They may be shit for choosing a good candidate for the presidency, but say this for the Republican primaries: They're fast turning into the most luridly entertaining political spectacle of our time. In an inherently conservative, bottomlessly moneyed, scrupulously stage-managed electoral system designed to preclude chance or weirdness from playing any part in determining our political future, the unthinkable is happening: real drama. This isn't part of some clever but inscrutable master plan, put on by the hidden hands who run this country, to fool or distract the masses. This is an unscripted fuck-up of heroic dimensions, radiating downward from the highest levels of our society, playing out in real time for all of us to watch. Our oligarchy has thrown a rod.
If you're not a conservative voter with a dog in this fight, watching Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and whoever else is running for the GOP nomination this week try to hold on to front-runner status has been great slapstick, like watching a cruel experiment involving baboons, laughing gas and a forklift. No matter how many times you ring the bell, those poor animals are never going to figure out how to move that pallet of bananas – yet they keep trying, taking the sorry show from one state to the next, over and over, as if something is going to change.
The latest ape to fall off the heavy machinery is Romney, who in a single week before the South Carolina primary went from near-certain nominee to national punch line, in genuine peril of becoming one of America's all-time electoral catastrophes. The overwhelming expectation was that Romney would roll into South Carolina, kneel on the ball a few times, and run out the clock on the party's yearlong display of manic instability. Heading into South Carolina, he'd raised $32 million; none of his competitors appeared to have enough cash to keep the lights on for more than a few more weeks, let alone a whole campaign. This experienced national politician, who had run a superbly organized campaign for president in 2008, a man whose very trademark is inoffensiveness and caution, and who for the year has appeared dedicated to saying nothing in public more controversial than "God bless America," needed to hang on for only 10 or 11 more days after his decisive win in New Hampshire without completely wetting himself on television, and the nomination was his.
But he couldn't do it. Less than a week after New Hampshire, Romney committed a series of gaffes that revealed his crucial character flaw: He's a hypernervous control freak who flips out if you try digging around below the paper-thin veneer of his schlock patriotic presentation. The robotic Mormon financier looks like a walking OCD diagnosis, a trim coil of tightly wound energy with perfect coif and tie, seemingly living in permanent terror of a single hair falling out of place. For this type of anal-retentive personality, the messy chaos of South Carolina was a phobic horror. Faced with actual opposition, he lost his grip on everything. At a time when a quarter of the population has zero or negative net worth, when outrage against the financial elite is at an all-time high on both sides of the political aisle, Romney, it turns out, is so weirdly tone-deaf about his status as a one-percenter and bloodsucking corporate raider that any question in that direction sends his eyes pinwheeling. As his electably boring-mannequin act began to crumble, his carefully concealed true self – a deluded gazillionaire nitwit – was suddenly thrust naked onstage for all of America to gape at.
First he made the mistake, in explaining his income as a private-equity vampire, of insisting that the money he receives each year in speaking fees is "not very much." Romney's idea of "not very much" turns out to be $374,327.62 – a microscopic portion of his total earnings, but still a number that all by itself put him in the one percent. Then, in the crucial debate in Charleston on January 19th, he seemed to go into a mental tailspin. With both the debate and the primary slipping away from him, Romney reached into his bag of clichés for an "I'm not from Washington, I'm an outsider like you" speech. Only he ballsed it up: "If we want people who spent their life and their career, most of their career in Washington," he said, indicating his opponents, "we have three people on the stage who've..."
But as Romney looked to his left, he spotted long-practicing doctor Ron Paul. "Well, I take that back," he fumbled. "We got a doctor down here who spent most of his time in the, in the surgical suite."
The surgical suite? But wait, Paul was an obstetrician! "Well, not surgery," Romney corrected himself. "The birthing suite."
Then, as he looked pleadingly at CNN moderator John King, it was Dan Rather time. Dead fucking air. Romney's candidacy was literally dying in front of his eyes. He realized that he had forgotten King's original question, which was about why he had called Gingrich an "unreliable leader."
"Now, you asked me an entirely different question," he said to King. "What's..."
