“Palin says everyone should speak American”, “Huckabee: Resist the Supreme Court”, “Deflategate, witness credibility shattered”. Checking out the headlines at Boston Logan airport, waiting to find out where my luggage had been sent, with a few hundred people fanning themselves against the night heat, your correspondent gave silent thanks for the American desire to put on a show. It’s the peak of summer, and its end, marked by Labor Day, September 7. It’s a big holiday in New England, though not out of any desire to celebrate the eight-hour day (it was established to take the energy out of the real Labo(u)r Day, May 1), marking the end of the social season. The right people hold garden parties, drink fruit punch and wear white, which is verboten after the day, as fall descendeth. Everyone else enjoys their four days of annual vacation and goes back to the afternoon shift at Family Dollar Stores. Round the baggage carousels, half the crowd is in white and beige, angels moving among us in some celestial arrivals hall.
There will be not a few political operatives scattered among the arrivals too, though white is not their favourite colour. Fourteen months out from the actual presidential election, and a full five months before the primaries even begin, around 15 major nominee campaigns are operating full time. The Donald, Jeb!, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Hillary, Bernie Sanders and a dozen more are criss-crossing the country, with a decided focus on New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, where three of the first four primaries will take place in February next year. The Democratic contest is a grinding, policy-first slogfest between Hillary Clinton and Vermont independent (and self-described socialist) Bernie Sanders, the latter’s intent to move Clinton leftwards. That could all get a lot more complicated, but for the moment the real competition is on the Republican side.
Two weeks after the first TV debate, heading towards a second and final for the year, on September 16, there are 17 Republican candidates still in the game in one way or another. This is the last chance for some to make some sort of mark, both on the public and, more importantly, on a number of large backers willing to provide a large single donation — in the many millions, via various means — that will allow a shoestring operation to set up a larger fundraising operation, and get some actual public support. That’s what most of this is about for the moment, showing the cut of the jib.
To put it bluntly: the nominee process, at this stage, has become one big sugar-daddy audition.
Thus has it been for several decades. This year, it’s worse, because of a blundered attempt to make it better. For several decades, the town of Ames, Iowa, the first primary (caucus) state, has held a “straw poll”, at their state fair — a sort of on-the-spot pre-pre-primary, which was utterly unscientific and particular, and turned a lot on the candidate’s commitment to the maintenance of biofuel crop subsidies and other matters of national importance.
Yet as vague as it was, the Ames straw poll was useful to the party in working out what marooned midwestern white people thought of what was on offer. True, it could elevate loonies — crazy lady Michele Bachmann won it one year — but it also cleared out deadwood, who’d had their one shot at getting out of the pack and failed. Because it was elevating people like Bachmann, the Republican Party abolished it this year. So no Bachmann crazies — Trump would obviously have won it in a hayslide — but no clear decision point, either. So these doomed candidates — Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, etc — push on, hoping that a few gaffes by others, a particular issue they can make their own, will get them into the middle rankings. They have no realistic chance of making it to the nomination. Do they possibly imagine they could be president? No, is the long answer. They want leverage down the line. Yes, is the short answer. Talk about what you’d do “on day one” to enough gatherings of six people in living rooms, and you’ll see yourself in the White House in no time.
Which is what makes the process so delicious. It’s delusional from start to finish. Made all the more so this time around by the rise and rise of Donald Trump. The crazy-haired foul-mouthed tycoon, with his gangster New York style, his cutting rudeness — “they’re stoopid. They’re all stoopid” — has been widely supposed to be a flash in the pan, to be over any day now. That’s based on the 2011 pre-primary season for the 2012 election, when Newt Gingrich (“let’s colonise the moon, and make it a US state”), Herman “Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan” Cain, Rick “Oops” Perry and Rick “Santorum” Santorum, each had the lead for a few weeks before the contest proper started. That time around, Trump had already been and gone, knocked out of the competition by his adoption of birther-trutherism — and Obama’s immediate publication of the full birth certificate. This time, it was assumed that his early lead would be hit hard by a series of gaffes and the Republican right would move onto another representative love object.
