If you’re looking for a sign that we live in a nation that is heading into some sort of strange cultural shift, I have your proof. In the East Village neighborhood of Des Moines, you can eat at a restaurant called Zombie Burger. It’s a zombie-themed restaurant, which basically makes it a cannibal-themed restaurant. The menu is elaborately disguised as a newspaper (The Villager, “Independent Newspaper of the East Village”) documenting an apocalyptic undead assault on Des Moines, with people being eaten by their malevolently resurrected friends and neighbors. All the usual menu items are here, dolled up in imagery intended to evoke the rending and tearing and consumption of living flesh, including “Soylent Greens” and “goreMet Bashed Burgers” like the T-Virus, the Dead Moines, and the Walking Ched (“breaded + deep fried macaroni + cheese bun, bacon, Cheddar cheese, caramelized + raw onion, mayo”). It’s impossible to think that 20 years ago, people would have eaten here; an earlier generation would run, vomiting, from such a gaudy display of culinary atrocity. Instead, it’s always packed full of living, breathing humans hungry for dead flesh.
Des Moines’ most remarkable feature is its miles of “skywalks,” a network of climate-controlled sky bridges constructed one story above the streets. Banks, stores, and entire food courts can be found in this aerial warren. Workers from the many insurance companies located in downtown Des Moines wander around the skywalk at lunchtime, red-cheeked and rosy, chatting about workplace dramas. If you look a little closer, though, you notice that many of them have got the crazy-eyed look of cabin fever, the glassy stare of people who haven’t touched fresh air in God knows how long. Something about this weird urban hamster track makes every single young man look like he’s planning a workplace shooting.
Meanwhile, the streets of downtown Des Moines are vacant. Shops are shuttered, all the citizens have been hauled (slightly) heavenward in a pedestrian Rapture, all the cars are tucked away in the copious downtown parking garages, and you can walk for blocks at two in the afternoon on a weekday and only come across one or two staggering, toothless drunks as a sign of life. Of course Zombie Burger was conceived in Des Moines; it occurs to me, several minutes into one such afternoon jaunt, that you could film an entire postapocalyptic movie in parts of downtown Des Moines with no digital trickery needed. The desolate urban sets are all right there, the citizens are all already tucked safely out of your way, and all you’d have to do to maintain that vital cinema-verité vibe of a world where humanity is on a rapid decline is never once tilt your cameras up to reveal where all the people have gone.
Like any city, Des Moines contains many different cities. I’m here for the Des Moines that concerns itself with another kind of socially acceptable cannibalism, where wealthy human beings chew each other to pieces for the amusement and satisfaction of other humans. For the last few months, a handful of candidates battled each other in front of Iowans for the questionable prize of relentless national attention. And yesterday, the day of the Iowa caucuses, a couple of them stumbled into their own End of Days.
The big winner out of Iowa, Rick Santorum, is intensely concerned with an apocalypse of a different kind. One of the big reasons I booked a ticket to Iowa was so I could be in the room when he gave his concession speech, which I was sure was going to happen. Santorum, in his sweater vest, had hovered near the bottom of every poll for a year, even while every other candidate had their moment at the top. For the longest time, it appeared that in the game of presidential spin the bottle, only Santorum was going to sit in the corner of the room, his lips puckered and his eyes squeezed shut, waiting for adoration from voters that would never come.
And then it finally came. Iowa Republicans, in a confluence of Santorum’s relentless retail politicking and rabid anti-Romney sentiment, finally spent seven minutes in heaven with Rick Santorum—a racist, homophobic, Bible-thumping warmonger who thinks government doesn’t belong anywhere but in brown people’s backyards and in everyone’s pants. Santorum’s bump came at just the right moment—after voters had exhausted every other candidate—propelling him within eight votes of first place and vaulting him, again, into the national spotlight.
One of the particularly cloying clichés of 2011–2012 has been the not-Romney, a candidate who voters were choosing because the frontrunner in the field had many flaws, including being too wealthy, too Mormon, and too willing to help all poor people in Massachusetts find affordable health care. The matter was finally settled yesterday: The not-Romney is Rick Santorum, a Catholic who grew up poor and loves Jesus—the real, intolerant Jesus, not the phony Mormon Jesus who vacationed in South America that one time.
