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On assignment for the Atticus Review, Jared Yates Sexton is following this year’s Republican campaign trail, filing dispatches from across the country. Here is the view from last night’s GOP debate.
CLEVELAND, OHIO. The bartender isn’t amused.
The woman next to me ordered a Barefoot Moscato after being told there wasn’t orange vodka and then swallowed half of it down in one gulp. Then, a fly divebombed it and drowned. She holds it up. “I want a new one.” The bartender, already visibly tired of the square-filled crowd, most of whom are being demonstrably rude and condescending to their servers, takes the glass her next trip through. “I’m not paying for that,” the woman says.
“Of course not.”
Today I walked into the beating heart of Republican America, a strange land with sidewalks and streets crowded with blue-blazered men with red, white, and blue adorned women on their arms. The average age in the late fifties, the hair neat and trim, the facial hair nonexistent.
The second time I try and sneak into Quicken Loans Arena, I ask the security guards, who are taking my intrusions with great humor, how they knew I didn’t belong.
“It’s the beard,” they say.
At the bar, after the Moscato is replaced, I lose all sense of decorum. Lindsey Graham is taking his turn at the consolation debate and making an old Bill Clinton “depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is” joke. The guy next to me laughs like he’s never heard anything funnier in his life. He’s a big-time donor from Southern Ohio. He told me he’s had dinner with John Kasich four or five times. The sound of his laugh, mixed with the conversation at the table behind me—about “moochers” and social security—has me feeling so sick I can’t help but lose my tie.
“I was wondering how long it’d take you to take off your disguise,” the donor says to me.
He points out into the street, where two couples are petting a policeman’s horse while he grins under his helmet. “You don’t exactly fit in.”
Thank god, I think.
* * * *
I have it on good authority that my request for a ticket was scrubbed out at the last second. A guy I know in Ohio told me the Republicans culled the list of everybody they could find who’d ever said so much as a negative word about the Party. In the arena, according to him, there wasn’t a single critic in attendance.
Stewing over the reality, I leaned against the metal barrier separating the people from the media. The news trucks are out in force and the pundits are doing their remotes. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz gives one interview after another, moving a few feet from truck-to-truck and saying the same thing. I do the entire media row with her while a fight brews maybe twenty feet away. There’s a guy with an Israeli flag and two posters, ENOUGH WITH THE BUSHIT and STOP IRAN NOW, arguing with a homeless man carrying a bible.
“You can’t say anything anymore about Obama without being racist and let me tell you, that motherfucker is as racist as it gets.”
The homeless man, who is black, starts to retort, and the sign-holder screams at him.
The mood soon sours as protestors show up in full force and the Right-Wingers hoping to buy a ticket start heckling them, the tone darkening in a hurry. Right after my first attempt to sneak in, an endeavor that ends with a security guard apologizing for having to do his job, I watch attendees take pictures of the protestors. A few hours later, they’re posing for selfies with a woman carrying a sign decrying Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks regarding Mexicans being rapists. I’m not sure what’s so funny, but they’re laughing like she couldn’t be more ridiculous.
“Check this out,” a kid wearing a red GOP elephant shirt over his burgundy tie and J. Crew button-up says, pointing at her sign, “get a load of this.”
Every few minutes a pair of white vans circles the block. The sides say they’re for retirement homes, but they slow and I can see huddled inside are ten or so armored riot police, crammed like a nest of pill bugs.
* * * *
Right before the Loser Debate, I make it into the Q. There are more white people in one room than I’ve ever seen before. They’re all in suits and blazers and khakis and soon I can feel the long arm of the Right-Wing Law closing in. I’m in jeans. And I have a beard.
The only reason I made it so far is because the person who was supposed to take my ticket, a beleaguered employee, waved me through.
“You sure?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said, “these people are assholes.”
I’m caught a few minutes later, but not before I can get into the arena proper. There’s hardly anybody in there and those who are discuss two things: leaving and Carly Fiorina’s newly dyed hair.
An hour and a half later and suddenly she’s the newest contender in the Republican field.
It happened because it had to happen. Carly is the GOP’s secret weapon in that she’s the one candidate who can come at Hillary Clinton without fear of being called a sexist. She’s going to spend the next year taking potshots at HRC and leaving the rest of the candidates to occasionally chime in and agree. There’s a very real possibility, for her work, that Carly’s going to get a vice-presidential slot. Tonight was the beginning of that program and she certainly stepped in, which was made easier by the fact that she was surrounded by bonafide losers.
“You know,” the donor says to me, pointing at Rick Perry, “if that was me, I wouldn’t of even showed up.”
Perry probably shouldn’t have. For all of his miscalculations, this new manic Rick Perry, or rather, I should say, a Rick Perry who’s not zonked out on painkillers, is a total dud of a candidate. Today was the beginning of the end and I’d be shocked if he’s not out of the race by Iowa.
By the time the main event is tuning up, Fox News Channel is already touting Carly as the next big thing.
“I bet you’re happy Carly went earlier,” Megyn Kelly says in the minutes leading up, a complete departure from usual debate behavior, “because she opened up a can of you know what.”
Later, in the prime-time debate, there’s a clip of Rick Perry saying he wished Fiorina was negotiating with Iran and then a soundbite of her talking tough about foreign relations.
The decision’s been made.
All the post-debate talk is Carly. How she’s going to climb into the upper-echelon, how somebody’s going to be relegated from the later-debate and the pressure is on. The narrative is forming and the narrative is already tested and approved.
