72 Hours in Cleveland: Searching for Rock 'n' Roll in Donald Trump's America
Punks, prophets, and Kid Rock: the Republican National Convention was one of the weirdest events in the history of the United States. Where do we go from here?
Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
TUESDAY: The Armed Occupation of Cleveland, Prophets of Rage and Chris Christie Duet, Be Very Afraid of the Rick Springfield Noogie
There are more guns here than I’ve ever seen in my life. AK-47s and AR-15s. Baby Glocks grimly tucked into holsters and glinting Rugers. If not for the preponderance of khakis and American flags, the streets of Cleveland would look like a black market Kazakh bazaar.
Downtown Cleveland during the RNC is simultaneously the safest and most dangerous place in the world. A stray bullet could turn this place into apocalypse, sending the second coming crazies wandering these streets into fits of ecstasy, quoting staves from the Book of Revelations as the corpses stack.
They’re all here: squirrel-eyed separatist militiamen and Black Lives Matters protestors, state troopers from across the country, mounted policemen, and the storm troopers in body armor from the Department of Homeland Security, Communist Party reps enjoying the biggest comeback since the DFA resurrected disco and evangelicals attempting to convert the occasional heathen for celestial bonus points.
These men love their guns like Donald Trump loves Ivanka, fondling them fulsomely with a half-smile cocked on their face—auto-erotically charged from too many Clint Eastwood movies and episodes of Duck Dynasty. Eastwood couldn’t make this convention, but his empty chair-communing spirit is ubiquitous.
Save for their goatees and mustaches, they’re practically hairless, pink scalped and steroidal, strapped in bulletproof vests, dark shades, and Rottweiler grimaces. In front of a century old stone church, a man dressed in enough body armor to withstand a nuclear holocaust flashes sinister gazes at every pedestrian, occasionally breaking to read from an oversized copy of the “Holy Bible.”
Everyone without a Trump Hat and a burgundy lanyard remains under suspicion. On the train from the airport into the city, a group of skinny 13-year old black kids talk amongst themselves about the occupation underway.
“I feel like these Department of Homeland Security dudes do too much.”
“Be careful,” his friend replies. “They’re just waiting to snatch you up.”
In an escalator, a Southern lawyer straight out an un-adapted John Grisham novel, tells his wife, “I think America is confused and so are the candidates.”
I came to Cleveland because when you get floor seats to watch Rome burn, you take them. We’re at the “appoint your horse to the Senate” stage of American Democracy. Donald Trump is a cross between Caligula and George Wallace with a Bronx accent and a bad weave. Calling him a flatulent baby-fingered, fear mongering, pachyderm-fucking racist charlatan is too charitable. You probably need to turn to German to really capture the Teutonic tint of fascism. He is a schweinepriester, a schwanzlutscher, a scheisskopf of the highest order. Who else would prove they’re the “law and order” candidate by naming Charles in Charge to speak on his behalf?
It was too late to procure credentials to the actual Nuremberg Rallies held at Quicken Loans Arena, but it didn’t really matter. The real Saltine and mayonnaise Saturnalia spills into the streets of downtown Cleveland. There were certainly black, Hispanic, and Asian delegates, but you’d have to been hard-pressed to find them. These are the whitest people you could ever meet: a snow-blind caucasity where they find late period Taylor Swift slightly too threatening, the brown shoed, khaki-panted, sport-coat wearing, whole milk-sipping white who worshipped Larry Bird because “he played the right way.” This is Kirk Cameron Left Behind white, Antebellum-themed birthday party alabaster, egg-shaped men and withered Barbie’s still enraged that their daughters once asked for a Bratz doll. These are the people who found Friends a little too “ethnic.”
Without a press pass I’m restricted to off-the-grid events: the protest concerts and parades, the buskers on the streets and the corporate sponsored after-parties that I can finesse my way into. The first of which is a Prophets of Rage show, held at the Agora, a converted opera house, Yiddish theater, vaudeville and burlesque house turned concert hall, just east of downtown.
Prophets of Rage is a supergroup comprised of Rage Against the Machine (minus Zach De La Rocha), Chuck D, and B Real of Cypress Hill—except Tom Morello would prefer that they not be a called a supergroup, lest they be lumped in with his previous supergroups Audioslave, Street Sweeper Social Club, and the E Street Band. The ex-Rage guitarist has previously told Rolling Stone that Prophets are “revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.”
