As protesters swore at each other in rage on the streets of Cleveland during the first day of the GOP Convention, there was one point on which everyone could agree: the other side had been hoodwinked.
“Republicans have brains, Democrats are brainwashed,” says farm equipment dealer Chris Jenkins, 32. Wearing a Hillary for Prison T-shirt and sunglasses (wraparound), he said he thought anti-Trump demonstrators were stuck in a “skewed sense of reality” so “set in stone” that they refused to listen to reason: “Republicans can conversate and Democrats can’t,” he concluded.
A few blocks away, a truck driver from Milwaukee mounted a concrete police barrier and issued a rebuttal.
“Those people are misled. They believe that the reason for their fear is immigrants, peoples and communities that they’re unfamiliar with,” Kas Schwerdtfeger, a UPS union worker said. Wearing a Teamsters t-shirt and sunglasses (not wraparound) he said that Trump had tricked Americans who had been hurt by a transforming economy. “Trump speaks to their fear.”
Rarely have two political visions been so at odds in an election. At the center of two rallies in Cleveland on Monday was Trump, who inspired loyal followers and an outraged opposition to congregate to raise their voices across the city. Each side, separated by ideology and often race, seemed to view the other side with a mix of compassion and contempt.
“It’s like being retarded,” says Tim Lang, a 59-year old transcendental meditationist, of the “uninformed” and “brainwashed” anti-Trump protesters. “In terms of being unable to decipher the propaganda,” he clarifies.
“If they really think about the problems they have as a matter of class and not of race, they wouldn’t chose Donald Trump,” says Leonel Mejia, an anti-Trump demonstrator with the Minnesota Immigration Rights Action Committee. “History has divided us by race in this country and they don’t understand that,” he adds. “They’re being blind.”
The two rallies were planned to inaugurate the first day of the Republican convention and were among the bigger gatherings expected this week. They remained peaceful throughout, despite fears that Ohio’s open-carry laws and the recent police shootings would lead to violence.
Around two hundred Trump’s loyalists met at a park on the Cuyahoga River to hear speeches from Roger Stone, a political operative running a Trump super PAC, British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, Jan Morgan and other Trump allies. A few blocks away at the Cleveland mall, several hundred anti-Trump protesters met before marching in a loop around Cleveland’s downtown near the Quicken Loans Arena, where Republicans are holding their convention.
The anti-Trump protesters included more than forty liberal groups, from Black Lives Matter to the United States Marxist Leninist Organization. They chanted slogans against Trump and blamed him for inciting racial and anti-immigrant fears.
Police from outside Cleveland came to assist in monitoring the protests, including groups from Michigan, St. Louis and Akron, Ohio. Disciplined cops sometimes outnumbered the protesters, at times standing between opposing groups. At one point, a line of mounted police stood between the pro-Trump rally and a splinter group of opposition protesters who had wandered down to the park where they gathered. But the only results of that near-confrontation were piles of manure left on the street.
For both sides, it seemed that their ideological opposites existed in a parallel universe that they were too gullible to escape.
In one case, a Trump supporter considered himself awakened from what he now sees as a cult of liberal propaganda. John Porter, 52, voted twice for Barack Obama but now supports Donald Trump. “He talked a good game and I bought into it,” he says of Obama. “I wasn’t informed enough.” Now, he despises the president for what he sees as not supporting police officers at a time of heightened racial tensions with law enforcement. “It makes me sick,” he says. “I wish his plane would run out of gas.”
Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference before the rally and marched alongside the anti-Trump protesters. Trump supporters were being misled, Awad said in a brief interview. “There is legitimate fear in our society among those who are worried about national security we owe it to them to inform them, to enlighten them about the facts,” he said. “Donald Trump and others have exploited them in an ugly fashion.”
“I could scream at you all day and you won’t listen to what I say,” says Chris Jenkins, the Trump supporter. “But if I tell you, you might listen. But these people don’t want to talk.”
Indeed, there were moments when regular discourse seemed to break down. In one combustive moment in the mid-afternoon, a squad of self-proclaimed street preachers walked over to the anti-Trump protestors and began to yell provocative slogans. “You’re a bunch of rejects from the 1960s,” one man said through a megaphone. “Allah is Satan,” said another’s T-shirt.
The anti-Trump protesters rallied to yell “Black Lives Matter.” “You don’t believe that,” a man with the megaphone shouted back, not identifiably part of either the pro-Trump or anti-Trump contingent. “You’re a poop stain on the diaper of America!” he said.
Anti-Trump protester Anovia Thibeaux shouted back on her own speaker: “I’m going to f— your daughter, sir!”
It was perhaps the most striking moment of dissonance in a day when both sides seemed to talk past each other.
Even its participants recognized it. “It’s all mouth garbage,” said Thibeaux sheepishly.