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Fear and boredom at the Hyatt Regency
A Debate Day In America Diary
The reaction to the news about my book was far more touching than I expected it to be. Thank you, sincerely, to everybody who texted, emailed pre-ordered, affirmed my silly dreams of book tour novelty t-shirts, and humored my poor Instagram photoshop work. I’m verklempt.
As a thank you, here’s a bonus issue. As always, I can only keep this shop running if I can afford child care, so if you’re in a position to become a subscriber, it’s deeply appreciated. Oh, and remember: Registration is currently open for fall Barnraisers Project cohorts. Registration and info here.
10:30 AM: As two wise men once said, “man, it’s a hot one!” Apparently there is a heat dome over the city of Milwaukee today. A heat dome, of course, is a meteorological phenomenon that occurs when an entire metropolitan area is dunked repeatedly in a boiling pot of au jus.
Unbearable temperatures aside, it is a big day in Milwaukee. Our city is hosting the first G.O.P. debate, an event so crucial to the fate of our country that the current Republican frontrunner has elected to avoid it.
Milwaukee was chosen as the site of this debate as part of its ceremonial duties as the site of the 2024 RNC Convention. The city was blackmailed into both gigs by our Republican-led state legislature. Long story short, but by all accounts the state G.O.P. leadership sent a message to the city— if you don’t enthusiastically back a convention bid, we’ll cut you out of shared revenue reform, even if it means the city goes bankrupt. It is not an exaggeration to say that, had Milwaukee not agreed to host both the convention and the debate, my household would not have regular garbage pick-up two years down the road (yes, there’s an obvious joke to make here, but I’ll hold off).
If you’ve ever lived in a mid-sized town like Milwaukee, you know how appropriate it is that we’re hosting the debate that the headliner skipped. We didn’t get Taylor Swift or Beyoncé this summer, but we did get Kenny Chesney, Imagine Dragons and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. These are the compromises we make to live in a lovely lakeside city where it’s still possible for a middle class family to buy a house.
Earlier this morning, I made the somewhat hasty decision to head down to the general vicinity of the festivities. My plan was to do my work in one of the many arena-adjacent hotel Starbucks and, um, I don’t know… get a sense of the vibes? Because I am not a real journalist, I added a few additional rules for myself:
I will not prognosticate as to “what today means” for the 2024 election and will definitely not tell you “who won or lost the debate” (spoiler alert: it was all of us! we lost the debate!).
I will not conduct any person-on-the-street interviews with debate attendees (my thinking there is that if somebody has voluntarily chosen to attend the GOP Presidential debate, I’m not going to get an introspective, nuanced quote out of them).
I will not enter any area that requires special credentials (not as a matter of principle, but because I failed to procure those credentials).
If I am lucky enough to run into America’s most engaging, charismatic politician (Mike Pence, obviously) I will request that he sign a particularly classy part of my body.
11:30 AM: I meant to take the bus downtown, but I missed it, so I instead utilize the most appropriate form of transportation for this particular event (an electric bicycle from one of those municipal bike share programs).
On my way to my first stop, I take a quick detour to check out the arena itself. The event organizers have chosen an aesthetic that I believe is called “paeans to democracy coupled with foreboding black fencing.” The message is clear: It is, indeed, morning in America (and also we are under siege).
I bike by an imposingly decorated bus, a vehicle whose very existence raises the question of why I am so comparatively bad at raising money. How did this particular crew afford all of this? What’s their secret and can they teach me?
Regardless, I wish the good people of the “Joe Gotta Go Tour! (Why You Shouldn’t Vote For Him If You Are Black)” a hearty welcome to Milwaukee.
I am dressed in khaki shorts and Jawbreaker t-shirt. Jawbreaker was a 1990s Bay Area punk band with a rabid cult following. Their final album has a song called “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault.” You know what they say, don’t dress for the event you wish your city was hosting, dress for the one it was blackmailed into hosting by your state legislature.