The crowd laughed as Romney looked around to the other candidates for help. Gingrich, who despite an utter lack of self-control is a cunning old crook with a keen instinct for combat, moved quickly to drive the knife in. "Beats me. I don't know," he said. "Where are we at, John?" The crowd roared.
Romney was never the same after that moment. The next day, in that very building, I watched as the level of panic in his campaign finally boiled over into violence. Throughout the race, Romney has been targeted by protesters from Occupy Wall Street, who have made it their mission to screw up his rope-line photo ops. In New Hampshire just a week before, Romney had tried to do the campaign-cliché thing and kiss a baby – only to have protesters shout at him, repeatedly, "Are you going to fire the baby? Are you going to fire the baby? Are you going to fire the baby?"
Romney typically has not responded to these provocations. But on the day of the Charleston debate, in a small nearby suburb, a protester asked Romney, "What will you do to support the 99 percent, seeing as how you're part of the one percent?"
At that perfectly reasonable question, Romney lost his cool and spun around awkwardly, arms in and head forward, like a bobbing harbor buoy, to face the protester. "Let me tell you something," he fumed. "America is a great nation because we're a united nation. And those who try to divide the nation, as you are trying to do here and as our president is doing, are hurting this country seriously."
The next day, after Romney took that beating in the Charleston debate, there was another rally at the same convention center. As if in response to his plunging poll numbers, Romney amped up the showmanship and the clich´-flogging, driving his tricked-out campaign bus into the building and adding a desperately bizarre patriotic singspiel component to his stump speech. "I love this country. I love this country," he said. "I love its beauty. I love its people. I love the hymns of our nation." And then he started reciting the lyrics to "America the Beautiful."
"'O beautiful, for spacious skies,'" he said. "'For amber waves of grain.'"
It was the Mormon-underwear version of Bill Murray's "Star Wars, Nothing but Star Wars" routine. All politicians engage in public fakery to some degree, but Romney's plastic-man act is so forced and grotesque, it's actually painful to watch. In this case, the crowd – a small contingent of clean-cut Romney volunteers herded into a convention hall halved in size by a curtain – tittered politely as Romney labored through his hymnal and an assortment of lounge-singer throwaways ("This is a great state – what wonderful people"). When the speech mercifully ended, Romney plunged into the crowd – and that's when the trouble began
I was maybe 10 feet away from him when a pair of Occupy protester-tormenters tried to ask him something. Suddenly, the space around the candidate erupted in commotion. A female police officer roared past me, dragging a young female protester named Adrianna Varedi by the neck. It was such an outstanding chokehold that Varedi's face had already turned purple. The cops rushed her to the exit and, in a moment reminiscent of the scene in Casino in which a gambler's head is used to bash open the exit door, Varedi and another protester were roughly tossed outside.
"I was just trying to ask him a question," Varedi said afterward.
Romney suffers from the same problem afflicting the likes of Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon: He's been living for so long with the delusion that the way he makes his money is fair and honest, he's started to believe not only that he deserves his wealth, but the converse – that the poor deserve to be poor. He's incapable of sympathizing with people who can't pay their bills, because their condition is tied too closely in his mind with the question of how he made his enormous fortune: If you ask Romney to imagine what life is like for someone who's broke, what he hears is you accusing him of making that happen. (In Romneyspeak, you've "attacked capitalism.") In short, he's a narcissist. They're all narcissists, these colossal Wall Street types – they have to be, because the way they make their money makes moral sense only if you're viewing things from the top of the heap. Asking them to step outside that comfort zone, into the world where the rest of us live, is an unthinkable outrage. It's hard to be likable when you can't even temporarily look at things from the bottom up, which is why it was no surprise that Romney flopped among voters in South Carolina who describe themselves as "falling behind" financially; they chose Newt by a margin of almost two to one.
In contrast, even some of the most rabid anti-Republican protesters express a begrudging admiration for Romney's surging foil, Gingrich, who throughout the campaign has demonstrated that he not only doesn't mind yapping with haters and detractors but actually seems to enjoy it. "His security people are pulling him away from us, not the other way around," says Michael Premo, an Occupy protester who riled Romney at a rope line earlier that week.
