First person: the greatest sleight of hand

Among the rallying protesters, camera-wielding media and stiff-backed patrol officers crowding Cleveland’s Public Square during the Republican National Convention stands Gilligan, a local magician. A cross between Mr. Spock and the 1960s Bob Denver character, Gilligan in his black slacks, shoes and matching top hat, stands in front of a sign, LET’S MAKE AMERICA MAGICAL AGAIN, while performing a rope trick. Despite pro-LGBT protestors fighting religious evangelicals in the background, Gilligan goes into his routine effortlessly.
“Some people are treated unequally,” he announces, displaying his three lengths of rope. “Some are treated different! But we all need to work together. Our two party system clearly does not work the way it is.” And in a blink, three ropes become one. “It’s all about unity,” he says. One of the reporters on the scene poses for a smiling photo with Gilligan before trotting off to see about a man with an American-flag wrapped AR-15 rifle.

Outside of Gilligan’s post, the LGBT group heats up. “This whole scene is really weird!” they shout. “You’re full of hate, full of fear!” Religious zealots bark back with fire-and-brimstone omens. Two girls make out in response – call them wide receivers for the offense. A Georgia State officer standing as part of a human dividing wall grins.

Around us, aspiring preachers quote Bible verses; activists from San Francisco hold up signs that demand we STOP TRUMP; A teenager with a pink iguana named Fluffy hands off his pet to a suit-and-tie wearing blogger dubbed Mr. Doing Too Much, who proceeds to snap a photo featuring Fluffy and an officer from the Indiana Highway Patrol.

Near the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a man points to a petite girl in a ball cap holding up a sign depicting some two-dozen persons who are “destined for Hell.”
“Do you really believe that?” he balks.

“Yeah,” she says. “It’s in the Bible.”

“Ugh, you’re nuts,” he says, stomping away. “Nuts.”

In the center of it all, a group of girls laughs and seems to enjoy themselves as a man with slicked-black hair and Dr. Marten’s sporadically shouts at the zealots. I ask if he thinks any communication is getting across on either side.
“It’s all show,” he tells me. “To be honest with you, I’m just here for the theater.”

"Man, you ain't listening! All your talk is cheap. It's wrong!"

It’s Wednesday, day three of the spectacle, and to much disbelief, Cleveland is still in one piece. One year earlier, a committee headed by Police Chief Calvin Williams and Mayor Frank Jackson sought out 2,800 out-of-state police from New Jersey to California and plenty of points in between. They joined other federal officers and the Cleveland force to help protect the city and keep the peace as part of the event's $60 million price tag. Over 60,000 hotel rooms were prepped along with thousands of Airbnb offerings in spaces otherwise vacated by anxiously fleeing residents.
Then shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge stirred the country. In response, the city grew tenser ahead of the RNC; stakes were raised. Security was questioned as open-carry laws remained intact. A week ahead of the RNC during a July 13 press conference, a reporter asked Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams if the city was prepared for a national spotlight. “Yes, we are ready,” he said straight-faced, “It’s going to be business as usual in an unusual manner. We’ve been preparing for this for years. I am confident Cleveland is ready.”

In Public Square, as Gilligan performs a card trick before two red-headed teenage boys and their father, a fight breaks out a few yards away, near the police line dividing the factions. Cops intervene, LGBT-ers back off and the scuffle peters out. For Gilligan it echoes an earlier scene.
“Yesterday,” he tells me as he manipulates the cards, “there was this group of protestors shouting ‘Get back! Get back!” and reporters ran over because they thought something happened. The cops intervened and dispersed the entire crowd. It was nothing! These people just created this vocally violent protest. They actually told me, ‘We go to these events just to make a scene. We know how to manipulate the media.’ It was unbelievable.”

A reporter from NPR walks over with a camera and cuts off our conversation. “Can I see a trick, Gilligan?” he asks, glancing at the magician’s gold nametag.

“You sure can,” Gilligan says, taking out his ropes.

Around noon the same day, a black custom Boeing 757 jet flies over a crystal-clear Cleveland skyline. It is the only plane with clearance to do so on this day. Minutes later, a $7 million Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, outfitted with 24-karat gold-plated seatbelts and handles, descends on the Lake Erie shoreline before at least a hundred reporters and spectators who await its head passenger.
“Ladies and gentlemen of Cleveland!” a man announces over a loudspeaker as the chopper’s blades slow. “Please welcome the next President of the United States – Donald J. Trump!” The theme song from the 1997 movie Air Force One blares. Trump walks out. To onlookers it’s clear that this is big. This is an important man.

Trump's people, of course, have not taken this national spotlight for granted. “It’s going to be a big production,” said a Trump campaign adviser of the RNC in May. “Given Trump’s profile and how he handles things, nothing is off the table. He’s going to be intimately involved in it.”

And so he was. Along with the $25 million raised by the RNC Host Committee, the billionaire real-estate mogul personally chipped in about $4 million for what would be a “monumentally magnificent” event. Each of his sons and daughters along with wife Melania and Trump-backing actors and musicians were assigned speaking slots. Private parties played out in restaurants on East 4th and in the Warehouse District for many of the delegates. Bands played country tunes riffing off Trumpian phrases – “We’re gonna make America great again,” and “Uptown Trump you up / Uptown Trump you up!” – in between speeches by CEOs and other GOP elects. Ted Cruz notwithstanding, most were clearly backing The GOP candidate as evidenced by the campaign placards in both the Quicken Loans Arena and the Huntington Convention Center. They featured just two names: “TRUMP/PENCE 2016.”

