“Y’all going to a primary event. Man I am not watching the primary. Them politicians are all the same. You cannot trust a goddam one of them. I mean we gotta get Obama out, but none of the rest of them are worth a pinch of dried piss.”

The cab was speeding through the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, and the usual effect was taking over, the blocks elongating like a bad sci-fi hyperdrive scene. American cities don’t end, they stream towards an infinite horizon, the drive-in banks and pharmacies and the occasional old white clapboard church and weed-strewn vacant lots. The driver, grey beard, ponytail, 60s, had looked like a reasonable bet conversation-wise, Columbia’s last hippie, working out the years to a new kidney. The previous driver had been a puffy dude, with five-hour energy shots lined up on the dashboard, jabbering one moment about the irresponsibility of nuclear proliferation, then his real estate deals, then about how we should carpet-bomb Iran.

This guy turned out to be, well, just an angry guy with a beard, full of hate for no one in particular and everyone in general, rolling out as we rolled along.

“What was the last politician you felt inspired by?”

“Richard Nixon.”

Oh Jesus.

“Yeah, I liked Nixon cos he said he was going to end all that welfare crap.”

“But he didn’t. He extended it. He said ‘we’re all Keynsians now’.”

“That, sir,” he said with deep satisfaction, “is absolutely correct. Well here y’are. A pinch of piss.”

The Springdale Historic Conference Centre was the usual, symbolic deal — a historic home, lit to the gills, with a plain oblong building behind, slapped up in minutes. Families were streaming past the house and up the pathway, in actual Sunday best. At the head of the path, a morbidly obese Santorum supporter had set up the badges stall, so everyone had to step through the flowerbed to get around him. No one said a word.

“That doesn’t seem to be the best place to set up.”

“Oh yeah, I guess so.”

Everyone had a slightly floaty, Xanaxy air. Perhaps this was relaxed southern charm. Then three black SUVs pulled up, and the candidate stepped out, with three staffers and three secret service agents, all of these bald and black-coated and nothing like his supporters, more like a Fast and Furious sequel had just turned up. In the middle of them all, the candidate, in his now-signature sweater-vest, curly-hair and addled grin, looked jaunty, a Pennsylvania Italian-American, not a lot like the southern folk among whom he had found a following. He bounded in through the open faux-french windows, all energy — and then realised that he was at the back of the press pen, and there was no route to the stage. How the hell had he pulled out a draw in Iowa?

Three days after the New Hampshire primary, and Rick Santorum is still in the game, purely on the strength of the surprise Iowa result. No one, but no one had predicted that he would get anything like that vote, even though he was the last conservative standing, after the Right’s speed-dating fiasco through Bachmann, Perry and Gingrich at the end of 2011. Santorum had flatlined throughout, he had no serious money, and he had no organisation to speak of in New Hampshire. He’d taken the usual route of the last chance longshot, effectively moving to Iowa for several months, and working “every one of its 99 counties” as his tagline went.

Since Iowa’s main crop is corn, it was a case of coals to Newcastle, because Rick Santorum, more than any candidate, has planted himself firmly in the faith and family camp. Ron Paul had his gold standard end the Fed thing, Newt Gingrich wants to build Facebook on the moon or something, and Rick Perry is still campaigning off executing innocent people, but Santorum, the sole Roman Catholic, has planted himself at the centre of the values vote. Standing before an echt banner at the Peachtree, which read Faith, Family, Freedom, he yowled:

“I always thought that banner should read faith plus family equals freedom!” to moderate enthusiasm SC style. Santorum’s credentials — he is not only opposed to abortion, but to legal contraception, he has seven home-schooled kids — should have make him a shoo-in for the religious Right, but there have been problems along the way. The religious values vote is overwhelmingly evangelical, and until recently overwhelmingly anti-Catholic. South Carolina is the home of Bob Jones University, whose founder calls the Pope the “anti-Christ”. Yes, that’s absurd, but these people believe Adam and Eve rode to church on dinosaurs so, y’know.

