KEY WEST—In Hispanic South Florida, the Republican candidates for president were regaling audiences of Castrophobic exiles with their promises, if elected, to all but rain nuclear warheads on Havana. In one exchange of spectacular idiocy, whoring for both Cuban exiles and evangelicals, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich speculated about whether Castro's soul would go to heaven when he dies. 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 in Cuba's state media.
Even allowing for the English translation, it's clear that the senescence of the ailing ex-president has been greatly exaggerated by his enemies. 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 Michele Bachmann for a hat stand. He and his brother Raul, the current president of Cuba, are serious men, and the fulsome slapstick that dominates the Republican primaries naturally disgusts and bewilders them. If this is freedom, they're thinking, God save autocracy and bless my iron hand.
The serious world is again aghast, perhaps more now than ever. More civilized countries 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.
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 the Republican nominee will be anointed in August, 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 nonpolitical story confirmed that monstrous Burmese pythons, some 15–20 feet long, have now devoured nearly every mammal in the Everglades. And that's just the Food section, Barry would probably say.
I found it fairly rich when the 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 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 trust me, I've seen things in the past 24 hours 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 robocalls 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.
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, as predicted has 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.
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 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 even 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 truly 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 and Georgia, the evil booger actually won. Republicans will just take your breath away.
No doubt Newt is smarter and more articulate than Perry or Bachmann, but so is everyone on your block. Scholars snicker at his self-vaunted intellect. Newt is a bewildering one of a kind, a specimen irresistible to the curious naturalist. Comic Jon Stewart provided the sharp pin that fixed his doughy thorax to the specimen board: "Newt Gingrich is a stupid person's idea of a smart person."
Politics was never a playgound for paragons. But how long has it been since anyone as morally undernourished, ethically compromised and reality-challenged as Gingrich imagined himself as the paramount leader of a nation of 300 million souls? Comedians joked that candidate Gingrich carried 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.
The poor quality of the Republican candidates and the wild things they say to please their constituency have been a 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, 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 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.
A few weeks ago, Gingrich publicly claimed that it was his passionate love for his country that drove him to adultery. (The precise mechanism remains unexplained.) The sudden surge of white Republican enthusiasm for 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, Cain gives great comfort to the tea party.
The far right's new darling is Santorum, whose surprising successes on Super Tuesday forced the Romney machine to recalculate. Like Gingrich, he left public office ignominiously, quite some time ago. Santorum 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 pregnancies caused by rapists—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 President 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 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 Paul and Bernie Sanders.
Such an inedible buffet of mendacity, eccentricity and extremism ought to guarantee the GOP a crushing defeat next 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 these primaries is that the voters they target 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 Gingrich's reluctance to deport illegal immigrants en masse.
Jon Huntsman, rarely mentioned because he was the one declared 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 undocumented immigrants (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, Romney's fellow Mormon, led me to serious second thoughts about Romney, who as of this writing has won more than half the primaries, spent nearly $60 million and secured 453 delegates. Romney, 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 Paul does, too.
You may think these 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.) The new populists of the right, the tea party and its camp followers, are direct descendants of the nativist Know-Nothings of the antebellum 19th century. In the South their gene pool has been generously enriched by the Klan.
With its passionate xenophobia and contempt for science and education, the tea party is more of a religion than an ideology, and its apparent pope is the human bullhorn named Rush Limbaugh. The only thing surprising about the current Limbaugh furor—he slandered a coed who endorsed subsidized contraception as a "slut" and a "prostitute"—is that anyone is surprised. Misogyny, racism and gross insensitivity have been his stock in trade for decades. This is the charmer who found it amusing to call Chelsea Clinton, an adolescent with braces and acne, "the family dog." Look it up. Limbaugh looks like a pig and thinks like a pig, and I pray I never get close enough to know whether he smells like one, too. To some 20 million Americans, nearly all of them Republican, he's the pontiff and the prophet Isaiah.
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." But 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.
President 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 corrupts 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 smell 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, are 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, to The New York Times. "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 right-wing 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. Now it casts its long, weird shadow once again, with the Republican National Convention in Tampa and Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, dear to the tea party and the Castrophobes, in the vice presidential conversation. 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 Santorum or even Gingrich to 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, 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.
Here 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 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 1%, victorious—for now. The 99%, evicted—for now. Mr. One Percent leaves in a private jet, his critics leave in a paddy wagon. And so the stage is set.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Welcome to the circus."