Key West: In Hispanic South Florida, the last Republican candidates for president were regaling audiences of Castrophobic exiles with their promises — if elected — to all but rain nuclear warheads on Havana. Their preposterous rhetoric, cynical to the point of condescension, provoked an unexpected critic whose harsh verdict should be their epitaph.
“Selection of a Republican candidate for the presidency of this globalized and expansive empire is — and I mean this seriously — the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been,” declared an appalled Fidel Castro.
Even allowing for translation from the Spanish, it’s clear that the senescence of the ailing ex-president has been greatly exaggerated. Castro’s assessment of the frantic scramble for America’s least intelligent, least compassionate voters reminds us that he is, for all his sins, a well-educated attorney of aristocratic origins who might use a Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman for a hat stand. He and his brother Raul, the current president of Cuba, are serious men, and the fulsome slapstick that has dominated the Republican primaries naturally disgusts and bewilders them. If this is freedom, they’re thinking, God save autocracy and bless my iron hand. Washington’s tireless campaign to promote democracy in Cuba loses precious ground every time Mitt or Newt smirks into a camera. The serious world is again aghast, perhaps more now than ever. More civilized countries — there aren’t enough, but there are many — expect to be disappointed, or worse, by every American presidency. But they’re still impressed by the unlikely election of a nonwhite president with a Muslim middle name, and they respect the intelligent, articulate face of official America presented by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This, this Republican thing, is the Other America. And, unfortunately, it’s not a small or negligible part of what we are. I write this looking at a photo in The Miami Herald: A typical Tea Party primate at a Newt Gingrich rally, an old white man in an Uncle Sam hat shaped like a chef’s toque, with a gag-store cotton beard suspended from his ears. If the Voice of America could engineer a worldwide media blackout, so that no one beyond our shores could see or hear these things, our image and our diplomatic initiatives would benefit immeasurably.
We don’t have to pay attention, Herald columnist Dave Barry reminded us — he recommends covering TV screens with sheets of plywood, in hurricane mode, and drowning every radio in the bathtub. But there’s an undeniable fascination when the show gets this bad, the kind of centripetal horror that draws crowds to fatal accidents, that used to pack the square for hangings. Florida, where I was eyewitness to the primary, is a very strange place. One day, the paper carried an item about a murderer who ate one of his victim’s eyes and part of his brain. The biggest non-political story confirmed that monstrous Burmese pythons, some 15 to 20 feet long, have now devoured nearly every mammal in The Everglades. And hey, that’s just the Food section, Dave Barry would probably say.
I found it fairly rich when the Mitt Romney campaign, victorious by a wide margin over the Gingrich insurgents, claimed that winning Florida should wrap up the nomination because the state represents such a cross-section of the American electorate. “Florida is the nation’s reflecting pool,” exulted one Republican consultant. Reflecting pool maybe, cesspool more accurately, shark tank definitely. You don’t want to know what’s swimming — or lurking, like a 16-foot coon-eating python — just beneath the surface. When it comes to stories, I can’t compete with Dave Barry or Carl Hiassen, the native wits who built their careers on ironic anthropological observation of the weirdest state in the Union. But I’m not exactly a Florida virgin either, with four or five decades of snowbird experience behind me. And I saw things in the 24 hours around the primary that no one in South Dakota has seen since the Indian wars.
It’s true, though, that Florida’s diversity creates a World Series of transparent, infantile pandering for visiting politicians. Promise to hang Castro for the Cubans, incinerate Iran for the Jews, subsidize orange juice for Big Citrus, build colonies on the moon for the Canaveral engineers (Newt outdid himself there), dispense free Viagra and Metamucil for the aging. If the alligators could vote, these strangers to shame would promise to outlaw belts.
Even without Herman Cain and that baleful basilisk Mrs. Bachmann, the Republicans refused to be upstaged by the cavalcade of nightmares that’s standard fare in the Sunshine State. They showed us they belonged here. The history of attack ads is so gruesome that no decent, self-respecting citizen could even review it without apoplexy and hypertension. But the Gingrich campaign, flailing desperately as Florida slipped away, plumbed historic depths on election day with a flood of robo-calls suggesting that Mitt Romney was the enemy of “religious freedom” and “Holocaust survivors” — because he vetoed money for kosher food in nursing homes when he was governor of Massachusetts. In some future archive of infamy, this will be filed under “Newt woos the Jews.” Of course, he denied any knowledge of the robo-calls, though it’s well-known that Newt and his Stepford wife are the campaign’s principal strategists.
