Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: 2016
A Savage Journey Through the Heart of American Politics
by John Cross
Kelan and I had only been together for a few months when I was given a deadline of November 8th by my editor, Gonzo Raoul Prince. His office always reeked of cigarettes and scotch and Febreeze, like the latter was enough to cover up the former and like any of us gave two shits what he did behind closed blinds. He asked that Half Lit cover the campaign trail this vitriolic season and said I had till Election Day to get my article in. I cursed him under breath but agreed because the money was good, and went home and told Kelan who, embattled in her own crisis at work, could only offer me consolatory pats on the shoulder, seemingly oblivious to the corner in which I’d been painted.
My editor a notorious cheapskate, to meet this deadline I had to dip into my personal account to cover initial expenses – to be refunded of course – and I knew I couldn’t do the research and gather my sources and write the piece, and listening to Kelan’s own struggles, I opted for a night out with the guys to see who I might drag along on this potential life-threatening adventure. Did I mention that this had been an exceptionally contentious election season?
Same Bat Time, Same Bat Place: We met for drinks at West Mountain Brewery. Whiplash and Dr. Hunter and the guys were already well in by the time I joined. Whiplash made what had become his signature sound as I took my seat and proceeded to tell the table how I was chained up in a relationship at home. I ordered a Hurricane (I had to teach the bartender how to make it after I returned from Miami), and when I was sure Whiplash was all talked out, I told the table about the assignment.
One old boy whose name I didn’t recall started in on the speech talk, badmouthing one candidate or the other, sipping his dark malt. If this was what I had to endure, I wasn’t sure the promised salary would be enough.
“You know,” I said. “My grandpa used to say that there are three things you should never discuss. Politics, religion, and baseball.”
“Cubs are in the playoffs,” another at the table said.
Whiplash laughed. “John, if that were true, then there would be nothing on Facebook.
I explained my predicament. I said Kelan couldn’t come because of work, and asked if any of them could join me as a research assistant. I was hoping Whiplash would man up. He owed me from earlier this summer when I helped him roof that singlewide after he evicted that couple.
However, it wasn’t Whiplash, but another patron who spoke up. He wore a white bucket hat and orange aviators and a Hawaiian shirt, a cigarette in a filter dangling from his lips.
He said, “I’ll come with you, Hoss.”
“What about your practice,” another guy at the table asked.
“I’ll get another doctor to cover for me,” he said with a shrug, and rose himself out of the chair and stumbled toward me.
“You ready, Hoss,” he said.
I knew his name, but I’d never realized he was a real doctor. I said as much.
“Sure, when I got nothing better to do.”
He patted me on the back and headed toward my car, stumbling a bit on the way. We climbed in and I hesitated to start my car. I had known Dr. Hunter as a drinking buddy, but that was it.
“You don’t have to do this,” I said.
His laugh was infectious and echoing. “You asked, and I’m free.”
“What kind of doctor are you?” I asked.
He offered me a toothy smile. “What kind of journalist are you?”
“Not a very good one.”
“Then me and you got something in common.”
He made a couple of phone calls between West Mountain Brewery and my place, one asking a colleague to take his patients and to cover his rounds at Washington Regional. Whoever he called acquiesced the first but not the second, so it took another call to cover his rounds. I still had little clue what he practiced, and asked again as he hung up his cell and I shut off the engine.
“I’m a psychiatrist,” he said straight-faced, and that brought me the biggest laugh of the night.
I had decided the best bet might be to find representatives of the electorate, and so over a few more beers and the last of my rum, Dr. Hunter and I scoured the Internet to see who were the targeted electorate for each campaign. Trump had pissed off Hispanics, blacks, women, and the handicapped, and Clinton apparently pissed off everyone else. Trump was backed by the disenfranchised middle-aged blue-collar white male and those loyal to the party, which – as it appeared – didn’t include a whole host of congressmen and party leaders who turned their back on the candidate. Clinton was backed by progressives and forgiving Bernie Sanders hopefuls and anyone who’d halfway listened to Trump’s rhetoric.
We spent the evening re-watching the debates and reviewing the transcripts. It was three in the morning when we finally crashed. I was awoken by Kelan shaking me and asking about the guy and the young blonde on our sofa.
“Blonde?” I said, sitting up. When had he had company? I vaguely remembered doing shots with a blonde and Hunter asking me if I’d like a turn with her first, at her insistence.
