New Orleans: a national humiliation

Anthony Lane reports from the city failed by its president

As you enter New Orleans, you would not know that, two years on, the city is still reeling from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

When I ask a fellow bus passenger, a middle-aged Texan in town for a boozy weekend, about reports of rocketing crime and hundreds of thousands still living in trailers, he upbraids me. "That's a whole loada leftwing crap. Just look at the place".

It's easy to sympathise with this view. The Central Business District of the city is gleaming, full of impressive colonnaded buildings, home to banks and swanky hotels. Indeed, beholding the obvious wealth at the heart of the Big Easy brings to mind Donald Trump's comment when President Bush promised to pump $200bn into the wider Gulf Coast after Katrina. "Now anybody that lived there is going to be a multimillionaire", he said of those whose homes were destroyed.

The main tourist area, the French Quarter, looks similarly unaffected and lives up to New Orleans' reputation of being 'the city that care forgot', the birthplace of jazz and the cocktail. Wandering down legendary, decadent Bourbon Street with its loud bars offering cocktails to go, is an assault on the senses. Not only is a good time guaranteed but the French Quarter feels incredibly safe, with patrols performed not just by local police but also by the Louisiana state police and the National Guard.

It is the latter's presence, however, which hints that all is far from well. The National Guard has stayed in the city at the request of Mayor Ray Nagin, in an effort to stem an explosion in crime. Murder, almost always black on black and located away from tourist hotspots, is reaching epidemic proportions. In 2006, there were 63 murders per 100,000 residents, the highest murder rate in the entire country and ten times that of New York. This figure may well be an underestimate.

One local academic, Prof Mark VanLandingham of Tulane University, has suggested the real one is 96 per 100,000. If true, that would mean New Orleans has twice the murder rate of America's second most murderous city, Gary in Indiana.

Figures for the first three months of 2007 are equally shocking. According to the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), overall violent crime increased by 107% in the space of one year. Armed robbery was up 135% on 2006 figures and murder rose by 182%. The crime wave is out of all proportion to the rise in population – thought to have increased by 62% – as residents returned to their gutted homes. (Many seem to have abandoned the city for good and one third of New Orleanians tell pollsters they want to leave.)

In January, there was almost a murder a day, prompting a march on city hall by angry residents. As a result, overnight police checkpoints have been set up across the city and the National Guard has launched aerial patrols. There are also 22 FBI agents on patrol. But a beefed-up federal presence cannot disguise falling police numbers.

Officially, the number of officers is down from 1,668 in 2005 to 1,400 today. However, the latter figure includes sick, injured and depressed officers (there are few who don't have harrowing stories from the aftermath of Katrina). Solidifying the city's reputation as the nation's capital of crime, Fox is setting its latest police drama, K-Ville, in New Orleans.

The city is showing little sign of coping with the consequences of the complete breakdown in the criminal justice system. State charges against 3,000 criminal suspects were dropped in 2006 because of a lack of resources to prosecute them. There were 162 murders last year but only three have seen convictions. Murders often go unsolved because the city does not have the resources to fund adequate witness relocation or change witnesses' identities. Residents are all too aware that drug gangs, often linked to these murders, are living much closer to their homes since Katrina. Armed drugs dealers are now encamped in hundreds of abandoned houses in the Ninth Ward, the worst hit area of the city. Police are widely criticised for not patrolling beyond main streets. Some locals sport T-shirts with the words, "NOPD: Not Our Problem Dude" emblazoned on them.

There is one very safe way of seeing the damage wrought by Katrina and just how little has been done to help those trying to rebuild their lives in areas like the Ninth Ward. The Hurricane Katrina Tour, a guided bus tour run by national tour operator Gray Line, is the epitome of disaster tourism; taking visitors around the most wretched parts of the city. The guide, a witty, middle-aged white woman called Sandra, ended up sleeping on one of the unbroken levees and went two days without food or water before being rescued. "Is anyone here from the government?" she asks. "I want to make sure I punch the right people."

