Singing in the old bars
Swinging with the old stars
Living for the fame

— Lana Del Ray, Video Game

Take a look at any map of Maine — where two days ago Mitt Romney narrowly beat Ron Paul 39% to 36% in the caucus — and you’ll notice something very strange, namely, that half the state is actually in Canada. Maine surges into the lower part of Quebec, and the people of its north were originally French-descended, as the names of towns — Lubec, Presque Isle, Cyr — suggest to this day.

Mainestaters have a genuine friendliness that is more Canadian in style than American-style courtesy, they have a lack of brag, and they put maple syrup on everything, including lobster. No kiddin’, man, I seen ’em do it. They also get Canadian weather and thus it was that north-easternmost Washington county was snowed in for much of the week-long caucuses that concluded on Saturday. Thus, it was that they could not caucus nor have their results entered into the grand tally of 5000 or so votes that made up the contest. It was — if you believe the Ron Paul campaign, never a sure bet, it must be said — that the 200 or so votes Paul might have gained from the north would have pushed him to a win, making Romney look so pathetically inadequate that his campaign would have been crippled afresh, and the search for an alternative given a head of steam. Conversely, Romney’s narrow win here — by 194 votes — though pathetic, binds the wound, ahead of a two-week hiatus in primaries. Thus it was, that Canadians may have chosen the next Republican contender, and perhaps President of the US.

The Maine result illustrates the occult absurdity of the primary process perfectly. Last time around, in 2008, Romney took 51%, with 2837 votes, beating the eventual candidate, John McCain, by 30%. This time he has won by losing about 700 votes, nearly defeated by a man who wants to withdraw the entire American empire back to borders. Nevertheless, this is counted as a win, and the official story is that he’s on the upswing again — a victory almost entirely dependent on shifting weather patterns. Had there been a thaw up north, Ron Paul would be making his first — and most likely only — victory speech, and going on past form would still be talking about the gold standard.

Such is the absurdity of this process, which is now creaking at the joists, that we don’t even know how many real Republicans voted. Though the caucus is technically closed, you can register as a Republican up to 30 minutes before a caucus begins. Part of Paul’s surge here — to 36%, up from 18% last time — is unquestionably from such highly motivated ring-ins. That would suggest that the real Republican vote has fallen to diabolical levels. Even better, Paul may still get the lion’s share of the delegates, as these are not allocated until the state convention in May – and Paul’s army have been resolutely learning the arcane voting procedures of each state, and getting themselves elected to local party chair positions, and the like, giving them pole position to get a slate of delegates selected.

By these exhaustive and exhausting means, the Paul campaign hopes to amass delegates in half a dozen proportional states, which would give them a crucial role in any split/open/brokered convention, whichever word they’re using for it today. Once again, the people running this are pretty shadowy — a few old-school libertarians activists, and some leftists who know the ropes in each state. Whether they are leftists willing to ignore Paul’s domestic politics in order to get his radical foreign policy out there, or simply Democrats in deep-cover, screwing things up for the GOP as much as they can, remains to be seen.

Thus, Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney bests libertarian Ron Paul, and the first part of the primary cycle ends, not with a whim, but a banker. When it resumes on the 28th, with Arizona and Michigan, there’ll be 17 primaries over a fortnight (plus a few for territories, etc) with the 11, mainly southern and great plains, contests of super Tuesday in the middle. Had things been going to plan, Mittens would have hoped to wrap it up in this period — he wouldnt technically get to the magic 11144 delegates he needs to avoid a broken convention, but he’d take such a big lead that everyone else would look ridiculous.

Had things been going badly, he would have been locked in a struggle to the death with Newt Gingrich, who has strong southern support. It’s a measure of how atrociously things are going for the GOP, that plan B is being superseded by plan C, in which Rick Santorum takes several states (including some Gingrich might have won), Newt takes Georgia and one or two nearby, and Romney is confined to base, i.e. Massachusetts and Michigan. Paul may have another chance of a win in Virginia — where neither Gingrich nor Santorum are on the ballot — and in the open-primary of Vermont where every homesteading draft-dodger who never made it to the border will put down the Ben and Jerry’s long enough to mess with the man’s head.

