The 2004 US presidential election has already been won. And the winner? It is a cliché. No article about this election will be written without a mention of the victorious phrase "Two Americas". You know the script by now: the US has settled into two polarised cultural blocks - one conservative, the other liberal - and they can only gape at each other in mutual incomprehension. Long after we have forgotten Bush and Kerry, we will remember the Two Americas; this week, on the tiny island of Manhattan, the cliché grew legs and walked.
The most fanatical battalions of Republican America marched noisily into the heartland of the enemy, New York City, the most liberal place on earth. This is the story of what happened next; of the week Manhattan, never the most normal of places, turned into a surreal political dreamscape, populated almost exclusively by howling police cars, howling Republicans, howling protesters, and people who seemed to be howling just for the hell of it.
For me, it all begins with a sign last Saturday afternoon. I am wandering around mid-town trying to find the start of the first big anti-Bush march when I spot a skinny, snarling woman who is carrying a large painted banner. It says, "If Bush wins the election this time, does Al Gore get to be President?" I ask her where we are supposed to head for the protests. "What protests?" she snaps back. I nod towards her placard and ask where she's going with it. "Oh, this? I carry it everywhere," she says. I laugh. She does not.
Within minutes, I am wading into the sea of signs that fill the Manhattan streets in an explosion of democracy. Many of them focus, predictably, on Iraq: "Smart bombs ain't smarter than me. Bush lied!", and, "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam". But there are as many protesting about climate change: "Burn the Bush, Not the Trees", and, "End Environmental Terrorism".
I am wandering past Macey's when It Begins. The Two Americas begin to collide. Small and bloated and red, Rubin Israel, a 43-year old businessman from the South, is surrounded by a sweaty posse of NYPD officers. His banner says, "Trust in Jesus Christ and President Bush - 2 Chron 7.14". I asked him what that passage of the Bible actually says, "Thou Shalt Not Vote Kerry"? "Yeah, somethin' like that," he says with a shrug.
As Israel explains the contorted and not entirely comprehensible story of how he was "born again", a crowd of protesters surrounds us. They begin to chant: "Who would Jesus bomb? Who would Jesus bomb?" He yells back: "You've hated the Bible all your lives, sodomites!" Still, they chant: "Who would Jesus bomb?" (Try it, it's catchy). Israel thinks for a second, lifts his microphone and says: "Iran. Jesus would probably bomb Iran."
A few blocks away, I notice a quiet woman holding a banner. It shows a picture of a good-looking, smiling young man - my first smile of the day - in army uniform. Below, in small letters, it says, "President Bush Killed My Son. Lt. Seth Dvorin, February 3rd, 2004". Journalists are swarming around her, and she is doing the best she can to offer up her son's life in neat soundbites for the evening news. I don't have the heart to wring it out of her for the 10th time today; later, I spot her leaning empty-eyed against a wall, cradling her banner like a baby.
At the end of the march, the protesters stream - in true American style - into McDonald's and Starbuck's on Union Square. I look at the leaflets I've been handed, and there isn't a political ideology on earth unrepresented here: there are socialists, anarchists, libertarians, anti-Bush conservatives, Maoists, Islamic fundamentalists and, oddly, foot fetishists. I can find these guys in London every day of the week; I realise it's the Republicans I need to hunt down and understand.
You might think that getting to know Republicans would be easy at a Republican convention: there are 50,000 of them in town. But, since an embarrassing incident at the 1996 convention - when former vice-president Dan Quayle was greeted on live television by a meeting of 200 people speaking in tongues - pretty much all their meetings have been closed to journalists. I turn up at three fringe events waving my press pass, and I am turned away by glossy blonde women who are polite and totally hateful.
So I resolve that I will foil the United States Secret Service and force my way into the secret enclaves of the Republican Party. Terrifyingly, I succeed with hardly any effort. I discover Karl Rove, the President's most trusted adviser, is to speak to the college Republicans in a Bryant Park restaurant. With no expectation of success, cunningly I try the back door marked Staff Only. It opens and I'm in, standing in a mesh of cables and cameras. I stride past them confidently. I look out over a room full of jocks with effortlessly happy expressions and empty minds.
The most animated ones are wearing fogeyish clothes: bow-ties and blazers. I approach the most handsome and ask him why he is a Republican. "Uh, because I believe in freedom. I like Bush. He's strong." These three sentences take him several minutes. I ask around; he's typical. I ask them what books have influenced their political thought. They look at me as though I am insane.
