“How much,” Josef Stalin once asked, “does the Soviet Union weigh?” He was hoping to instill in his terrified advisers a sense of their country’s rightful place in the world: i.e., number one. For those who come to the U.S. to live as opposed to visit (me, for instance), it’s the first thing that strikes you: the astronomical mass of America. You ask yourself, how much does America weigh? And soon you are wondering about its place in the world (number one), and about the durability of its predominance.
Martin Amis offers his take on the American political circus in this short documentary.
And what is the tonnage of its political machinery? Arriving in Tampa, and making your way to the hub of the Republican National Committee, you initially confront the great humorless grid of American “security.” The roped-off streets, the menacingly geo-stationary helicopters, the (false) rumors of drones in the stratosphere, the National Guardsmen, the 3,000 cops from all over Florida, the men with SHERIFF or SECRET SERVICE stamped on their bulletproof aprons, and the operatives who are even more secret than that: they wear (i) a twirly plastic tube in the ear, and (ii) an adamantine scowl. That’s what security people are, 99.9 percent of the time: professional scowlers. And soon there will be X-rays and pat-downs, and the sort of lines that would make you groan at LAX or JFK.
First, the colossal edifice of the Convention Center. In the Google Media Lounge I found myself transfixed by a valiant multi-tasker who was power-walking on an exercise machine while apparently shooting a film about his own computer. And in the gaping atrium everyone who wasn’t yelling out greetings stood hunched in tense communion with their BlackBerrys or their iPads. On the second floor the networks were carving the hangar-like space into exclusive nooks and crannies. The scale was gargantuan, like a De Quinceyan opium vision of infinity.
Thence, by shuttle bus, to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the stadium-sized amphitheater soon to be graced by the stars of the GOP, their innumerable delegates, and 15,000 representatives of the media. Up on stage long-haired middle-aged men twanged out the kind of patriotic folk music we might call jingo-rockabilly. Filling the giant screens, typically, were clips of soldiers on airfields moving in heroic slow motion, as in an agonizing dream of effort and retardation. And the platforms were scattered with the impedimenta of the television crews, arc lights, gantries, metal trunks, and beyond, ankle-deep in a snake pit of cables, hovered vaguely familiar figures, wearing slightly sickly smiles—household faces, under a light coating of Skippy.
That TV anchors strongly resemble politicians—the otherworldly glow, the dense hairdos, the makeup—is, as Marxists say, no accident. They are communicators, above all. And what exactly was communicated, down on the Gulf of Mexico, among the megatons of tackle and clobber, the silly hats, the glut of money (thanks to the super PACs “there is no airtime left to buy”), the sweating, sneezing journos (alternately drenched by the cloudbursts, steamed by the humidity, and frozen by the arctic AC), and the succession of tub-thumpers and cue-card readers on the podium—what ideas were voiced, what policies adumbrated, what philosophies explored?
The Republican dialectic, in 2012, can be summarized as follows. Obama might or might not have inherited a difficult situation (and Democrats, at least, will remember George W. Bush’s historic warning in 2008: “This sucker could go down”); but he hasn’t fixed it, so let’s try Romney, who’s a businessman, not a socialist. This lone notion was pressed home with repetition, tautology, platitude, redundancy—and then more repetition.
Madamic good ole girls in scarlet ensembles, peanut-faced glozers in ambassadorial suits and ties, puns, rhymes, tinkertoy wordplay (“Give me liberty—not gimme, gimme, gimme”), alliteration, iteration, my mom said to me, started a small business, almighty God is the truth of all we have, inherit our hopes and dreams, my daddy said to me, started a small business—and all of this seconded by the brain-dead, couch-potato tweets that looped the hall in illuminated script: “I’m so proud to be a Republican,” “The Bush family is so awesome,” “Look at all the Olympians on stage for Romney. SO COOL!” And the Party was partying, all bounce and yelp and whoop. By the second day I felt as sour as Bill Murray, mingling for the thousandth time with the capering revelers (“Pick out your partner and join in the fun”) on Gobbler’s Knob.
Once a night, on average, the grim torpor briefly lifted. With Ann Romney, the interest was human interest. Here was a woman who had submitted, no doubt with qualms, to the inevitable falsity of political display; and you warmed to her warmth, even as you realized that much of her speech, with its emphasis on “working moms,” “the couple who want another child” but can’t afford it, and so on, was plainly disingenuous. The strugglers she claimed to champion (and it was allegedly tough for the basement-dwelling Romneys, back in the day) are the very people that her husband, if elected, will do nothing for. You realized, too, that Ann won’t help the GOP’s desperate quest for diversity: she looks like the worthy winner of Miss Dairy Queen 1970. “Tonight I want to talk to you about love,” Ann had said. And then Governor Christie waddled on. Chris wanted to talk about Chris, though he did what he could for the cause: his mom told him, apparently, that love was bull and what you needed was respect.
That was on Tuesday. On Wednesday we gathered to heed the words of Romney’s VP pick, Paul Ron. Now I know that should really be Paul Ryan, but it’s easy to mix him up with Ron Paul: both are anti-abortion libertarians who have managed to distill a few predatory slogans from Ayn Rand’s unreadable novel, Atlas Shrugged (and if young Paul is blessed with another daughter, he will surely christen her Ayn Ryan—to match Ron’s Rand Paul). Many of us thought that Romney would want someone splashier and more populist on the ticket, Christine O’Donnell, say, or Joe the Plumber. But he went instead for a hard-nut wonk who actually “stands for something.”