The sheer chaos after the storm smashed the city's flood walls and levees is realised by way of some amazing tales. We drive by the impressive Aquarium of the Americas, the stench from which was apparently unbearable as 10,000 fish gently cooked in the 98 degree heat. Then there is the Superdome, home to 28,000 desperate residents whose plight led to comparisons with the third world.

We go by impressive cemeteries. New Orleans, by long tradition, buries its dead above ground. The storm tore the tops off many graves with the effect that the skeletons of the long-since-departed floated next to the corpses of Katrina's 1,600 victims. Despite having the footage, American TV networks did not broadcast such images. The bus goes past houses belonging to the guide's friends, one of whom saved 65 people by cramming them into her home which has since been looted 17 times.

Another spent 10 days living on top of his home and bore witness to a deer trying to avoid the rising water by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, only to be gobbled by a shark swum in with the Gulf of Mexico. Chemical and oil spills, death by poisonous snakes, sharks, corpses and skeletons: it is anarchy even Hobbes would have found difficult to imagine.

But the true horror is more banal; it is in the sheer scale of what remains to be done, two years on. There are so many homes boarded up, still marked by paint indicating how many people – and their pets – were found dead there. Trailers are parked outside thousands of properties as people rebuild their homes. Many are beyond repair. Nine hundred houses are torn down each month in the city. There are hundreds of 'for sale' and 'now leasing' signs outside properties with smashed windows. Some of the most beautiful houses built in the richer Bayou area in the 19th Century are unscathed because they were constructed a few feet above ground (residents of old were worried about the possibility of flooding). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now requires properties most at risk to be raised three feet above ground and we see a few strange-looking homes which have been raised several feet, almost as if they are on stilts.

The bus takes a turn off one of the main roads and goes through the Ninth Ward, trailers and crumpled homes everywhere. We are in closer proximity to residents than at any other point in the trip and we see children walking barefooted. A certain queasiness sets in and the bus windows begin to feel almost like the screens at a zoo. I'm not surprised on later learning that the locals hate the tour and the gawping it entails.

The long-term damage to the economy is also obvious. We go past the place where a newly-opened 55ft shopping mall once stood and then by the rollercoasters of a derelict theme park which would take hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild. The local oyster beds were all destroyed, we are told, along with 10,000 boats. Environmental damage is apparent from the swathes of dead trees on the outskirts of the city. Marshes are still dying, due to the effects of salt water.

We see one of 50 new city landfills where debris from 2005 is still being dumped. According to Nagin the city has had to clear up six times as much debris as New York did after 9/11. A gigantic NASA compound can be seen on the horizon. Despite being badly hit, the federal government made sure it was operational just six weeks after Katrina, says the guide disgustedly, neglecting to mention that her tour was up and running only 10 weeks after that. Indeed, for all the sentimentalism about rebuilding the city, when I ask if the tour donates its profits to the victims of Katrina, the reply is a little frosty. "We've given $3000", she says. Considering that it runs twice daily, has a capacity of 40 and charges $35, I fail to disguise my surprise at such thinly-veiled parsimony.

But it is a brilliant tour, one which brings home the neglect and incompetence of Bush's administration. By the end, however, it becomes a desensitising experience as one gutted home leads on to another. "Too much. It's just too much," says the woman behind me, as the three hour trip draws to a close.

Reconstruction in New Orleans and beyond has been painfully slow. Public services in the city are in dire straits. In his recent State of the City address, Nagin said, "Healthcare in our city is in crisis…our mental health patients have been abandoned". Despite rocketing mental illness, the 300 public and private psychiatric beds destroyed by Katrina have not been replaced. The Louisiana State University hospital is on the verge of opening a 10-bed unit situated in a temporary building. Even if the city could provide more beds, it is questionable whether it could find or fund mental health workers to practice there. Higher education is in a bad way. The American Association of University Professors recently took the highly unusual step of marking out all of the city's universities for criticism.

Yet the greatest anger is directed at the failure of Road Home, the programme through which residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged, are compensated. Incredibly, along the entire Gulf Coast there are 87,000 households living in mobile homes and travel trailers and another 33,000 living in federally subsidised apartments. The federal government is supposed to provide the money to residents based on estimates made by the state of Louisiana about the level of damage their properties sustained. But the programme has an estimated shortfall of between $2.9bn and $5bn, with the result that a stunning four fifths of Road Home applicants have not received anything.

