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Dave Eggers: The long ride to Riyadh

A tense taxi journey across the Saudi desert makes the author consider the folly of nationality.

Espen Rasmussen/Panos

We are flying down an empty six-lane highway, on our way from Jeddah to Riyadh, a seven-hour drive, and I’m thinking of possible routes of escape. I’m in the passenger seat of a new Toyota sedan travelling at 140kph through the Saudi Arabian desert and I’m racing through the implications of opening my door and leaping free.

The driver is a stranger to me. He is young, no more than twenty-five, with a smooth face and a tentative moustache. His name is Shadad, but he is not a taxi driver, and this is not a taxi. This car and this driver were arranged hastily by my guide and friend, Majed, who helped me around Jeddah the previous week. Before this drive began, Majed and I considered it a decent, if necessary, idea to employ such a driver for this trip, but now I am pondering how I could leave this car. If I open the door and roll out, would I survive? And if I did survive, where would I go? There’s nothing but rocks and sand for miles in any direction.

But still. Vacating this car might be necessary, because though I want to trust this young driver, he is not really a professional driver, and he has no taxi licence, and most of all, moments ago, while he was talking to a friend on his cellphone, he looked over to me with a mischievous smile and said to his friend, “Yeah, American, boom boom.” Then he laughed. He did everything but point his finger at me and pull the trigger. I’m not sure how many ways there are to interpret this.

It did not have to be this way. I woke up this morning ready to spend the day in Jeddah, having lunch with new Saudi friends, dinner with new Saudi friends, and then fly out of Jeddah in the late evening, heading back to the US on a red-eye through London. But it was soon after waking up that I looked closely at my itinerary to find that the flight I am booked on is not leaving from Jeddah at 10pm tonight; it’s leaving from Riyadh at 8pm – five hundred and twenty-five miles away.

So I made a flurry of frantic calls back home, to airlines and travel agents, confirming that this was indeed the itinerary, and learning that there were no available flights that would get me from Jeddah to Riyadh in time. There are various reasons I need to get out of Saudi Arabia and back to the US this day, so I had no choice but to look into driving across the country, to Riyadh, to make the flight.

And I had to tell all this to Majed.

“How could this happen?” he asked. I told him I had no idea, that I was very sorry.

Majed couldn’t do the drive himself, so he and I searched around Jeddah, looking for someone who could. We made our way to the outskirts of the city and through a brief labyrinth of small alleys. Finally we reached a dead-end, where about a half-dozen men sat outside on folding chairs. It was not a taxi stand or anything like it.

“This place?” I asked. “Who are these guys?”

“Our only option,” Majed said, and got out.

I sat in Majed’s car, thinking about what had transpired the previous day. Majed and I, who had enjoyed a fluid and friendly rapport for a week, had a strange exchange, which put in question if or why he should trust me. I made a joke about American-Saudi relations, and our military, their oil, various complicities and maybe even the CIA, and from then on, things went cold. It was as if he suddenly realised I was an American, and presumably participating in my country’s various crimes, real or imagined. Since then, he had been visibly anxious to be done with me; we barely spoke, and he seemed to be counting the hours till he could be rid of me.

So I was in Majed’s car, in this alley, watching him negotiate with the group, wondering if this could possibly be a good idea, getting into a car, for a six-hour drive across the Saudi desert, with a man we meet in an alley.

Majed soon returned to tell me the price they’d arrived at. Because I trusted Majed’s judgement, and because the price was far less than what one would pay for a six-hour drive in the United States, I agreed. He and the men and Shadad chose the car we would take, among a few of them parked outside, and I took my suitcase from Majed’s trunk and put it in the trunk of this new car.
Majed and I said our goodbyes – which were far more perfunctory than I’d expected earlier in the week, when we were close – and Shadad and I took off.