By the time I arrive at the Milwaukee Hilton, that shirt is now 90% sweat. Most everybody else in the hotel is wearing the same K Street business attire (for the fellas: a better-fitting version of Trump’s navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie combo; for the women: a shift dress in red or blue, maybe a non-primary color if you’re a libertarian). There are multiple cowboy hats. I stand out as much as a middle-aged White man can stand out at a Republican event (which is to say, not that much, actually; I still probably could have gotten invited to golf).
I make my way to the Hilton’s on-site Starbucks, and I realize almost immediately that I have made the wrong call. There are no vibes here. All of the debate attendees are getting their coffee to go. I order a Grande Brown Sugar Oatmilk Shaken Espresso, which is the second clunkiest phrase you can say out loud to a stranger (the first, of course, is “Joe’s Gotta Go Tour! (Why You Shouldn’t Vote For Him If You Are Black”), and take my pick of multiple empty seats. Again, there’s nothing to see here. After a half hour or so, it’s apparent that this hotel is mostly populated by college kids affiliated with Young Americans for Freedom. They all look like the kind of people who did debate in high school (not an insult! just a statement of fact! I loved my high school debate years!).
1:15 PM: While I’ve gotten a lot of work done, I have nothing of interest to report. I grab lunch at one of those hip new food halls that are a now-mandated part of every city’s downtown. At one point in my meal, a construction worker asks me if the debate is going to take place here, at the food hall, which is a delightful idea. To think, human-level democracy played out in a vibrant shared space, candidates standing on soap boxes, mixing it up with the rabble. I daydream that neo-Rockwellian scene for a second, but sadly inform him that no, it’s at the big shiny arena, the one currently cordoned off with pitch black fencing.
I enjoy both my Peruvian rotisserie chicken salad and my view of various Young Americans for Freedom playing indoor cornhole (still on their best behavior; no shenanigans when you’re on the Y.AF. dime) and then sneak off to a quiet hallway to take a couple of phone calls (it’s a work day).
2:45 PM: Ok, let’s be honest. That big bus notwithstanding, I have failed to meet even my own profoundly low expectations for seeing The Electoral Process In Action. I am dejected, but I remember the best advice I’ve ever received (“If at first you don’t succeed, try going to a different arena-adjacent hotel Starbucks”). Forever resolute, I navigate Milwaukee’s semi-contiguous skyway system to the Hyatt Regency.
As soon as I arrive, it’s clear that I’ve hit the motherlode. Gone are the wallflowers from Y.A.F. Here, it’s wonks all the way down. I catch a glimpse of some Democratic Party of Wisconsin bigwigs in one corner. In another corner, I see some… Republicans in suits. And then more Republicans in suits. The only break from the K Street Uniform comes from a gaggle of what I can only describe as “the most bro-iest Trump bros I’ve ever seen.” By all appearances, they are here with one purpose and one purpose only: to troll the hell out of every other candidate.
I had actually run into this crowd earlier in the day, when they were rowdily accosting DeSantis’ campaign bus. It was guys being dudes, but make it creeping fascism. And it worked. Soon after they started doing their thing, a crowd of cameras immediately manifested out of thin air, desperate for a filmable spectacle.
As for the Trump bros’ signs: Most of them are fairly boring, a few are offensive (there’s some fat jokes, as well as some drive-by anti-semitism) but because I am an objective analyst, I will give credit where credit is due to the guy who showed up with a fake Ron DeSantis sign that said “Be Likable and Show Human Emotion: Ron 2024.”
To that sign and that sign only, no notes.
It didn’t take long before I made sense of Team Trump’s game plan. The bros worked in shifts. A group would head outside for a half hour, cause some general media-friendly mayhem, return to the air-conditioned hotel looking absolutely wrecked by the heat (mother nature: the original anti-fascist!), and pass the baton to their identical-looking buddies. For the entire time I was at the Hyatt, that circle remained unbroken.
