Donald and Melania Trump at the GOP conference
Donald and Melania Trump at the GOP conference

There wasn’t a lot of protest to fight your way through in the centre of Cleveland this afternoon; a few hundred activists, washing up against the grey stone of the city’s ’30s skyscrapers. The whole collocation of race, gender, poverty groups, a few revcoms, the Avakianites (“Bob Avakian is our leader!”; their banners feature their podgy leader in the style of Mao), everyone in retro tie-dye and khaki baggy bike shorts. God, how tired, rote, old, we look. People come with megaphones, held up in front of them, speaking this and that; pleas to hang on to this scrap of the welfare state, that part of progressivism. Even they are tentative, hesitant.

Bizarre, the true conservatives out here; inside the screaming revolutionaries, about to give their party to a guy who turned up and asked for it.

There’s a strange mood to all of this, this year. Or is it just me? No, I checked with a couple of journos I shared an Uber with — vets of American politics, men rumpled and tired like me, and of vastly more experience — and they said it was strange too: “Some GOP type in a Times story said he was looking forward to oral surgery next month more than he was looking forward to this convention, and now I know what he means.”

“There’s something missing here, that shouldn’t be. But what is it?”

“I dunno. I’m just paid to write the pretty words.”

“Maybe Bernie will stage some real upset next week.”

“Nah, he’s endorsed Hillary …”

“Yeah …”

“Actually,” said the Uber driver, slowing down into Public Square, the imaginatively named centre of Cleveland, “Bernie had to do that to get a speaking role at the convention. After that he can say whatever he wants.”

“Well, yeah …”

The rest of the journey was conducted in silence. We were all thinking the same thing. Punk’s probably got a Masters in Pol Sci from Northwestern … Jesus how would we have done in this job market … thank God we got in when you didn’t need any skills at all …

Still, that didn’t solve the problem I thought as we queued at a black wire fence wrapped around another black wire fence wrapped around a brushed concrete arena with QUICKEN LOANS emblazoned above the top. Heading into a festival of free enterprise, held in a pork-barrel boondoggle stadium built to prop up a sagging city, and named after a payday loans company. Surely by now there’s a gonzo bot that can write this stuff simply by turning pictures into text?

By the time we got in — the press gallery is actually enforcing its dress code (“dress professionally”), and sending away people in jeans and sneakers, and, without irony, telling women journalists to cover their bare shoulders — day two had begun.

It’s an important-ish moment, the start of the roll call vote, whereby the nominee gets nominated. For decades, it hasn’t mattered as more than ceremony. So it will be today, unless the anti-Donald Trump forces have something more up their sleeve. Doesn’t look like it. They were gutted yesterday, left on the sward, and they will not rise again.

We’ve had Trumpistas — Jeff Sessions and Chris Collings — come out and nominate dear leader, with a roaring tirade against free trade deals, and now chair Paul Ryan is reading out the utterly irrelevant rules of the roll call. Poor bastard. He’s an Ayn Randian. They’re really sticking it to him.

“Mr Speaker, the great state of Alabama … home of the best football in the nation …” Some cracker good ole boy is mugging for the camera as the count starts, in alphabetical order. Alaska will be next. They’ll talk about salmon. And on it will go.

Gah.

[Rundle: A floor fight, an orgy of victimhood, a cry for Trump]

Do I dare go to a bar and watch a repeat of Two and a Half Men? “Arkansas … we got the best catfish …” God, maybe I can. A “we want Trump” chant starts. Colorado’s next. “Thirty-two votes for Ted Cruz!” Little cheering, a lot of booing. District of Columbia. “Nineteen votes Trump,” they announce from the stage. “Ten votes Cruz, nine votes Kasich,” the delegation announce. Huge booing. “Roll call,” they yell. The count sweeps on regardless.

Well, surely they can’t screw this up. Although if last night’s disaster was anything to go by, anything is possible. An hour after deadline, Melania Trump took to the stage to introduce her huzzban Donal Trum to the party and the nation. The place was fairly buzzing before her arrival. East European women can take the form of cats at will — this is a medically established fact — and there was the possibility she might simply slink on, and then assume human form at the mic. Alas, no.

The speech was a mix of standard Republican wife blather, with an added “huddled masses” twist “I come to this country with only the clothes I stand up and then I took them off to pose for GQ” etc. It was well-enough received. Deep down, the Republicans hated it of course, this laser-eyed trophy wife with the funny accent grinding out the blather, like when your husband’s pal from Yale marries the au pair. But, hey, at least she was white, if Polacks count.

But the speech wasn’t more than an hour on the media griddle when it became clear there were problems. A whole middle section — about eight lines — had been lifted almost word for word from a speech by, of all people, Michelle Obama. Worse still, it was a section about the importance of living your values and transmitting integrity to your kids, blah di blah. No more than an hour after delivery it was spotted as a lift by a laid-off TV journalist in Starbucks (customer, not working — that is months hence) — and tweeted around the world. And the convention’s first day moment was ruined.

