Trying to Understand All the Silence and Noise of the RNC and DNC

Balloon joy Photo: 2016 Getty Images

Last week, New Girl creator Liz Meriwether was in Philadelphia covering the Democratic National Convention for Vulture. The week before that, she went to Cleveland to report on the Republican National Convention.

“Your shoes are untied.”

I turned around on the sweaty, packed Philadelphia subway and thanked the man who’d called this out to me. He was wearing a nice, blue button-down shirt, no tie, and more than one credential around his neck; he also wore a slightly glazed look caused either by cocktails or exhaustion or the heat. My shoe must have come untied in my rush to get out of the arena after Hillary Clinton’s speech. Before Thursday night, getting out had been a battle against crowds, fences, weather, the Uber app, and my terrible sense of direction. What became clear to me by the end of the week was that I would not do well in a war. If you see me in a war zone, do not follow; instead, as I learned on Thursday, follow someone born in the mid-to-late-1980s. That night, my younger colleague had taken me under her driven, clear-eyed wing, and we had headed out of the arena immediately after the speech. I hadn’t had a second to tie my shoe or process that I had just seen the first woman ever accept the nomination to be the Democratic candidate for president.

It had all happened minutes prior: The balloons had fallen, fireworks had gone off, Tim Kaine had walked onstage and reminded us he was also running, and Chelsea Clinton, standing a little too far from the microphone, had introduced her mom from the inside of what sounded like a library made of clouds. After the speech, I saw Hillary catch a large, star-spangled blue balloon with outstretched hands, wearing a smile that spanned her face. I’d seen the same face on my 2-year-old nephew as he reached for a plastic truck so he could put it in his mouth. The image grabbed my heart and made me embarrassed and a little uncomfortable, like seeing my parents try to dance to hip-hop.

I thought back to my week in Cleveland, watching the Trump family’s faces on the jumbotron as the balloons fell for Donald. That night, after listening for over an hour to the ways that we were all going to kill each other, the balloon drop felt like a natural disaster: “Balloons have been reported falling from the sky in Cleveland. Please stay in your house until the danger has passed.” From the look on young Barron Trump’s face, he had seen the future and knew it was not good. “Yes. Play with your balloons now, fools,” his face seemed to be saying. “Soon my father will pop them all.” Hillary, on the other hand, was on acid at Burning Man during her balloon drop, falling in love with all the balloons in the world, and her friends didn’t find her until late the next morning.

I didn’t enjoy Hillary’s speech, because I was so anxious and frustrated by the booing in the arena. Whenever it stopped, I would nervously scan the crowd, trying to see where the boos would pop up next. Regardless of what people thought about what she was saying, I felt that, as the Democratic nominee for president, she deserved to be heard. You could hate the speech after it was done, write about hating it, talk about hating it, and protest in the streets about hating it — but you had to actually let her speak. Was the disrespect, I wondered, on some level sexist? Did the crowd feel empowered to boo because it was just a woman up there? That’s too easy an answer, and there were so many women who were part of the yellow-shirt protest. I had walked behind one of them as we left the arena. She was chanting “Mo-th-er Earth! Mo-th-er Earth!” I wanted to stop and ask her what specifically about “Mother Earth” she felt had not been addressed tonight, but luckily my steely-eyed young colleague kept me focused on getting to the subway. 

Truth is, it shouldn’t have been surprising that people booed Hillary’s speech, since Democrats have been booing each other all year. Hillary supporters and the DNC have been “booing” Bernie supporters in their own way — although it’s less of a boo and more of a patronizing, smug sort of “Shhh.” Alexandria Davis, a grad student and Bernie delegate from Ohio, could barely contain her rage as she told me, “The Hillary campaign says that we’re stupid, ignorant millennials who don’t do research. And also sexist ‘Bernie bros.’ We’re very angry.” A reluctant 20-year-old Hillary supporter told me, “The media has made it pretty clear to me that, as a young millennial, I really don’t know anything at all.” Madeleine Albright had told female Bernie supporters that there was a “special place in hell” for them, and leaked emails revealed the DNC was filled with staffers speaking to each other like masters of the universe who could change the course of an election. One staffer wished he could respond to a question with “fuck-you emoji.” Does the Democratic party now communicate in “fuck-you emoji”? In my mind, that’s another way to boo.

The result is that the Democratic Party’s message sometimes felt like cacophony. On Monday night, the crowd in the arena sounded like a swarm of bees about to kill young Macaulay Culkin in My Girl. Speakers had to yell to be heard. Cory Booker was hoarse by the end of his speech. Having just come from Cleveland, I was struck by the noise. No one stopped talking long enough to listen, and the result was chaotic. When “Hillary” and “Bernie” are chanted at the same time, it comes out sounding something like “Burn-ie-rie.” America can’t vote for “Burn-ie-rie.” “Burn-ie-rie” is not an option.

