Saturday, September 04, 2004

Johann Hari meets both Americas

Republican party animals

The fanatical followers of George Bush marched into Manhattan, the liberal heart of America, last week. Johann Hari went along to watch a surreal political show

04 September 2004

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.

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