Technically, this is true. The stacks blaze and Chuck D confronts the bullshit by paraphrasing Steve Kerr: “fuck what happens in Quicken Arena, let’s get this power back!!” Even at 55, the Public Enemy frontman can induce chills when shouting his nearly 30-year old slogans. The Sermon-on-the-Mount throw-the-trashcan-through-the-window baritone remains fully intact. The legend and reputation are inviolate, but that still doesn’t mean that I want to see him wearing shorts and making butter churn motions on stage.
All photos by Pete Voelker
Other than a failed mutiny of my college baseball team, I have very little experience with full-scale revolutions. However, I do know that they can’t possibly come when wearing shorts. Fatigues, sure. Jeans, probably yeah. The American rebels wore silk-knee breeches and the French sans-culottes actually drew their name from the long trousers that they wore. I’ll even theoretically entertain the possibility that social upheaval could come from agitated masses in leather jogging pants, but shorts inherently sabotage the plot. I don’t make the rules; I merely relay them.
Maybe this underscores the problem with super groups. Invariably, something is always a little off. Rage Against the Machine might be the best major label rock band of the late-90s, a lone bulwark against the Creed’s, P.O.D’s, and Limp Bizkit’s. Cypress Hill’s reputation for stoner rap tends to overshadow the brilliance of their first three albums. You can’t make it half a bar into the history of political rap without highlighting Public Enemy. They revolutionized what hip-hop could sound like, what it could be about, and how much it could matter. But when you add it all up together, it’s like eating a waffle cheeseburger a la mode.
That’s not to say that they were bad. In fact, they were objectively good. Tom Morello retains the ability to make the guitar sound like a machine gun, a threatened lion snarling, or your permanently disgruntled politics 101 professor who wrote his PhD on Eugene Debs. The rhythm section sounded powerful and well rehearsed. Chuck D and B Real handled vocals as credibly as anyone could who wasn’t De La Rocha.
But there was something unnerving and surreal about watching a mostly male audience of aging tattooed bros whipped into a barbaric frenzy, chanting slogans while Paul Ryan does his Ben Stiller as the evil nurse in Happy Gilmore act on the closed captioned TV. He’s babbling about making America great again and they’re screaming about the priests of Iwo Jima in the next room over, and we’re in this old rundown theater and a balding schlub is stumbling around in a Sturgill Simpson T-shirt next to me.
Chris Christie jiggles and wobbles like Humpty-Dumpty on TV and Chuck D bellows over monstrous gyres of guitar riffs. A Fidel cap floats by and I can’t help but think about the Judgment Night soundtrack, but more the inescapable feeling that this is actually judgment night, and some grotesque Sumerian god will sweep through Cleveland, and incinerate everyone here for their culpability in this hellscape. The delegates and Republican brass for their spineless fealty and scarcely concealed hatred, the media for their blood-thirst to exploit tragedy, and Cleveland itself as the final act of dark comedy. Just after they won their first championship in over a half-century, it’s finished. J.R. Smith will never get to be President after all.
I see an empty stretcher to the right of me, and want to lie down in it and forget about all those red-hatted gorgons downtown and tune out these loud seizure guitar riffs that make me more and more furious, but only incubate a mounting sensation of powerlessness. If not even Bruce Springsteen could convince Chris Christie to the side of righteousness, what hope does anyone else have.
“The party’s over!” “The party’s done!” Either Chuck D or B Real cranks out from the next room over, but I know that it’s not true because Donald Trump Jr. is on-screen like a real estate Gila monster manqué of Ben Wyatt from Parks and Rec and he’s telling America to vote for his Vladimir Putin proxy of a father because one time he taught his granddaughter how to play golf.
A woman walks past in a “Justice for Tamir Rice” T-shirt and Prophets of Rage unleash a blistering, “Killing in the Name Of,” and the mood turns as ominous and violent as anything going inside Quicken Loans. A bro wearing a soul patch, cargo shorts, and a Jack Daniels “Passion Distilled Since 1866” shirt, hoists his fist to the sky, holding it there for a split-second too long. He looks around to the rest of the room as though it’s unclear what he’s supposed to do, and really I can’t blame him.
