Donald Trump has, whether knowingly or not, tapped into some deep-seated bigotry still lurking just beneath the surface of this country. I do not know if Trump agrees with the openly racist people he retweets, or if he’s merely aping the language and memes of the alt-right for political gain. As many have discovered, though, Trump’s most vocal supporters on Twitter are often unabashedly anti-semitic, homophobic, sexist and racist. The question for me as I prepared for the 2016 Republican National Convention was, would these newly invigorated hate groups suddenly feel as safe expressing themselves face-to-face as they do online?
I’m happy to report the answer is no — mostly, anyway. The 2016 RNC certainly wasn’t without incident or ugliness, but by and large the crowds were peaceful, respectful and the hate groups did not find the Republican party waiting for them with open arms in Cleveland.
Using a tool called Hyp3r, Engadget collected every Tweet and Instagram that was geo-tagged from the official convention venues. We scoured the data looking for slurs, overtly racist language and echoes (more on those below) and came up empty. Hyp3r only pulls in tweets from users with the location enabled on their devices, so it’s not a comprehensive collection of 140-character missives, but our data suggests that Trump’s white supremacist contingent didn’t make it to the convention floor. Or were at least very discreet about their more radical beliefs.
On Twitter, white supremacists can hide behind the anonymity of their screen name and use an obscure marker called an echo — literally just a series of parenthesis ((()) — to target people for an army of trolls. Sometimes those attacks are just insults and memes, but they sometimes turn violent. Countless people have received death threats especially Jewish journalists. I’m not even Jewish and even I have even been on the receiving end of threats and harassment after tweeting unflattering things about Donald Trump. Multiple times I’ve been told I would soon find myself in an oven.
— Terrence O’Brien (@TerrenceOBrien) March 25, 2016
In person, though, such overt racism is considered deeply taboo. Indeed, expressions of these sentiments at the convention, both in person and on social media, appeared to be few and far between. And they were often quickly snuffed out. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa found himself on the receiving end of criticism from both sides of the aisle after he suggested on MSNBC that nonwhites had contributed little to civilization. And Illinois delegate Lori Gayne had her credentials stripped after she posted a photo of a police sharp shooter with the caption “Our brave snipers just waiting for some N**** to try something. Love them” on Facebook.
Supporters watch Donald Trump speak on a giant screen outside the Quicken Loans Arena.
Some delegates I spoke to expressed concerns that this might violate Gayne’s right to free speech, but all of them condemned the language. That includes Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider, who told the Chicago Sun-Times that the GOP, “has zero tolerance for racism of any kind and threats of violence against anyone.”
A group of Cruz delegates from Washington who I interviewed also suggested the tone on the floor did not reflect that of Trump’s most virulent supporters online. While they did accuse Trump delegates of bullying and said they had heard at least one threaten violence against a delegate from another state, they had not overheard anything overtly racist or anti-semitic on the floor. This came as a relief since many of the Washington delegates were part of the “Never Trump” movement. They were in part motivated by what delegate Selena Coppa called Trump’s sounding of a “dog whistle” for white supremacists.
So does that mean the bigots all stayed home?
Not quite. There was small collection of openly hostile hate groups in Cleveland this week; they were just confined to the streets outside the convention center. But even there they were merely a very vocal minority. A small group of protesters had set up in Public Square most of the week declaring that Allah was Satan and that “all true muslims were jihadists.” One man paraded up and down 4th, right outside the convention center with a sign declaring that “Jews DO run the media.” I witnessed a man offer a Hitler salute and chant “sieg heil,” though I suspect he was simply trolling, and there were several members of the anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin on the ground and well as a handful of high-profile white supremacists.
But, I watched a Trump supporter talk down the man screaming “sieg heil.” And it’s not as if the Soldiers of Odin were greeted with cheers when they arrived at Public Square.
Could it simply be that everyone was on their best behavior because they were out in public and the eyes of the nation were focused on them? Perhaps. But I’m choosing to believe that tone at the convention truly reflected the beliefs and attitudes of the rank and file party members.
The rhetoric from the stage during the RNC was predictably ugly and chances are next week’s Democratic National Convention won’t be much better. But that sort of partisan red meat is mostly for show. The people in the streets and on the convention floor were polite and friendly. The air was celebratory, not hostile.
A Trump supporter and Black Lives Matter protester jam outside the Quicken Loans Arena.
I’m not going to pretend to agree with the politics of Donald Trump or the Republican party, but months of watching the campaign play out mostly through the lens of social media had left me despondent. A week in Cleveland has me feeling a little more hopeful. Most of the vitriol online didn’t spill over into the streets at the RNC. Face-to-face it seems we’re able to still realize that, even if we disagree about how to get there, we all share common goals as Americans.