”Did you see that debate? DID YOU SEE THAT DEBATE!”. That voice. Big and brassy and Oprah-ish. Also scratchy and screechy. “All the things we didn’t get to talk about — we’re going to have childcare, good childcare, we’re going to go after predatory pricing, we’re going to have companies sharing their profits with workers!”
It echoes across the park we’re corralled in, a small expanse of green in front of the ultramodern stone-fronted concert hall. Filled to the edges now with crowds of supporters, locals and visitors, young Latina women in groups of three or four, craggy East Coast whites here for a few days, in polo shirts and Walmart slacks, yellow nicotine stains on their fingers. Young men and a few women in hardhats and “carpenters supporting Hillary” T-shirts, a marching band of young black kids, in those ridiculous bow-tied and liveried uniforms, their instruments by their side, one kid encased in a sousaphone, leaning against a fence in the heat. Huge banks of light, the light shining off leaves of palm trees, and above the line of the standing crowd, small in the distance, that ‘do and that smile, shining, disembodied, floating above us all. “We gotta get out and win this!”
Clinton in Vegas, baby. Behind her, in the warm night, the lights of the old downtown casinos, the Palms, the Golden Nugget, and the mountains and the stars beyond. Seems a long way away. We’re in what is known as the hahaha Arts District of Las Vegas, a section west of the Strip with a few concert halls and theatres done by cool architects, including a Frank Gehry steel bouncy castle like the one UTS paid through the nose for. There are car parks, too, a lot of car parks.
The Las Vegas Arts District! Time was the Arts District was a Don Rickles set between the strippers at the Mermaid, and culture was a lobster dinner gone off. But Vegas is changing, becoming a tech town, an aerospace town. Dozens of states now have legalised gambling, as do Native American lands (not part of states), and the grand old days are long gone, a distant memory. Even the “family” era of Vegas is going.
The fun, friendly casinos built after the mob was driven out are looking a little absurd now. Treasure Island, with its giant pirate ship outside, the Venetian, and worst of all, Excalibur, a fake Arthurian castle lit in pink. Since the last visit even more of the old Vegas has come down. The Riviera, once the home of the Rat Pack, empty for decades, has finally come down, the vacant lots now stretching for kilometres, the billboards promising new developments, warping and bending with age. Is Vegas returning to the desert? The most improbable of cities, built on the money people wanted to lose is simultaneously being reborn and dying, and if there’s a better metaphor for the current American predicament, I ain’t seen it yet.
Clinton in Vegas wasn’t my first choice, but the president-presumptive has been limiting her appearances to focus on debate preparation — or, according to alt-right sites, because a leak in her human suit has exposed the space lizard within to toxic oxygen. But in a way, it’s apt. Vegas is that rare thing in America, a working city, with a living downtown, and large numbers of fully employed people. Its casinos are like factories of old, its public transit system is excellent — because sub-minimum wage people need to get to their jobs — it’s the closest you’ll get, aside from New York, to the feel of what an American city would once have been like. Only the content has changed.
At this rally, there are croupiers, their work clothes in a suit bag, dropping in between shifts. “Lot of carpenters here” I said to a “Carpenters For Hillary” guy, “what do you do?”. “Sets” he said. “Doing Elton John next week. I haven’t done anything but sets for the last three years. Mostly burlesque shit.” “Shhhhh” said someone behind me. “We want to hear Hillary!”
Well, sure. There is a new enthusiasm at Hillary’s rallies, though it has very little to do with the candidate’s crowd-working skills, which remain meh. The voice is Oprah-esque, but it’s not Oprah, still less Obama; at its best it is cheery and “we’re all in this together”. At its worst, it sounds like someone having an argument in a supermarket car park. The language is flat, and there’s no architecture to the argument, no driving case, which would have you leaping to your feet.
