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The mystery president: How the Charlie Hebdo shooting saved François Hollande's reputation

François Hollande was elected on a promise to rule from the left, but proved an unpopular figure – until the January attack on Charlie Hebdo offered an unexpected reprieve.

On a late February night in Brussels, François Hollande was bleary-eyed after two days without sleep, but also jubilant. He’d spent 16 hours overnight in Minsk, Belarus, with Angela Merkel, extracting a Ukraine ceasefire from Vladimir Putin. From there he’d gone straight to a summit of EU leaders. Aides advised rest but the French president was determined to chat about the other triumph of the day: the sale of 24 Dassault Rafale jets to Egypt, the first export deal for the French fighter after 20 years of vain effort.

“India has confirmed the order – er, I mean Egypt,” Hollande said. “I could have said Qatar, given the confusion of being so tired.” With a characteristic giggle he stumbled on. “We’ve worked out payment that is within the means of Greece . . . er, Egypt. I think I’d better stop or we won’t know who’s bought what.”

Long-winded and self-mocking, the performance was pure Hollande. A back-room politician for most of his career, he has always enjoyed schmoozing with journalists. In Brussels he often rambles on after other leaders have left and the staff start turning out the lights. But on that February night, there was a touch of something else. Hollande was exuding a new self-assurance and was obviously enjoying himself. His first two and a half years of fumbled administration had felt like a succession of disasters, from rising unemployment to character assassination by Valérie Trierweiler, the betrayed former first lady. But in January, events had offered a reprieve.

After the Kouachi brothers committed their slaughter at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the morning of 7 January, the most unpopular French leader in modern times had come into his own. Alerted by a friend’s text message from the scene, the unloved Socialist had ignored his security men and rushed from the Élysée Palace to the blood-spattered offices of the satirical magazine while the bodies were still on the floor. Rallying the nation in the days that followed, Hollande struck the right tone of solemnity and empathy. Leading the march of a million people through Paris on 11 January, he inspired a sense of communion around the republic’s values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The plump little 60-year-old who had won election as “Monsieur Normal” no longer seemed such a lightweight. He had finally assumed the stature expected of France’s monarchical presidents. “François Hollande has suddenly come together,” the veteran commentator Alain Duhamel wrote in Libération. “For the first time, he embodied the nation and made us proud.” Le Figaro, Hollande’s chief media adversary, voiced its admiration. “He has become audible again when most of the French had given up on him,” it said.

At every opportunity since then Hollande has been invoking the “spirit of 11 January”. But the “Charlie effect” has faded and France has fallen back into la morosité that has coloured the national mood for two decades. Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (PS) has returned to feuding. His approval ratings have fallen again after the January spike. He lost 6 points from mid-January, dropping to 26 per cent on 20 February, against a record low of 16 per cent in November, according to Odoxa polling. Meanwhile Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) made a strong showing in the first round of national county council elections that end on 29 March. The FN secured 25 per cent of the vote, beaten into second place only by the centre-right alliance led by Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Yet Hollande is sure that he has changed the way people look at him and is convinced he has transformed his presidency. Friends from his days at the École Nationale d’Administration (Éna), the finishing school of the governing elite, are unsurprised. “You wouldn’t think it, but François has always had an absolute belief in his destiny and it has remained unshaken despite the battering of the past two years,” a classmate from his 1980 year group at Éna told me after she visited him in December. This matches what Stéphane Le Foll, another member of the inner circle, told journalists in 2012 when he was helping manage Hollande’s campaign to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy. “People have always underestimated François,” said Le Foll, who is now the minister for agriculture and chief government spokesman. “There is a steel and clarity that you don’t see.”

 

***

 

To most people in France Hollande remains a mystery: insaisissable, ambiguous and blurred. People thought they had him pinned down when he won office as president with a muddled, old-style leftist manifesto, declaring war on “the world of finance” and harking back to the 1980s, the statist golden age of his mentor and hero, François Mitterrand. “We don’t have to go the way of the markets. I try to be coherent. We can do it the French way,” he told me in an interview on a train in late 2011, six months before his election, during the first Greek euro crisis. Then after piling on new taxes for 18 months, with the economy stagnant, and after failing to fulfil unwise deadlines for cutting the jobless rate, he made a U-turn. The micromanaging president followed up last spring with pro-business reforms, dumping left-wing ministers and appointing as prime minister Manuel Valls, a Blair-style moderniser. In a reshuffle soon after that, Emmanuel Macron, 37, an Éna-trained merchant banker who had served on Hollande’s staff, was promoted to run the economy ministry, where he has become the bête noire of the orthodox left.