I walked to the Keurig and made my coffee. At least Dr. Hunter and the blonde were somewhat clothed. The smell of coffee instigated early stirrings, but it wasn’t till I put on the bacon that they began to rouse. By this point Kelan had crashed and I’d closed our bedroom door to spare her the details of the day – specifics that would remind one forced into the nocturnal that they were missing out on the living.
After frying a pan full of bacon, I scrambled a half dozen eggs and fished the gilded biscuits out of the oven. An accommodating host, I fed the girl before sending her on the walk of shame – a walk as a man I’d taken a number of times. We got to work over our second pot of coffee, after breakfast.
“We need a reliable news source. Fox? MSNBC?”
“No and no,” I said. I wanted to stay neutral. Too much of the news was sensational. Like it was our job to entertain. I know, ironic coming from a gonzo journalist, but I never promised to be fair and balanced. I was only ever after fact and then how to see it fit in with my truth. You see, facts are boring and indisputable and are concrete like blocks or a foundation. But truth – it’s malleable. Truth is about perspective and personal experience and truth colors fact beyond the gunmetal gray of textbook history to illustrate the landscape of human growth.
He listed off a bunch of others. Most (CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, Mother Jones) affiliated with the liberal left. Others (Blaze, The New York Observer, Western Journalism) affiliated with the conservative right. Each of them spun the daily headlines to fit their party, embellishing the positives and burying the negatives.
“NPR?” he asked.
“Still generally affiliated with the liberal left.”
“You listen to them?”
“Who was that girl?”
He shrugged and sipped his coffee, as if that was answer enough. “I got some podcasts you might want to hear. What about outside the US?”
“Like who?” I hadn’t even considered.
He’s fingers worked across my laptop. I made a mental note to pick up his own computer before we ventured out of the area.
“The BBC,” he said finally. “You know, the whole world is interested in the outcome of this thing.”
“We got to get some people together.”
“Working on it,” he said, typing away.
Over the next few hours, he made a few phone calls, reached out to a few contacts, and by that evening we were heading to XNA prepared to fly out to a few perspective interviewees.
DISENFRANCHISED MIDDLE-AGED WHITE MAN
We met him at a local diner that didn’t serve alcohol, in a small town in middle America. The town nor the state mattered. He sat sipping his coffee and barely met our eyes when we joined him. Outside the clouds had parted but we could tell he saw everything through shades of overcast.
DM-AWM: Y’all part of the liberal media?
ME: We just want your story.
DM-AWM: You gonna spin it?
ME: No. We just want to hear what you have to say.
DM-AWM: (sipping his coffee) No one is listening to me. That’s all. No one. Not until Trump came along. The libtards were too worried about the blacks and the Mexicans and the gays, and they say we are the bad guys and we have to give up our jobs. And the Republicans are trying to look out for family values and smaller government and looking out for the little man.
ME: You feel threatened.
DM-AWM: Shouldn’t I? Them libtards are blaming me for everything and I ain’t done nothing. I’m just trying to feed me family. And still I’m getting it from all sides. I was never racist and I was never hateful but when you get blamed for shit for so long, you got to act. You got to stand up for yourself. I’m tired of being blamed for everything. And maybe I wouldn’t be so angry, if I had something to show for it. But I don’t, and so it don’t matter.
DR: So you think Trump is the answer?
DM-AWM: He ain’t my problem. He hears me. It’s better than the Democrats have done.
ME: Seems to me the Republicans have been about big business and playing on Christian values. Some people argue they are to blame for the Great Recession.
DM-AWM: Oh that’s Obama and his policies.
DR: But the recession began before Obama took office…
DM-AWM: You sure you ain’t no Democrat?!
ME: We aren’t. But you feel abandoned?
DM-AWM: Yeah. I don’t care about no God and I ain’t a billionaire, but I ain’t a minority either. I’m just a man trying to make his way in this world and I’m tired of being the bad guy in the media. That’s all.
We thanked him and left. I wondered not for the first time if this wasn’t the problem, that with the advent of technology we hadn’t the opportunity or the time to sit down with each other and really hear each other. That in this virtual world, with all its immediacy, we hadn’t the time to listen to each other.
YOUNG WHITE FEMALE TRUMP SUPPORTE
We met her at a local bar a few towns later. The place was dingy and a bit drafty, and Dr. Hunter ordered us each a round of drinks.
ME: So why do you support him?
YWFTS (chuckling): He has answers.
ME: Such as?
YWFTS: He has family values.
DR: He’s been married three times. He’s had numerous affairs. He has on numerous times referred to women as sexual objects. He even said he’d date his own daughter if she were old enough.
