“We’ve received information from Snowden’'s team that he has received a presidential pardon,” Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum said.
There was a cacophony of gasps, of cell phones emerging for citizen journalists to break the news. “Snowden is officially a free man, but there’s something even more exciting than that,” Bichlbaum contined. “When Ed found this out last week, he decided to make this bipartisan event his first public appearance in the United States. Back on U.S. soil for the first time — Mr. Ed Snowden!”
That was the cue for David Neale, an actor the Yes Men had found by asking a casting agent friend to find “an Edward Snowden type.” Neale, wearing the jeans/blazer/glasses ensemble favored by Snowden, quietly endured a mob scene, dozens of people swarming him, angling photos, tweeting them even as Neale gave un-Snowden-like nonanswers to questions in his deeper-than-Snowden voice.
After a minute of this, the giant screen flickered to life. It was the real Snowden, in on the joke, wearing the same apparel as Neale.
“Is this a bad time?” Snowden asked.
Hundreds of spectators suddenly plunged from a sugar high. Some of them groaned; one man who’d excitedly yelled “Can you believe this?” declared it a “rip-off.” (He emphasized both points with an unprintable word.) But Bichlbaum had been trying to make a point, about the Pope-like celebrity welcome that would greet Snowden if the president were smart enough to pardon him. The real Snowden’s Q&A was as dry and unsettling as his usual Q&A’s, but when it ended, the Yes Men and fake Snowden — Fauxden — roamed Politicon to dream up more pranks.
Politicon was not a left-wing conference. It was not a right-wing conference. It was something new that sounded inevitable once you got the elevator pitch. Politicon was “comic-con for politics,” a “place where entertainment and politics meet.” It was democracy without high stakes or consequences; it was a celebration of celebritization. If the star of CPAC is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and the star of Netroots Nation is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the star of Politicon was singer, reality TV star and unsuccessful 2014 congressional candidate Clay Aiken.
The idea for the conference came to Simon Sidi, a British-born agent, when he was listening to an episode of Slate’s “Political Gabfest.” The Web site’s flagship talk show, which usually co-stars David Plotz, Emily Bazelon and “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson, had become so popular that live shows could fill concert venues for $15 per ticket. (Disclosure: I worked at Slate from 2010 to 2014.)
“I think Emily was talking about a Supreme Court decision, and the crowd went wild,” Sidi remembered. “It was a noise I’d heard many times during rock shows. That clicked. There was an audience for a conference like this.”
Sidi and a PR team, with lots of experience in entertainment but little in politics, started working the phones. Funding came from private donors, including Richard Kelly’s Darko Entertainment. Tickets would be cheap — $25 for a day pass — with many discounted or given away to fill the convention center. The buzziest promo came when a “flash mob” dance troupe materialized at Long Beach’s comic-con, a blizzard of masks and way-too-appropriate music cues, like “Gold Digger” for Donald Trump.
Sidi said that 9,000 tickets had moved, and though the convention center never felt crowded, it was reliably surreal. The numbered rooms were temporarily renamed after democratic concepts — Equality Hall, Democracy Village, the Stars and Stripes Theater — which made them more on-brand, but harder to find. The “village,” an exhibit hall where conservative and liberal groups were plunked next to one another, where an elderly man with a disturbingly unbuttoned shirt could debate comedian Lizz Winstead’s endlessly at her “Lady Parts Justice” booth, and where the din of DJs and comedy acts rose above everything.
“I’m used to doing tables where everybody knows what I'm talking about,” said Mark Morris, a volunteer for the green group 350, whose presentation on stopping the construction of a natural gas-shipping rail round sat next to a stage where the Upright Citizens Brigade was performing improv by asking people to yell out obscure political issues. “But this is fun. Now, thanks to the pope and the Dalai Lama, the climate issue is becoming less and less political.”
That was Politicon, existing in a dreamtime when liberals and conservatives could debate without anyone leaving wounded. The only currently serving elected officials to make it in were Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a freshman Democrat, and Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, the sure-thing candidate for an open Senate seat. The bigger stars — former congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, strategists James Carville and Paul Begala — had darkened TV greenrooms for years.
