Cleveland convention hats are sold downtown ahead of the Republican National Convention. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — Gliding over this nervous notch of the Rust Belt are a few single-engine planes dragging messages for the moment:

“HILLARY FOR PRISON.”

“PROTECT REAL MARRIAGE.”

“HOFBRAUHAUS CLEVELAND.”

It’s the eve of the Republican National Convention, and Cleveland is transforming into part circus, part police state. We plan to watch the Republican Party celebrate itself — that is, if we can find parking.

Turn right! Your other right! (Just skip this paragraph; it will be another 96 minutes before we bumble our way through checkpoints to the convention two blocks away.) Downtown is strangled by concrete barricades and eight-foot-tall black fences and security stations manned by Secret Service agents, who use mirrors to check for bombs underneath cars. We pass through one checkpoint, only to find ourselves funneled back outside the perimeter, into an endless eddy around Public Square.


A man wearing a Donald Trump mask with a Pinocchio nose walks through downtown Cleveland ahead of the Republican convention. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The day before the convention starts, it’s a dress rehearsal for democracy in the Quicken Loans Arena, normally a basketball venue but now a cauldron of white-hot lights and the brightest possible shades of red, white and blue. Several extremely patient young people — college Republicans? — take turns walking to the microphone on stage and pretending to be Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who is apparently the GOP’s “chairman of the committee on arrangements.” A mellifluous announcer stutters, restarts, repeats her introductions.

“Please welcome Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. . . . Please welcome Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.”

No mayor emerges. Not yet. In one of the red-carpeted aisles, a TV reporter powders and re-powders his own face, focusing, oddly, on his ears. A brigade of Boy Scouts parades in and out of the arena holding flagpoles without flags.

“I’m supposed to be Dana Bash,” says a young woman posing with a CNN microphone by the seating for Florida delegation.

Gayle King sits next to Charlie Rose on a tiny CBS set on the arena floor. Rose appears to have an employee whose main task is swatting at invisible dust on lapels and passing out mints. Their teleprompter says: “Good morning to our viewers in the West; it is Sunday, July 15.”

(It is not July 15. It is July 17. The convention hasn’t even started yet, and already there are basic facts we can’t agree on.)

A spry man with a spangled vest and boater hat springs off a folding chair belonging to the New York delegation and begins singing a buoyant tune. It is Stephen Colbert. “With more spring,” a producer instructs him. Colbert sits down, springs up again, adds a Rockette kick. “Maybe a skip?” the producer suggests. “A ‘Wizard of Oz’ skip?”

Colbert double-skips down the aisle. “It’s like Christmas in July,” he sings.

“Selfie? Selfie? Selfie?” a female onlooker pleads. He stops for a selfie. “No, with hat,” she instructs. He puts the hat back on.

“IT’S LIKE CHRISTMAS IN JULY!”

Hours earlier seven police officers were shot in Baton Rouge, and a man on Cleveland talk radio is saying, “This country is at war.” At war with itself, that is. Faction fighting faction.

Did you know that Cleveland was originally spelled “Cleaveland”? So says trivia painted on the walls of the Quicken concourse, and this somehow seems appropriate.

“Cleave,” as in to split or sever. Which seems to be happening to the country, and at times to the Republican Party that’s gathered here. But delegates will take their seats this week, and a majority of them will nominate Donald J. Trump for the presidency. Netted at the ceiling of the arena are thousands and thousands of balloons, waiting to fall.