I’ve never met Fidel Castro. (I was at a reception in Havana enlivened by rumors that he was coming to meet the American poet laureate Billy Collins, but he didn’t show.) Yet I can imagine the two of us, Fidel and I, sitting in our fatigues, smoking cigars and sharing a series of profound groans and sighs over the Republican burlesque across the Straits of Florida. In one exchange of spectacular idiocy, whoring for both Cuban exiles and evangelicals, Gingrich and Romney speculated about whether Castro’s soul would go to heaven when he dies.
When you place the last of your dignity in a blind trust, you’re cleared to run for president in the 21st Century. But gross pandering to voters is one thing: You don’t really mean it and the voter doesn’t really believe it, unless he’s too dumb to ride a tricycle. Citizens United, the tragic 2010 Supreme Court decision that equated campaign contributions with free speech and unleashed the political action committees, has, as predicted, created a new and far more dangerous kind of political prostitute. When you pander to billionaires for cash, quid pro quo, you forge a chain of indebtedness you can never break. As usual, the unmentionable Gingrich is Exhibit A. Sheldon Adelson, the international casino magnate, dropped a quick $10 million into Newt’s empty wallet “out of friendship,” he said, and critics cried, “There you are, now any billionaire can run his own candidate for president.” As a precedent, it turned out to be much worse than that. A New York Times article promptly exposed Adelson as a director of AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby. An intimate friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a generous supporter of the Likud party and the hardline Israeli Right, Adelson even publishes his own reactionary newspaper in Israel.
Scroll back a couple of months to Dec. 9, and you can hear Newt Gingrich on the cable Jewish Channel, dismissing the Palestinians as “an invented people,” and rejecting the two-state compromise that has long been the stated Israel policy of Democrats, Republicans and Likudists. In other words, Newt was veering even to the right of Netanyahu, out where no one but Israel’s Orthodox extremists and rich Jewish-American meddlers like Adelson dare to tread. He also supports the symbolically incendiary proposal to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You wondered who in hell would encourage a sordid piece of damaged goods like Gingrich to run for president of the United States? Now you know. And though it seems impossible that anyone outside his immediate family would actually want Newt to be president (and he’s not so close to his family), he polled more than 500,000 votes in the Florida primary. In South Carolina, the evil booger won. Republicans will just take your breath away.
I admit to a certain fascination with Gingrich. It’s irresistible to pin him up for inspection on the specimen board like a Luna moth, though with life support from the Israel lobby, I guess he might still be considered alive. Newt is a pathological liar, demagogue, hothead, bully, panderer and apparent megalomaniac, and a hypocrite of almost uncanny audacity. He led the impeachment of Bill Clinton for the Lewinsky affair while engaged in a career of serial adultery himself; he chided Congressman Barney Frank and the Obama campaign for taking money from Freddie Mac while hiding the fact that the same mortgage lender had just paid him $1.8 million for his services as an uber-lobbyist. He disparages Washington insiders, though his only job is a lucrative one peddling influence, at the highest levels, inside the Beltway. There’s no far-right rhetoric he considers too dumb or too dirty. His predictable, AIPAC-approved favorites are the need for military action against Iran and the grave threat of Shariah law in America — though less than one percent of the population is Muslim. No doubt Newt is smarter and more articulate than Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann, but so is everyone on your block. Scholars snicker at his self-vaunted intellect. Comic John Stewart supplied the sharp pin that fixed Newt’s doughy thorax to the specimen board: “Newt Gingrich is a stupid person’s idea of a smart person.”
Politics was never a playground for paragons. But I think it’s been a long time since anyone as morally undernourished, ethically compromised and reality-challenged as Gingrich has imagined himself as the paramount leader of a nation of 300 million souls.
