SPARTANBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA – The road into South Carolina was filled with signs, most of them for Trump, with Cruz in a near second. Some implored to CHOOSE CRUZ while others trumpeted him as a COURAGEOUS CONSERVATIVE. The sign I couldn’t shake for the rest of the night wasn’t political, or at least not apparently so. In hellfire letters on a mud-strewn background it read: WE ALL MUST HUMBLE OURSELVES NOW.
A bleary, overcast day, they pulled into the elementary school’s parking lot, zipped up their fleece vests, and said hello to their neighbors. Some agreed to have dinner, a few cocktails, maybe a game or two of cards. When asked, they said they were concerned about the debt, about immigration, about veterans, about eliminating ISIS.
Who were they supporting?
“Rubio,” a woman wearing a South Carolina Gamecocks sweatshirt said. “I really wanted Bush, but he’s fallen apart.”
A couple mourning Rand Paul’s doomed candidacy pulled the lever for John Kasich. “It’s all so dirty,” the husband said. “What Cruz did to Carson in Iowa was just disgusting.”
Is there anybody they wouldn’t support as nominee?
“Or Trump,” the wife added. “God help us.”
Of everyone I talked to, only one person volunteered that they’d voted for Donald Trump, a man in his late-thirties using a flip-phone and wearing an Affliction T-shirt. He told me he considers the Republican Congress a “house full of traitors” and that, though his family has supported the GOP since Ronald Reagan, he’s leaving the party if Trump doesn’t win the nomination.
“The whole thing’s rigged,” he said, “and everyone knows it. Illegals. Trade deals. The budget.” He paused to laugh. “It’s all right there. You just have to look for it.”
When I asked where he got his news he differed from the establishment supporters I spoke to, who all watched Fox News and cheered on Hannity and Rush. The Trump supporter got his information from Breitbart with supplements from Drudge Report and Alex Jones’ conspiracy empire, Info Wars.
What else is he against?
“Old white men hanging out in office their entire lives. I’m all for term limits.” He checked a text and added: “And Citizens United. That needs to go, too.”
This is my third time at a Donald Trump event and I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure out how to describe them to people who’ve never had the pleasure.
I tell them it’s like the conference hotel after everybody gets out of their meetings for cocktail hour, only with more bath salts and blood.
I tell them it’s like every villain from a 1980s screwball comedy got together under one roof.
And tonight, thrust into the heart of this dark, cancerous mass, it finally dawned on me.
They’re all assholes.
Just the most staggering collection of American assholery you could ever hope to find. They are the gum-chomping, parking spot stealing, blabbing over their cellphone in public, slamming into you and red-faced screaming over it, harassing and belittling their waiters and waitresses, engine revving, greedy, superficial assholes you’ve learned to loathe in your life.
Witness them leaving mounds of trash on every surface, undertipping their servers, bellowing out orders for everyone regardless of who they may be or what kind of décor the situation demands.
Witness them spilling each others drinks as they pose for iPhone pictures of those cheap-ass Make America Great Again hats while they flash gang signs and laugh as the ringleader shouts, “Let’s be thugs!”
Witness them calling everything “retarded” and “gay” and lamenting that they “have to work with those fags in accounting.”
Witness them on E-Trade as they ignore whatever the hell it is the asshole across from them is saying, though it is probably ignorant and they’ll just get on E-Trade when it isn’t their turn to talk anymore.
Witness them consume and exploit and earn and spend and every other verb that has nothing to do with actual living.
Witness them as they claim to love America when, in fact, they only care about America as long as it gives them everything they want and never asks anything in return. Or inconveniences them or gets any less white or any less straight or any less patriarchal, or, heaven help us, approaches something even resembling a fair system.
Witness them, a collection of middle-managers yucking it up like the fun will never stop as the country burns.
And then, witness Poor John Ellis Bush, by all accounts a competent if not charisma-less and clueless politician, a scion of a political legacy that was at least, once upon a time anyway, concerned with making circumstances better for somebody other than themselves, withdrawing from the race, and these assholes, these unbelievable assholes, cheer, laugh, blow raspberries, calling him “a loser,” though he is, like their great leader, the bully of bullies, the pinnacle of bullies, all of them like yellow-teethed sidekicks too afraid of the lead bully to look inside themselves and realize, in whatever speck of a heart they have left, that they can recognize, at long last, what is right and what is wrong.
Poor John Ellis Bush. He never stood a chance. He paid a $150 million dollars for a grand total of four delegates. That’s $37.5 million for every delegate. One of the most staggering failures of a campaign ever waged. An effort that took a sure thing, the most unanimous frontrunner in primary history, and reduced him to a blubbering idiot.
Poor John Ellis Bush will be in therapy the rest of his life hashing out the damage Trump has caused him. Poor John Ellis Bush, the chubby-boy-turned-heir-apparent-turned-chubby-boy-again. You can see the hurt in his eyes. How tired he is. How truly, truly tired he is.
As he said goodbye in a shockingly respectful, dignified way, choking back tears, witness as somebody climbs on top of the fireplace mantle and raises his fists. “Trump!” he yells. “Trump! Trump! Trump!” And soon they’ve all joined him, celebrating over Poor John Ellis Bush’s broken, bloody body.
Meanwhile, twelve points behind Trump, Rubio holds a razor-thin lead over Cruz and has already been given second. Though Trump’s devoured the state’s delegates, and though Rubio’s victory is only moral in nature, his speech tonight, given in his usual bombast, said it all: “This is a three-person race now.”
He’s right. Bush is gone and his small cache of voters, for whom he’s dished out millions of dollars, will probably sort his way, and once Kasich concedes he may very well compete with Trump’s support. And then, when Carson eventually decides he’s solidified his future as a snake-salesman author and speaker, and gives his voters over to Cruz, it’ll only make the math that much stranger.
But let’s consider this: Rubio had the support of the entire South Carolina infrastructure and couldn’t even sniff Trump’s air. Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and Congressman Trey Gowdy, the Palmetto State’s most influential power trio, embraced Rubio and pronounced him the future of the party this week, and that wasn’t even enough to give him a statistically important second place. Add to that the fact that Marco Rubio is, as he has proven so far in this contest, deficient in his political instinct and prone to career-defining failures. Tonight, in his pompous unrolling of “The Children of the Reagan Revolution” speech, he stumbled, stuttered, and nearly bungled what is to become his signature line.
Now, one debate meltdown, one misstep on the exhausting trail, is all that stands between us and a possible Donald Trump nomination.
We’re at a place of extreme danger now, and the pundits are starting to see it for what it is. With Secretary Hillary Clinton taking the Nevada Caucuses this afternoon, and effectively quarantining Bernie Sanders’ momentum, and Trump winning the first in what looks like many victories in a row, we might be looking at an ever-quickening clarification of this primary contest.
Most striking though is that Trump hasn’t won the Republican party, but has transformed himself into the distorted mirror of what they’ve become. The GOP has shoveled the same shit, the same propaganda, since the days of Lee Atwater, and it was only a matter of time until they started believing it was real. This is the walking, talking personification of American Anger, the breathing embodiment of Political Disillusion. They are convinced in the fashion the Republicans wanted them convinced that the country is dissolving before our very eyes.
He has cobbled together a coalition comprised of those right-leaning people who want actual change and those who want absolutely nothing to change. He is the canvas on which they paint both their anger and their contentment, a strange brew of privilege and disenfranchisement that is both transformative and obstructionist.
And that’s why he could very well win this thing. Everyone else is playing checkers while Trump is clubbing them to death. And he’s not alone. At his back is an army of assholes, and they’re thirsty for blood.
Photos by author