A three-word prayer comes to mind when I think about the political convention that will take place from July 18 to 21 almost on the doorstep of our historic church in downtown Cleveland: “Heaven help us!”
Donald Trump’s victories in the primaries this past spring virtually guarantee that the Republican National Convention will be the most controversial in years. Our church, which sits a few blocks away from the main convention site, is gearing up to welcome visitors and offer a place of refuge. But we are also anxious about the very real potential for hostility.
I wasn’t always as cynical about the convention as I am now. When news broke that Cleveland had been selected as the host city for the GOP’s 2016 gathering, I was visiting family in cottage country north of Toronto. As I shared the news with my Canadian kin, I tried to hide my tears of pride and relief. Many good folks, our congregation included, have been labouring in earnest response to Jeremiah’s edict to work and pray for the well-being of the city. We fought long and hard to bring the convention to Cleveland. The announcement was further affirmation that after decades of tribulation, Cleveland was rising, phoenix-like, from the flames of its once-burning Cuyahoga River and shaking, from its steel-toed boots, the rusty debris of its industrial past.
Once derided as the “Mistake on the Lake,” Cleveland is a comeback city. The GOP convention is one of numerous wins in recent years that include: the booming, internationally renowned Cleveland Clinic that now employs more people than the steel industry ever did; $6-billion worth of development in downtown alone; and an increase in the population of the city’s once-derelict core. Even the basketball superstar LeBron James — revered here in his home state as “King James” — seemed to be jumping on the comeback bandwagon when he announced in 2014 that he was returning to Cleveland to bring the city an NBA title.
The GOP convention is as much an economic win for Cleveland as it is a social one. The convention is estimated to generate $200 million in direct spending and an incalculable amount of attention from future investors and tourists. As one Republican planner told me, “Hosting a convention is like hosting a Super Bowl in your city for four days in a row.” Cleveland’s 11th Congressional District may be one of the strongest Democratic bastions in the country, but Clevelanders are all too happy to have Republicans come and spend their dollars in their hotels, restaurants and bars.
How quickly Cleveland’s jubilant anticipation has changed. We’re still eager to welcome America to our green city on a blue lake. It’s just that now we’re bracing for a storm. The political climate has grown turbulent, to say the least. What started out as a seemingly farcical run for the Republican presidential nomination by a real estate developer turned reality television star has become more than just a little worrisome. Donald Trump has gone from a fringe long shot to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
At first, we laughed. Then we shook our heads in disbelief. Responding to a question in the first candidates’ debate (held here in Cleveland) about whether or not calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” sounded presidential, Trump quipped that he’s only called TV personality Rosie O’Donnell those names. The next day, we were aghast to hear him suggest that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s line of questioning in the debate was unprofessional because she was menstruating. Surely that was the death knell for his campaign. But no, it wasn’t. Donald Trump, America’s answer to former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, was just getting started.
Instead of self-destructing, Trump’s campaign gained steam. By the time he secured enough committed delegates for the nomination this spring, he’d outlasted 16 contenders, in the process becoming a sideshow at home, fodder for enemies abroad and a big problem for the Republican Party establishment — not to mention convention planners and the city of Cleveland.
Now that Trump has secured the nomination, his chief strategist claims his behaviour in the primaries was all an act; henceforth he’ll appear more “presidential.” It has left many voters wondering who the real Donald Trump is.
What isn’t disputed is the anger that Trump has tapped into and helped to intensify. Like Senator Bernie Sanders on the left, Trump’s campaign benefits from a growing distrust of establishment politics and frustration with a Congress that has remained gridlocked even in the face of serious economic troubles. Steven Rattner, a Wall Street executive and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, blames the unrest on the GOP itself for “years of systematically and effectively preventing passage of legislation that might have ameliorated the tough economic state of Mr. Trump’s core voters.”
The Old Stone Church (First Presbyterian), located in downtown Cleveland, where the author ministers. Photo by Sam Young studios
In a recent article, Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, reported that Trump’s angry followers “want to wage an interior war against outsiders.” Trump’s threats to kill the families of terrorists (a war crime, incidentally) and, more famously, his vow to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it, exploit a growing nationalism fostered by recent ISIS-inspired attacks at home and ISIS attacks abroad.
After eight years with an African American in the White House, it seems to me that there are likely racial undercurrents at work here as well. A great deal of Trump’s support comes from communities where racism is evident; Thompson used polling information and internet analytics to conclude that a map showing where Trump supporters live would be a “familiar map for some demographers, since it’s similar to a heat map of Google searches for racial slurs and jokes.”
Cleveland has already seen racially charged incidents directly connected to the Trump campaign. In April, the Jesuit university where I teach was the scene of a conflict between its Students for Social Justice and Latin American Students Association groups and Trump supporters over an immigration awareness installation. Trump supporters shouted racial slurs like “hop back over the border” while spitting on the installation.
Racial tensions are not new to Cleveland. The Hough riots of 1966, which claimed four lives and left about 30 injured, contributed to the downturn from which the city is now just recovering. More recently, the racial divide has been widened by police shootings of African Americans, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot in 2014 while playing with a replica handgun in a park, and unarmed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were shot at 137 times by 13 police officers — most of them white — in 2012. Protests in Cleveland have been mild in comparison to those in places such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., but concern is growing as the Republican convention nears.
Trump’s rallies often feel more like big-time wrestling spectacles than presidential political events, routinely deteriorating into shouting matches and fisticuffs, partly incited by Trump himself. “I’d like to punch him the face,” he said to a worked-up crowd in Las Vegas this past February as security hustled out a protester. In the old days, he added, protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.” Also troubling is an online petition attempting to convince lawmakers to allow conventioneers to carry firearms openly in the Quicken Loans Arena while the Republicans are assembled there. The petition has already garnered over 50,000 signatures. Officials assure us it will never happen. Still, we ask the obvious: even if guns aren’t allowed in the arena, who says there won’t be plenty on our city streets?
At the recent annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, U.S. President Barack Obama joked that Trump “wanted to give his hotel business a boost, and now we’re praying that Cleveland makes it through July.” Trump himself warned the GOP, “You’re going to have a rough July at that convention.” In preparation for potential trouble, the U.S. government has provided Cleveland, as well as Philadelphia, site of this year’s Democratic convention, $50 million each to beef up security. Cleveland is investing in, among other things, 500 steel barriers, 2,000 sets of riot gear and 10,000 sets of plastic handcuffs. Homeland Security and the Secret Service will also be out in force.
Our 200-year-old church on Public Square, a few blocks north of the arena, is gearing up to welcome visitors with multifaith services, speakers and tours, as well as meditative prayer space for those needing a break from the stress of the convention. We see ourselves as a safe harbour in these uncertain days, a harbinger of God’s truth and justice in a season of fear-mongering and bombastic deceit. We plan to exercise our First Amendment right to assemble and worship amid the political storm gathering outside our doors.
In light of what we have seen so far this election year, we are also meeting regularly with Homeland Security and developing a readiness plan that includes a 24-hour-a-day private security presence, strengthened communication procedures with the congregation, and an emergency evacuation plan for staff and volunteers.
We’re hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. Hence that three-word prayer: “Heaven help us!”
Rev. Mark Giuliano is the senior pastor of Cleveland’s historic Old Stone Church (First Presbyterian) and an adjunct professor in the Tim Russert School of Communication at John Carroll University.
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