“Hello, South Carolina, this great state that has given so much to this country.” In front of a row of flags tipped with gold eagles, Ted Cruz surveys the room and licks a little at the bare skin edges he has where lips should be. Christ, we’re in South Carolina again. I had almost forgotten. How did that happen? I hate this state, yet I keep ending up here. The glories of old Charleston cannot make up for the wretchedness of the place, its boring cities: Greenville, Augusta, Florence, sprawls without a centre, and at the centre of it all, the capital Columbia, the most boring city of all time. None of the New Hampshire charm, or candidates tripping over each other. Everyone’s spread out, hardening their arteries at backwoods rib joints, deadshit campuses and mausolean resorts in Myrtle Beach. Only the fact that this is a more interesting election than 2008 can make up for it. That, and the fact we’re on an aircraft carrier.
A goddamn aircraft carrier. They’re so huge you forget you’re on water; there is no movement whatsoever. This was essentially an auditorium under the flight deck, a vast space with a low grey metal ceiling, crowded with old planes and space junk, and dioramas about warrrrrrrrr. This was the USS Yorktown, a WWII-era carrier now put out to pasture at one of the dozen or so naval bases arrayed along the South Carolina coast. South Carolina has a huge military vote, and a huge veteran vote, and whoever claims a big slice of it is on the way to victory.
They get out, the vets, they do the rounds. They are aware of their power, take their responsibilities seriously, and they have nothing else to do. They’re out with their caps and their medals and their blazers, and they’re a logistical nightmare. They’ve lost limbs, to landmines and diabetes, they have to be shuffled into place, and they love to stand up and applaud. With Ted Cruz giving what the North Koreans call an “army first” speech, reeling off a list of Obama’s sins and omissions, they were up and down like the Dow, or Cruz’s erstwhile supporter Amy Lindsay. The thing took hours. And it was nine o’clock in the morning.
“I was lucky to be born in a country.” Applause. Applause? “Born in a country that could make this piece of steel!” Oh, I geddit.
“Yes,” said people behind me, sighing in satisfaction. “Yes.” “Damn right.” As Cruz reeled off a list of alleged weaknesses in the US military the level of satisfaction in the room rose steadily. This was what the people wanted — none of that debate nonsense, just a straight-out shot at disloyal Democrats, and the un-American at the top. We got to our feet. We sat down. We got to our feet again.
“We don’t want to bow down to political correctness, just as we don’t want our sailors to be on their knees bowing down to the Iranians!”
“What we need are … better kill vehicles!” Thunderous applause.
“We want our heads held high with a president who … has our backs!” Cries of “USA! USA!”
This was a loyal crowd, assembled at the last minute, the event dodged up barely 24 hours earlier, its purpose clear on a moment’s reflection. Team Cruz smells blood in the water. Bush blood. The previous evening, the increasingly beleagured Jeb! had unveiled his secret weapon — errrrr, Dubya, back on the trail to support his brother. Six months ago, Jeb was running like he didn’t know these people, and his surname was “!”. Now he’s trying, well, anything, because he’s currently running fourth or fifth in the polling, at around 7-11%, and in one ghastly poll, sixth, behind wacky Ben Carson, who has a strong following from Jesus freaks and the terminally addled.
The idea was that South Carolina values loyalty and service, and seeing Dubya, whose reputation has risen in the roseate glow of false memory, might convince people that the Bushes simply own the presidency and just give it to his brother. That would be enough to lift !’s vote just above either Cruz or Rubio or — god help Jeb — Kasich and keep him in the game as a third-place getter.
But it hasn’t gone according to plan, due to Donald Trump’s extraordinary attacks on Dubya in Saturday’s debate, repeated in the following days. Once again it was Trump as the motley fool, saying the truth that could not be uttered in court: George W. Bush was president during 9/11, and responsible for Iraq as well. Whether Trump intended to go on the attack or whether he was just riled is hard to know, but once started, he was going to finish it. On Monday he extended his remarks:
“Everyone says, oh, Dubya he kept us safe, he kept us safe. After 9/11 he kept us safe. What, apart from 9/11, the largest terrorist attack on the US in history? After that? What is that? The [other] team go 19 runs in the first innings, but after that, we won? He had all the intelligence from the different agencies on his desk, saying bin Laden might use aircraft to attack the US. That’s a management issue.”