So, at the end of the mad March block of primaries, the race may be, rather than clarified, hopelessly confused, with the titular front runner having won a clear minority of states, and two contenders snapping at him, neither strong enough to supplant him of their own accord. That gives the contest a curious quantum character, in which the measurement of any one element changes the position of it and everything else in the race. Thus far, Romney’s has been purely positional — even in his own publicity — arguing that he should be chosen due to his popularity alone. When the latter evaporates — as polls suggest it has — the wave collapses. Gingrich positioned himself as, ha ha ha, a champion against the elites, but also as a man who was there at the Reagan revolution, the ’90s balanced budget yada yada yada, which in turn highlighted Santorum’s equally hilarious self-positioning as the aw-shucks, just plain folks, genuine conservative. When Gingrich’s position collapsed, amid a welter of Romney attack ads, his own appalling record and disappointing debate performances, Santorum was able to rush into the vacuum created, carrying a lot of the outsider charge.

That has created a rather bizarre result — while Romney remains the preferred national candidate, his numbers, vis a vis Obama, have fallen — polls suggest that the One would beat Mittens by an even 4% across the country, a figure that holds or widens in key swing states. Newt has always remained 10 points behind Obama, which is why conservatives have been loath to support him. Santorum, however, portraying himself as the true conservative, now rates only one or two points behind Obama in some national polls, and in a few key swing states, such as Pennsylvania. Those figures leave Romney with no selling point whatsoever.

So how did this happen? How did a pretty average candidate, working on a shoestring budget — relatively speaking; he still has millions at his disposal — come to the head of the pack? The short answer is that the two front-runners annihilated each other in negative-ad wars run by Super PACs, which had so discounted Santorum that they didn’t bother to attack him at all.

Three weeks into the season we had been repeatedly reminded that Mitt Romney had created “Obamacare” beta version in Massachusetts, held every possible position on abortion, allegedly destroyed American jobs through venture/vulture capitalism, that Gingrich was lying about his connection to Reagan, was a shameless influence peddler/lobbyist, to Freddie Mac, etc, and was simultaneously claiming to be an outsider, while trading on his record as speaker, etc, etc. Romney didn’t attack Santorum because he needed him in the race, to split the vote to the right of him. Gingrich needed to grab Romney’s votes, not Santorum’s base, to prevail. With both front runners disgraced, Santorum can plausibly sell himself as the “one true conservative”.

To observers from outside the American polity, the idea that neither Romney nor Gingrich are sufficiently conservative is hair-raising — both have a vision of domestic politics red in tooth and claw, and n-kedly supermatist abroad. Both have rushed to denounce any sort of universal health care, even if run by the private sector, to praise the building of border fences, reshape the Supreme Court to remove legal abortion, bomb Iran, occupy Syria, etc, etc. When either makes a remark that shows a hint of compassion or sanity — that there should be a welfare safety net, that deporting Mexican grandparents living illegally may not be practical — the remark is pounced upon as insufficiently stalwart, and the whole debate shifted rightwards. Santorum, though he was, as Pennsylvania senator, an old-fashioned champion of earmarks, pork, lobbyists, big government programs for favoured constituents, can portray himself as pure by advocating a health system with no public component whatsoever (save of course Medicare and Veteran care, vets and the aged getting full-bore socialised medicine). The contest becomes one of doctrinal purity, eschewing the most basic notions of political complexity.

The crowd go mad for this stuff, from Paul, Santorum and Gingrich alike. Paul scarfs up a mix of sound money freaks, anti-fluoridationists, holdouts on the Schleswig-Holstein question, Truthers and the rest, while the latter two competing for the base. Their different pitches illustrate two distinct ways of projecting the notion of American exceptionalism — Gingrich emphasising imperial grandeur, within which the return of domestic prosperity is but one God-given feature, while Santorum emphasises the theological nature of the Constitution — “rights endowed by our Creator” — and how prosperity and a good society flows from that.

The emphases look minor, but they’re crucial, for Santorum’s popularity increasingly derives from his small-scale vision. Defence-wise, he’s no Ron Paul, but he doesn’t talk about American imperial power in the same way Gingrich or Romney do — the rule-proving exception being a fanatical devotion to Israel. Romney goes after mainstream Republicans, and Newt after the sort of pugnacious bourgeoisie who talk about “carpet bombing” countries X, Y and Z, over sirloins and old-fashioneds in the Chattanooga Hilton red room. Santorum is on the hunt for working-class (or as Americans now call them “middle class”) Republicans and, by extension, Nixon/Reagan Democrats, who could be persuaded to drop Obama — about whom they are highly ambivalent — if the GOP can offer a candidate who reflects their own priorities, which, since 2008, have been very close to home, and turned away from foreign affairs.

