CLEVELAND—It seemed like things were going south between Alex Jones and the man on stage shouting “I want you to have sex with my wife,” but then he brought up Tower 7.
“Jet fuel can’t melt steel,” the rally crasher, comedian Eric Andre, yelled into the mic. “Who put the bombs in Tower 7?”
It was only moments before that Jones had tried to usher Andre off stage because “we have children here,” but now he sounded pleased. “Well, you said something legitimate there,” he replied.
Jones, who has built a small empire around conspiracies—9/11 was an inside job, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was a “false flag” attack by the U.S. government—and who has won the approving attention of Donald Trump himself, thanked the man in his familiar gravelly tone and sent him away. “Just vulgarity,” he said, shaking his head regretfully.
It was the first day of the Republican National Convention, which has divided downtown Cleveland into zones separated by police barricades and inhabited by an estimated 50,000 people, all there to do different things, and occasionally inhabit what felt like different dimensions.
There were maybe 300 people at the Citizens for Trump rally, many of them wearing T-shirts that said “Hillary for Prison” and sitting on the grassy hills along Lake Erie—shoes kicked off, listless in the heat.
After Jones had finished castigating Andre for his language, but before Trump adviser Roger Stone told the crowd that Hillary Clinton was a bipolar criminal who had conspired to cover up a murder that she may or may not have also arranged, a blonde woman appeared for a musical interlude.
It was a twangy original called “I’m Ready to Make America Great Again.” (Sample lyric: “I’m ready. Yes, I’m ready to make America Great Again.”)
I left the Flats along the lake while Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at conservative Breitbart News, told the crowd in a purring British accent: "The left does not own homosexuals anymore. We're your gays." The crowd applauded, but as I walked up the hill toward the convention center, three men, each in wraparound shades, reacted with unease: "So Milo is the face of our movement? Is that what we want?"
The sky was gray and then bright with sun and then gray again.
The answer to that question—of what the conservative movement and the Republican party wants—is something you could try puzzling out while walking the perimeter of the convention center and observing what Donald Trump's Republican Party actually looks like.
Inside the Quicken Loans Arena, hundreds of delegates were formalizing the party platform, which, same as ever, reiterated its opposition to marriage equality and maintained its absolute ban on abortion without exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother.
But outside, in just a four-block radius, Trump's big tent was a confusing mass of small government libertarians warily embracing a campaign that claims it "won't touch your entitlements," abortion abolitionists whose ears perked up when Trump said (and then unsaid) that he would punish women for having abortions, and "traditional values" agnostics who like the idea of building a wall but hate the idea of Paul Ryan's budget fucking with their Social Security checks.
All these people spilling onto the same streets. All celebrating the same party that may or may not be on the verge of no longer existing in its current, exposed form. These fissures had always existed within the Republican Party, but Trump's candidacy—still learning on its feet how to navigate Republican orthodoxies—has made the in-fighting among the fringes the main event.
About 10 minutes from where I had spotted a rainbow flag flying below a Trump banner, I found a man wearing a T-shirt that said “Pornography is Adultery.” He stood silently at the gates of the Quicken Loans Arena while a man next to him shouted about homosexuality and a woman called into a megaphone, "Don't you want to be saved?"
The Republican Party may be asking itself the same question.