Charlestown, West Virginia.
After the week we just had, this is the last place we expected to end up. But when the local KOA costs $65 and is jammed packed for the “every weekend is a holiday weekend in October” Halloween festival, and hotels in the area are $70 or higher, and you’re rolling across the country in The Beast, a casino parking lot is as good as any state park or national forest.
The parking lot is massive. There’s a horse track. We’re here to watch a baseball game, Giants vs. Cubs, and have a few drinks. I’m writing this from the sky bar, a particularly TV oriented area above the Friday night dance floor, where the band is playing “Crazy in Love,” by Jay Z and Beyoncé, and the folks dancing are all in their late 40s up to Baby Boomers – the ones that got us into this mess in the first place. There is a man doing an odd rendition of the twist with an added hip thrust every down beat, and he’s wearing big old black knee pads over his blue jeans. I’m not making this up.
The TV sets in front of me are on baseball, UFC, NFL Total Access, and the local news report about Hurricane Matthew. I’m drinking a Boddington’s.
The casino is packed. It is, after all, Friday. The lights inside this joint are about as bright as the ones pointed at the horse track outside. The chairs in front of the slot machines are about 95% occupied, and I’d say that somewhere between 50-60% of that cohort are knocking on the door of morbid obesity. Cigarettes are raised to lips, buttons are pressed, levers are pulled, and the sound of digital hope chimes away. There’s a certain festivity to it all. Just a little gambling on a Friday, and, baby, there’s no harm in that.
Chomsky once said that Las Vegas was the most honest place in America. And this ain’t Vegas, but after the week we just had, I could use a little dose of truth over theater.
The casino bar doesn’t serve more than one drink at a time, so it’s impossible to order a shot and a beer in one take. Cruelty is a responsible bartender named Mike.
HILLARY CLINTON: TAKE ONE
It’s Monday, and there are about 3,000 people in attendance. The event is on the Eastside of Akron, at a gymnasium in The Goodyear district. Rubber City seems to be doing better these days. My cousin lives here, and he tells me that developers are beginning to invest in the downtown again. In the day and a half that we’re in the area, I notice a lot of young families. Rustbelt renaissance?
Outside of the event, there are Trump Trucks driving through the streets with old men hanging out of the windows and in truck beds yelling at people in line to, “Wake up.” Although I enjoy the sentiment, there’s a certain amount of irony laced into the smoke of a 50-year-old man in a jacked-up F150, with Trump stickers everywhere, claiming to be woke.
There’s a hype man behind the stage where Mrs. Clinton will speak, and he’s wearing a black T-shirt with the number 19 on the back. His job, for a majority of the event, is to clap loudly, skip back and forth in front of the bleachers and start chants. He may moonlight as an NBA mascot.
Michael Jackson, KC and The Sunshine Band, and then Boyz II Men are the first three songs on today’s political playlist.
I count seven US flags hanging around the gym.
HILLARY CLINTON: TAKE TWO
It’s Tuesday, and there are about 2,600 people in attendance at Zembo Shrine. Is it a theater? A church? A community center? You don’t know. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. There is a man selling “Soft” pretzels outside the event. The pretzels are practically frozen. Not soft. He tells me they’re “two for ten.” I tell him I have two dollars. He gives me one.
While waiting in line, a man hands me a pamphlet called, “FRAMED,” by Tony and Susan Alamo – written in 1996. A quote, out of context: “You see our nation falling. You see the moral decay, the destruction of decency everywhere. People are afraid to walk the streets any longer in the cities. Look at our presidents that have been set up for assassination. And I truly believe that Tony Alamo and myself have been set up by the press, by the news media, for out and out destruction, and I don’t believe there is another way to describe it…”
I have yet to read the rest.
Good, diverse crowd inside. All races, nations, and creeds are present. A man in a turban stands next to a young father stands next to two women who look like they just got stepped off the set of Jersey Shore stands next to two Black men stands next to an Asian teenager. You get the idea.
Aside from flirting with the Democratic Party, the only thing this crowd may actually have in common is that when Mrs. Clinton takes the stage they all pull out their cell phones.
I make a note that the playlist in Harrisburg is vastly different from the playlists at both democratic events in Toledo and Akron. All white musicians leading up to the speakers save Pharell. Know your audience, I suppose.
At one point, the crowd does the wave – a successful one at that. After its completion, the crowd applauds itself gleefully – one of the louder, energetic displays of the day. My notes read: what is it about the wave that makes people so happy? And then, beneath that, can you determine the whiteness of a crowd by how loudly they cheer for the wave?
