The GOP Throws a Tampa Tantrum
My second night, the night of Paul Ryan’s speech, began with a glimpse of the brave new world his 1 percent is bringing down upon the rest of us. I was relaxing in the open-air mall called Channelside, just down the street from the convention hall where MSNBC had set up its soundstage, when a little gray-haired lady walked beamingly through the crowd sporting an “Obama Momma” T-shirt. I thought it would be fun to ask her about the reactions she was getting from the assembled multitude, so I buttonholed her for a chat.
A security guard then approached us: “You can’t do no interview here.”
“Are you serious?”
“Who are you working for?”
His finger traced our surroundings: “Channelside. This is private property.”
“You’re kidding me.”
He was not.
Discouraged, I ducked into the adjacent multiplex to charge my cellphone and noodle on my computer, which is where a middle-aged man named Walt, who grew up in Spanish Harlem and works as an account manager for Verizon, saw the credential around my neck and approached to ask how he could get one himself. “I just wanted to know how an average Joe could get in,” he said. After explaining to him that an average Joe could not get in, I asked him about his interest in the convention. It turned out that Walt just loves Mitt Romney. He’d never voted before in his life, he said, but he will this year: “Finally, I get to vote for someone who has the same principles and morals that I do.”
“Family values. Marriage between a man and a woman. Going back to: we believe in God, Jesus Christ as our savior, and that this country is the land of opportunity.”
I pointed out gingerly that he looked old enough to have voted in more than a few elections, and also that the Republican candidates have been claiming much the same thing for decades—that it was, in fact, the soul of the party’s appeal.
“Not really. Not quite,” he responded forcefully. “I hate to say this, but Bush had an agenda. His agenda was pleasing his dad. And that’s why we went to war.”
We continued talking for half an hour, and I heard a lot of Fox News bullshit: that Obama was elected because he reads well from a teleprompter; that he removed the work requirement from welfare. This last one was a particular passion of Walt’s, who volunteered proudly that he’s a Mormon: “Now, we have a welfare system…” Next, he patiently explained how it works: bishops (Mitt Romney was one) enter the homes of those seeking help, open the family books, go over which expenses are necessary and which are luxuries. “It comes with a game plan…. So it’s not just ‘We give and you do jack.’ That’s Obama’s thing: entitlement…and people say, ‘You know what? I don’t have to do anything—I still get a check!’” I, of course, patiently explained to him that these charges were all made up, and Walt, an open-hearted guy, politely asked, “Where do you find this?”—like I was explicating the runes of some esoteric sect.
At an epistemological impasse, we changed the subject, to taxes. Walt explained, “Anyone who doesn’t have a home-based business is ignorant. Home-based businesses are a tax write-off.” I asked him what his business was, and he admitted a bit sheepishly that it’s a “network marketing thing”—like Amway. Whether you judge such operations as half-corrupt pyramid schemes or not, they serve a crucial psychological function on the grassroots right: they let nine-to-fivers like Walt style themselves as members of the morally exalted caste of entrepreneurs.
* * *
It’s time to head out to the forum, where tonight’s news will be all about Paul Ryan’s charisma (or, in the alternative media, Paul Ryan’s lies). An equally important story wasn’t much noticed. It was telegraphed by my friend Walt when he explained why he hadn’t liked George W. Bush: grassroots Republicans are just about done with this whole “world’s policeman” thing.
Rand Paul got some of the biggest applause of his speech for saying something this party isn’t supposed to support at all: “Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well spent.” The next night, during his Depend-worthy ramble, Clint Eastwood seemed to suggest that the best thing to do in Afghanistan would be to bring the troops home “tomorrow morning”—and got the biggest applause of his remarks.
In between, John McCain and Condoleezza Rice sounded like schoolmarms lecturing indifferent students when they tried to make the case that what neoconservatives used to call the “freedom agenda” was being betrayed by Barack Obama, but would be renewed by Mitt Romney if he won. McCain, speaking on his 76th birthday, all but apologized for bringing up the subject in the first place: “It is said that this election will turn on domestic and economic issues. But what Mitt Romney knows, and what we know, is, is”—he stumbled over the words, nervous, like he knew he was entering the lion’s den—“that our success at home also depends on our leadership in the world.” The crowd’s tepid response suggested they did not know that at all.
Soaring rhetoric about “our willingness to shape world events,” leading “shoulder to shoulder with steadfast friends and allies,” “giving voice to the voiceless, insisting that every human life has dignity,” got little reaction; McCain only coaxed real noise out of the crowd through references to the sacrifices of the troops, gratuitous slams on Obama and mentions of the glories of supporting Israel. His call to “renew the foundations of our power and leadership in the world” sounded like an applause line—but it got no applause. Likewise, “By committing to withdraw from Afghanistan before peace can be achieved and sustained, our president has discouraged our friends and emboldened our enemies.” By the time he got to “In other times, when other courageous people fought for their freedom against sworn enemies of the United States, American presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, have acted to help them prevail,” I felt like the crowd thought this old man would ramble on forever. McCain seemed to sense it, too. “An American president always, always, always stands up for the rights, and freedoms, and justice, of all people,” he said. You only repeat a word three times when you fear people aren’t going to hear it.