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I miss the Third Eye Blind show. That is not a sentence that anyone should have to write in 2016, but Antonio Sabato Jr. might have a place as the Secretary of Handsomeness in a Trump cabinet, so the sky is green, chocolate milk flows out the tap (complete with electrolytes that plants crave), and the new national anthem is the O Jay’s “For the Love of Money.”
As Prophets of Rage conduct their final assault, Third Eye Blind simultaneously play across town, lambasting the white boy wasted delegates across town for supporting a candidate who is the Desiigner to Mussolini’s Future. For that, the “Semi Charmed Life” devotee objectively pulled a heroic troll only topped by Melania Trump’s rickrolling ghostwriter—telling the audience, “we believe tolerance and acceptance” and asking “who here believes in science?”
After the Prophets of Rage show ends, I drink three more Jack Daniels and Ginger ales, aspiring towards fugue stage, but only achieving mild drunkenness. I briefly speak with a pair of 40-something female activists in town from West Covina.
“These protests suck,” they tell me. “There’s barely anyone here and the police have made it so difficult to protest that you can’t really do much. But at least Prophets rocked.”
So I go to watch Rick Springfield do windmill guitar calisthenics in a “Not an Endorsement” shirt in a half-empty Jacobs Pavilion. This is my Heart of Darkness moment; the Cuyahoga River is my Congo, and Col. Kurtz is the man who wrote “Jesse’s Girl.”
If they played to a crowd of radicals, the Rick Springfield audience is terminal dorks in pleated pink dockers and Brooks Brothers sportcoats, insurance claims adjustors, hedge fund brigands, and depraved human traffickers missing those old American values. A silent auction sells framed photos and oil paintings of Trump and Muhammad Ali, making it clear once and for all, that these white walkers believe that “irony” is a terrorist nation that we should bomb into the stone age. One plaque has Trump giving his best trademark kissy-face Carpathian gaze—the words above it read, “You Want Me On That Wall…You Need Me On That Wall.” An autographed Rick Springfield signed guitar is available for the affordable cost of $1500. As I stare at it, a waitress approaches me and offers a complimentary tureen of turtle soup. This is real life.
In a wink-wink nudge-nudge acknowledgement of the approaching 40th anniversary of the “Southern Strategy,” the party is catered by Dickie Brennan’s, a New Orleans steakhouse that has assembled the most vile buffet ever assembled: duck and pork pate, shrimp and crab terrine, alligator sausage, and of course, turtle soup—presumably made with real endangered Galapagos reptiles.
Rick Springfield is having none of this. An avowed Republican as of 2006 (“911 changed all the rules”) the 66-year old Australian born rocker/soap star performs with a dazed take-the-money-and-run expression. To his credit, acknowledging it as a farce gave it a certain credence. He tells the crowd, “I have a new album coming out, not that you guys give a shit... I don't even really care at this point.”
He covered “Shake it Off” and the Surfaris “Wipe Out.” I don’t know any of the other songs because Rick Springfield had his biggest hit before I was born. He crowd-surfs, and gives my photographer friend a vicious headlock and a noogie in retaliation for flicking him off. Then he plays “Jessie’s Girl,” his iconic hit about wanting to fuck his best friend’s girlfriend as a blonde delegate takes a Selfie Snapchat captioning it, “The Land.”
What brought me here was a terrible decision made with the lunatic desire to watch a country self-destruct in real-time. After all, it was Joseph Conrad or Nas who said, “it was written, I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.“
Wednesday: Vampires Invade the Rock n’ Roll of Fame, We’re Going to Kill Every Last Republican We See, Now That’s Class Warfare Vol. 2016
My hangover feels like someone conducted an experimental frontal lobotomy with dragon glass. After Rick Springfield’s noogies, cuckolding anthems and ambivalent serenades to the Koch Brothers youth, I lapse into a state of existential depression. I find myself with some friends at the second-best strip club in Cleveland until 3 AM where a ginger 36-year old dancer addicted to World of Warcraft explains how the Republican convention had essentially killed their business.
“The only delegate I had in here said that he really hoped the Bikers for Trump would kick the shit out of the Black Lives Matters protestors,” she says, before going off on a political tangent more eloquent and informed then anything spoken at the convention.
These aren’t the debauched good old boys of the past. These Cleveland invaders are the constipated, turpentine-blooded, repressed amphibians that police morality while sexually harassing their secretaries or taking exceptionally wide stances at men’s restrooms. Half the people here think that weed smokers should serve federal time. Jews aren’t going to heaven, but dogs are, and Hillary Clinton is not only responsible for Abu Ghraib, but should have to serve time there as well.