If Romney is a scripted automaton who could make it through a year's worth of marital coitus without one spontaneous utterance, Gingrich is his exact opposite – taken prisoner in war, Newt would be blabbing state secrets without torture within minutes, and minutes after that would be calling his guards idiots who lack his nuanced grasp of European history, and minutes after that would be lying to two of his captors about an affair he had with the third. In short, Newt versus Romney played out in South Carolina like a classic comic clash of pure psychological archetypes: oral versus anal, chaos versus order, Oscar versus Felix, with Felix throwing a snit and Oscar charging to a wild, messy victory.
As late as five days before the South Carolina primary, Gingrich was still trailing Romney by double digits in the state. His comeback began at the debate in Myrtle Beach, when he had an instantly viral exchange with African-American Fox commentator Juan Williams in which he triumphantly defended the idea that 11-year-olds should get jobs and that black people prefer food stamps to honest employment. The crowd was howling for blood, literally booing Mexico when Williams mentioned that Romney's father had been born there and then, in a moment that one had to see to believe, loudly booing the Golden Rule when Ron Paul sensibly suggested that we "don't do to other nations what we don't want to have them do to us."
You could almost see the light go on in Newt's head. He alone understood that during the primary season, one doesn't worry about how some vacillating Ohio independent might perceive one's rhetoric next fall: One carves up the bloodiest bits of red meat and hurls them at the immediate audience, and one does so with joy and a gleam in the eye. "Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America's enemies: Kill them," Newt said. The debate, remember, took place in the Carolinas, not far from where Jackson's Trail of Tears genocide began, making Newt's remark almost comically offensive. But hey, the Cherokee vote is not a large one, for obvious reasons. The surviving, non-Indian audience cheered wildly.
At the debate in Charleston a few days later, when Gingrich launched into his lengthy tirade in defense of serial adultery, the crowd once again roared with delight. By then, Newt had settled on his winning formula: batter Romney over his personal finances, then get in Romney's face as often as possible, highlighting his "genuineness" in contrast with Romney's seemingly constitutional inability to give a straight answer about anything. A last-minute campaign event laid bare this dynamic. By a curious accident, both Romney and Gingrich had scheduled 10:45 a.m. campaign stops on primary day at a roadside restaurant called Tommy's Ham House in Greenville. The mix-up led to much speculation about a "Ham House showdown," and by 10 that morning the place was teeming with placard-waving supporters from both campaigns, in addition to what appeared to be all 10 million members of America's political media. But the "showdown" never happened, thanks to a classically reptilian cop-out by Romney: Despite his campaign's insistence that it intended to stick to its schedule, Romney showed up 45 minutes early, darted through the restaurant shaking hands Speedy Gonzales-style, and was back in his campaign bus 20 minutes before Gingrich even arrived.
When Newt finally showed up, his supporters greeted him like a Roman emperor back from a slaughter of the Gauls. As he strode into the Ham House, his supporters mocked Romney by erupting in clucking chicken noises. Newt, I'm quite sure, was never happier than he was at that moment in the driving rain and slop of Greenville on primary day. Looking like a king peacock or the mockumentary version of Joaquin Phoenix, gorgeously obese and enthralled with the wonder of himself, Newt plunged through the Ham House crowd, stood on a beer cooler and crowed, "I have a question. Where's Mitt?"
"He left!" someone in the crowd shouted. "He ran!"
Newt grinned ear to ear. "I thought maybe we'd have a little debate here this morning," he said. "I'm kind of confused!"
The crowd cheered again, and Newt settled down to his usual stump speech, about how he was the only choice to stop moderate Romneyism on the right and Saul Alinsky radicalism on the left. The crowd ate him up; everywhere you looked, you found people insisting they were smitten by the "real" Gingrich, as opposed to Romney, who South Carolinians increasingly believed was a closet liberal only pretending to be a heartless conservative.
"When you're being shaped and handled to sound like something you're not, you're going to sound plastic," said Colette Koester, a financial adviser who came out to the Ham House. "Newt's a real person. He's committed to what he says."
The election-night festivities of the two leading candidates were a predictable study in extremes. Romney's event, at the South Carolina fairgrounds, was a morgue. The floor was half-empty, and the campaign barred some of the press from entering, feeding different excuses to different reporters (I was told I needed to RSVP; others were told there was no room in the hall). In the tomblike expanse of the press filing room, you had to pay three bucks for a drink, and all they had was soda.
