“This is not just a single-issue campaign.” On the giant flat screen in the Greyhound station in Atlanta, Hillary Clinton is giving her victory speech from the Nevada caucuses. Glowing blonde and in a red top, she’s a riot of colour, compared to the depot — which is done in blue tiles and black wire furniture, like a medium-security prison, perhaps to make many of the clientele feel more at home. “Here in Nevada, a brave young girl told me how she feared her parents being deported.” Gaaaaaak. La Clinton’s victory speech is more magnanimous than her concession speech in New Hampshire, which was a passable rendition of Downfall. “Others may have doubted us but we never doubted each other!” Yurrrrkkk.
A few people look up, watch with mild interest, but nothing approaching enthusiasm or rapture. Her expansive promises that everyone will be raised up, that all oppression will be ended, seems, here, as if it were coming from another country. When I’d began the journey in Columbia, five fun-filled hours earlier, from an identical depot, the TV had been carrying the funeral of Antonin Scalia, a full Catholic mass conducted by his son, vestments, incense, the works. That little exercise in the reconciliation of church and state looked like it was coming from another planet.
During the course of the afternoon, while South Carolina voted for a Republican candidate — ha! spoiler alert — Nevada Democrats caucused and gave Hillary a narrow win, 53-47, over Bernie Sanders. By any measure, this was less than a triumph. Clinton had been presumed to be a good 20 points ahead of Sanders until only a few weeks ago — this, in a state whose Democratic apparatus is dominated by party-machine unions, whose caucuses take place at 11am, mostly in workplaces like casinos, and which are judged to be about as straight as Ray’s Launderette and Slots, Elko, Nevada.
That she could only get 53-47 was a measure of how close it has all come in. By last week, the first polling taken showed them running at a dead heat, which led to reports of outright panic in the Clinton camp, and what we’ve come to expect as the usual missteps: Hillary attacking Sanders as some sort of Bernie-Come-Lately who has only just cottoned onto the idea that oppression exists in America and it is t.e.h bad, surrogates going in harder — trying to erase Sanders’s civil rights record, which began with an arrest in 1963 — and Bill arriving with some genius remarks of his own, to the effect that Sanders’ supporters are the Tea Party of the left. Despite the close result it’s being spun as a huge and agenda-setting victory by the meeja, and will thus probably become so.
In the Uber on the way to an affordable hotel, which was effectively out-of-state — cities like Atlanta need another word for them, the ungrouping of their key areas to such an extent that they float in this undefined space, Atlanta and not-Atlanta — the results for the South Carolina Republican primary started to come in, and they were pretty extraordinary and exactly what was to be expected at the same time. The Donald had triumphed. His vote rose to 35% on early returns and came back to 32%. Cruz and Rubio came in at a virtual tie around 22%, which they will both hate more than a clear win-loss. Rounding out the bottom but already committed to staying in were John Kasich on 8% and Ben Carson on 6%. And in the middle, starting the night for one glorious half hour on 15%, but quickly falling back to 9%, was poor old Jeb Bush. Fourth in the running and narrowly avoiding fifth in the state his family liked to call its own was a pathetic result.
At the motel, I switched on CNN just in time to see his concession speech, preceded by a breathless announcement from the CNN floor guy that “Governor Bush will be suspending his campaign”. Yay, CNN. You got the scoop. When Jeb emerged, he was puffy-faced, red, and had either been crying or coming (people deal with loss in different ways). The energy in the room gathered and focused on him in the usual mind-meld: don’t lose it, man, hold it together. He waffled a bit, and then got to the point: “The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision.”
He didn’t say “… and we’re polling 1% in Nevada, and zeroing in on a good sixth”. The usual restatement of the case, experience, belief in this great country, return to good leadership etc, and then: “But no matter what the future holds, here’s the greatest safety landing if you can imagine, tonight I’m going to sleep next to my best friend and the love of my life.” His wife, Columba, a sleek Latina, standing behind him, looked like she’d been just shot. Ah, American innocence. Poor old Jeb. He meant, “I won’t be sleeping in the Walterboro Ramada tonight,” and his partitioned mind didn’t for a moment see how else it would be taken. Just as he couldn’t see the absurdity of a man pitching to be the third president from one breakfast table campaigning on hard work and the American dream. Only by such partitioning does American politics work at all. He got off the stage just before his face collapsed entirely.
