CLEVELAND – The "Q" – the basketball arena where LeBron James and the Cavaliers inspired a civic frenzy just five short weeks ago – was barely half full when the house band started playing at precisely 5:30 p.m. on the nose.
"Are you ready," the singer implored, channeling the Rust Belt's own REO Speedwagon, "to roll with the changes."
This was the night. The night that had been the focus of political fantasy and nightmare – not just in a divided America but increasingly in an alarmed and embarrassed-for-us world – for 13 remarkable months of campaigning. But in the end, there was no brokered convention, no revolt, no delegate walkout, and no fisticuffs. No fuss at all.
At 7:12 p.m. on July 19, 2016, the candidate's son – Donald J. Trump Jr., a New York delegate – rose up with about 100 other Empire State delegates to cast the votes to finally put his dad over the top. The scene was nothing like the frenzied, 30-minute snaking-through-the-aisles demonstrations you might have seen on some old newsreel. Here, the delegates stood in place, and a few swayed while the band struck up "New York, New York." Others waved some handmade signs that had conveniently been handed out at the last minute. One read, "Trump 4 Truth."
And that was it…more or less.
"I think it's interesting that they had the crown on his head before the votes were cast," Dudley Brown, a Colorado delegate, pro-gun lobbyist and Ted Cruz supporter, muttered to me on the far back end of the arena floor where LeBron propelled the miracle comeback but the so-called #NeverTrump forces were never in the game. When the roll call ended, an Alaska delegate rose to contest the count because his state's Cruz and Marco Rubio votes had been transferred to Donald Trump: "We were never told that our votes weren't going to be counted tonight," he complained.
But the Trump Train had already left the station.
It may be years or – if man is still alive, if woman can survive -- centuries from now until history professors and whatever replaces textbooks will understand the full importance of what happened at 7:12 p.m. It was the moment that Donald John Trump –bombastic real-estate mogul of unknown net worth, peddler of steak, vodka and get-rich-quick schemes, and reality-TV star – became the presidential nominee of a Republican Party that certainly never be the same again.
For the Trump yay-sayers, it was a moment of triumph, when an "America First" movement centered heavily on working-class populism, suspicious of foreign trade, foreign wars and immigration and big on flag-waving patriotism and "law and order" ripped the GOP from its longstanding pro-business moorings.
South Carolina lieutenant governor Henry McMaster, the first public official to endorse Trump back in 2015 when he was anathema to a Republican establishment that still regards him warily, seconded his nomination. He admitted there was an air of disbelief about the whole thing. "Ladies and gentleman, this is not a dream," McMaster declared. "This is the real thing."
The dream for some was a nightmare for millions outside the walls of the Quicken Loans Arena. Trump's nomination seemed to take American politics across a Rubicon, a dangerous point of no return. His Shermane-like slash-and-burn march across the landscape of American politics – eschewing policy proposals for rambling unscripted diatribes on how the Chinese "are killing us" and Mexico will somehow pay for a border wall, fudging or ignoring the truth again and again and again – will almost certainly have ramifications beyond the bitter and violent year of 2016.
Trump's nomination, to many (and count me in that number) seems the fulfillment of dystopian predictions that someday empty entertainment values would bury civilized public discourse like a Pacific tsunami, that America could literally amuse itself to death.
And yet this night seemed once seemed unimaginable, unthinkable – back on June 16, 2015, when Trump descended that escalator at Manhattan's luxurious Trump Tower as if to rescue the masses on the ground floor. His wife Melania was a good three or four steps below The Donald as Neil Young's "Keep on Rockin' In the Free World" – the first in a virtual FM station of songs that the Trump campaign would be barred from playing – blared at a volume of 11. This had to be a joke – a bid to keep TV's "The Apprentice" from getting canceled or a set-up to sell Trump Hot Chicken Wings or the Hybrid Trumpmobile or whatever his next venture would be.
Until one day when it wasn't a joke anymore.
Here in Cleveland, the last 24 hours felt like a microcosm of the entire campaign. There was the disorganization of Monday night's show, when Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a rising star in a party struggling to draw women voters , was pushed out of prime time and into a nearly empty "Q." There was the dark, apocalyptic view of global terrorism and domestic order highlighted by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who seemed to be exhibiting the three warning signs of a stroke as he shouted, "There is no next election!"
That was before the realization that some passages in Trump's wife's Melania speech were nearly identical to the lines that Michelle Obama delivered to the 2008 Democratic convention, which seemed to suck much of the air from the festivities. Camp Trump responded the only way it knows how. Deny everything. Admit nothing. In the politics of the past, this might have even derailed the Trump Train. But America has become comfortably numb to this sort of thing.
When I strolled onto the convention floor shortly after 5 p.m., some delegates in the back – where the anti-Trump delegations like the District of Columbia and Colorado were unceremoniously dumped – there was still talk of some kind of protest, including a resolution to dump party chair Reince Priebus. It was just talk.
"I've sensed a general sense of quiet resignation, or quiet desperation – punctuated by fits of pique and anger," said Peter Lee, a corporate counsel and John Kasich delegate from D.C. who ran for his slot because he was so alarmed at the prospect of either Trump or Cruz getting the nomination. But he was in the minority.
Right behind him in the Texas delegation, Orange County chair Sheila Faske said over the blaring REO Speedwagon cover that she'd forsaken Cruz for Trump a long time ago, as the only way the party can defeat Clinton in November. Most of the room agreed. Or at least that's how the votes were recorded.
And so Donald Trump moved one step closer to the Oval Office. Are you ready to roll with the changes?