MILWAUKEE — About a dozen demonstrators clustered outside the Wisconsin Center, the vacant shell of the Democratic National Convention — the physical host of a virtual assembly.
“Are those crickets?” a protester wondered during a lull in the megaphone chants.
Yes, they were crickets, audible in the distance at around 7 p.m. Wednesday — actual crickets. Cicadas too, and sea gulls, far-off sirens and the general white noise of a city at dusk.
This is what passes for spectacle in Milwaukee this week, in a pandemic-era pageant defined largely by what is not happening — at least here. Grim steel fences surround the arena, though it’s not clear what they’re protecting; supposedly a control room or studio of some kind inside.
Brigades of masked bike cops occasionally ride by in formation, adding to the mood of a dystopian fortress, fully prepared but with little to do.
“It’s like they’re in this netherworld that is not attached to the normal reality,” said Stephen Perlato, a “protest artist” in from Boulder, Colo. He held up one of his hand-painted collages — a kind of gun-and-bullet motif. “You know when someone has experienced shock or trauma? That is how this feels. People seem kind of stunned. It’s hard to put into words.”
He tried metaphors and borrowed one from Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. The coronavirus, Mr. Cuomo said in a virtual speech on Monday night of the convention, is a metaphor for a sickened country, ill-equipped to defend itself and invaded by an alien body. “So that’s what we have all around us,” Mr. Perlato said.
In normal times (how many sentences have begun that way lately?), delegates and donors and dignitaries would be streaming into the arena at this hour with their requisite funny decorated hats (never that “funny,” to be honest). And a state senator from, say, New Hampshire would be irate about being left out of some V.I.P. tent.
In normal times, these convention weeks have a certain build. You sense anticipation growing, from the procedural stuff on Monday to the keynote on Tuesday to the running mate and spouses and former presidents and, finally, the crescendo of Thursday night, when the presumptive standard-bearer sheds the “presumptive,” assumes the nomination and delivers the acceptance speech. Balloons drop; swirls of confetti and hot takes and parties ensue; and then it’s on to the next spectacle — the big rallies, the debates, the frenzied homestretch and the election itself.
But among all the other things lost to the pandemic — 170,000 lives, chief among them — America has been deprived of its accustomed spectacles and normal rhythms.
What are sports without spectators, graduating without graduations or party conventions without, well, parties?
And what happens when a city spends years and a fortune to become the center of the political universe only to become a metaphor for a locked-down nation?
Every convention presents its own set of lasting images and events, some instantly launched into history (Barack Obama’s keynote in Boston, 2004), some stunning (Mr. Obama’s attack on his successor Wednesday night) and others just quirky and subjective (my personal favorite — the former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin falling into the Ritz Carlton pool during at happy hour in Charlotte, 2012).
Each gathering becomes known by its distinct mood and images. This year is no different, except that the moments occurred elsewhere. Here, it is absence, cancellation and silence — a kind of Zombie Convention
“I seem to be using the word ‘surreal’ a lot,” said Marty Brooks, the chief executive of the Wisconsin Center District in Milwaukee, which runs the convention center and many of the scheduled activities around the convention. The city was proud of its selection for the convention last year, but the months of preparation and excitement gave way to angst when the coronavirus came ashore.
Then came the steady scaling back of plans — moving the convention out of the 17,000 Fiserv Forum into the smaller Wisconsin Center next door; the migrating of procedural steps (such as approving the party platform) to email. Delegates were told in June not to come. The city remains the “anchor” for the proceedings, but it’s a light and largely symbolic anchor. The actual vessel has been scattered in a placeless, pixelated matrix of screens across the country — remote Jill Biden from Delaware, virtual calamari from Rhode Island.
What’s left for Milwaukee is a phantom limb version of a convention — the flesh is gone, but you still feel some remnant of its presence.
The Milwaukee pullout culminated early this month with the news that neither former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. nor his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, would be traveling here. The last wave of media people, celebrities, hard-core political junkies canceled. Signs and banners came down. “That decision really knocked the wind out of our sails,” Mr. Brooks said.
Sympathy runs deep for the spiffed-up host city. Some say the Democrats should offer Milwaukee a redo in 2024, an easy gesture toward a vital swing state. “It would be nice,” Mr. Brooks said. “But I’ve got too many battle scars in business to think that anything happens because people want to be fair and nice.” When asked about it, the D.N.C. has been noncommittal.
As for this week, it’s possible to walk around the entire city without knowing a convention is taking place. The rhythm to this “event” is a steady lull. By afternoon’s end, maybe two dozen protesters will show up at the corner of Philips and Wisconsin avenues near the arena: a few from the environmental group Extinction Rebellion; some Black Lives Matter signs; a guy wearing a “Legalize Cannabis, Dump Trump” sandwich board; and about a half-dozen yellow-vested Senator Bernie Sanders holdouts.
“The D.N.C. decided they’d rather lose to Trump than have Bernie Sanders be the nominee,” said Jen Hammer of Milwaukee, who vowed not to support Mr. Biden in November.
At the very least, the protesters receive much more attention from the skeletal media presence. “We’re not being drowned out by all the other voices,” said Santiago Edinger, part of a three-person, guitar-strumming contingent that includes his brother and father. They are protesting against U.S. involvement in Latin America.
They drove in from Los Angeles in a 2003 Ford Focus and got stopped a bunch of times, Mr. Edinger said. Someone called the police on them, he said, saying they were exhibiting “druglike behavior.”
For the most post, though, people have been nice, even the Trump supporters. “We had civil discourse,” Santiago said.
His father, Steven Edinger, stood by, saying he planned to vote in November for Gloria La Riva, the nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party. But he was now focused mainly on the drug war in Latin America, particularly Plan Colombia, aimed at combating cartels and insurgent groups in that country. “It was developed by Bill Clinton, the guy speaking here tonight,” Mr. Edinger said Tuesday, pointing to the arena over his shoulder, where Mr. Clinton would not be speaking.
“Well, virtually speaking,” Mr. Edinger said. “So, I’m pointing, technically, to what was supposed to be.”
Things can get existential, as they have tended to in these scary, solitary months. The country seems to be re-evaluating traditions like political conventions. How will they be different in the future?
How will we be different?
In the meantime, for what it’s worth, Milwaukee looks terrific, and the weather has been cool and sunny. All of which triggers that most universal of existential questions: What could have been?