Outside the Q, merchants from as far away as Akron and Cincinnati hawk T-shirts and buttons that read “2016: I WAS THERE” predicting the future desire to prove attendance at the surreal scene. There are Trump bobble head dolls, Trump long socks, shirts with an open-mouthed “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. I ask a woman selling T-shirts on West 6th named Angela what she thinks of the election, as if her answer will soften the brass-haired man on every button.
“The convention?” Angela says as if it's an afterthought. “I actually prefer to stay out of politics," she adds defensively. "I mean, I admire Trump for going from reality TV star to running for President, but I don’t know if I’ll vote for him.” I nod and thank her. I buy a bipartisan magnet out of sympathy. Sympathy for whom? I'm not sure.

On the ride back home around midnight, I muse over Gilligan and conjure what I eventually dub Trump’s “sleight of hand,” recalling what Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, concluded when he listened in on Trump’s business calls during research for the book.
“He loved the attention,” Schwartz said in the New Yorker article. “If he could have had three hundred thousand people listening in, he would have been even happier.”
The following night, after flying in again from New York (he prefers to sleep in his Manhattan apartment) Trump would speak to millions watching him from living rooms across the nation, as well as the 2,472 GOP delegates on the floor of the Q. I can't help but wonder why most of them are voting for a man who once referred to his current wife as "my supermodel," promised to bar Muslims from entering our country, and is referred to by former associates, including biographer Schwartz, as a “pathological liar.”
In my pocket, I worry at the magnet I purchased. Why did I really buy it?

Two hours before Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, 200 delegates stand in Freedom Plaza sipping chardonnay from plastic glasses or locally brewed beers. Three delegates in cowboy hats and shirts festooned with the Texas flag talk to an Alabama delegate in a sequined red top hat, a Trump button fastened to the rim. The day before, I had asked delegates for their thoughts on Ted Cruz’s speech, which now famously did not include an endorsement. Their feedback was stony. “He should not have done that!” one teary-eyed woman told me. “It was selfish of him. Selfish.” Another delegate stood stiff-jawed with clenched-teeth. “Why did he do that?” he repeated, as if to clobber me with words. “Why do you think he did that?”

Delegates are on their first recess at the Q
And while it wasn't really a question, right before the man of the hour was slated to speak in front of 35 million viewers, I wanted an answer.

In the lobby of the Q, Forrest Mandeville says of Trump, “He’s ambitious. He goes in with big ideas, does what he needs to accomplish them," adds the 32-year-old Montana delegate. "We don’t want to hear people say, ‘Oh, I can’t really do anything.’ We want to hear ideas, and that things are going to get done.”

Pam Ackerson, a 63-year-old delegate from Vermont, tells me she fears the world her three grandchildren will be growing up in. Her sentences are peppered with mentions of ISIS, the Dallas shooting and that her son-in-law is in the military. “My main issues are safety, the border, terrorism," she says starkly. "I just feel like I’m a pretty conservative person, but I know that people don’t think he’s conservative as they would like. To me, if you’re not safe, you’ve got nothing.”

Yet when asked if Trump was their first choice, all of the six delegates I spoke with said no. Most added that the main reason to support Trump was to defeat Hillary. Everyone spoke in an unmistakable undertone of distress, as if recalling an emotionally dense life episode. Some were skeptics, and for them, Trump is the last resort, the final lifeboat launching from a dystopic Titanic embodying the American state of affairs. “What are we really here for?” Ken Cope, a Texas delegate and former Cruz supporter, told me. “We’re here to win the election. That’s the party’s focus. We have to make sure we’re unified. In Texas, we have a little varmint called a coyote. And when a coyote has his legs stuck in a trap, for the good of the whole, he’ll gnaw that leg off. And I’m prepared to do just as a coyote would do for the good of our party.”

When Donald Trump finally walks out amid blasting music Thursday night, it's clear he wants every entrance to top his last. The requisite phones come out like a wall of shields. “Unbelievable,” someone says behind me, as a sea of folks in patriotic garb on the floor chant “USA! USA! USA!” Women loosen their shirt collars beside clapping slack-jawed men. “Build a wall! Build a wall!” thunders from the crowd as Trump announces, “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore. We will honor the American public with the truth, and nothing else.”
Even for this non-Republican, his words land in my gut like pounds of unused jet fuel or scrap copper. Trump seduces you, and you can’t help yourself. You begin to understand the gravitas of the Trump image, the sheer scope of its true capability and mass. In the manner he speaks, everything can be fixed and all trepidation will be alleviated. Then, as applause fills the area, balloons drop from the rafters and confetti billows in clouds of red, white and blue, there’s a fleeting period in which you really want to believe him, disregard his narcissism and visceral attacks, and enjoy for just one moment what you’ve been allowed to witness.

But then you snap to. It's all a sleight of hand.

Read a roundup of Mark Oprea's live social media coverage of the RNC here.

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.