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Steinberg: The circus is in town, and that town is Cleveland

Workers place a sign as they prepare at Quicken Loans Arena for the Republican National Convention, Sunday, July 17, 2016, in Cleveland. | AP Photo

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“There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging,” H.L. Mencken wrote in 1924. “It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell — and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

Take comfort, then, that the spectacle that will unfold this week in Cleveland is not an unprecedented descent into madness, not a radical departure from the stately decorum we like to imagine our forefathers exhibited when conducting political business. Just the same old craziness in a new box.

That said, given Donald Trump’s genius for attracting the carnival fringes of American life, the Republican National Convention, beginning in Cleveland on Monday, promises to be a circus on an epic scale.

Ring One is the candidate himself, whose off-the-cuff pronouncements are — take your pick:

A) a refreshing breeze of candor wafting into our sealed room of political correctness.

B) terrifying blasts of hate and demagoguery that would tear our nation apart if anyone took them seriously. (Spoiler alert: It’s “B.”)

Trump is the ringmaster, circled by whatever chorus line of failed opponents and B-list celebrities he can lure into showing up. If my hunch is correct, Clint Eastwood’s chat-with-a-chair, the jaw-dropping meltdown of the 2012 convention, should be the norm in 2016. If Ted Nugent tap-dances on a portrait of Barack Obama while singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” who could pretend to be surprised?

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Ring Two is the delegates, officials and media — some 50,000 strong, descending on Cleveland, which, in its genial hospitality has boosted hotel rates between three and 10 times normal. The city is scrubbed and strewn with flowers, ready to be the gilded frame about whatever crude and perhaps bloody tableau unfolds. Ten thousand plastic handcuffs are stockpiled, the jails were emptied in preparation for mass arrests, and Cleveland’s top hospitals have been drilling.

“We’ve considered biologic attacks, bomb blasts, mass shootings, and even radiation exposure,” Dr. Robert Wyllie, chief of medical operations at the Cleveland Clinic, told the Daily Beast. “I think we’re pretty well prepared.”

Ring Three is the protestors, pro and con, from Black Lives Matter to the Westboro Baptist Church. Ever since the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention etched themselves into the public mind, an occupying army of outrage is compelled to show up at every political convention, with causes left, right and center.

New and ominous this year will be the presence of armed men. Ohio has an open carry law that supplants any restrictions Cleveland might set up around the convention site. So while toy guns and water pistols are banned, actual guns are permitted, a policy one police official called “insane,” and expect marchers to demonstrate their constitutional rights to bear arms by doing just that, even though the shooting in Dallas proved how unhelpful these “good guys with guns” are when actual bullets fly.

We’ll all be paying attention. Why? In the same essay, Mencken continues:

“But what does the general public get out of it? The general public gets precisely the same show — a bit diluted, perhaps, by distance, but still incomparably humorous and thrilling. Herein, indeed, lies the chief merit of democracy, when all is said and done: it may be clumsy, it may be swinish, it may be unutterably incompetent and dishonest, but it is never dismal.”

Of course he wrote that after the Ku Klux Klan’s favorite presidential candidate, a Democrat, failed to win the 1924 nomination. In 2016, the Klan’s man has already sewn up the GOP nomination, barring a miracle, and may very well win the presidency. Let the tumult and the shouting start.

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