It was near twilight when the black car pulled up outside the non-descript hotel in the quiet area of Adams Morgan in Washington, DC. The side door swung open; the engine stayed running. In the foyer, Guy Rundle checked his pockets to see that he had everything he needed for the mission: notebook, pencil, phone, second phone, minibar miniatures, ventolin, Tums, immodium, blood group bracelet, Tums, gun … gun? Oh, gum. He had gum.

“Get in, Mr Rundle,” a voice said from the front.

He slid in and the car joined the stream of traffic, soon disappearing into the tunnel under Dupont Circle. In the gathering dusk, he could see the Dome of Congress, seat and focus of imperial power, and giant spike of the Washington Monument like a giant exclamation mark over the mission that was to follow. Rundle laughed dryly to himself. Seventeen hours earlier, in the steamy souk of Fez, Mitroshka had given him the Krebs file. “You know what to do,” he said. He knew what Mitroshka wanted him to do, alright. He wanted him to die! Turned by a half-Moldovan nightclub singer, Red Velvet, Mitroshka was now feeding disinfo to the FSB, taking coin from the Nigerian Secret Service to put an email cache from the Paraguayans under the eyes of WikiLeaks.

The car emerged from the tunnel. Glass building after glass building slipped by, flashing the last light of evening. Young aides and interns gathered at the bars below, drinking and laughing with the wild abandon of youth. The fools! When the Abuja cache hit the wires, the New Hampshire Senate race would be turned. Sasketechewan would secede and war in the Baltics would surely result. Then things would start to get interesting. His thoughts turned to his cover, as a “journalist”, trying to say something new about the grim end-times slogathan this election had become.

Something about DC perhaps?

How the city’s imperial cast gives even the simplest tasks the gloss of a spy drama? How, at the heart of a country and empire falling apart from the winnowing effects of a nihilistic market, its capital survived by being a de facto socialist city, compact, invested-in, well-resourced. How Ordkhindozhe had switched the five-inch floppy disk — did they still have those, he’d have to check — with k’!()XX(), the Swaziland operative (Rundle expertly ran the man’s Basuto click-language name in his head). He realised, with a shock, that Esposito may have been lying to him. He realised with a shock that the driver might be a robot from the future sent back to kill him. He realised with a shock that he’d have to run the day’s political news in his head, like how the polls appeared to be relentlessly, daily tightening, with Trump now neck-and-neck in places like New Hampshire, and with some polls putting him well-placed in Wisconsin and Nevada, how there seemed to be a momentum behind him, how, by contrast, some polling of early voters suggested a major Clinton victory in the offing, how Melania Trump had given her first speech for the campaign, and condemned the bullying tone that had entered public life, how WikiLeaks had delivered another slice of the Podesta emails, and appeared to be misconstructing some internal discussions about payment, but how a story from yesterday’s dump about Bill Clinton trading influence in the Ukraine was not without content, about how the Clinton campaign’s near-exclusive ad focus on Trump’s sexually predatory nature better be based on solid evidence that it would work.

He realised, with a shock, that if he could keep this shit up for 200 pages, he’d have a novel. And–

“Mr Rundle–”

He tensed. Would the driver turn ’round with a silenced pistol, forcing him to apply his CAE capoeira skills (three lessons, Balwyn Tech)? The door swung open.

“We’re here.”

In the luminous night before him, the seat of all power, lit up in glory: CVS Pharmacy. Here first, then the Heritage Foundation meeting.

You can never have enough Tums. Especially if you don’t want … to die! Mwhahaha!

Mwahahaha!

Mwahaha — OK, I’m running out of juice. (Aren’t we all?)

Everyone is nervy because the Clinton campaign is once again, either losing the edge, or letting a lull develop before dropping a last and best bomb on the weekend. Well, if that’s the case, their nerve is stronger than ours, because the energy and attack appears to be with the Trump campaign. There was much mocking when it was announced that Melania Trump would be giving some speeches — not least because the first Melania heard of it was when the Donald announced it on national TV, in a side-by-side interview — but it’s at least a new talking point. There was much mocking of Melania’s ability to connect with ordinary women because she was teh rich, but that was nothing other than a misunderstanding of how celebrity culture worked.

Melania’s speech decrying bullying etc may have been ludicrous chutzpah, but it was also a coded appeal to identify with her. There’s a constituency there. Melania is, writ large, every legal secretary who married her boss because she couldn’t face the thought of one more eHarmony date, and now realises she’s made a terrible, terrible mistake. Too late, there’s kids! Prince Suave the lawyer has turned into a middle-aged skin flake, grunting and farting in bed, communication reduced to arguments about credit card statements and demands for sex. You don’t think that’s a constituency? That’s Connecticut! If that wasn’t a constituency, there wouldn’t be 15 separate Real Housewives franchises.

The Trumps’ marriage, as a straight financial-sexual exchange — with some apparent affection attached — may be more appealing than is the Clintons’ creepy latter-day Hapsburg art movie of a union. Melania gets points from everyone because she is so obviously a nice and ordinary woman lifted up by the great tractor beam of fortune into impossible circumstances. Her loyalty to Trump is taken as a measure of commitment, not sycophancy, and if people attentively watch her speeches, it’s because they think she might start, at any time, batting out with those big black lashes, “help me” in morse code. There is, in the underestimation of her effectiveness, more than a touch of cultural snobbery among Democrats. Among the two gangster families at the heart of this struggle, she’s the only bona fide innocent.

So that was the race today, Rundle thought, as he slid into the back of the pseudo-Roman auditorium of the Heritage Foundation, all brown-wood furniture and chiselled stone, where before an audience of about 40 wonks, fixers and the dilatory, a panel of half-a-dozen speakers from ALEC, a vaguely shady right-wing group, were talking about how to bilk public sector employee groups out of their pensions.

No, that’s not fair. It was a reasonable enough discussion about the nightmare of unfunded pension liabilities of state and city governments, that I’d chosen as the most boring possible of all those on offer from the various DC think tanks. Ten minutes in, the panel of right-wing warriors were in furious agreement with the Teachers Union:

“We proposed that we switch from guaranteed benefit to guaranteed contribution, and that would solve the fiscal crisis over time … and that’s what the teachers unions have …”

“Wait, are we agreeing with the teachers unions …?”

Laughter.

“I know, right? But yeah, we are.”

Were you to attend nothing other than the five, six, seven, 10 discussion panels a day, this is, by and large, the sort of thing you’d get: centre-right ordoliberalism, as sleek and shiny as DC itself, the only real way to run a republic/empire. My interest in municipal pension funding was minimal. This counted as participant observation. I had spoken to the crazed Trumpistas, to the reluctant Trumpistas, to the anti-Hillaryites, to the anyone-but-Hillaryites in the bar. Now it was time to find out — as Trump (victory or loss) and traditional Republicanism headed for the rocks — what the people who actually ran the joint thought about that.

Not much, it turned out.

Forty-five minutes after a reasonable, piecemeal discussion of reconstructing the pension system, I was trying not to yell. Gathered round the trays of crab sandwiches, steak vol-au-vents and rows of sparkling mineral water — the Heritage Foundation, whose motto is, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, always puts on a free lunch — the bright boys’n’gals of think tank land showed they were just as invested in the mythology of a demonic left as some dude in a “Git er Done” baseball cap, queuing for nine hours to see Mike Pence in an airport hangar.

“What’s clear,” I said, holding court with a pretzel in my hand, “is that the one politics that won’t fly in the US is free-market politics. Even in the Republican primaries, there was no groundswell to get behind one anti-Trump free-market candidate, like Cruz or Rubio. So what do you do in 2020?”

“2020?” They looked bewildered.

“2020, when-” I started, but one had twigged.

“2020 if Hillary wins you mean-”

“Well, she’s going to, isn’t she?”

There were groans.

“Well, you know, I mean,” said the oldest there, putting a finger pistol to his head, “I’d just- pwooooomb.”

“Oh come on,” I said in exasperation, “you know that nothing much will change-”

“I dunno man, I travelled behind the Iron Curtain before it came down-”

“The Iron Curtain? Are you serious?”

“It happens.”

Worth pointing out that when I say participant observation, that is as close to being literal as I could. DC conservatives have a limited repertoire: blue single-breasted jacket, side-parted short hair, white shirt, red tie if you’re working on the Hill, open-necked with a light V-neck sweater if you’re working on the research side for a think tank, pocket kerchief in same shade as jacket, lightly patterned. For the gals, traditional is pearls and thickish summer dress with low-key floral pattern, mid-lift heels, or the next-year’s-scandal style, figure-hugging beige number and follow-me boots. I pity the women their mating choices. Together, they’re all like one of those mix-n-match books come to life. In opinions it would seem, as much as fashion.

“I think,” said one thoughtful guy, “that it’s a question of getting into positions within the power structure, to carry forth libertarian ideas-”

“Yeah but that’s just party infiltration, presuming there’s still a party to infiltrate.” They blanched visibly, the colour of the girls’ pearls. “How are you actually going to get them to vote for you?”

“Look, people are voting for Trump because they’re emotional.”

“Well yes, but what are they emotional about?”

He shrugged. “They’re just emotional.”

The Trump revolution has stormed the country, but the force of it hasn’t reached deep inside the Beltway. To be honest, I was surprised; I thought that, to a man and woman, these kids, ambitious, starting on a political career to run a complex republic/empire, would see the mad political demonisation for the mythology it was. But, no, they appear to have taken on the same mindset. It’s extraordinary. How is a ruling class supposed to rule if it drinks its own product? How has this happened?

The triumph of mass-produced culture over lived culture might be the answer. Everyday life is pretty much planed flat, a series of screens, freeways and exurbs, and what fills that space is … lurid narrative, the sort that has you seeing an Uber ride through DC like it was an episode of The Americans. What was the meaning of Trump, the veteran journalist Tom Brokaw asked himself on TV a few weeks ago, and the answer he gave was, the form of the culture has finally taken over the form of the politics.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton played sax on the Arsenio Hall talk show, it was astounding to have a presidential candidate who liked rock n roll, the first entry of pop culture into the removed world of politics. Now, what remains of the stately process of politics is what looks unusual, exceptional, hidebound and woolly. The mode of interaction that is favoured as the default setting in reality shows — the scrag fight, in which you throw everything at someone, right away — is what Trump has brought into the political realm. Can it ever be removed? And what happens to the parties after this election?

No, be real. The Democrats are in fine shape, like one of those boats that always refloat themselves. The Republicans have already sunk, but they don’t know it yet. A 2016 loss, now, would be serious enough; 2020, a repeat with nothing learned, is when the party really ends.

I slipped out of the building, as they were cleaning up the sandwiches. The catering staff looked like catering staff always do — as hired assassins in the guise of catering staff, ready to shoot you through a tablecloth. Outside, from a parked black suburban, two lean men in suits jumped out the back, pistols with silencers in their wastebands. No doubt. The lights trained on the Washington Monument spoke to me in Morse code.

A car pulled up. The door opened. “Shake it off, shake it off,” boomed out. “Mr Rundle …?” Either it was my Uber, or I would soon have to be employing an Algerian throat kick. In a socialist city at the heart of a capitalist empire, there was no way of telling what was real anymore.

Peter Fray

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