By the time the South Carolina primary came around, the evangelicals had failed to endorse a candidate, even though Newt Gingrich was a serial adulterer and Mitt Romney was a Mormon, which the evangelicals regard as one up from being a children’s party magician. Having run more or less equal fourth in New Hampshire, with 10% of the vote, Santorum needs to separate himself from the pack. At the end of the first week, he had gone from 19% to 16%,and the base wasn’t firing.

Consequently, at the Springdale, he was laying it on with a trowel. There was plenty there for anyone who wanted a constitutional theocracy, and enough to freak out anyone who thought that might not be the best idea.

“You know in the old USSR, some of you are old enough to remember that [all of them were, except those too young to remember SpongeBob] and every time they had a new leader, they’d rewrite the history books, well that’s kinda what the progressives do. But we hold these truths, these truths to be self-evident, that we are endowed with certain rights by … who, by who? …”

“By our Creator!” the audience replied in unison.

“We are children of God,” he continued, “because we’re made in his image.”

On it went, the full American theology, a flagrant Christianist misconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s specifically Deist rendering of reality.

“The pursuit of happiness!” Santorum said, “The founding fathers didn’t mean pleasure! They meant living in accordance with God!”

By now I was getting shouty in my head, wanting to raise the bit where Ben Franklin got closer to God via two whores in a bath in Paris. But Santorum was already on to de Tocqueville “read Alexis de Tocqueville! He knew how great we are!”

No, you read de Tocqueville! He thought democracy would turn you into an atomised mediocrity! Nurrggghhh!

The first part of Santorum’s speech was the most Messianic version of American exceptionalism on offer in the primaries so far, and drew in his grandfather coming over from Italy, to pursue freedom and escape fascism. In the second half, he outlined an economic plan that could have been straight out of Mussolini.

Having enunciated a constitution promising limited government, Santorum then outlined a program that was pure corporatism, a fantasy projection by which America gets back its manufacturing base. Santorum’s “Made In America” plan is a scheme not merely to reintroduce a degree of high-end manufacture, but to get back the sort of full-bore grunt jobs that have long since gone east.

“The average manufacturing job makes 77 thousand dollars a year. Those are the sort of jobs we can get back, if we can get high corporate taxes off the back of business and get those businesses back!”

The argument is a fantasy of course, and of a particular kind, for it reaffirms the idea that a certain type of America could be returned — solid, blue-collar jobs requiring nothing more than a high-school diploma, and offering a wage guaranteeing a life that would elsewhere be seen as middle-class. The message has resonated in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania whose towns are rusting wrecks, and in South Carolina, where the final departure of textile mills has cost the state much of its sense of self.

The contradiction between a minimal constitution, and the proposal for a federal industry policy that would draw energy and talent away from new industries and into old non-viable ones disappears only if you enter into the full fantasy that Rick Santorum is selling more than any other candidate — that the Constitution is a guarantee not merely of liberty of a sort, but also of prosperity, and dominance. This element, always present in American campaigns, has become obsessive this year, therapeutic. The crowds can’t get enough of it.

“Being exceptional doesn’t make us special,” Santorum noted in a barely consistent caveat, before noting “but we kinda know we are”, which brought a self-indulgent giggle from a section of the audience. They all do it, save Ron Paul, but Santorum is the one selling the most all-embracing nostalgia, the whole package, the Stars and Stripes on the lunch-pail vision.

He wrapped up with a bit of business about what a busy year this is for him family-wise, and how he shouldn’t be running … “but” (long pause) “it’s my dooty”. He has a low and portentous delivery that is sinister and compelling. He is a professional politician, of course, who has poured out the pork, souvenired the earmarks, opened his doors wide to lobbyists, and supported a whole raft of big government legislation.

