They’re assholes, really, New Hampshire primary voters. At Gilchrist Metal Fabricating’s grimy factory in Hudson the day before the primary, during what the Granite State for some reason calls a “town hall meeting,” Chris Christie tells an illustrative story. One of these indigenous Granite State prima donnas buttonholed him, he says, to answer questions on his position on every issue from A to Z. After something like a half hour, convinced he’s found a satisfied customer, Christie finally moved in to close the sale:
“So are you going to vote for me?”
“No? Why not?”
“Because you didn’t ask for my vote.”
“But I’m asking for your vote now!”
The tale may well be apocryphal, I reflect. And then another, even better one unfolds right before my eyes. New Jersey’s Jabba-the-Hutt-sized governor sinks down to one knee on the factory’s oil-stained floor. “I hope I got your vote! I got my pants all dirty and everything!” The woman before whom he kneels assures him that he has.
A New Hampshire voter will do just about anything for attention. Even lie—which I’m pretty well convinced most of these newly minted Christie supporters must have been doing.
In response to similar one-on-one supplications that same morning from the overstuffed executive from Jersey, so do several others. Each time, the former undecided voter earns an appreciative ovation from the many Christie fans in the crowd. Milks an ovation from the crowd, I’d say. A New Hampshire voter will do just about anything for attention. Even lie—which I’m pretty well convinced most of these newly minted Christie supporters must have been doing. For Christie has repeated this ritual over a hundred times already, at town hall after town hall, on each of his over 70 days in New Hampshire, sometimes several times a day, sometimes lasting as long as two hours. He claims his wife has spent more days here than any of the other candidates themselves. And, if what I saw at Gilchrist Metals is any indication, he lassoed scads of self-proclaimed Christie converts at each event.
Most of whom must have voted for someone else, considering that Christie got only 7.4 percent of the vote, and promptly dropped out. In the last poll before election day, 20 percent of the New Hampshire voters were not just undecided on a candidate—they hadn’t picked which party’s primary they intended to vote in. These were the people to whom we were supposed to be devoting our reverent attention in the first week of February 2016.
The first New Hampshire presidential primary was in 1916. It was supposed to be in May. Then, officials decided to schedule it in March to coincide with the annual late winter town meetings. This year the unhappy accident celebrates its 100th anniversary. It’s become a spectacle—an invading army of journalists, elbowing past an invading army of campaigns, all for access to an electorate elbowing their way into the invaders’ angle of vision in order to deliver a fetishized show of the very sort of authenticity their collective presence renders obviously impossible.
At a John Kasich vote-returns watch party I attended, triple-tiered rostrums covered a quarter of the floor space and groaned under the weight of 31 news camera tripods—one for every four or five Kasich supporters in the room. New Hampshire, how do the media and political establishment love thee? Let us count the ways. From December to the primary the Republican electorate in this state of 1.3 million people was polled 39 separate times. The site of the subsequent primary, South Carolina, population 4.8 million, had been polled only four times, though that state is a much sturdier indicator of the direction of the GOP by any conceivable measure. The bias is structural: the GOP gives New Hampshire 23 delegates. South Carolina, with almost four times the population, gets 50.
Hamish, New Hampshire
My first stop from the airport on Saturday evening is the campaign headquarters of Ohio Governor John Kasich. It turns out to be an unprepossessing white clapboard house on a frontage road off the freeway: authenticity! A billboard towers above it, quoting Jeb Bush: “Donald Trump is unhinged.” It’s paid for by Bush’s hyper-capitalized Right to Rise super PAC, but its presence is fortuitous because that is Kasich’s message, too, though he would never put anything so rudely. Kasich is the Republican field’s 1950s sitcom dad, confident, competent, and above all, polite. In November, his campaign put up a web ad paraphrasing Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous warning about Hitler: “First they came for the socialists, and I said nothing, because I am not socialist…” Although, naturally, Kasich was too polite to say it himself: the message, which was aimed at Donald Trump, was voiced by Vietnam War POW Colonel Tom Moe.
Why would this man drive 18 hours, following the worst New England snowstorm in years all the way up the Eastern Seaboard, to devote the first weeks of his golden years to Plain Jane candidate John Kasich?
Of Trump’s signature campaign pledge that he will summarily kick all undocumented immigrants out of the country, Kasich responded, “It is completely ridiculous to think we are going to go into neighborhoods, grab people out of their homes, and ship people back to Mexico. That’s not where the party is. The party is not for deportment of 11.5 million people.”