3:00 PM: I order my second Starbucks of the day. This time around, I go for an iced coffee, black (the lobby itself is packed with “conservatives, white”). While in line, a buff middle-aged K Street suit-wearer gives a passionate exhortation about the merits of proper creatine dosage to a younger, smaller K Street suit-wearer. I can’t wait for the younger guy to return in a few years, having gone through his own creatine chrysalis. Siri, play “Cat’s in The Cradle.”
3:15 PM: I take my seat facing the Hyatt’s formidable central escalators. This is a deliberate choice, because it provides me a front row seat for the pageantry and majesty of the “changing of the Trump bro guard.” Every half hour, I get to watch as a new group descends the escalators for some hot, sweaty revelry in the streets.
3:35 PM: Ugh, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait for the next Trump group. They are the only non-employees in this entire hotel engaged in any behavior that feels remotely human or animated. To be fair to all the highly paid operatives around me, I get it. It is painfully hot and sticky. I understand why my compatriots at the Hyatt Regency are lethargic. But other than the one loud guy with the creatine routine, none of them have shown anything even remotely resembling emotion in the time that I’ve been here. There is conversation, but it’s all bloodless gossip about other craven, careerist political achievers. Mostly they’re just alone together, looking like they’d rather be anywhere other than here.
3:45 PM: Heeeerrrrreeeee cooooommmmmeeee the bros. As I see them begin their grand descent, I hold up my camera and shout “hey, can I take a picture of your signs!” They do not need convincing, particularly the guy with the (ugh) “De Soros” sign.
The bros come in waves. They all happily pose for my camera. As the second wave descends, one of them makes a befuddingly specific pitch for my vote. He flashes me a grin, points in my direction and yells:
“Trump’s the only candidate who will complete the Hegelian cycle!”
While not immediately compelled, I am intrigued. Was he referring to Hegel’s dialectic theses? The treatises that inspired Marx’s theories on history as the cyclical transformation of one political-economic system into another? Wait, did the rowdy Trump bro immediately pigeonhole me as a Marxist and tailor his pitch specifically to my interests? While on an escalator?
Hold up now, am I really the most likely person in this Hyatt Regency lobby to be micro-targeted with a Hegel reference?
Oh, well never mind then.
4:05 PM: Two youngish campaign operatives have been sitting next to me for a while now. They’re clearly colleagues. There’s a pre-existing relationship. And unlike so many of their peers, they’re trying to let loose. They’re at least engaged in a simulacrum of a happy hour moment. I mean, they both ordered Miller High Lifes.
But from the moment they sat down, here has been zero interaction between them. Sometimes they stare at their phones, other times just into space. Every sip of High Life is desultory. I am immediately flooded with memories of the worst work-based social events I’ve ever attended: not the ones where I was excited to deepen my relationships with people I cared about, but the ones that were clearly transactional, where all parties involved were engaging with each other as a means to an end. That’s this couple’s vibe.
At the risk of being patronizing, I wish better for them. Not a better afternoon, but a better job. Not an 80 hour-a-week stepping-stone grind for whatever Viktor Orbán acolyte has hired them to run polls this cycle. I wish that they find a job that involves actually caring for and about other human beings, a job that doesn’t reduce all of us to chess pieces, a job that enriches rather than chips away at their humanity.
I am not actually nostalgic for the Trump bros. This might shock you, but even with that Hegel reference, I’m still pretty frightened by aggressive young men in autocratic personality cults. The unsurprising but worrisome fact of this afternoon, though, is the pure depth of contrast between the Trump bros’ joie de vivre and the dead-eyed, paycheck-cashing ennui of every other person around me.
It would be tempting to blame all this on the G.O.P., but we all know better. This is America’s choice: Thousands of uninspired young careerists working for dozens of uninspiring older careerists. Months and months of breathless horse-race stories about whether “Tim Scott is having a moment” or if “DeSantis can turn it around.” Hundred of millions of dollars thrown down thousands of drains. Meanwhile, the only candidate who actually makes his followers feel real human feelings is the most dangerous of them all.
