American collision course

John Woodside reports from this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where evidence of the divisions tearing the country apart was clear to see.

By: /
July 22, 2016
Balloons drop after U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

The four-day long Republican National Convention, held this week in Cleveland, Ohio, was filled with the twists and turns that have defined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

In anticipation of the event, thousands of police arrived in the city, their numbers dwarfed only by the tens of thousands of journalists who descended on the convention grounds, expecting sparks. Controversies surrounding delegates, flag-burning protests, gun-toting citizens, and dozens of arrests provided ample fodder for their media reports.

Perhaps the most telling, but unsurprising, aspect of the week was the divisiveness between Trump supporters and the anti-Trump crowd. Protesters representing causes ranging from police violence to disarmament to abortion rights were met with jeers from many Trump supporters. Meanwhile, the pro-Trump crowd was often quick to call for Hillary Clinton to be jailed. They were also quick to call Black Lives Matter a terrorist group. And far too often, they fell into plain old racist and sexist rhetoric as they feebly defended banning Muslims, building walls, and preventing women from gaining positions of authority.

If the crowds were any indication, the polarization here, and in the United States at large, is real.

When asking about social order, you get radically different responses depending on who you are speaking to. It’s as if opposing sides live in fundamentally different countries.

In fact, it is one country somehow both colliding and being torn apart.

Even though this week has been a culmination of Trump’s efforts over the past year — his nomination was officially confirmed Tuesday — it is important to remember that winning the Republican nomination is not the end of the line. The vitriol that has gripped this election cycle will likely only continue, possibly long past November, no matter the outcome.

Ironically, the last day of this week’s convention was called Make America One Again. How that will happen is anyone’s guess.

For a clearer picture of how divided the country is, here is a rundown of what happened each day this week. 

Day 1: Make America Safe Again

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Donald Trump merchandise outside the Republican National Convention. Photo: John Woodside

Donald Trump became the Republican's presumptive nominee months ago, after Texas Senator Ted Cruz dropped out following the Indiana primary. The only hurdle he had left was defeating the ‘never Trump’ movement – Republicans who would never vote for him – at this week’s convention. Monday saw the last-ditch effort to unbind delegates, hypothetically allowing for an alternative candidate to overtake Trump at the last minute. It was a one in a million shot, and predictably it failed.

Fear-mongering was out in force, as one would expect on a day premised around making America safe again. Stories from parents who lost children to undocumented immigrants and a movie about Benghazi both served to strengthen the Republican position that immigration requires a tougher policy, and that the Democrats jeopardized the safety of Americans abroad. “The world outside our borders is a dark place, a scary place. America is the light and her people are the goodness that grows from that,” retired Navy Seal Michael Luttrell said to a crowd inside the convention.

Melania Trump also spoke and was promptly criticized for plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. The Trump campaign put out a press release written by Melania’s speech writer, who took full responsibility, while admitting no fault. Perhaps worse is the accusation she may have 'Rick-rolled' the entire Republican National Convention. 

Day 2: Make America Work Again

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Supporters and protesters of Donald Trump face off at the Republican National Convention. Photo: John Woodside

On Tuesday, Donald Trump officially secured enough delegate votes to clinch the nomination. The only hiccup was a controversy around Alaska’s delegates. In short, Alaska had 28 delegates and they read 12 for Cruz, 11 for Trump and five for Marco Rubio, reflecting how the state voted this past March. However, on Tuesday, all 28 were counted for Trump. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus explained that Alaska’s rules dictate that once all other candidates drop out, all votes are allocated to the remaining candidate. But Cruz and Rubio didn’t drop out – they suspended their campaigns. This interpretation is what spurred the recount, even though it didn’t effectively change the results.

Outside of the convention centre, protests enflamed tensions between opposing sides and police. In the public square American academic and social activist Cornel West galvanized a crowd, calling for the end of systemic police violence against black communities. On the other side of the square, the Westboro Baptist Church was preparing a protest. 

Fearing rising tensions between opposing sides, hundreds of police officers took over the square by dividing it into quadrants using bicycles to form a wall, then pushed all protesters from the centre to the perimeter. With the square inaccessible, an anti-authoritarian march throughout the downtown core began. Hundreds more police on bicycles herded the activists, and when police prevented them from turning onto another street, police physically divided the group again to regain control. Some protesters were mildly injured, though the march continued until Cleveland’s Chief of Police Calvin Williams deemed the protest unlawful and told activists they had five minutes to disperse before they would be arrested.

Day 3: Make America First Again

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Police monitor marches at the Republican National Convention. Photo: John Woodside

On a day purportedly about how to make America first in the world, there was very little talk of foreign policy. Instead, the biggest story of the day was Ted Cruz being booed offstage after his speech to the convention centre. Despite refusing to endorse Trump, Cruz brilliantly played into the ‘crooked Hillary’ narrative spun by Trump’s campaign by urging voters to “vote their conscience” in November, implying that Clinton couldn’t be trusted. 

Governor of Indiana Mike Pence, Trump’s newly announced running mate, also spoke Wednesday night, reiterating the ticket’s message that the United States has been weakened and needs a strong leader like Trump to regain its position in the world.

Meanwhile, protests escalated. In the morning, a group marched to the public square holding hands and forming a wall as part of the “Wall Off Trump” campaign. In the afternoon, a group of activists affiliated with the Revolutionary Communist Party burned an American flag. The flag was lit for mere moments before police extinguished the flame, amidst a growing crowd. Two police officers were injured in the chaos that ensued, and 17 protesters were ultimately arrested. Gregory Lee Johnson, the communist activist who burnt the U.S. flag in 1984 resulting in a Supreme Court decision that flag burning was a form of protected free speech, was one of those arrested.

Day 4: Make America One Again

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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as he accepts the nomination during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

More demonstrations continued throughout Thursday — a clash of supporters, protesters and police, some groups waving Trump flags, others a papier-mâché pig head topped with a Donald Trump wig, causing havoc. 

But the big event, to cap off the week, was Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday evening.

“I humbly and gratefully accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States,” Trump announced. His speech was fairly predictable. He got creative with the facts, speaking in truthful hyperbole, as he might say.

When it came to foreign policy, Trump said, “America is far less safe and the world is far less stable than when Obama made the decision to put Hillary Clinton in charge of America's foreign policy.” He then spent a good chunk of time blasting Clinton’s record, blaming her for every problem in the Middle East, from the spread of ISIS to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He said her legacy was “death, destruction and terrorism and weakness.”

Despite presenting a rather dystopic view of both the world and the United States, Trump did extend his hand to one group in particular: Bernie supporters. “I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders. He never had a chance. But his supporters will join our movement, because we will fix his biggest issue: trade deals that strip our country of jobs and the distribution of wealth in the country,” he said. In recent months, Trump has been claiming Sanders was a victim of a rigged system, a move clearly designed to bring in the anti-establishment wing of his base of support. 

Terrorism also featured heavily in the acceptance speech. Trump said that his plan for defeating terrorism had three components: the best intelligence gathering; abandoning policies of nation building; and suspending immigration from countries “compromised by terrorism.”

He concluded his speech by promising to make America strong, proud, safe and, of course, great again.