Veeeeeeeegas, baby! Three-dollar blackjack, the bucket margaritas, Britney and Penn and Teller doing their shows, 24 Walgreens doing a roaring trade in rubbers and pregnancy tests, hookers working the Sports Book bar of the MGM Grand, the machine gun firing range, the indoor parachuting, the shakedown lap dance clubs, the Mob Museum, the whole of the old town under one huge roof, the so-called arts district, and the absurd family casinos, Treasure Island, New York New York fake skyscrapers, Bellagio, a pseudo-Venice, and Excalibur, a pinkish Arthurian castle in the centre of the Strip. Your correspondent stayed on after the caucus to get some writing done, and in the hope that some cheap tickets to Britney: Piece of Me (the real Britney, not some hack), might appear. Strip hopping to get the best rate, I went from Circus Circus to the Howard Johnson, and then, on the rolling craps site that is hotels.com, the latest gaff came up as the cheapest on the Strip. There was no getting round it. It was the best deal.
Thus it was that I checked into Hooters Hotel Casino. Nine storeys, a ground floor casino, a bar, a branch of Margaritaville, the rooms all done in pine wood, the clientele, well, the clientele were buying beers from the ground floor store to tide them over for the trip in the lift — or “magic moving room”, as they called it. Fat white guys who wouldn’t make the dress code at the Daytona 500. I recognised myself among them and accepted the mantle with joy, with resignation, with relief. What joy to have found your station in life especially when your station is a hotel whose logo is a giant owl whose eyes are breasts. In the spirit of the Oscars I would like to accept this award — hot tears of gratitude flow, fans self — and take the opportunity to say a few words to those who’ve said, in the past, that I couldn’t go any lower than I have. Oh ye of little faith. Yet there were some who said “no, no, give him a chance, he’s not even halfway down”. How true that was, and I would like to thank you for your support. This is a new personal low, and I don’t think we’ve hit rock bottom by any means, but we’re in the zipcode, we’re definitely close. Thanks for believing in my capacity for falling. Here I would stay, if the prices of the rooms were not skyrocketing next week for the Plumbing Suppliers Association Conference.
Yes, and what better place to watch the latest Republican candidates debate than this ashtray of a place, with a staff of Asian-American girls paying for their MAs dressed like the video clip of iconic ’70s song Car Wash, serving beers to men who’ll be parking their cars in five years’ time? (Is that intersectionality? I’m gonna get it right one day). Car Wash? Car crash, more like. Towards the end of the last debate, Republican operative Frank Luntz tweeted “This is insane”. It was like an Oxford Union debate compared to last Thursday’s effort, a debate in which the closed-caption operator, midway through, simply gave up and typed “unintelligible shouting” and left it on there for a couple of minutes. Donald Trump, fresh from the Nevada caucus victory, and a fresh round of taunting Marco Rubio — “Could you imagine Putin sitting there waiting for a meeting, and Rubio walks in and he’s totally drenched? I don’t know what it is but I have never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats” — sailed into it, expecting that it would be more of the same: Rubio and Cruz would beat up on each other, and Trump would sail on through, throwing out a few drive-by punches on the way.
Didn’t happen thusly. By the time the debate came round, the flat-out panic that has been consuming the Republican Party behind closed doors had started spilling out into the open. A New York Times in-depth piece published on the weekend gave a peek behind the scenes: a disorganised Republican Party that had believed for months that Trump’s appeal would fade, that the early primaries would end his campaign, were now scrambling to find a way to halt his relentless progress. It’s a measure of how atrociously the party has handled this that the clearest voice across the airwaves for a couple of days was Stuart Stevens, the campaign director for Mitt Romney in 2012, who popped up, urging the other candidates to attack Donald Trump head-on rather than jockeying for second position and hoping that … what? That’s the point. Both Rubio and Cruz have been running on the old plan that Trump would fall over, and they would compete for his disillusioned supporters. Stevens was followed by Mitt Romney himself, who strapped on a bomb and drove straight for Trump Tower: asking why The Donald hadn’t released his tax returns, and what might be lurking there. Since this was what Romney had got hit with in ’12, it was something of a self-sacrificing intervention, and a measure of how desperate the Republican establishment had become. Trump’s response: “Mitt Romney, who was one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics, is now pushing me on tax returns. Dope!”