* * * *
The mounted policeman unsaddles, removes a shovel and scoops a giant pile of horseshit off the road. On either side of the street are people taking pictures with their phones. When the mess is cleaned they give him an ovation and he bows a bit, smiles. He stuffs it into a trashcan by a bank. The sidewalk that runs by the can is brimming with attendees. They’re all pink-faced, fresh off a few cocktails and glasses of Moscato from dinner. Stepping from street to sidewalk, a few of the heeled women nearly trip.
There are more pictures in front of protestors. The insults are mounting. The black homeless man from earlier stands directly in their line as they’re walking toward the arena and proffers his hand. Some shake it. Others avoid him altogether. Some react in fear. He gives one a sticker that says STOMP OUT ALZHEIMER’S and the recipient, a young, acned man wearing a bowtie and dazzling cufflinks, drops it on the ground and nearly sprints past the barrier.
A man carrying a sign that reads on one side TRUMP and on the other CRUZ shakes his head. “I swear, some people.”
* * * *
FOX News Channel’s coverage of the 9pm event begins ten minutes early when the three moderators speculate openly over their mics. They wonder what the stories will be, how the crowd will receive Trump, how stressed out certain candidates are. It’s called sweetening, or rather prepping a crowd for a certain reaction.
This happens for comedies filmed in front of a live-studio audience.
This happens for talk shows.
This happens for concerts.
This doesn’t happen for debates.
The first question and they make Trump admit he could run as a third-party candidate.
Twenty-some minutes later and Megyn Kelly makes Trump explain his offensive language toward women.
Jeb gets his family stuck in his face. He’s forced to acknowledge that he’s partnered with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been hit with multiple ads from the NRA that imply he’s going to run for president. He possibly worked for an organization that funded abortions. The stories write themselves.
Ben Carson’s asked if he’s smart but stupid.
Then Trump again: why did your company declare bankruptcy four times?
Rand Paul is grilled for opposing data-gathering and goaded into fighting with Chris Christie, a dispute which has been brewing since May when Christie claimed Rand made the country less safe and sold its security for donations.
Later, it becomes obvious the camera is slowly zooming in on Christie every time he answers. His already-impressive girth is being emphasized.
Huckabee? He’s Huckabee, he doesn’t need to be sabotaged.
The only two viable candidates left untouched are Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. The latter answers in soundbites only and seems petrified with every utterance. When he finishes, it’s like he’s somehow avoided punishment from teacher.
Rubio, however, is lifted into rarified air like heir apparent to the Republican Throne.
Within the first hour we find him untouched. FNC hasn’t asked him a single, penetrating question. He’s given carte blanche to take a swipe at Jeb—the two of them having called a tenuous truce in the last couple of months so they can both go after Trump and clear out space to fight their war later—and he passes, choosing instead to pivot on his personal narrative.
The questions are all being fed to him, and he’s allowed to repeat his stump speech without interruption. It’s too easy; too obvious that FNC has chosen Rubio as their flag-bearer when the Trump train derails.
On the outside looking in, Ted Cruz laid low like Ted Cruz does. He’s going to gain a ton of momentum when the crazies desert Trump’s sinking ship and he’s simply biding his time. Directly opposed is Kasich, who came across as levelheaded and professional, a combination which wouldn’t have played so well in a room except we’re in Ohio.
This is the beginning of the designed end for Trump. Midway through the debate he visibly lost steam and rambled about political-correctness and paying Hillary Clinton to come to his wedding. The shine is coming off his candidacy and his run-in with Kelly, whose ascending star eclipsed his with the misogyny question, could very well be what finally clips his wings. The GOP Establishment, which Trump has been flirting and feuding with, depending on the day, threw some chin-music and the message was clear: FNC and its cronies in the Republican Party hold the sway.
They can make Trump and they can un-make him.
Jeb’s in trouble because it’s him or Rubio who’s going to earn the establishment throne and, as of tonight, Marco’s got the inside track. Bush is a bad campaigner and though he laps his brother in terms of policy and intelligence, he lacks Dubya’s political intuition. He’s a shitty candidate and he should consider himself lucky Trump’s sucked up the oxygen as he has.
Kasich will gain a few points, but not as many as he should’ve. He lost at least two to three, if not five, just by admitting he attended a gay wedding. Walker will stay put, continuing a shadow campaign in which the less seen of him the better. Cruz will lurk and strike when Trump goes over the edge.
Rubio is poised to be the rising star, the answer to Barack Obama and a perfect presidential prospect to Fiorina’s VP. It’s a narrative Roger Ailes and FNC crew have already written. The problem is that Rubio has shit-instincts. Who knows what will happen when Brett Baier isn’t giving him pie for dinner and cake for dessert. His Thirst-Lurch in the State of the Union response showed everything we needed to know: he’s a paper tiger incapable of sustaining a long and strenuous campaign. There are too many opportunities to self-destruct, and a candidate like Marco Rubio will probably hit every last one.
* * * *
The bag of equine feces sits atop the cast-off pile of plastic cups and takeout boxes. The attendees, the ones who haven’t been carefully selected, walk past it by the dozens. Occasionally they pose. Take pictures. From the right angle the protestors are in their background, clowns gathered for their amusement. The people from outside the gate. They’re filthy and they’re stupid. Nobody has to tell the attendees that the two often go hand-in-hand. If only they could lift themselves up by their bootstraps and meet them on a higher rung.
On her way inside the arena, close to the safety of the concrete walls, a woman tells a reporter when asked what she’s most looking forward to in the night’s debate: “I want to see what happens. I want to see if anybody jumps out at me. I want to see if anybody shows me they can lead this country.”
Little do they both know that only a few feet away is a staggering pile of horseshit.