I went to a convention for politics nerds and it filled me with dread, loathing, and existential terror

One of the many Trump impersonators at this year's Politicon.

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One of the many Trump impersonators at this year’s Politicon.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

  • A recent convention in Nashville revealed the crass spectacle that American politics has become.
  • Known as Politicon, the gathering drew political celebrities such as Donna Brazile, Ann Coulter, Charlie Kirk, and Sean Hannity.
  • While the convention marketed itself as an apolitical affair, its displays and events all heightened the sense of politics as competitive sport.
  • With its superficial gloss and hollow core, Politicon exposed a dangerous emptiness that haunts much of our political culture.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When Al Franken took the stage on a recent Saturday morning at Nashville’s Music City Center, he wore a crumpled suit without a tie. The top button of his shirt was undone. He looked out to a large, half-empty hall.

Franken began with a joke about the out-of-touchness of conservative New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks. It was an observation that might amuse a niche group of Twitter users and news junkies. Then he recounted a series of anecdotes from his nine years as a senator. Then came his impressions of his former colleagues Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell. Eventually, he started promoting his podcast.

“I know that sounds pathetic,” he said to the mostly silent, slightly restless audience.

In another universe, Franken might have used this appearance to reflect on the sexual-misconduct allegations against him, his resignation from the Senate, or his treatment of women. But he did not touch on any of that.

That’s because this was Politicon, an annual two-day conference that bills itself as the Comic-Con of politics.

As Franken spoke, I thought back to Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil.” Nietzsche writes, “One begins to distrust very clever persons when they become embarrassed.”

Franken has always been very clever. But that day, he seemed so incredibly embarrassed.

And no wonder. That he’d even consider a gig at this event, its lineup crowded with mostly B-list, past-their-prime political celebrities, showed how far his star had fallen.

Trump fans at Politicon.

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Trump fans at Politicon.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

The weekend would see Fox News host Sean Hannity spar with James Carville, the one-time Democratic Svengali, who hasn’t been relevant since the ’90s. Former FBI director James Comey continued to overstay his 15 minutes of fame. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Reince Priebus, a one-time cast member in Trump’s Oval Office, went head to head before a crowd sparser than Franken’s. A gaunt Ann Coulter ranted about immigrants with her more subdued counterpart, the one-time George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum of the Atlantic.

Fresher faces like Lauren Duca, the viral liberal talking head who popularized the idea that Trump is gaslighting America, participated in panels like “The Future is Female” and signed copies of her new book. Lefty pundits from “The Young Turks” took on Tomi Lahren and the wet-mouthed antisocialist diehard Trump supporter Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA. YouTube star Randy Rainbow, beloved by resistance moms for his musical parody videos (including a Trump-themed version of “Despacito” called “Desperate Cheeto”), sang his biggest hits and took audience questions.

Ann Coulter and David Frum

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Ann Coulter and David Frum “debate” immigration.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

Politicon, it soon emerged, was politics Twitter come to life, a physical embodiment of the most noxious Facebook spats blasted algorithmically across your Fox News-loving uncle’s feed. Pundits on the left and right took cheap shots at one another, trading the sort of barbs one hears every day on cable news.

The event was a tribute to political tribalism in the age of Trump, a place where team identity is everything. At Politicon, politics is understood not as a means by which to improve lives, but as blood sport. It left me empty, desperate for revelation.

Creating a congress of depravity

Politicon does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: a colorful manifestation of politics as commercialized spectacle.

Rows of kiosks hawking political merchandise and booths promoting various podcasts and publications filled the giant, thinly populated hall.

A libertarian podcast called “Good Morning Liberty” advertised its website, BernieLies.com, and held a giveaway for a handgun. (“Why not Warren lies?” I inquired. “Oh, we also have LizLies.com,” host Charlie Thompson clarified.)

Lady MAGA meets a fan.

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Lady MAGA meets a fan.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

Lining the conference hall were posters of historical figures reimagined as pop-culture icons: George Washington sporting a Mike Tyson face tattoo, John F. Kennedy with a lip-shaped hickey on his cheek, a frowning Harriet Tubman wearing big headphones around her ears, Thomas Jefferson in red wayfarer sunglasses, and Benjamin Franklin as Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. The images suggested what Politicon would have looked like in another era: In lieu of Al Franken attempting a comeback from some unnamed demise, we’d have Thomas Jefferson skirting around his “affair” with Sally Hemings during his keynote address and a panel comprising slave owners and freemen “debating” abolition.