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Jeb was gracious. The Donald was not. As another sign of Jeb’s bad luck, or sheer haplessness, Trump’s victory bray came on pretty soon after Jeb’s ended. He was red, too, with exuberance, as if a tyre fire were holding a press conference. “I just wannah sayyyyy to the people in the meeedia” — there’s no real way to capture the Donald’s vocal style in written language — “But a number of the pundits said, ‘well, if a couple of the other candidates dropped out if you add their scores together it’s going to equal Trump.’ But these geniuses — they’re geniuses — they don’t understand that as people drop out I’m going to get a lot of those votes also. You don’t just … You don’t just add them together. So I think we’re going to do very, very well. I think we’re going to do very well.” Cheering, booing of media. “Now I wanna introduce my wife, Melania. Say something, honey.”
It should be noted that Melania Trump is a smart woman. The fact that to most Americans she will look like she was shipped out from Kiev (she’s Slovenian) after the Donald noticed the last one was missing is just one of the things this country and the world may have to get used to. “And representing some very very wonderful children, Ivanka. Just say a few words.” This is the daughter the Donald said he would be dating if I weren’t her father. She’s heavily pregnant. As he steered her to the mic by the small of her back, he said something like “We’ll be having this baby soon.” By which he no doubt meant “the family”, a possessive enough notion in any case, but, well, this is all starting to sound a bit like Aeschylus on Red Bull. A country founded by people with more than a nod to the classical world is now getting its politics, the struggle of powerful families, caught up in self-adoring narcissism. The Donald came back. He wrapped it up, he congratulated Ted Cruz, he congratulated Marco Rubio.
He said not a word about Jeb Bush. It was the sort of arsehole move that the CNN panel duly tut-tutted over — and which his public love, a disdain of hypocrisy, and a sheer unapologetic commitment to winning. The “losers” he identifies his rivals can be easily transferred to the country’s enemies, at least in their minds. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio gave their separate spiels. They are six months apart. Rubio’s schtick is that America is the greatest country in the world, and everything wonderful can happen, Cruz that America is the greatest country in the world, and it is all about to come crashing down. Then America rah rah America I think I got it all. The speech, repetitive as a Latin mass, the ceaseless return of religion and myth in societies that start to worship themselves. I would say Justice Scalia is no more than weeks away from a Lenin-style mausoleum on the National Mall. Thinking this I switched over to Saturday Night Live for the opening sketch, a parody of a Republican debate that seemed so on point and up to the moment I revised my dour opinion, before a fake Chris Christie came on, and I realised it was a six-week-old repeat.
I went down to the lobby, where the exhausted Indian guy running the place was arguing with a Latino desk clerk, both quite possibly illegal, which is what makes the place affordable. Got dinner from the vending machine, peanut butter Ritz crackers, Lorna Doone cookies and Mr Pibb soft drink. There was a mall opposite, and a 24-hour IHOP, but I couldn’t be bothered with the southern courtesy. The lit store signs swirled in the window. They’re on 50-metre-high poles so as to be seen from the freeway, Cracker Barrel, Homebase, Chicken Likken, Dress Barn, Dollar Tree, Best Buy, Popeyes, Yankee Candle. The “mall” itself is 50 buildings which has swallowed the town, the car parks go for miles, ebbing and flowing around a few old wooden bungalows that remain. This America they talk about is becoming unknown, even to itself. With Donald Trump having won two out of three primaries, his four rivals refusing to yield to a single candidate to go up against him, the near-certainty that if he wins Super Tuesday he has the nomination, and possibly the presidency, the country is in the depot, for a journey that is about to get a lot, lot stranger.