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Down the Rabbit Hole at the RNC

Tumblr sent convention correspondents to cover the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Here’s Tumblr correspondent Meg Lanker-Simons on attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Monday: Arriving in Wonderland

After cramming every passenger possible on board United Flight 741, departing Denver International Airport, the bored-looking flight crew began playing the instructional safety video. I settled in, hoping for an inflight nap. At the gate, I had quickly realized my plane might be carrying every single Republican National Convention attendee from the Rocky Mountain region, right down to the five elderly ladies in sequined, satin track suits in the requisite red, white, and blue. One of the women had even plastered on bright blue eye shadow and cherry red lipstick at the gate. “Because I’m American,” she explained to no one in particular.

I wanted peace pre-Tampa, knowing it was unlikely I would sleep much until Friday. I also knew for the next four days, I would be eating, drinking, and breathing Republicanism – not my preferred brand, but who would really turn down the chance to cover the RNC for Tumblr’s Election blog? My husband, Andrew, drove me to the airport at 5:30 AM from our house in Laramie, Wyo. For two people who are night owls, 5:30 AM is a surly hour. Already in an irritable mood after being groped by TSA, I spent $2.25 for a tiny bottle of water in the DIA smoking lounge. Who the hell imposed a one-drink minimum in the lounge since I was last there? As appealing as it was, I eschewed the booze and went for the cheapest option, still muttering at takeoff, “I paid $2.25 for the privilege of smoking a cigarette.”

Almost immediately after takeoff, a woman from the Idaho Republican Party began chattering to me about how we’re all going to the RNC and did I know President Barack Hussein Obama was a Muslim, and didn’t I think he was an illegitimate child? I asked how she knew I was going. She motioned to my book. I was reading Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie by Hunter S. Thompson for the millionth time. It seemed apropos to the occasion. I told her I wanted to enjoy my book and I would see her in Tampa. She pursed her lips and turned to talk with her husband. I summed up the mid-air conversation as such in my notebook:

“The woman to my left is reading George W. Bush’s Decision Points and I’m reading HST. She has on Coach(?) shoes that resemble high-end Crocs. Her husband is reading Killing Lincoln. Earlier, they were having a conversation about how some Muslims pretend to be Christians just to fit into society and whether or not that fat whore was coming with Rick, a fellow delegate from Idaho. I never caught the whore’s name, but I did register they were still discussing Obama. Her husband thought he was hi-lar-i-ous when he suggested Obama should spell his name O-W-E-B-A-M-A because it would still sound the same. ‘Get it?!’ he chortled loudly. I sipped coffee-colored hot water as they eyed me writing.

‘What do you do?’ his wife finally asked.

I replied, ‘I’m a freelancer heading to cover the RNC.’

‘You’re press?’ the husband asked, sounding disgusted.

I nodded. That’s when they both began reading quietly.’

In my experience, telling people “I’m a member of the press” after they’ve begun talking is an instant conversation-killer.

During my time at the RNC, I never saw them again, nor figured out who Rick and his companion were. Blessedly, it was quiet until we began landing. Due to Hurricane Isaac, the flight was somewhat bumpy. I scrawled about an hour before our descent:

“Things to check off my bucket list:

#1: Meeting a guy from Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

#2: Retouching eyeliner at 30,000 feet on the edge of a tropical storm. Like a boss.”

I was never scared of flying until the woman on my right began praying the rosary dramatically after the captain announced we had begun our “final, bumpy descent into Tampa.” She was going to the RNC, too. Dressed in mom jeans, flag pin, and Rick Santorum t-shirt, she had patted my arm earlier and said, “Oh, honey. Don’t worry. Obama isn’t a Muslim. He’s an atheist. Only atheists could do what he does.” She never explained what Obama does that only atheists do, and she proudly announced that angels carried us safely into Tampa once the plane stopped taxiing.

My only thought: Just what the hell was I doing in Wonderland?