Consequently, many have failed to return. The population is thought to be around the 250,000 mark, well below the pre-Katrina population of 455,000.

Some fault the private firm put in charge of Road Home and hired by the outgoing Governor Kathleen Blanco on the basis that the private sector would be more efficient. Others ask why the state government, enjoying a budget surplus, cannot itself put more money into Road Home. But the real blame game is between the state government and FEMA.

The federal government agency's Donald Powell, President Bush's co-ordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, blames the state government for awarding grants to those ineligible for compensation. The federal government, Powell has argued, takes full responsibility for the flood damage due to the failure of the federally-managed levees but is not responsible for the hurricane's wind-related damage. Not true, says the Louisana Recovery Authority, pointing to the fact that in June 2006, the federal government approved the state's application for all to be compensated.

FEMA's position and the Road Home shortfall has resulted not only in many residents being denied the compensation to which they are legally entitled but has also led to the federal government now trying to claw back some $485m from those who have been helped – a sum it spends every 42 hours in Iraq. It is little wonder that Nagin recently lashed out at the "unfulfilled promises" of the federal government as well as "an unprecedented bureaucracy, a misguided Road Home programme, a state government flush with cash while citizens go broke trying to come home".

For her part, Blanco, a Democrat like Nagin, has blasted the amount of money given to the state. Louisiana, she says, was "low-balled" by the federal government, pointing out that neighbouring Mississippi, which was also hit by Katrina, has been given $5.5bn in grants compared to $10.4bn for Louisiana even though the latter sustained five times as much damage. The differential treatment, Blanco and many others claim, is down to Mississippi having a Republican governor who helped to get Bush elected. Moreover, hurricane-related spending decisions were signed off, until the 2006 Congressional elections, by the Senate Appropriations Committee which was chaired by a Republican Senator from Mississippi.

Just how badly some are suffering becomes clear at a protest 80 miles away in Louisiana's state capital, Baton Rouge. Apart from a few white hippies and volunteers, almost all of the 200 protestors are black and yet to receive compensation for the damage to their homes. Their placards say "Show Me The Money", pouring scorn on the federal government's claim to have spent $110bn on the Gulf Coast since Katrina. The anger is palpable. Some speakers on the steps of the Capitol building are almost screaming despite having megaphones to hand. Nagin has also joined them. He is an eloquent and impressive speaker, with an easy ability to command applause and share in the protestors' frustrations. I ask a nurse what she thought of the speech. "It was great – for all the good it will do".

Nagin has the unenviable task of radiating optimism to residents about the future whilst emphasising just how bad things are in order to get more federal funds. His poll ratings have plummeted as anger over crime and the lack of reconstruction has risen. Lakeisha, a waitress, calls him 'crooked', a word that gets used a lot. As the protest breaks up, I talk to one man, still living in his damp, rotting house and carrying a placard stating, 'Louisiana has the best politicians money can buy'. I ask if that's true of Nagin as the mayor glad-hands right next to us. "Him too. Everybody is."

There is no reason to think this is the case. Nagin made a name for himself before Katrina as a 'corruption-buster'. What such comments reflect is a dangerous contempt for, and anger at, all politicians and the institutions of government as well as the fact that in Louisiana, politics has long been a byword for brazen corruption. (Indeed, just as the city and state attempt to convince Congress that any extra money will be wisely spent, one Louisiana congressman, William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption. Amazingly, he was re-elected in 2006, despite the allegations swirling around him and the FBI discovering $90,000 hidden in his freezer.)

Another, more considered, critique of Nagin is that, as a relative newcomer to the choppy waters of Louisiana politics – before he became mayor, Nagin was a cable television executive with no previous political experience – he has been unable to navigate through a plethora of vested local interests. It must be frustrating to be simultaneously tarred by association with Louisiana politics and damned for not being well versed in it.

The flip side of being a passionate speaker is Nagin's loose tongue which has got him into trouble more than once. Campaigning for re-election last year and in need of black votes, Nagin pledged that New Orleans would remain a "chocolate city", i.e. predominantly black.