But, of course, this is exactly where the Republican Party is, and Trump’s call was immediately echoed by almost all the other candidates. I’m fascinated by the question of how you run for president as the candidate of bipartisan civility, experience, and competence in the Republican Party of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. This is why I came to Kasich’s house first.
The parking lot is full, spilling out to the gas station next door where reposes a classic silver Airstream trailer with a big Kasich placard on the side; the pickup truck pulling it sports a gay-rights bumper sticker and Illinois license plates. On the front porch, bundled campaign volunteers are spilling in and out, bearing clipboards and yard signs. I make my way inside, and am made to feel utterly welcome. The best word I can think of to describe the feeling is Yiddish: hamish, which means, basically, homey and familiar. I make the acquaintance of Keith, an excitable recently retired air traffic controller in a too-thin leather jacket who drove all the way from Newt Gingrich’s former congressional district in Georgia.
“Kasich territory!” I volunteer. “Yeah. Oh, yeah. Big time,” he laughs in return.
Why would this man drive 18 hours, following the worst New England snowstorm in years all the way up the Eastern Seaboard, to devote the first weeks of his golden years to Plain Jane candidate John Kasich?
Because, he says earnestly, “back in the nineties, the last time the budget was balanced, Governor Kasich was the Budget Committee chairman. I remember him being onstage, talking about the balanced budget”—and willingly sharing the credit with President Clinton. “Back home, I have relatives who live in South Carolina. They think these problems can’t be fixed. But he’s a math guy. He knows these budgets. He did it in Ohio, too.”
I ask how things are going out there at the front doors. “Got a lot of good vibes today,” he insists. “They really like him. And those who are indecisive are really thinking about him hard. When all is said and done, the late deciders are going to break for Kasich.”
And not just in flinty New England, he insists. “My friends, my relatives in South Carolina, I tell them, ‘I’m driving up to New Hampshire to help Governor Kasich,’ and they say, ‘He’s the guy down on the end!’” The end of the debate stage, that is, the guy the moderators never call on because he doesn’t start the cat fights that boost ratings. “But you know what? He’s the only one that sounds like an adult.” I meet the young New Hampshire campaign director, who reminds me that “Kasich” rhymes with “Basic.”
Is Basic Kasich the Republican sleeper? Are Kasich’s Kindly Krusaders the Republican Deaniacs of 2016? Is this the big story everyone else is missing? Well, consider this. Later, back home in Chicago, I track down the phone number for Tom Volini, the owner of the Airstream. I reach him as he traverses some highway or byway in South Carolina, where he answers my question—why Kasich?—with about as un-right-wing an answer as you can imagine: “Well, it’s still an inquiry for me. You don’t learn things instantly.”
Yet he loves John Kasich enough that—for only the second time in his life—he’s working on a national campaign. He supported John F. Kennedy in 1960 (and his sister-in-law for alderman in Chicago in 1979 as a crusader against the Daley machine). Volini is retired from an accomplished career as CEO of several large industrial concerns. He started voting for Republicans after the soaring interest rates of the Carter years killed his real estate development business. Then he was impressed with how well Ronald Reagan worked with Tip O’Neill. “And they didn’t agree about anything except bourbon,” he said. “But they worked, as they should have worked, for the American cause. And I think that’s an appropriate analogy for what is possible, and what is necessary here.”
That’s what he saw in John Kasich when he met him last fall at Chicago’s legendary Billy Goat Tavern; he was impressed by “the simple, common humanity of the man,” and by his plans for his presidential campaign. “It’s face to face. It’s not grabbing headlines. It’s not display. It’s not energized by someone for whom politics is show business.”
Having by now done his homework, he recites a Kasich liturgy. How, following his heroism balancing the federal budget alongside Bill Clinton, he left Congress and had settled into a perfectly satisfying career in investment banking, traveling the country helping businesses grow, until duty called. Then, like the Roman warrior Cincinnatus, “who because of his experience, and because of his humanity, was called to Rome, to leave his farm—O.K.?—which he was given as compensation for his military service, and lead his country. And I think that is the situation here. He wasn’t looking for a job! He wasn’t looking for a career! He was not looking for the cameras!” He just came to the Statehouse in Columbus and “inherited an $8 billion—with a B—deficit. There is now a $2 billion with a B surplus!”
Volini agreed to become a Kasich delegate to the Illinois Republican convention. “And when I saw his message wasn’t getting the kind of recognition I thought it deserved, I decided to hitch up my vintage Airstream and drive up to New Hampshire and freeze my ass!”