As always with plagiarism, what was most inexplicable was why nobody tried to hide it. The paragraphs were homily and boilerplate. Changing the order of a couple of sentences, rephrasing a few lines … it would have been 10 minutes of work. Predictably it set off a meta-war, with people decrying the sexism of blaming Melania for a speech she didn’t write — and then a meta-meta war when others pointed out Melania had claimed she wrote almost all of it, and what sort of assumptions had people been making anyway, and then, etc etc, and on it went, as the plagiarism thing unfolded in real time.

Whatever impact a “plagiarism” scandal is going to have in the heartland remains to be seen. But what it took away was any sense that the Trump campaign, in fusing with the greater body of the Republican Party, had become a professional outfit. You wouldn’t want to overemphasise the professional bit — recall, among hundreds of examples, the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton presentation to Vladimir Putin of a symbolic “reset” button, which actually said something like “kill everyone” or something. Or, you know, Iraq — but, jaysus, who gets done for stealing eight lines of boilerplate? You know who: the jocks and mean girls who have to sit a surprise test (pop quiz in American argot) and bribe the nerd girl with an invitation to a cool party where … (have I seen this movie; if not, I should write this movie). Man, you can just see the panic in camp Trump as they threw that speech together, all these cigar-chewing, blue-blazered flim-flam men, and platinum blondes. “Whaddaya wanna say?” “I don’t know what I wanna say!” “Who wants dinner? Room service — 30 steaks!” “And a salad for Melania … she’s still got the baby weight. We have the best salads … where are we with this shit?”

This roll call is still going on as I write. State by state. “Mr chair, Mississippi — home of botched executions — casts its vote for …” “Nebraska — square only in shape; otherwise, with a taste for meth — casts its vote for …” They’re rolling out every black man, Latina woman and Pakistani-American they can find among Republican ranks to do the announcing. If you didn’t see the dazzling sea of white behind them you’d think they had the diversity problem solved.

By this morning, the Melania speech had put a little blood in the water. The screw up appeared to indicate that the Trump operation was still a hopeless amateur-hour thing, sustained on pure momentum, and that it was reshaping the entire party in its form, rather than vice-versa. That accords with other reports: that the convention itself is short $6 million due to corporate donors pulling out, and has gone, “Make America Great” cap-in-hand to potato-head golem Sheldon Adelson to make up the shortfall; that Trump has no ground organisation in a state like Pennsylvania, the sort of rustbelt disaster zone he claims he can win; that he still wants to campaign in New York and even California, on the presumption that he is heading for a 40-state victory …

Any consoling thoughts that the Trump outfit might be “pivoting” to a big, positive campaign were, if they had survived Monday night’s festival of funk, fear and resentment, blown away by the handling of the speech. “We cut and pasted, from a speech we admired, and lost track of the quote,” would have been enough (and probably the truth). Instead, the story came out, and changed hourly, indistinguishable from a Veep episode: 9am the speech was only 7% plagiarised; 10am “Michelle Obama does not own the English language”; 11am RNC strategist Sean Spicer pivoted, of course, to My Little Pony. This is worth quoting:

“Melania Trump said, ‘the strength of your dreams and willingness to work for them’. Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony said: ‘This is your dream. Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now.'”

Note, he was doing this to defend Melania, not adding to the charges. Note also, this is not plagiarism, as in the near literal-copying of half-a-dozen sentences. Note also, this does not of itself matter a damn.

God, the floor is rowdy though. Alaska challenges the delegate attribution, and it takes half an hour to argue the toss via the rulebooks. Meanwhile, the band shuffles through the six songs they won’t get sued for playing: Santana, Van Morrison, a few others. Thousands of ageing white people, and old-when-born Tim Wilson/James Patterson types, jiggle their aged, mottled flesh in red, white and blue shadings.

Now the parade of five-minute bozos is starting: the head of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, old wooden hacks, ex-governors, etc, a couple of Trump kids coming, leading up to the night’s treats: Crazy Ben Carson and that failed Mutley, Chris Christie. The crowd were pretty lively during the roll call. Now the energy is draining from the stadium. “Like they’re on sleepers,” someone says.

We have witnessed an extraordinary thing; a vast political party subsuming itself to a media star who happened to be a multimillionaire, a man who is no more than an idea of demagoguery. They have handed the apparatus to him, his family, and the gang of cronies he calls a team, and they have lined up at the microphones to do it. Extraordinary, extraordinary event, whatever happens in November. Yet it went without any real contestation. Nor is there much out in the streets, for all the valiance of those turning up. Maybe something will, in the final two days.

But this is a strange moment in time, on the brink of something, feeling like nothing at all.

STOP PRESS: One could add bits to this all night, but right now, as we hit the button, Chris Christie is putting Hillary Clinton “on trial”, reading out the “charges” and getting people to vote by acclamation. “Guilty!” they yell. Quite, quite strange. Could it get any weirder? “Please welcome Tiffany Trump …”

Peter Fray

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