It’s Wednesday. Evening. We’re at a sheet metal plant. A bunch of union guys in yellow shirts are milling about the entrance. There are more inside. This is their place. They’re hosting. Everybody’s friendly. A couple of bigwig union guys are all dolled up in suits – big, barrel-chested motherfuckers. It looks like a casting session for a movie about blue-collar, union guys from Philly, or maybe the mob, is about to take place.
The only thing that betrays that idea is the, yet again, unbelievably diverse crowd – young, old, Black, white, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern. The crowd looks like the cover of a cheesy college textbook titled, “The Melting Pot: a journey into diversity.”
The Vice Presidential debate was the night before, and I believe this is Tim Kaine’s first public engagement since. He looked a bit jittery at the beginning of the debate but seemed to settle into the role of, “How can you defend that?” quite nicely as the debate went on.
While leaning against the railing to the press pit, I strike up a conversation with a man named Ben.
Somehow, I forget to make any notes about the playlist.
Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
It’s Friday. Lunchtime. We’re at Bucks County Community College. The event is packed. At capacity in the main room, so the unlucky ones cluster around three windows in the long hallways to get a view of the current Vice President. The hallways are lined with student artwork.
Again, I forget to note the playlist. The crowd is diverse. A young woman, a student at Bucks, chats throughout the entire speech. Every time Trump’s name is brought up she says, “Fuck Trump,” to no one in particular.
On my way to the bathroom, a familiar voice says, “Phill. Nice to see you.” It’s Ben, from the Tim Kaine event. Between Toledo and Fostoria and Upper Sandusky and Mansfield and Akron and Ashtabula and Harrisburg and Philadelphia and wherever the hell I am at the moment, I try and figure out how many days before it was that I met Ben.
It’s all a blur.
A CERTAIN FORMULA
Before the main events, the litany of speakers is diverse. Black men, Latina women, white women, Latino men, Black women, and, last and perhaps least, white men of all ages take the stage before the main events. A breath of fresh air? Yes. Are the speakers that currently hold office a majority white? Yes.
The image alone is quite strong. We are a party of diverse voices.
The message at the outset, across the board, much like Bill’s event in Toledo, focuses on voter registration. The first speaker introduces the topics that are personally important (e.g., minorities, women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, gun reform, veterans, healthcare, immigration, access to higher education), and then adds a little background story of why they’re there. But regardless of who the speaker is or what they look like, the first speaker of the day ends with a plea for the audience to take out their cell phones.
Text this number. Get involved. Post to Facebook. Share. Like. Take a photo. Make it a selfie. Do it. Right now. And the crowds, willingly, happily, oblige.
This happens at each event. The first speaker covers their social media bases.
Speakers two and three are elected officials, and they touch on whatever topics of the democratic platform are near and dear to them. Personal anecdotes abound. State representatives, congressmen and women, senators, and governors round out the warm-up team.
Robert Castaneda Jr. in Akron, Ohio: “My parents are hardworking immigrants, not rapists.”
Mayor Dan Horrigan in Akron, Ohio: “I want a president who inspires my daughters, not demeans them…” [crickets] “…That’s an applause line, come on!”
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge in Akron, Ohio: “This is the state of Ohio. We’re going to win the state of Ohio.”
Congressman Tim Ryan in Akron, Ohio speaking about Mr. Trump: “This guy will gut the working class and walk over your cold dead body and not think twice about it.”
Governor Tom Wolf’s opener in Harrisburg: “What a nice crowd.”
AFL-CIO head Rick Bloomingdale in Philly: “This is a union made suit, and this is a union made shirt from Ashland, PA.”
Congressman Brendan Boyle in Philly: “I feel sorry for Mike Pence.”
Congressman Bob Brady speaking about Tim Kaine in Philly: “He’s one of our guys. He’s one of us.”
Vice President Joe Biden in Bristol, PA: “I know the world leaders on a first-name basis.”
ANSWER: MORE THAN ONE
What is the minimum number of campaign events that it takes to melt brain?
HILLARY CLINTON: TAKE ONE / TAKE TWO
The topics Mrs. Clinton covers are largely the same from Monday to Tuesday. Details change here and there, but it’s obvious that she’s riding the wave from her performance in the first debate. Many of the talking and scoring points from the debate make their way into the speeches.