Across town, meanwhile, half of South Carolina appeared to be packed into a Hilton ballroom that began to stink noticeably of sweat and booze long before Newt showed up. Bodies were stacked together like sardines, and the crowd slobbered over visiting dignitaries like Mrs. South Carolina, a busty blond hottie who seemed to symbolize the earnest possibilities of open marriage. "It's like free admission to Wrestlemania," chirped one attendee.
When Newt finally arrived, he plunged into a booming victory speech that used the same tired, redbaiting clichés trotted out by every candidate in the race. (Some, in fact, were the same clichés Romney used, the only difference being that Romney described Obama as taking his inspiration from Europe, while Gingrich also pointed the finger at San Francisco.)
Most ludicrously, Gingrich – virtually his whole adult life a confirmed Beltway parasite, as voracious a consumer of lobbyist money as has ever been seen in modern America, a man who in the past decade took more than 1.5 million consulting dollars from Freddie Mac alone – asserted that his victory was a triumph against the Washington insider. "So many people," he said, "feel that the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability, and in fact do not represent them at all."
The crowd roared, and Gingrich, in a thrilling demonstration of sheer balls, moved on to insist that he'd won the race not just because he was a peerlessly brilliant television presence, but because – get this – he represented good values. "It's not that I'm a good debater," he said, "it's that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."
This, of course, was the final irony: that South Carolina – a nest of upright country church folk proud of their exacting morals and broad distrust of buggery, stem cells and Hollywood relativism – had chosen as its values champion Newt Gingrich, a man who has been unfaithful not just to two wives but also two religions (raised Lutheran, he is currently Catholic by way of Southern Baptist). We've all heard the various sordid stories from Newt's past – the divorce papers reportedly thrust in the lap of his hospitalized first wife, the alleged multiple affairs, the unpaid tax liens, the 84 separate allegations of congressional ethics violations, one of which landed him a $300,000 fine. This is a man whose campaign is being fueled almost entirely by gambling money contributed by Sheldon Adelson, a Vegas casino magnate and hardcore Zionist who handed Gingrich two $5 million checks – two of the biggest political contributions in American history. (Newt, in return, has dismissed the Palestinians as an "invented" people, remarks that Adelson reportedly approved.) There is a distinct odor of corrupt indulgence around Gingrich that may not bother sinners like you and me – but sure as hell ought to bother Southern evangelicals, who a decade and a half ago wore us all out wailing about the nearly identical personal failings of one William Jefferson Clinton, another flabby, smooth-talking hedonist who, in the pulpits of America's megachurches, was whispered to be the earthly vessel of Satan himself.
But evangelicals accounted for two-thirds of the South Carolina vote, and Newt cleaned up with them, beating Romney – a man whose genitalia has never even been rumored to be somewhere it shouldn't – by a margin of more than two to one. Even odder was the fact that this hilarious fraud was being perpetrated on behalf of a man who was consigned to the historical footnotes well over a decade ago. After all this time, it ends up being Newt Gingrich? Really? How can a guy who was kicked off the B list in the Nineties be the headline act in 2012? It's like finding out that Eric Roberts has been picked to MC the Oscars. In an era of popular revolts on both the right and left, it is sobering to think that the American power structure is so desperate, so bankrupt of fresh deceptions, that it is now forced to recycle the dregs of the dregs in its attempts to pacify the public.
The two other contenders in the race each had good reasons to be shocked by the sudden emergence of Gingrich as the standard-bearer for Republican values. Former senator Rick Santorum earned a place in American pop culture as the nation's leading pious, finger-wagging bore, the Anita Bryant of his time – he was famous for comparing homosexuality to bestiality, for opposing not only abortion but contraception, for calling it "radical feminism" when a mother worked outside the home. Yet for all his creepiness, Santorum at times has come across as the sanest, most human of the candidates, adopting the exact "Jesus, what a couple of disgusting assholes!" look that any of us would have if forced to stand on a stage next to Romney and Gingrich. Genuinely religious, with a genuinely working-class background, Santorum nonetheless was beaten senseless in the South Carolina polls, receiving fewer than half as many votes from evangelicals as the philandering Gingrich.
