Politicon 2016: Fear, Loathing, and Some Laughter in Pasadena

With tensions at a neck-popping high, the unconventional political convention tries to knead a little levity into the political conversation.

June 25 and 26
Pasadena Convention Center
Pasadena, CA

It took Comic-Con about thirty years to establish itself as the can’t-miss convention for nerds. It’s taken similarly styled Politicon two years to become a massive draw for political junkies. But despite its efforts to entertain as well as inform, the 2016 iteration of the convention couldn’t escape the fear and loathing that the presidential election hath wrought upon us.

Billed as “the unconventional political convention,” the two-day event drew pissed-off Bernie supporters looking for answers, libertarians looking to get into presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s speech, and conservatives looking to get selfies with the biggest names on the bill: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter. (Oh, and there was some colonial-era cosplay, too.)

Raising the already balmy temperatures at the Pasadena Convention Center was a palpable sense of anxiety over the specter of Donald Trump possibly entering the Oval Office next January. Unrealistic as that (still!) may seem, it wasn’t lost on the politically savvy crowd that his candidacy was widely viewed as a joke only six months ago. Tensions raged against an edifice of seemingly intractable problems—the Democratic Party’s allegedly rigged superdelegate system, the Game of Thrones–like Wall championed by Trump and Palin, supposed threats to the Second Amendment.

“I don’t think a lot of people give a flyin’ flip about endorsements anyway.” — Sarah Palin

Politically astute comedians Larry Wilmore and Al Madrigal triaged the convention with some levity throughout the weekend. But it wasn’t enough to de-frazzle the nerves of attendees amped up by feisty debates between Coulter and Van Jones, Palin and James Carville, and Dinesh D’Souza and Cenk Uygur.

Also adding to the tension was an unusually visible number of police officers, metal detectors, and security guards at an event that often focused on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those topics were the central focus of Melissa Harris-Perry’s talk with members of BLM, and they also worked their way into “The Clintons and African Americans: It’s Complicated,” a discussion between Touré and Mark Thompson. Touré remarked that the Clintons’ strong ties with the black community gave Sanders little chance for success, unless Bernie were to have supported reparations.

Talk of Bernie was rampant at Politicon, with Eugene Robinson, Paul Begala, Hal Sparks, and others opining about the indefatigable candidate early Saturday, and Robinson, Begala, and Carville discussing him the following day at a panel about the future of the Democratic Party. At one point, a young Bernie delegate told Carville that Millennials’ frustration with the party isn’t about Hillary Clinton not moving to the left, it’s about a lack of reform in the primary process.

Trump_and_Bernie-2016-Courtesy_PoliticonSanders and Trump did make appearances of sorts at Politicon, thanks to expert impersonators Anthony Atamanuik and James Adomian. To a packed crowd that gasped almost as much as it laughed, the comedians continued their ongoing “Trump vs. Bernie” debates, which they’ve staged on the road and for a Fusion video series, on Saturday night.

Impressively, Atamanuik and Adomian duplicated hardly any of the material they staged at one of their first debates at the Riot LA Comedy Festival back in January. The act has evolved too, with Atamanuik dropping the lack of self-awareness embedded in his earlier Trump and sharpening him into a character that showcases the comedian’s hatred of him. Meanwhile, Adomian’s Bernie is taking on an air of defeat—a sign that the bit will probably expire once Sanders drops out.

Atamanuik’s blistering attacks on Trump—calling Muslims “unfocused” individuals who should be put in “concentration” camps, for example—were counterbalanced by Palin’s vigorous defense of the candidate on Sunday. In the marquee event of the weekend, Carville tried to humanize the former Republican Party vice presidential candidate by asking her to dispel the misconceptions people have about her as a person.

Disappointingly, Palin dodged Carville’s redemptive efforts, instead resorting to empty rhetoric and canned lines about wanting to help “take the country back” and how she endorsed Trump because she knew “he was going to go rogue.”

“I don’t think a lot of people give a flyin’ flip about endorsements anyway,” she added.

Carville had requested that the audience treat Palin with respect (notably, the Politicon program guide had a Code of Conduct stipulating that patrons could be ejected for “inappropriate behavior”). But boos and hisses abounded when she said gun reforms would lead to a gutting of the Constitution.

The crowd’s fierce response was a reminder that, as amusing as some politicians—and political conventions—might be, entertainment doesn’t always trump fear and loathing. Not at a time when tensions are running so high. FL


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