Mr. Trump is a rich kid. Born into Money. Taken advantage of the system. She tells a story of Trump stiffing small business owners. “What kind of a man does that? This is not the way we’re supposed to do business in America.” This gets rolled into a bit about corporate fraud, Wells Fargo being the most recent example. “We have got to keep pressure on these big banks…”
Dynamic small business economy / Trump’s vision is trickle down economics / Tax returns / Paying taxes / Who doesn’t pay taxes? / Chinese steel in Trump’s last few building projects / Trade with China / Industry / Protect unions / Rich vs. poor (“I want an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top”) / Trump’s dark and dire picture of America / Nuclear weapons (proliferation, terrorists, diplomacy) / Plan to defeat ISIS (standard line about keeping America safe) / Accountability in Government / Move the country forward
The next day in Harrisburg, Mrs. Clinton hits, largely, the same bits throughout her speech. Wells Fargo / Consumer protection bureau / Housing Crisis / Tax returns / Business with ethics / Chinese Steel / Nuclear weapons / Keeping America safe / Dark and dire…
She ends her speech in Harrisburg with, “I can’t do any of this without you, not just before the election but after too.” That last line does not seem to weigh too heavy on the shoulders of those present. The crowd cheers, and then people make their way towards the exit. Others wait for handshakes and photos.
Every four years we engage. Some of us become involved. Time and energy spent – countless hours volunteering, calling, knocking, and reaching out. But after the president is elected, how many of us recede to our normal lives? How many of us disengage? How many of us wipe our hands of it all? We hardly show up for midterms. We hardly show up for local elections. Yes, after the president is elected the voter’s job is done, and what was a steam engine of involvement becomes a comfortable chair of inaction.
In the first presidential debate, Mrs. Clinton mentioned her father, a small business owner from Scranton who dyed drapes and fabrics. On Monday’s event in Akron she spoke of her father again, even going so far as to act out the type of arm movements that were required for this trade. And then on Tuesday, the same story followed by the same movements.
I notice the stage opposite Mrs. Clinton, packed with video cameras, and I wonder how much of each speech is written strictly for the small screen as opposed for those in attendance. The flags hang around the gym. The stages and the sets. The placement of the audience, and the makeup of the crowds standing directly behind the podium. These layers begin to slough off from each other and, once separate from the whole, they begin to look like nothing more than pieces of political theater, stacked strategically.
Each event resembles the last, and each speech is dialed. RB tells me that this is what it looks and sounds like when a campaign is on-message – a well-oiled machine, a series of oars cutting through the water in perfect harmony.
Does any of this matter? No, probably not.
But it’s painful. Really, quite painful to witness. My mind melted on day two. I felt my frontal cortex retreat to the tip of my brain stem and then expertly make its way down my abdominal tract before spilling out of my asshole. * What higher plane of existence Mrs. Clinton, or any politician running for office, has discovered to cover her agenda and the campaign’s talking points twice a day, must be closely associated with the same level of flow-state that lifelong thespians report feeling after a particularly great performance of the second show on a Sunday in the second year of a show’s run.
ON THE MEDIA
Does this monotony have less of an effect on the candidates themselves, and where the problem actually lies is in the minds of our correspondents, reporters, and journalists? The ones that have been in it since the beginning – the primaries. The ones that have meetings, follow along, report on the events, watch the news about it, read about it, fly to DC, on location, back to headquarters, event, speech, fly back, over and over and over for the course of a career.
Is the monotony to blame for the current state of media? That everybody is just too fucking bored to lob up anything other than softballs right over the heart of the plate? Fact-check a debate? Fuck you. Allow questions to be ignored and talking points and half-truths to land in their stead.
Is it not plausible that Mr. Trump’s sophomoric, repugnant candidacy is the result of such tedium? A field of candidates so boring, so incapable of drumming up the slightest bit of excitement for themselves, that Mr. Trump’s Circus of the Mouth captivated the mind of the media as well as the people. They had to report it. They had to keep him in the news, because the alternative was going back to what they had been doing. And they didn’t want to do that. After all, once you get a ticket to the circus on a Friday night, the endless clockwise turns of the roller-rink might just feel like old hat.
But how easily they lofted him up. Gave him news time. Let him opine. How lovingly they treated him when he appeared on their shows or called into radio or said what he wanted to say and then banked on the idea that there would be those that were outraged, those that wouldn’t give a damn, and those that were just happy to have something or someone that could break up the monotony of a year of election coverage.
Anything, please God. Anything. Just don’t make me listen to 14 months of the human sleep machine Scott Walker or that holier-than-thou Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz thinks it’s interesting that he likes Broadway musicals. Shoot me in the fucking face. Nobody cares, Ted, sit down. We get it already, sheesh. Reagan, trickle down, cut taxes. It’s as if this party hasn’t had one original idea since the guy with Alzheimer’s had his last.
