There are certain things about political conventions you only notice when you are watching on TV - like Bill Clinton seeming to fall asleep momentarily during his wife’s speech last night. And there are things you only notice when you go along to conventions and spend your afternoons out on the street, under the hot sun, waiting for something to happen.
Any of the journalists working in Cleveland and Philadelphia in the past fortnight had a curious thing to relate: lots of things happened on the streets of Philly, and almost nothing happened in Ohio. Before we leave behind the conventions and head into three months of stage-managed swing state rallies, it's worth asking why that was.
In the primary campaign that led to Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate, his opponents were said to be too numerous. On the streets of Cleveland last week, where tens of thousands were expected to protest his anointment, the opposite was true: his activist opponents were too few to register on the news. They simply didn’t turn up.
Such was the expectation of disorder that a collection of goons calling themselves Bikers for Trump promised to protect the nominee from the presence of the New Black Panthers. A picture of said bikers swept around the internet, showing a long line of them descending from a bridge on their way to the convention city - except a quick search shows the picture is at least three years old. In reality, the Bikers for Trump were a small but hairy rump.
As the Cleveland convention began, it seemed as if trouble was inevitable. The Marshall Project, a respected news site covering criminal justice, wrote a guide for staying out of jail, anticipating a 'battleground of protest'. The municipal courts were prepared for a thousand arrests per day, and the streets outside were like a US cop convention. 'We've seen some people with guns bulging out of their pants,' an officer from the California highway patrol told me, laughing, 'and every time it's turned out they were an undercover cop!'
As my colleagues and I waited on Cleveland’s main square for the trouble to begin, it was surreal to read tweets from people who claimed they were going to protest, but who clearly hadn’t bothered to turn up. 'I regret not going to Cleveland to protest,' one activist tweeted on the third day. I asked her why. 'I just live across the country. A couple of my friends went, I decided not to because I didn’t want to get arrested/roughed up.' Fair enough. Another girl from Ohio who was discussing attending a march on the first day said she didn’t end up going 'because I thought something crazy was gonna happen.'
As it turned out, it didn't. The actual number of arrests per day was just shy of five. By the last day of the convention, the lack of trouble in Cleveland had become a gag. Two hacks caused a ripple of excitement in a downtown Starbucks by talking loudly about tear gas and arrests, before admitting they were having everyone on.
On the final day, on a search for real protesters, I met Siddiq Mumin, 54, from Compton, California, selling Stop Trump badges. I asked him what he made of the stall next door, hawking 'Make America Great Again' caps. 'That’s me too,' he said.
The picture in Philadelphia was different. Five of my colleagues from The Tab made the trip down from New York. In direct contrast to Cleveland, the Democratic convention was occupied with protests, demos, marches and ceremonial burnings of DNC cards. There were literally thousands more people in town to register their concern with the nomination of Hillary Clinton than there had been in Cleveland. Some protesters at the DNC had made 18-hour drives from as far as Washington State. Amusingly, some had made it from Ohio.
At the RNC, tiny groups of activists lingered around the convention perimeter, waiting for back-up. In Philadelphia, one camp of mainly Bernie Sanders supporters had set up showers, erected tents and liaised with police. 'I can’t believe I have to protest this s***' one marcher’s sign read. 'DNC - this is an intervention' said another. 'Never lose your sense of outrage' read a third. Where was the intervention in Cleveland? Where was the outrage about Donald Trump, the most openly bigoted candidate since the Sixties?
What does it reveal? Firstly, that activism is easier on Twitter, and in commutable towns on the Eastern Seaboard, than it is when you have to make a roadtrip to the midwest. Secondly, that if Americans want to oppose Trump in the months ahead, they are going to have to make more of an effort.
Protests matter, especially when they are broadcast on TV. The big protests everyone expected in Cleveland would have highlighted Donald Trump’s awfulness on the evening news. Their absence will contribute, in a modest way, to the normalisation of Trump in the public's minds. It was an opportunity missed. Instead Activist America focused its considerable energies on Philadelphia and Hillary Clinton. More people chose to protest against Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. That is astonishing.
Joshi Herrmann is the Executive Editor of The Tab.