Yet, despite multiple interviews, speeches and news conferences on the subject, Hollande has still not explained what he is up to with the economy. Unlike Valls, who gleefully breaches socialist taboo and embraces business, his language remains that of a leftist technocrat whose software was set in the 1970s. Much of France may have signed up to globalised competition – but not Hollande, at least not openly. It is not surprising that orthodox colleagues, such as Arnaud Montebourg, the maverick industry minister who was sacked last year, accuse him of betrayal. The sharpest attack on his leadership has come from Cécile Duflot, a former Green Party leader who was dumped from her job as housing minister a year ago. “His chief quality is his calm. His main fault is not saying what he thinks,” Duflot, 39, wrote in an account of her time in cabinet, From the Inside: Journey to the Land of Disillusion, published in August. Hollande had failed the left, she said. “By trying to be president for everyone, he has managed to be the president of no one.”

Aiming for revenge in the 2017 presidential election, Sarkozy went on the offensive in February, using the Europe 1 radio breakfast show to denounce Hollande as a serial deceiver. “When you lie to the French, there is a moment when you have to pay the bill,” Sarkozy said. “When you say you are going to run the country from the left . . . and then you do exactly the opposite, you create the conditions for revolt.”

It may not have damaged Hollande that France has learned that he is far from being a genial Monsieur Petites Blagues, or “Mr Little Jokes”, as he was once nicknamed by Laurent Fabius, a party rival who is now his foreign minister. Hollande always used the “straightforward nice guy” image as a cover in his decades backstage running the PS while Ségolène Royal, his former partner and the mother of his four children, stole the limelight as a minister and political star.

Valérie Trierweiler told me about Hollande’s secretive side when I interviewed her a few days after his election in May 2012. “He puts everything in compartments and doesn’t always show what he’s thinking,” she said. I put down Trierweiler’s obvious insecurity to her well-known obsession with Royal, who had eclipsed Hollande, the party leader, by running for the presidency in 2007 (she lost to Sarkozy). Royal and Hollande ended their three-decade relationship a month after her failed presidential campaign. At the time, he was already seeing Trierweiler, a reporter for Paris Match. Royal nevertheless publicly supported him when he ran for president in 2012, upsetting the possessive new companion.

It later emerged that Hollande’s visible coolness towards Trierweiler during the 2012 election campaign sprang not from Royal’s presence but from another source. He was secretly courting Julie Gayet, the actress whose liaison with the president was spectacularly exposed when Closer magazine published photographs of him visiting her overnight at a flat in Paris in January 2014. “I did not know that Julie Gayet was already hanging around – like a snake in the grass,” Trierweiler later wrote in Merci pour ce moment, her exercise in literary revenge that became France’s bestseller of the year. “I did not see her coming.”

France got a glimpse of Hollande’s cold side when he shrugged off the Gayet scandal and dismissed Trierweiler from his life with a one-sentence communiqué that he dictated to Agence France Presse news agency. In another blow to Trierweiler, Royal was ushered back into the palace three months later as minister for ecology and energy. She holds number-two rank in the cabinet, where she enjoys a complicity with the president that rankles with other ministers.

 

***

 

The publication of Trierweiler’s book on 5 September inflicted the only big emotional wound that Hollande has acknowledged suffering in office. As a man attached to modesty and discretion, he was stung by the scrutiny of his private life, both when his motor-scooter visits to Gayet exposed him to ridicule and when Trierweiler exacted her revenge. What really hurt, though, was Trierweiler’s portrait of him as a calculating cynic who loves luxury and mocks the poor, describing them as les sans-dents – the toothless people. (That was a play on the sans-culottes, the poor who wore trousers rather than fashionable breeches and who rose up during the 1789 revolution.)

On 8 September Hollande called in his biographer, the journalist Serge Raffy, and told him the story was “a lie that wounds me”. He added, “It hit me like a blow against my whole life. I have built my existence on the principle of helping others.” Although the son of a well-to-do Normandy doctor, Hollande had always felt humble because the family had been poor two generations earlier, the president said in his remarks, published by Raffy in the weekly Nouvel Observateur. “I have never cheated, never sought to make anyone believe I was someone other than who I am.” He was obliged to hide his emotions “because showing them would be deemed weakness on my part”, he said. “My character makes me keep steady, to be like tempered steel and at the same time humane.”