Few of his former colleagues trust him, or like him. He’s been reduced to carrying water for the Israel lobby. But the miracle of Newt Gingrich — like the late Richard Nixon, like the irrepressibly dreadful Donald Trump — is that he never gets down on himself. It isn’t a thick skin so much as a mild variety of Asperger’s syndrome, which can be very useful to a politician. Newt’s just way too self-involved to understand his effect on other people. An anecdote from the Iowa caucuses, reported by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker, captures Newt in his impregnable fortress of self-regard. A gray-bearded hunter in full camouflage meets the candidate at a campaign stop in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, grasps his hand and says in a soft voice, “You know what? You’re a fucking asshole.” Newt smirks, pats him on the shoulder and replies, “It’s a free country, and you’re entitled to your opinion.”
Manners? Nice, for which Newt has not always been known. Sensors? Totally disconnected. The improbability of his ambition reminds us of the quixotic presidential campaigns of Harold Stassen, or the way Trump sniffs the wind every four years and dreams of spraying his hair in the Oval Office. Delusional, dysfunctional, sad. Comedians joke that candidate Gingrich carries more baggage than the Orient Express or the QE2. A fair analogy would be a racehorse trying to win the Kentucky Derby with Shaquille O’Neal in the saddle. Could a State of the Union address ever be delivered by a man who actually said in public, just a few weeks ago, that it was his passionate love for his country that drove him to adultery? (The precise mechanism remains unexplained.) Newt — a vain fool, merely, or a madman? But what’s authentically scary is that the idea of a creature like Gingrich in the White House doesn’t scare a lot of Republican voters. He has fervent supporters on the Tea Party Right; he’s run second and briefly first in the national polls. In a presidential election, he could probably carry the recidivist South, where amnesiacs are mobilizing to take back the White House for white people.
The poor quality of the Republican candidates and the wild things they say to please their constituency have been source of mirth and optimism for Democrats, and a gold mine for satirists. What they seem to have in common, notes the poet Charles Simic, is “the hint of being unhinged.” If Central Casting spread its widest net for a campaign film by, say, Robert Altman, it could never come up with actors as bizarrely, cinematically comic as Bachmann, Cain, Trump, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry or even the straight-shooting old crackpot Ron Paul, whom I grudgingly respect. Toss in the Newtron bomb and the robotically handsome Mitt Romney, a Mormon Tin Man afloat on a cloud of cash, and it’s a cast of characters to challenge the imagination of auteurs like Altman or Woody Allen.
Frauds, liars, lechers, dimwits, fanatics and buffoons. What do we call this movie, this exotic spectacle of democracy in decay? Is Perry, the vet-school washout from Aggieland, an authentic moron, or only plagued by cruel neural roadblocks that prevent the best of his thinking from reaching his tongue? The hideously focused Mrs. Bachmann couldn’t really be that dumb, either. She’s an attorney, isn’t she? But then you learn that her law school, an experiment in legal education by the evangelist Oral Roberts, was only briefly accredited and no longer exists. The sudden surge of white Republican enthusiasm for Herman Cain was a mystery I couldn’t begin to fathom until my brother, who teaches political science, explained that Cain was “the Amos ‘n’ Andy candidate,” a black man who embodies an African-American stereotype dear to prejudiced white people — pimp hat, trash talk, fried chicken, full-time fancy lady and all. As he echoes their platitudes and confirms them in their ignorance, Herman gives great comfort to the Tea Party.
The recently ascendant Santorum, who like Gingrich left public office ignominiously quite some time ago, is another pure stereotype. A straight-arrow moralizer described by one critic as “more Catholic than the Pope,” he opposes both contraception and abortion — even for a pregnancy caused by a rapist — and has a reality-show lineup of well-fed Catholic children to show for it. In his disdain for scientists and homosexuals, he marches resolutely to the moral music of priests and bishops who have been dead for 100 years. Stubborn denier of global warming (“junk science,” “a charade”), head cheerleader for the immediate bombing of Iran, Santorum is the epitome of the intellectually castrated believer. If you’d vote for him knowing that he blames priestly pedophilia on “academic, political and cultural liberalism in America,” you richly deserve the Dark Age of unreason his presidency would launch.
