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Of Bombs and Men

Scooby Van

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE EASTERN SEABOARD — Off the coast of Tybee Island, Georgia there’s a nuclear bomb nestled somewhere in the infinite womb of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a popular topic of discussion among the locals, something to talk about over too-early cocktails in your favorite pirate bar. The story goes that in 1958 a B-47 collided in mid-air with a fighter jet, injuring the bomber so badly that the crew had no choice but to jettison its payload, thus dooming the sunburned and perpetually lit populace to always wonder if the next day was the day they might be vaporized by the folly of man.

It’s the stuff of local legend, but it is undeniably true. Well, the existence of the bomb and the story of how it came to rest in the muck and the grime. But experts agree there’s little chance the bomb will explode, some citing the possibility it wasn’t armed to begin with and others arguing that, even if it was set to explode, its probable fate is to sit and rust and decay as the tides lick its cool metal shell.

Thoughts turn to such facts on a northbound train hurdling toward Washington, D.C., home to every manner of criminal and degenerate under the sun, particularly while reading the morning’s news and digesting the day’s facts. Today’s roundup of tea leaves is particularly telling as the numbers are in and the numbers are bad for Hoosier governor Mike Pence. It seems that in the wake of the disastrous Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) his approval ratings have fallen seventeen points from 62% to 45%, the type of fall that must have, I imagine, sounded a lot like an MK 15 nuclear bomb dropping from the heavens.

My god. Seventeen points.

Disgraced Former Congressman Anthony Weiner exposed himself to the known free world and suffered only a marginally worse fate.

Of course, Pence’s penance is far from over. The snow-haired simpleton bet every last chip in his coffers on a loser of a bill in the hopes that the GOP kingmakers would come crawling to his feet in search of The Great White Conservative Hope, a wager that has destroyed every dream he had of ascending to the highest office in the land and left him a wounded and cursed executive who couldn’t pass a kidney stone now. The gambit was risky, for sure, and it took no time at all for the entirety of American social media to declare the bill ignorant, dangerous, and regressive, which it certainly was, but the perceived benefits were simply nonexistent. Certainly Pence and his cronies thought the RFRA would catch fire with the conservative base and throw another log on the culture war pyre. It did that, but the result wasn’t pretty.

The first on-the-record supporter, besides the flapping jaws at FOX News, was a pizza shop called Memories located in the small town of Walkerton. Walkerton’s home to a little over two thousand god-fearing Hoosiers, just the type of tiny Indiana town I was raised in, and I’ve eaten in a thousand Memories if I’ve eaten in one. In Linton it’s Goose Pond Pizza and there are religious posters on the wall invoking the words of Christ and signs reminding customers to follow the Golden Rule and Love Their Neighbor while they eat thin-crust pies with sauce rumored to contain small traces of beer.

Memories went on the record supporting the RFRA and in their interview that went viral they announced they weren’t going to cater any gay weddings (which, I have to imagine, comes as terrible news to the budding gay marriage industry in Walkerton, Indiana) and went on to explain why.

It’s not natural.

Homosexuals are making a choice.

In essence, they were responding to Pence’s dog whistle. While it isn’t a hard jump to make to understand that the RFRA was about stemming the tide of gay progress, it isn’t explicit in the text. Critics had to point to language in order to extrapolate the hidden and pruned meanings. They had to understand that homosexuals aren’t currently given protected status in Indiana and then apply the law the way the legislature surely intended. But the owners of Memories saw through with amazing clarity to the heart of the RFRA without actually understanding the bill at all.

This wasn’t law, this was a wink and a nudge.

This was Doing Business The Old Way and Giving It To The Freaks.

The RFRA was a piece of legislation that wasn’t meant to do the job it professed to do. It was a hidden code to the Conservative Base that Republicans around the country, and certainly Mike Pence in particular, were going to beat this thing and if only they could get a little more power, a little more momentum, they were going to really give it to the gays and the minorities in a big and powerful way. Just you wait, they said with a stroke of the pen, we’re gonna right this train yet.

