Maybe it's a symptom of being in Las Vegas for the final presidential debate, or maybe it's a just 2016 in general, but at a certain point it's hard to tell who is and isn't kidding.
Outside the Trump International hotel on Wednesday, surrounded by taco trucks, union activists, a Planned Parenthood supporter dressed up like a birth control pill case, and a man wearing a giant paper-mache Trump head—all the usual trappings of a protest—I tried to figure out what was going on with Jake Berd. The young man from Chino, California, was wearing a "DTF" trucker hat and a T-shirt with Trump's head on it that said "Yes he can." So how many layers of irony was I dealing with?
"I'm angry alright," he said. "Yeah, Billy Bush lost his contract because he was doing some guy talk. It's guy talk pie talk, you talk about what girl you like, what pie you like. I'll go first: Bernadette Peters, key lime. You go. Guy talk, pie talk."
This honestly did not clarify things. Who was he voting for?
"I would vote but it's a rigged election," he said, "because guys like me get shut out of the system because you drink a 72-ounce Mountain Dew Code Red and try to watch The Secret Life of Pets. You get multiple public urination charges and suddenly you can't vote. It's a rigged system, dude."
I wrote this down, because what else can you do? It's been the sort of election where everyone is monologuing past each other, all warning of something dire. Reverend Jesse Jackson, 75 years old and still full of fire, emerged before the crowd and told them, "If we don't vote it'll be doomsday," before leading them in a chant that was part prayer, part plea:
"Repeat," he said, meaning after him. "The debate. Tonight. Must not be. About a war. Of words. But for workers. And wages."
As it turned out, wages were one of the topics that weren't touched on at the UNLV event. I watched from the Peppermill, the restaurant where Robert De Niro first makes out with Sharon Stone in Casino and where the bartender at first said we couldn't watch the debate because "we're not supposed to put on anything that involves religion or politics, because it starts fights." We watched the local Fox affiliate, which afterward asked its panel of undecideds if there was anything in the debate they'd wished the candidates had discussed that they hadn't. "Science," one woman said, and did not elaborate.
I went out in search of my own impromptu focus group and wound up at the Bellagio's Club Privé, a high-end blackjack lounge, discussing the debate with three pharmaceutical attorneys in town for a conference on "Mass Torts Made Perfect."
"Trump's gonna crush it, win or lose," said Glenn Phillips, 50, of Seattle. "He's gonna crush it." None of the trio, who'd watched in a suite upstairs with some 30 other lawyer were Trump supporters, or even thought he'd done well. But Trump a major touchstone for these men—two had read The Art of the Deal when younger, able to quote the advice like "buy from need, sell to greed" because they still follow it—and they were confident that the self-proclaimed billionaire would have a rosy future even after a humbling general election.
Marc Grossman of Puerto Rico, 48, said he should probably hate Trump—according to the lawyer; the real estate mogul had lost him money. Grossman had worked on the deal to sell Trump's golf course in Puerto Rico "around when we settled the Vioxx case in '07," he reminded the third attorney. Trump had personally "bullied" Grossman into buying 11 properties in Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale, Grossman said, all for a relatively small down payment, all of which went south.
"He makes you think like you're joining this club," Grossman said darkly, of how Trump talked him into the deal—but, in trying to describe how Trump could bounce back from the debate, he seemed to have a lingering fondness for the man. "After we did the Vegas deal, the Miss Universe pageant was going on and he flew us all down for Miss Universe. It was one of the greatest nights of my life. I almost don't even care that I lost all this money!"
The Strip usually isn't the place to talk politics, but you could hardly avoid it: Witness the scrolling banner outside the Cosmopolitan that read, "Help us decide the winner of the debate by your cocktail choice at The Chandelier. Choose 'Ivanka Another Drink' or 'From Flotus to Potus.'"
In the Alibi, a dark cocktail bar inside the Aria, I ran into Katherine Prodger, age not given, in Hermes, and Karen, last name not given, 39, in Roberto Cavalli. The two had flown in from San Francisco for the Rolling Stones concert at the T-Mobile Arena, which had been cancelled due to Mick Jagger's laryngitis.
"Mick NEVER cancels," Karen said. "Well, he did that one time but that was because he had this girlfriend who killed herself."
Hey, that's not," Katherine said. "That was a long time ago, and it was in Australia."
Both thought Clinton impressed during the debate, which they'd watched in their room, but were never particularly undecided, even if they weren't outraged by Trump's pussy grabbing tape. "I have two boys growing up in the age of Facebook and Snapchat," Katherine said. "Should they be held accountable for something they do there ten years later?"
Silicon Valley, they said, was full of Peter Thiel–like techies who support Trump, Karen's theory being that male-dominated hacker culture primed these guys for Trump. But Katherine said it would be hard for her company, Ktech Executive Search, to place a CEO like Donald Trump anywhere in the Valley, though she admitted that she was no longer completely objective about him. "I've been saturated by his character," she said.
I ubered down to the Freemont Street Experience, the covered outdoor mall home to the oldest casinos like the Golden Nugget and Binions, a bit of Vegas history that now resembles a cemetery with souvenir shops. When I got there, the Freemont Frightfest, a rock band dressed as characters like Jack Sparrow and Beetlejuice, had just begun to play Collective Soul's 1993 hit "Shine" to a crowd of some 50 dancing people.
Crossing the street I spoke to Stephanie from California, 56, and Julie from the UK, 34, both of whom had also come to town for the Stones and had to settle for the debate.
"More of the rude interruptions and his usual unstable self," shrugged Stephanie.
"Can you imagine him sitting in the world forum and making those faces opposite Vladimir Putin?" Julie asked.
Though she wasn't a Trump fan, Julie had supported Brexit and I'd begun to ask whether British people might be sort of rooting for the rise of the American right as a way of making themselves feel better about their own xenophobia when an Elvis impersonator stepped between us with a lilted, "Well uh-huh."
He was unshaven and seemed to want to join the conversation. "Well who do you think I support?" he asked. After the second time he asked if I was CIA, I told him I guessed Trump and said I wanted to get back to my interview. "Just one last thing," he said as he rejoined the crowed. "We better get Trump, or else we're done. Ahthankyouverymuch."
By the time I reached El Cortez, one of Vegas's oldest casinos, it was around 2 AM. Here there were none celebrity chef outposts common in other casinos, just Siegel's 1941—named for Bugsy Siegel, its early gangster owner, and the year it was built. Siegel's is basically a diner, but stands out for its cleanliness amidst the dinge.
Outside Siegel's Rudolph Bailey, a 65-year-old former floorman for various casinos, lingered by the menu, maybe contemplating a late night snack.
"Here's the whole thing," Bailey said when asked about the debate, of which he'd only seen parts. "When you say about a whole nation that they're dirty, they're rapists, they've ruined our country, and they're drug dealers. He said that about all Mexicans. Do you remember that? He said it just like that. That's what it is.
"This is a guy running for the highest office in the country. I thought to myself: He's preaching hatred." Bailey then took a step back and yelled upwards: "BUT HOW DID HE EVEN GET THERE?"
"So here's the deal," he said. "I want you to know this." He reached out and touched my elbow. "The world is coming to an end."
Then he laughed and walked away.