Tossed palms at the street corners, the fraying and fading porches of Californian bungalows stretching back for kilometres, a low grey sky, and a foul tropical wind … St Petersburg has seen better days.
The city across the bay from Tampa was a product of the Florida land boom of the ’20s, sprawling across the peninsula, grid block after grid block. The boom laid down houses in their tens of thousands, bungalows with Japanese-style roofs and stone pillars, suggesting a new order of healthful nature, exotica, painted yellows and pinks and browns. Shops and garages at each corner, in art deco style — curved lines like cruise liners and seaplane wings, round windows, cherry-red light fittings, the streamlined and moderne, the past’s idea of the future. The city was the place to be in the ’20s. Then the Depression hit, and it’s been going quietly downhill ever since.
Some bungalows have been lovingly restored; others, houses that would give no change from a cool million in Melbourne or Sydney, rot away in the sea air. The shops on the boulevard have long glass display frontages, half-empty, or crowded with faded haberdashery and handicrafts. They make one tired merely by looking at them. At every intersection, they’ve punched in a shopping centre of the current style — dull-brown, slab-tilt, every sign — Walmart, Goodwill, Payless Shoes — general issue, undifferentiated, monopoly capital leaching away the sole virtue of the market, its exuberance. People drive up and haul away, as if at depots.
Today it’s bottled water. They’re coming out of the Walmart, loaded into carts, on palettes, going into the back of SUVs. The shelves near the registers are cleared of batteries, and torches are gone. Hurricane Isaac is coming, has hit the Florida Keys by now, and cities to the north are battening down. Tampa has already been entirely disrupted for the convention, the city criss-crossed with street-closures, concrete bollards pulled across, cyclone fencing around police stations. Casualty departments have been rehearsing decontamination scenarios. Everything has been oriented to the big gig at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the hot centre of the city for three days.
In Tropicana Field, St Petersburg’s forlorn sports stadium, the opening party of the convention is going ahead tonight, but the convention proper has been put back a day to start Tuesday, in case Isaac — currently heading towards New Orleans — adopts the style of the moment and takes a sudden right turn and hits us with full force two. Delicious irony.
Should the Republicans fail to gain Florida — and hence lose the election — it will be because the Democrats managed to turn out the Jewish vote on the east coast. Was someone in the National Weather Service having a sly laugh when they named it such? Why did they not simply call it Barack and have done with it?
Last time the Republicans gathered, in the unlikely province of St Paul, Minnesota, they were pumped. The Democrats had held their convention, but they’d lost the news cycle almost immediately as the Republicans had announced their vice-presidential choice the day after, and Sarah Palin had set the country aflame, for a moment trumping the Obamamania. The financial crisis had not yet hit, and John McCain had not yet made a fool of himself by announcing that he was suspending his campaign and returning to Washington to sort it all out. Palin had not yet been, well, Sarah Palin, and the tales of a frontier state governor who could shoot a moose, and sold the governor’s jet on eBay had sent a shiver up the backs of the great and good.
That was a long long time ago, and the part is older and a little wiser, at least as far as VP choice is concerned. They have as their candidate Mitt Romney, a man who excites no one, not even Mitt Romney. To appease the base, but purportedly avoid the bad craziness of the Palin trip, they have chosen Paul Ryan, a thoroughly competent, highly intelligent, utterly lunatic Ayn Randian manorexic from Wisconsin. That may or may not work — Ryan has already been implicated in the Todd Akin “r-pe doesn’t cause pregnancy” scandal. Nevertheless, he’s not the type to say that he understands NAFTA because he can see Canada from Milwaukee, and that’s why he’s there.
But that doesn’t make for much of a party, and the gathering at Tropicana was, well, not subdued — the Republicans are too batshit crazy to be subdued — but lacking a certain genuine zest of yesteryear. “I cannot believe that the American people will re-elect a man who knows nothing about what America is,” said Jim, a huge man, near spherical, in a blue blazer and tan slacks. He was from Iowa, from whose name he removed the sole vowel, rendering it as “Ow”, like a cry of pain. He was angry with the media, which had been grudgingly admitted. His wife, Maeve, a delicately boned woman in a lace dress, was more conciliatory.
“You’re from Australia? Do you know about Barack Obama and what’s he done?” She peeked out from behind her husband, orbiting him like a moon. Did they think Romney would win? “Yessir, but it’s a battle,” said Jim. Maeve: “What with the liberal media …”
They had no doubt that Romney would win, but there was no swagger in their voice. In 2008, they could not believe that Obama would win. Hardly an extreme judgement — after all, in early 2008, the Democrats didn’t believe that Obama could win. Now that he was the President, that fact was a little harder to ignore. They had a candidate they liked better than John McCain, who had troubling inclinations towards bipartisanship, and a veep candidate they loved, a man who wanted to reduce government share of GDP spending to 3.75% (from around 24%, itself one of the lowest figures in the OECD).
Yet they had no air about them that commonsense and sanity would be restored. They were waiting to find out what their country would become — or in their minds, if it would exist at all after January 2013.The feeling spread across the vast St Petersburg-Tampa conurbation today, for over at the other corner, at the University of South Florida, Ron Paul was holding a one-day counter-convention, a second instalment on the “Paulapalooza” event he had held in Minneapolis in ’08. This one was a little more subdued, if only because, in true form, there had been a split in the Ron Paul forces — with his more outre group staging a two-day “Festival of Paul” beforehand, at the fairgrounds, in which radical right-wing libertarianism mingled with heavy metal and the hardcore paranoia of the John Birch Society.
Paul skipped the fairgrounds fiasco — showing a circumspection he has not always displayed — and the split was significant, for it showed that the weird mix of boring Austrian economics and counter-cultural brouhaha that Paul’s supporters had pioneered, was coming apart at the seams. The crazies and the comb-overs were drifting back apart.
Paul himself is retiring, and his son Rand, a Kentucky senator, is taking over the family franchise. But he has nothing of Paul’s wiry charisma, and he is angling for a long career at the heart of the Republican Party, so he is toning down the one thing that has given the movement a broad appeal — Ron Paul’s uncompromising opposition to foreign adventures, and a US empire. Whether the Republicans win or lose in November, the Paul movement has peaked, and has started to fade.
Should the party win, many Paulites will happily fold into a fudged-up right-wing Romney era, satisfied that they have seen off an alien presence. The others will simply spin off into space, or into whatever bizarre movement endtimes American culture can come up with next.
But one way or another, the storm is coming in. You come out of an air-conditioned building, feeling like an iceberg lettuce, and into the hot wind twisting between the bungalows. There will be no relief, even should the storm come. The heat will not break, and so the whole city is held in suspension, but with no suggestion of what might end it, of what could.
Or of what would stop the slow wearing away, the flaking of paint, the salt air eating into the frame, that is now so all-pervasive in America as to be barely recognised.