The Trump campaign, on the other hand, enforces silence. Protesters get forcibly thrown out of rallies. Anyone who speaks up against him gets bullied back into silence. His disdain for “political correctness” means that nothing he says out loud matters. He seems to be telling his supporters, “Don’t listen to the media — don’t even listen to the words I’m saying, because they’re just words!” It’s like he wants his supporters to sit out the rest of the election year with their hands over their ears saying, “Blah, blah, blah,” like kids on a playground. People at the Citizens For Trump rally I attended in Cleveland booed Fox News. Many of them seemed to get their news from InfoWars, a website that thinks that the “radical left” is in a cabal with “radical Islam,” among other things. InfoWars might as well have been a corporate sponsor of the RNC: They paid for an airplane to circle overhead with a sign reading “Hillary For Prison,” like they were a car dealership and we were all spring-breakers on a crowded beach. The mindset seems to be that everyone and everything is involved in a conspiracy against Trump, and the only solution is to choose a kind of paranoid deafness. “I don’t trust no one,” a woman sitting on a lawn chair at the Citizens For Trump rally said to her friend. She’d just explained that everyone, even the churches, were out to get Trump.

A few Republican delegates I spoke to last week complained that liberals shut conversations down. As one delegate from Lousiana put it, “Most of these people have never even bothered to have a conversation. They just take talking points from somebody else that are meant to be divisive, and they are taking them at face value.” A delegate from New Jersey described his frustrations talking about the election at work: “My friends who are very liberal — if I get in a conversation with them, they call me an idiot and shut down the conversation.” He felt like they were saying, “Because you disagree with me, you must be stupid.” At the RNC, I was surprised by the amount of defensiveness from delegates about being called racist, sexist, or homophobic. They wanted me to know they weren’t, although sometimes they had to tie themselves in knots to defend their positions. A woman from Ashland, Ohio, explained to me, “Being pro something doesn’t mean you’re anti anything. ‘Oh, you’re anti-gay, because you support marriage between a man and woman.’ No. I’m not. I am pro-marriage between one man and one woman. I think that’s what works for society. So it’s not anti anything.” Okay.

People said these things to me because I had chosen to spend two weeks as a reporter. All I could do was listen. The past year, I’ve been in an almost constant state of rage about the election, and I channeled that rage into doing important things like reading articles and walking around my house muttering to myself. I had never spoken to a Republican about this election. I have Republicans in my family, but I gave up talking to them about politics — choosing, in my old age, to enjoy Thanksgiving turkey with comfortable chitchat about how cute children are. Los Angeles is one of the most liberal cities in America, and I work in one of the most liberal industries. I had not actually met a Trump supporter. But in Cleveland, I stood for hours and listened as they explained themselves to me. People were grateful and proud to get a chance to tell me their story.

Things I heard made me mad. I wanted to interrupt and tell them that they were putting their support behind a man I sincerely felt would lead this country off a cliff. But I could only communicate in questions. For the length of each interview, I had to see the world from that person's point of view, even if it was a point of view I found infuriating. Then, as I turned off the recorder on my phone, I had to say, “Thank you.” It was a challenge, and I ended my days exhausted. My body actually hurt from too much listening. But I felt less angry. I don’t know why. Maybe it was just talking to human beings, instead of reading articles and watching the news. Maybe it was getting a break from the booing, the shushing, and the aggressive silencing that we have used to communicate with each other for months now.

I’m not saying that we should all just shut up and listen to each other. I can only imagine what that would sound like, coming from a 34-year-old white woman who makes a living writing dick jokes. This election has been and continues to be painful. I’m still going to fight, and I am still going to storm away from dinner tables; I’m still going to sit alone in my house fuming. But for the next four months, I want to try to listen more. Listening and fighting aren't mutually exclusive. There is a time to listen and a time to fight, and both are necessary and both are powerful. I disagree with the Bernie supporter who told me he was “done with electoral politics” because “the movement is happening in the streets.” I still believe in electoral politics. I believe elections are conversations — between the government and the people protesting, between older generations and younger generations, between the powerful and the ignored. After coming back from the insane circus of the past two weeks, I believe in the power of a conversation more than ever.

I was thinking about all of this on the hot Philadelphia subway leaving the arena, when the man called out to me once again: “Hey, can I tie your shoe for you?” People turned to look. He kept going. “I’m really good at tying shoes — with the loops and the bows.” I don’t know why he wanted to tie my shoe. Maybe he was flirting, and he thought I was attracted to men with strong, nimble fingers. Maybe he was just a lonely Democrat who didn’t want to face the darkness of a night alone with only his credentials to keep him warm. Maybe he suffered from OCD, and my untied shoe had been quietly driving him crazy since the moment he spotted it. Maybe he’d lost someone close to him in a shoelace-related accident. I don’t know. 

Whatever it was, it felt like a cold splash of water waking me up from the dream of the balloons and the fireworks and the possibility of the first female president and Katy Perry in a sparkling, sort-of-see-through dress, telling me that I could “rise.” The man called out again: “You could cross your legs over each other, so I couldn’t see up your dress.” 

Not tonight. Not tonight, buddy. Let me have this dream a little longer. I turned to face him. “No thanks, man, I’m going to tie my own shoe.” He backed up and threw his hands up in the air. “Okay!” he said. I waited until he got off the train. An older woman made space for me, and I sat down beside her. We nodded at each other for a moment, then I bent down and started to tie my shoe.