Rochester, Michigan — The Park Royal Hotel rises out of the scrublands north of Detroit, like the castle of an old family retainer, sculpted entirely from milk chocolate. It has a sort of double-replica look, a copy of a copy, bay windows and vague castellations and crenellations, a great pile with valet parking. They’re working furiously this evening, big sleek cars coming in from both directions, town car hires, no cabs, a couple of limos. Folks streaming in, in all combinations of red, white and blue, although the combination is white, white, white, white, white … white, black, white. Portly people, most in their 50s and 60s and more, with a few sullen teenagers in tow. Inside it’s chaos. Faux-panelled room leads on to faux-panelled room, all with carefully overstuffed armchairs, and glossy magazines lain half-open on glass tables. The registration table is in the back of a huge room in the faux-panel style, with fauxnch windows opening onto a flauxn (a faux lawn) — OK I’ll stop it now.
The registration table looks like all registration tables do at such events, like the welcoming committee of some ghastly sorority social, and you can bet the ladies — it is always ladies — giving out the name-tags were doing exactly that not a few years ago. “Yeeeees,” says a blonde ice-queen looking me up and down and assessing my travel gear — I’m en route to the airport — dark pullover, jeans, workboots and bag, and wondering if Islamic State has not finally arrived, and the bag is full of heads. When I say “press”, her relief is visible, the world making sense again.
As the room fills, the sound of glad-handing and backslapping reverberates, like a series of small thunderclaps. “How y’doing, how y’all doing?”, they appear to develop a Southern curl to their accents, even though they’re all from Oakland County, the exurban area that wraps around the northern part of the benighted motor city, embracing it at a very great distance. Contingents arrive, of state reps, and of congressmen and women, and Senators. They pour into the room in formation, in an established order, thin young men and women, interns from conservative camp, gliding through all this mass, all this hefty stars’n’stripes-clad corn-fedness, like cleaner fish, the boys in blue suit, white shirt, red tie; the girls in a little cocktail dress and pearls. The boys all have peachfuzz, and the girls are weak from not eating, and they are all pretty ineffectual and there to serve as entourage, but they charge around conferring with each other, and with the staff, who are all black: “OK the Senator will come through here, will there be a clear space … ” “Can we look at the soundboard settings … ” “Hi … ” “Sorry, who are you … ?”
Red white and blue on the kids. Blue, red and a little white on the guests, and the effect is dizzying, like an enormous op-art installation. They have two ways of dressing red, white and blue this crowd — when you’re working, official, the shirt must be the white thing, the suit blue, the tie a splash of red (the one free choice is the patterning and texture of the tie); and a blue cocktail dress or business suit for the ladies. When it’s party time, you let yourself go: a flame red shirt, an electric blue tie, or a red suit and a white tie and a deep blue shirt, stars and stripes on dresses are not looked down on, all tending towards the palette of the rodeo clown. The room is heaving. Everyone’s having a good time. It’s the Lincoln Day Dinner, and Rand Paul is in da house.
“This is the 125th Oakland County Republicans Lincoln Day Dinner, the oldest continuous Lincoln Day dinner in the country,” says the MC, to wide applause, once everyone is seated in the massive ballroom. True, no doubt, but for most of that time Oakland County was a farm area, with the small town of Rochester as its seat. Then it was a network of small cities and towns — Troy, Pontiac — that were part of the auto industry. Now it is a sprawling exurb, the third richest county in the country by some measures, a place where malls are replaced by bigger malls, above the country’s most broken and ruined city. The growth of Oakland is a testament to just how far people were willing to go to get out of Detroit, heading for the border of the city and beyond so as not to be part of its bailiwick. For Michigan Republicans, it’s been a disappointing election. Their Senate race, with Democrat Gary Peters pitted against Republican Terri Lynn Land, was initially listed as one in contention — and was almost immediately moved out of that, as Peters quickly developed a 15% lead. But with only a few days to go, polls elsewhere make a GOP takeover of the Senate a near certainty.
The party will win, walk-round-the-bases in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, almost certainly win Arkansas and Louisiana, and the Democrats’ firewall of Colorado and Iowa appears to be going backwards with the Republican candidates — both Tea Party approved extremists — building four and five point leads against their decent, progressive but uninspiring Democrat incumbents. Victory is close, an upset would only come about due to major poll inaccuracy (not impossible), Hillary has made a recent unforced gaffe — saying corporations don’t create jobs — and the behaviour of Ebola nurse, Kaci Hickox, refusing to go into quarantine, has swung the public mood back into Big Fear territory, and tonight we are going to hear from the Great Whites’ great white hope — Rand Paul, the son of Ron, Tea Party endorsed, but who has managed, over the last 18 months, to carve out a path towards the mainstream. Personable, reasonably spoken, and unlikely to veer off into unique theories of the female reproductive system, Paul has given many on the Right of the Republican Party hope that they can be more than an insurgency, and actually take executive power.
“[Rand Paul] was half-effectual, striking the wrong note, much of the time, not giving the audience love as Bill, Barack and Hillary can all do. But the mix of ideas he’s creating — well. That’s another story.”