None of this is revelatory, of course. You know the drill. It’s the great tragedy of American politics. We have this long, labyrinthine election season, a marathon of state fairs and diner handshakes. In theory, it’s a process that could provide authentic opportunities for politicians to better understand the material and emotional needs of their constituents. But that’s never been the case, most of all because the only individuals willing to trudge through that particular maze are those who’ve pre-checked their souls at the door.
I am thoroughly bummed, so now I am sending texts to various friends about how much I’m bummed.
“Hey, remember when I told you I was going to check out the vibes? Well, what if I told you that the vibes are bad.”
4:15 PM: As suddenly as they arrived, the not-willing-to-interact-with-each-other-over-a-beer colleagues are now gone.
This is what they left.
Credit to the colleague on the right, at least. They actually finished their happy hour beverage. But look on the left! Have you ever seen a more fitting metaphor for a situation that is theoretically meant to make you feel alive (you know, like getting to spend your career impacting literal, actual democracy) but that has been reduced to a perfunctory, joyless slog?
What a sad, barely-consumed High Life. It didn’t ask to be a metaphor. When it was first born, in the Miller plant down on State Street, it probably dreamed of one day being hoisted at a graduation bbq or a family reunion.
I need to relate the tragedy of the High Life to somebody who will understand its significance, so I text the Midwest’s foremost expert on both political cravenness and delicious beverages(, of course) for her take.
There is passion and urgency in her reply, a blessed relief from the proceedings around me.
“Why wouldn’t you finish a high life?!!!”
“OH MY GOD THE GOOD BEER WASTE”
She’s not done. This is my spin room.
“Low lifes not finishing a high life.”
4:50 PM: I pack up my things for one last swing around the debate site. There’s a lot more hubbub now. There are not one but two battling reactionary video trucks rolling through downtown. The Vivek Ramaswany one broadcasts a rotating series of “hard truths” at passerby (the hard truth I saw was “there are two genders,” which inspired me to yell “more like two HUNDRED genders” at a moving vehicle, because I am a hero ally). There are the requisite megaphone people. One guy in particular is going to town screaming about one-world government. As soon as he sees me, he pauses, flashes me a “hang ten” sign and shouts “far out man, I SAW Jawbreaker live in the ‘90s! Sick show!”
As the debate attendees stream in, two different groups compete for our attention. On one corner, a crew of red polo shirted dudes robotically pitch a “conservative credit card” named Coign. You can tell they’re not even convinced. On another corner, cheery young people working for the city pass out free ice water. They’re smiling. They’re laughing. They’re providing a public service, the only human beings all day whose role is solely to care for the well-being of others. I gladly take a water and hang out with them for a minute or so. They offer me even more water. They’re so amped to give out water. “We just hope everybody’s ok in the heat; we don’t want anybody to get hurt” one of them says, not really to me, more to the universe.
10:00 PM: I’ve been back home for hours, having successfully cooled down, made dinner (pasta salad— it’s still way too hot), and gotten my kids to bed. My wife knew I’ve been watching the spectacle on Fox, so she comes downstairs to ask me what I thought.
“The thing is, it’s not clear how an event can be so yell-y, so terrifying, and so achingly dull at the same time.”
I’m talking about the debate, I suppose, as well as about the day I just spent eavesdropping on young, be-suited hacks cursed with the task of selling Ron DeSantis to America. But I really mean the whole thing. I mean how what should be the most inspiring gift of our lives— the chance to build democracy together— is in practice just an endless cycle of hotel Starbucks, Super PAC money and faces buried in phones. I love democracy, but I’m not sure if I’ve actually experienced it. It’s clear that the people tasked with delivering it to my doorstep, whatever their ideology, are just shuffling from one city to another, utterly disconnected from the people who will eventually have to clean up the mess.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m not telling myself anything I didn’t already know.
It wasn’t a fun day, but I’m glad I saw it first-hand.
Bad scene, everyone’s fault.