Why the Airstream?
“One, it’s a free-rolling billboard,” just the thing his new friend requires, because “he’s reasonably—no, not reasonably, terribly—modest. Second, what does the Airstream represent?” American ingenuity, American quality, American jobs: “Airstreams have been built in Ohio since the 1930s.”
A dreamy sort of ex-CEO, Tom Volini then tells me this:
“The third theme it represents is that the Airstream is an American icon in another sense: it is a sense that we’re all searching for our souls. And we used to search for them on the highway. Now I guess we search for them on television and the Internet. But it represents a journey. And John is on a journey. And it’s a journey in which there is a great divide in the direction it could go.”
I’m reflecting on how his emotional intensity is a strange fit for the bland object of its attentions, and wondering if the man to whom I’m speaking isn’t just a little bit off. Until he unfurls a story of what this adventure has become. A story so astonishing that by the time he is finished, I tell him that if John Kasich manages to become president, I want the rights to the screenplay.
Volini met a homeless Air Force veteran named John, who made his way to New Hampshire from Minneapolis, where he had learned about the Kasich campaign from the discarded newspapers he read at a Starbucks. One of the smartest people Volini has ever met, John first became attracted to Kasich some years ago “because he opposed the B-1 bomber project in spite of the influence of the defense contractors, in order to have that money for benefits for veterans and men and women in the service. He didn’t want to take that money away. He didn’t want to waste it.”
Volini also met a former FBI agent who worked on the 9/11 investigation.
They joined forces, ribboning the state in the Airstream, blaring John Philip Sousa marches on their approach to every town “at a volume which would probably make people deaf.”
“It was so cool! “Volini said. “Because the veteran could talk to the veteran groups, go into the VFW halls, talking to the people at the bars, to the people smoking their way into the grave.”
“And then Bob”—that’s the name of the ex-FBI agent—“was so wonderful with the ethnic groups and the senior citizen groups.”
“And then we would pick up the thing and go to the next groups! We traveled thousands of miles.”
The story, Volini insists, is the purest possible expression of the essence of John Kasich’s universe. The homeless vet “was a man in the shadows! And he was brought out of the shadows by this guy we’re talking about with his talent to draw upon the talents of people in the shadows.”
Maybe these devoted supporters are the secret weapon. Back in the clapboard house, when I mention I’ve heard Kasich has pulled even with Cruz at third place in the polls, Keith claims the campaign’s internal polls have him comfortably alone at second. That part of the conversation is notable, in that such lowly volunteers would ordinarily not have access to such privileged information; and in a more tightly wound presidential campaign, the volunteers would not be blurting it out to reporters within minutes of meeting them.
Buttoned down and hyper-spun
My next stop reveals just such a tightly wound campaign. In a forbidding gray office tower in Manchester, I pass a threshold marked by a “New Hampshire Is Marco Rubio Country” sign—right beneath the sign marking the state headquarters for the Ricoh office supply corporation. I make my way past the leaning tower of pizza (for hungry volunteers), past room after room after room, each with a sign on the door indicating its dedicated function, and past two intricate, expertly designed charts printed in the campaign’s colors and explaining the divisions of the New Hampshire Republican electorate. I walk past walls bedecked with “marcorubio A NEW AMERICAN CENTURY” placards. Finally, I arrive at the office of the campaign’s fashionably bearded young press secretary—who, after introductions, promptly leads me back exactly the way I came to sign me in at the front desk and roundly chew out the poor sap who’d temporarily abandoned his post at the moment I’d arrived and neglected to do so himself. Not Hamish; not at all.
Hyper-branded, hyper-spun. That’s Rubioland. I meet my first volunteer, from Massachusetts, and ask what brought him over the border to support Marco Rubio. What he hears in the question is a cue to wax strategic about delegate blocs. “This is a very important state . . . he’s doing very well in the polls, especially after Iowa . . . much better than we thought.” I interject, No, what is it you like about Rubio? But it’s as if I toggled a separate switch in the computer code. “He wants to rebuild our military . . . we have to work with our allies . . . he wants to cut taxes and invest in the economy . . . he also has good values as a conservative . . . he’s electable against Hillary Clinton. . . .”
He’s only 16 years old.
The next fellow I speak to is supremely thoughtful, and not robotic at all. He’s a courtly University of Chicago–trained adjunct law and political philosophy professor specializing in the thought of Plato and Aristotle. Why is he volunteering for Rubio? Because, he explains, “I think it’s very important that the voice of reasonable, civil people be heard. I would like to be considered one of those people, and I believe that Marco Rubio is one of the candidates in this election who represents, shall we say, the better side of America.”