For all this, tickets start at just 50 bucks a day. (Unless you want access to the VIP lounge – a curtained-off area where I saw people ordering alcoholic beverages well before noon. That’ll run you another $200.)

Of course Politicon is very much a creation of our current era, a congress of depravity bubbling forth from the Trump era’s primordial muck. The inaugural Politicon, with a lineup that also included Ann Coulter, Clay Aiken, and James Carville, as well as Trevor Noah, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann, took place in October 2015, three months after Trump announced his candidacy. Ted Hamm, a film producer whose credits include “Get Out,” “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” helped bankroll the first iteration.

According to a Politicon spokesperson, Hamm “still funds a part of the event, but ticket sales and sponsorships are becoming a larger component of the financing required to produce the event every year.” While Politicon does not release information on how much it pays speakers, one performer told me on background that they were paid $,7,500.

Past Politicons had been held in Los Angeles. But Simon Sidi, the middle-aged British founder of the event, said he wanted to move the convention to “the heart of the country,” and so to the American south it went. The chaos of the gathering made it a perfect fit for downtown Nashville, crowded with tourist-baiting honky-tonk bars, its roadways cluttered with tractors hauling party buses packed with drunk people decked out in Halloween costumes and cowboy hats.

Sidi, who once produced Kanye West concerts and “American Idol,” described himself as a political junkie.

“I loved the whole subject [of politics], and I wanted to do something I’d like to see,” he said.

The kiosks of Politicon.

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The kiosks of Politicon.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

For the founder of a political convention, he seemed oddly bereft of a political ideology, or at least one he would share. Then again, he is a master of spectacle, a former concert producer with an acute sense of showmanship – perhaps that, in itself, is its own ideology.

“Politics and entertainment have been bedfellows for all time,” he told another reporter. “We’re not the Aspen Ideas Festival,” he added, referring to the annual center-right conference that brings together (mostly) members of the elite to chat about important ideas, ranging from politics and economics to art, in the beautiful mountains of Colorado. “We’re here for people who want to enjoy politics.”

We’re here for people who want to enjoy politics.

Like the latest Marvel movie, politics is a hollow entertainment product to be consumed.

Sidi’s professed lack of political ideology invites others to fill the space with theirs, and every corner of the Music City Center reeked of it. Dressed in their finest pro-Trump gear, a gaggle of skinny teenage boys, almost all them white, were dead ringers for Nicholas Sandmann, the teenager from Covington who went viral earlier this year after footage emerged of him wearing a MAGA hat while seeming to taunt a Native American demonstrator.

A lonely Bernie supporter munched on a pickle.

A man clad head to toe in Tulsi 2020 merch griped about the corrupt Democratic Party. A tall drag queen, calling herself Lady MAGA, was surrounded by attendees, lapping up the attention she was getting as the token queer conservative. An older woman wore a mini-dress patterned with the word “TRUMP,” while a man in a “Star Wars” shirt reimagining Bernie Sanders as a Jedi waited in line to meet The Young Turks’ Kyle Kulinski. He told me he’d made it himself just for Politicon. In the center of the hall stood a pop-up called A House Divided, displaying large MAGA flags on one half of the booth, while the other side was stocked with attire branded with the logos for Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and other 2020 Democratic hopefuls.

A local Bernie Sanders fan shows off a self-made shirt.

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A local Bernie Sanders fan shows off a self-made shirt.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

While tensions between the Sanders diehards and the MAGA zealots never boiled over, the dynamic of the weekend was painfully oppositional. A website called WeHateLiberals.com, for example, sold shirts bearing messages like “Ukrainians for Trump” and a photoshopped picture of the president shaking hands with Ronald Reagan. On inspecting my black-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans, Eric Grinnell, the owner of the website accurately assessed I am a liberal and accused me of being a person “with a microphone who traps you into soundbites they put in their articles.” (Did I just fulfill his prophecy?)

Judging from the name of Grinnell’s website, he seemed to have molded his political identity in response to something he hates rather than something he supports. “The things liberals say about us are very hateful,” Grinnell explained, a claim further substantiated by his domain name. “We’re uneducated, we’re trash, we’re rednecks, we cling to our Bibles and our guns, we’re deplorable. At WeHateLiberals.com, we’re doing exactly the same thing.” The underlying hostility was not only confined to the right-wingers. When I approached the Green Party’s booth, I asked a bespectacled fellow wearing a “Blue Lives Murder” t-shirt what he made of the convention. “It grosses me out,” he said. “I’m a little triggered by seeing all these aspiring-school-shooter MAGA chuds.”