Ron Paul is a horse of a different color — a very dark color, in terms of the odds against his nomination or election. But unlike most of his rivals, he’s no liar, no flip-flopping fraud or panderer to mob emotions. He’s a consistent, honorable ideologue with deeply held beliefs that happen to vary radically from the observable facts of the world. His is the libertarian curse, the sweet but utterly insupportable notion that most citizens will behave decently without the oversight of the “nanny state” and its policemen. Way too old to be out shaking hands and kissing babies, Paul is easily mocked by liberal journalists for his earnest demeanor and the sound of distressed ceramics inseparable from many of his favorite ideas. But he’s the only remaining Republican candidate with whom I’d share a cab, or bother to debate. Half of his platform, especially its pacifist foreign policy and coldness to the Israel lobby, is more sensible than Pres. Obama’s. The other half, of course, would set civilization back 200 years. But it’s a shame that a sincere libertarian, in search of a party, should have to lie down with pigs like Newt Gingrich. I confess a weakness for Paul and his ilk. Like any pulverized idealist who sides with underdogs, I loathe most Republicans and distrust most Democrats. My ideal politician would be patched together from disparate pieces of Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders.
This inedible buffet of mendacity, eccentricity and extremism ought to guarantee the GOP a crushing defeat in November, but when you look at the electoral map and do the math, its failure is far from certain. The most striking, alarming thing about this year’s primaries is that the voters they targeted aren’t laughing. They’re cheering. They cheer for the death penalty, for torture, for child labor, for more wars. The only time they turn on a candidate is when he reveals something moderate or sensible, like Newt’s reluctance to deport illegal immigrants en masse. Jon Huntsman, who was rarely mentioned because he was the one candidate who never “surged,” seemed like the kind of sane, intelligent, rich Republican my parents used to vote for. He consistently made sense and declined to pander. The primary voters hated him. They ignored him until he disappeared, the party’s last glimmer of moderation fading in the west.
My first impression of these primaries was the stunning heartlessness of Republican rhetoric. Candidates vowed to deport 11 million illegals (60 percent of them U.S. residents for at least 10 years), abandon the uninsured to sickness and death, put the children of the poor to work cleaning their schools, slash unemployment benefits and shred the social safety net just when it’s most critical for victims of a ravaged economy. Most of them embrace torture, as well. So when the journal Science published a University of Chicago study proving that lab rats feel empathy and demonstrate compassion — free rats will repeatedly try to free trapped ones — it gave me the perfect headline: “Rats Feel More Compassion Than Republicans.” (I hope The Onion didn’t beat me to that one.) But the implosion of Huntsman, Mitt Romney’s fellow Mormon, led me to serious second thoughts about Romney. Mitt, too, is rich, sane and intelligent, and has no public record of reactionary excess. He just wants the White House way too much, and knows the GOP is the only party that could take him there. All day long, he lies and panders. At night, he tells his wife that those guys in the Uncle Sam hats cheering for war on the poor make him sick to his stomach. Of course he does. Probably Ron Paul does, too.
You may think the candidates are a repugnant lot — I hope you do — but the new Republican reality is that its base, the mob it woos and placates, is much worse than its would-be leaders. It’s dumber, meaner and more inflexible, and fatally poisoned with the heart-hardening, brain-softening drivel it absorbs from hate radio and Fox News. (Assuring idiots that they’re not is now the most lucrative slice of the media pie.) Even Newt, as responsible as anyone for the partisan belligerence that made the modern GOP more like an army than a political party, has been known to step toward the middle when it suits him. But he wants the Tea Party to forget that, to erase that memory along with his nasty love life. As this circus progresses, it reinforces my commitment to a line I wrote in frustration in 2004: “Not all Republicans are bad people, but nearly all bad people are Republicans.”
The flip side of that insight is that Democratic voters are probably better, cleaner people on the whole, than their party’s professional politicians. It’s a tougher case to prove, but a useful one to pursue. (I have never registered as a Democrat or voted in a Democratic primary.) The key is that the system, the model for representative democracy that served us well or ill for two centuries, is hopelessly broken. Money floods in obscenely, like sewage from a broken main, and no one who plays this game is unsoiled. With the Super PACs unleashed by Citizens United, and liberated billionaires like Adelson and the Koch brothers shooting high-stakes craps for America’s soul, the price tag for the entire 2012 election cycle is expected to exceed $6 billion. It might cost a billion, some estimate, to run for president, and millions to defend a seat in the House.