And who might those candidates be who do not represent the better side of America?
“I think from my comments you could tell very clearly.”
The guy with the orange hair?
“Well, not just the man you mention.” But also “the other leading candidate, with natural-colored hair, [with] his personal behavior toward the other leaders of America, and the members of the Senate.”
This brings me to what has become my central question here in New Hampshire: Why not Kasich?
“I think that in terms of his policy, I’m largely with him. I’m very impressed with his service both in Congress and as a governor,” the professor responds. Then he turns to what many conservatives consider the deal breaker. Governor Kasich accepted free federal money provided through the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid coverage in Ohio: “Obamacare is one of the disasters of his presidency. And I think that Kasich’s full-armed embrace of it was not wise.”
I ask why it should be a problem that Kasich was able to cover hundreds of thousands of people who were too poor for insurance, too rich for Medicaid, too young for Medicare, and would have otherwise had to receive their medical care via the emergency room—as in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott created a $5 billion deficit in the hospital system providing medical care for the same class of people, but through emergency units.
The law professor’s not buying it. “This is an unwarranted and perhaps unconstitutional expansion of the federal power,” he says. “I refuse to be complicit in this.”
Complicit. Like it is Vichy France or something.
I haven’t mentioned that the professor is accompanied by his profoundly disabled adult son, in a wheelchair. Cerebral palsy, I would guess. And that his adjunct teaching position is ending soon and he doesn’t know what his next job will be. Conservatives call this “principle.” Kasich, by their lights, has not nearly enough.
Hyper-branded, hyper-spun. That’s Rubioland.
I moved on to a debate-watching party organized by the Kasich campaign and met some folks I’d read about in history books: solid, civic-minded, Main Street moderate Republicans. There at my table, in the flesh, munching Swedish meatballs and crudités. I hear a middle-aged man describing the food incubator he’d helped open in his Ohio town where people learn how to package and market their pasta sauce or pickle line, for which they’ve received $4 million in state funding. Turns out he’s the mayor of the town: Somerset, population 1,481. Next to him is a shopping mall developer who tells me he spends 75 percent of his time on local philanthropy. He’s talking about the grant-making process for the local museum where he serves on the board, and the problem of making such cultural funding equitable in the Appalachian regions of the state.
The two fiftysomethings chat amiably with J.B., a 19-year-old student at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. A 24-year-old Ohio state representative sits down and introduces himself—Niraj Antani, and no one blinks at the “strange” name. The bills he’s filed include one to create a system to notify private database companies that they are to remove court records when they are sealed or expunged, another to help train auto technicians, and a third to abolish the death penalty. He complains that Ohio community colleges receive 22 percent of the state’s higher education funding but educate 41 percent of the students.
Niraj waves over a young friend, Sara Jantau, who works in the state department of education on a pilot program for “competency-based education,” for working adults, where progress is measured in specific skills learned, not time in the classroom. This parallels a 2013 initiative from President Obama’s Department of Education. I ask her if there is room in the Republican Party for idealistic young people dedicated to innovative public policy. “I’d like to think so,” she says wistfully. I ask J.B. how a candidate running on competency, compassion, and experience makes it in today’s Republican Party.
“That’s the right question,” he says. He has no answers.
I’m definitely beginning to sympathize with Kasich and his competent, kind supporters. Could I live with this guy as president? Best to conduct some due diligence. I contact a no-nonsense Democratic political consultant from Cincinnati, Cliff Schecter of Majority Ohio. “John Kasich is as right wing as any other of the major contenders for the GOP nomination, no matter how many times he smiles and offers New-Agey platitudes,” he tells me.
Schecter points to Kasich’s laws that allow guns in bars and that legalize silencers; the $57 million he threw into a no-accountability charter school system; and his replacement of the state’s development department with an “independent non-profit corporation”—an opaque slush fund so stuffed with donors and cronies that even an appalled Republican state auditor ordered an investigation. Then there is abortion. Kasich has signed 17 restrictions, leaving nine clinics standing in a state of 11.5 million. Then, on Feb. 21, the celebrated crusader for equal access to healthcare signed a bill axing $1.3 million in grants to Planned Parenthood that funded programs addressing HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and infant mortality.
“The Airstream is an American icon in another sense: it is a sense that we’re all searching for our souls. And we used to search for them on the highway.”