One can usually find the gales of exceptionalia in US politics either amusing or merely blathersome, but there is something about Rick Santorum that gets under my skin, and it has nothing to do with his positions on sexuality, etc, which is simply consistent religious conservatism.It is instead the total fiction that he makes of his family’s history, as a way of inserting it into the national myth, and a fairly suffocating version of it at that. After all, Santorum’s father, a doctor in state-run veterans’ hospitals throughout his career, credited the New Deal-era GI Bill as “making his life”, allowing him to return from World War II and not have to slide straight into a job. The GI Bill was exactly the sort of “socialist” bill that Santorum purports to not merely despise, but believes is a net drain on the economy, and a debilitating enslavement to big government.

When your father is on record as saying that the government helped make the life that in turn made yours, there is something deeply dishonourable in traducing it — not merely on his behalf, but for the millions who gained better lives out of that initiative. It is part and parcel of the simple, total mythology that seems essential to holding national self-belief together. Going back one generation further, it got weirder — Santorum’s grandad Pietro came to the States in 1925 to escape Mussolini — but as a Communist, escaping fascist death squads. He later returned to Italy, where The Daily Beast found the other side of Santorum’s family — “I have visited them,” Santorum said in his speech, “they are wonderful people, but they are nothing like me” — and they were all Communists. That is all simply part of the complex history of the 20th century. But like doctored photos in the USSR, as the man said, Pietro Santorum has had a flag inserted in his hand, in a grainy photo at Ellis Island.

Later, after this appearance, Santorum got the endorsement of leading evangelicals, meeting in Texas. And tomorrow, he and the others will appear before the South Carolina Tea Party to pitch for their support. He’s still a serious candidate — so serious in fact, that one can write a whole article about him without mentioning his terrible googlebomb once (“a kid running for high school president would have fixed that googlebomb” pro advisers interviewed about the “Santorum problem” groused).

But in the case of both Tea Party and God-botherers, it is too late. Had either of these groups pitched in immediately after Iowa, they might have shifted enough support behind Santorum to put him above the pack, perhaps giving him a few per cent above Gingrich in the New Hampshire poll. Was the dilatoriness deliberate? Do both the evangelicals and the Tea Party leaders want to manage their base towards Romney, while giving the appearance of actively supporting a conservative?

That may have worked to give Romney a clear field. By now, the remaining candidates should have been running out of money, limiting their ability to damage the lead candidate. That hasn’t happened this year, because Supreme Court rulings made possible the return of “PACs” — Political Action Committee ads, endorsing no candidate, but attacking whoever they like. Indeed this is the year of the “SuperPAC” — groups funded by a few very wealthy individuals, such as Gingrich’s backer Sheldon Adelson. Championed by Republicans, they have kept minor players in the race — and allowed them to tear Romney apart.

The shift has changed primary politics, which is why, though Romney has established a clear a lead as anyone has in the past 30 years, he cannot seal the deal. The mainstream media are dismissing any alternative but a Romney coronation, which suggests it can’t be true. It probably is, but the primary system is built to surprise, and either Gingrich or Santorum may know something we don’t.

With Rick still working the crowd with his family — why do conservative families look like the stock photos they use to sell silver frames in stores? It’s as if the kids have been Photoshopped in, in real life — I left early. Waiting at the kerb, I saw a light and thought the cab had arrived early. It was the police, slowing down, and running a lamp over every pedestrian. The cab arrived 10 minutes later, an airport shuttle doing double-duty. Troy, the driver, had adult acne, a triangular chin and a trucker’s cap, and for all I knew a meth lab in the trunk, but he turned out to be a gentle, soft-spoken guy, a little reticent.

I told him about Rick Santorum, and the “Made in America” plan, and he laughed a little. “I used to be a glassblower. In West Virginia, town of Weston. Not fancy stuff, industrial. Casserole lids, flasks, lab stuff, everything. The factory had 40 of us. When it closed in ’02, I came here ‘cos my sister was here. Day I got here, I’ve never been more scared in my life. But ah, it’s a good gig.”

Did he miss his trade? “I miss it like hell. But, heh,” he shook his head slowly, “those jobs are never coming back.” The buildings got tighter, the white spires receded in the distance.

Peter Fray

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