Cockburn was born for political conventions. In the traditional sense, that is: he lives for the crowded bars, co-mingling with delegates, the dalliances with nubile network talking heads, and imbroglios with largely peaceful protesters. But due to the selfishness of a silly little coronavirus — one that has by now lost all its novelty — the 2020 party conventions have been a bust.
Last week’s virtual Democratic nostalgia-fest was best viewed from the couch through the bottom of a bottle of Gigondas. Cockburn had higher hopes for the Republicans. There was at least a fixed location for most of the addresses, and a rumored hub of activity: the Trump Hotel in Washington DC. Perhaps, then, some mischief was afoot in Cockburn’s adopted hometown? Don’t they say right-wingers have more fun these days?
On Monday, when the official convention business was in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cockburn posted up at a table at the Trump with a couple of other hacks. If you haven’t been since the lockdown, the cheapest domestic beer is still $10, the same as the cheapest import. So much for America First.
At around 8:45 p.m., Donald Trump Jr and his entourage passed through the lobby ahead of his speech. Flanked by his brother Eric and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, the group were all donning face-masks in accordance with city law. ‘Cocaine’ was trending on Twitter during Don Jr and Kimberly’s speeches due to the pair’s enthusiasm. In Cockburn’s estimation, this is a reach: the group breezed through with a vigor better explained by excitement to address the nation, not anything chemical.
Four years ago, Cleveland had the feel of a sanitized convention city. Pandemic-stricken downtown DC is a wasteland in comparison. The store fronts remain boarded up in case of further looting, the approach to the White House is populated with posing progressive Instagram activists and bands of Black Lives Matterers are rolling around restaurants coercing diners into a show of solidarity. Then there are the beggars. Where in Cleveland local authorities contentiously cleared them out ahead of the Trump train rolling into town, Washingtonians have yielded their city to the homeless. DC had the highest rate of homelessness per capita even before the pandemic sent wealthier residents fleeing; now the displaced pitch tents on traffic circles and in parks. While attempting to gain entry to the Trump on Tuesday, one homeless guy offered to shine Cockburn’s shoes. It was desperately sad.
From Tuesday to Thursday, access to the Trump was only granted to hotel guests and those on ‘the list’ for ‘the event’, according to security, who wouldn’t tell Cockburn what ‘the event’ was. Instead, Cockburn holed up at the dive bar Harry’s a block away, and peered into the Trump on Instagram. It turned out that the entire hotel and all its conference rooms had been booked out by ‘Trump Victory’, the political action committee headed by Reince Priebus and created from an effective merger between the RNC and Trump campaign. This is pretty consistent with previous campaign spending at Trump Organization properties. Most speakers were housed by the committee at the hotel, and chauffeured the four blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Mellon auditorium in numbers black SUVs with tinted windows that lined up in wait along 11th Street.
There have been no journalists inside the Trump for three days — the closest thing would be former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who taped his podcast from the hotel. In a week when GOP delegates declared Trump’s biggest challenge to be ‘the media’, it’s nice that the party were able to cordon off a safe space. ‘There is a comfort level at the hotel because there aren’t a lot of opponents here,’ is how New York’s former mayor put it. Cockburn tried in vain to gain access, but alas, he’s always been more life-of-the-party than partisan creature.
As is so often the case, Harry’s proved to be an overspill for those unable to get into the Trump. ‘We had Rudy Giuliani, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Matt Gaetz all advocating for us to get in, they did not let us in,’ a Trump Hotel regular and 2016 campaign veteran was overheard saying to his dinner party.
Trump has explained away polls showing his unpopularity by touting support among the ‘boaters’ and the ‘bikers’. Cockburn found several Bikers for Trump boozing away on the Harry’s terrace. ‘If it weren’t for us, Trump wouldn’t have been able to have rallies, because people would have thrown shit at him,’ said one.
As night fell on the final night, once again protesters descended on the streets surrounding the White House, in an attempt to distract from the President’s acceptance speech. A circle of masked activists surrounded the ‘= DEFUND THE POLICE’ at the end of what’s now called ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’ as their comrades added a new coat of paint. Organizers milled through the throng, repeating ’no photos, no videos’ at passersby. ‘You are putting our lives in danger,’ said one. One female reporter was heckled away from the circle by a snotty-sounding activist: ‘You’re not needed here, you’re not wanted here! Walk,’ she sneered, as the journalist retreated.
The other protest on 15th Street closer to the South Lawn was much more to Cockburn’s liking. A band tried to drown out the speeches with music. Young folk of all races in Berkeley merch danced and shook bells, waving placards adorned with messages such as ‘You’re either an American or a Trump defender — you can’t be both’ and ’NO FACIST USA’ (it’s a hard word, OK?) As the crowd burst into call-and-response chants of ‘no justice? No peace!’, Cockburn finally felt welcomed into the fold at the 2020 Republican National Convention. He slunk off into the night before the mock guillotine showed up.