Shuttling into Cleveland on Thursday night, after a nine-hour hell route to Ohio from NY — direct flight cancelled for snow which seemed pretty light to me, but what would I know — it was two days since Rush Limbaugh had made his “sl-t” comments about Congress witness Sandra Fluke. But people were still talking about other stuff, like the economy, or Mitt Romney’s double down gaffe — after disparaging people at NASCAR races wearing ponchos he noted: “Look, I’ve worn a garbage bag for rain gear myself”, just to confirm that he thought these people were trash.

Historians will marvel at his campaign, as over the 1999 Kennett campaign and similar kamikaze operations.

Next to me in the lounge, a shapely blonde, elegant as hell until she opens her mouth, speaking into a mobile phone and then it’s Jersey Shore “honey, you there, they’ve put us on a connection to Philly, I saw the plane and oh my god I almost shit myself, I already took a Xanax … yeah it’s one of those planes with the, you know, the fans, on the front …”

It’s not a good omen.

In the dusk, one flight later, we come in over Cleveland, and I noticed that somewhere in the suburbs, they’d built a scale replica of a city, with empty streets, but perfectly replicated, art deco skyscrapers and red-brick warehouses next to a copy of the snaking waterfront that … hang on. It was the damn city itself.

Coming into it through its endless suburbs, one had the impression this was the ultimate American ghost city, its major buildings preserved, its everyday life, its small scale ugliness, its scumble, long gone.

Nothing will ever entirely rid me of the fantasy that flying into this or that town will suddenly reveal a whole hidden world, now recorded only in Hollywood or the photos of Weegee, a bustling downtown, a city with its own rich and unique way of life, full streets, shops, apartments on top of each other. Instead it’s car parks and parks.

Cleveland has preserved its grand stone buildings, masterpieces of high 20th century commercial architecture, when no self-respecting insurance company would house itself in a glass-box, but required Doric colonnades and stone eagles at each corner. Walk past one of these buildings and there is a cafeteria in the ground floor lobby, all booths and glass cake cabinets, gathering dust. Cleveland is the most Hopperesque city one could hope for, a memory of cities that persists in the half demolished ruins that survive.

It is the world that conservatives continually hark back to. But since it has been scattered in ways that no-one can really talk about — although Chrissie Hynde’s song My City Was G0ne about the destruction of Akron, Ohio, pretty effectively captures it — the search for a traditional America goes elsewhere, leaches out, follows any channel it can take.

Thus, all week, when the Republicans should have been talking about the economy, 8% unemployment, the continued precariousness of tens of millions of American lives, they focused instead on sex. It wasn’t even abortion, that go-to issue, but had regressed to the question of what sex was, what human existence was.

By Thursday, Rush’s comments had been circulating freely on all media, and by Friday he’d doubled and even tripled down on the remark. Having remarked that Fluke, the woman who had testified that uninsured contraception would cost her $3000 over three years, was a “slut” and “prostitute” who wanted to be paid for sex. The double-down was that she should film her s-xual encounters as a quid pro quo.

But the killer was Limbaugh’s comment was that she was having “so much sex” that that was why her contraception was costing so much — leading many to suggest that the morbidly-obese, four times married shock jock thought the contraceptive pill was like Viagra.

For three days the Republicans had tried to avoid the Limbaugh issue. But Fluke herself, though the picture of an east coast bluestocking, came across as calm and self-possessed — all the more so, when President Obama called her, to offer his support.

For the GOP candidates there was no way to avoid it. Would they stand up, and denounce this most unconservative of interventions? They would not. Romney said it was “not the words he would have used”, suggesting he would have called her a sl-t in a more Massachusetts fashion, while Rick Santorum said that it was an “absurd comment” but that Limbaugh was “an entertainer”. It was a double-fail, especially for any independents watching, which seemed to confirm that the party was leaving the planet.

By Friday night, the situation was in crisis, as a campaign against Limbaugh’s advertisers began. The first to pull out on Friday night were two mattress companies. After that was business software, and in quick order six companies had pulled their sponsorship of the show — which reaches 15 million people a day.

All three candidates were criss-crossing the state, which is essential to both Romney and Santorum’s strategies, but any chance of a positive angle had been long gone.

In Bowling Green, a small college town outside of Toledo, both Gingrich and Romney spoke, about anything but the issue, to an audience of cheering Republican diners — but all the press wanted to know about was their reactions to Rushgate. The Sunday morning shows were dominated by it.

By that point Rush had caved, apologising fully, and claiming that he was used to “meeting absurdity with absurdity” and that he may have got it wrong.

What had been got wrong — as the war-drums banged for Iran at AIPAC, as Obama made a clear six points over Romney in swing states, as the GOP tried to get the topic onto energy — was the idea that fertility should be part of health insurance, that it’s a matter of bodily management had become the party’s enemy.

Though many would call it a “war on women”, which it was, it was at its root, something deeper, a war on the idea of real freedom, the freedom that is at the heart of secularism, and is necessarily so. But to admit that, to admit that there is no anchoring divine order, would be to admit that we just work things out as we go along. Which would suggest that it is just a question of one set of arrangements against another, not the god-given order of things against sin.

And that step — among the empty cities, the caverns of streets, the ample proof that things do not, of themselves, come right, would demand politics rather than theology. And the GOP ain’t in the politics game anymore.

They’re on a plane with those fans things at the front, and Xanax. Honey, I almost shit myself.