Heavily criticised in the national media and lampooned as the Willy Wonka of American politics, he apologised and then hilariously claimed his words were consistent with his previous pledges to reduce racial divisions. "How do you make chocolate?" he asked. "You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about".

Perhaps more damaging to the reputation of Nagin and the city was the choice of Ed Blakely as recovery tsar. Blakely makes Nagin look like a paragon of diplomacy. Showing total contempt for the people he was supposed to be helping, Blakely was once quoted as calling many New Orleanians "buffoons" and has compared the city to "a third world country". On another occasion, he suggested the state should learn about birth control, comparing it unfavourably to California. It was an ignorant as well as insulting remark: on average, Louisiana actually has fewer children per family than California. Worse still, when back home in Australia, Blakely went on local radio and accused the city of exaggerating its pre-Katrina population so as to maximise funds from the federal government after the storm. He apologised and blamed "a serious medical condition" for his comments. With recovery chiefs like this.

Proposals made by both Nagin and Blakely to raise more money for recovery have not progressed. Both have spoken of issuing so-called blight bonds, using damaged properties as collateral to borrow $300m. Until recently, however, the city had a bond rating of junk, stymieing such ideas. There are a plethora of blueprints, action zones, commissions and recovery agencies, but no money with which to proceed. What progress has been made is the result of loans, donations from foundations and a partial recovery of the city's tax base thanks to the return of tourists.

But however justified the criticisms of Nagin, Blakely, Blanco et al might be, as one of the organisers of the Baton Rouge protest says, "No state or city government, no matter how efficient, could have coped with this". New Orleans has been in need of a Leviathan but has instead been dealt the most uncaring and incompetent administration in modern American history.

The charge sheet against Bush's management is damning. Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers required $62.5m to maintain Louisiana's flood control project, only for the administration to cut the budget to just $10.5m. There was a 44% reduction in spending on the levees between 2001-2005. Bush downgraded the status of FEMA, which had warned in 2001 that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three most probable disasters to befall the US. FEMA was placed in the charge of the Homeland Security department, miring it in "a dysfunctional bureaucracy", according to Hillary Clinton.

The shockingly indolent response to the disaster was, of course, a national humiliation. Some of the last people to be rescued, in nearby St Bernard, were saved not by American troops, but by the much-lampooned Canadian Mounties. And now, given the desperate shortage of cash, New Orleans is once again embarrassing the country.

Nagin recently announced that he is in contact with foreign governments who offered aid in the wake of Katrina. Their offers, totalling $854m, were rejected by the Bush administration. In an unprecedented act, Nagin has decided "to go around the federal government" to see if any of those offers are still on the table.

Whether New Orleans is in better shape to withstand another hurricane of Katrina's magnitude – it was a Category 3 hurricane by the time it hit the city – is an open question. The city successfully lobbied Congress for a strengthening of its levees and flood defences, guaranteeing it "100-year protection". But work on the new defence system will not be completed until 2011. There is no doubt that it is a big task. Though maintenance before the storm cost very little, Katrina left 225 miles of levees in need of repair with the result that the corps has been given $5.7bn. According to Col Jeff Bedey, the commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, the system "is stronger today than it was pre-Katrina".

However, the colonel was careful not to give categorical assurances and some engineers have stated that a prolonged Category 2 hurricane would flood the city once more. Ivor Van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Centre, whose pre-Katrina warnings about the dangers facing New Orleans were ignored, maintains that there are still "weak links" in basic flood defences. According to an internal army corps report, because of the rush to offer as much protection as quickly as possible, new pumps installed in 2006 have failed to work correctly. Water has recently seeped through cracks in flood walls that have supposedly been restored.

But the potential for further ruin goes beyond the city. Nearby Terrebonne is thought to be most at risk of flooding and Congress has approved a $900m levee system. The Bush administration has yet to give the nod to construction with the result that residents have had to tax themselves $80m in order to provide 'interim protection'. The main consoling thought for anxious residents waiting for 2011 is that Katrina is often described as a '1 in 400' event. That anxiety is not helped by constant reports of what remains to be done. 'Hurricane hype' is amusingly lambasted by weather presenters on the very news programmes that generate it.

