A LIST OF QUESTIONS
we’re drinking beers and cooking dinner in The Beast – 16oz cans of Miller High Life and chicken tacos. RB, Mo, and myself. It’s only day four or five, and we’re already bushed. Tired but not beaten. At the top speed of 65mph, zipping from city to city at our current pace feels more like a crawl that requires maximal effort and concentration. Two hours in La Crosse, WI, drive to Eau Claire, talk to people, drive to Green Bay, visit campaign offices, talk to people, back in The Beast, drive, talk to people, drink beer, smoke cigarettes, drive, write, shoot, edit, eat, sleep, drive. Rinse. Repeat.
It starts with the idea that a list will help us cut through the bullshit. Or, maybe, it’ll add some sort of template so that people’s responses can be compared and contrasted – consistency within, a proper set of constructs.
- What is the American Dream to you?
- What’s threatening that?
- If the opposing candidate wins, what are you afraid will happen?
- What’s at stake for you, personally, in this election?
- What’s going on in your life?
- Why are you voting?
- How’s your family doing?
- Do you feel financially secure right now?
- So, you’re able to put money away?
- If we get rid of the deficit, how will your life improve?
- How has Obamacare made your life better or worse?
- What are wrong with taxes?
- Who’s the last politician that you could relate to?
- What do you think is misunderstood about America?
- How do you think history will judge president Obama’s legacy?
- What makes Donald Trump a Republican?
- Do you care if Donald Trump is a Christian?
- Miracle whip or Hellman’s?
- What other country’s political system do you admire?
- Are you more worried about your grandchildren drowning in debt or the ocean?
- Who do you think has a bigger impact on your life, President Obama or corporate lobbyists?
- Has there ever been a president that has been divorced before?
We make the list, but every time we talk to someone the list goes out the window, and we end up just having a conversation.
We park The Beast in the parking lot of a Walmart in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. There are three or four other rigs around us, up against a curb – business as usual. We shop for the evening. I haven’t been in a Walmart in years, and I had no idea that they sell groceries these days. The corporate behemoth that boosted its minimum wage to $10/hr, from $9/hr, has officially won. Need an oil change, manicure, head of lettuce, prescription filled, check cashed, frozen pizza, giant trampoline, chainsaw, rack of ribs, jet ski, clean bathroom? Walmart: a place where the average full-time wage is about $13 an hour, with profit margins in the billions, and a long history of being hated upon for destroying small town mom and pop shops.
But, sometimes, convenience is everything, and during this month of a divisive presidential election, maybe convenience is something that can bring us together, as Americans.
“I’m for Donald Trump, and I think Hillary Clinton is a crooked bitch, but those frozen pizzas are two for five.”
“I’m for Hillary Clinton, and I think Donald Trump is a misogynist and a bigot, but I’ve got three kids and the deals on bulk toilet paper are just too good to pass up.”
“I’m still hoping that Bernie Sanders jumps back in the race, and I think that both Trump and Clinton are lying political hacks, but I can get a ten pound bag of granola for three dollars…”
As we drive through Illinois and Wisconsin, and dip in and out of Iowa, there are certain qualities to our small towns and big cities, old roads and large highways that end up resembling each other. So much so, that you might just forget where you are. A cornfield is a cornfield in Iowa as it is in Illinois as it is in Wisconsin. A Subway and a Burger King and a Wendy’s are the same. The exits surrounding highways have the same four or five fast food joints and three or four gas stations, the only regional differences being the particular brand of gas station or fast food.
Is this level of convenience a uniquely American experience? Is having shopped at a Walmart the one thing that we all have in common?
A question to be answered at a later date, I suppose.
There is excitement in a Trump campaign office in Wisconsin. The phones are loaded with volunteers – a woman has one telephone to each ear. A poll was just released that said that Mr. Trump was within five points. Polls are a big deal.
The campaign office is clean and neat. A tiered platter of candy rests on a table. The people offer water and snacks. Everybody is nice. Everybody is cordial. Everybody has hope that the lead can be surmounted. 45 days till the levers are pulled, the screens touched, and the final votes counted.
Somebody asks me if this is going to be on the record. I tell them no. I’m just trying to get a sense of what’s going on, what the mood is – the tone. The record is a dirty term, and I’d rather exist in that realm where I’m scribbling down statements, quotes, and thoughts into the notebook, but could care less who says them. At the end of the day, the portrait of who we are and what we say is formed from the collective. Fuck the record. Just be honest.
We get some thoughts. How excited everyone was when Mr. Trump came through and held an event. How he’s just a regular guy. How kind he was in person. How he’s the man for the job. How they’re doing everything in their power to get him elected. Get the word out. Small businesses are relying on him. He’s going to do it.
