A strange man approached me last night at the Metropolitan Republican Club. “Do you know what that is on your hand?” he asked, pointing down to an glass eyeball ring I like to wear. I gulped, ready for anything– after all, people had been belting out things like “Traitor!”, “Treason!”, and, of course, the one that got everybody at the RNC watch party chanting: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
“I dunno, blood?” I murmured. Thankfully, I don’t think he heard me. “It’s a mati,” he explained. “It’s supposed to ward off the evil eye.” It was a nice sentiment, but I wasn’t so sure it was working.
Members and non-members alike of the Metropolitan Republican Club– a century-old campaigning and social club– gathered at its Upper East Side clubhouse Thursday night for the fourth and final program of the Republican National Convention, wherein Donald Trump was expected to accept the nomination for the Republican candidacy. Actually, in the way that he went ahead and accepted the “nomination for the Presidency of the United States,” it seemed as if he’d already won. Which, yeah, of course– this is Donald J. Trump, after all.
The days leading up to this had already hit jaw-dropping levels of cray, what with Melania Trump’s plagiarism snafu, Ted Cruz’s refusal to be Trump’s “servile puppy,” and Colbert crashing the party with a dead feret in tow (don’t worry, he had him on a leash).
For four days, delegates, governors, and elected officials of all kinds painted the country as a shadow of its former self, and blamed the castration of America the Great on President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Last night, the doomsday tone continued (“Death, destruction, and weakness” earned resounding applause). But there was also an emphasis on portraying Trump as a sweetheart, in an apparent effort to counteract his relentless nastiness toward his opponents, journalists, even members of his own party.
Other than a small group of people who have suffered massive and embarrassing losses, the party is VERY united. Great love in the arena!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 21, 2016
His longtime friend, Tom Barrack, the real estate investor and founder of Rebuild America Super PAC, announced at the outset that he had “nothing negative to say,” only good things about his friend.
A man sitting behind me seemed to be in awe. “Woooowwwww,” he declared, after Barrack delivered an awkward metaphor, comparing Donald Trump to a diamond that would help repair an imaginary bejeweled “necklace of globalism.” Wow indeed, my friend. At moments, the speech seemed more like that of a First Lady hopeful. “I’m here to talk about my friend, my partner,” Barrack said. Later on, he explained that, “After 35 years of being with the man, through the valleys and up the mountains, he really is better than the building that you see.” It was clearly an attempt to recover from Melania’s now discounted speech.
But the sweet talk was certainly the exception rather than the rule, and completely at odds with the environment I had regrettably found myself in. From the moment I stepped inside the Met Club’s fancy Federalist-style brownstone, I was treated like a Soviet spy.
I grew up in a hyper-conservative town. We were one of the few families without an SUV, a Sunday church routine, or a Bush sign in our yard, but I survived. And I thought, hey, if I could handle that, I could certainly handle an RNC watch party inside a Republican social club. After all, I assumed, the atmosphere would be reasonably festive. I had a hard time believing that any Republicans who were disgusted with the impending nomination of Donald J. Trump, the most radically intolerant candidate maybe ever, would subject themselves to watching the convention in public, let alone with a bunch of Trump supporters. I also guessed that the Trump supporters would be pretty happy about watching their candidate of choice accept the nomination and, you know, do his reality-TV thing on stage.
I was mostly right– aside from a lonely-looking man at the very front of the room, who sat staring straight ahead at the wall, averting his eyes from the projected convention, a somber look on his face. Occasionally he would sigh and glance up at the festivities, only to slowly lower his head again and get back to pondering what might be left of his party after Trump.
But I was dead wrong about the Trump supporters, consisting of mostly white, mostly older (but quite a few young) people. They seemed enthusiastic about Trump’s nomination, but the atmosphere wasn’t celebratory and fun so much as it was vicious. Convention speakers had openly declared Hillary a “crook” and a “liar”– now that the language had been legitimized, the mood was aggressive and angry, as if a porthole to rage had been opened up.
