CLEVELAND – The Cuyahoga River didn't catch fire. The American apocalypse forgot to break out in the streets. Whatever you expected from Donald J. Trump, billionaire, who owns a mansion and yacht, and from his four-day tent revival inside the Quicken Loans Arena, you have to be admitting now that…this probably wasn't it.
The Republican National Convention that just put the seal of approval on the most unlikely major presidential candidate in America's 240-year history was an epic turning point in our slow-motion national nightmare of entertainment values trumping democracy. And yet the moment itself was weirdly underwhelming, a basic-cable production for viewers who'd been promised a political Super Bowl.
It wasn't the mini-series of real solutions that America needed, but was it the schlocky soap opera that Trump wanted: American political theatre as World Wrestling Entertainment. This was DJT Raw: Cleveland, light on script but heavy on end-of-the world bombast, with cartoon-like villains – Hillary the Criminal! Teddy the Texas Betrayer! – who could transform the arena into a raging ocean of anger, bloodlust and boos at the mere mention of their names.
Only one man could slay these demons, descending from the sky in his opulent helicopter as the melodramatic theme from "Air Force One" blares from the speakers, then emerging as powerful silhouette through a grey haze of smoke. It is the Donald – who, let's not forget, actually apprenticed (heh) with pro wrestling by hosting and appearing at "Wrestlemania" events for years. He was, in fact, eventually named to the WWE Hall of Fame. I'm pretty sure that honor has been bestowed on no past or potential future president, even though Ohio's own William Howard Taft would have crushed it in the heavyweight division.
In pro wrestling, the over-the-top fakeness of the whole grotesque extravaganza is a feature, not a bug. How else to explain the bizarre Melania Trump installment, where it turned out that some of her words in Monday night's address had been lifted from a bête noir of the far-right convention delegates, Michelle Obama? For a conventional politician like Joe Biden, plagiarism was a campaign ender, but for Donald the Destroyer and his posse, it was plot development – Melania vs. the frumpy journalists who spent 2 days picking on Trump's poor beleaguered supermodel wife.
"[A]ll press is a good press," Trump tweeted. And when the audience interest started to flag, they body-slammed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz onto the mat. OK, we'll never know for sure whether Cruz's epic failure to endorse his ex-primary rival Trump and his call for conservatives to "vote your conscience" in November was a gaffe by Team Trump – which allegedly read the speech in advance – or a set-up. But think about the way that Trump and his family arrived at the "Q" just in time for the non-endorsement, and how Trump's floor whips were in just the right places to whip up a cascade of boos – and make The Donald seem more sympathetic.
The background music to all of this was a drumbeat of speakers who shouted fire and brimstone about the American hellscape they insist has coincided with the presidency of Barack Obama. It was just like Ronald Reagan's famed rhetorical uplift of the nation as "a shining city on a hill," except that the hill has now collapsed in a volcanic earthquake and is scalding screaming citizens with hot lava. This was the fog of despair into which Trump descended to pronounce – at least according to excerpts floated earlier in that day – that he is "determined to deliver a better life for the people all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned."
I spent the afternoon Thursday among the masses who continue to mill around Public Square. Maybe it was the deepening July heat wave, but there seemed a sense of numbness four days into Trumpmania I. The extremists were manning their posts – religious crazies denouncing Muslims and Black Lives Matter and yelling into a bullhorn that anyone who disagrees is "a bigot going straight to hell," while a blue wall of the omnipresent police separated them from about 50 people chanting "Stop the hate!" It all seemed so rote.
It was hard not to imagine that a party that hadn't been hijacked by reality-show histrionics would have seized an opportunity here on the Lake Erie shoreline. The actual reality is that Northeast Ohio has been battered by the loss of good-paying industrial jobs and by mortgage foreclosures -- harder than anywhere else in the country. Unemployment in Youngstown is about 10 percent, or double the national average. Its people have indeed been ignored and abandoned.
One of the folks I met in Public Square was 45-year-old Youngstown resident Ken Godoy, wearing dark shades and a "Make America Great Again" T-shirt. He told me his parents had come to Ohio from Puerto Rico when he was a boy to work in the state's steel and auto plants; he had followed in their footsteps by joining auto parts maker Delphi Packard, which laid him off in 2006 – a move he blames on the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Godoy, active in a Facebook group of Latinos backing Trump, said he struggles to make ends meet as a small businessman. Now he has a lot of anger – most of it directed toward Hillary Clinton.
"Do you want the one who's going to take away your rights to protect your family," Godoy – who'd been a Democrat before his layoff – asked, referring to Clinton and her support for some gun regulations. "Hitler took people's guns away."
Ironically, Trump's convention included a "Make America Work Again" night. It was an evening that featured virtually nothing about job creation – not even about Trump's stated opposition to trade deals like NAFTA that were supported by most Republicans at the time – but in which the crowd was goaded from the podium into chanting "Lock her up!" about Clinton at least four times. I guess their goal is to create jobs for Hillary's defense team?
This never was about jobs…or America's abandoned people. The last 13 months has all been about one thing and one thing only: The massive yet fragile ego of Mr. Trump, who told the New York Times that his takeaway from the convention was "[t]he fact that I'm very well-liked."
The city of Cleveland did a remarkable job as convention hosts, and yet its name will always be tarnished by the political events that just transpired here. The grafter behind con jobs and get-rich-quick schemes such as Trump University just made Ohio the site of his biggest sting ever. An anxious and wary America looked here for answers for what has been happening in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Minn., Dallas, over in Europe, and in rust-worn communities like Youngstown. But Donald Trump was only ready to rumble.