Mexican’s are rapists. Did you hear that? Oh my god. Somebody get a camera down there, I don’t care who, Martha, just do it. Send the fucking intern. Who cares? Go go go. Did he just make a penis reference? I think he just made a penis reference. Johnny, can you make sure that was an actual penis reference? I’ve never seen a presidential candidate do that before. What do you mean he’s calling for mass deportation? Larry, are you hearing this shit? No, no, take the whole B-team. I don’t care if everyone else is already over there, we’re going to report on it in a more measured way. Totally objective. Flies on the wall. He said what? The guy’s a fucking war hero, might be a bit of an asshole, but a war hero nonetheless. No, no, no, this is the story, trust me. I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I’ve never, and I mean never, seen anything like this. Look at that shiny object. See how it spins? It’s almost got a twinkle to it. It’s so bright. Look at that. The way it shines. It’s so bright. We have to show everybody how bright it is. They must know. They have to know that the object is shiny. I mean look at how shiny it is.
[Gladiator clip of “are you not entertained.”]
Coming off his Vice Presidential debate performance, at the sheet metal workers plant in Philly, Tim Kaine steps up to the podium and starts speaking into the microphone. He’s stiff for about twenty seconds, and the he grabs the mic off its stand, and delivers a speech that feels human and real. He’s on message, and the progressive platform is laid out quite neatly for those in attendance. The overall tone of the evening is conversational, largely positive, and entirely progressive.
He speaks about the importance of unions, voting rights, Brown Vs. Board of Education, the historic nature of electing a (qualified) woman to the presidency, immigration and border security without separating families, criminal justice reform, acknowledging institutional biases, women’s health and reproductive rights (“we’ve got to trust women to make their own decisions”), investing in manufacturing and workers, fairness in the system for minimum wage workers and equal pay for women, small business, increasing taxes on the wealthiest one percent, and he touches briefly on the wars in the Middle East.
Throughout the event, Mr. Kaine comes off as feisty, knowledgeable, and sincere. He’s funnier than I had imagined, and he begins each new topic with a quasi history lesson. All in all, in a week of dialed-in messaging from the democratic platform, Mr. Kaine does the best job of both talking about the issues that he considers important and laying out a semblance of a game plan for how he and Mrs. Clinton plan to govern. This, I believe, is called substance.
After Mrs. Clinton spoke in Harrisburg, as I was walking back to The Beast, I asked an older woman on the sidewalk what she thought of the event. “I wish she had spent more time talking about policy instead of focusing on Mr. Trump,” she said. Apparently, I’m not the only one fiending for something other than entertainment.
THE PAY OFF
This has been a week of what, exactly? Inspiration? Meh. Dialed in messages? Warmer. Political theater, certainly. I can picture Mrs. Clinton telling the story of her father’s fabric printing business on Monday and Tuesday, Tim Kaine telling the same story on Wednesday, and Joe Biden repeating it on Friday. A series of speeches that connect and intertwine, because the team is on message and they’re gaining in the polls: As of today Nate Silver, over at FiveThirtyEight, has Mrs. Clinton with an 81% chance of winning the presidency.
But in the end, who really wins? The people?
In November, the folks in the casino will pull levers attached to voting booths instead of slot machines. We’ll take our collective gamble. We’ll have emptied our pockets for the candidate of our choosing, ignored the odds and put faith behind our favorite horse. We hope we can hit the jackpot. We pray that the dealer will bust. We donate. We dump paychecks into causes and candidates like we buy chips at a table. This is going to be the time it pays off. This is when we finally get lucky.
But for the politicians, the one percent, the military industrial complex, corporate America, the bankers, and the media, the ones that exist on a different plane, the ones above us, above consequence, in a realm or version of reality where your actions may have an impact on others, but if you play your cards right, you too can cheat the dealer, scam the system, or poison the water and still come out unscathed.
We buy tickets to the theater, to be entertained. And, we vote to feel involved. We pull the levers and punch the cards, blacken the circles and touch the screens, all the while hoping for our three cherries. We’ll get lucky this time. But in the end, are the speeches and events anything more than a good show? A yearlong spectacle that makes us feel important. Gives us a sense that we can enact change. Keep your eye on the birdie, keep your eye on the birdie – young man and young woman keep your eyes on the birdie. But the war machine keeps rolling, and the bankers get richer, and the schools keep failing, and the gunshots keep ringing out, and the sick and needy are forgotten.
We sit down at a black jack table. I cash in $100. The deck is shuffled and cut. My pithy stack begins dwindling. The dealer that’s been giving me cold cards for the last thirty minutes eventually gets tagged out. I make a tiny comeback. There is hope. But after six bad hands in a row, I eventually bust.
“It doesn’t matter who’s dealing,” I tell RB. “The house always wins.”