“In light of his record in this state, if he is able to convince liberals, moderates, and even mainstream conservatives that he is a reasonable guy,” Schecter said, “then he is the ventriloquist and we are all the dummies.”
Back in New Hampshire, the debate is interrupted by a commercial. “John Kasich. Not even a moderate. An Obama Republican.” Kasich’s face morphs into Obama’s. It’s paid for by the American Future Fund, a dark-money PAC that does not disclose its donors.
Dead Man Walking
It’s always useful to be reminded that there are no moderates in the Republican Party, even if, as with parched sojourners in the deserts, it’s tempting to believe in mirages. The morning after the debate, I attend a rally. Waiting for it to begin, I overhear one angry old white man tell another, “We’re gonna take people from Syria and give them a home, a job? Take care of our own first!” He splutters: “It drives me nuts.” The other, shaking his head: “I don’t agree with anything Obama says. That’s why I’m here.”
But this is not a Donald Trump rally. It’s an event organized for the consensus moderate in the race: doomed candidate Jeb Bush. With whom both of these men, dressed like CPAs on casual Friday, are smitten. “He left Florida with a 70 percent approval rating,” one says. “That’s a Democratic state. He won over Democrats and Independents.” The other complains how in these primaries the candidates “have to go so far right to win.” This is what passes for moderate Republicanism in 2016.
The loudspeakers blare the country band Alabama: “Worked hard all week, got a little jingle on a Tennessee Saturday night / Couldn’t feel better, I’m together with my Dixieland delight.” And “Hard Workin’ Man” by Brooks and Dunn. (Not to be confused with Dun and Bradstreet.) One’s thoughts turn to little brother W’s first, failed, West Texas Congressional race in 1978, when, after which getting hammered for his tenures at Andover, Harvard, and Yale, he vowed he would never get out-yokeled again. And their father’s decision while running for president in 1988 to name pork rinds with Tabasco sauce as his favorite food.
Medal of Honor winner and Vietnam POW Leo Thorsness takes the stage, about as uninspiring as a Medal of Honor winner could conceivably be, expressing gratitude that such a “neat family” came to his aid in his (losing) Senate race against George McGovern in 1974. Then Lindsey Graham, another loser, botches several jokes and says Jeb’s qualification for the White House is his “front row seat to history.” Pointing at Thorsness, Graham insults John McCain worse than Donald Trump had: “He was in prison for six years! You’re not a loser, Leo. The biggest torture Leo had out there was that he was in the same cell as John McCain for three years!”
Then Jeb. I’ve never seen a dead man walking before, and naturally it presents a certain fascination. He praises Graham for his killer comedy set: “I don’t know where he gets his material, but you’ve got a career after politics, that’s for sure!”
He acknowledges his family, and can’t even get his own son George P. to stand up without wheedling.
He starts in, “Here’s an interesting story.” (It isn’t.)
It’s always useful to be reminded that there are no moderates in the Republican Party, even if, as with parched sojourners in the deserts, it’s tempting to believe in mirages.
I think of my bigfoot friends in the political press, and their sad-sack arrogant incompetence. David Frum in the Atlantic, February 4, 2015: “Is Jeb Bush a Republican Obama?” Then this on February 7, 2016, by Franklin Foer in Slate: “The Return of Jeb Bush: Why the goofy, patrician candidate is finally hitting his stride.” How could anyone who has ever spent time in a room with this man—whose every utterance sounds like an apology—anoint him for anything higher than dog catcher?
Jeb launches into a tale about a man who complained to the Department of Veterans Affairs about some bureaucratic snafu and ended up receiving his own death certificate in the mail. Good material, actually; the kind of story Reagan would hit out of the park. In Jeb’s telling, though, he almost has to implore: “please laugh.” I head for the door. The Donald beckons.
Helping make America great again
The scene at Plymouth State College is from a different planet. Cops directing traffic. Hustlers hawking souvenirs. (“Go ahead, make my day! Trump 2016” T-shirts—with the candidate of torture and summary execution holding a 44 Magnum, Dirty Harry–style.) Instead of Casual Friday CPAs driving Audis, there are pickup trucks bearing women in bedazzled sweatshirts and men in plaid flannel and American-flag baseball caps. A band of journalists with foreign accents sticking microphones in people’s faces. An elderly representative of Numbers USA, a group dedicated to reducing immigration to pre-1965 levels. “This is the best organizing opportunity we’ll ever have,” says the Numbers USA advocate. A brave gentleman displays a set of historic maps of Israel intended to illustrate the meaning of the word “Nakba,” or “catastrophe” in Arabic, referring to the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. “Nakba? I’ll nakba you on your ass,” an unfriendly passerby warns.