My favorite bit comes when a particularly long string of sentences ends with a question about campaign contributions that is answered with: Citizen’s United leveled the playing field for what democrats have been getting from the unions for decades.
That’s right. The one that made corporations people.
Same as the unions, Jack. Nothing to see here.
Supreme Court, lowering taxes, immigration, etc. etc. the message is dialed and the people are listening and the responses are believed and canned and sometimes stumbled over, but one thing is sure: when the message has a mouthpiece, it is spoken.
PLAYING THE GAME
Standing in another campaign office in another town in another part of Wisconsin: this one different from the last, but not really. It’s the democrats this time. A man running for the senate is speaking to volunteers.
The volunteers will be canvassing, door-to-door, directly after the speech. This is the pep talk. The director of this particular campaign office is roughly my age. Three out of four offices we’ve stepped foot in so far have been led by white males of my generation – for all the shit people talk about Millenials, seems to me we’re pulling some strings. For a small town, they’ve got a healthy crowd. Old folks, a couple of young kids, everybody in between. It’s the same people that were in the audience in Dubuque, just from the other side of the isle. Everyone is pretty relaxed. Feels like at any moment the crowd could transform the event into a bake sale and donuts and muffins would materialize from nothing. But, alas, there are only snacks and drinks on a table up front. Signs, stickers, and maps outlining voting districts line the walls. The only thing that materializes is a man running for office.
The Senator speaks about early voting, about the importance of early voting. He talks about the issues that are important to the community: the prices of corn, milk, and cheese are down. He mentions infrastructure, roads, and access to broadband. He tells the story about how he ran for the state senate at age 29 and, after personally knocking on 15,000 doors, eventually won in a recount. He speaks plainly and confidently. The crowd laughs a couple of times. Applause at the end. RB mentions that he’s the real deal.
The Vote for Russ shirts say something to the effect of Vote for Russ on the front, and on the back of the t-shirt is a detailed drawing of a human spine. The man’s got backbone.
Full disclosure: solid t-shirt.
We’re out back waiting. A portrait is to be taken. I’m holding an extra camera. The set-up looks good. Everything is ready. I stand in for test shots. RB dials it in – he’s good at what he does.
The senator steps out for a portrait – a handshake and hello. He stands in front of a black screen.
The staffers speak to each other.
At the end of the alley, from behind a dumpster, a fat man appears. From a distance of about 50 feet, he appears to be weighing in at around 225, he’s shaped like a pear, he’s wearing glasses, and he looks like a used car salesman that refuses to walk the lot to sell a 1996 Honda but instead just leans his head out of the window and yells out prices from his desk.
Full disclosure: he’s wearing khakis.
It turns out that this bulbous, khaki-wearing man is a political tracker, like an opposition researcher with a camera and tape recorder. A position that screams out half-paparazzi, half “grew up wanting to be Richard Dreyfus in The Stakeout.” [link for stakeout – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stakeout_(1987_film)%5D A position for which there is likely no formal interview, except for the answer to the question: what are you willing to do to see so-and-so fail?
If the answer is anything or everything, then you’re hired. Just hit those local craigslist pages and look under gigs. You too can take the photo of a candidate walking past someone without shaking their hand and sell that photo under the headline, “Candidate refuses to shake hands with local woman,” or, “Candidate doesn’t care about working mothers.”
Yes, politics is a dirty game, and these Khaki wearing dick-bibs are using a full-court press.
What it would look like if you had a tracker following you around for one day? Could you imagine? Can you actually fathom what that would be like? A day? A month? An entire year? What would your life be like if you knew that some lumbering sasquatch in pleated pants was following you around for a year just waiting for you to slip up?
I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I know that you’d only need to follow me around for a week before you started feeling sorry for my liver. Of course, Churchill drank a bottle of booze a day so…
I should run for office.
Full disclosure: Nope.
But maybe more than Walmart or convenience or homogenous highway exits, the one thing that we all have in common is that we love building people up, and then we love being outraged when we discover that they are, in fact, human.
Maybe this disgusting quality of ours is actually the common thread that we can pull through the fabric of our society. Our need to place feet on pedestals. To build them up up up until they loom giant and cast shadows over the rest of us plebs like the Colossus of Rhodes.
They have to have some sort of mythology attached. They have to be greater than they are. They have to be. They have to be more powerful, or smarter, or more effectual, or more knowledgeable, because if they’re not they’re just regular people – maybe highly talented or experienced, but normal nonetheless. And they can’t be normal, because if they are we’re all fucked.