There were several moments when people called out that Hillary, once a speaker had mentioned her by name, was a “cow.” Sure, there were the usual cheers for Western Chauvinism– especially when Lisa Shin, a Korean-American delegate from New Mexico, shook her fists in the air like a toddler and declared that America’s safety had been “compromised.” There were loud cheers in support of RNC chairperson Reince Priebus’s declaration: “To some people and some presidents America is just another country– to Republicans, America is the greatest nation on Earth.” That wasn’t so surprising.
But the pride crossed over into militarism. Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder who famously drove Gawker into bankruptcy by funding lawsuits against the site, delivered toothy smiles and pointed his gleaming, puppy-dog eyes at the audience, as if to say: “You like me! You really, really like me!” You’d think he had never had a friend in the world and had now just stumbled on his first frat party, where some angel from heaven had offered to spot him for a keg stand. He mourned the inadequacy of “our newest fighter jet,” which he claimed “can’t even fly in the rain,” arguing that this portended a dramatic loss for American military prowess. “That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan Project,” he said, somewhat awkwardly, because when was the last time Americans were proud of their role in arming the world with nuclear weapons?
The crowd went absolutely wild whenever anyone denounced political correctness, but often people at the Met crossed the line with intolerant declarations, veering toward sexism, homophobia, and racism. As Ivanka Trump delivered her speech, which leaned heavily on the theme of women’s rights and Trump’s policy plan for universal childcare (however skewed her feminism seemed to be), a man behind me shouted sarcastically. “Yeah, women!
After Thiel proclaimed, “I am proud to be gay, I am proud to be a Republican,” another man in the audience laughed, “Where’s Peter Thiel’s wife?”
When it was Donald Trump’s plan to speak, the candidate presented a litany of what he called “the facts”– including the assertion that “decades of progress” in dropping crime rates “are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” while “police officers killed in the line of duty” had gone up by 50 percent in the last year (the New York Times confirmed this was inaccurate). Trump even went so far as to characterize the murder of Sarah Root as “one more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.” Finally, he mockingly asked an imaginary apparition of President Obama what he had to show for the national debt. A guy sitting directly behind me thought it appropriate to declare, “Black Lives Matter.” He giggled, and several women sitting in the row next to him shushed him loudly.
The Met Club is demurely elegant in some ways, but turn a corner and you’ll find some decorations that look like they were bought at auction when The Colbert Report had a series-end garage sale. After sneaking away from the tense situation downstairs, I found my way toward the bathroom upstairs and, at the top of the winding staircase, I was greeted by a rather, um, strange portrait of the late State Senator Roy M. Goodman (Republican), who also happened to be the heir to the Ex-Lax fortune. Goodman represents more than just soft stools– he resigned from the State Senate in 2002, after 33 years of representing Manhattan’s last “bastion of silk-stocking Republicanism.” Something about the Senator’s goofy smile and his unabashedly nerdy glasses seemed at odds with everything going on downstairs– actually, if he’d known what people were cheering for down there, I’m confident that the guy would not just be rolling over in his grave, but looking for a knife to rip out whatever’s remaining of his eyes and ears.
I was afraid to return to the nastiness downstairs, where immediately after arriving, I caught a man trying to take a photo of me and laughing with his friends. I whipped out my iPhone and snapped one of him and he and his friends laughed even harder. I sort of felt like a circus animal, or like one of the many embroidered elephants on the pair of khakis belonging to the College Republican who was carefully mopping up the floor around the chip table. It was as if one of those elephants had leapt off the fabric, inflated to life-size, and started dancing around the room on hind legs screaming, “Babar was a communist FROG!”
There was more than a little irony in the fact that Lincoln– the GOP’s first President and the second most saintly figure of the party’s ranks (after Reagan, duh)– was the guardian angel bust of choice. Like, seriously, a gangly, possibly-gay theater lover and renowned intellectual who presided over the Emancipation Proclamation? I felt like doing the guy a favor and turning his bust to face the wall. He, of all people, shouldn’t have to see this.