It is a scene charged with frenetic energy, and I haven’t even endured the full-on Secret Service metal-detector treatment in order to enter the hall.
When I do, a half hour before the scheduled start time, the pre-rally has already begun. The speaker—in plaid flannel—is New Hampshire State Representative Al Baldasaro. He’s best remembered, if at all, for his 15 minutes of fame in 2011 when he said it was “great” that the audience booed a gay Marine who asked a question at a Republican debate in New Hampshire. “When the shit hits the fan,” he said, “you want your brother covering your back, not looking at your back.”
He asks how many veterans are in the audience and gets the expected cheers. He then asks, “How many wives?” And I have to say, personally, as a historian whose secret wish has always been to sit at the controls of a real-life time machine, his shoutout to the little ladies was like a dream come true: “You are the people who supported us when we were overseas.”
A stentorian, vaguely New-Jersey-thuggish voice booms over the loudspeakers.
We all know that as president of the United States, Mr. Trump will continue his lifelong defense of the right to free speech in America. As a matter of fact, he supports the First Amendment as much as the Second Amendment. However, some people have taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality by seeking to disrupt his rallies by using them as an opportunity to promote their own political messages. While they certainly have the right to free speech, this is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protesters.”
(It’s true. I saw it. Six college women and their minister, with a sign that reads: “PLYMOUTH STATE DOES NOT DISCRIMINATE.”)
“If someone starts demonstrating in the area around you, please do not touch or harm the protester.”
(This draws appreciative laughter.)
“This is a peaceful rally. In order to notify the law enforcement officers to the location of the protesters, please hold a rally sign over your head and starting chanting ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ Ask the people around you to do likewise until the officer removes the protester. Thank you for helping make America great again.”
Then, in an irony frequently noted, comes what apparently is Trump’s favorite song, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Then, yes, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
A woman with her two young sons takes a place near me in the bleachers. She wears yoga pants, a stylish casual top, and diamond earrings. She carries a bag from Lululemon, the high-end yoga accoutrements store. One of her sons wears an Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirt. I ask if she’s here to educate her sons and expose them to the democratic process. She replies, as if I am some extraordinary clairvoyant, “How did you know?”
She sticks out like a sore thumb, and she doesn’t even know it. We’re so good in America at pretending we do not have social classes.
I look over the shoulder of a man in plaid flannel reading the local newspaper from Winnisquam, New Hampshire. Winnisquam is an unincorporated town surrounded by Belmont, which has a per capita income of $19,986; Sanbornton, $22,879; and Tilton, $19,587. The paper is open to the obituary page. One of the deceased is 28, another is 30, and the third is a ripe old 67. I immediately think: heroin.
Rural New Hampshire is suffering an opioid epidemic. Every candidate mentions it, just like they all mention the Zika virus, and the satellite launch in North Korea. In right-wing politics, fears are fungible, and the more there are the better it is for business. Trump takes the stage, and begins with one of his favorite shticks, exploiting working-class fears of our neighbor to the south: “We send them jobs, they send us drugs and crimes.” He talks about the plant Ford plans to build in Mexico and someone shouts, “We need jobs!”
His answer to drugs, crime, and lost jobs, of course, is the same: his wall. Maybe, he jokes, he’ll call it the “Trump Wall.”
He reiterates his promise to dream up tortures “much worse than waterboarding.” Near me, a middle-aged blond woman, with glittering glasses and a small child in tow, beams.
He rants about how he was booed at the last debate and says it was no surprise, because all the tickets went to his rivals, who gave them away to their fat-cat donors, who hate him because, for instance, he wants to take away their windfall profits by negotiating better deals for pharmaceuticals. He claims his campaign got only 20 tickets. “Twenty tickets, and I brought all the action?”
His trade negotiators are going to be “vicious, violent people,” not the “nice ones we have now.”
A protester is ejected. News reports say he yelled out, “Racist!” but I could have sworn he cried, “Boring!” For by now Trump is in full stream-of-consciousness mode:
We’re going to rebuild the military, we’re going to build it up, we’re going to negotiate prices, we’re going to use the right companies, and we’re going to get the right stuff, we’re going to have the greatest stuff ever created, it’s not going to be political, the money that they’re spending on things they don’t even want, you know, they’re sending it over to allies that don’t wanna fight . . . I always talk about 2,300 Humvees, armor-plated, the best in the world, you know, I love the wounded warriors, if they had these, they wouldn’t be walking around, or not walking around, they wouldn’t be in the condition they’re in, they’re the most amazing people of all, wouldn’t you say, Al?