And because I always trust people until I’m given a reason not to trust them, I was content. It was noon, and we had enough time to make it to Riyadh. And because I was sure we would make it in time, I relaxed and planned to watch the passing scenery and possibly take a nap. But then, ten minutes into the drive, Shadad was on his phone, talking to his friend, and while on the phone he looked askance at me, a bloated grin fattening his cheeks, and delivered the “Yeah, American, boom boom” line into his silver cellphone.

Now I’m very much awake. And I’m contemplating my options. I want to roll out of the car, but the car is now doing 160kph. We pass a tanker truck as if it’s not moving. At this speed I have no options. I’m going wherever this man wants me to go.

I want to make clear that I’ve rarely if ever felt in actual danger while travelling anywhere in the world. This could be dumb luck. It could be a combination of dumb luck, common sense and the benefits of reciprocal trust: trust and you will be trusted. Give respect and you’ll get it.

In any case, it’s a result of a gradual evolution. When I first travelled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.

But every so often I have the feeling that a certain guide or driver or boat captain or acquaintance has a powerful kind of leverage, and could kill me if they wished, and no one would know, no one could trace where or at whose hands I disappeared. This is one of those situations. Only Majed knows or cares that I’m in this man’s Toyota sedan, and I am therefore at this man’s mercy. But again, I was absolutely content with and trusting of this man before he made the Boom Boom comment. And normally I would have shaken it off, giving him the benefit of the doubt. I would normally think, He’s a young man, and he made a joke to another young man on the phone, and it has nothing to do with me.

But lately things have changed. There is new information. There are the State Department warnings in 2010, which say that Saudi Arabia is not so safe for Americans, and there are the many warnings made by hotel personnel not to get into random cars or taxis. And worst of all there is the fact that I have a friend who shared, I assume, my presumption of the goodwill of all those one might meet, and this acquaintance is currently in an Iranian prison. His name is Shane Bauer.

I’ve known him professionally for about three years, primarily as a translator. Back in 2008, I had just gotten back from what is now South Sudan and had done interviews with women who had been enslaved during the civil war, and I needed help transcribing my interviews and other interviews, many of which were in Arabic. So I was connected to Shane, a young man living in Oakland who spoke Arabic. He translated many of the tapes from South Sudan, and I later helped facilitate a trip he took to Darfur to make a documentary about the rebel movement there. Then, six months later, I learned that he had been imprisoned in an Iranian prison on dubious charges of espionage. And while I’m riding in this Toyota sedan, Shane is still in the Iranian prison, fate unknown.

This is all to say that something I would have previously deemed beyond the realm of possibility – that I would personally know someone being held captive in Iran as part of an internationally denounced power play on the part of the semi-sane government of Iran – has made more realistic the possibility that this young Saudi driver might try to do something nefarious with me today. And then there is Majed, who was my friend, but who now might think I’m some kind of enemy. My mind, alone in this featureless desert highway, creates grotesque possibilities. Could Majed have set me up? Because he came to believe I was some intelligence agent, could he have handed me to someone who would profit from my kidnapping? These thoughts are shameful, embarrassing. But if Shane Bauer can be jailed for hiking near the Iranian border, is it so improbable that I could be disposed of in some way here in the Saudi desert?

I look at the car’s gas gauge. I have the thought that if the driver is running low, and needs to refill, I’ll be able to escape. I assume there’s no way he could stop me. I have half a foot of height and thirty pounds on him. Then again, there could be a secret rendezvous point where he’ll fill up his tank and hand me to someone who will pay some bounty . . .

The gas tank is full. At the very least, it will be a while before we stop for that particular reason. Looking around the dashboard, I notice that the car’s interior is still covered in plastic. This is a different way of going about things, and I’ve seen it before in other parts of the world – the reluctance to take the plastic off new cars, new furniture and bicycles. I notice that though the car seems new, there is a cassette player, and that the driver has many cassettes; I haven’t seen this many cassettes in one place in a decade or two. On the mirror itself is a simple sticker that says SAUDI ARABIA, lest he or any other driver of this car forget where they are. I notice, most of all, a blue sign hanging from the rear-view mirror that says “HELP”. Below it is an arrow pointing to an ISBN code, as if that help might come via checkout scanner.

