Highline—American Electoral: 7 Days on the Trail

(reported and written with Jack Hitt)

Day 1:  The Campaign of Magical Thinking

JACK HITT: The key to understanding the New Hampshire primary: lawn signs. We realized this eight years ago, when we were driving around the Granite State, stealing them. Kevin and I have been arguing political strategy ever since the Democrats decided that Walter Mondale was just the right guy to take on Ronald Reagan. And every election since, we’ve gotten together to study—and sometimes even travel to see—comparable levels of stupid. The lawn sign thing started like any souvenir collection, but our vandalism had standards. We never stole any individual’s sign from a private yard. We only pinched those that were in a town commons, on a highway shoulder, or were damaged and so, according to Kevin, needed stealing.

KEVIN BAKER: In 2008, the car was crucial. It was Jack’s back-up car, as in, a back-up for his bicycle, maybe. The windshield had last been squeegee’d long ago, circa Dick Cheney’s first heart, and the wipers had been ground down to long metal shivs that wouldn’t so much clear away flying slush and snow as coat the windshield in a impenetrable copper screen. Whenever we had to use them, we’d say, “Initiate the cloaking device”—immediately followed by our Sarandon and Davis-level screaming down the highway. But it was worth it since we were going to hear Chuck Norris elaborate on Mike Huckabee’s tax reform plan.

JH: Pretty soon, we made it a contest to find the most obscure lawn signs we could. We assumed that the rarest specimens would belong to one of the fringe candidates, such as Vermin Supreme, a performance artist who ran on promising every American a free pony, or maybe Dr. Mark Klein, the retired psychologist and “fathers’ rights activist.”

But, no. It was Fred Thompson, star of infomercial and Senate, whose entry into the race just a few weeks before had been greeted with messianic excitement by the Republican rank-and-file. His lawn signs proved the hardest to find. It turned out that Thompson’s organization was every bit as lazy as its standard-bearer.

Sure enough, come election night, ol’ Fred finished sixth, with 1.23 percent of the vote. The lawn signs don’t lie.

KB: I want to add here that we also, accidentally, finished off Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in New Hampshire that year. His headquarters were located in a small suite of rooms on a second floor storefront, in Manchester. We walked upstairs to see if anyone would talk to us, but the four or five workers present were too busy raising money over the phone to pay attention.

But there it was: a great, big, four-foot long “RUDY!” sign that was just too beautiful to ignore. Without a word between us, I scooped it up and headed for the stairs. Profoundly jealous, Jack snatched his consolation prize, the sole Giuliani sign in a downstairs window. It wasn’t until we walked away that we realized we’d desaparecido-ed Rudy’s entire campaign HQ, hauling away any indication that it existed. And he did, in fact, vanish soon after that.

JH: So here we are, back again in New Hampshire. Even before we reached the front desk at the Residence Inn in Concord last night, we were buttonholed by a candidate for president of the United States: one Richard Lyons Weil, an affable, 63-year-old native of New Orleans whom the Furies seem to be chasing around these United States. Mr. Weil—a lawyer—lost one home in the Crescent City to Hurricane Katrina, and another in Nashville to the flood of 2010.

Actually, it’s amazing that it took that long to encounter a candidate. There are 30 of them running in the Republican primary, 28 on the Democratic ballot, including Weil. (The candidates are distributed in different, random orders at New Hampshire’s 313 polling sites. Weil is number 14 in the township of Bean’s Purchase, population zero, as of 2010. Hillary Clinton is number 18.)

We considered immediately changing our hotel reservation to avoid whatever horrific meteorological event God was thinking of siccing on Weil next, but decided to interview him instead. Living in an RV in Ft. Collins, Colorado, Weil, a part-time singer-songwriter now, is running on a 16-point “Reboot America” platform that is a good deal to the left of Bernie Sanders’s. He tells us, solemnly, that he’s doing it “because I’m a Jew. And the way people talk now is the way they did before Hitler.”

Yes, here it is, your theme for Decision 2016: Everybody, even the fringe candidate radicals, want America back. Or to paraphrase the old Sondheim song, they want it the way that it was, even if it never really was.

KB: This is also the year that the national media seems to have finally, completely swallowed itself. I call it “The Curse of Teddy White,” the man who first made a cottage industry out of covering the inside game, the “process,” with The Making of the President, 1960, and its five sequels.

Earnest as White was, his coverage was generally about as penetrating as a loofa sponge. Every mainstream candidate he liked came off in a beatific light, including Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. People he didn’t like, such as George Wallace, were mostly ignored. Protestors, such as a group of pickets demonstrating against Barry Goldwater’s Neolithic stand on race at the 1964 Republican convention, were dismissed as “beardies.”

White’s successors have delved deeper and deeper into process, but probed less and less into the issues—all the while making themselves more and more into celebrities.

With this election, it seems as if we’re witnessing a mass manic episode.  One could cite any one of a dozen major media commentators who have moved from being reporters to God-like campaign consultants, pompously telling us just how the candidates should be doing everything. Take the night of the Iowa caucuses, when the Teddy Whites seemed mostly worried that Hillary Clinton had made a really, really serious blunder by giving her victory speech before Cruz was finished with his. Chuck Todd clucked that “this was a bad mistake by them.’” Andrea Mitchell called it “the most extraordinary thing I’ve seen in some time.”

Really, Andrea? More extraordinary than its being 75 degrees on Christmas Day? Or the rapid acidification of our oceans? Whatever.

JH: What I find even more frustrating is how the media tries not to make a big deal of the fact that the old Tea Party, now Freedom Caucus, types no longer tweak or spin an issue here or there in their favor, but have now built an entire worldview that breaks with all known reality.

Did you see Trump’s immigration commercial?

It shows one of those infrared pictures of hundreds of Mexicans streaming into the U.S. The footage was quickly exposed as fake. Those people were Moroccans. Why? Because there isn’t an immigration crisis of epic proportions in America. The number of undocumented workers here peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million and has been dropping steadily, now down by about a million.

If it were just one or two issues on which either party was deranged, this would be just another election year. But the Trump/Cruz/Carson/Fiorina wing of the party is disconnected from reality on just about every issue: Obamacare has driven up costs, more guns make us safer, climate change is a fraud, tax cuts to the rich are the only we way we can have economic growth, foreign aid is consuming our budget, whites suffer more discrimination than blacks, Hurricane Katrina was Obama’s fault, crime is on the rise, unemployment is up, Obama is a Muslim, Russia humiliated America in the Ukraine, the Great Recession started in 2009, the deficit is growing, the economy is in shambles, abortion is out of control.

Each and every one of those claims is not just untrue, but easily verified as such. And yet, if you add up the Trump/Cruz/Carson/Fiorina vote, almost 60 percent of Republican voters live in this offshored reality. I mean, there’s political spin (which you get on both sides), but this year it seems as if we’re witnessing a mass manic episode.

KB: It’s easy to conclude that this sort of magical thinking—even conspiracy-laden, totally batshit crazy thinking—is no stranger to American politics. This is, after all, the country that gave us the Anti-Mason party, and the Know-Nothings. It’s the country that tried to settle the West by seriously proposing the theory, “Rain follows the plough.” And Ronald Reagan tried to convince us that trees “caused pollution.”

But I read—and write—a lot of history, and I can say that I don’t know of another time when so many have believed in so much that is so false, and so inane. I’m inclined to believe that we’re witnessing something different now, something more sinister and strange.

JH: A. J. Liebling said that there were two ways to cover any media circus (and every presidential campaign is but the most rarefied media circus there is): in the thick of it with a push broom cleaning up the mess or from a balcony with a cocktail in hand. We’ll be in the thick of it, with a cocktail.

We’ll find the Richard Weils (or they’ll find us, as more often happens). There will be rallies—Fiorina, Christie and Hillary will get a visit tomorrow. And we’ll try to go a bunch of places other reporters won’t. One of the big issues in New Hampshire is heroin addiction. The state has just been ravaged by opioids, so we’ll be gathering our own focus group of former addicts later this week. Down in South Carolina, we’ll be visiting with voters on the beach, dealing with the reality of climate change alongside friends who insist it doesn’t exist. We can’t promise that we’ll be able to entirely explain what has made America go crazy this year, but we’ll be looking for signs.