I mean, I see these people, and their legs are gone, or their arms are gone, or worse, and they have a better attitude than we have, they’re unbelievable people, but we send over 2,300, the best armor-plated Humvees in the world, and we give them to our allies, our friends, we don’t even know who our allies are . . . So we give them Humvees, shots are fired in the air, they run out of the Humvees, they’re gone, and the enemy takes over 2,300 Humvees. What the hell are we doing? Okay? What the hell are we doing?
So, if you remember, I said, I was the first person to say, take the oil, for four years I’ve been saying, take the oil. They’re not taking it though! They’re bombing it, but they’re bombing it extremely gently. Because they’re afraid that it’s going to cause an environmental hazard in the air, can you believe this, no, can you believe it? Do you think General George Patton ever said, ‘We can’t bomb the oil because it may have an impact on the carbon footprint?’ You think General Patton—he would have slapped the hell out of that environmental—you know, that environmentalist would have walked up to him, you know, ‘General, you cannot bomb, because residue will go into the atmosphere, and it will effect the carbon footprint.’
You know what George Patton would have done? He would have slapped the hell out of that guy.
(He mimes the slap.)
That would have been the end of that environmentalist.
Laughter all around, and then our hero turns serious: “You know, I’ve received so many environmental awards? You know, I’m not going to knock it, we need clean air, we need clean water, beautiful, beautiful clean water, we need clean air—”
“You know what George Patton would have done? He would have slapped the hell out of that guy.”
He then starts—Jesus, you know the rest, why bother? I leave, because I have had enough, and I know that you have, too. Besides I heard Ted Cruz was speaking at a Mexican restaurant. The thought of Ted Cruz speaking to Mexicans is more enticement than I could resist.
God’s candidate, avec enchiladas
I arrive at the small city of Keene: 95.3 percent white, 0.6 African America, 0.2 Native America, 2.0 percent Asian, 0.004 Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 0.5 percent some other race, 1.4 percent from two or more race, and 1.6 percent Hispanic or Latino. I find a restaurant that resembles an outpost of the old mall chain Chi Chi’s.
So no Mexicans. Ted Cruz is up front, telling an arctic-pale crowd what is so worrying about the North Korean satellite situation. “We talked about this last night in the debate. You put a satellite up into orbit. And its orbit takes it, in time, into the high orbit above the United States. In the satellite you have a nuclear device. If you detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere, it sets off what is called an EMP—an electromagnetic pulse. In the right location, that could take down the electrical grid of the entire Eastern United States. All light and power gone, up and down the East Coast. That means food, water, transportation, communication, all of that. That result, which could kill millions or even tens of millions, is our most significant threat, and it takes one nuclear weapon in the atmosphere to do that.”
Hmm. Our “most significant threat.” In fact the electromagnetic pulse theory of nuclear apocalypse is about as respectable among scientific experts as the idea that the Communists sought to sap our purity of essence by fluoridating municipal water supplies.
It happens that on the way to Keene I had tuned the car radio to an AM talk-radio station, where I heard a strident voice warning that Marco Rubio doesn’t believe in the Fourth Amendment and Trump doesn’t believe in the First. It’s Glenn Beck, who is supporting Ted Cruz and would later be his master of ceremonies in South Carolina. There, he would urge voters to “Fall to your knees and pray to God to reveal what the hour is. . . . This is your last call, America! Stand with the man I believe was raised for this hour, Ted Cruz!” Beck is describing the junior senator from Texas as either, depending on your exegetical bent, a sign of the Second Coming or the Second Coming himself.
Among the other Cruz stalwarts is evangelist Mike Bickle, “who says God sent Hitler to hunt Jews,” and “that a new era of concentration camps awaits Jews before they find Jesus.” And that Our Savior—maybe it’ll be Ted?—will “kill the head of the United Nations at some point in the near future.” Also Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, who favors “executing convicted murders, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge the bloodguilt from the land and people.” And Robert Mercer, a reclusive hedge fund billionaire who has shoveled $11 million to a Cruz super PAC. Mercer has also donated considerable sums to the congressional race of a research chemist named Arthur Robinson, who, when he’s not on the campaign trail is out collecting thousands of vials of human urine: “the key to extending the human life span” and wresting control of medicine from what he calls the “medical-industrial complex.”