As a welcoming gesture to the Grand Old Party, the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame opens its doors for free, so I arrive around noon, an hour too late for the ‘”Big Tent Brunch,” Remarks come from Montel Williams and Caitlyn Jenner and are hosted by the American Unity Fund, a conservation organization dedicated to advanced LGBTQ rights, run by the great-granddaughter of America’s worst president, Herbert Hoover.
Inside the Hall, the South Carolina and Georgia delegations glad-hand and gorge themselves on cookies. Some avidly stare at a large plasma screen featuring CNN prognostications about what to expect from tonight’s boratory. A congressional staffer in a seersucker suit with a candy striped tie stares at his phone as The Kinks play. “Sweet Child O Mine” comes on as a delegate with a fringed and rhinestoned Montana jacket talks to a Kid Rock look-a-like in a cowboy hat. Big Boi’s “The Way You Move” blasts as an elderly blonde grandma with teased hair shuffles past in a “Trump 2016” pin and a sewn patch reading, “Republicans Who Stay Home Elect Democrats.”
As I enter the actual museum galleries, the first thing I see is a framed game-worn Machine Gun Kelly jacket and a scrawled copy of his hand-written lyrics—and in a sense, this is all you need to know about this week and moment. The Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame is interesting, I guess, but it’s also the world’s biggest Hard Rock Café: inherently schlocky and Wikipedia deep.
Behold Mark Mothersbaugh’s jumpsuit from Devo. Beyonce’s Super Bowl outfit is immured in glass. So is Wyclef’s harmonica and Run DMC’s tennis shoes. Shout out to whoever procured Slick Rick’s eye patch. These are all interesting novelties, tied together by brief histories of acts ranging from Buddy Holly to Jay Z. They’ve done yeoman’s work in covering a wide array of genres and artists too. But staring at these artifacts behind a case makes them feel like bogus talismans. Music’s power comes from musicians and songs, not entombed instruments and flamboyant costumes.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m having difficulty reflecting on the legacy of San Francisco during the summer of love alongside a woman in a red “Conservative Pride” shirt wrinkling her face at a buckskin ensemble that once adorned Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane. How much compartmentalization and cognitive gymnastics do you have to do to get over the fact that most of your artistic idols loathe everything you stand for? Maybe you just listen to a lot of Elvis?
I overhead a group of AARP members banter with a black Republican, who they mistake for a senator. He tells them that he’s a lobbyist from Alexandria, VA.
“That’s where Jim Morrison is actually from,” he says, impressing them. “His dad was an admiral.”
To be a Republican invested in pop culture requires a bizarre cognitive dissonance, a psychic divorce from the art and the actual reality of who is making it. But in a way, it’s unsurprising considering they spent years inveighing against Obama’s inexperience while nominating the most untested candidate in the nation’s history. It’s why they have no qualms in playing “We Are the Champions,” a song from a gay man of Middle Eastern descent, despite proposing bans on Muslims and vicious anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Most Republicans never make it to the top floor, where the museum’s most poignant exhibit, “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power, and Politics,” is practically out of sight. Video interviews with Tom Morello roll, quotes from Springsteen, a room devoted to disco’s role in bringing gay culture in the mainstream, the words and images of Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, Nina Simone, censorship battles and the role that Janelle Monae, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar’s songs have played in Black Lives Matter.
Towards the exit, one of the cases features a photo of a Trayvon Martin in a hoodie with the words “We Are Trayvon” emblazoned over it. There’s a New York Daily News copy about Eric Garner’s murder with the headline, “We Can’t Breathe.” An N.W.A. “Fuck the Police” poster and a black hands-up “Don’t Shoot” T-shirt. Only a few lingering delegates made it this far and they all seem disinterested. This is the painful and raw evidence, the bloodshed of a broken system, the sort of thing that could briefly allow them to glimpse outside of their narrow perspective. But even here, they see it as propaganda, false notes falling on deaf ears, and so they swiftly limp out of the room.
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“We’re the Unhappy Accidents and we’re here to say ‘Fuck Donald Trump!!’ Fuck every pig! Fuck capitalism!”
