It's time to toast the pomp and pageantry of the modern political convention -- the red, white and blue bunting, the eye-popping balloon drops as giddy delegates snake-dance through the aisles, the rows of police officers dressed like cast extras from "Robocop," the massive stockpiles of tear gas and plastic handcuffs and readied jail cells.
As thousands of delegates, journalists and hangers-on descend on Cleveland for the coming week's Republican National Convention, in the middle of America's most contentious and tumultuous political year in arguably a half-century, the fear is palpable.
The level of loathing will be revealed by Friday morning.
For months, the confab on the banks of Lake Erie was circled on the nation's political calendars as the days of reckoning for Donald Trump -- to see whether the big-mouthed billionaire from Manhattan could really finish his leveraged buyout of the Republican Party, after breaking every rule not just of electioneering but decorum, taste and judgment?
The storyline of a contested convention is officially in a coma: A last-gasp drive of anti-Trump diehards -- including scores of delegates officially pledged to the real-estate mogul but still praying the GOP could pick anyone else -- failed badly Thursday night to change the convention rules to allow pledged delegates to vote their conscience.
Lacking a coherent strategy, an alternative candidate, and apparently the numbers, the #NeverTrump movement is melting away and a new plot line has replaced it: The streets of Cleveland as some sort of looming apocalyptic Gettysburg in America's -- and the world's -- epic summer of discontent and rage.
No matter how much we tell ourselves that the spasms of violence are the result of isolated nutjobs soaking in extremist cyberspace, while millions of good citizens are marching and praying for peace, it's hard some mornings not to think that we're trapped in a chorus of Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime." Heard about Orlando? Heard about Dallas? Heard about Nice, France?
No one knows exactly how many protesters -- either impassioned citizens opposing or supporting Trump, or extremists of both the Left and the Right -- are planning to march through the rust-tarnished gullies of post-industrial Cleveland toward the Quicken Loans Arena and its thick blue line of police. No one knows what it means that visitors to the downtown security zone can't carry water guns, only real ones.
But we do know this: Cleveland police, according to reports, have purchased 2,000 sets of riot gear, 2,000 steel batons, 325 sets of tactical armor, 300 patrol bicycles, with accompanying riot gear, 25 rifle scopes, 10,000 flexible handcuffs, bulletproof helmets, pepper spray, rifle slings, inmate mattresses, and, of course, tear gas.
Nancy Youssef, the national security reporter for The Daily Beast, reported overhearing a Marine telling a journalist at the Pentagon: "Stay safe. Never thought I'd say this, but I'd rather be going to Fallujah than the RNC." Indeed, newsroom editors who used to worry about things like the wi-fi service in downtown Cleveland are now busy ordering gas masks and helmets for their dazed reporters.
"I certainly have a safety concern," Delaware County top Republican Mike Puppio -- who'll be casting his vote for Trump as the winner of the state's 7th Congressional District, told me on Thursday. "It's not an overwhelming or imposing fear, but it's a concern."
It's hard not to imagine that some of the worries are overblown. Reports say that Black Lives Matter activists who once planned to leave a mark on the RNC are now focused elsewhere like protests at recent sites of police-involved killings such as Baton Rouge. (That hasn't stopped the FBI from making initimidating visits to the homes of activists' family members -- another throwback to "the bad old days.") Skinhead or white nationalist groups that may or may not be coming to Cleveland have garnered more headlines than they have actual members.
A comparison has been made again and again and again -- Chicago 1968. But those demonstrations that turned violent in the streets of the Windy City featured a) cops who didn't care that their old-school nightstick wailing was televised even as "the whole world is watching," and b) anti-war protesters who were large in number and had dynamic leaders, later enshrined as the Chicago 7. There's nothing comparable in 2016.
But what is true is that the sour mood on the streets reflects America's shock and anxious awe over what might happen inside the arena. Trump's bizarre march through the Republican primaries -- boastful, packed with lies, half-truths, embarrassing Twitter rants, and appeals to xenophobia, racism, and misogyny -- have turned the 21st Century notion of the convention as a bland infomercial on its head.
As many as a couple of dozen corporations have nixed their plans to sponsor the confab, worried that an association with Trump will tarnish their own brands. For the first time in modern memory, a party's past presidents and most recent nominees -- the Bushes, father and son, Mitt Romney, John McCain -- are avoiding the convention hall as if it's a new fire on the Cuyahoga River. A bunch of members of Congress -- including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and most of the state's GOP House delegation -- won't be there, either. Even a former third-string quarterback handed a starting role -- Tim Tebow -- bolted in the face of public pressure.
Instead, the 2,472 delegates will hear from Trump's kids, survivors of the 2012 attack on Benghazi, billionaire Peter Thiel, and the chief executive of Ultimate Fighting. None of them will overshadow Thursday's likely acceptance speech by Trump, perhaps his last best chance to convince America they can picture the sometimes vulgarian in the Oval Office.
In spite of all this, many delegates are just praying for some sense of normalcy, of taking part in a thing that is good, in America's grand and occasionally corny democratic tradition. That's certainly true for Delaware County's Puppio, a lifelong political junkie who watched the 1970s Watergate hearings when he was 8 years old and then the famed 1976 showdown between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford; he now will be attending his 3rd GOP convention and says "I still get pretty fired up over any opportunity to have meetings and exchange ideas and argue and debate."
Such hope is barely treading water in a sea of anxiety as the nation slouches toward Cleveland. Some of that unease is clearly over the nomination of the bombastic and divisive Trump, but most of it is pointing inward, to the heart and soul of America itself.
Will Cleveland put an exclamation point on the United States' steady slide into a police state that can only select its leaders behind a steel curtain of riot cops with a boxed-in "First Amendment Zone"? Or will a new spirit of discourse and dissent find its raspy voice out on the hot asphalt?
Like it or not, America will find out a lot about itself in the coming week.
Blogger's note: Yes, I'll be in Cleveland for the entire week, mostly in the streets. Check this space regularly, and follow me on Twitter at @Will_Bunch for breaking news and lame puns.