Pres. Obama was justly pilloried for giving in to the Super PAC fundraising model he previously disdained. But his dilemma recalls the nuclear arms race or the steroid race that corrupted athletes everywhere — who’s going to stand on principle when he doubts that anyone else will, and when it means he’ll get clobbered for sure? If you want to compete, you put on your waders and hope the sewage doesn’t crest above your waist. That’s where every politician is standing now, and none of them smells very pretty. Most Democratic voters, on the other hand, are merely citizens who wish to be fair, reasonable and generous — members of “the fraternity of the well-meaning,” in the words of one of my favorite clergymen.
To the hysterical Right, Obama is a socialist and his supporters are secular humanists lined up against God, free markets and the American family. In the real world, the president is a Rockefeller Republican and the people who vote for him, with the exception of a dwindling handful of Old Left relics and PC academics, tend to be middle-class churchgoers smart enough to suspect that a thorough voting history of Tea Party regulars would turn up legions once faithful to Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and even David Duke. Those silly hats aren’t fooling anybody.
“I am not exactly happy with the president,” confessed Bilsel Elisbah, a retiree in South Carolina, “but at least he does not scare me.”
When the Right speaks of “the Left” — and the media often repeat that label without a footnote — it no longer means “Left” in the traditional sense of favoring socialism or even social democracy. It just means “not us.” An ideological Left, that essential straw man for rightwing rhetoric, no longer plays a meaningful part in the political ecosystem of the United States. As high-rollers from Wall Street, the energy industry and the Israel lobby write the checks and the script for this parade of fraud and nonsense, this legal prostitution of “public servants” that left Castro sneering around his cigar in Havana, what can “the fraternity of the well-meaning” really count on to keep moguls and angry morons from walking off with America? It’s hard to forget that Florida was where Republicans literally stole the presidency in 2001, that year when most of our current sorrows began.
The election year 2012 will mark a turning point in our history, one way or the other. There’s a theory that the pinstripe plutocrats who always steered the Republican Party have lost control of the lunatic fringe groups they seduced and absorbed to their great electoral advantage. They built a patchwork monster and now he’s loose. One proof offered for this Frankenstein theory is that the Tea Party and the evangelicals much prefer Rick Santorum or even Gingrich to Mitt Romney, the chosen candidate of the party’s senior establishment. The clean-cut Santorum is a full-fledged head case, or a time traveler from the 13th Century — he defends medieval popes who launched the Crusades — and, no, nothing like the Santorum surge was part of any Republican game plan. The debates and primaries are repulsive and tedious, and absurdly overworked by the media (it was a reality check for the press when only 2 percent of Maine’s registered Republicans turned out for the caucuses). But they’re a freak show that can only work to the Democrats’ advantage. If halfway reasonable Republicans still exist, they must consider changing parties, forming a third party or sitting out the election. And the most liberal Democrats, the ones so disgusted with the president, are less likely to sit it out or waste their votes now that they’ve seen just how frightening, how apocalyptically dreadful a Republican victory might be.
In Florida, which may again decide our fate, the candidates folded their tents and the familiar — if not necessarily the normal — resumed. The polls closed, and when the sun came up, Cuba was still communist and the pythons and cannibals were still eating their way up and down the food chain. The same night Mitt Romney was declared the winner, Miami police cleared the Occupy Miami encampment and arrested a few of the crusaders whose pathology report on America’s metastasizing inequality was the most positive political development of 2011. In the next day’s Times, Romney’s many intimate connections to Goldman Sachs, and the Wall Street leviathan’s generous contributions to his campaign, were reported along with the insider-trading indictment of former Goldman director Rajat Gupta. Symbolically, these coincidences could hardly have been more fortunate. The one percent, victorious — for now; the 99 percent, evicted — for now. Mr. One Percent leaves in a private jet, his critics leave in a paddywagon. And so the stage is set.