YWFTS: That’s in the distant past.
ME: No, that’s pretty recent.
YWFTS: Well I can’t afford Obamacare. And we shouldn’t be put in this position. Just because Obama promised us lower premiums and hasn’t delivered.
ME: Fair enough. So what will Trump do?
YWFTS: Why, repeal it and replace it with something better.
ME: What, exactly?
She hem haws.
DR: This has been the problem with the Republican party. They have not been the party of alternative solutions. They have been the party of NO. They have been obstinate and obtrusive to any other idea filtering through Congress. They have solidified themselves as roadblocks to any idea that they haven’t instigated or supported.
ME: What about Russia?
(This was a stretch, but it was a topic I wanted to broach. Trump’s reluctance to disparage Vladimir Putin intrigued me. There were also rumors that Russian hackers were trying to influence the election. I wanted to know why.)
YWFTS: We can’t piss them off. We can’t go against them!
ME: We’ve gone against them the past fifty years. We have never cowered to Russia.
YWFTS: It’s always backfired on us when we’ve tried to go against Russia.
ME: No, we’ve held our own. But you said you can’t afford Obamacare?
YWFTS: Obama said our premiums would go down. They are higher than ever. It’s his fault they’ve gone up!
DR: Well he shouldn’t have promised that. As president, he had no control over what the premiums would do. That lies with the insurance companies. Believe me girl, I deal with it every day. We can blame Obama for that promise, but we can’t blame him for those premium hikes.
YWFTS: So who do we blame that on
While I took some notes, he slid to her side and flirted, and after a few more drinks we retired to our respective rooms. I heard them for a time, drifting only when it quieted into a quick lull, a muted blackness of consciousness.
FEMALE MILLENNIAL CLINTON SUPPORTER
She opted to meet us in a bar with thumping music. Her drink looked and smelled fruity and she was bubbly enough but the air was tinged with legalized weed and tobacco smoke and so the atmosphere was hazy, hung low like smog. I figured she’d be flippant to our cause, but she proved attentive enough.
ME: So someone rooting for the other candidate said he had family values.
FMCS: Married three times. I can’t get past how he talked about women. The language.
ME: So is that why you are voting for her? Because you can’t support him?
FMCS: No. They knock her. But they talk about family values and gloss over the fact that she has stuck by her husband for twenty plus years. And all the shit he’s put her through.
ME: Do you want to talk about that. Her shit?
FMCS: (shrugging) No. Before my time.
The music is calling for her. She wants to get up and leave.
ME: So what platform do you think he’s running on?
FMCS: I dunno? Business.
And then she left.
WHITE MALE GEN XER CLINTON SUPPORTER
We connected at a local pool hall over a game of billiards. He wore plaid and a pretentious beard, and was thin with bony shoulders. I ordered a pitcher, unsure that he could hold his own.
WMGXCS: They’re all hung up on the emails. There is nothing there, is all.
ME: But there has been a focus.
WMGXCS: A smokescreen. Russian hackers have fed disinformation to Julian Assange that the Trump Campaign has adopted.
ME: A conspiracy theory?
WMGXCS: That’s the rumor. Trump is in bed with Putin.
WMGXCS: Think about it. If Trump is in bed with Putin, then this could be the first time in history that Russia and the US could be linked as allies. And that means that Russia could control us.
3RD PARTY VOTER DISILLUSIONED BY THE SYSTEM
We met next with a voter disillusioned by the system. He was a youngish man, dipped in rhetoric by his heel, thirsty from the atrocity flowing through the nation.
DBTS: We can’t even trust any of the media. We just need a straight story.
ME: A straight story doesn’t exist anymore.
ANGRY MINORITY VOTERS PISSED AT RHETORIC
We came across a collection of voters, all who eschewed me. For no matter the outcome, I was not in danger of being ostracized from the republic. I was a white male most vigorously represented by the dying auspices of the Trump campaign.
The Latinos were angry that he wanted to build a wall.
The blacks were angry that he disparaged their urban neighborhoods.
None of the handicapped appreciated that he’d just mocked them on TV.
We returned home, on the eve of the election. We were exhausted.
In fact, Dr. Hunter didn’t even offer to go home. He drank the liquor in my cabinet and offered only to crash on my couch and in the cool and in the dark, I stared out through the blinds, wondering when Kelan would make it home.
At some point, I hit send only after reading through my story. There was so much more to tell, but I was bound by a deadline.