But it’s not all so bad. Javier Perez, a 19-year-old Rutgers student and Sanders diehard, told me, “We have met so many amazing Trump supporters,” he said. Despite his support for Sanders. Perez donned a “MATH” cap in support of second-favorite candidate, Andrew Yang. He and his friends had hung out with a group of “really great” Republicans,” he said. But Trump, he stressed, is “one of the worst presidents of all time. At the same time, “to paint all Trump supporters as Hillary did in the 2016 election, as deplorables and racists, is really a mischaracterization,” he added.

A table at Politicon.

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A table at Politicon.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

Finding solace in the trivial

Among the weekend’s marquee events was James Carville’s interview with former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Carville came ready for a fight, but Sanders was as tight-lipped as ever. News nowadays was just opinion writing, she complained; the crowd, resplendent in MAGA gear, gleefully ate up her claptrap. Carville, taking the bait, tried to goad her into naming journalists she believed to be enemies of the American people – a dangerous game in a world where journalists regularly receive death threats just for doing their jobs. Luckily, she declined to indulge him. “Is [Washington Post reporter] Robert Costa an enemy of the people?” the Ragin’ Cajun asked. One woman, seated near me in the audience, answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Later, Carville told Sanders he wanted to have a “real conversation.” Then, in the same breath he asked her if she, like the president, believed Mitt Romney was “human scum.”

A less highly anticipated event was trivia hour hosted by CNN political commentator Chris Cillizza. Cillizza built his brand by posing mundane questions like “What if Donald Trump is just winging it?” and ranking Anthony Scaramucci’s quotes based on their levels of “absolutely bananas”-ness. Cillizza is the Platonic ideal of the Politicon speaker: more fixated on the spectacle of the news cycle than the weightiness of the news itself, a man with a totally apolitical approach to politics.

Cilizza’s appearance triggered something inside of me, and for a short time, I gave into Politicon.

I teamed up with a libertarian couple to try and win the trivia contest. We tackled bracing questions like “How many days was Anthony Scaramucci in office?” (11) and “What honor did Rudy Giuliani receive in 2001?” (Time’s Person of the Year). For our efforts, we won second place. I was awarded a free Politicon tote bag, portable sippy cup, and T-shirt.

For a fleeting moment, as I laughed with the libertarians, I tricked myself into believing I belonged.

Cosplaying at Politicon.

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Cosplaying at Politicon.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

Cillizza’s trivia hour was perhaps the most trivial episode in a weekend devoted to oppressive triviality. Descending into the Cilizza-verse – acquiescing to the amorality of Politicon – if only for a brief moment, can feel good. I suddenly saw how such rituals can bring Bernie Bros and MAGA nuts together, giving them a sense of belonging at a time when the internet has made that so scarce.

As I gleefully claimed my second-place trivia tournament prize, for a brief moment, I lapped up the dull, amoral wickedness of the Cillizza-verse.

But then I snapped the hell out of it.

I remembered this sort of identification, animated by antipathy, exacerbated by cable news and social-media algorithm is a false proxy for meaning.

My mind again wandered to Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who didn’t care much for the Christian idea of evil, wrote in his list of aphorisms: “The great epochs of our life are at the points when we gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us.”

Nietzsche, who didn’t care much for the Christian idea of evil, wrote in his list of aphorisms: ‘The great epochs of our life are at the points when we gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us.’

In that moment, when I was drunk on Cilizza, my badness rebaptized itself as goodness.

I’d abandoned my judgment and focused only on the positive – the inherent fun of trivia, or the interactions between the very much in love libertarian couple on my team. I’d studied the tender way the husband kept resting his hand on his wife’s leg.

My enjoyment then reminds me now of how I enjoy a John Wick movie: delighting in each violent murder Keanu Reeves commits because I don’t allow myself to feel the weight of what it actually means to take a life.

Putting aside the nefariousness of the event, I’d become one with the crowd. I’d seen them not as political animals but as vulnerable humans just looking for a fun weekend.

Attendees listen to a speaker at Politicon.

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Attendees listen to a speaker at Politicon.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

The feeling hadn’t lasted long, and I hurried out of the hall.

As I fled, I walked past a wall of needlework depicting Trump’s most deranged quotes and I thought about parasites.

I recalled a National Geographic documentary about the Leucochloridium, a parasitic worm. It takes over the eyes of a snail, turning it into a horrifying, strangely beautiful zombie, with two semi-translucent tentacles patterned like precious minerals, pulsating out from its shell. The now “possessed” snail “is doomed to follow the parasite’s will,” the narrator intones. The parasite compels the snail to ascend towards the sunlight, where it becomes lunch for a bird who plucks out its eyes. Inside the bird’s stomach, the Leucochloridium multiplies, and when the bird eventually defecates it out onto the forest floor, the toxic feces becomes food for a new generation of snails, who are then infected by the parasite. The cycle continues.