I hurried to the baggage claim to meet the editor of Tumblr, Chris Mohney. RNC volunteers accosted me from every direction, asking if they could help, did I have a hotel, a cab, etc. One woman handed me a bottle of water, admonishing, “You’ll need this.” Before Chris arrived, I stepped outside to smoke. The oppressive Tampa heat nearly knocked me over. RNC delegates were waiting for cabs in suits, puffing mightily and sweating heavily. They were also debating if the convention would actually start tomorrow and whether or not Paul Ryan was a good idea for veep. I chimed in that I thought he was a terrible idea, and Elise from Oklahoma City told me I was crazy because he had “beautiful bedroom eyes.” I stubbed out my cig and waited for Chris. He flagged me down, and we were off in the weirdly threatening weather.

Later on, Chris and I met up with Jayel Aheram and Bobby Finger, my compadres in blogging for the week. Our Red Roof Inn was next to a mini-swamp that vaguely smelled organic. Though I’d never been, I knew this was very Florida. By the time Bobby and Jayel bounded down the stairs, I was completely punch-drunk from lack of sleep and felt like I needed a good wringing out. Or dinner. Whatever Wonderland had to offer was fine with me.

We headed to the Channelside open-air mall for a Washington Post trivia event, with two free drinks and plenty of hazily familiar people milling about. I got the most bang for my free buck with two double vodka sours. I looked at Bobby and told him I felt like I was lost in the forest. He said, “Oh my God, me too, you have no idea.” Next, we wandered to a tapas bar, ordered too much food, and met up with Liba Rubenstein, who heads up the Politics and Causes section for Tumblr. We decided to go back to the hotel to rest up for the next three days.

Before making it back to the car, Jayel gasped, “Oh my God, that’s Gary Johnson. Gov. Johnson!” I fished out my mini-recorder, which would become my constant companion over the next few days, and asked if I could interview him. Wyoming has an odd libertarian streak, and I knew folks back home would dig what he had to say. He was kind enough to grant me a few minutes in-between NBC and Inside Edition. As I asked him questions, I thought, “Jesus Christ, I’m interviewing the Libertarian candidate for president outside Hooters.”

God bless America and God bless Wonderland.

Tuesday, Wednesday: Further Down the Rabbit Hole

My alarm blared, and my brain was fuzzy. I shook off Mountain Standard Time, made it downstairs, and we all piled into the car for the ride to Channelside. Bobby disappeared to watch a documentary about rape in the military – at the RNC, no less – and I became obsessed with the idea of interviewing Lawrence O’Donnell. MSNBC had set up a live studio in the center of the mall. O’Donnell’s people promised me an interview after his segment. While talking to him, I mentioned we had moderate Republicans in Wyoming. He was shocked and said, “I’m learning something for the first time at a political convention.” O’Donnell previously called the RNC “a show, a reality show” with nothing to be gleaned. It was patriotic pageantry. But to many of the conventioneers, it was the greatest show on earth, a circus complete with a big top, performers, confetti, and AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM. You had to say it like that, in all caps, or you were likely a terrorist. For some reason, Elf Power’s version of the song, “Nothing’s Going to Happen” began playing on a loop in my head: “Shoop a-la-la / Nothing’s going to happen…”

By noon, I had interviewed NBC’s Chuck Todd (nerdiest interview ever), Meghan McCain, First Lady of Mississippi Deborah Bryant, and former RNC chair Michael Steele – who freely admitted the GOP has a problem with non-WASPy folks. As Chris and I sat in Wet Willie’s, sipping frozen slushes infused with alcohol at 10:45 AM, police with gas masks strapped to their thighs jauntily patrolled, whistling and lightly swinging nightsticks like unsure children with batons. I considered putting glitter streamers on the cops’ bikes when they chained them up outside.

We’re all mad here, kiddos.

By evening, we had conducted an interview with Buzzfeed, and then headed to Amphitheater for the Tumblr RNC Block Party. I wore pearls, a sequined top, high-heeled boots, and red lipstick. We hit the VIP area. Schwag abounded. I scored a couple of Rock the Vote t-shirts and buttons. I took advantage of the free bar and downed shots with Jayel and Bobby. “To Republicans! To Tumblr!” we cheered. The music and the alcohol contributed to my feelings of unreality. Did I really just interview these people like it was nothing? I felt insignificant and powerful – and half-drunk. Fred Phelps knock-offs were protesting outside. I yelled to them, “Your god is dead! You’ve killed him!” from the balcony and embraced a gay kid of maybe 19 who cried as I confirmed, yes, I was from where Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998. We left DJ Steve Aoki and the crowd-surfers braving the rapids in a boat — Jesus, a goddamn boat — and stumbled to Homocon’s party at the Honey Pot.

