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Cleveland prepares for trouble at the Republican convention

When the run-down city in need of a boost won the Republican convention, it had no idea it would have to deal with Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY on Monday April 18, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty)
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY on Monday April 18, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty)
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY on Monday April 18, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty)

The transfiguration of Donald Trump from certifiable public nuisance to certified presidential nominee will happen on the evening of Thursday, July 21, in a city whose official visitor centre adjoins a souvenir shop that sells a T-shirt that boasts:


It’s not that bad”

It will occur inside the Quicken Loans Arena in the downtown core of a mid-20th-century manufacturing metropolis that, with its windowless factories and ghost-town department stores, exemplifies the American Rust Belt. Quarantined by Lake Erie and quartered by a snarl of freeways and the curves of the Cuyahoga River—which, although not as famously flammable as it was 40 years ago, still is hardly the Loire—Cleveland will hold its breath.

The chairman of the Republican National Convention will call the roll of states, starting with Alabama. The Heart of Dixie will cast 36 of its 50 votes for the Donald, and then they will proceed toward Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming, consummating the act that forever will link the names Cleveland and Trump, just like Denver and Obama, Astana and Borat, Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un.

A little stub of East 4th Street descends from Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s Broadway, to the coliseum where Trump will be knighted. It is a car-free alley lined with a dozen first-class restaurants. In one of them—a BBQ shack called Mabel’s—are these words in bold letters above the bar:

Pork spareribs. Kielbasa. Porky cabbage. THIS IS CLEVELAND.

Outside Mabel’s one May afternoon is a 52-year-old man named Michael DuBose who describes himself as a homeless Air Force veteran and the father of an eight-year-old girl. He is selling braided bracelets that his daughter makes for whatever price a pedestrian is willing to pay. DuBose, too, is Cleveland. “This is a good city, a gang-free city,” he says. “At least it was until recently.” DuBose calls Trump “a rich comedian. He’s a comedian, but I don’t know how he’ll make a president. But Barack Obama has done nothing for me. Eight years, and all I did was lose my home.”

The Quicken Loans Arena will host the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Quicken Loans Arena will host the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Across Euclid Avenue, inside Cleveland’s beautifully restored (but largely vacant) 125-year-old, glass-ceilinged Arcade, a woman named Laura Bosse sells stained-glass jewellery of her own design. She describes Cleveland as “a city where I can find common ground with the person next to me.”

A few blocks closer to the Erie shore is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A mile inland is the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. But this also is the city where the police shot dead a 12-year-old African-American boy named Tamir Rice, and is the ninth-most dangerous metropolis in the U.S., according to government statistics. Cleveland, a century ago, was America’s fifth-largest city. Now it’s the 48th.

“Is Cleveland salvageable?” a customer at the jewellery shop wonders.

“I’d like to believe that it is,” Bosse answers. “I would love nothing more than Cleveland to come out of this shining like a beautiful star,” Bosse says. Then she asks, “Have you seen the T-shirt?”

“The one that says, ‘Cleveland: It’s not so bad?’ ”

“No,” Bosse says. “The one that says ‘THE RNC IS COMING TO CLEVELAND AND IT’S GONNA BE A RIOT.’ ”

The motto of the Forest City’s publicity unit used to be “Positively Cleveland,” but “Positively” was walked back in recent months to “Destination.”

Behind that shop with the clever T-shirts is the office of the organizing committee that now, having lured the Republican National Convention to Cleveland for the first time since 1936, has to deal with the fact that it will be Trump whom the faithful will come to hail and the rabble in the streets assail.

Related: Melania Trump would be a First Lady of firsts

David Gilbert is the charismatic champion who led the city’s bid against such rivals as Las Vegas, Denver and Dallas. “The most significant change in Cleveland over the last 40 years is our confidence,” Gilbert tells Maclean’s. The selection process, he attests, was “100 per cent honest; no wink and a nod.” Gilbert says that, when it was over, one member of the Republican National Committee whispered Cleveland had triumphed “because you wanted us more than anybody else.”