That shift, barely noticed, is an enormous departure in American politics. Since the end of WW2, the groups that have swung between parties, for Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon or Reagan, have seen the projection of power as part of their identity as Americans — whether through a “world’s policeman” vision, or the “kill ’em all” point of view. That has been all but killed off by Iraq, Afghanistan and 2008 in quick succession. That has nothing to do with waste or casualties — which do not compare to Vietnam — but with the absence of any meaning that can be derived from such adventures. By having no real narrative — once the various fictions were stripped away — such adventures actually became a drain on meaning, an over-leveraging of identity. Their irresolvable nature generates not a sense of duty and sacrifice, but a weird sort of disjunctive frustration, a parallax, what Freud described as “the uncanny”.

The real and the imaginary is here in each other, and cannot be disentangled. The fantasy is dead, but the desire that provoked it remains. Gingrich feeds this by wholly committing to the fantasy, and doubling down on it. Lacking any sense of the real, he can’t tell when he has overshot the mark. So in Florida, he commits to reviving the space sector, cheers, which will get us back to the moon, with a base on the moon that cannot only shoot for Mars, but apply for statehood — at which point he looks back, and realises that the rest of the world is spinning in space far behind him. Reagan could have got away with it — well maybe not the statehood thing — but that was another time, and another man.Santorum eschews all that and stays close to the ground. His desired audience has never believed that the American dream lay in the projection of unlimited power, but in the day-to-day business of life lived in a manner both American and godly. Here Santorum’s politics are more recognisable to a non-American audience because they draw on the sort of Catholic social doctrine — chiefly, of subsidiarity — that pops up in Labo(u)r parties, and in right-wing corporatist outfits such as Peronism and Italian fascism … and Labour parties. “Family, faith and freedom” is Santorum’s catchphrase, and the order is telling. Because he must push such notions through the strainer of constitutionality and limited government, none of it makes a blind bit of sense.

Government will be minimised, but American manufacturing will be restored by what sounds like pretty dirigiste industry policy. People can pursue their happiness, but the family will be protected. The familialist obsession — the family as the unit of social life, prior to the individual — is of course in complete contradiction with the revolutionary individualism of Jefferson, Franklin and others as encoded in the founding documents. But that is of no matter, since family has held sway since the waves of immigration began to arrive in the 1860s. Then, clan and culture took over from the sovereign individual, and the atomisation of such in the past 30 years has been a root cause of the anomie and lostness that haunts American contemporary culture.

Santorum’s people are those who feel that loss most keenly, and they militate against it either through a commitment to fundamentalist Christianity, busy building a parallel culture, or through a persistent nostalgia for a world of physical industrial labour — “real jobs” — and neighbourhood-centred life. They are second- and third-generation Americans, who, under pressure of economic crisis, are regressing to the values and habits that previous generations adopted — limited aims and a certain fearfulness, simple concrete values, and a suspicion of later, especially illegal, arrivals. They don’t want moon bases, they want auto-parts factories. Those who like his economic message aren’t bothered by his deeply conservative, i.e. Catholic reactionary, social views. In world affairs, they are couldn’t care less about Syria, compared to the plight of Damascus, Nebraska. And those drawn to him for religious reasons see foreign affairs through the Book of Revelation in any case. Santorum has given them all a steady and consistent message. As a speaker, his delivery is poor, his thinking far from quick, and his raw numbers don’t rise far above his base. But they don’t fall away either. Santorum’s people come out. Romney’s don’t, and it’s that gap that has him winning primaries — such as Colorado — that Romney should have had sewn up long ago. Nor would contesting him in the general election be a straightforward matter, should he get the nomination by some arcane Jesus magic. He has quite a bit of baggage — pouring the pork, not living in his home state but using its school system for 5/9/23/something children — and it was enough to cost him his Senate seat in 2006, losing by 18 points to a socially conservative Democrat. But such petty matters may not play on a national stage, and his other mistake in the ’06 campaign — talking about a holy war against Islam — might be to his advantage, especially if Israel has by then made a unilateral strike against Iran, and all hell has broken loose.