Still, the message got through. On Thursday night’s debate, Marco Rubio came out swinging against Trump, and landed a couple of blows before the event descended into utter farce. Rubio went Trump for hiring illegal workers to build his buildings –Trump: “You’ve hired nobody”, big cheers — and for the flim-flam “Trump University”, which ran in the 2000s selling gimcrack real-estate courses, and folded in acrimony and lawsuits.
Rubio: “You lied to the students of Trump University.”
Trump: “That was 38 years ago.”
Rubio: “So I guess there’s a statute of limitations on lies.”
It went back and forth, with Trump trying his alpha-male trick — “stop talking, I’m talking now” — which caused Rubio to redouble his efforts, thus turning the debate into a complete meltdown. Kasich and Carson barely got a look in, although the latter got a chance when speaking of character, to say that we should assess a potential president by looking at the various elements, the “fruit salad” of their life. Reflecting on the week, Lindsey Graham told an audience: “Mah parrrty hayaz gone bayatshit crazah.”
The day after, it went whackadoodle squared. Trump gave a five-minute performance of Rubio gasping and chug-a-lugging water during a speech, with Trump spraying an audience with a bottle of mineral water: “Lightweight choker Marco Rubio looks like a little boy on stage. Not presidential material!” Rubio riffed on like a Vegas comedian at a 4pm slot in a strip club: “Donald’s flying around on Hair Force One, talking about winning lawsuits. He should be suing whoever did that to his face, have you ever seen a worse spray-tan?” Trump responded by saying that Rubio got extra make-up to hide his big ears. Rubio suggested that Trump had pissed his pants during the broadcast and changed them during an ad break. The process for choosing the commander-in-chief of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, folks.
Rubio was widely perceived to have landed a blow in this chaotic process, but any advantage he gained from it was quickly blindsided when, at a press conference on Friday morning, the Donald produced a somewhat sheepish-looking Chris Christie, who duly endorsed his new master: “They do not know the playbook of Donald Trump because Donald Trump is rewriting the playbook. He’s rewriting the playbook of politics that the status quo are playing,” said this defeated, compliant tub of a man.
The rest of the day was then occupied with clips of Christie trashing Trump throughout Christie’s pitiful primary run. “He’s not fit to be president”, “We’re not electing an entertainer-in-chief”, “[imitating Trump] We’re going to build a big waaaaal. It’s gonna be beeeeeautiful”. Etc. Asked about this, Christie and Trump said “Well, it’s politics”. Which would seem to be the thing that most Trump voters were rebelling against.
There was initial speculation that Christie was lining up for the VP slot on the ticket, but this was quickly dismissed, with the thought that Trump would choose a legislative insider who could build deals in the Congress — or Ivanka, his daughter. Christie is aiming for attorney-general slot. He can’t run for governor again, he wouldn’t make it to Congress from New Jersey — he doesn’t have that many A-list options going forward. This keeps him in the public eye. If it all collapses, he can at least become a cable news talking head.
Christie then started barnstorming Super Tuesday, the beginning of his months-long walk of shame, before the Donald drops him off a building to see, as with a melon, what it will like when he explodes.
The deeply satisfying crack-up in the Republican Party was interrupted by the Democratic South Carolina Primary, a straight up-down vote that the news networks managed to spin out for eight hours of tortured discussion. Hillary won big — yuggggge — beating out Bernie Sanders roughly 75% to 25%. Sanders was never expected to win the state, but his team had hoped that he could nudge towards a 40% vote and thus make it look closer to an even contest than a two-to-one result. The three-to-one result, with a huge margin among black people — 84% to 16% — was a blow. Sanders couldn’t get a hearing among Clinton’s empathetic, storytelling campaign, but that is in part a product of his determination to stick to his simple message of post-Occupy politics — the “billionaire class”, the fixed electoral system, universal health care, a federal minimum wage, etc. That is both a commitment to universalism in building a movement but it is also a hedge, looking ahead to the possibility that he might be the candidate. He wants to win the white working-class vote back from the Republicans, and to do that he seems determined to stay out of identity politics as much he can. That’s high-risk, if true.