We continue to pass other cars and trucks so fast that they seem stationary. Could he be in a hurry to bring me to his receivers, those he’s sold me to? Now he’s smoking. I try to roll down my window but it’s locked. The driver sees me trying and unlocks it. I lower the window an inch. He looks at the window disapprovingly, and I realise the effect is the opposite as desired: the smoke is crossing the car to exit above my ear. I close the window. He opens his and looks to me.

“Smoke no good?” he asks.

“Smoke no good,” I say.

“Smoke good!” he says, and smiles. He’s making a joke. This is promising, I think.

Sensing the beginnings of a human connection, I open my backpack. He seems unconcerned that I might be taking out something dangerous – another good sign. I take out a folder, where I have my itinerary and tickets and other documents, including a photo of my wife and two kids, which I had printed on an ink-jet printer before I left. In what now seems like prescience, I figured I might need such a photo, to show to a man like this, if such a man had ill-intentions toward me and might be dissuaded by seeing me as a human, as a father; who might even find my children cute and want these children to grow up with two parents and not one.

So I take the photo out and lay it face-down on my lap. And then I ask him if he has kids. He doesn’t understand, so I mime the cradling of a baby, then point to him.

He scoffs and says, “No. No baby. I am the baby!”

It’s a good joke, and we both laugh. This is good.

I turn the photo to face up, and point to it and to myself. He looks at my two children, both very young, two and five years old, and he looks at my wife, and then he sees me in the picture, and he puts it all together. He smiles, nods, and I feel like showing the photo has come off as natural, as a logical enough thing to do during a long drive. And maybe I’ve put a thought in his mind: that I am a father, that my children are young, that I seem like a regular person, probably not a spy or Halliburton contractor or collaborator with the network of government officials and oil and defence contractors who might be the target of his opprobrium.

I leave the photo on my lap for a few miles as we continue driving. He asks no questions about my family – not that he could, with the language barrier, but still, something, I hope, has changed between us. I very well could be imagining it all, but I  have no choice but to hope. He flips the cassette in the tape player and lights another cigarette.

Dave Eggers’s view from inside Shadad’s car

****

I made no decision to be an American, made no sacrifices to be called an American, did no work to be born into the place and time and conditions that the United States enjoyed in 1970 and my family enjoyed in 1970. It is chance, blind luck, random. And it’s random that this Saudi driver, now hitting 175kph, was born into a Saudi vessel – both countries are so new that identifying too strongly with their names and flags is a psychic stretch – and it would be absurd if this man, this soul-in-a-Saudi-vessel, were to harbour any antipathy toward me, a soul-in-an-American-vessel. So it makes it difficult to take a situation like this, the possibility of danger in this car hurtling through the Saudi desert, too seriously for too long.

I have the frequent thought that if the worst came to the worst, a man like this and I could together recognise the absurdity of our nationalities. You are not a Saudi, I would say, referring to a country that has only existed since 1932. I am not an American, I would say, referring to a country that has existed for 240 years. You are not a driver. I am not your passenger. We believe so little of what we would be expected to believe – we believe nothing of the foundational evil of our nations assumed by many – but we do believe that it feels good to be trusted; we believe in the constant movement of souls, the restless nature of the spirit, the profound game of make-believe necessary for either one of us to assume a set of values or motives of the other based on our passports; we believe that we are tired, so tired, of being asked to distrust or hate the people of this country or that culture, the people wearing this uniform or that one, the people who worship this prophet or that god; that we can do better than our fathers and grandfathers and forgo the pretence of rivalries and suspicions; that what we really want are not inherited antagonisms but only some measure of human and material comfort; some frequent stimulation and delight of the mind; some sense of progress for the rights of people; some possibilities and choices for our progeny and the progeny of our neighbours; the ability to love who we want to love; the ability to move freely around the planet as time and means allow.