But have no fear. The “Republican establishment” promises to rescue us in the nick of time from the influence of fringe figures such as these. The day before the New Hampshire balloting, I take that establishment’s measure. This would be the final campaign event of Senator Rubio, at a gym at Nashua Community College, where I learn how Rubioland is even more hyper-branded and hyper-spun than I’d imagined. The attractive young women who choreograph the lines to get in with the care of a George Balanchine are wearing logoed “marcorubio” shirts and windbreakers. The press passes, composed with the care given to ad layouts in glossy magazines, read “media covering marco” in official campaign font and colors. Inside, the path Marco is to traverse to a small raised stage with a stool and a single bottle of water awaiting him is cordoned off with ropes and stanchions like the ones you see at an airport.
Among the other Cruz stalwarts is evangelist Mike Bickle, “who says God sent Hitler to hunt Jews,” and “that a new era of concentration camps awaits Jews before they find Jesus.”
I station myself in the bleachers just behind the two rows reserved for Rubio’s top donors, officials, and associates, to observe our Republican establishment in action, a considerable portion of whom, but for their zip-up sweaters or fleece, bear a satire-worthy resemblance to Thurston Howell III of “Gilligan’s Island.”
Which is not to say Rubio doesn’t have any of the plain folk in his corner. I spy a fellow with a baseball hat, beard, and paunch, in a Ronald Reagan T-shirt depicting the 40th president extending his middle finger. “It means that’s just how he is,” he tells me. “He didn’t take any shit from people.”
Then, lest I get the wrong idea about Rubio and the grassroots, Governor George Pataki plops down in front of me and a line of supplicating Thurston Howells approach.
It’s 6:45, 15 minutes past the scheduled show time. A choreographer explains that Rubio is delayed, and will be further detained, upon his arrival, by a Fox News interview in the corner of the gym. We’re issued marching orders: “The senator will come in, we’ll clap, then we’ll watch him do his interview.” At 7:10, he’s still doing his interview. I decide I already have my story, and take my leave.
Just how few plain folks support Rubio is evident the next evening, when the New Hampshire returns come in. Rubio comes in fifth with 10.6 percent, behind Bush, with 11 percent. Trump, of course, demolished the field with over a third of the vote. The sleeper turns out to be sweet, sensible Kasich, who at 15.8 percent runs away with second place, just like my Atlanta friend Keith said he would.
“We see this as an opportunity for all of us—and I mean all of us—to be part of something that’s bigger than our own lives. To change America. To re-shine America. To restore the spirit of America.”
Kasichmentum? It certainly feels that way at his returns-watching party. He calls out all the volunteers who’ve come here from hundreds of miles around: “This guy flew in from London, England! To do this! I tell you, there’s something going on that I’m not sure anyone understands. There’s something in the air in this campaign. We don’t see this as just another campaign. We see this as an opportunity for all of us—and I mean all of us—to be part of something that’s bigger than our own lives. To change America. To re-shine America. To restore the spirit of America. And to leave no one behind. Am I right?”
When he says, “When I’m president of the United States,” it doesn’t sound boastful. It’s tinged with wonder. And when he cries imploringly, “Maybe, just maybe, in a time when change is clearly in the air, maybe just maybe we are turning the page on a dark part of America politics,” a liberal almost wants to believe. “Because tonight, the light overcame the darkness!”
Not hardly. Eleven days later, in South Carolina, Kasich clustered with Bush and Ben Carson, around 7 percent, and the story was Rubio and Cruz’s epic battle for second place, which Marco pulled out by a whisper—behind Trump’s commanding 32.5 percent, which he drew following a closing pitch, later debunked, that General John J. Pershing, in 1911, put down a Muslim insurrection in the United States colony of the Philippines by mowing down the miscreants with bullets soaked in pigs’ blood. “And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem.” Then, it was on to Nevada, where Trump nearly got a majority of the votes. Once more, Rubio and Cruz just about tied, in the low-20s. Cruz pinned his hopes for a breakout with an appeal to Nevada’s far-right supporters of armed standoffs with the government over public lands, earning the endorsement of Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, a supporter of the Bundy family.
Kasich didn’t campaign in Nevada. Neither did the wall-to-wall coverage from New Hampshire deliver much Kasichmentum there: he got 2,709 votes, 3.6 percent of the total. There’s something in the air—just like Governor Smiley Face said in oh-so-indicative New Hampshire. It just ain’t civility, competence, and experience.