The claim never to have cheated might sound odd to Britons and other foreigners who have followed the palace soap opera, but this new, assertive Hollande has gone down well. The president has repeatedly turned to the theme of solid nerves, talking publicly of how the job has hardened him. It has not hurt that the man who seemed to have stumbled Forrest Gump-like into the Élysée after the disgrace of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the early PS favourite, is now being depicted by opposition leaders as rather mean. “Hollande is very nasty; he has behaved like a bastard towards me,” said François Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, speaking to Le Point in January. That outburst stemmed from a palace leak about Fillon’s alleged efforts to get Hollande’s team to raise the legal heat on Sarkozy, his rival, over past scandals.

The image of a tougher Hollande has reinforced his impressive performance on the foreign front as commander-in-chief and statesman. The most unmartial French president in decades has engaged troops for the past two years in a campaign against Islamist forces in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel region. Last year, he sent French bombers and special forces in to Iraq to take on Islamic State and earlier he had been ready to bomb President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria until events in London and Washington forced him to abandon imminent strikes.

In Europe, victory by the Syriza party in Greece and the rise of Matteo Renzi to prime minister in Italy have helped Hollande’s efforts to position France as a leading advocate for an alternative to German austerity.

After a frosty two years, Chancellor Merkel has started to treat Hollande as an equal, despite France’s continuing economic decline compared to Germany. Initially condescending, she now listens to him more in EU councils. Sarkozy, who prized his complicity with Merkel and privately derides Hollande as “pathetic” and a loser, was said to be envious when the chancellor invited Hollande to drive in the same Mercedes, with French and German pennants flying, to meet Putin in Minsk in February.

For all his satisfaction at winning respect at home and abroad, Hollande remains lucid over the outlook for his personal fortunes. Only the economy counts, as he knows. He dismayed his own circle by announcing in November that he would not stand for re-election if he has not managed to bring down unemployment. The jobless rate reached 10.3 per cent in December, falling back to 10.2 per cent the following month, against 9.7 per cent when he was elected.

Here, Hollande is hampered by his underlying failure: the refusal to clarify his course and ditch the left-wing rhetoric still beloved of the PS old guard and its clientele voters, dominated by civil servants, state-sector workers, teachers and the retired. They fault him from the left, demanding a return to protective socialism. Aurélie Filippetti, who was culture minister until she was dumped from the cabinet last summer, told RTL radio: “You can’t say in January, ‘France is under attack, France is at war,’ and then in February carry on the same policies that have led to a dead end, especially in employment.”

Filippetti is now one of the backbench mutineers making life tough for Hollande, Valls and Macron.

Being the product of his Éna, Mitterrandist background, Hollande still believes that France can prevail with its own model – a synthesis of enterprise and centralised administration by the state. That is the view of Dominique Reynié, an analyst who leads Fondapol, a centre-right think tank. “The conviction that you can change very little and the system will still hold is nearly unanimously shared in the governing elite,” he told me. Just as Mitterrand performed a pragmatic U-turn in 1983, imposing austerity to save the franc after two years of high-spending socialism, Hollande hired Macron and swung towards “social-liberalism” because he had no alternative. He has not undergone a conversion to the modern world, Reynié says. “The new direction in 2014 was useful and necessary but people don’t understand why he changed course. He hasn’t explained. Does it mean that what he said in the campaign wasn’t true? People on the left have lost their bearings.”

Like many in the commentariat, Reynié believes Hollande has finally grown into the presidency but he adds: “I don’t know how he will keep up this new trust from the people. What counts is unemployment and spending power and housing costs – things that affect people’s lives.”

The trouble is that, despite resentment against Hollande’s tax rises and general acceptance of the need for a competitive economy, much of France is still yearning for the reassuring state of old. Reflecting this, Sarkozy and his UMP have swung to a modernised form of Gaullist paternalism as they head towards the 2017 elections.

The biggest threat on the landscape is Marine Le Pen and the Front, who are busy stealing the old music of the PS along with its voters. The test in the local elections will be whether mainstream voters follow the old practice of crossing party lines in the run-off to block the far right, or whether the Front has gained enough respectability to win more than limited local power. A surge by the FN could set the stage for a presidential victory by Le Pen in 2017, a prospect that was inconceivable only a few years ago.

Dominique Reynié thinks France does not offer much of a model for left-wing parties elsewhere, such as Ed Miliband’s Labour, because the old statist creed has been rendered obsolete by globalised markets. “Time has run out for a European left that since the end of the 19th century has lived on the idea that you can mobilise the state and use taxes and public spending to organise social progress,” he says. That is certainly not the view of François Hollande and his nostalgic party. The young man who idolised François Mitterrand, the founder of modern French socialism, grew into a president who remains devoted to the creed of state-engineered social progress.

Charles Bremner is Europe editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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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