So we look into the microscope and pick out qualities that we like, he’s a good businessman, she’s been in public service her entire life, and we invest and curate and water and encourage those qualities. We ignore pass faults and transgressions. We let things slide. We like our candidates because (policy, experience, business acumen, fill in any reason here), and once we like them they are good and their opponent is bad. And we build them up and build them up and put our hopes behind them.
BUT OUT HERE
The sentiment has changed.
Of the two most common phrases we’ve heard thus far, one would be the lesser of two evils, and the other would be I don’t trust either of them. The former, followed up by both that’s why I’m voting for Trump or that’s why I’m voting for Clinton, and the latter usually followed up with a look of sadness.
I’m writing in Paul Ryan, a man outside of Lambeau Field says. He’s one of the only honest politicians in Washington. I ask him if he thinks that Mr. Ryan has maintained his integrity since he’s been in Washington. Absolutely, he says. That these two candidates got to the top, that they are the only two is ridiculous. I ask him whether the media is to blame for the way the candidates are presented to the people, or if, in the end, the people are to blame. The buck stops with the American People.
Full disclosure: Not sure if I agree wholeheartedly with that last statement.
A woman outside of a dollar store in Green Bay tells us that she’s voting for the lesser of two evils, and that’s why she’s choosing Trump. She says that she took an early retirement and is currently getting raped by Obamacare – her word, not mine. She tells us that with no health problems or medications, at her age, she’s paying $734 a month for her health insurance and has a $6,300 deductible. She gets worked up pretty quickly. We don’t mention the federal funding that the state of Wisconsin rejected on ideological principles, https://app.box.com/s/cluo7c59s80eez1vlr99
“[the] decision to turn down enhanced federal Medicaid dollars, and it’s decision not to implement more robust rate review,” putting the financial burden on the middle class, when compared with the premiums of neighboring state Minnesota. To keep this thing objective, and also because we want her photograph, we don’t tell her who’s actually fucking her. She declines the photograph and walks off into the parking lot holding a birthday balloon. Later, RB and I discuss the meaning of the phrase lost opportunity.
THE FELLAS FROM WISCONSIN
Mo asks a group of guys at a bar whether or not they know of any good places to park The Beast. Nearby parks, rivers, lakes. The woods. One of the guys says that he lives on a few acres of land, and that we can come out and park anywhere. No problem, he just has to call the homeowner.
A phone call is made – it’s all good. In return for the hospitality we tell them that we’ll bring something for the grill.
Cool, we’re just going to get some pot first.
We’ll bring beer.
Six avocados, two Roma tomatoes, four limes, one bunch of cilantro, one red onion, one jalapeño, two white onions, three packages of brats, pepper jack cheese, gouda, herb covered cheese curds, two bags of Santitas, one case of Coors Banquet, and a bottle of Jameson.
Let’s just say that it was the first evening that I held an AK-47, an AR-15, a semi-automatic shotgun, two handguns, and a crossbow.
Full disclosure: it was not the first evening that I ate brats with a bunch of fellas from Wisconsin and drank away the evening.
Tip o’ the hats for hosting a good time, gents.
WHERE WERE WE?
Shit shit shit. Keep it together.
The more depressing conversation around the dinner table that evening, as the bottle of Jameson makes its way around the table, comes as we’re sitting discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and the most recent killing of Keith L. Scott in Charlotte, NC. There’s a video on the New York Times.
Full disclosure: haven’t seen the video.
After stomaching, somehow, the beheading of James Foley and then later the strangulation of Eric Garner, I decided that I would no longer watch public executions. With the frequency that these have been happening – and we’re just talking about the ones caught on tape – it seems that every week brings with it another senseless death.
And so, weekly, we sit in front of our computers and TVs, in front of our phones and tablets, and watch a public execution. Just like the good ol’ days.
Full disclosure: Fuck that.
How desensitized are we, really?
How do any of us sit by idly while innocent people are slain in the streets? But there are movies to watch and football’s back, and I have to worry about my own family.
But do not mistake it. If you watch these videos and then do nothing, you are, effectively, watching a public execution for entertainment purposes. Nothing more.
The most cynical comment of the night comes from a friendly and intelligent, well spoken man who says, what if this is just the world that we live in now? Terrorist attacks are just always going to be a thing, and cops are going to keep killing innocent people.
It’s not so much the statement itself that makes me reach for the bottle of Jameson, as it is the confidence with which he says it.
Next up: Madison.
Full disclosure: nothing political happening there, just another night of debauchery to wash away the taste of the past week.
And then: Michigan.
Question 23: is any of this worth it?