I drank more and watched gyrating members of the press and delegates freak dancing to standard club fare. Jayel grabbed me to be his wingwoman and we ventured upstairs. I kept thinking, “Your party denies your existence in their platform, what the hell is wrong with you …” I complimented one man on his suit — I swear, he skinned a disco ball — and Jayel struck out. We ran into S.E. Cupp on the way downstairs and I said, “My friend Heath has a huge crush on you!” She said, “Aw, that’s sweet …” and pushed past us. I fell asleep with my boots on that night, exhausted and having sobered back up.

The next morning, we went to the Young Conservatives for Freedom to Marry brunch. I had never seen such a spread, with omelets on demand and every bagel under the sun. Andrew Langer discussed freedom and capitalism, and how marriage fit into both. I interviewed Fred Karger, a former Bush staffer and the first openly gay candidate for president to run on a major party ticket. When I asked him about how gay-friendly the GOP truly was, he sounded sad, saying, “We have to move to a place of acceptance. Children are dying out there.” I choked up a bit at his passion, and my own fear that what he and I hoped for would never happen in our lifetimes. As we walked back to the car around lunch time, we nearly got creamed by one of many pro-life trucks circling the forum area.

The Huffington Post luncheon was bizarre. As a member of National Writers Union, I was uncomfortable. NWU has an acrimonious relationship with HuffPo to say the least. I tweeted a picture of the luxurious meal, writing, “The spread at the HuffPo luncheon. The cost of this lunch could pay a lot of writers. Just sayin’.” It was odd to sit in a lunch that surely cost more than I’ve made in the past decade, listening to Ohio Governor John Kasich talk about job creation, knowing he tried to strip the bargaining rights of Ohioans — and failed dramatically. The lunch was about helping the poor, but felt like a wankfest of feel-good liberalism. I tried to ask Kasich about SB 5, the bill Ohioans beat back at the polls, and was nearly thrown down the stairs by his security. Okay, maybe not thrown, but if they could have without repercussions…

Chris and I went to “Conversations with the Next Generation,” a panel featuring Josh Romney and Chelsea Clinton, and moderated by Chuck Todd. I joined Chris upstairs. He chuckled as he told me he was touched by Chelsea as she got on the elevator. Premiering on CBS next fall, live from Wonderland, it’s Touched by a Clinton. I ran into an attendee from Homocon and said it was an awesome party. He looked worried and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I explained who I was, and he raised an eyebrow. Cutting me off, he said, “I remember. But. I. Don’t. Know. What. You’re. Talking. About. Get it?” He looked around and whispered that to be a gay Republican is to have an understanding — in public, no one recognizes anyone unless they want to be recognized.

To be gay in the GOP increasingly seemed to be a world of closets with glass doors and whispers in dark spaces, regardless of the happy face put on gay conservatism by Log Cabin Republicans.

We left the forum shortly after it began – two children of millionaires conferring over the world’s ills was just too much. I caught the Wednesday speeches on C-Span and quit counting the inaccuracies in Paul “Bedroom Eyes” Ryan’s acceptance speech. I shook my head at the exclusion of the Maine delegation earlier and sighed over the Wyoming delegation’s mini-speech during the roll call. Apparently, Wyoming cited being the first state to grant women the right to vote (no one cheered) and then praised the oil and gas in our state (the place went nuts).

Wednesday night, we ventured to Politico for free food (disappointing, except for the genius pies on a stick) and then we hit the “Got Your 6” party, sponsored by numerous organizations and spearheaded in part by Meghan McCain. I interviewed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. about veteran’s issues as Sara Evans sang in the background. I spoke with Cindy and Meghan McCain, and told Cindy I thought she had handled attacks against her family in 2008 with grace. She thanked me, and said, “Oh honey, it’s on both sides. It’s politics.” I drank to that with the two of them. Of all the people I spoke with, Cindy and Meghan McCain were the most poised and realistic about the politics of Wonderland.