Super Tuesday, in two days, has a run of southern states, from Georgia across to Texas, and large Clinton victories will amass a lead of 200-300 delegates — which, with another 300 “superdelegates” added, would put Clinton at around 600 of the 1200 delegates she needs. Bernie’s long-shot strategy has always relied on the idea that, by a steady accumulation of delegates, he could be in a position to win big in New York and California, further down the line. For this to occur, other than by a sheer shift in mass consciousness, something else would have to happen — such as Hillary Clinton being indicted by prosecutors for her use of a private email server while handling classified documents. That too is unsaid, but if it occurred, there might be a sufficient downturn in Clinton supporters for Sanders to prevail. For this to be at all possibility, he will need some wins on Tuesday: Vermont (a dead cert), Massachusetts, Minnesotta, Oklahoma (southern but very white), and a good showing in Texas. The danger of a near wipe-out on Super Tuesday would not be to the nomination only, but to the prospect of keeping the campaign going all the way, in order to keep pushing Clinton to the left and to lay the base for a movement beyond. Without some wins, the campaign will start to look forlorn and quixotic, reminiscent of the Kucinich campaigns of years past, the very last thing intended.
Wow, all this actual politics over Saturday and Sunday got real boring. Especially watching from Vegas. This was a town to watch the Republicans from, the crazed process of selecting a candidate for a party that is now something of a childish fantasy outfit matched by an entire city that gave itself over to childish fantasy some decades ago. The process is part of a worldwide one, which can be put simply: the right is cracking up. From the triumphant arrival of Thatcher/Reagan through the neocons, to now, their politics has been founded on a contradiction — the idea that you can use the state to preserve traditional values, while letting a free-market economy undermine the “groundedness” of these traditional values. The project was always riddled with contradiction: if values are traditional, why do you need the state to enforce them? If you believe in the transformative effect of the free market, why do you believe you can simply dictate which areas of society it will leave untouched? The right had a good run with this, and 9/11 gave them an extra boost. But they created their own opposition.
The pathetic collapse of the Australian right, this minuscule group of senators, pundits and think-tank guppies without a real social base, is evidence of this, a complementary process to the rise of Trump, whose arrival marks the transition of the neocon right fantasy into something else. By Friday, the hashtag #neverTrump was in circulation; by Saturday, Marco Rubio had retweeted it. Small gesture, of great significance, because it suggests that Rubio would not fall in line behind Trump should he win the nomination. Doubtless, he could wiggle out of it if he needed to, but signing up to “never” is a big gesture.
The drive to further exclude Trump was assisted by … Donald Trump, who retweeted a Mussolini quote (“Better to live like a lion for one day than a sheep for 30 years” or some such), which was a bit of a silly gotcha, since the sentiment itself is not inherently fascist. Mussolini probably also said “pass the bolognese” at some point, doesn’t make it an invocation to murder and oppression. Still, the fact that it was tweeted from an account labelled “Il Duce” might have been a bit of a clue.
Far more serious was Trump’s initial refusal to disavow an endorsement by David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan “Grand Wizard”. Trump, with the commitment of an absolute populist, refused to disavow it on Sunday morning’s Meet The Press, saying that he didn’t know Duke, and wouldn’t denounce groups “until I know something about them”. Duke? Whom Trump had denounced in 2000? The KKK? Unknown?
The refusal and delay in his eventual disavowal may do no damage with his hardcore base — though it will give some pause — but it puts the Republican Party in an absolutely impossible position. Now they appear to be all but writing off the chance of stopping Trump, and then writing off the election. Their real worry now is that a Trump candidacy would infect House and Senate races — and there is a chance the Senate can return to Democratic control. If, as presumed, the existing Senate refuses to confirm a Supreme Court justice, and the White House and the Senate falls to the Dems, then it’s all over for the Republicans. A liberal justice in Scalia’s old spot would cement a liberal majority in the court for decades.
Yes, if, if, if. But hey, it’s Vegas, baby. The whole process of selecting candidates thusly is a huge game, a giant craps table. Wasn’t what it was. Sadly, neither is Vegas (with the exception of the El Cortez, to which the Crikey desk has just been relocated, a place that goes back to 1941 and hasn’t been renovated since 1974, brown floral carpets, and burnt orange light fittings). What used to be a place where the green baize of the blackjack and roulette tables was surrounded by ranks of slots and cool bars has now become a sort of machine in which no moment of space or time can be left devoid of a gambling opportunity. Increasingly the tables have video croupiers, running touch-screen games. In front of each seat at the bars there’s a tabletop video slot. There was a time when you could linger at the bar over a $4 margarita and chat with the hookers as they came up and gave you 10 minutes of talk before rolling out the price list. The town is gone, the desert oasis is a giant slot machine living off past glory, denying present reality, and the Republican Party is in the same state. The Hooters owl flies at midnight. Vegas, baby, Vegas.
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.