This was back in 2014, when Donald Trump was scraping the bottom of the polls with the likes of Lindsey Graham and George Pataki. Today, of course, Gilbert and his team confront both the challenge and the opportunity of standing on an Ohio tarmac as Trump Force One rolls to a stop. Meanwhile, Trump’s success has left some corporate sponsors so nervous that the organizing committee was US$7 million in the hole at press time.

“What this convention will bring,” Gilbert predicts, “maybe even more than Donald Trump, is a significant number of people of extreme wealth.” The committee hopes they will look past the empty shopfronts and the shut-down mills and see Cleveland as a place in which to amass whatever amount of wealth surpasses “extreme.” One of them will be Dan Gilbert (no relation to David),* the Michigan billionaire who owns the Quicken Loans Arena, the Quicken Loans online mortgage company, and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, a team that is now shouldering the hopes of a city that has not earned the championship of any major league since 1964.

Two years ago, Positively Cleveland hired a survey company to gauge outsiders’ attitudes toward the city. “They really did a lot of research of people’s perceptions, and the fact is there’s a visceral reaction to the word ‘Cleveland,’ ” Gilbert told a local publication. “They’d really never encountered this before, at least not at this scale.”

“The convention doesn’t change Cleveland’s narrative,” Gilbert says now. “But it can help define what the narrative is.”

At some point, a reporter ventures, Trump is going to utter the magic words: “I love you, Cleveland!”

“When that happens,” says Gilbert, “Clevelanders, whether they like Trump or not, are going to be proud that he said that.”

The first person to predict mayhem in Cleveland was Trump himself. “I think you’d have riots,” he said in February, when it seemed that his nomination might be usurped via back-room machinations by “Lyin’ ” Ted Cruz or “Little” Marco Rubio. Rallying to the Donald’s cause were a number of Facebook vigilantes who called themselves Bikers for Trump and Citizens for Trump.

But Cruz’s surrender on May 3 drained most of the anger. Now all that Cleveland has to worry about are a few tens of thousands of protesters parading out of left field. A foretaste of what Cleveland can expect in July was evident in Costa Mesa, Calif., where hundreds of people waving American and Mexican flags rumbled with police outside a Trump campaign rally while, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “stomping on cars, hurling rocks at motorists, and forcefully declaring their opposition to the Republican presidential candidate.”

In Cleveland, a man named Larry Bresler is hoping to keep his class warriors on the safe side of the law. Bresler, a veteran crusader for progressive causes, predicts that several thousand people will take part in his End Poverty Now and March for Social Justice. He aspires to a peaceful protest but allows that “the anarchists are always the annoyance.”

“Does the fact that Trump has already secured the nomination make a big protest less likely?” Bresler is asked in his office on the trendy left bank of the Cuyahoga.

“It changes nothing,” he replies. “Our march is geared toward both parties. There has been absolutely no discussion about issues of poverty in this country. It’s just ‘middle class, middle class, middle class,’ and it wasn’t any different in the last presidential election.”

“Do you expect riots?”

“No. But I do expect unrest.”

Anti-Trump protesters clash with the police as they arrest a number of protesters outside the California Republican Convention, in Burlingame, Calif., on April 29, 2016. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty)
Anti-Trump protesters clash with the police as they arrest a number of protesters outside the California Republican Convention, in Burlingame, Calif., on April 29, 2016. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty)

So does the federal government, which has designated the Republican National Convention—and the Democratic National Convention that will follow, one week later, in Philadelphia—as a “National Special Security Event.” And so do the Cleveland authorities, who reportedly have requested an arsenal of defensive and offensive gear that includes 2,000 expandable batons, 100 bulletproof vests for firefighters, six kilometres of steel fencing, 2,000 “Elite Defender” riot suits, and 24 “enhanced combat” helmets, enough for a Costa Mesa times 10.

(If Sen. Bernie Sanders wins the California primary on June 7 and his supporters converge on the City of Brotherly Love to confront the superdelegates who pledged themselves to Hillary Clinton before the campaign even began, Philadelphia may be in a lot more trouble than Cleveland.)

“Cleveland is not California,” says Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation. She asserts that “Trump is a bully,” and predicts that “people will come who want to express protected speech.”