And right now, driving with this man, what I want is to make this interaction work. I want him to feel good about having met me, and I want to feel good about having met him. One thing you learn after twenty-odd years of random travel is that the people you see along the way – the cabbies, the vendors, the hoteliers, the fellow bus passengers, the man who rents you the kayak on the Isle of Skye – you’re unlikely to see again. So you want to get it right. To get it right you have to make it right.

But I didn’t make it right with Majed. I run the incident through my mind a dozen times during this drive, watching the desert go by. What did I say that was so wrong? Some joke about the American military. Some joke about unnecessary wars. It was not so wrong. He shouldn’t have been offended. Not just offended – he changed his mind about me completely. Had our friendship been on this razor’s edge from the start? One wrong phrase and I’d fallen into league with all US foreign policy wrongdoers – that couldn’t be fair. And then I was offended that he was offended. I was finished, too. I could spend hours trying to convince him I wasn’t some agent of imperialism, or I could wait out our last day or so, allow him to put me in some random car with some random man, and be done with it. Which is what I did.

****

Hours have passed since the “American, boom boom” comment. Shadad has made various other, uneventful, phone calls since then. I have felt comfortable enough to even take a few photos out the window, and even a few inside the car, including the one opposite. Shadad didn’t seem to mind.

And now we’re stopping for gas. The station looks like any gas station anywhere in the world. Shadad stops and unlocks the doors.

He gets out, stretches. I open my door and look around. I could run this way, I think. I could make a phone call at that shop over there. I could hide over behind that shed. I could appeal to that truck driver over there.

But instead I ask the driver if he wants a snack or drink. I mime drinking and eating. He shakes his head.

I walk over to the shop next door to the gas station. Inside, there is a solitary man, in his sixties, behind the counter. He nods to me and says, “Salaam.” I nod back, return his “Salaam”.

In the shop, I think again about escape. I could stay here. I could find a way to call Majed, and ask Majed for his guidance and his help, and maybe along the way apologise for my unfunny jokes about Saudi-American relations. I would miss my flight. I would have to stay overnight in Riyadh. Majed would have to drive out to get me here, four hours away from Jeddah and into the
desert, to get me to Riyadh, or back to Jeddah, or – ? But what’s the alternative? Should I really get back in the car with a man who seemed to have promised some terrible threat to my person?

Travel is about great and illogical leaps of trust, though, so I find myself buying a soda for myself and one for the driver, and a box of crackers big enough that we can share it. And then I’m walking back to the car. Shadad is already inside, a new cigarette filling the car with a toxic cloud. I offer the soda to the driver, but he smiles, confused – Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want a drink? – and puts the car in gear, and we’re off. He doesn’t touch the soda the rest of the drive.

Night comes on as we approach Riyadh. The city’s lights overtake the darkness. I look at the clock and see that because we’ve been travelling so fast we’re almost two hours early. I want to believe that Shadad was devoted to making sure I was on time for the flight, but it’s just as likely that he wanted to be finished with me, with this long silent drive, so he can get home.

I get out at my terminal, and he helps remove my bag from the trunk. “We made it in good time,” I say. I point to my wrist and give him a thumbs-up. He nods and almost smiles. We stand outside and again we stretch.

I take out an envelope of cash and try to give it to him.

Looking confused, he refuses.

“You friend?” he says. “He pay before we leave.”

I should have known. Majed, a young man of no great means, paid for the whole ride when he met Shadad in that Jeddah alley. I think of Majed now, and I want to embrace him, to tell him how sorry I am. But now I have only Shadad, so I shake his hand, my two hands around his one hand, and he adds his second hand to mine.

Dave Eggers’s latest novel, “The Circle”, is out now in paperback, published by Hamish Hamilton (£8.99). His collection of travel writing, Visitants, will be published in the autumn

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser