AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA – A light autumn rain, temperatures hovering in the low sixties. Southerners wrapped in winter coats, scarves, gloves. On the sidewalk outside the convention center, Rick Osborn, Republican candidate for mayor of Aiken, South Carolina parks a truck with his campaign sign in the bed, hoping nobody complains.
I’m sitting in the half of the arena not curtained off, thumbing through a book when a county chairman climbs the stairs, shakes a few hands, and squeezes into the seat next to me. Within seconds he’s asking my opinion of former Hewlett-Packard CEO-turned-dark-horse-presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, a subject he holds for approximately thirty seconds before lamenting the fallen.
“Can you believe Scott and Perry are gone?” he asks. “It’s an outsiders’ year, that’s for sure.”
A few neighbors agree and he launches into his predictions. Right now, if you ask him, Rubio’s the secret frontrunner, Fiorina the shoe-in for vice-president. Trump, he says, isn’t really conservative and will fade after New Hampshire.
I thumb through my notebook adorned with Bernie and Hillary stickers, a newly acquired CARLY FOR AMERICA one on the bottom edge. It’s amazing how in line our feelings are about the race. We handicap the contenders and pretenders, agreeing on everybody but Ben Carson, who he finds compelling.
“He’s uncomfortable in the spotlight,” I say.
“That’s true,” he says.
Soon he’s pointing out the dignitaries upfront. The state senators, the kingmakers. Relatives of the Koch brothers. He tells me there’s a power-vacuum in the Palmetto State, an unrest that’s going to follow Nikki Haley’s last days as governor. She was going to be the vice-president, he tells me, but she took her eye off the ball.
Down by the stage, a scrum of South Carolina’s most powerful GOP. They’re kissing Senator Tim Scott’s and Congressman Trey Gowdy’s rings. Staff mingles with staff. Body men and body women share the screens of their Blackberries. The picture starts to take shape. The battle lines are forming.
“I think she’s terrific,” the chairman tells me just minutes before Fiorina takes center stage.
Fiorina, currently second or third in every major poll, has enjoyed a tremendous amount of momentum following two strong debate performances. In Cleveland she dominated the so-called cocktail hour warm-up debate so overwhelmingly she shot up in the polls and joined the adults in California. After smacking around frontrunner Donald Trump, and making the media rounds, she finds herself in the national spotlight. She’s still not a politician though. She’s a CEO giving corporate lectures, bullet-point talks that highlight main points, give three to four supporting points, and then get the hell onto the next slide.
She’s physically uncomfortable, unsure where to gesture and how to marry her limbs and words. When she sits and speaks with Scott and Gowdy, both of them wrestling just as much for a spot on the ticket as her, she nervously rubs her kneecap and shin when formulating an answer.
The ones she finds are sculpted talking points, responses crafted in strategy meetings with operatives who finely craft every piece of rhetoric and turn. When the track is interrupted, like it is when the sound system falters and the audience impatiently yells that they can’t hear her, she restarts the answer and begins again.
She continually references Scott and Gowdy, a local-yokel trick that’s usually meant to win over a crowd but, in this case, serves multiple purposes. This is national politics, particularly national politics in a state of chaos as the Republican Party is in full upheaval. John Boehner has just resigned his speakership and the heir apparent is a dufus. The presidential frontrunner isn’t even a Republican and nobody, especially chairman Reince Priebus, can tell you just what the fuck is going on. Scott, an African-American conservative with style and an inspiring personal story, could be the party’s future, but that’s if Gowdy, who he showers with neverending praise, doesn’t grab the brass ring first. Fiorina sits between them, trying to get their endorsement for her campaign while they wait for somebody to promise the vice-presidency in January.
Every line [Fiorina speaks] is an evocation of war, an invitation to a new age of cold war and mutually-assured destruction, a blueprint for the one way we can actually make this thing worse.
My ears perk up. When reserving a ticket to the town hall you were asked to submit a question to the candidate. Mine was half-joking, half-serious. Fiorina has developed a reoccurring tic where she continually refers to Vladimir Putin as a “thug” and Benjamin Netanyahu as “my dear friend Bibi Netanyahu,” a refrain I wanted to hear in person.
“…considering the crisis in Syria, what can we do to combat Isis and support our friends in Israel?”
It’s my question and the chairman recognizes my name. “That yours?” he asks and I nod, my eyes still on Fiorina as she touches her knee, as she touches her shin.
When I submitted the question it was with tongue firmly in cheek, but the answer is outright horrifying. Just this past week Russia bombed anti-Assad rebels with less than an hour’s notice, a gesture that could be seen, and is probably seen, as a provocation of war. Fiorina must agree because she advocates cutting all ties to Russia and “that thug, Vladimir Putin.” Without coming out and saying it, she’s in favor of escalating every last one of our conflicts, a display of saber rattling that even Trump and Ted Cruz, the most ardent hawks the party has to offer, wouldn’t touch. She delivers the line about her dear friend Bibi, but it doesn’t seem funny anymore.
The secret about Fiorina is that she’s a neoconservative in the vein of Bush, Cheney, and Wolfowitz, but without any of the charm or empathy. Hers is a brand of politics that is either designed for posture or apocalypse, and I’m not certain she knows the difference. Every line is an evocation of war, an invitation to a new age of cold war and mutually-assured destruction, a blueprint for the one way we can actually make this thing worse.
She finishes with a flourish, a call for resetting all relations and forming an alliance against Russia, Iran, and Syria, “an unholy alliance” she calls it, foregoing the tried and true “Axis of Evil,” an oversight I’m sure all of Bush’s leftover yes-men will correct in due time. The crowd erupts in applause as Fiorina rises and shakes hands with Scott and Gowdy, both of them making sure they’re in the spotlight as the flashes go off.
“There she is,” the chairman tells me, “that’s our vice-president, right there.”
Outside it’s still raining and the truck is still on the curb. The radio in my car is nothing but news about a mass shooting in Oregon that killed ten. There have been seventy-four school shootings since a madman massacred twenty-eight people in Connecticut, most of them kindergarteners. Over twelve thousand gun deaths in the past year alone. I’d forgotten inside where nobody so much as mentioned the tragedy. Since nobody inside mentioned anything resembling the reality I thought we all shared.
Photo: Carly Fiorina by Gage Skidmore