It remains to be seen how far this not-Romney can go. The next race is New Hampshire, which Romney apparently has locked up after campaigning there for five years straight. After that, though, is South Carolina, the state that destroyed John McCain’s promising presidential run back in 2000 when the George W. Bush campaign was widely rumored to have spread the falsehood that McCain had fathered a black baby (it was a lie couched in truth; McCain is the father of a daughter adopted from Bangladesh). South Carolina is a clown car filled with bigots and evangelical monsters who won’t be willing to elect a formerly pro-choice Mormon, and if they choose Santorum, this fight could go on for months. After South Carolina is Florida, which Romney was previously thought to have locked up, but you don’t need me to tell you that Florida has a history of screwing up election-night plans. It could happen: Santorum already screwed up my Iowa-caucus-night plans.
Santorum having denied me some delicious schadenfreude, Newt Gingrich’s sad caucus-night party only slightly ameliorated the pain. The Gingrich party felt like a failure thanks in part to the hugeness and the newness of the venue—Veteran’s Auditorium still smells like a brand-new Mercedes, due to the toxic plastic fumes rising from the gaudy neon jungle-themed carpet—when compared with the lack of attendees. What a vacant, lonely, mottled crowd Gingrich drew, the Republican version of the acrid last days of Hillary Clinton’s campaign back in 2008: A bunch of self-satisfied know-it-alls who were kind of political hotshots back in the mid-’90s, out for one more lunge at glory. The dirty work of crowd control and the dissemination of signs among the supporters were performed by a fleet of young, too-slick poli-sci majors chasing a faded memory of the age when they first paid attention to politics. It was a room roughly half-filled with people who believed the Contract with America was a high point in American history. One man drunkenly swore “we’re going to win Florida” because “nobody comes close to our ground game there.” A distraught woman told her friend that before the negative Super-PAC ads started, she could see herself voting for “Mitt,” but “not anymore.”
The time came for Gingrich to make his hey-I-came-in-fourth speech, and a handler pushed me to the front of the crowd as he consolidated the people into something resembling a packed hall for the cameras. “Eye of the Tiger” blared and Gingrich took the stage. Puffed up with self-indulgence, he made continual references to negative ads created by Romney’s supporters, in what sounded in person like a petulant whine. Well, puffed up with self-indulgence and campaign food. It’s probably rude to point this out, but Gingrich has put on a lot of weight in the last few months. His jacket doesn’t fit right and his belly is protruding from his body at a weird angle, like the high, proud stomach of a pregnant woman. Campaign food is almost always dense and nutritionless, and Iowa is an orgy of empty calories—I’ve eaten nothing but burgers since I got here, including a Flamethrower (“Buffalo sauce, blue cheese, onion rings, ranch”) at Zombie Burger—but Gingrich’s weight gain is striking.
He congratulated Rick Santorum, and pointedly didn’t mention Romney’s name. The usual vows and oaths of never surrendering and never forgetting Ronald Reagan rolled off his tongue with the casual boredom of a man who doesn’t have to think about paragraphs before he says them. None of it meant anything, of course; Gingrich has lost the flame he felt for a few weeks there when he was the front-runner. You can tell that he doesn’t feel the excitement anymore. Now that he has to work, he’s leery and indignant. But that passion has been replaced with a new fire: You could feel from my spot in the very front row that Newt Gingrich is now campaigning solely out of hatred for Mitt Romney.
Seemingly everyone has their problems with Romney, but loathing Mitt Romney has become a rite of passage for Republican presidential campaigners. Sure, politicians always get petty and mean when they battle it out for months at a time on live television, but the hatred that other candidates feel for Mitt Romney is palpably different from that more pedestrian brand of annoyance. It comes from somewhere deep inside the being of the candidates, and it’s the kind of instantaneous, inexplicable hate that you see sometimes when two dogs meet and immediately start snarling and snapping at each others’ faces.
You could see it in Huckabee in 2008; political observers suggested that Huckabee stayed in the race for as long as he did just to make sure that Romney was humiliated. John McCain, too, detests Romney, though he’s putting that aside and endorsing Romney for the sake of his legacy. (That shouldn’t be a surprise: John McCain is a man whose entire legacy now consists of John McCain making terrible decisions in the name of John McCain’s legacy.) Watching Newt Gingrich whine again and again about the slights he suffered at the hands of Romney’s agents when he should have been making the case for Newt Gingrich to the American people was physically painful. Watching Callista Gingrich’s pinched face holding a sharky smile for 20 minutes proved to be only slightly less painful. The woman is tiny, like a teenage girl, but her desperation and emptiness created a giant vacuum onstage. Her hollow eyes sang an epic ballad as she listened to her husband’s private pettiness launch itself, naked and heaving, into the glare of the klieg lights.
It’s clear that Gingrich is going to lash himself to Romney’s side in a brutal race around the country, slashing again and again at the layers of money protecting the Mormon from the shame and indignities of actual political campaigning. Now that Herman Cain is out of the race, it’s the only real entertainment we’re looking at for 2012. But hating another candidate isn’t a good enough reason for the American public to support a candidate; most Americans haven’t met Mitt Romney, after all, and so they don’t know how to loathe him on a personal level. The audience, all slumped shoulders, left the Gingrich speech to the strains of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
After breaking free from the sad-sack horde of ghosts from the bad old days of the 1990s, I speed-walked across the empty streets of Des Moines to the Romney party. It was in a swank hotel—the Hotel Fort Des Moines—and the crowd was noticeably drunker than the Gingrich affair. At the door to the rally, a Romney supporter told me the room was stuffed full.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on Romney supporters. There are quite a few young ones, and they all look like creepy little jerks. They are obviously born of wealth, their pale skin moisturized as much as human skin can be moisturized, their teeth perfect and white, their hair leavened with a dollop of extremely expensive product, their costly clothing hanging perfectly on their toned bodies. Hiding behind their smiles is an intense hatred for any humanity that does not look like it trotted right over from the country club. But, oh! Those smiles! It took me a moment to realize that the Romney supporter was telling me that the room was full and I couldn’t get in due to fire codes, because his body language was completely detached from what his words were saying. His broad smile and gimlet eyes seemed to suggest that he’d just asked me to be his best friend for ever and ever, even as he was denying me entrance into a place I wanted to go. Underneath those textbook-perfect manners and impeccable optimism lurked something nasty. It reminded me of that scene in the movie version of Cabaret when a young, beautiful blond man stands up at an outdoor cafe and bursts into song. For a moment, you’re struck by his health and vigor and the depth and perfection of his voice. And then you realize—not just contextually; your subconscious knows there’s something wrong, possibly because there’s a rheumy milkiness hiding somewhere underneath that Aryan skin—that oh, no, wait. This guy is a Nazi, and his proper behavior is barely concealing a burning hatred for the human race.
They might be hateful fake-tanned lizard people, but Romney hires consummate professionals; they know exactly how many people their man can draw. I was directed to an overflow room with a small TV. On that TV, I could see that the Romney rally was stuffed full with beautiful people. The overflow room that the Romney Youth directed me to—oddly shaped, stained, lit with fluorescent lightbulbs, furnished with the chairs that the rest of the hotel had rejected—was barely populated. But we did have something tying us together: We were all ugly in that room. One Romney supporter looked like a member of Korn, 20 years later. A doddering old man with a Romney license plate affixed to his baseball cap shuffled in. A man who might’ve been homeless lay across five chairs, loudly snoring. With my greasy hair, cheeseburger-heavy gut, and watery, exhausted eyes, I fit right in.
Together, the Romney outcasts and I watched Rick Perry’s weepy all-but-concession speech. There was a gasp at the front of the room when Perry made reference to going back to Texas to reassess. My thoughts turned to the only Rick Perry supporter I’ve ever met in person, a young man who came to Iowa “on my own dime” from Arkansas. He was the first guy to show up at the caucuses earlier that evening, an hour before anyone else: very young, wearing a suit jacket and meticulously shined cowboy boots. His hair was immaculate. His saccharine pitch to everyone who came through the door—“I’d love it if you’d consider giving Rick Perry your vote,” he purred—was weighted with a prominent lisp and set aloft with the cadence of a high-school cheerleader. “People don’t know this, but he had back surgery, so he stumbled a little bit because of that, but he’s doing a lot better now,” he said by way of explaining Perry’s debate performance. He had festooned the front of the building and the walls of the caucus room with pro-Perry signs. Watching Perry’s speech, I wondered how the well-coiffed young man from back at the caucuses was taking this news; I imagined him cutting all those dozens of Perry yard signs to confetti with a beloved pair of My Little Pony safety scissors while chanting, “Stupid little boy! Stupid, dirty little boy!” quietly to himself.
On the TV, Perry was in pain-medication mode—lisping and emotive and melancholic. Though later evidence suggests Perry will stay in for a while longer, you could see he already knew, deep in his heart, that he will never win, that his sickly campaign died the moment he forgot the third item in a list at that debate a couple months back. He wanted to stamp his foot and cry, but he just couldn’t do it. He had to save face. He was trying, damnit. He was trying as hard as he could.
The next day, Michele Bachmann announces the end of her campaign in a West Des Moines Marriott. One thing about Des Moines is that terrible music is required to be playing all the time, everywhere within city limits. There’s one particularly bad song that I’ve heard a couple times since I flew in. It’s called “Invisible,” it’s sung by a woman named Skylar Grey, and the lyrics, set to a completely forgettable folky-light-rock arrangement, go like this:
I take these pills to make me thin
I dye my hair and cut my skin
I try everything to make them see me
But all they see is someone that’s not me
Even when I’m walking on a wire
Even when I set myself on fire
Why do I always feel invisible, invisible
Every day I try to look my best
Even though inside I’m such a mess
Why do I always feel invisible, invisible
Here inside my quiet hell
You cannot hear my cries for help
I try everything to make them see me
But everyone sees what I can’t be
I can’t get this fucking song out of my head, and I think I know the reason why. Let’s for a moment forget the fact that our popular culture has birthed and promoted a mainstream song about an anorexic woman who cuts herself for attention, because the greater implications of that are simply too sad to consider. The reason why this song is so relevant to my attention right now is because it could practically be Michele Bachmann’s campaign song.
Think of it. Imagine Bachmann before her political career. A schlubby tax lawyer from nowheresville. But she’s hungry. She wants something. She marries a flamboyant, self-loathing man who projects his feelings of self-loathing onto homosexuals everywhere. That doesn’t help. She has kids. That doesn’t help, either. She adopts a comical number of extra children. She still feels empty. So she runs for office. She likes that. She likes the attention it gives her, or maybe she enjoys the power. Whatever her motivations, it makes her feel something on a level that she didn’t ever think would feel completely satisfied. And she learns that more people pay attention to her if she speaks her mind on conservative matters. Maybe she turns the volume up a little bit, crazies up her perspective a touch. She gets more attention! And every time she cranks that knob and raises her rhetoric up a little bit higher, the attention gets a little more intense. And so, naturally, she turns the volume up as high as it can go and she runs for president. There’s no more attention you can get than that, right?
Think of this: Bachmann is a woman who has publicly mutilated herself through exaggeration because she liked the attention it brought her.
And then it didn’t work anymore, and people stopped paying attention to her. They got tired of her same stupid one-note song, and they laughed at her sad little self-destruction, and they abandoned her when she had nothing left to give. Think about that. Think about how terrible that must make her feel. I’m an atheist, but if you asked me to identify hell, I don’t think I could come up with a better definition than that.
And so, yes, the caucus is a race, and some people won. You’ve already heard all the analysis from the know-nothings on TV and the blogs, the people who treat politics exactly like it’s a slow-motion football game played by out-of-shape loudmouths. For the most part, their conventional wisdom is probably right, as dappled with cliché and lazy thought as it is.
Ron Paul’s third-place win wasn’t good enough to gain him the mainstream platform that he needs to win the nomination, and it’s not going to keep the media at large from ignoring him. He’ll run all the way to the convention, and he’ll try to make the Republicans acknowledge some of his planks in their platform, and they’ll smile and pat him on the head and send him on his way with a sucker in his hand. Did you see his speech? “We are all Austrians now”? He’s an old man, and his drive is waning. He’s maybe even getting used to being the kooky extremist, maybe enjoying it a little bit, maybe losing a little control over his faculties. He won’t go away—his bullshit internet followers will make sure of that—but he still can’t jump to the next level, the serious level.
Santorum, that homophobic son of a bitch, got exactly what he wanted out of all this. The conventional wisdom—I’ve watched more Fox News in the last two days than I ever have in my whole life, because the flophouse I’m staying in doesn’t get CNN—says he doesn’t have the money or the organization to turn his Iowa campaign into a national cause. He’ll get a burst of donations and interest, but eventually, the fact that all he thinks about, all day and every day, day in and day out, is homosexual anal sex will come out on a national stage, and though that’ll fly with the conservative Christians, other people will be creeped out and leave him alone again. He won Iowa in part because he’s the only candidate who didn’t have to suffer through the intense scrutiny and criticism that comes with front-runner status, remember. But no matter what happens, Santorum will turn this win, and the pretty good biographical speech that he gave, into a national media platform. He’ll probably get a show on Fox News. Which means Santorum will be around for a long, long time, making a lot of money off the ignorance of the American public and vainly struggling against his Google problem.
And Mitt Romney, that slimy layoff baron with a daddy complex a mile wide, successfully bought his way to a Pyrrhic victory in Iowa. He’ll dominate New Hampshire next week and go on to lose a little bit in the South, but his machine is perfectly timed and demonically intelligent, and he’ll probably wind up being the Republican nominee. There’s a little more of a question mark on that statement than there was yesterday—if Gingrich totally collapses and tosses all of his support behind Santorum, there’s a chance that we could see an Obama–Santorum contest in the fall—but Romney still has the money that Santorum doesn’t and money goes a long, long way in the Republican Party.
But none of this should disguise the fact that the Republican Party is in serious trouble. After all that teabagger nonsense from 2010, they’ve gone and chosen as their top two candidates the closest doppelgängers to George W. Bush that they could have. Santorum didn’t win Iowa because of his Jesus talk and his outright bigotry: He won because he’s fiscally closest to what the Republican Party decided it wanted, and he’s not a poncy fuckball like Romney. Had Tim Pawlenty not dropped out of the race back when Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll, I bet he’d have come in right after Romney, and Santorum would have bottomed out: Pawlenty was dull, but he was rock-solid, and his policies didn’t present any surprises to the Republican electorate. He could have been a serious contender right now.
The coronation of Romney and Santorum signifies a party that has dropped back into neocon territory, picking up the torch from John McCain and George Bush before him. They had an opportunity to change the face and brand of the Republican Party, but rather than trying to come up with a single new and original political idea, they chose the safest men they could to represent themselves. Make no mistake: While the Tea Party earned Republicans some wins in the House and Senate, that was a one-time trick; you can’t build a sturdy base on angry populism. The party needed to outright reject the ideas that nearly destroyed America, those dumb Ayn Rand–flavored concepts of deregulation and letting the market determine America’s fate. Instead of finding a new way, they played it safe, voting for the Reagan zombies who screwed them over in the first place.
Right now, today, it’s quiet again in Des Moines. The rest of America has already forgotten about Iowa, and barring some tragedy—unless the river floods again, say, or one of those skywalking office drones takes the initiative and decides to act out his bloody fantasies of vengeance—we’ll never think of Iowa until four years pass, and the media-truck satellite dishes sprout up toward the sky again. Iowans everywhere are back to work, their cheeks still flush from the attention. They’ve dashed the dreams of a couple of monsters, and propped up the megalomaniacal delusions of a couple other monsters, then foisted them on the rest of the country to deal with. The Iowans are all nestled inside from the cold again, and the streets of their city are as silent as the dead. It’s a cemetery out here.