The salvo arrives with scarce warning from a wiry teenager wearing black shorts with a “Jesus Was a Communist” patch. The lead singer, Kenton Kamburoff, 19, looks like he just stepped off the cover of a Dischord release circa 1983. His GG Allin anarchy seems the most natural reaction to the engulfing chaos.
A brawling mosh pit sparks that practically pins me to the bar of “Now That’s Class.” If this were New York or LA, this place would be considered a national treasure. Instead, it’s one of Cleveland’s best secrets, the sort of incredible scuzzy graffiti-scrawled punk rock dive that high rents and gentrification have steadily driven out of coastal meccas. The décor is a mix of MD 20/20 bottles, arcane Rodney Dangerfield memorabilia, murals of old wrestling heel, Classy Freddie Blassie and Eric B and Rakim, stuffed parrots, and papier-mâché pineapples dangling from the ceiling.
The Unhappy Accidents are the first of three slated to play tonight’s anti-RNC punk show, but they’re playing so manically and spastically that it’s hard to imagine the makeshift stage won’t be destroyed. Kamburoff throws himself onto the floor violently, puts his bassist in a headlock, hurls himself into the mosh pit with the blatant disregard for personal welfare that usually evaporates as soon as you can grow facial hair.
“We’re here to play fast play loud and kill every republican we see!” He screams between songs, spotting a Pokémon player in the corner and mocking her.
If last night’s Prophets of Rage show was a bunch of gifted millionaires channeling their seditious youth, the Unhappy Accidents playing like they’re about to actually get arrested. Kamburoff spazzes into the mic with garbled hardcore cadence, boasting the cult leader charisma to tilt the small crowd into a teeming riot. His bandmates, the youngest of whom is 16, match the intensity perfectly. One wears a “The only good cop is a dead cop” shirt.
“I hate all of these fucking intolerant boys with their daddy’s money and the rest of the money they’ve stolen from people coming into the fine city of Cleveland,” the 16-year old drummer Connor Metsker, says after the show as an envelope circulates, raising cash to bail out the 36 people that have been arrested over the last two days.
“People go to work and make an honest living every day of their lives, and just try to have a good fucking life,” Metsker adds. “They’re ruining it with their bullshit.”
If punk rock in 2016 can seem as dead as the two-party system, this show is a reminder to never believe in any corny genre obituaries. Until teenagers stop being irate, someone young will eventually come along to shatter every rule, spit on all accepted wisdom, and remind us of what we forgot. Somewhere across town, Ted Cruz melts before the TV cameras with his pancake-faced, wax-brained, evangelical vampire act, but these kids are actually doing the lord’s work, acting as the apotheosis of everything he despises. They’re radiation killing the cancer.
Kamburoff describes them as an “improv noise punk band…meaning we come up with bullshit.” Before the last song of the blitzkrieg, he flashes a shit-eating Clockwork Orange grin, roaring, “Now we’re going downtown to every hotel and we’re gonna kill cops. We're gonna kill everyone.”
As soon as it ends someone sarcastically but sincerely hollers, “sublime performance.” Everyone laughs. Then Kamburoff politely apologizes to the girl he called out for playing Pokemon.
Thursday: The Bridge to Nowhere, The Wall Gets Ten Feet Bigger, Roll 'n' Roll Jesus
Groucho Marx once said, “all people are born alike—except Democrats and Republicans.” The man whose political satire, Duck Soup got banned by Benito Mussolini, has been dead for almost 40 years, but the quip feels truer now than at any point since his final cigar.
It’s practically impossible to reconcile the insanity of the last three days with optimism for the future of American democracy. We are dancing with Biff Tannen in the pale moonlight while he calls half of America “buttheads.” We are prepared to entrust the nuclear codes to a functionally illiterate birther, stumping for the National Enquirer to win Pulitzers. No matter who takes office next January, roughly 40 percent of the electorate will believe that the new President should be incarcerated. By this time next year, every household could be mandated to serve Trump steaks on the daily.
Over the previous 72 hours in Cleveland, I’ve withstood several attempts to be converted to fundamentalist Christianity. I’ve watched grizzled old white-bearded men with hand-written anti-RNC screeds get into screaming matches with ex-marines swaddled in American flags. I’ve seen triple-chinned insurance executives draped in so much Trump memorabilia that they nearly topple over. I’ve purchased “Donald Trump in 2016: Abraham Lincoln would be impressed” posters, bootleg Trump Simpsons tees, and heard the Westboro Baptist Church proclaim the eternal damnation of every sinner in a swing state. I’ve seen Bikers for Trump argue politely with liberal activists—neither convincing the other person of a thing—as a man in camouflage shorts walks past with a “Muhammad is a homo” T-shirt.