Then there was Ron Paul, whose unaccountable predicament was on display in the Ham House madness. As Newt stood in the packed restaurant, gloating over Romney's cowardice, a small contingent of Paul supporters crouched in the rain at a Hardee's parking lot across the street, seething over the latest slight to their candidate's dignity. "The machine would rather have Huey or Dewey or Louie or whatever," sighed Ted Christian, watching the media blitz at the Ham House.
During the past two election cycles, Paul supporters have literally been forced to party-crash other candidates' events in order to get their message out. In this case, Christian and his friend Michael Toppeta decided to blitz the "Ham House showdown" by showing off a pair of spiffy "Ron Paul 2012" campaign vans – one featuring a professional paint-and-stencil job, the other a pleasingly Mystery Machine-esque vehicle done up with $3 worth of finger paint from Michaels.
"It's a fiscally responsible design job," Christian proudly declared.
"I just wanted to show that we can do a professional job like that," Toppeta added, regarding the more high-end van. "That we're not just a bunch of hippies or whatever."
Both actually and metaphorically, the Paul campaign is forever being consigned to the parking lot outside the main event, despite the fact that Paul is the only Republican candidate with consistent, insoluble support across the country. Polls also show that Paul tends to fare much better against Obama than any candidate besides Romney: A recent CNN poll showed him in a dead heat with Obama in a one-on-one contest. Yet everywhere he goes, Paul is hounded by reporters asking him which of the other mannequins he's eventually going to throw his support to. The grown-ups in the party establishment and their lackeys in the press simply refuse to take Paul seriously, which is part of the reason Paul is so extraordinarily attractive to young people (in both Iowa and New Hampshire, he scored almost half of the under-30 vote).
But the Republican Party is not dominated by 22-year-old college students reading The Fountainhead for the first time and finally understanding what it is they've always hated about their ex-hippie parents. No, the party is dominated by middle-aged white suburbanites who hate Mexico, John King and the Golden Rule and are willing to flock to anyone who'll serve up the Fox News culture war in big portions and without shame or hesitation. Romney might have memorized a few I-hate-Obama sound bites, but voters simply don't believe him. Gingrich alone offers GOP voters the emotional payoff they want out of an election – an impassioned fight against the conspiracy, played out in thrillingly contrary three-hour debates on health care with the liberal Satan. Gingrich lives for confrontation: He was born for this sort of insurgent primary politics.
The only problem is, he's a bloviating, egomaniacal hog clinging to a third marriage who suffers from incurable diarrhea of the mouth and, according to polls, is one of the most intensely disliked politicians in America, making him an utterly absurd choice for the general election. If Gingrich ends up winning the nomination, Obama will essentially be running against the political version of Gilbert Gottfried or raw garlic – strong tastes that some like quite a lot, but many more can't stand to even be near. If that happens, every Democratic flack from Leon Panetta to Obama himself will have to wear restraints to keep from publicly crying out in joy.
All of which makes the goofball theater surrounding the GOP primaries seem even crazier. With a weak economy and a vulnerable president in the White House, the Republican Party had a real chance to reseize power, if it could only have grasped the gravity of the situation and put forward a plausible candidate. And a plausible candidate would have been better for everyone, not just Republicans, because the nation will suffer when Obama cruises to victory next fall on a sea of open-marriage jokes, instead of having to face a cogent argument against useless bailouts, endless wars and economic mismanagement.
But the GOP chose to snub any semblance of substance, floating one candidate after another – from Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain and Rick Perry – who could not hold on to the lead for more than a few hours before tripping and falling into the machinery. It now appears that whoever winds up winning the Republican nomination will be a reform-hating friend of the one percent who will happily gobble whatever hundreds of millions of dollars Wall Street has left over to donate to the GOP, after it's finished lavishing its election-year tribute on Barack Obama. The best we can hope for, it appears, is some truly high-quality reality-show drama. The campaign is a circus like we've never seen before. We may get worse candidates, but at least we're getting a better show.
This story is from the February 16, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.