“We’re drinking in the belly of the beast!” a Coors Light double-fisting heckler screamed to his friend from the back of the National Review‘s GOP debate party Saturday night at The Radisson in Manchester, New Hampshire, which truly kicked off a frenzied weekend leading up to the first of the nation’s 2016 presidential primaries Tuesday.
He unapologetically menaced the khaki-panted room like the political equivalent of a Red Sox fan at Yankee Stadium. You could see well-coiffed young conservatives inadvertently shaking their martinis trying to hold back their anger as the hammered man continued shouting. “Bomb them and take their oil! But take the oil first!” However, he inexplicably saved himself from what I felt was a sure ejection by screaming “Please clap!” every time Jeb Bush was given time to speak—a nod to Jeb’s horrifically embarrassing plea to a sleepy town hall a few days prior.
Then the crowd began howling in the man’s favor. For me, this episode seemed to crystallize the entire race thus far: When running for president in 2016, all it takes is a well-timed one-liner for voters to fall in love with you and briefly forget that you are an unhinged and complete maniac shouting absolute nonsense in public. Donald Trump has of course revolutionized this strategy and then some during his campaign.
As I made my way to Trump’s rally the following morning, situating myself in the Plymouth State University auditorium among a thick throng of supporters, I was besieged by dozens of hucksters hawking his swag, most notably a woman who told me she had the best pins of the lot, such as “Bomb The Hell Out Of ISIS” and “Hillary For Prison.” Another gentleman was selling Trump scarves for a modest $45 a pop as well as Trump shirts for $25. My friend tried to haggle a deal for a few of each, but the curbside purveyor would not budge, although when pressed a little he did admit that he’d paid about $2.10 per shirt and that they were American-made.
This was my first trip to a Trump rally, so after reading reportedly inflated crowd numbers via his Twitter, I was a bit surprised to see nobody waiting to get in and that only half the auditorium was actually sectioned off for his speech—it was nowhere close to capacity. I’d been speaking to potential voters most of the day, and many did tell me they were honestly undecided on a candidate until they actually voted. For a candidate who has unabashedly promised to bomb almost every country, I was hoping for Trump’s sake that playing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at least six times would pile more votes onto his already commanding Granite State lead.
Before Trump hit the stage, there was a warm-up announcement over the PA telling us that while the Donald was a huge supporter of the First and Second Amendments, we were urged to yell “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and wave signs near any protester who had snuck in so they could be easily spotted and ejected. Only one shirtless, clucking gentleman had the dubious honor of such a dismissal among the otherwise peaceful crowd, with Trump proclaiming such troublemakers as “lost people.”
He then launched into his hypothetical and hypocritical stump that has made him the de facto GOP frontrunner, beginning with his disdain for the wealthy donors he claimed had packed the room for Saturday’s debate while adding he was friends with most of them. He then promised his Great Wall would keep drugs out of the opiate-ravaged Northeast. It’s important to note that this is popular logic with all GOP candidates, who fail to acknowledge that prescribed opiates (and not marijuana) have truly become the orange-tinged plastic gateway to death. He again invoked a scenario involving anyone with the balls to warn General Patton about the environmental impact of bombing oil refineries.—”They’d get slapped!”—as he mimicked a back-handed cheek beating before adding, “I have many environmental awards, I love the environment.” Only he and professional wrestlers have the uncanny ability to play either hero or villain at the drop of a hat and still be able to win a crowd over. That last thought was the only sliver of sense I could grab a hold of as a young fan clad in Trump gear tried to crowd surf over a surge of fans to get his picture autographed.
After an expected traffic jam out of Trump’s rally, I made my way back down south to check out Marco Rubio‘s Super Bowl party. On any other day, this would be the equivalent of getting a flyer for a shitty DJ night when exiting a jammed nightclub, and, of course, this was precisely that party. Rubio’s event was moved from a country club to the nearby Manchester’s Ultimate Sports Center—think of it as Williamsburg’s industrial answer to an even shittier Chuck E. Cheese. Rubio had really made waves leading up to Saturday’s debate before Chris Christie repeatedly body-slammed him for his prepared talking points, which reduced him to the “Two weeks” robot from Total Recall.
As I made my way down the ramp I was stopped by a man who looked exactly like Rubio, except bald and programmed with even crappier lines to repeat over and over as he went on demanding my credentials. I was armed with only my Trump pass, to which he muttered, “That’s not going to do you any favors here.” During my back-and-forth with the clipboard-keeper before I was tossed, Rubio was launching into his “When I’m president” rant while jabbing at Hillary Clinton, which is all he’s been able to skate on during the debates. I wasn’t too surprised he wasn’t acknowledging that the polls now were showing Gov. John Kasich was already beginning to shove him down the slide like Santa does to Ralphie in A Christmas Story.