Thursday: It’s Always Tea Time in Wonderland

We planned Thursday as a work day in preparation for the main event: The coronation of the Rominee — er — Mitt Romney’s “speech of a lifetime.” That morning, a protester parked his pickup truck in downtown Tampa near where we were getting coffee. The truck was a monstrosity, plastered with Jesus, aborted fetuses, and words running together. Because of its overcrowded appearance, it seemed to be advertising “Hot Romney Blood” versus the son of God, but not everyone has an eye for design.

After coffee, and some more wandering, we scoped out the Huffington Post Oasis. Of all the places I visited, this may have been the strangest. Makeup touchups, massages, facials, meditation, reflexology, and coconut water, all for VIPs, press, and delegates. Bliss cosmetics had two lotions: Mint Romney and Barack ‘O’bama. Either you smelled like toothpaste or orange Pixy Stix. Choose wisely, my friends. As one Mother Jones editor discovered, nothing caffeinated could be found in the Oasis. The waitress explained, “It’s all about being relaxed. Blissed out. Chill.” He mumbled, “I need some goddamned coffee.”

I hung out in the Oasis with Chris and Jayel. Chris tried out the Oasis’ nap pod. The pod gave the impression that its user was sending signals to the mothership. Arianna Huffington meandered about, asking, “Are you relaxed?” and not waiting for the answer. It was the epitome of the “liberal elitism” championed by the GOP. For pity’s sake, there was a station with a promo for an iPhone app called “GPS for the Soul.” I received a makeup touchup from an artist who was slathering my face with “skin brightener” and simultaneously being instructed by a birdlike, nervous woman on very specific techniques for touching up Arianna’s makeup for next time. Security (or bodyguards, hired goons?) roamed the Oasis, occasionally stopping to fold into the nap pod. I typed and edited audio, readying myself to venture into the forum later. One of Arianna’s Men in Black security guys told me to move away from the Oasis when I stepped out to smoke, because darlings, it IS all about relaxation.

Around 8 PM, I received a text from Liba. She had credentials, and I needed to meet her with her bag at the forum entrance. The happy, shiny people hawking a $20 conservative answer to Michael Moore’s Sicko on DVD had been replaced with the Quran-burning, fame-seeking Pastor Terry Jones and his merry band of miscreants. It began to pour as I made my way to the gate. Jones and flock ducked under the waiting area for the trolley — apparently, sugar and bigots melt in the rain. Liba made it to the gate, and we hurried inside.

The hall was dizzying in size and overwhelming – almost pornographic – with its red, white, and blue, plus Republican propaganda everywhere. According to one available brochure, the Democrats are the party of slaveholders. Hey, did you know MLK was actually a Republican? I slipped the press credentials around my neck and went upstairs to the press box at Level 7. I settled in shortly before former Staples CEO Tom Stemberg took the stage. He praised Romney for saving jobs and led the crowd in a chant of “They just don’t get it!” after nearly every sentence. It was humorless punctuation. I scanned the crowd and thought, without a trace of irony,Look at all those white people. They also were big on chants, I noticed. Someone broke out wine in the press box and I sipped cheap Chardonnay while I bullshitted with a social media guy from NBC. Being in the press box resembled a recurring dream I had while in J-school at Defense Information School on Fort Meade — only in the dream, I was in a ballgown and my pen had no ink. Somewhere before Clint Eastwood, I met up with everyone to rotate credentials.

Ah, Clint. The speech that gave the press the most awkward giggles. Eastwood appeared somewhat ill at ease, arguing with and lecturing an empty chair that held invisible Obama. I don’t know how much Eastwood was paid for his speech, but I do know I saw an elderly man give a similar performance for free on the National Mall years ago. It may have been a park bench that was the target of his animosity, but the sentiment was similar. I was standing near a Fox News reporter while watching it, who stared open-mouthed and quietly asked, “What the fuck is happening? What the hell?” “Eastwooding” became a thing on Twitter and Tumblr, with Chris posting a picture of himself lecturing an empty chair at the Marriott bar, beer in hand.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. whipped the nonplussed crowd back up into a frenzy with his speech. Never once did he mention that President Romney would have encouraged Rubio’s family to self-deport back to Cuba. There’s no room in Wonderland for reason. By this point, I’d made my way to the CNN Grill, an exclusive bar and grill with free food and drinks, built by CNN because they goddamn well could. Pass in hand from Liba, I convinced the CNN staffer manning the door that Bobby and I were both a big deal, and texted him to come eat for free. He rushed over, and said, “I just couldn’t deal with being in the forum. It was… ugh.”