In the aftermath of Memories declaration they became the target of every major news network, blog, and pundit, and in the process received nearly a million dollars in contributions from sympathetic conservatives around the country. The result for Pence was less stellar, as the numbers now make readily apparent, but the real question now, in the wake of the bill’s editing and updating, is exactly what it will do to the Republican field of presidential hopefuls.

The Lust Before the Fall

Right now we’re in what people call the Honeymoon Phase of the election. We’re just excited to be here. The candidates are going to climb onstage, smile and hold their wives and husbands, and wave to the cheering masses. Their speeches are going to be worse than dreck because there is no reason for them to be anything else. Issues are nonexistent now other than The Issue, meaning the one nail every candidate is going to hang their hat on.

For Rand Paul, it’s privacy.

Rubio – immigration.

Ted Cruz – whatever excites the blogosphere.

Hillary – Hillary becoming president.

Currently, there is no reason, no benefit, for mixing it up in the public eye. This is the time of posturing and promising, though you have to make sure and not promise too much. A better tomorrow, a stronger America, yes, but anything more than that? Dangerous territory. These are the days of fundraising, of cracking the whip and making sure donors and donor captains are in line, of greasing the political machine with more lubricant and hinted-at federal appointments than there are stars in the sky. This is the time of the Great Stretch, the lust before the fall.

Soon though, there will be press conferences. Sit-downs with Anderson Cooper and Fareed Zakaria, the CNN hacks who are the only thing left of the once-great American Center. These will be interviews meant to humanize the candidates, to make you believe that Rand Paul isn’t some type of calculating monster and that Ted Cruz is an American and Decent Human Being With Scruples. And somewhere, in those interviews, Anderson or Fareed are going to find a place to ask The Question.

The Question is always innocuous. It is the sixth or seventh in a long string, after you’ve been asked about your background, your excitement, your goals and aspirations. It comes on the tail-end of something harmless, like “Tell me about what you would do as president”, and when it happens you can separate the contenders from the pretenders. The latter sputter. They look off-camera for some nonverbal sign from their campaign director. Maybe a shard of glass which might be used to slice their jugular. An escape hatch that isn’t already occupied.

This time, it’s going to be the RFRA. At least in the early rounds, that is. It’s going to be a question that has no real practical use. The RFRA has been decided, the country has spoken, but the news outlets know literally nothing about news other than hits, shares, likes, and the sucking sound of something going viral. The RFRA plays on social media. Outrage pays in gold duckats. The Outrage Machine must be fed and the Outrage Machine goes both ways.

We live in a time where Republicans have no safe space. In the past they could choose to list center and right depending on the audience, but now, with the advent of the Internet and social media, there is no audience besides the world. With one wrong move Marco Rubio, who will make many, many, many wrong moves, can completely cinch off a revenue stream and ostracize either a frothing ignorant base or a healthy center that could give him the keys to the White House. It’s a moment that could define whether his candidacy is a joke or a reckoning, though smart pundits already know which side of the coin he’ll fall.

The Question is going to come and it’s going to come sooner than later. The news machine is currently running on introductory excitement, the haze of new and fresh faces. That will grow old and stale until one of the big names comes in, and even that won’t last forever. Pretty soon the interviews are going to come and they aren’t going to waste time. The RFRA is going to be the first thing on the docket and god knows what this batch of lunatics will do.

There are only two things certain here: there’s a ticking in the waves and nobody gets out alive.

 

Photo source: Hillary Clinton Road Trip by Mike Licht

About Jared Yates Sexton

A born and bred Hoosier, Jared Yates Sexton is the author of An End to All Things (2012, Atticus Books), The Hook and the Haymaker (2015, Split Lip Press), and Bring Me the Head of Yorkie Goodman (2015, New Pulp Press). He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.

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