It finally happened. I finally saw him in the flesh.
All week, he’d been the spectre looming over Cleveland: on T-shirts and placards, gurning from buttons, the face of the effigies I’d seen protesters carrying around town. And then on Thursday night I stood on the floor of the Republican National Convention, surrounded by delegates from across the nation, and watched Donald J. Trump deliver the longest convention speech we’ve heard in decades.
It wasn’t a Trump rally as such – there were characters like black pastor Mark Burns who reminded us that all lives matter, and Dr. Lisa Shin, the Korean-American optometrist who said Hillary Clinton was a “threat” to the American dream – but there was no doubt, from the audience’s enthusiasm for chanting “TRUMP” every so often, that this was The Donald J. Trump Show.
In person, in front of a wall of digital stars and stripes, his tan is less shimmering than on television – more of a dull burnish – and, weirdly, his thin lips are the exact same colour as the rest of his face. If I may put on my “salty grandmother” half-moon spectacles for a moment, please... his chin is weak. The overall effect is cartoon-like – he’s essentially a shiny egg with sweat on his top lip. But these people in the Quicken Loans Arena must love omelets, because they’re going wild for this egg.
I started my night on the second tier of seating in the arena, high above the delegates teeming on the floor below. But by the time Trumpling #1 – aka Ivanka Trump – had come out to sell us on the idea of her father as a Lancelot for a distressed nation of Guineveres, I had made it to the floor, not far from the Washington and Arizona delegations. Quite a few white men have attended Trump rallies and moved among Trump fans (as so many in this arena were) with the ease that comes with being white and male. It’s the same ease employed out in the wider world; why wouldn’t it apply here? But in that arena, I felt several things. I felt 5 feet and 4 inches tall (I think that’s how tall I am). I felt black as obsidian. I felt like a Muslim and a foreigner. And in the time I spent down on the floor, I did not feel generous, or very kind or thoughtful, and I think I know why. I was scared – and not for my physical safety, which never felt truly threatened, despite one man’s continued jostling, such was the fervour of his passion. But standing there, listening to repeated chants of “TRUMP” and “LOCK HER UP” and “BUILD THAT WALL” and “U-S-A” whir around and above me, I was scared in a way that made my heart thump, and my eyes water.
I suppose I was scared that people could think like this, en masse. I was scared because it was apparent that people had bought into the idea that under Trump taxes would be lowered (damn near abolished, from the way he was talking), but bridges and roads would be rebuilt and jobs would be magicked out of thin air, and manufacturing jobs especially would make their long-awaited comeback into the American workforce and a border wall would be built and guns! Guns for everyone who wants them, because dammit that’s your constitutional right and all lives matter except apparently those killed by cops (who are infallible at all times) and God bless the little children, especially those unborn ones.
There was a dreamy element to all the spontaneous praise for Trump I was overhearing, a collective this is our guy.
I was scared because I was looking around that arena, and it felt like I was at church, but the men and the women at the pulpit were preaching a nonsense gospel, built on the cult of a sort-of charismatic leader and made up of dogmatic half-truths.
Earlier this week, while I was thinking about the nature of charm and charisma, I realized charm is a transaction. The person being charmed needs to already have the seed of belief in them for any message to truly land. All around me were men who might’ve looked like kindly pawpaws (and probably do, to their grandkids) – men with age spots and white hair or no hair at all – whooping like teenage boys, clapping delightedly, giggling, even. The people surrounding me in that arena believed in Donald Trump (as well as all the other speakers) utterly; the charm had landed.
When Trump talked about knowing the system better than anyone, and how that made him the only one who could fix it, an older man behind me turned to his companion, and said “I love him” in the awed tone of voice the Bob’s Burgers teen character Tina Belcher might use. When Trump tried for self-effacing as he thanked the evangelicals for their support – “I’m not sure I deserve it” – another man near me said, “That was a great line,” the admiration in his voice evident. There was a dreamy element to all the spontaneous praise for Trump I was overhearing, a collective this is our guy. Like when your friend tells you about a man she’s met, and sighs, chin in hand, breathlessly saying, “He’s the one.”
Trump had convinced these people they were living over a hellmouth and he alone could save them. Forget Buffy Anne Summers, vampire slayer, and welcome Donald J. Trump, CEO-in-chief. How could you not adore the person promising to slay all of America’s demons?
I’d never watched Trump for this long before but in watching him mesmerise the crowd, I began to notice his bag of little tics. He has these five or six little moves that he can’t help himself from doing. He touches his wattle lightly, right above the knot of his shiny red tie; he does thumbs-up, pumps his arms back and forth; he mouths “thank you” and narrows his eyes in... what? I think he’s aiming for humility? He likes to lean back and soak up the applause, chin up, mouth pursed. Every so often he does a little half-turn and paces a little, offering his profile to the room and the cameras, a proud orange rooster. He looks like a little emperor, mannerisms delicate and almost dainty as he asks “How great is our police?” The answering roar is deafening.
By the end of the night, my legs are tired, my brain is tired, my soul is tired. When the balloons and confetti come cascading down from their netted prison high above from gods of the arena, the men and women around me gasp, because balloons make fools of most humans, and, like toddlers, they make grabby hands for the confetti (red, white, and stars and stripes, natch). I make eye contact with another member of the press who’s been standing near me all evening.
We laugh, gently at first, and then harder, until our laughter feels like something infinitely sadder.