This past weekend, I packed a pile of books, T-shirts, prints, and posters into my aging Honda Fit and made the long trip from scenic Silicon Valley down to the Los Angeles Convention Center for Politicon – a convention where news junkies can gaze upon the waxen visages of cable news pundits and attention-seeking politicians. I made the same journey back in 2016, back when Trump merely seemed like a sick joke and America didn't seem like it was careening towards a police state. Then, I wrote:
In spite of sharp, intolerant divisions we can see on cable news and social media, Politicon left me with a sense that we aren’t quite so divided after all and that there is still general faith in the American idea.
After this year's Politicon, I'm far less certain in that general faith.
This year, there was less art, fewer vendors and generally less fun. There were more 'roided out Trump bros sporting red MAGA hats, more T-shirts emblazoned horrific messages ("Mohammed is for Homos" and "Socialism is for Fags" were two standouts) and more booths that were obvious fronts for dark money organizations. Across from me was the Turning Point booth, Karl Rove's PAC, which was a gathering spot for a lot of those 'roided out bros with offensive shirts.
The vibe at Politicon felt like walking into a household where the spouses have long since stopped talking to one another but haven't quite called the divorce lawyers. Chilly, uneasy and defensive. A couple of the Trumpsters were just nasty. One hatchet-faced old lady took one look at my Veeptopus poster and snarled, "I think it's abhorrent what you're doing to this country and these fine leaders. Anything to make a buck. But then that's the great thing about Capitalism, right?" She seems nice. I'll bet she likes calling 911 on black people barbequing at the park just for fun.
Others were nice up to a point. A couple other Trump bros (easily identifiable by their ubiquitous red hats) came over to my table, telling me my stuff was awesome. But when they saw my portrait of Pence, they grew quiet and awkward. Some slinked off. One guy recoiled but then bought the first print he could grab, Thomas Jefferson.
The gaggles of Hillary-supporters that were around last time (and who were among my most reliable customers) were far fewer. It was almost as if Democrats had decided after a year and a half under Trump that politics wasn't fun anymore; that the tired Right vs. Left equivalence repeated ad nauseam by cable news channels doesn't really hold water when one side is openly cuddling up with Nazis, condone right-wing terror and building prison camps for children.
Of course, not everyone there was a member of der Trumpengruppen. I met one guy who was an unabashed Stalin enthusiast, for instance. He had an Uncle Joe sweatshirt and the twitchy demeanor of someone who knows that he is probably going to get punched in the near future.
I also met a number of actual fans. A couple staff members of Politicon are Veeptopus enthusiasts apparently as are several employees of the Nixon Library which had a large presence at the convention, including a vintage Nixon-era presidential limo. And one young woman who does a presidential magic show (which sounds awesome) who seemed downright giddy upon meeting me. I so rarely make people giddy. It was nice.
At one point, a woman from China came up to my table. She asked me the usual questions that I've grown used to answering since starting Veeptopus (they tend to be variations of "...why?") and we started talking about Politicon in general. She said she came to the event because she wanted to understand more about America but she came away more confused than ever. "Could you explain to me what's going on?" she asked. I thought for a minute and and said, "I really don't understand what's going on either."