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Politics as the WWE

America’s intense political divisions were on full display at Politicon

Politics as the WWE

Michael Avenatti and Kathy Griffin speak onstage during Politicon 2018 at Los Angeles Convention Center on October 20, 2018 (Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon)

Last weekend, I attended the fourth annual Politicon at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Politicon is a bipartisan convention billed as the Comic-con for political nerds, though from my experience, it’s more like the WWE for politics—it’s a rambunctious, theatrical wrestling match of the minds, in which political bigheads wing it out in the ring, each side trying to “destroy” the other with the Camel Clutch of logic, snark, and verbal gymnastics.

Unlike the WWE, however, “winning” is ostentatiously not the point of Politicon. It’s advertised as a space for political pundits and junkies to bump heads and engage in a healthy and robust debate about our agreements and disagreements. But let’s be honest—a good political debate can be as exhilarating as a well-matched, beautifully choreographed wrestling match.

On the roster for the two-day convention were heavyweights from all scales of the political spectrum such as Ann Coulter, Ben Rhodes, Cenk Uygur, Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson, and Janaya Khan. Also present were entertainment figures such as Dennis Rodman, Kathy Griffin, Alyssa Milano, and that guy who’s best known for his role in The Bachelor. I’m not sure why they were invited to speak at an event like this, but hey, it’s all about free speech.

In fact, two of the most popular and well-attended events at Politicon both involved celebrities with questionable political expertise. One was a panel named “Stranger than Fiction” that had former West Wing actors discussing Trump, and the other was a conversation between Kathy Griffin and Michael Avenatti (now forever entombed as that creepy Stormy Daniels lawyer) about ways to eject Trump from the White House.

Why should we care what Hollywood actors think of the current executive branch? I don’t know, but people loved seeing their favorite West Wing characters criticize our non-fictional president. As for Griffin, the provocative comedian bounced back from her “he (Trump) broke me” meltdown after her decapitated Trump stunt last year that almost ruined her career. She was sitting tall and pumped with fighting words against Trump and his staff last Saturday, and people found it all very entertaining.

The audience also ate up Avenatti’s not-so-subtle hint that he’s the best man to overthrow Trump as president. “The right is not used to having a fighter on the left,” he said that evening: “I am a threat and I am going to continue to be a threat to the Republican Party and this dumpster fire of a presidency. I’m not going anywhere, period.” And so anywhere he went, crowds followed with their cell phones, and he graciously flashed white teeth for every fan who begged for a selfie.

Obviously, Donald Trump was the running theme of the event. One booth had a 20-foot-high inflatable “Baby Trump” balloon like the one that floated in London this summer. It’s a blimp of Trump as an angry-faced, stumpy orange man wearing a diaper and clutching a smartphone. Should you care to demonstrate your own resistance, you can also buy smaller versions of Baby Trump balloons and Baby Trump badges and cards.

Another booth sold “Trump ImPeachMint” (impeachment—get it?) tea. The vendor says proceeds go towards funding the “Permanent Trump Stress Disorder” relief, so you can be rest assured that the tea you drink will help chase out “tyranny, nepotism, greed, and treason from the U.S. image.”

Of course, Trump-lovers turned out with their gear, too. Everywhere I turned I saw red MAGA hats crowning white, black, Latino, and Asian faces. Some wore “Hillary for Prison” and “Muhammad is a Homo” T-shirts to match their hats, while one Trump-supporting man who identifies as a woman wore an evening gown, spiky heels, and a blonde afro.

To state the obvious: Our nation seems obsessed with Trump. And I think it’s taking an unhealthy toll on us.

At one panel with Washington Post journalists, an elderly woman in a wheelchair took the mic during the Q&A session. She thanked the reporters for their work and then said, “I’ve been through horrible things in history—the Vietnam War, Nixon.” She took a deep breath: “But after that last election in 2016, I ... I cried. And I ... I drank.” Her voice quaked. “So here’s my question: Are we—are we going to be OK?” As she handed the mic back, her lower lip trembled, and she rested her crumpled face into her hands and sobbed.

One of the Post reporters responded that as a journalist, all he can do is continue calling Trump out and holding him accountable. So will we be OK? “I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t know until the next election in 2020.” The woman nodded, not looking very comforted.

After the panel was over I tried to find the woman. I wanted to ask her what exactly so terrified her about Trump, what about the state of our country today makes her doubt she’ll be OK. But she had disappeared, and though I walked around the convention center several times, I couldn’t see her.

I was reminded of November 2016, when people I knew were openly weeping after the election results, and strangers I met on Uber and at coffee shops were expressing their shock and disgust that Trump was now their president. The media too was aghast, stuttering over how they could have missed this wave of Middle America support for an unconventional, unqualified candidate. I too was shocked that Trump won—but after a while, I swallowed the hard fact that Donald J. Trump is president of the United States, and I prayed he would lead our country towards unity and prosperity.

Well, it’s almost 2019 now, and we still seem stuck in that sputtering reaction stage of post-election 2016. Somehow, with all the issues facing us as a country, the topic of Trump overshadows all others, from John McCain’s funeral to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the recent pipe bombs targeting Democrats. Certainly, Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter and mass rallies only solidifies people’s worst impressions of him, while inflaming Trump fans who cheer his unfiltered, unrefined manner of speech. But the constant attention and finger-pointing at him for almost everything seem excessive and distracting to me. He’s not the only one stoking divisions within us—we are, too.

So although Politicon was interesting and invigorating, it also left me feeling on edge. It was like Twitter in real life—people were fretting over Trump, mocking our Republican or Democratic leaders, trailing Avenatti screaming “Porn lawyer, porn lawyer!” and wailing about the impending doom days of anyone who’s not rich or white or evangelical. And I started wondering, like that lady in the wheelchair, if we as a country were going to be OK.

Soon after Politicon, I hung out with friends whose political leanings range from conservative Christian to secular liberal to apathetic. None of them cared about the latest Trump outrage. His name didn’t even come up in our conversations. None of these friends listen to political podcasts, or feel the need to defend the merits of a free market, or is as agitated over the California gas tax as I am—and I don’t even own a car.

And as much as I enjoy politics, I breathed out a sigh of relief and thought, “Thank God for normal Americans.”

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  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Mon, 10/29/2018 03:45 pm

    Politicon is a good idea in theory, since there are few forums in the media for the two political bubbles to interact.  Cable news pretends to engage with the other side, but it is always only to mock them.  Truth has moved from unpopular to practically banned.  Any opportunity to engage with reality for even a moment is something to celebrate.