Off-Camera at the RNC

This year’s Republican National Convention, perhaps more than any previous one, brought incongruous segments of American society into close quarters. I didn't have much in common with most of the people I met, but I did have one thing in common with the folks below: All of us were, in our own ways, outsiders.

On the last day of the RNC, just outside “the perimeter” of the Quicken Loans Arena, inside a mall next to the Residence Inn, I met Danny, fifty, from Illinois and Mike, fifty-three, from Wisconsin. They were trying out different insults for “lyin,’ cryin’ Ted" Cruz. Both had been avid Trump supporters since the very beginning of the primaries and have donated money to his campaign. When I asked Danny, a retired trucker, about the DC professionals milling around with “Make America Great Again” trucker hats, he replied, “It’s their greed. And I’m—I’m so sick of it I could puke seven days a week every time I look at 'em.” Mike, an IT professional, was a little more conciliatory. “The insiders here, sometimes they’ll talk to us but it’s usually from the states, not the insiders in Washington. We’ve come from several states over and no one’s offered us a guest pass or nothin’. It’s still the good ol’ boys network.” They were about to leave and drive thirty miles out to a rented cabin to watch Donald Trump give his nomination speech. Neither of them had ever seen him in person.

On Monday, I had attended the Citizens for Trump “America First Unity Rally” at Settler's Landing Park on the bank of the Cuyahoga River. I was standing in the shade next to a man from San Francisco, who introduced himself by asking me, “Have you heard of the globalist banking network?” He proceeded to lecture me about the Bilderberg Group and the “disappearances” of politically vocal people, and how shortwave radio will be the way “the underground of patriots” will communicate. He was an avid reader of Infowars.com, as were most of the 150 or so rally attendees. About twenty showed up to the rally armed with handguns, rifles, and knives.

JD, age twenty-two, and Brittany, age twenty, were sitting on the grass nearby. It was Infowars that turned the young couple from southeastern Ohio on to politics. Both of them wore Infowars-branded “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts. JD wore plastic square sunglasses and sported a bowl-cut. His father worked in a glass factory that was shut down. Brittany was excessively deferential to her boyfriend and JD had the bad habit of answering for her whenever I asked her a question. JD was able to recite the full names of his six favorite Infowars reporters and could pick them out from the crowd of spectators and media gathered at the rally. Others at the rally were able to do the same, which was impressive—I could barely do the same for the publications I most admire. JD even remembered the first Infowars headline he ever read: “Obama Now Global Head of Al Qaeda.”

Inside the arena, I met nineteen-year-old Jorge Villareal, an alternate delegate from Houston, Texas. He grew up in a low-income Mexican immigrant family and switched to the GOP during Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. On Tuesday, I talked to him in the hallway just outside the convention floor as he headed inside to cast his moribund vote for Cruz; the delegate for whom he was the alternate couldn’t make it. Jorge said he would never vote for Trump, either as a delegate or in November. “I don’t want to be in the arena when the balloons drop" for Trump, he said.

After the vote was over and Trump officially became the GOP nominee, I found Jorge in the hallway again and asked him how it went on the floor. He hadn’t gone, he said: The actual delegate had showed up and Jorge let him take his place. Just then the delegate, twenty-two-year-old Jeremiah, came running up. His eyes were beaming as he gripped Jorge’s shoulder in excitement. “Holy smokes, man. So the seat where I was sitting was right below where the Trump kids are. Dude it was like…” Jeremiah held his hands up as if he were holding a huge picture frame and grinned. Jorge played along until Jeremiah ran off. “I didn’t even stay in the arena,” Jorge told me after the delegate was out of earshot. “I went back to my hotel and watched it on television. I couldn’t bear to be in this place when it happened. I would’ve felt complicit.”

Outside the perimeter, members of the Revolutionary Communist Party kept showing up throughout the week to anti-Trump protests that they didn't organize, shoving signs that read “America was never great! We need to overthrow the system!” into participants’ hands. On Wednesday they tried to burn an American flag outside the convention, which led to a fracas between them, Trump supporters, and the police.

Kevin McCray, a thirty-something African American man, dressed in a blue Trump T-shirt, was asleep on a foldout chair behind foldout tables covered with Trump campaign merchandise. He had set up shop right outside the convention gate where the flag burners would show up later. A huge crowd of people trying to get inside the convention were pressed against the table, barely moving. The pro-immigrant rally had marched to within a few yards of the access point and police had set up a line, which created a pedestrian traffic jam at the gate. He woke up to check the line’s progress and I asked him if he supported Trump. “No, I support his fans. You want shirts? I’m gonna sell 'em to you. It’s like Speedway. Speedway gonna sell us gas no matter who you vote for. It’s about the money, man.” The trucker hats and the bobble heads were bestsellers. “It’s when they come out that everything sells. They come out excited.”

On Thursday night, as I exited the convention after Donald Trump’s seventy-two-minute acceptance speech, I asked a Cleveland police officer how he felt now that the convention was over and no major incident of violence came to pass. “Weightless. I’ve got forty-two pounds of crap on me. That’s how I’m going to feel tonight when I get it off.”

Joshua Alvarez is a writer and journalist. He's written for the Brooklyn Rail and The Atlantic. He tweets at @jalvarez1189.