For a time, my social-media presence – on Twitter, especially – defined my professional identity as a journalist. I was a bird breeding Leucochloridium, each tweet a parasite-tainted dropping, infecting my followers. I could have continued exploiting the ills of our world for sweet, sweet content, and inflating the inauthentic, bombastic persona I had cultivated. Instead, I made a tactical retreat into a more thoughtful, less reactive existence.

Politicon brought together the desperate snails in search of sustenance, only to become zombified.

Politicon brought together the desperate snails in search of sustenance, only to become zombified.

The birds, whose stomach breeds this mind-controlling parasite, were the headliners: the public figures, the media, politicians, millionaires, billionaires, famous actors, and any influencer who makes a living off of telling other people how to think.

The toxic bird droppings that contain these parasitic worms?

It’s your Facebook feed. It’s cable news. It’s Twitter. It’s Politicon.

It’s poison, disguised as nourishment. Politicon echoed something critic William Deresiewicz had said in a speech: By looking at social media and the news “you are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice.”

Embroideries of Trump's most deranged quotes.

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Embroideries of Trump’s most deranged quotes.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

By Sunday night, the vendors were packing up their stalls. The hall, which had felt oversized and empty all weekend, looked sadder and hollower than ever. I missed Randy Rainbow’s performance, which I’d planned to attend, since my boyfriend’s mother frequently sends him his videos.

Everyone was gearing up for the grand finale: Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, an organization that fights liberalism on college campuses, protesting “safe spaces” by wearing literal diapers, among other things, “debating” The Young Turks’ Kylie Kulinski, a rising leftist star. A uniformed policeman sipped on a pink smoothie while vigorously nodding along to Kirk as he rattled off numbers about “black employment,” which he said had risen under Trump. Kirk’s teeth, nubby and square, extended from his gums in perfect alignment, slanted inward, like stout little Chiclets, so tiny in his abyss of his moist mouth.

Even before the debate ended, I leapt out the door. Idly scrolling through my Twitter feed, a virtual Politicon, I waded through the damp early-evening air, surrounded by drunk, boisterous partiers in cowboy hats looking for an authentic Nashville experience.

A woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

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A woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

Salvation

One short weekend of political hell had me all different kinds of messed up.

What saved me, in part, was Abigail Bobo, a seminary student and local photographer who documented the event for this publication. Just before Politicon, she had been at a prayer group where they had talked about “how valuable humans are, how valuable they are to God, and how much God loves to impact and affect our lives,” she said. She noted the sharp contrast between that gathering and the convention, an event predicated on “people picking each other apart over nothing.” She recalled Psalms 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” and then remarked, “This is not unity.” No one at Politicon, she felt, had been valued.

Her perspective as an outsider, as well as her raw earnestness, moved me. Abigail was largely a stranger to the animosity Politicon was selling, someone who found her identity, her guiding kindness, through religion and empathy, not anger and ideological sniping.

“I just kept wanting to go to people and tell them their voice mattered, and that they were empowered to actually make changes instead of just talk about the changes … that they don’t just have to sit here and argue about it… that they are a child of God,”

I just kept wanting to go to people and tell them their voice mattered, and that they were empowered to actually make changes instead of just talk about the changes … that they don’t just have to sit here and argue about it … that they are a child of God.

she told me.

Peak fan culture at Politicon.

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Peak fan culture at Politicon.
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Courtesy of Abigail Bobo Photography

As I walked out of the convention, my boyfriend, also a writer, sent me a poem that he had written, something he hadn’t done in a while, just for me. It was the first time anybody had ever written a poem for me. He described touching me and the ease of our intimacy. The final lines asked me to “come now, come home.” My face turned beet red and suddenly I was weeping.

I read the poem over and over again, in the throes of catharsis. I reminded myself to value the quietness of existence, and the small, lovely moments in life that make me feel OK in an ugly world. A good life, I told myself, is talking about God with Abigail over mozzarella sticks and fried broccoli. There is good in a world that lives in opposition to evil, that isn’t beyond it, and it’s writing a poem for someone you love. It’s finding peace within your vulnerability, weeping in a Nashville hotel room; it’s yearning for the refuge of your lover’s arms. It’s having a home you want to return to, somewhere who makes you feel safe.

Politicon, and everything it represents, simply ain’t it.