I’ve marched in a protest sabotaged by the cops before it even had a chance to start. It’s shunted to a bridge two miles outside of town with the marchers penned in black metal gates and funneled out into an area divided from the convention, where none of the delegates could be bothered to see them. There was one media member for every protestor and one for every policeman, who smarmily grin at their ability to isolate the dissent.
I’ve seen Tom Brady supporters picketing with “Goodell is Hitler” signs. I’ve seen “I Live In Fear” signs ands ones that say “We Stand Together for Diversity,” “The Wall is Not the Answer,” “America Deserves a Leader Not a Bully,” Support NATO Not Putin, Oppose Trump,” “Love Has No Borders,” “Historians Say No to Hate,” “We Demand Community Empowerment,” “Make America Sane Again,” and “The Last Time The GOP Cared Who Was in the Next Bathroom Stall, Larry Craig Got Arrested.”
I’ve seen Vermin Supreme attention-seeking and smirking, wearing a fake plastic ass and a rubber cone on his head, petitioning gawkers to “Vote Vermin Supreme.” His shirt reads, “Resist Television, The Police Are Your Friends.” I’ve walked past pro-choice billboards with abortion doctors openly wondering how much time they’ll serve if the RNC platform gets passed. I watched an Indiana state trooper Instagram a selfie while leaning against a photo of an Atlanta cop’s motorcycle.
I’ve seen bearded Sikhs in Captain America costumes holding signs, “Let’s kick some intolerant ass with compassion.” I’ve observed Communists clashing with truckers holding sings that say “Every Real Muslim is a Jihadist,” I’ve seen women in Hillary masks and signs that read “Will Twerk for Votes” and Black Lives Matters protesters gathering by the fountain in the public square, offering a silent reminder of our national disgrace.
I’ve listened to a 67-year old black Uber driver say, “Trump scares the shit out of me and I’m an ex-marine.” His car is been filled with nothing but RNC flotsam all week. “They’re so priviledged,” he remarks, practically admiring their ability to be so oblivious. Then he tells me that if Trump wins he might have to move to New Zealand, if he can afford it.
Before you enter the convention, you navigate a narrow gauntlet commandeered by media outlets, party hacks, street vendors, and miscellaneous freaks. Consider it the political version of the Venice Beach boardwalk. One man in a white cowboy hat, black vest, and jeans stands out, primarily because he’s crooning what can only be described as lonesome country and western devotionals to Donald Trump. He’s hawking his CD, “Donald Trump for President,” including the timeless originals, “Americans Choice,” “Americans We Will Win,” “Trump Chant Short,” “”Let’s Make America Great Again,” “Trump Train,” “Gonna Build a Wall,” and “Trump Chant Long.”
Because this is nominally a music publication, I decide talk to him to find out how this happens. How do you wind up a 57-year old white man bellowing sub-Toby Keith ballads at this gathering of ghouls? How do you come to believe that we are “prisoners in our own country” and honestly think that Donald Trump is “our last chance to salvage what our forefathers meant to be?”
“It started off being his stance on protecting our borders,” Kraig Moss, the aforementioned cowboy tells me. “I lost my son two years ago to a heroin overdose and hadn’t done anything for a couple years. A friend of mine called me up and said come with me to Iowa. At that time, he wasn’t filling coliseums 2,500 to 3,000 seat gymnasiums.”
He says this with a mixture of pride and sadness—in his mind Trump’s ascent to the nomination clearly mirrors his own recovery from tragedy.
“It started out with me singing to the kids about how adding that heroin is,” Moss says. “They go to the drug dealer for pills and weed and when that stuff is not available, they say let’s try smoking some of this heroin.”
For a minute, you can understand how someone like this could be drawn to the false strongman myth that Trump has cultivated. Considering the Sinaloa Cartel bears responsibility for flooding the United States with heroin, Trump’s wall is an easy hell when you blame Mexican nationals for killing your child.