Intriguingly, part of what Ryan stands for will mean electoral defeat in Florida. The whole point of holding the RNC in Tampa was to secure Hillsborough County, a district seen as vital for prevailing in the Sunshine State. But this is also the Seniors’ State. And we know how much the elderly relish the challenge of something new, especially when it concerns their physical survival. They will embrace the chance to redeem those “vouchers” with this or that health-and-pelf consortium—a professional stratum now so frankly gangsterish that it disguises debt collectors as doctors, and fans them out over the A and E units of America’s hospitals.
We will return to Ryan. But first we have to get through Romney. This was the best thing about the Clint Eastwood warm-up: he ignored the red light and mumbled on for an extra seven minutes, sowing panic, as well as excruciation, in the control tower. All we lacked was a live feed to Romney—to Romney’s characteristic smile of pain (that of a man with a very sore shoulder who has just eased his way into a tight tuxedo). Perhaps this partly explains why the nominee remained so opaque and unrelaxed. He never came close to settling the question that all Marica must ask: is Mitt the kind of guy you’d like to have a glass of water with? At this late stage it’s time to remind ourselves of a salient fact. There is only one principle on which Romney has never wavered, and that is his religion.
He is a crystallized and not an accidental believer. You can see it in his lineless face. Awareness of mortality is in itself ageing (it creases the orbits of the eyes, it torments the brow); and Romney has the look of someone who seriously thinks that he will live forever. He is a Mormon—though he doesn’t like talking about it. And if I were a Mormon, I wouldn’t like talking about it either. Whatever you may feel about their doctrines, the great monotheisms are sanctioned by the continuities of time: Islam has 15 centuries behind it, Christianity has 20, Judaism at least 40. One of the dozens of quackeries that sprang up during the Great Revival, Mormonism was founded on April 6, 1830. The vulgarity and venality—the tar and feathers—of its origins are typical of the era. But there are aspects of its history that might still give us pause.
The first Prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, had 87 wives, of whom the youngest was 14. Brigham Young, the second Prophet, was husband to 70; he also incited a series of murders (to quell intra-church rivalries). Mormons suffered persecution, and they retaliated—in 1857, for example, they killed 120 men, women, and children (the Mountain Meadows massacre). During the Civil War, the Mormons’ sympathies lay with the South, and unavoidably so, for they too dealt in human chattels; as one historian, Hugh Brogan, puts it, “Lincoln might as well have said of polygamy what he said of slavery, that if it was not wrong, nothing was wrong.” Not until 1890 did the church renounce the practice (though it persisted well into living memory); not until 1978 did a further “revelation” disclose that black people were the equals of whites—by which time Mitt Romney was 31 years old.
It may be that the heaviest item in the Mormon baggage is not its moral murk or even its intellectual nullity so much as its hopeless parochialism. “A man with a big heart from a small town,” they called him in Tampa. We don’t question the big heart; but we gravely doubt the big mind. The truth is that Romney, who aspires to lead the free world, looks ridiculous when he’s not in America. How can he bestride the oceans—the Latter-Day Saint with the time-proof face, who believes that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri?
At the RNC it was Ryan’s oratory, not Romney’s, that inspired the rawest gust of triumphalism. And that rapture, we were told, would remain undiluted by the discovery, the next morning, that the speech was very largely a pack of lies. According to the campaign managers, there is “no penalty,” these days, for political deceit. When planning this race the Republicans envisaged a classic “pincer” strategy: they would buy the election with super-PAC millions, while also stealing it with gerrymandering and voter suppression (an effort that seems to be faltering in the courts). No penalty? Don’t believe it. Who will submit to being lied to with a sneer? The effects of dishonesty are cumulative. Undetectable by focus groups or robocalls, they build in the unconscious mind, creating just the kind of unease that will sway the undecided in November.
It has to be admitted, meanwhile, that Uncle Sam is highly distinctive, even exotic, in his superstitious reverence for money. In every other country on earth, the Republicans’ one idea so far this century would never be mentioned, let alone tabled, passed, and given a second term. Tax cuts ... for the rich? And this plainly indecent policy is already an established failure. According to the Pew Research Center, only 8 percent of ordinary Americans—and only 10 percent of the “upper class”—think the rich are taxed too much. The GOP, moreover, is doomed by demographics. It is simply running out of the white people who form its electoral base; as one of Romney’s strategists conceded, “This is the last time anyone will try to do this.” We know that Republicans refuse to compromise with Democrats. For how long will they refuse to compromise with reality?
Now compare Tampa to the decisively more attractive words and mentalities coming out of Charlotte, N.C. It has not been pleasant, during this last term, to watch the desacralizing, the chastening, and some might say the attritional coarsening of the young president. And the populace has not liked watching it either: the approval rating of Congress is 9 percent (whereas the first lady stands at a Colin Powell–like 66 ). The violence of Republican rejectionism was vestigially supremacist, just as the love inspired by the Obamas was vestigially abolitionist: the passions that gave rise to 650,000 fratricides do not soon evaporate into nothing. Seeming to confirm this, the audience in Tampa looked practically antebellum, while the audience in Charlotte looked just like the future.
Henry James once said that America is more like a world than a country. And for the last 70 years, the world, the globe, has been shaped by the example, and the gravitational force, of the American idea. It is an epic responsibility. Obama’s least touted virtue is his astonishing self-possession in the face of the planet’s highest office. Think back to the primaries, in which Mitt Romney, at various stages, managed to trail to the likes of Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. Whenever he did notch up a win, Romney reminded me of Dan Quayle in 1988, tapped for the vice presidency in New Orleans: in the words of Stuart Stevens (now Romney’s chief strategist), “he looked like he just did a gram of coke.” In common with George W. Bush, Romney shows little resistance to what Maxim Gorky (onetime friend of Lenin) called “the filthy venom of power.” Now think back to Obama in Chicago in November 2008: the calmest man in America. Perhaps the calmest man in the world.