While Melania Trump was busy plagiarizing Michelle Obama's speech on national television (is there a fifth column within the Trump campaign?), a group of 10 or so people gathered in the slightly claustrophobic, and very warm, basement of a Cleveland Heights bookstore to hear a few political heretics speak about the ongoing quadrennial extravaganza (= presidential election).
Cartoonists Ted Rall (author of graphic biographies Bernie, Snowden, and Trump) and Seth Tococman (You Don't Have to Fuck People Over to Survive), along with Canadian writer John Filion (The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford), provided a welcome, informative break from the mindless chaos engulfing downtown Cleveland.
Mac's Backs bookstore was a fitting venue. It's situated just east of the city — on the margins of the mainstream convention madness, probably unknown to most people demonstrating downtown. Likewise, the night's speakers reside on the margins of the mainstream political discourse; the ideas they espouse, despite their rationality and intelligence (or probably because of those things), are systematically ignored by the press, rendering them invisible to, say, 99 percent of the population.
The event, then, served as a sort of microcosm of a small subset of society — those who criticize the Democratic Party from the left.
The first to speak, John Filion, drew interesting parallels between Donald Trump and erstwhile Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who died of cancer in March. Like Trump, Ford was initially a joke — never could someone so absurd win an election so significant. Owing to the general disaffection of Torontonians, however, Ford was elected mayor in 2010.
"It's not about the place where it happens," Filion said. "It's not even about the leader. It's about the discontent in the population and somebody's ability to tap into what other politicians have missed and the media have missed."
The success of demagogues like Ford can be ascribed to their willingness to exploit "the feeling in the pit of [a person's] stomach that they just aren't being treated fairly, that no politician has ever cared about them."
When people reach this point, they vote for change — however bizarre and unpredictable that change may be.
Ford was predictably a disaster, and became a walking punchline after video footage of him smoking crack surfaced on the internet. That's his legacy as far as most people in Canada and the U.S. are concerned — Toronto's obese, crack-smoking mayor, ha ha — but according to John Filion, his political trajectory is a cautionary tale. If we want to understand Trumpism, it is perhaps useful to study Ford.
Cleveland native Seth Tobocman, whose new book is Len (A Lawyer in History), about the man who managed to exonerate the Chicago Seven, was next on the docket. A lifelong anti-war and anti-globalist activist, Tobocman's raison d'etre is demonstrating against the abuses of state power (meaning he stays very busy).
He spoke of the infamous 1968 demonstrations in Chicago, where anti-war protesters were met by extreme violence and brutality, and how the state has managed to effectively neuter public protests.
According to Tobocman, they've done so by scaring the public into believing they can only exercise their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly after being granted official permission.
"A lot of political groups are really careful about getting permits," he said. "They don't want to do anything without a permit, and that is a way of avoiding violence, and it's a way of making people feel secure. And so they have very large demonstrations because they're very safe, although they're also somewhat uneventful."
Breaking from this mold is Black Lives Matter, whose tactics — taking to the street, disrupting traffic, getting arrested — are very effective in "raising an issue in the public mind." If every Black Lives Matter protest presupposed a permit issued by the state, it's unlikely that the movement would have even made the news.
Upon arriving to Cleveland for convention week, Tobocman was struck by the irony of a menacing black fence having been built around a public area called Freedom Plaza.
"Welcome to Freedom Plaza, and there's fences all along it," he said in jest. "It was amazing. You always wonder if people can't see themselves objectively."
The evening's keynote address came from Ted Rall, a regular contributor to CounterPunch, the distinguished leftist/socialist/dissident publication. Rall had much to say about today's — and yesterday's — major political personalities.
The subject of his second graphic biography, Bernie Sanders, is someone with whom Rall reluctantly expresses solidarity.
"I'm to the left of Bernie Sanders," he said. "He's to me not perfect. But by the standards of American electoral politics, he was the quantum singularity, and we are not going to see his like again in our lifetimes."
Now that Bernie has officially endorsed Hillary Clinton, whom Rall has previously described as a "monster," Rall plans to vote third party, specifically for Jill Stein of the Green Party.
"We’re kind of facing this horrible choice, where it's like, if you don't vote for Hillary, you're voting for Trump de facto," he said, adding that while it's a valid argument, "it's not one that I buy into."
"What I've been telling people," he continued, "is, 'Look, you think the choice between fascism and not fascism is going to be made this November. It was made a month ago when Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination. We lost already. We’ve lost our last chance at a decent candidate.'"
Furthermore, Rall rejects the criticism that by voting third party, he and others who think like him are exhibiting callous indifference toward the prospective victims of a Trump presidency. (For the record, Rall promises to move to France if Trump is elected.)
"First, in Germany, [the fascists] came for guys just like Seth and I," he said. "They came for left wing political cartoonists and pundits, and writers and journalists. So we don't have that luxury of being like, 'Hey, let's see what happens to those other schlubs.' We're the other schlubs."
The roots of Trumpism, according to Rall, can be traced back to 1972, when George McGovern lost the election to Richard Nixon. Following McGovern's defeat, the movers and shakers of the Democratic Party had a skull session, the conclusion of which was that for the party to stay relevant, "it was going to have to move to the right."
The first guinea pig for this new "liberal" philosophy was Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 "became the model of the first conservative, Democratic, Southern governor, which Bill Clinton later would end up emulating," Rall said.
Taking his iconoclasm a step further, Rall argues that Carter and his ilk bear ultimate responsibility for the rise of Trumpism.
"Jimmy Carter is going to die like any second, and everyone's going to talk about what a great liberal he was and Habitat for Humanity and blah blah blah," he said. "That's horseshit; he was a right-wing asshole and he is the reason that Donald Trump is going to be president. Because he helped move the Democratic Party far to the right."
Carter was in fact the first Democratic candidate to accept massive campaign contributions from corporations — something Bernie Sanders railed against throughout the primaries. Moreover, as Rall points out, Carter was also the first Democratic president to omit anti-poverty programs from his platform.
"There has not been a major anti-poverty program proposed by any American president since LBJ," Rall said. "We forget that. We forget what we've lost. We don't even expect it. Barack Obama didn't even have a single liberal on his cabinet in 2008; he's never had a liberal, much less a progressive."
Owing to this steady rightward shift, "a lot of people feel completely let down by both major parties, that don't represent their interests, and the major split is, who do you blame? If you're a right-winger, you're very amenable to blaming brown people and immigrants."
Hence, Rall contends, Donald Trump's nomination.
"Xenophobia doesn't get much life when the economy is booming. Xenophobia really gets going when the economy sucks, and the people turn into rats in a cage, fighting over scarce resources."
So if Trump is indeed a fascist bogeyman, it's logical to vote for Hillary Clinton, the lesser evil, right? Not so, according to Rall.
"Donald Trump is an existential danger, and yet there's no fucking way I'll ever vote for Hillary Clinton," he said. "For me personally, having been to Afghanistan and Pakistan and Central Asia, I've seen the damage that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's policies have done. I've seen the sites of drone strikes. I've seen what happened to Afghanistan over the last 15 years under U.S. occupation. Too many people are dead, and their blood will not allow me to endorse [Clinton]."
Put more succinctly, and radically:
"This is a choice between Goering and Himmler, and I just hate them both, and I don't want to have anything to do with them. So they can fuck up the planet and the country without my help."
After having a copy of Trump: A Graphic Biography signed by its author, I took the train back to the city center, where the extravaganza raged on and Christian zealots preached about the horrors of pornography (it's adultery, don't you know) and people in red caps and "Hillary for Prison" t-shirts struggled to explain which of their candidates' policies they find most seductive, and I sighed.