Everything was loose, even when Politico hosted a D.C.-style grilling of Harris, and a moderator asked why she hadn’t yet endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, unaware that she actually had. Just as comic-cons don’t try to settle if Marvel is superior to DC, Politicon made no editorial judgment. A room (Liberty Hall) that hosted the parents of Michael Brown and Jordan Davis emptied out, then hosted a producer of the Planned Parenthood sting videos. An art gallery placed Lalo Alcaraz’s cartoons of Trump as a bouffanted Nazi next to Sabo’s mixed media attack on Wendy Davis as “abortion barbie.”
The target audience for this was not people devoted to the victory of their tribe. It was political superfans, who still exist in an age of total political burnout. They packed a panel organized by Breitbart News, where writers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro traded insults of Lena Dunham, before Yiannopoulos traded stories of cab drivers with the actor Robert Davi.
“I was in New York for the last two weeks,” Davi said, “and I had a Pakistani cab driver tell me he loved Donald Trump.”
“I heard the same from a French-Armenian Uber driver,” Yiannopoulos said.
Their point was that people often discovered politics through culture, that the smart set often missed that, and that conservatives who failed to engage in the culture would suffer for their myopia. The liberals who checked in on the panel felt the same way.
“I'm a politigeek,” an activist named Mary Swift told me after the Breitbart panel. “I started working on campaigns when I was 20, for George McGovern, but I always want to hear the other side. When all that chaos started in the House speaker race, I was watching MSNBC, but I called my partner, and said: Would you please tape 20 minutes of Fox for me, so I can hear what they're saying?”
If Politicon had a working theory, it was that similar meetings could occur — some goofy, some serious — even in apolitical seeming places. Los Angeles, after all, was famous for its disinterest in politics, a city of nearly 4 million people that inspired only 400,000 or so to vote in the most recent race for mayor.
“This is a gross generalization, but probably the impression here of Washington and politics is: Who cares?” said Cenk Uygur, whose journey from Internet commentator to MSNBC host and back to the Internet was chronicled in a film screened at the convention. “They think: The movies we made are seen by the world. The TV shows we make are seen by millions. We matter, whereas Washington has ground to a halt. The only legislation that can pass is right wing.”
Uygur drew a line between that sort of cynicism and the ways that people could be excited by politics. As if to make his point, a man named Jason Harris sprinted up to him, in the hallway outside the screening. “Oh my god, it’s you, it's you,” Harris yelped. “You opened up my eyes about MSNBC.”
It was a lesson in the political power of celebrity, as if the success of Trump’s campaign hadn’t proven that already. People burned out by the reality of politics could still become fans of outrageous, blunt-sounding politicos. “Celebrities can get people to focus on things that ordinary, boring-ass politicians can’t,” Aiken told one Politicon audience. In a conversation a little while later, he suggested that his 2014 run drew enough attention to incumbent Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.) that it had at least inspired more conservatives to challenger her in the next primary.
“At our events, we had a broad spectrum of voters,” said Greg Orman, who ran last year in Kansas as an unusually successful (but still ultimately unsuccessful) Independent candidate for Senate. “That was one of the interesting things about being an Independent. It became clear to me that there are a lot of people who are interested in politics, but might not be all that partisan.”
But Orman never tried anything as outre as a Snowden impersonator. The Yes Men grew attached to that gimmick; even after the Q&A ended, they walked Fauxden around the conference, past a crew from Fusion that was subjecting passersby to puppet interviews, past a comedy troupe that dressed like the Founding Fathers and tore off most of their clothes at the close of their act. Fauxden positioned himself at the front of a stage on which the Daily Beast’s editor John Avlon was grilling Bachmann, and intermittently, loudly, asked if a woman who never got very close to the presidency would pardon the real Snowden.
“I appreciate the punking attempt that’s happening here,” Avlon said.
Bachmann indulged it. “Edward Snowden is the greatest Benedict Arnold in American history,” she said. One of the driest of issues was instantly turned into political theater — again.