“I imagine there’ll be some hooligans, too,” Link says. But she notes that the Mexican immigrant population of the city is minuscule.

“Can Trump bring all those manufacturing jobs back to Cleveland like he promises?” Link is asked.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” she replies.

Everyone a tourist talks to in the Forest City offers an opinion on how much chaos to expect. “I don’t think there will be riots,” says host committee CEO Gilbert. “There will be thousands of people coming to express their opinions, and a small set of those people will use it for the purpose of causing disruption.”

Related: How Donald Trump happened

“I would hope that there will be protests, because all voices need to be heard,” says Bosse in her ultra-fragile jewellery shop, a (literal) stone’s throw from Quicken Loans Arena. “Do I think it will shut down the city? No. Am I afraid of it? No. Are we prepared for it? No.”

A 76-year-old man named Gary Ware welcomes baseball fans to the first-base box seats as the Cleveland Indians entertain the Detroit Tigers on a crisp night in early spring. In October 1948, when the Indians defeated the Boston Braves to win the World Series for the second and, so far, final time, Gary Ware stood beyond the home-run fence at Municipal Stadium with his grandfather, and memories do not come sweeter than that.

“I have mixed emotions,” Ware says of the upcoming convention and the man who will be crowned there. “I see how successful Trump has been in business. I think he respects women. I don’t think he is as racially biased as he appears. I think he means well, but I don’t think he will get any co-operation in Congress, even from his own party. We voted for John Kasich in the primary, but I guess at this point, my wife and I, we’re for Trump.”

“What does Cleveland need the most?” Ware is asked.

“We have to get more jobs here,” he replies. “We need more corporations.”

The usher notes that, unlike another Great Lakes city whose best days may be behind it, at least Cleveland is able to pay its schoolteachers and keep the streetlights on. The native son looks out into the Ohio dusk and says, “I feel sorry for Detroit.”

Related: Trump goes to Washington. And things get awkward.

Since the late 1920s, the architectural masterpiece of downtown Cleveland has been an elegant, 52-storey Art Deco tower that is not (yet) owned by Donald J. Trump. In the bowels of the complex beneath the skyscraper is a casino that is owned by David Gilbert’s billionaire brother Dan, a shopping mall, the hub of Cleveland’s two-car subway trains and a food court that includes a smoothie bar named the Main Squeeze Café.

A few weeks ago, a man named Maximillian Perry left the devastation of Detroit for the comparative safety and career advantages of helping a friend operate this small, black-owned business, working 60 hours a week but asking to be paid for only 40. In the Motor City, he said, he had lost a brother—“shot in the head on New Year’s Eve; left a wife and two kids”—and he reasoned that, “if people can get tricked into killing each other, surely we can convince them to eat better.”

Perry was all about nutrients—food for his community, fuel for a better city—the fodder that politicians chew at election time and spit out the morning after. Working with him, for four days already, was a 21-year-old named Freddie who had come off the streets with a big, script tattoo on his arm of the word “Paris,” which is the name of his baby daughter.

“Does Donald Trump care about Freddie?” a reporter asked.

“Donald Trump has no perspective,” Perry said.

“Does Hillary Clinton care about Freddie?”

“Freddie doesn’t need another government program. He’s going to have a hard time until he wants to do something for himself.”

Shuffling around the juice bar were dozens of ragged, disconnected citizens of the Forest City of the Great Lakes. Above them, at 10 o’clock in the morning, a giant, gold-leafed clock was stuck at eight minutes to four.

“I want to tell you a story,” Maximillian Perry said. “Once there was a little child who saw a caterpillar wriggling and struggling to break out of his cocoon. So she cut the cocoon open and the caterpillar died.”

There was a lesson in this, the smoothie man said, talking to Freddie in his first week in the working world, and to everyone who will be watching Cleveland as it harvests its hour of fame and fury.

“You’ve got to understand that it’s the struggle,” said Maximillian Perry. “It’s the struggle that sets you free.”

CORRECTION, May 31, 2016: A previous version of this story indicated that Dan and David Gilbert were related. In fact, they are not. Maclean’s regrets the error.