But the crowd here don’t care about that, or that the speech is a laundry list of specific policies piled one on top of the other (“we need college that’s affordable, we need to really close the pay gap between men and women, we’ve got to continue the job President Obama started in rebuilding this economy, and we’re going to resist dictators abroad and at home!” Phew. “And-“).
If there were any misgivings or lack of enthusiasm for Clinton earlier in the process, there is none now. Thousands queued for a couple of hours for this (there must be a more efficient way to do these things), the lines curving desert-snake motif through the car park and the vacant lot beside the auditorium. They fanned themselves, drank bottles of water and lurid green and blue sports drinks (Kool-Aid!) brought out in huge hotel ice troughs carried by volunteers, and traded insults with the half-dozen Trumpistas, a stray Bernie bro and a couple of randoms spruiking for local measures (“this is a petition to get proposition 194a for a tax line on catchment allotments up for the 2018 ballot. I need 191,000 more signatures.”)
There were a lot of couples, the wives somewhat more enthusiastic than the men, like the queue for any ohhhhh big musical ever. They were my age or a bit older, but they seemed like men from some four-panel cartoon “Hilarious Dad” comic strip of times past, complaining about their aching feet, and peering towards the distant head of the queue. “Dogs are barking, oh, my dogs are barking.” “Quit yer bitchin'” “I don’t think we’ll get in.” “We’ll get in”. “I don’t think we will”. “Quit bitchin’, read yer paper!”. “I think yer husband is a secret Trump supporter” I said joshingly. “We were Bernie supporters,” she bristled a little. “But that’s over.” “Her ‘for her'” said her husband, hanging air quotes.
I peeled off a few minutes later, took the press entrance. I didn’t think we’d get in either. But no one left. No one really moaned. Everyone just stood there in their lounge clothes, sweatpants and pink Vegas Baby T-shirts, and moved forward. In a comparison Trump crowd, six of the 12 people standing in front of you would be dressed as a bloodied Statue of Liberty with a noose round their neck, and a T-shirt saying “Killary Got Me”, and they’d all be trading theories about the faking of the Sandy Hook massacre (“it was actors!” “No! Robots! ROBOTS!” “You cuck, it was a hologram!”). Here, in the desert evening, they shuffled forward. Half of them were smoking, it was glorious, like queuing in the ’70s, to be admitted to the 1980s.
Then, after that, after all that, well, it was a just a Hillary speech. The candidate herself is publicly modest about her abilities; privately, according to the WikiLeaks Podesta emails drop, she is as dismissive of her speechwriters as the rest of us are — with a Veepish touch of underling-blaming for their failure to create a theme for the campaign. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a second-rate campaign, especially compared to Obama’s 2012 killer effort, and very lucky in its opponent.
But for all the misgivings, all the caveats, all the couldabeens, the support and respect for Hillary Clinton has been rising slowly but relentlessly over the past three weeks, as Trump has gone after her health, her husband, her alleged enabling of him, her alleged corruption, and most recently the suggestion that she’s on drugs in the second debate (Jesus. The third debate is going to play like an am-dram drag version of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane).
Her quiet dignity, poise and presence-of-mind against his baiting menace sealed the deal for a lot of people. Does that make them drinkers of the Kool-Aid, or realists about what’s possible — and what can be lost? Looks like we’ll find out. But I suspect most people are here for modest gains. I don’t think anyone really believes there’s going to be profit-sharing by companies after a Clinton victory. The desert around this city is full of holes filled with people who tried that on an ad-hoc basis, and corporate America would approach the idea in that spirit.
When it was over, the crowd divided, most going to the car park, about a third going to the shiny bus interchange, which swelled with dozens, then hundreds. I found the “quit yer bitchin” couple. Had they made it in? “Awwww we got in for the last half hour.” “Twenty minutes” said her husband, quietly. “Wouldn’t have mattered if we hadn’t got in. We were here, just to show ’em. Just for the solidarity.” The word, so strange, so rare, lingered in the night heat. “Come on,” she said to her husband, pointing to the downtown neon in the distance. “Let’s go to the slots.”