Imagine a comic book convention where, instead of a panel of Avengers, you have a bunch of hosts from SiriusXM radio and MSNBC, but fans are screaming all the same. Imagine a comic convention where, instead of a room full of people screaming, “I loved you on Firefly,” they’re screaming, “Michael Steele, you’re my favorite Republican!” Even better, imagine a convention where, when people see Jason Momoa, they don’t just want to take pictures with Khal Drogo; they want to actually fight him.
That’s the best way to describe Politicon—the wildest, strangest, blackest and most-telling comic-style political convention—which went down over the weekend.
Politicon is billed as a hybrid between the increasingly popular and mainstream comic conventions, like Dragon Con in Atlanta and Comic-Con International in San Diego, and the intense popularity brought on by political pundits and analysts on network television, cable and online. In only its third year, the two-day event of pundit talk, comedy and policy drew more than 10,000 people on its first day, Saturday, alone.
Big names from Breitbart, SiriusXM, CNN and MSNBC were there, hosting panels with comic-book-y names like: “Dr. ... Who?” (on the future of Obamacare), “A Tiny Hand Maidens Tale” (a panel about comedians in the Trump era) and “From Russia With Trump” (a panel full of experts discussing whether Russia-gate is legit).
The difference is that Politicon isn’t about finding the Infinity Gems, or using the Force; whether you are on the right or the left, there are serious life-and-death political issues going on to which people want answers or, if they can’t get the answers they want, some catharsis by seeing their issues talked about by men and women they trust.
The crowd was almost a 50-50 split between conservatives and liberals, even though the conference took place in perpetually blue Southern California. However, unlike back East, the face of liberalism and conservatism was browner and tanner than you’d see in Ohio or North Carolina. There were plenty of Asians and Middle Eastern people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, and there were even a few Latino men and women claiming to be part of the “alt-right.” The large crowds were crammed into the Pasadena, Calif., convention center, where you could see everything from political groupies to failed presidential candidates.
While there were certainly big-name white conservatives like Tomi Lahren, Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter at Politicon, many of us joked that there was a “Chocolate Takeover,” given the number of prominent black political analysts: CNN’s Symone Sanders and Shermichael Singleton; Joy Reid, Malcolm Nance and Michael Steele from MSNBC (full disclosure, in addition to working for The Root, I’m an MSNBC and SiriusXM contributor); and not to mention, Sirius Progress channel host Mark Thompson, author and talking head Touré, and lifetime representative of the Sunken Place, conservative commentator Jesse Lee Peterson (who once argued with me that Jesus was white because he’d seen The Passion of the Christ).
There had been a fear among many African-American journalists and analysts that once Barack Obama was out of office, and especially with Donald Trump taking over, black political commentary would be marginalized or simply eliminated. But if Politicon was any indicator, that’s not happening anytime soon. I could make a supercut of “Gurrrrrllllllll” sista-girl greetings of women in line, in the audience and in the hallways whenever they saw Reid or Sanders. If anything, Trump’s managing of the country has increased the desire for fierce, diverse voices to counter his presidency.
Just as comic books and movies have moved from being a fringe hobby of nerds and socially inept gamers to mainstream big-time business, so have American politics. Twenty-five years ago, Bill Clinton advisers like James Carville and Dick Morris moved from being consultants to pundits in order to feed the niche of “political junkies.” The 2000s saw an explosion of purely political talk shows, and now, in the age of social media, watching and following your favorite political analysts isn’t enough; you have to see them in person.
However, Politicon wasn’t just limited to professional talking heads. Actors, activists and entertainers you never knew had a political side showed up as well. Charlamagne tha God, who is suddenly politically active, came to Politicon to face the music after his recent co-signing of anti-transgender violence (I give him some credit; Anthony Scaramucci didn’t, even after his wife hastened him, “To the left,” on Friday).
Erika Alexander, “Cousin Pam”-turned-Maxine Shaw-turned-Concrete Park comic writer, was there touting her stint as the most traveled surrogate for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008 (who knew?). Yvette Nicole Brown (Drake and Josh, Community and, soon, The Mayor) joined me on a panel discussing media accountability in the age of Trump, where she had to “reclaim her time” all up in the face of Jesse Lee Peterson after he insisted that black women are too morally degraded to be active in politics (seriously).
Probably the only difference between Comic-Con and Politicon is what the fans and supporters expect. If fans see Alfie Allen (Theon from Game of Thrones), they yell, “Reek, I hate you!” and take a selfie. At Politicon, people don’t just want a selfie. They want to argue with you; they want to debate you. It’s like political performance art for the fans.
As I walked through the exhibition hall looking at political trinkets and paraphernalia, you could almost hear that “Street Fighter” announcer yelling, “Round 1 .... fight!” whenever some MAGA-hat-wearing Trump bro came up to me saying, “Hey, I saw you/read you/ heard you somewhere; why do you hate America so much?!” And suddenly you’re Afro-Samurai and there’s a crowd of people watching you defend your position in open, verbal combat. It’s like cosplay with policy consequences. Most of it is good-natured, some of it is not.
One night, I was walking with Malcolm Nance, the MSNBC security analyst and contributor who is arguably one of the biggest names of any color in television commentary. This is the guy who told Milo Yiannopoulos to “fuck off” on Bill Maher’s cable show and who’s been in almost every theater of American combat or intelligence since Beirut in 1983. He’s not just Passenger 57; he’s what happens if Passenger 57’s seat is actually filled by Jason Bourne channeling Eric Carter from 24: Legacy.
Nance was approached by a group of alt-right folks with their phones on Periscope, who demanded that he explain to them why “they couldn’t say they were proud to be white.” It was an obvious trap, and within minutes, we were surrounded by black-skinny-jean-wearing Nazi wannabes and dozens of onlookers from the convention halls. The alt-right bros couldn’t out-argue Nance, who verbally knocked the sonic rings out of the white nationalists and then proceeded to win over the crowd with a Braveheart-level speech framing the alt-right as terrorists instead of First Amendment victims. While this was nice, it clarified the potentially dangerous underbelly of a conference like Politicon.
Star Wars and Star Trek fans aren’t usually going to come to blows, and if you say that the Flash is better than Arrow, you usually won’t get death threats. But at a political conference, discussing crucial policy issues, in an era when Trump actively encourages violence against people of color and the press, Politicon can turn from fun to fear in the blink of an eye for some attendees and panelists alike.
The conference on the whole is a great new step toward political engagement and broadening public discourse across the country outside of Washington, D.C., but it’s important to remember that when Comic-Con is over, people take off their costumes and go back to work. After Politicon, people are living these experiences every day.