We talk for a little bit about his hometown of Owego, NY, just outside of Binghamton—a village of less than 20,000 ravaged by opiate addiction. He tells me about how The Beatles and Lynyrd Skynyrd made him want to pick up a guitar, and the five years in the late 70s that he lived in Houston and acquired a Southern twang. Until the death of his son, he had never voted. I ask what about Trump galvanized him, and whether he finds his views a little extreme?
“Because he’s not a politician,” Moss says. “People are sick and tired of them. He says what’s on his mind and no one pushes him around.”
There is no secret to this. You don’t need to be a political pundit to understand that it doesn’t matter what Trump says or how outrageous the lies are. He’s winning strictly off tone because he speaks to the darkness permanent in the recesses of the American psyche. For several consecutive generations raised on comics and caricature, the black and white dualism appeals to the dispossessed. Trump doesn’t need to offer policy proposals or offer anything more than impossibly vague promises about rolling back history. He’s selling America on the politics of revenge.
“I’m in favor of banning everybody from coming into this country until we can figure out where they’re from,” Moss says. “I know why Trump says that about Moslems because they’re the ones lopping the heads off Christians and committing hundreds of acts of terrorism across the world.”
It’s clear no measured argument will change his mind. I thank him for the time and buy the CD for ten dollars, which he tells me is the “best deal I’ll find at this here convention.” As I walk away, I crack open up the booklet and stare at a picture of the blonde blue-eyed son that Moss discovered dead in his bed, just a few months after his 25th birthday.
The note alongside the photo reads: “We all cope with death in different ways…Supporting Mr. Donald J. Trump for president and singing to the folks at his rally’s has allowed me to talk about my son Rob JR Moss, the tragedy heroin brings to users and their families along with meeting so many GREAT people along the way. Many who have experienced the same heartbreak I have.”
For a minute, the anger at this entire process subsides, and I’m consumed by an immense unremitting fatigue and sadness. Not specifically sadness for his dead son but for all the things that had to go wrong to get us to this moment—for our collective apathy, complacency, and venal corruption that led us this far apart, to where we can’t even communicate without implied accusations and cruel epithets. I’m as guilty as anyone, probably guiltier. Rome is burning and we’re busy picking out the right Instagram filter and perfect caption.
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I watch Trump’s acceptance speech at a bar several hundred feet from Quicken Loans Area. To my left are two 40-something men hectoring the bartender to change the channel to Fox News because CNN is “liberal bullshit.” To my right is a blonde Clevelander in her late 40s, who stumbled in here because she’s depressed, and didn’t know where else to go.
As Ivanka Trump drones like a slightly more cerebral Paris Hilton, the woman next to me unspools her entire life story: her early dreams of becoming a Catholic missionary, switching paths and joining the Air Force; the failed first marriage that produced three kids, and a subsequent decade-long romance with a Syrian man, ten years younger, who broke up with her a few months ago. She’s for Trump because he reminds her of her dead father, a logger from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Everything really changed a few years ago, she says, when one of her children got addicted to Oxycontin and started dealing. One of his pills caused an accidental overdose in a friend and got him locked up for two years. In a search for greater meaning, she quit her job as a CFO to work for less money at a non-profit helping the homeless.
“It was really rough for him in there,” she says with demolished eyes. “They broke his nose twice. He didn’t come out quite the same.”
Her voice trails off as though she’s embarrassed that she told this to a total stranger, but nonetheless insists that I mention it in whatever I write. Before she leaves, she grabs my shirt, looks at me intently and begs with the same strange alchemy of desperation and pride I’ve seen all week: “please promise me that you’ll vote Trump. He really can make this place better again.”
I don’t have the energy to argue, so I just keep drinking, except that I’m so numb that none of the liquor helps. Midway through Trump’s Fear Factor: Orwell Edition speech, I leave the bar and wander through the streets of Cleveland, slowly edging towards a Kid Rock concert celebrating the end of this deluge. The protestors are mostly gone, the delegates are entranced inside Quicken, and only the policemen are left on the streets, glaring at everyone and impatiently waiting for one wrong move.
As I cross a set of train tracks, a loud barrage of explosions breaches the temporary cease-fire. It’s unclear whether it’s bombs, machine gun blasts or the most deafening fireworks I’ve ever heard. Maybe hundreds of gallons of wildfire buried beneath Quicken just destroyed the entire rank and file of the Republican Party. But as I cautiously turn the corner, I see fireworks in the sky, a psychedelic slur of equatorial greens, reds and purples, signaling the end of the convention and the impending start of Kid Rock. So it goes.