The predominating emotion is not anxiety but depression. "Everyone's depressed", says Ben, another organiser of the Baton Rouge protest. Despite having just over half its 2005 population, suicide prevention calls are up 800%. People speak of 'Katrina fatigue' – hardly surprising given the never-ending slew of bad news stories relating back to the hurricane, which can involve anything from 'ailing theatres' to having the highest rates of bankruptcy and heart attacks in the country. Nagin claims the death rate in the city is up 47% and the state as a whole continues to rank 50th in health surveys. There are a startling number of people coughing, despite the very warm summer heat.

The city at times seems almost cursed. I came across the story of one broken man whose home in the neighbourhood of Gentilly was badly damaged by the storm. He returned and spent the better part of 2006 using his life savings to rebuild it while he lived outside in a trailer, frequently fending off would-be looters. Just as he was about to move back in, a tornado ripped through the city in February, leading to 30,000 households going without power and a state of emergency being declared. It also slammed his trailer against his house. He is now living in a second trailer. He was lucky only by comparison with his neighbour, 86 year old Stella, who was killed in her newly refurbished home when her old trailer was thrown against it.

The other prevailing feeling is anger. Iraq hangs over New Orleans, almost as pungent as the smells due to poor drainage, another post-Katrina blight. Indeed, in another unguarded remark he was made to regret, Nagin suggested Katrina demonstrated God's anger at the US for going to war. Most New Orleanians are quick to link the cuts in flood defences preceding the hurricane with the president's $1 trillion war of choice. 'Make levees, not war' T-shirts are available in most tourist shops. "All that Road Home money, it went on the war", says Ann, a hotel worker who also recalls the Asian tsunami. "All that aid to a country no one had heard of, and in the US, we get nothing".

This anger is expressed most acutely by blacks. The racial divisions in the city, which was 67% black before Katrina, have always been stark. As Nagin said in his 2005 State of the City address, "Parts of our city are mired in violent crime, unemployment…and children are trapped in failing schools". Those parts were black and remain so. The anger and despair felt by blacks has been likened by Barack Obama to the situation in Los Angeles in the 1980s before race riots overtook the city in 1992.

New Orleans feels like a city at a crossroads. There is a danger that the "quiet riot" identified by Obama becomes audible and violent, that the city fails to get a grip on crime and that tens of thousands continue to wait for compensation. On the other hand, help may now come from a Democrat Congress, prodded into action by all three of the party's main presidential candidates who have promised more money should they be made president in 2008.

The city continues to be helped by a veritable army of volunteers. The work of charities like Habitat for Humanity has been invaluable. While no substitute for government action, the American volunteer culture is a truly impressive and noble sight to behold, as children from all around the country use their holidays to rebuild victims' homes. In especially rough areas like Treme, citizens are attempting to reclaim their neighbourhoods by way of rallies and public meetings. Recently, the first school in the Lower Ninth Ward was reopened, a 'Herculean effort' say local officials, considering that other dilapidated schools have had to house guard dogs to stop constant looting of pipes as well as the wood used to board the schools up.

Leaving the city centre, you are struck once more by its wealth and the fundamental strength of the city's position as a hub for big business and tourism. For all the public squalor, private investment is gathering pace. The city is manna from heaven for property speculators and 150,000 building permits, worth $3.7bn, have been issued. Furthermore, 62,000 out of the city's 81,000 businesses have now reopened. There is one particularly striking billboard, advertising a $400m, 70-storey tower which will be the tallest building in the state when completed in 2010 and which hopes to attract the affluent to condos priced between $375,000 and $3.3m. It seems somehow fitting that the proprietor is none other than Donald Trump.

The city of New Orleans has proven itself to be George Bush's domestic crucible, laying bare the sheer incompetence and callousness of the president. The administration's criminal neglect has meant that two years after Katrina, hundreds of thousands of American citizens endure a soul-destroying existence and the daily humiliations and indignities of trailer park life. Their homes destroyed, their humanity crushed and their promised compensation denied, they have become a diaspora of human detritus, left to rot by the pioneers of compassionate conservatism.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

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