This attack is a nightmare for the Republicans — beyond nightmare. They must have that pit-of-the-stomach-as-the-plane-goes-down feeling. The accusation is taking on a life of its own because it is true, and it has taken a great deal of energy to suppress it. This morning it was being discussed on that airhead gallery morning show Fox & Friends. For some, it has turned the re-appearance of Dubya into a negative. Since what most Republicans want is the fantasy of projected power, the reminder of its failure is the last thing wanted. Hitherto, the Dubya years were kept “intacto” by the myth of “the surge”, and how Obama bailed out just as everything was going right. That has collapsed instantly. No one even bothered to gesture to it. Dubya is looking ahead to a disaster.
Sniffing that, Cruz is now trying for that slice of the vote. He’s betting that this is the poll where Jeb’s supporters peel away and throw their support behind a Trump blocker, and he’s hoping that enough people have given up on Rubio to make him the heir presumptive. The major stumbling block in Ted Cruz’s path to being the people’s choice is that no one likes him. He is loathed by his Senate colleagues, whom he has double-crossed repeatedly, agreeing to a strategy, and then going rogue to the right of them, to gain attention as a maverick, the outsider inside Washington. He has hung out his shingle as a constitutionalist, insisting that borders be closed to people, while the US has the right to extend its forward defence to any point on the globe.
He is distrusted by establishment Republicans who believe him unelectable, and he creeps out independents. Known as a brilliant lawyer who memorised the constitution at age 13, he’s a half-Cuban kid, born in Canada, who wanted to be more American than the American born. He has a lawyer’s bloodless manner and he bears a striking resemblance to Dracula, in the Bela Lugosi version. He appears to have styled his hair to increase the likeness, probably a good move for a lawyer. He ‘s not so much a cold fish as a coelacanth recovered from the ice.
But the folks here love him. They’re service people, but they’re also Cruz’s civilian crowd, neat and well-dressed, but not plush — church-going but not Ben Carson hill people — clerk types and store owners: “we run a lighting store in the mall over yonder”, “I work in financial services”, “I’m an auto dealer”. They’re what Americans call “the middle class”, the petit-bourgeoisie in the old money, modestly propertied, eager to separate themselves from those below and petrified that it all might be taken from them. America’s greatness is their greatness, its diminution, their humbling, an affront to values they have lived their lives by.
More than any other crowd, they groove on a discourse of resentment and betrayal, something that a lot of other candidates have abandoned. They’re the outer wing of the Tea Party, the tricorner hat faction, who saw themselves as an insurgent movement, rather than a ginger group for the party’s right. Most of them would switch to Rubio, but they find him too light and youthful. Cruz’s grim humourlessness is, for them, an expression of seriousness required not only for the top job, but for any job, to live your life. They are the crowd most dismayed by Trump’s vulgarity, his appearance as a sort of exploded zombie Reagan, not because they see it as a characteristic of the rich, but of the working class they have risen from. The invisible but iron bands of American class are nowhere more present than around a Cruz crowd, resenting the entitled, the liberal, the academic, but also the populist.
“We need Cruz to stop Trump,” the woman beside me said. “He’s just, he tells people what they want to hear. None of this is easy. Obama thought it was easy.” She was distracted, trying to restrain her vet husband from rising to his arthritic feet, VA-supplied hips creaking, as Rick Perry took the stage for the warm-up (Perry wears glasses these days; they’re said to have blank glass in them. They make him look like Guy Pearce. It’s the gayest use of eyewear since, well, Guy Pearce). “Would you vote for Trump?” “Oh, if I had to. Anyone to stop the socialists.” “What about his call for single-payer healthcare, minimum wage and eminent domain, isn’t that all –“, but I was drowned out by the applause as Dracula emerged from the darkness of the loading bay. Perry has a rough-hewn humanness, but there’s no man-hugging here, as Cruz takes the stage.
The man has no charm, possibly no pores. The walk-out, where people gather round him, is clearly 10 minutes of hell. The woman behind me, dressed neatly but down, like for a day trip to an Indian reservation casino, and some weird pageboy haircut, could barely contain herself around him. Cruz could barely stay rooted to the spot beside her. When he smiles, it’s like a sandwich curling from staleness. He reassures that “of course I won’t let Obama select a Supreme Court justice”.
He signs proffered photos like he was authorising executions. Then he was gone, clattering down the metal stairs and into a death-squad SUV. He has a lot more of these to do. If he gets the chance. For Donald Trump has threatened to launch a challenge to Cruz’s eligibility to run for president, as a “natural born citizen”. The more is a long shot, but it would tie up Cruz for month, and Trump would only need to find one state court of a literalist bent to get the case going. And of course the Supreme Court is now in chaos. This election is almost too interesting, for Ted Cruz now has to hope Trump doesn’t find a judge who reads the constitution as literally as he does.
He can hold his head as high as he likes, lest it be swept off.