speech at the wedding? The anecdotes had no purpose and no end. “He played me like a Steinway piano!” Barrack said at one point, of whom, I’m not sure. “True story,” he said at another, to cue applause, having lost his audience long before. None of it made any sense until Bim Adewunmi, a BuzzFeed reporter at the Quicken Loans Arena, noted that the teleprompter had no text, it simply said “seven minutes.” It was pure improv; the guy was killing time. As the timer ticked toward zero, Barrack ended with an extended metaphor about the “necklace of globalism” having “shattered into a thousand pieces” and needing a jeweler to put it back together. On the FOX live stream I was watching, the camera cut to a woman in the audience wearing a trucker hat bedazzled with Swarovski crystals, who clapped in somber approval.
Then came the crown jewel herself, Ivanka, her entry announced by the opening bars of “Here Comes the Sun.” In pearl earrings and a pink pastel dress, her straight blonde hair parted neatly down the middle, she looked, oddly, like Jennifer Lawrence at cotillion. “My fellow millennials,” she said with a smile, and a gentle, off-screen wind-machine stirred the layers framing her face. Ivanka did not belong to one party or another, she said—she simply voted the issues, supporting the candidate who best represented her interests. This year, that candidate was daddy.
At ten o’clock, I began to fade; this reception had no coffee. I had already read Trump’s speech, which had leaked to the press earlier in the day, and clicked through the Washington Post’s fact-checking annotations. I could go home, it wasn’t too late. But I wanted to see if the Don would go off script—or, I guess, stay on.
He emerged to the sound of swelling strings: two thumbs up. A closed-mouth smile, an open-mouthed smile, eyebrows wagging, voicelessly mouthing the words thank you—so much worse when not spoken aloud, somehow, less of a thank you than an I know. I knew what was coming, but the speech sounded different on live delivery. His promises? To end crime. To tell no lies. To provide fast relief, like a pack of Rolaids. When he cited Hillary’s foreign policy failures—blaming her for everything that’s happened between the years 2000 and 2016—the stadium chanted “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
For a moment, he paused. A beat passed, then two. The audience filled the silence with roars of applause, cheers, chants, and I wondered if he was just soaking it in, letting the waves of approval wash over him—bathing his ego in what felt like love but was really redirected hate, private pain, confusion, and fear. As the seconds passed, he turned awkwardly to the left and the right, tugging at his jacket.
Then the camera cut to the corner of the arena, where a woman wrestled with security guards over a tattered and inscrutable sign. It was the activist Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, who is known to sneak into gatherings where she’s not wanted. Seeing her, I was more heartened than I had any right to be. This was just the RNC, a wedding, a party—not a debate or a swearing-in or even a true coronation, just another fete a rich and red-faced man was throwing for himself. But at least she’d refused to hold her peace.
As quietly as possible, the guards escorted her out. “How great are our police?” Trump said, breaking the silence of his imperious, go-on-I’ll-wait interlude. “And how great is Cleveland?!” Cleveland, the police: my mind flashed to the video of Tamir Rice, just 12 years old, walking through the park with a toy.
The crowd exploded with applause, and sustained this level of enthusiasm for several long and chilling seconds. Trump could win, I thought, not for the first time.
After that, the speech got scarier. Clever jokes were harder to make. I watched for another forty minutes, longer than I should have. But the party went long and I still cut out early, feeling like I’d had enough.