But if I had even dared to engage in such desecration of the unerring support for Trump, it’s likely someone would have exercised what nearly half of Americans believe is their unalienable right to brandish a pistol. That’s because everyone immediately pegged me for a Democrat which, technically, isn’t true– I’ve never declared allegiance to a political party, and I pointed this out multiple times to people. I also really, really wanted to make a point of mentioning that my personal political leanings didn’t matter, that I was here to report on what I saw because this was a historical, important moment– my mission was not to demonize Republicans because I want Hillary Clinton to win. Actually, I went to great lengths to be as deferential as possible (I even gave up my seat to a college guy because his date, a younger girl who I hoped wasn’t still in high school, looked distressed by not being able to find an open pair of seats).
I decided that, rather than get all breaking-news-reporter on people and stick my recorder in their face while asking them questions along the lines of, “WHYYYYYYY??????”, that I would assume a fly-on-the-wall approach. Also, I sensed a great deal of hostility and wanted to avoid riling anyone up so I could catch the creature in its natural self-affirming environment.
Still, I was repeatedly approached and asked variations of: “So, you’re a Democrat who’s come here to spy on Republicans and write about it?” and, my personal favorite, “Are you a reporter? Or a Republican?” I pointed out, with a friendly laugh, that these things were not mutually exclusive. At this point, I might as well have worn my Karl Marx t-shirt and thrown on a Bernie Sanders 2016 hat for good measure.
Granted, I stood out like a goth kid at the beach. Fashion-wise, people preferred seersucker jackets, sportcoats, a few “Make America Great Again” hats (even a camo one), and pair upon pair of perfectly pressed khakis.
I wasn’t here to make friends or find someone to sit with at lunch, but it was clear from the get-go that I was going to be the victim of intense trolling. Even when I asked a guy, mid-20s-ish, how the pizza was and if he knew where it was from (because hey– who doesn’t love pizza?). Like, seriously, how can we not come together for a friendly moment of smalltalk over cheesy, saucy bread? “It probably says right on the box where it’s from,” he sneered. “It’s back there if you want to go look and do some more of your deep research.”
Sadly, that wasn’t nearly the worst encounter. A middle-aged couple declared that I was a “slut” and, then, the lesser evil “slutty”– true, I can’t be 100 percent sure if they were speaking about me, or maybe they’re from a lesser-known U.S. territory where looking right at someone with widened eyes doesn’t indicate disapproval and “slut” simply means, “professional young journalist dressed in business casual.” Whatever, I’ve been called worse. There were even moments of actual aggression toward me, even though I was sitting quietly, respectfully watching the RNC broadcast and even occasionally (ok, rarely) clapping for the presenters, and scratching furiously at my notepad. I even made a point to smile, which I will never do if I feel I’m obligated to do so. But I definitely didn’t smile when a man approached me and said, crouching down to get closer to me, but positioning himself just behind me, probably in an attempt to scare me, “Good luck with your party.”
Not everyone was awful– at least one person just seemed curious, if not a little creepy. While taking notes, I suddenly got the feeling that someone was breathing on the back of my neck. I turned around to find that, first of all, that was true, and secondly the dude was trying to read my notes (good luck– my handwriting sucks). “Who do you write for?” he asked with a coyish smile.
I mean, I’m partially to blame for the backlash. It was something of a catch-22 anyway. If I had tried to blend in, I would have inevitably been found out and it wouldn’t have been a totally cool, totally ethical thing to do anyway. And if I wore my freak flag at full-mast, I would have been ridiculed all the same. So, I didn’t go to great lengths to hide that I wasn’t a god-fearing conservative– I would have been dancing too close to the pit of journalistic un-integrity with that one. I did wear pants to cover my leg tattoos (the least offensive of which are Satan, a naked girl, two skulls, a Playboy bunny smokin’ a doobie, and two black panthers), but left my arms vulnerable to inspection on account of the heat which was pushing 90 yesterday.