That hasn’t happened, and it’s kept on not happening for six weeks now. And let the record show that the Labor Day weekend 2015 marked the point at which the Republican establishment began to panic about Donald Trump. The reason is not hard to see: the numbers. Trump’s numbers are phenomenal, and they’re strategically placed. The Republican establishment wouldn’t mind if he took Iowa or New Hampshire or even both — ultimately successful candidates often lose one or both. But Trump is sitting on 25%+ in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina — and also in states such as Florida, which would be part of the second tier of states going to primary. These numbers are twice what anyone else is getting, with Trump’s nearest competitor languishing at 11% and 12%. Second place varies by state — in Iowa it’s Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon (and Creationist), in New Hampshire, John Kasich, former Ohio governor and hedge-fund manager who has come up through the ranks, in South Carolina it’s changing daily. But nowhere is it Jeb Bush, the mainstream candidate, or grudgingly accepted as such. His numbers are at 5% and 6% in some places, rising to the high teens down south, but in the lead nowhere.
Suddenly the Republicans have no real front runner. Their actual front runner is a joke, a TV effect, a concentration of all the frustration and fantasy of a section of white America, the second runner is a neurosurgeon, a black man risen from great poverty, with a compelling life story but a lack of anything other than hospital administration experience. Third runner is Carly Fiorina, ex Hewlett-Packard CEO, with a great deal of leadership experience — but none of it in politics. All of this appeals to the deep anti-political mood, but it’s a mood that is wholly contained on the right, and its anti-political expression is the idea of a republic where there is no politics at all. Every solution is common sense and merely needs to be applied. Sarah Palin, in her return to the front-line TV interview stakes, admonished Jeb for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail — as against “American” — and when asked if she would serve in a Trump cabinet, said that she would like to be Secretary of Energy, in which role she would abolish the department at the federal level, since energy production — i.e. cross-nation pipelines and offshore drilling — is obviously a local matter. “So I would like that role, however, uh, short it would be.”
Trump’s politics are mixed, to say the least, arguing for higher taxes and less government, universal healthcare and spending cuts. No one cares. He can talk back to the evangelicals, and they still back him. The culture-war frisson du weekend was that around Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is now law across the US via a Supreme Court decision. Davis, a born-again Christian, has been refusing to issue licences or allow them to be issued — and since she’s an elected official she can’t be sacked. So after repeated refusals she was jailed for contempt of court last Friday (since released), and is fast developing living-martyr status. Her fervour is due in part to her convert’s zeal for she has, well, let Wikipedia tell it in deadpan detail:
“Davis has been married four times to three different men. The first three marriages ended in divorce in 1994, 2006, and 2008. She is the mother of twins, who were born five months after her divorce from her first husband. Her third husband is the biological father of the twins, who were adopted by her second husband, Joe, who is also her fourth and current husband.”
She has all the marriages. There are no more left. Poster girl for the “only the traditional marriage can provide stability” crowd.
Legally, and constitutionally, Davis has got zip to go on — and thus the issue has become a test of how truly conservative you really are. To support Davis is to plug into the right’s Congress-first ideal, the suggestion that the Supreme Court is tantamount to an illegitimate organisation, a remnant dictatorial part of government. Only Mike Huckabee, the post-Clinton Arkansas governor who ran in 2008 and was famed for having lost close to 65kgs (150lbs) from his Southern-fried-fuelled frame. He’s got most of it back now, and his Christian hard-right stance, too, visiting Davis in prison. He’s gained from that, others have lost support for humming and haahing over it. Except for — Trump, of course. He’s said Davis should obey the law or resign, yet he continues to ride high. It’s a measure of the degree to which people will bend their ideals to allow them to support anything, anything that allows them to fantasise about chasing the black guy out of the White House in such a way that his legacy is repudiated.
The result of all this? Pundits are now talking of the possibility of Trump rolling right into the primary season, scarfing up enough primary victories to not only emerge with hundreds of convention delegates, but to limit other candidates to a few victories each. Which would mean a “brokered convention” — where the nomination is gained by horse trading — for the first time in decades. That will most likely look foolish in nine months’ time. But no one has a clue what the common sense will be, or what will have looked obvious in retrospect. All bets are off, and quite possibly, by January, the country will be begging for a dictatorship. And no, I never got my head around what deflategate was all about, as unseen, unremarked upon, in the cold north of New Hampshire, the leaves begin to turn.