Inside the Republican convention

Our man in St Paul penetrates the perimeter fence and bumps into Jon Voigt, again, and other luminar

I got through the heavily fortified perimeter around the Excel Convention Centre for the first time yesterday. There are two passes – one gets you into the actual auditorium where the magic happens, and one is just for the sprawling media metropolis next door. I just had the media pass, but hanging around there long enough I was able to talk to an interesting range of Republican bigwigs and smaller-time delegates and talking heads.

The first floor is dedicated to talk radio and I spotted John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and an extremist even within the neoconservative movement. The Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, attempted a citizens arrest on Bolton when he came to speak to the Hay-on-Wye festival in May. As he walked to the Convention entrance I asked him about the controversy during his visit to UK. “What was the controversy?” he asked incredulous so I told him what I was talking about. “I thought it was immature at best and really kind of threatening in some respects,” he replied, “because it respects an unwillingness to tolerate other points of view and I think it’s very disturbing to see it in Britain, and I was happy he was not able to arrest me because the whole thing was a sort of juvenile exercise.”

Next I talked to Alaska delegate, Ralph Seekins. He is from the state which has given us Sarah Palin, the much debated Republican VP choice. “I think the choice is exciting,” he said. What about her family history? “It’s a history of the American family,” he said, talking of her 17-year-old daughters pregnancy. “I think they handled the challenges to their family pretty well; I raised four children and eleven grandchildren and they didn’t always do exactly what I wanted them to do, and my mother shouldn’t be made accountable for what I did when I was a kid. So I think Sarah has an exemplary background; she represents Middle America very well and I think people will learn to trust her and I think they are going to be surprised.”

Seekins said he wasn’t a McCain fan from the start. “I was a Romney man early on, but I certainly will support McCain, I respect the man, you can’t question his patriotism, it’s a stronger ticket now with Sarah on there.”

The ever-present, ever-visible Republican apparition that has been actor Jon Voigt then showed up and was surrounded by the press corps. “We need an America that is going to be strong and safe,” he said, and I switched off involuntarily. Up popped then to give him a hug and kiss the Congresswoman from Minnesota’s 6th district, Michele Bachmann. It was all very lovely dovey. “Minnesota loves Jon Voight,” she beamed into the cameras.

The local channel 5 Eyewitness News was asking the normal round of boilerplate questions which she seemed happy answering. “She’s a strong, independent woman,” she said, talking about guess who. Then this: “We are really showcasing our state well, people will come back because they are wowed by Minneapolis-St. Paul.” I couldn’t let that go, so I barged in on the interviewed and asked her what she thought of the police behaviour vis-à-vis the protesters.

Her face dropped. “The police behaviour?” she said. “Well, I hope they bought law and order to the situation, because it was criminal what was going on downtown, not called for, certainly not representative of local Minnesotans.” I mentioned that journalists were being arrested for covering the protests. “Well, I don’t know anything about that,” she said, and moved on quickly.

I wanted to speak to a local journalist to get their perspective on the heavy-handed police behaviour. It emerged yesterday that 8 leaders of the RNC Welcoming Committee – an activist group trying to disrupt the RNC – have been charged with Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism under the first use of the 2002 Minnesota version of the Federal Patriot Act.

Doug Grove works for the online publication Minnpost.com. “The hope of the Police Department was that they could handle everything with smiles and warmth and friendliness and obviously that quickly went away. And many of have been surprised that the reaction has been as strong as it’s been… Certainly it’s not the image that Minnesota was looking for.”

There has been much talk about the law-and-order sheriff amongst journalists and the protesters. “Well, the Sheriff of Ramsey Country, which is the county in which St. Paul is located, is a guy called Bob Fletcher,” said Grove. “Fletcher is an egomaniac with a dark side. And he has frequently put his foot in his mouth leading up to the convention.”

Going back inside, I spotted a young guy with a beard and a trendy hat; he looked like he should be a famous indie musician so I was curious how he had ended up at the RNC media circus. It turned out he was a guest Republican blogger and a serious ‘winger’. He supported Rudy Guliani because he “would be further to right than Bush on the Bush Doctrine. I want to take the terrorists and kill every single one of them,” he assured me.

He laid into the Iranian President who he called “Armaggedonijan” and said the time for a military strike on the “Islamo-fascist state” was imminent. He was firmly for John McCain, which gives an indication of what the Republican Presidential Candidate is expected to do by some of his fans should he win in November.

In the evening we went to a party in a hotel in Minneapolis hosted by the Creative Coalition, a lobbying groups for artists. Slated to turn up was Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, amongst other luminaries. Again, a no-show, and instead there was two hours of live country music from a Father Christmas lookalike. He proudly told us he was a “Redneck, like the rest of you”, and then proceeded to play tracks about tying a noose around criminal’s necks and hanging them from the tree.

It was all very posh except they served the drinks in plastic cups and the garlic-mash-potato in fancy Martini glasses. Didn’t understand that.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times