With or without that, Obama would have to go head-to-head against him first as a moderate — indeed as a progressive conservative. He would be prudent, supporting traditional values, but without the terrifying fire-breathing religiosity, and the harsh right-wing economics. He would have to make the same pitch as he made against the McCain/Palin ticket at the time of the 2008 financial crisis — that identifying with a candidate was all very well, but at time of trouble, it’s better to have the smart guy you’d never invite to your barbecue in charge, rather than the folksy nonce in the sweater-vest. It’s a prospect the Republican establishment regard — both in victory or defeat — with n-ked horror.

The Santorum surge — and, yes, that disgusting image has been in everyone’s head as the phrase has been deployed over the past fortnight, thanks a bunch Dan Savage — is a measure of the utter ideological crisis that is transfixing the Republican party and its base, a genuine and far-reaching historical moment. For though the Republicans are now a smaller party and base than the Democrats — only about 25% identify themselves as Republican, compared to about 35% for Democrats — they are still a major stream in American life, and they have, to a significant degree, departed from anything that resembles a modern understanding of the world.

The full routine was on display in DC this weekend with CPAC, the grand conservative jamboree, where every pundit and dingbat gets to say their crazed piece. This year, there has been considerable disarray as the usual fire-breathing in unison has been disrupted by a grievous split on the “Romney” question. Thus, reliable maddies such as Ann Coulter, who have hitherto urged America on to kill all Muslim leaders and Christianise their people, are now meekly trying to sell Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan as different to Obama’s, to the fury of fellow conservatives. Sarah Palin gave her first ever speech to the conference, which had plenty of zingers, clearly professionally written — “in DC it’s time we drain the Jacuzzi and throw the bums out with the bath water” was a favourite — but it’s the same policy-free zone that offers magic, solutions, cleansing the br-ast of sin for a virtuous republic.

Elsewhere, the conference descended into the usual self-satisfying lower depths with hard-right conspiratorialist Andrew Breitbart announcing to a gaping crowd that he had “secret videos” of Obama’s college years, which proved that he was a decades-long, deep-cover plant by Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, to take over the presidency. The appeal of someone such as Breitbart to a large section of the base is very telling, for the core of his pitch cannot be assessed as anything other than clinically paranoid. “I asked Dohrn what happened to the anti-war movement and she said they’re now the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ crowd,” he told a rapt audience, “which affirms everything I have always known to be true!”. And everyone else as well, but for Breitbart’s audience it was the revelation of the Illuminati itslef.

This mix of national exceptionalism and religious predestination, of paranoid style, and political salvation has, in its breadth and depth, not been seen at the core of a major Western political party for some decades. As I noted in a previous piece, this has come through a decades-long insurgency with the Republican party, one that has now had its full fruiting. There is no doubt that a significant number of the base believe that Obama is a socialist, the America is at existential risk, that global warming is bunk, evolution unproven, and that the country has a special relationship to God, who will intercede in life if summoned by prayer. The crucial question now is, how far into the general population does that conception reach?

There is no easy answer to that. The pseudo-religious American mythology is so beguiling that it can get a grip on even the most apparently rational of men and women. And the country is in a funny place at the moment. For several months now, there have been signs of a very pallid recovery, with slightly leavened unemployment figures. That, together with Republican infighting, has seen great improvement in Obama’s polling. But it has also cast the country into a slough of despond. For the reality of a pallid recovery sets aside any more fantastic notion of some roaring return to prosperity. Most rational people know now that the West is not in the same place as it was during previous recoveries, in the early ’80s and early ’90s. The production slack will not now be taken up by the West but by the East, its access to markets guaranteed by the world trade system. Recovery in the West, such as there is, will be slow, partial and indefinitely stymied by under-consumption. Realistic-minded people accept this, and understand that there isn’t much in the way of affirming identity to be got out of the march from recession. Those who can’t bear to believe this are the ones most keen to sign on for the Republican fantasy — radical in its essence — that there is one root cause to this failure, a departure from the constitution. At no time in at least the past century has constitutional fundamentalism been such a force in American politics. Look back at presidential debates across the decade and you’ll find it mentioned no more than in passing. Even FDR’s attempts to get beyond its provisions did not provoke the same magical thinking as passes for political debate on the Right in America today.