Saturday night into Sunday morning produced one of the first real fierce snowstorms in the region this season. The heavy snow, combined with temperatures in the teens, began to make the campaign trail perilous, so my friends and I fishtailed and slid the few miles into Raymond to catch a Ted Cruz meet-and-greet at the Tuckaway Tavern & Butchery.
The Tuckaway is a quintessential New England nosh stop. To put it a better way: If you’re a presidential candidate, you had better be wearing a fucking flannel shirt and ordering their famous Rooster Balls (which are chicken). A fleece-and-Polo-clad Cruz did not get that memo, although in his defense, he is Canadian. I was fairly intrigued that most of his staffers looked like massive Barenaked Ladies fans. After making his way past our table near the bar into their quaint backroom banquet hall, Cruz began his rant against Obama and ISIS. His speech was disrupted early when a young man waving a cross began screaming, “You are possessed by a demon! That’s why you look so disgusting!” He then began to mock-vomit and was showered with boos by a faithful flock of Cruzaders. He continued ranting as a police officer escorted him out of the room and I finished my tasty Rooster Balls. “You know, the very odd thing, usually lefties don’t believe in God,” Cruz said. He hung around for a long string of photo ops with Tuckaway patrons while bearded patriots waving American flags mingled with men holding “Don’t Trust The Liberal Media” signs, which I felt was about as necessary as people holding “Goldman Licks My Sachs” signs at a Bernie Sanders rally—incidentally, the event we hit next.
As we made our way to Sanders show at Pinkerton Academy, the roads were even more dangerous; several cars had crashed or flipped along 93 North. I was finally understanding the “Live Free Or Die” motto of New Hampshire. Pinkerton Academy is a prestigious school—I was told many families move there for a chance to send their kids there—so I was a little befuddled that it was Sanders’ venue. I was even more confused when the school’s neon sign flashed “EBRNIE SANDERS RALLEY” (later fixed to “BERNIE SANDERS RALLEY,” which was progress… kind of). Arriving a few minutes late to John Lennon’s “Power To The People,” a pumped-up Sanders took to the stage in front of a rafter of his supporters. Hoarse and coughing, and perhaps still zippy from his appearance with Larry David on Saturday Night Live, Sanders quipped “The great challenge tonight is that I don’t knock over this water bottle.”
Sanders delivered his usual optimistic and undeniably infectious stump on where this country should be headed while hammering away at corporate greed in America. Listening to him speak can make you feel like you’ve become loose change in the pocket of Wall Street as they rifle through crumpled bank receipts, tangled headphones, and used tissues in search of a few bucks to give to a cashier while holding up the line at 7-Eleven. In what is now becoming an unfortunate trend, a woman standing in the first row of rafters behind him fainted about 30 minutes into his speech and came dangerously close to smacking her head on the podium, her cheek caressing the side of it before hitting the floor as Sanders screamed, “Oh my god!” Thankfully, within seconds of he and his staff rushing to her aid, she was able to walk off the stage on her own.
After Sanders wrapped up—and now pressed for time—we began a mad dash back up to Portsmouth to catch Jeb Bush for his final town hall before the primary. The snow was falling faster than Ben Carson’s poll numbers, and the roads were now extremely hazardous, with few plows to be seen, making a one-hour drive take almost two and a half. I really wanted to get a taste of Jebruary, and after noting that he’d held a town hall midway through the Super Bowl with shoes held together with tape, I couldn’t help but feel he may have become Phillip Seymour Hoffman to the Granite State’s Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. By now I had begun to feel bad for him, as he has really struck me as the least crazy candidate on the right.
Due to the weather, this final stop became National Lampoon’s Campaign—we wearily waltzed in as Jeb’s oversized crowd was leaving. I was told so many had shown that they were scrambling for extra chairs. (You’re probably imagining simple metal folding chairs, but this was a ballroom decked with velvet-lined mahogany chairs, which maybe didn’t send the best message.) Still, after all the hassle of getting there I was hoping for a chance to speak to Jeb at the moment he was finally starting to break into the Big Five. “Oh my heavens! Have you talked to Jeb?! You must! Let me take you to him, he needs the young votes! Go meet him!” a frail old woman exclaimed to me as she forced me past the crowd around him. “Hi Jeb, I’m John. Aw, gosh, I almost missed you due to the storm.” Bush stared right at me and meekly said, “Thanks for the advice, John.”
Standing outside and smoking a cigarette afterward, exhausted and frozen, I befriended an older man holding the door for people. “How do you think he sounded tonight? I asked. “Son, he’s still got a long way to go,” he replied. It seemed like the answer a father would give when asked about his son’s band’s first show, and still left me confused as to how I could possibly be feeling sorry for a Bush in 2016. It was as good a cue as any to get the fuck out of the belly of the beast.
Photo via John Policastro