I completely understood.

Finally, Romney appeared, glad-handing the crowd for a minute too long, and took the stage. His wooden speech was the same tripe, repeating the tired “We built it” meme, and indirectly threatening Russia, Iran, and uteri. I began wondering which was the preferred plural, uteri or uteruses. I was too jaded to even tweet much snark. Until Romney threw this lazy zinger: “You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.” Yeah? Well, I can guaran-fucking-tee that the best feeling Romney voters are going to have is not the day they vote for him.

By the end of Romney’s speech, Foster Friess, who had largely bankrolled Rick Santorum’s campaign and suggested gals could use aspirin for contraception, strolled into the CNN Grill and took a seat at the table next to ours. I made small talk with him, explained I was from Wyoming, and Bobby took my picture with him. Friess now appears in a photo with a pro-choice radical activist, so there’s a future attack ad in the can. I also met Daily Show correspondents John Oliver and Jason Jones and posed for a picture with them, bookending my time in Wonderland nicely in the span of 15 minutes. Bobby and I met up with everyone else, and like convention balloons dropped from the ceiling, we almost immediately deflated. We railed about speeches we hated, and gave Chris and Liba suggestions for the DNC crew. We shared hot wings and mozzarella sticks, then began the long trek to the rental cars, too drained to pack and, for me, too buzzed to sleep.

After Wonderland: Such a Curious Dream

Waiting to depart in Tampa for my connection in Houston, I watched despondent Ron Paul fans place his books repeatedly over Mitt Romney books in the United Terminal’s newsstand. After being chased off, they opened their Macs and began plotting for 2016, because, as they put it, “there’s no way this was Dr. Paul’s last hurrah.” I answered emails as one Texas delegate — still bedecked with his credentials — sat next to me and fretted quietly to his wife about the Muslim couple with a small baby across from us. They had just finished praying, and were now waiting to board the Houston flight. He finally leaned over and asked the man, “Are your babies born Muslims or do y’all make them that way later?” The man quietly answered, “As American babies are born Christian …” and trailed off, looking away. He and his wife moved to the corner of the waiting area near the gate. The Texan began gathering steam and I popped in my earbuds, listening to the Talking Heads. I could not take another word.

Same as it ever was.

Even now, writing this with a week’s distance between myself and Tampa, I cannot fully grasp what I saw, or feel like I can quite explain it correctly. I’ve tried. Sitting in the airport, I saw TLC’s reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo had topped the RNC convention in ratings. The show chronicles wannabe beauty queen Honey Boo Boo’s quest for stardom and her proudly redneck family. Mama June feeds Honey Boo Boo “go-go juice,” a combination of Red Bull and Mountain Dew, and coins terms like “etiquettely” and “pageant crack” — Pixy Stix to the uninitiated.

Looking back at my time at the RNC, it seems fitting one pageant beat the other. One pageantry reality show features a cracked-out six-year-old and companions, and the other features parents from Georgia trying to do right by their daughter’s dreams on TLC, even if they get it so very wrong. See how easy that is? The flight into Tampa was bumpy, but the landing home was even more so. The people I spoke with are fellow Americans, just as concerned about the direction of the US as I am. Yet the spectacle of Wonderland pulled them in even as I attempted to stay on the fringe. They drank the tea, nibbled the Mad Hatter’s wares, and emerged somehow less mad than myself.

But we’re all mad here.

Same as it ever was.

See you all on the other side of that rabbit hole in 2016. Weirdly, I want more.

This post originally appeared on the Tumblr Election blog.

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About Meg Lanker-Simons

Meg Lanker-Simons is a freelance political writer and activist based in Laramie, Wyo. Lanker-Simons was previously a journalist in the U.S. Navy, and has blogged since 2004. Two years ago, she began Cognitive Dissonance, analyzing the underbelly of state and national politics. She also hosts a radio show by the same name every Friday night from 10 PM to 1 AM in Laramie on 93.5 KOCA FM. Contact Meg at meglanker@gmail.com Questions? Contact her on Twitter @meglanker or email her at meglanker@gmail.com. Member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO