Saturday, early October, at a fairground 40 minutes southwest of Milwaukee. The very name of this place, Elkhorn, conjures images of past massacres on now-silent fields across America’s blood-soaked history. Nobody will die here; this is not Wounded Knee, but it is the end of an era. The modern Republican Party will perish on this stretch of grass.
Trump had been scheduled to come here today, to kiss defenceless babies and pose next to pumpkins and haystacks at Wisconsin congressman and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s annual “GOP Fall Fest.”
Instead, the two men declared war on each other. The last straw was the release of a tape capturing Donald Trump uttering five words – “Grab them by the pussy” – during an off-camera discussion with former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush about what you can do to women when you’re a star.
Keeping up with Trump revelations is exhausting. By late October, he’ll be caught whacking it outside a nunnery. There are not many places left for this thing to go that don’t involve kids or cannibalism. We wait, miserably, for the dong shot.
Ryan, recoiling from Trump’s remarks, issued a denunciation (“Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified”), disinviting Trump from his Elkhorn celebration, which was to be the first joint campaign appearance by the country’s two highest-ranking Republicans.
As a result, the hundreds of Republican faithful who came spoiling for Trumpian invective, dressed in T-shirts reading things like DEPLORABLE LIVES MATTER and BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF ISIS, and even FUCK OFF, WE’RE FULL (a message for immigrants), ended up herded out here, as if by ruse, to get a big dose of the very thing they’d rebelled against.
They sat through a succession of freedom-and-God speeches by Wisconsin Republicans like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Sen. Ron Johnson, Gov. Scott Walker and Ryan, who collectively represented the party establishment closing ranks and joining the rest of the country in denouncing the free-falling Trump. Once an unstoppable phenomenon who had the media eating out of his controversial-size hands, Trump, in the space of a few hours, had become the mother of all pop-culture villains, a globally despised cross of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Charlie Sheen and Satan.
To the self-proclaimed “Deplorables” who came out to see Trump anyway, Ryan’s decision was treason, the latest evidence that no matter what their party affiliation, Washington politicians have more in common with one another than with regular people.
“Small-ball Ryan,” groused Trump supporter Mike Goril, shaking his head, adding to this election cycle’s unsurpassable all-time record for testicular innuendo.
Speaker after speaker ascended the stage to urge Republican voters to vote. But with the exception of Attorney General Brad Schimel, who got a round of applause when he grudgingly asked the audience to back Trump for the sake of the Supreme Court, every last one of them tiptoed past the party nominee’s name. One by one, they talked around Trump, like an unmentionable uncle carted off on a kiddie-porn rap just before Thanksgiving dinner.
Metaphorically anyway, Trump supporters like Goril were right. Not one of these career politicians had the gumption to be frank with this crowd about what had happened to their party. Instead, the strategy seemed to be to pretend none of it had happened, and to hide behind piles of the same worn clichés that had driven these voters to rebel in the first place.
The party schism burst open in the middle of a speech by Wisconsin’s speaker of the State Assembly, Robin Vos. Vos is the Billy Mays of state budget hawks. He’s a mean-spirited little ball of energy who leaped onto the stage reminding the crowd that he wanted to eliminate the office of the treasurer to SAVE YOU MONEY!
Vos went on to brag about having wiped out tenure for University of Wisconsin professors, before dismounting with yet another superawkward Trumpless call for Republicans to turn out to vote.
“I have no doubt that with all of you standing behind us,” he shouted, “and with the fantastic record of achievement that we have, we’re going to go on to an even bigger and better victory than before!”
There was scattered applause, then someone from the crowd called out:
“You uninvited Donald Trump!”
Boos and catcalls, both for and against Vos and the Republicans. Most in the crowd were Trump supporters, but others were angry with Trump for perhaps saddling them with four years of Hillary Clinton. These camps now battled it out across the field. A competing chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” started on the opposite end of the stands, only to be met by chants from the pro-Trumpers.
“We want Trump! We want Trump!” “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Ryan, the last speaker, tried to cut the tension with a leaden joke about the “elephant in the room.” But he still refused to speak Trump’s name, or do more than refer the crowd to a written statement. He just smiled like it was all OK, and talked about what a beautiful day it was.
Ryan’s cowardly play was reflective of the party as a whole, which has yet to own its role in the Trump story. Republican ineptitude and corruption represented the first crack in the facade of a crumbling political system that made Trump’s rise possible. As toxic as Trump was, many outside observers were slow to pick up on the threat because they were so focused on how much Republicans like Ryan deserved him.
Trump’s early rampage through the Republican field made literary sense. It was classic farce. He was the lewd, unwelcome guest who horrified priggish, decent society, a theme that has mesmerised audiences for centuries, from Vanity Fair to The Government Inspector to (closer to home) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When you let a hands-y, drunken slob loose at an aristocrats’ ball, the satirical power of the story comes from the aristocrats deserving what comes next. And nothing has ever deserved a comeuppance quite like the American presidential electoral process, which had become as exclusive and cut off from the people as a tsarist shooting party.
The first symptom of a degraded aristocracy is a lack of capable candidates for the throne. After years of indulgence, ruling families become frail, inbred and isolated, with no one but mystics, impotents and children to put forward as kings. Think of Nikolai Romanov reading fortunes as his troops starved at the front. Weak princes lead to popular uprisings. Which brings us to this year’s Republican field.
There wasn’t one capable or inspiring person in the infamous “Clown Car” lineup. All 16 of the non-Trump entrants were dunces, religious zealots, wimps or tyrants, all equally out of touch with voters. Scott Walker was a lipless sadist who in centuries past would have worn a leather jerkin and thrown dogs off the castle walls for recreation. Marco Rubio was the young rake with debts. Jeb Bush was the last offering in a fast-diminishing hereditary line. Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer. And so on.
The party spent 50 years preaching rich people bromides like “trickle-down economics” and “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” as solutions to the growing alienation and financial privation of the ordinary voter. In place of jobs, exported overseas by the millions by their financial backers, Republicans glibly offered the flag, Jesus and Willie Horton.
In recent years it all went stale. They started to run out of lines to sell the public. Things got so desperate that during the Tea Party phase, some GOP candidates began dabbling in the truth. They told voters that all Washington politicians, including their own leaders, had abandoned them and become whores for special interests. It was a slapstick routine: Throw us bums out!
Republican voters ate it up and spent the whole of last primary season howling for blood as Trump shredded one party-approved hack after another. By the time the other 16 candidates finished their mass-suicide-squad routine, a tail-chasing, sewer-mouthed septuagenarian New Yorker was accepting the nomination of the Family Values Party.
Now, months later, as Trump was imploding, Ryan was retreating to ancient supply-side clichés about how cutting taxes will bring the jobs back. “We’ve got to scrap this tax code and start over,” he said.
As Ryan droned on, well back behind the stands, two heavyset middle-aged women in Trump/Pence T-shirts shook their heads in boredom. One elbowed the other.
“Wanna grab my crotch?”
This is Wisconsin, after all. You can tell immigrants to fuck off, but you can’t say the p-word the day before church, or a Packers game.
The other woman chuckled, then reached down to her own, as if to say, “Grab this!”
Both women busted out laughing. When the event was done, as the crowd of other seething Deplorables filed past them, they and a few others remained in their chairs, staring fatalistically at the empty stage.
The scene couldn’t have been more poignant. Duped for a generation by a party that kowtowed to the wealthy while offering scraps to voters, then egged on to a doomed rebellion by a third-rate con man who wilted under pressure and was finally incinerated in a fireball of his own stupidity, people like this found themselves, in the end, represented by literally no one.
Not many people are shedding tears for the Republican voter these days, perhaps rightly so. But the sudden crash-ending of the Trump campaign only made official what these voters have suspected for years: They’ve been represented by an empty stage all along. Why not sit there and stare at it for a little longer?
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the Mohegan Sun Arena, two days later. As he has done multiple times in the past year, Trump has seemingly rebounded from certain disaster. A second debate with Hillary Clinton did not go quite so disastrously as the first, despite horrible optics (he appeared obese from stress and stalked Clinton onstage, as if wanting to bite her back á la Marv Albert) and even worse behaviour (he threatened to jail his opponent, a straight-up dictator move you’d expect from a Mobutu, Pinochet or Putin).
Whether or not he “won” the debate was immaterial. He at least impressed pious Mike Pence, Trump’s sad-sack running mate, who reportedly had been considering withdrawing from the ticket over the whole pussy thing. “Big debate win!” Pence tweeted, ending rumors of an internal mutiny. “Proud to stand with you as we #MAGA!”
That’s hashtag Make America Great Again, in case you didn’t believe Mike Pence is hip. (The new white-power movement, like a lot of fraternities, is short on brains, but long on secret passwords and handshakes.) The man who once opposed clean needles on moral grounds was now ready to march through history with a serial groper and tit-gazer.
In Wilkes-Barre, home to a recent Klan leafleting, and a key electoral-map battleground, the turnout for Trump’s rally was a vast sea of white faces and profane signage. she’s a cunt – vote trump read the T-shirt of one attendee. bill! monica gave you what? read the caption over a photo of a grinning Hillary, plastered on the side of one of a scary triad of 18-wheelers decked out in anti-Clinton invective. On line going into the event, some more mild-mannered visitors explained why there was nothing that could dissuade them from voting Trump. “Even if it’s small, there’s a chance that he’s going to do something completely different, and that’s why I like him,” said Trent Gower, a soft-spoken young man. “And when he talks, I actually understand what he’s saying. But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.” Inside the arena, passions were running high. Kids zoomed back and forth in Trump/Pence shirts. Some future visitors to probate court even brought their little boy to the event dressed in Trump garb, with a blazer and a power tie. Trump called the lad up onstage.
“Would you like to go back to your parents, or stay with Trump?” Trump asked. No one since Rickey “Rickey can’t find Rickey’s limo” Henderson has referred to himself in the third person with the same zeal as Trump.
The boy paused.
“Trump!” he said finally, to monstrous applause.
That was the highlight of the evening, unless you want to count Rudy Giuliani’s time onstage, with his eyes spinning and arms flailing like a man who’d come to a hospital lost-and-found in search of his medulla oblongata. In recent weeks, Giuliani has looked as though he’s been experimenting with recreational Botox. His new thing is to say something insane and then let his face freeze for a second, as if for the last time. In WilkesBarre, he started saying something rude about the Clinton Foundation: “Boy, that is phony as … I can’t say the word because I have to be … nice.”
Open mouth: freeze.
He stared helplessly at the crowd for a moment, then pointed upward, like he remembered something. “I might say it in the locker room!” he said, to cheers.
How Giuliani isn’t Trump’s running mate, no one will ever understand. Theirs is the most passionate television love story since Beavis and Butthead. Every time Trump says something nuts, Giuliani either co-signs it or outdoes him. They will probably spend the years after the election doing prostate-medicine commercials together.
In the far-right world, every successive villain has always been worse than the last. It’s quaint now to think about how Al Gore was once regarded as the second coming of Lenin, or that John Kerry was a secret communist agent. Then the race element took Obama-hatred to new and horrifying places. But Trumpian license has pushed hatred of Hillary Clinton beyond all reason. If you don’t connect with it emotionally, you won’t get it. For grown men and women to throw around words like “bitch” and “cunt” in front of their kids, it means things have moved way beyond the analytical.
Where is it all coming from? The most generous conceivable explanation is that the anger stems from a sense of abandonment and betrayal by the political class. This doesn’t explain the likes of Giuliani and Trump, but if you squint really hard, it maybe explains some of what’s going on with his supporters.
Although a lot of Clinton backers believe she’s being unfairly weighed down by negative reports about the Clinton Foundation and her e-mails, her most serious obstacles this year were less her faults than her virtues. The best argument for a Clinton presidency is that she’s virtually guaranteed to be a capable steward of the status quo, at a time of relative stability and safety. There are criticisms to make of Hillary Clinton, but the grid isn’t going to collapse while she’s in office, something no one can say with even mild confidence about Donald Trump.
But nearly two-thirds of the population was unhappy with the direction of the country entering the general-election season, and nothing has been more associated with the political inside than the Clinton name.
The suspicions heightened on the same day that Trump’s infamous “pussy” tape leaked, when WikiLeaks released papers purporting to be excerpts of Clinton’s speeches to corporate and financial titans like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and GE. Her campaign had stalwartly refused to release these during the primary against Bernie Sanders. After the Wiki release, however, one had to wonder why the Clinton camp had bothered to keep the papers secret.
The “secret” speeches in some ways showed Hillary Clinton in a more sympathetic light than her public persona usually allows. Speaking to bankers and masters of the corporate universe, she came off as relaxed, self-doubting, reflective, honest, philosophical rather than political, and unafraid to admit she lacked all the answers.
The transcripts read like freewheeling discussions with friends about how to navigate an uncertain future. In one speech, she conceded a sense of disconnect between the wealthy and the middle class to which she used to belong. This, she said, was a feeling she never had growing up, when the country seemed to be more united.
“And now, obviously,” she told executives from Goldman, “I’m kind of far removed because of the life I’ve lived and the economic … fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy.”
This frank, almost regretful admission rendered her more real in a few sentences than those cliché-ridden speeches about her hardscrabble background as the granddaughter of a Scranton lace-factory worker.
In a speech before the Brazilian Banco Itaú, Clinton talked about her vision for the future. “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders,” she reportedly said. She wanted this economy “as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.”
In classic Clintonian fashion, her camp refused to confirm the authenticity of the emails, while also not denying them either. But why not just own the e-mails? Why all the cagey non-denial denials?
The themes Clinton discussed with the banks were awesome, sweeping and of paramount importance, especially coming from someone in such a unique position to shape the world’s future. They collectively represented exactly the honest discussion about what is ahead for all of us that no one in power has ever really had with the rest of the country.
The “scandal” of the Wiki papers, if you can call it that, is that it captured how at ease Clinton was talking to bankers and industrialists about the options for the organisation of a global society. Even in transcript form, it’s hard not to realize that the people in these rooms are all stakeholders in this vast historical transformation.
Left out of the discussion over the years have been people like Trump’s voters, who coincidentally took the first hit along the way in the form of lowered middle-class wages and benefits. They were also never told that things they cared about, like their national identity as Americans, were to have diluted meaning in the more borderless future.
This is why the “basket of deplorables” comment rankled so badly. It’s not like it was anywhere near as demeaning or vicious as any of 10,000 Trump insults. But it spoke to a factual disconnnect.
It isn’t just that the likely next president feels alienated from people in places like Wilkes-Barre, so close to her ancestral home. It’s that, plus the fact that she feels comfortable admitting this to the likes of Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein, to whom she complained about the “bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives.”
All of which is interesting, and maybe a problem we Americans can have a sober discussion about once we finish bayoneting each other over “pussy” or Miss Universe’s weight or the Central Park Five (only Trump could go back in time and revictimise the survivors of one of the most infamous law-enforcement mistakes of all time), or whatever other lunacies we’ll be culture-warring over in the last weeks of this mercifully soon-to-end campaign.
It is true that if you talk to enough Trump supporters, you will eventually find an ex-Democrat or two who’ll cop to being disillusioned by the party’s turn away from the middle class. “My parents were FDR Democrats,” says Tim Kallas of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. “I was born and raised to believe that Democrats were for the workingman.” A self-described “child of the MTV generation” who has plenty of liberal friends and rocks a long silver ponytail, Kallas says he became disenchanted with the Democrats sometime during Bill Clinton’s second term. He was troubled by the Wiki speeches, and says he never signed up for the globalist program. “If you look at what’s going on in Europe with the Brexit vote, it’s the same conclusion that voters in England came to,” he says. “Why are the problems in Greece, or whatever, my problem?”
This sounds sensible enough, but it stops computing when you get to the part where the solution to the vast and complex dilemmas facing humanity is Donald Trump, a man who stays up at night tweeting about whether or not Robert Pattinson should take back Kristen Stewart. (He shouldn’t, says Trump: “She cheated on him like a dog and will do it again – just watch. He can do much better!”) This is a man who can’t remember what he did 10 seconds ago, much less decide the fate of the nation-state.
Whatever the original source of disaffection among these Republican voters, the battle has morphed into something else, as Trump himself proved the morning after Wilkes-Barre. He went on one of his trademark Twitter rampages, this time directed at Ryan.
The House speaker had held a conference call with elected Republicans, telling them they were free to yank support from Trump if they thought it would help them win in November. This sounds like a good decision, until you consider that it’s one he should have made the moment Trump sealed the nomination. As always, the Republicans acted far too late in disavowing vicious and disgusting behavior in their ranks. Then again, it’s hard to keep the loons out when you’re scraping to find people willing to sell rich-friendly policies to a broke population. The reaction among hard-line legislators was predictable: You’re telling us now we can’t be pigs?
Arizona Rep. Trent Franks told Ryan that Clinton reaching the White House would result in fetuses being torn “limb to limb,” while Southern California’s cretinous boob Dana Rohrabacher called Ryan “cowardly,” and said Trump’s “pussy” comment was just a “60-[year-old] expressing sexual attitude to a younger man.”
Trump, meanwhile, unleashed an inevitable string of self-destructive tweets.
9:05 a.m.: “Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.”
10 a.m.: “It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.”
Shackled! Only in America can a man martyr himself on a cross of pussy.
There’s an old Slavic saying about corruption: One thief sits atop another thief, using a third thief for a whip. The campaign trail is similarly a stack of deceptions, with each implicit lie of the horse race driving the next.
Lie No. 1 is that there are only two political ideas in the world, Republican and Democrat. Lie No. 2 is that the parties are violent ideological opposites, and that during campaign season we can only speak about the areas where they differ (abortion, guns, etc.) and never the areas where there’s typically consensus (defense spending, surveillance, torture, trade, and so on). Lie No. 3, a corollary to No. 2, is that all problems are the fault of one party or the other, and never both. Assuming you watch the right channels, everything is always someone else’s fault. Lie No. 4, the reason America in campaign seasons looks like a place where everyone has great teeth and $1,000 haircuts, is that elections are about political personalities, not voters.
These are the rules of the Campaign Reality Show as it has evolved over the years. The program is designed to reduce political thought to a simple binary choice and force more than 100 million adults to commit to one or the other. Like every TV contest, it discourages subtlety, reflection and reconciliation, and encourages belligerence, action and conflict.
Trump was the ultimate contestant in this show. It’s no accident that his first debate with Hillary Clinton turned into the Ali-Frazier of political events, with a breathtaking 84 million people tuning in, making it the most watched political program in American history.
Anyone who takes a close-enough look at how we run elections in this country will conclude that the process is designed to be regressive. It distracts us with trivialities and drives us apart during two years of furious arguments. It’s a divide-and-conquer mechanism that keeps us from communicating with one another, and prevents us from examining the broader, systemic problems we all face together.
In the good old days, when elections were merely stupid and not also violent and terrifying, we argued over which candidate we’d rather have a beer with, instead of wondering why both parties were getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the same people.
Trump, ironically, was originally a rebel against this process, the first-ever party-crasher to bulldoze his way past the oligarchical triad of donors, party leaders and gatekeeping media. But once he got in, he became the ultimate servant of the horse race, simultaneously creating the most-watched and most regressive election ever.
He was unable to stop being a reality star. Trump from the start had been playing a part, but his acting got worse and worse as time went on, until finally he couldn’t keep track: Was he supposed to be a genuine traitor to his class and the savior of the common man, or just be himself, i.e., a bellicose pervert with too much time on his hands? Or were the two things the same thing? He was too dumb to figure it out, and that paralysis played itself out on the Super Bowl of political stages. It was great television. It was also the worst thing that ever happened to our electoral system.
Trump’s shocking rise and spectacular fall have been a singular disaster for U.S. politics. Built up in the press as the American Hitler, he was unmasked in the end as a pathetic little prankster who ruined himself, his family and half of America’s two-party political system for what was probably a half-assed ego trip all along, adventure tourism for the idiot rich.
That such a small man would have such an awesome impact on our nation’s history is terrible, but it makes sense if you believe in the essential ridiculousness of the human experience. Trump picked exactly the wrong time to launch his mirror-gazing rampage to nowhere. He ran at a time when Americans on both sides of the aisle were experiencing a deep sense of betrayal by the political class, anger that was finally ready to express itself at the ballot box.
The only thing that could get in the way of real change – if not now, then surely very soon – was a rebellion so maladroit, ill-conceived and irresponsible that even the severest critics of the system would become zealots for the status quo.
In the absolute best-case scenario, the one in which he loses, this is what Trump’s run accomplished. He ran as an outsider antidote to a corrupt two-party system, and instead will leave that system more entrenched than ever. If he goes on to lose, he will be our Bonaparte, the monster who will continue to terrify us even in exile, reinforcing the authority of kings.
If you thought lesser-evilism was bad before, wait until the answer to every question you might have about your political leaders becomes, “Would you rather have Trump in office?”
Trump can’t win. Our national experiment can’t end because one aging narcissist got bored of sex and food. Not even America deserves that. But that doesn’t mean we come out ahead. We’re more divided than ever, sicker than ever, dumber than ever. And there’s no reason to think it won’t be worse the next time.
Main illustration: Victor Juhasz.