There’s a murmur of excitement when Paul enters the room, with entourage, like some rap crew had a Freaky-Friday style body-swap horror round the eight-mile border. First, we have the pledge of allegiance, which everyone does, guests, journos, waiters balancing plates with one hand, other on heart, and then an enormous woman from a back table, one of the few black families there, comes forward and murders America the Beautiful, Mel Torme style, uh … (whisper) meeeeeeeeee … ri KAKAKA the BEYOU BEYOU BEYOUTIFUL etc — it takes about four minutes for the one verse. She sweeps back to her table to applause. Her daughter, the most beautiful young woman I’ve ever seen, curvy, flawless, eyes her mother with pride. And then it’s Rand, running up the stairs on to the stage. “Hello hello hello!”
He’s small and neat, Rand, what his dad must have looked like before he became shrunken and wizened. He looks like, well, like a Democrat, nothing like the good ole boys or the mad ladies — Cruz, Rubio, Bachmann, Palin — who were the face of the Tea Party for a while. When he speaks to the media — he’s on the cover of Time this week — he has the manner of a centrist too, acknowledging the legitimacy of his opponents’ ideas (“I just disagree with them”), while pitching extreme free market ideas as mere “solutions” from the radical centre. Here, it’s a different crowd, and a different style.
“It’s great to be in a place where you begin with a prayer instead of voting it out of the room,” he says to big applause. “Remember the Democrat Convention they voted against God,” he says, referring to a complex platform vote in 2008. Clearly not many do, because the applause dies away. And away we go on a stumble through all the favourite government talking points. “Can I get a small glass of water? … we need a little smaller government, yeah” … “This President has added more debt than all the other 43 presidents combined” … “When we shut down the government and they sent workers home, we found that 90% of one department were inessential. Well why were they there at all?” … “From this President we just keep getting lawlessness … this President who said ‘you didn’t build that’ … now Hillary says ‘corporations don’t create jobs'”.
It’s getting applause, but it’s all a little lacklustre and rehearsed, and you get the sense that Paul’s heart isn’t in it. Paul is no dummy, and he comes from a family with an intellectual commitment to libertarianism, with a dad who was never really much into the exceptionalism stuff, last best hope, greatest country ever etc. That’s what makes Rand Paul a little more interesting to those outside the bubble. But it means he’s far from a natural inside the bubble, where Cruz, Rubio etc are just dummies who can spout contradictory platitudes all the long day. When Paul stumbles out of platitude and into a reasonably cool-headed explanation of quantitative easing, he almost loses ’em entirely. He changes tack abruptly, “here a scandal, there a scandal” — “but the one that matters most is Benghazi”. And that gets big applause.
Ah Benghazi, that perfect scandal. Four US diplomatic corps killed, a minor cover-up of the changing spin on the story in the days following, and you have an almost inexhaustible source of confirmation of everything the good ole boys and gals always believed about President Ebola. Recently things have changed. Now they’re no longer hanging it on Obama — did he want them killed? Was this part of the plan? — but on Hillary, then-secretary of state, for arrogance and dismissiveness. “Best of all, she can’t hit back with a reminder of the 5000 US troops killed in a pointless Republican war, because she voted for it.”
“Benghazi should preclude Hillary Clinton from ever being President” gets a huge roar. And then it’s back down from there, because Rand just can’t help himself, can’t stop thinking or expounding a wider ideal. “Libya was a mistake” — big applause — and really, Gaddafi was a terrible dictator, but he was secular and against the Islamists, and we shoulda left him there.” Gaddafi? The great enemy of the great Reagan? No, no, no. Just stick to “Libya was a mistake”.
It gets worse. “We’ve got to do something about prisons. We made a big mistake there, with three strikes, we got folks in jail for minor drug possession, for 15 years, that’s wrong.” He’s right, but it doesn’t make him popular here. Barely 10% of the tables applaud — all in one section, a sort of libertarian reef — and as I look around to count them, people look at me sharply, not wanting divisions aired. Secret Republican business.
But Paul has now turned his fire on the party itself. “We have to stop thinking of parts of this country as no-go areas. We have to win votes in Detroit!” In Detroit? These folks wouldn’t go into Detroit if they’d won the lottery and had to pick it up downtown. “We’ve got to win votes in Atlanta.” i.e. black cities, hence the discussion of drugs and prison, seems to be the segue. “We’ve got new ideas, for freedom zones with no taxes for new businesses!” i.e. a race to the bottom, with more money sucked out of the economy and base social infrastructure collapsing. “We’ve got to win votes where we’ve never won them before!” And then an odd ending, a quote from an artist who said, “paint like you were coming over the hill singing”, and I dunno, it was just odd. Suggested the man had some breadth to his life, but for this crowd, just odd.
And then he was gone, out of the hotel, barely a handshake, into the car the valets had brought around, and on a plane to the next “support” gig. He was half-effectual, striking the wrong note, much of the time, not giving the audience love as Bill, Barack and Hillary can all do. But the mix of ideas he’s creating — well. That’s another story. In 2016, faced with a continued failure of full recovery, another Middle East quagmire, and a dynastic handover, to extend the Bush-Clinton cycle, there may well be a public so nauseated with this torpidity that sufficient numbers may be attracted to Rand’s recombination of ideas from right and left, and the fuzzy notion of economic “freedom zones” to create dynamic economies. It is a proposition as fantastical as this whipped-up whimsical hotel in this white suburban fantasyland, but it’s faintly possible that by 2016, a majority of the population will have had all the reality they can take.