These frat-boys seem harmless airheads, then I glimpse a sign boasting that they have raised $10m for the Bush campaign. As I absorb this, Karl Rove enters. The white-toothed sons of privilege rise with visceral respect. Their eyes dart at him; they show that mixture of awe and envy lion cubs show for their fathers.
Rove speaks for 15 minutes and says nothing about policy. A few swipes at "limousine liberals", a few jokes about speaking quickly so the boys can get on with "the serious business of drinking", and Rove is gone into the night. The aura of raw, hard power goes with him, and the mass of college Republicans follows him out to bask in its rays for a few more precious seconds.
Is this it? Is the Republican Party just a power-worshipping cult? I decide to seek out some less wealthy, more grassroots Republicans. I hear there are special performances of the big musicals, so I head for Broadway. Outside Phantom of the Opera, I find protesters waving banners saying, "The Phantom Dies at the End, You Republican Assholes".
The Republicans are shooed on to buses back to the convention centre, so I put my head down and board with them. I am next to a woman so filled with Botox she matches the technical definition of a chemical weapon. (Perhaps Bush could send some of these ubiquitous Republican women to Baghdad and claim he has discovered WMD?).
"Would you like a bandage, honey?" she asks. "They're John Kerry bandages. We're telling delegates to give themselves a little scratch, take a bandage and demand a Purple Heart for their courage." She pauses, then says: "There's no way that man was brave in Vietnam. He speaks French. Fluently. If you ask me, I think he shot himself just so he could talk about it in the campaign. He's cunning and he thinks ahead. Like the Japanese. Probably speaks that too."
This new friend - she is Lyndie Mason from Tennessee - invites me to a night of Republican stand-up comedy. The only Republican comedy I've heard is George Bush trying to use the English language, so I agree. There is an obese man on stage asking: "Why do we need other countries? We have Las Vegas. Just go there and you'll find the Paris, the Casablanca, the Berlin ..." I have never been to a comedy show before where punchlines were greeted with choruses of "Amen". The Republicans particularly love any gag about killing Muslims and/or left-wingers. A comedian called Jeff Wayne says: "There's a huge bounty on Osama's head - it's like, $25m - so I shot 10 guys who look like him. Unfortunately, I was in a 7/11 in Minnesota." The audience cheered. "Shall I go on with the Muslim-bashing?" the comic asked. "More! More!" they cried, but he shifted the subject. "You know those tree-sitters? The hippies who sit in trees so they can't be cut down? Well, in my town a woman fell 150ft to her death last week doing that. Good. Now we can chop the tree down. I suggest we make a casket for that dumb bitch." Lyndie was laughing so hard even her face moved. A little.
And so the week passes like this, in a haze of gate-crashed Christian Coalition prayer breakfasts ("God bless George Bush and smite John Kerry"), creepy fringe groups (my favourite was the Alliance Against Sodomy, AAS), and creepy causes ("Repeal the Endangered Species Act! It's Big Government Liberalism gone mad!"). I find it hard to believe these people exist, but here they are, running the most powerful country on earth. I start smoking again. I seriously consider alcoholism as a rational response to all this.
So this story ends, as it began, with confusion and a protest. At the grand culmination of the convention, the night Bush speaks, I trail a group of hardcore Republican protesters whose goal is, in their own words, "to seriously piss off these lefties". Calling themselves the Protest Warriors, a band of 70 set off for the main demonstration, waving banners that say, "We Gave Peace a Chance. We got 9/11", and, "War Never Solved Anything - Except Defeating Slavery, Fascism and Communism."
Their loudest member is Michael Sheridan. He's a 41-year-old businessman from Austin, Texas, and he's waving a banner saying, "Fags For Bush". He says: "People ask why I want to vote for a guy who will ban gay marriage. I don't want to get married; I want to live. If al-Qa'ida wins, I'll be the first one up against the wall."
A group of gay men explain patiently that John Kerry is hardly a supporter of Osama bin Laden. "Police! Protect us from the pacifists! The pacifists are attacking!" Sheridan howls. When the police don't come, he squeals: "I knew we would become victims of the tolerant." and bursts into song with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".
Activists surround the Protest Warriors. Trapped and angry, they begin to chant "USA! USA!" Then something strange happens: the anti-Bush activists, just as sincerely, begin to yell, "USA! USA!" straight back at them. Both sides chant the name of their country, wielding it as a weapon at their opponents, neither one wanting to be the first to stop.
And that, I thought, captures this week perfectly. Two Americas, trapped together in one country, fighting for the right to call it theirs. Hail to the Cliché; it's more true than Bush or Kerry will ever be.Reuse content