Now part of the country is obsessed, the other depressed, and the national character bipolar. Through the whole month of the primaries, the ever-present pop cult meme was Lana Del Ray’s Video Game vid and song, the latter a mournful minor key chant, a bluesy psalm ostensibly about obsessive love but, like all the best pop music, shot through with transcendental yearning: “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you/Everything I do/I tell you all the time/Heaven is a place on Earth with you”. Like the Song of Solomon, the piece cannot really be read as anything other than a poem of romantic love (“Swinging in the backyard/Pull up in your fast car/Whistling my name”) but it only works if you also accept that other things — country, God — can become the subject referred to in the chorus line: “it’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you”. “I tell you all the time” could be prayer, even though we first read it as pillow-talk. More melancholic than Springsteen, more lyrical than Raymond Carver, the sense that “you” is really “country” is borne out by the lo-fi video-clip, an Americana cut-up of postcard cityscapes, super-eight home movies, Disney cartoons, TMZ paparazzi footage and a dozen other motifs, and the occasional billowing, sunshot stars and stripes. The arrangement of piano, harp, pizzicato strings suggests the forties, as does the femme fatale persona of Del Ray herself — previously, she was a folk-rock singer named Lizzy Grant — but the song’s motifs, of pool halls, sun dresses, “bad girls” and video games, span a half-century of fetish objects, all wrapped in a pre-’60s drawl of obsessive submission, Eros’s Islam in chain store satin and heart-shaped shades. It’s a dirge of loss, lack and longing not merely for a past, but for the past’s idea of a future, and the song and the singer would not have become an object of national obsession if it had not touched a deep, minor chord at the heart of the nation. That the centre of this desiring fantasy is a near-dead symbol — a video game, ultimate time-killer, zero degree activity — channels a deadness at the heart of American culture, in an era where surplus and excess have congealed to surfeit and waste.

To drive across the country now is to see an endless procession of decaying half-filled malls, laying like mausolea outside the towns they killed a generation ago. The remains of America, such as appear in Del Ray’s song, live within this enormous vista of discard and frozen desire. When the money flows back in, should it ever do, such places will not be revived. Either they will be left to slowly rot — the big-box stores, the office parks, the empty spec suburbs — and form an abscess in the body politic, or there will be mass demolitions, bulldozer potlatch, a creative destruction of two decades worth of destructive creation. The only way to avoid knowing this, the only way to not get Del Ray is to throw oneself into some perverse celebration of it all, fuelled by a mix of Jesus and Zoloft. Before you know it, you’re wearing a tricorn hat and yammering about freedom, as much a liberation from America as for it.

Which brings us back to the Maine conundrum. For what if that national border had sliced through the top of the state? The people there would be six generations Canadian, talking multiculturalism and Leonard Cohen, and watching the strange obsessives across the border argue about the wording of eighteenth century documents. Indeed, there’s a great moment in The West Wing, which plays with such a notion, in an episode where Donna is excluded for security reasons from a state banquet because the US/Canada border has been moved around her home town, and she is now not officially an American citizen — which prompts her colleagues to arrange for the banquet to display the Canadian flag, and play the country’s Del Rayesque low-key anthem Oh, Canada. The plot point is absurd, even childish, but illustrates all the more effectively the arbitrariness of nationhood, and how history is, inter alia, a process of working out where to stand in relation to your own given traditions. Now back in London, where instead of 90-second sound-bite wars, interrupted by Viagra ads, there is a public culture — but no one who didn’t go to Cambridge with Martin Amis is allowed to join it — it becomes all the clearer that this is what this election is about. Not, as the Republicans absurdly claim, about whether it will survive or not, but about what attitude it will take to its own history. Will it dive more deeply back into it for answers — a process going from the politically scholastic to the Talmudic — or will it look outward, be humble and real and consolidate its virtues with a wider sense of what a nation can be? No great mystery which side I come down on in that dilemma; we’ll see what road America takes. In the meantime, and until we return to the primary process, Del Ray for President — 2012 and 1948. You know it makes sense.

Peter Fray

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