“I'm a dirty white boy/you can call me white trash/if you don't dig that you can kiss my ass,” Kid Rock raps, eliciting drunken seal applause from the crowd, most sipping Miller Lite’s out of branded coozies.
The truth is that practically no one in here is actually white trash. This was an invite-only VIP event with an open bar. There are more people wearing suits than at probably any Kid Rock concert ever, but Kid Rock exists as identity politics for Republicans seeking to slum it—the ideal performer for an audience that nominated a would-be blue-collar billionaire. They’re both projections of toughness, imagined or otherwise, a machismo that feels outmoded and absurd to anyone reading this sentence, but that’s exactly the point. They appeal to the left behind, those who revel in distorted nostalgia for the disturbing past—when their privilege was unimpeachable.
As for the erstwhile Bob Ritchie, rap-rock survivor, ex-Too $hort collaborator, he’s wisely become entrenched in the good ol’ boys rock world—the post-Millennium Bob Seger who will be able to play county fairs, cruise ships, and fascist-cons until he can no longer stan. He’s got a count ‘em, 12-piece band, including three guitarists, a regular drummer and a hand drummer, three back-up singers, and a DJ.
A man in an American flag sport coat and backwards hat high-fives his friend in white dress shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. Kid Rock tells the crowd that he’s politically incorrect and they should leave if anyone is offended when he says, “Fuck.” He raps about smoking weed with Willie Nelson to a bunch of bros who can’t smoke because it gives them all kinds of “weird thoughts.” I deliberate lighting up my spliff, but quickly reconsider because these people would just as soon repatriate me to the country of my great-grandparents.
He raps about cowboys to city slickers, who consider themselves authentic because they’ve visited at least three ranches on vacation, and attended at least one rodeo or NASCAR rally. Even if they are maybe only a half-dozen memorable Kid Rock songs, he’s become a legitimately impressive entertainer. He can play the guitar and scratch while sipping Jim Beam, effortlessly convincing boat shoed bros to rap about shrooming and pimping.
This has been a sinister 72 hours of barely sublimated violence, impotent nationalism, and open carry racism. Maybe we should all just move to Manitoba and build a thriving psychedelic import/export business on the deep web. I need to leave immediately, but Rock asks the crowd who they’re voting for and they thunder, “TRUMP.”
“I have to say as Kid Rock that you’re going to make this shit great again,” he smirks and lets loose that one song where he mashes up “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Werewolves of London.”
A woman proudly waggles her a “Make America Work Again” sign. This concert alone has made the wall get ten feet bigger, and Aflac will pay for it if Mexico won’t. These sopped and bloated lawyers, these ambulatory neckties, these predatory fraternity Presidents, all of them lose their minds with every guitar lick. A geek in a plaid shirt, khakis, and horn rimmed glasses leaps next to me, screaming “ROCK, ROCK,” and spilling his drink all over me. Prophets of Rage, Unhappy Accidents, and Kid Rock incite the same burn-this-motherfucker down feeling in the crowd, but you sense that these people would douse the place in gasoline first, light the match, and then look for a convenient scapegoat after it turns to cinders.
To a Cracker Barrel audience, Kid Rock raps about knuckleheads that make it impossible for him to hang at the Waffle House. A projection starts playing, featuring a voice over narration: “we take nothing for granted, we leave nothing on the table, America Fuck Yeah!” Etc.
Visuals of soldiers and police, biker babes, and firemen, bros in cutoffs, whiskey bottles, melting steel, more bikes, more welders, tanks, fireworks, army soldiers, more video vixens, more firemen, more flags, a cigar, more scantily clad girls, flags waving, and finally Kid Rock, the avatar of the American dream, singing in front of Betsy Ross’ finest handiwork. He’s selling the same make America Great again fantasia, one greasy guitar riff at a time. The guy in the flag suit can’t contain himself. It’s pandemonium.
“We’re born free!” Kid Rock yells to the hysterical audience, which is true, but who knows for how much longer. “Thank you and God Bless America!”
Then he plays “Bawitdaba” and even the old balding suits jump up onto the risers and shout along, only pausing to sip their complimentary Miller Lite’s. As the song fades, Kid Rock extends his arms to the crowd, who offer a standing ovation for what feels like an eternity.
Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.