But fuggit, was my reasoning– I wanted not to smell of BO and fulfill stereotypes about hippie liberal filth– and the last thing I wanted to do in this sort of environment was reaffirm the popular conviction that the press is full of snakes and liars hellbent on spreading Marxist propaganda. People were totally eating it up when Thiel dismissed the media and political correctness in one swoop. “When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won,” he said. “Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
Eventually, it seemed as though everyone in the room had pegged me as the Socialist Stalinist Radical Welfare-Loving reporter invading one of the few safe spaces for conservatives in the city outside of, like, Gravesend (um, Staten Island doesn’t count). I get that people were upset about Obama’s policies, and I reasoned that perhaps this was the only place these people, who spend most of their days living in a solidly blue city and state, felt comfortable expressing their views. Like the Latino man behind me who, copious amounts of hair gel and all, laughed the hardest at Trump’s “jokes,” and chanted things like, “Hispanics for the wall!” Still, I wanted badly to get the hell out.
My saving grace however, was an elderly man who identified himself as Dr. Gregory. I sat down next to him after giving up my seat to the clingy young couple. He introduced himself in between speakers and he forgave me, completely, for forgetting that his country of birth, Poland existed. (Hey, I’m a Russophile and I was dead tired.) The friendliness was off-putting at first, and I kept expecting him to pounce. But I quickly found out that Dr. Gregory wasn’t just another person trying to level backhanded insults or passive aggressive quips at me. No, he was actually a joy to speak to, even if I had a hard time understanding what he was getting at sometimes and there was no guarantee he wasn’t a little bit wonky from old age. (“Solidarity!” he declared at one point– that, I understood.) Aaand he was fond of stroking my forearm and calling me “beauty,” which was slightly creepy. At one point he promised that we were going to be “good friends,” he was sure of it.
And yet, given the context, the guy seemed completely sane to me– and not just because he was kind of dressed like a hipster (plaid shirt, Teva sandals, and hair that was tousled just so). He actually had a sense of humor about the whole thing, which at various moments led me to believe that he was also there to conduct a strange social experiment, only he was better able to avoid detection as an old white man without tattoos. But then again, Dr. Gregory’s clear disdain for “communists” was a dead giveaway for which side he was on. At one point, he joked that “Bernie Sanders, he’s from my country–” He smirked as he waited for my reaction and then chuckled, “Communist!”
However, what made Dr. Gregory a reasonable person was that he was able to engage with me like an actual human being, despite our obvious political differences, and actually discuss things with me, however inane that smalltalk might have been. At various moments during Trump’s speech, he would turn to me, widen his eyes, and shake his head ever so softly. He suggested that this shimmering blonde man who would be president might be “too Hollywood” for the part, and he seemed perturbed by all the “Lock her up!” chanting, laughing darkly whenever it would start up again.
“Isn’t America great now?” he asked, lifting his eyebrows in feigned innocence. When Ivanka Trump declared that her father was “colorblind” and “gender neutral,” I couldn’t hold it in anymore and I snorted loudly. Dr. Gregory looked at me. “Colorblind and gender-neutral,” he repeated slowly, considering the possibility, before shaking his head. He also made a show of agreeing with the undeniably true statements, like Ivanka’s assertion that “incompetency is impossible to hide,” and called her a “fantastic speaker.” He was fair, but maintained his sense of humor. When Trump mentioned that he would restore “law and order,” the reference wasn’t lost on Dr. Gregory. He muttered something about the “Los Angeles series,” the Law & Order spinoff that everyone can agree was a complete failure.
And when Trump declared that a “change in outcome” requires a “change in leadership,” Gregory allowed it. “Technically, yes,” he said, waiting for me to agree too. Yeah, I guess so.
Before I made my escape, I scanned the room. The sad guy was still there, looking downward as the people around looked up at Trump’s image and repeated his words along with him: “I am your voice.”
In the mirror’s reflection, I could see some people looking up, their faces aglow from the projection overhead, in awe of this smirking Monopoly man. But when people started to jeer at the protestor who popped up in the crowd– “Get her outta there! Take her coat!” and “Liberal scum!”– I recognized them as un-ironic references to Trump’s rallies, where he has tossed out journalists and members of the press, in addition to protestors. I decided it was time to leave.
“Treason!” As I left, I could hear people shouting at the specter of Hillary. “Traitor!”
Correction: The original version of this post was revised because it misquoted statements made at the convention.