It's Saturday night, and I'm at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, where Texas Senator Ted Cruz, dork-savior of the Christian Right, is hosting a party to watch the results of the state's Republican primary. I'm surrounded by people who have Cruz's name written and painted all over their clothing, tough-looking men and fragile old ladies, crispy-tan women and little kids in red sweaters and bowties, all of them covered in CRUZ, buying more CRUZ stuff from stands in the corners of the room and in the hallways.
If I'm being honest, it's an uncomfortable amount of Ted Cruz. It's a Republican bonanza, a celebration of God, the Constitution, and the Senator from Texas, his every virtue and policy. Several times, when someone in this building or on the giant television says something weighty about Cruz or America, a person from the crowd shouts "Amen," like he or she can't help it—like it's happening involuntarily. The whole evening feels imbued with religiosity, a campfire sing-along for the righteous in relaxed-fit khakis.
As expected, Donald Trump dominated the South Carolina primary Saturday, crushing doubts about his long-term viability like a hurricane. Cruz's third-place finish is not a success, and pundits raise questions about whether his win in Iowa was another fluke, driven by the small-town pastors and Christian homeschool moms who inflated Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum with the same false hope. But no one at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds seems discouraged Saturday night; as Cruz is proud to remind them, he's the only Republican candidate who's beaten Trump so far.
There is popcorn everywhere in this room—on tables, spilled on the floor, kernels clinging to beards. A guy in a pink shirt wipes the grease off his palm with a tablecloth, so he can shake another guy's hand. Way in the back, behind a table, a woman is shoveling the popcorn from a big machine into red and white striped cardboard boxes, lining them up one by one next to pitchers of unsweetened iced tea.
There is a feeling here of a moment perpetually on the verge—waiting for Cruz, watching the drip-drip of poll numbers on screens of all sizes. Politics is an economy of activity, of commotion, of keep-you-posteds and let-me-knows and the compulsive refreshing of voting-by-county maps. There are an infinite number of ways to feel like you're getting to the bottom of something—forwarded emails, credential confirmations, guys texting while they zip up their pants at the urinal, people staring bug-eyed at laptops, making spastic hand gestures to the guy sitting next to them, trying to cram in a USB cord. In the back of the room, a woman paces holding three different iPhones in her right hand, talking on one of them, covering her other ear.
Over the speakers, a Justin Moore song plays, something about a preacher's daughter. I ask the guy in charge of audio if I can take a picture of playlist. "Absolutely not," he tells me.
The music stops, and the Fox News feed comes back. Someone announces that the network is going to cut to the Cruz party soon, to the room we're all standing in. All the people explode like they've had a tiny corner in their brains reserved for monitoring this specific announcement all night. They are shouting in person and shouting on television now, all the televisions, dozens of them. People hold phones up to the person they're standing next to, hold them up to themselves, shout in these screens, shout at the thought of getting to watch themselves shout.
It's clear, at least in here, that the process of campaigning for president is one of acknowledged powerlessness: reporters buzzing in swarms, waiting for a press bus or a quote; candidates waiting for votes, for campaign donations, for endorsements; voters waiting for someone to show up. Everyone waiting for little tremors of hope in bleak, grueling nights in a room in Columbia that looks like a lot like the room in Des Moines and will look a lot like the ones in Tampa and Reno and Denver.
Before 8 PM, the networks call South Carolina for Trump. I make it to the front of the crowd, near the stage. Jeb Bush appears on all the televisions. Somehow, without his glasses, Jeb looks more feeble than before, like they were stolen from him. He looks like he's just been crying or chasing a train. Everyone in the room knows where this is headed.
When he announces he's suspending his campaign, the crowd here roars like it's just regained radio contact with a lost spacecraft. There seems to be a near-biological hunger for Bush's abandoned votes, these Cruz fanatics want them all, and they don't want Trump or Rubio to get a single one—you can see it in their eyes; they're on the ground, picking the votes out of the carpet, stuffing them in their pockets, bringing them to Ted to God bless them.
The televisions switch to Trump, and the crowd at Cruz's party boos loudly. "There's nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you," he tells his jeering supporters. "It's tough, it's nasty, it's mean, it's vicious, it's beautiful." The crowd at the Trump party laughs, and Trump has to interrupt them to finish his thought. "When you win, it's beautiful."
When Trump says this, the man standing in front of me drops his head like he's been knocked unconscious. Cruz's supporters seem to have a fully realized, multi-layered disgust with Trump, his demagoguery, his loudness, the suspected insincerity of his wife's heavily-accented praise of South Carolina.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick gets on stage first, warming up the crowd for Cruz. "Ted Cruz has taken on the entire establishment," he declares, and a little old woman with glittery, golden blond hair shouts, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" People turn, and she stops, embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she whispers to everyone around her. Patrick says something else mildly triumphant, and she shouts again. People turn, and she puts her hand up to her mouth. She can't control herself.
A little after that, US Congressman Jeff Duncan is up. A South Carolina Republican, Duncan has been opening for Cruz at rallies around the state all week. He speaks in simple analogies, making allusions to the most universally recognized parts of the Constitution and the Bible, cuing the audience to cheer by speaking faster and faster and louder. The most effective politicians seem to turn a campaign rally into karaoke.
Finally, Cruz is introduced to the stage, a drumbeat coming in low over the speakers, the crowd chanting "Ted! Ted! Ted! Ted! Ted! Ted!" I realize the irresistible chant-ability of the name Ted. He carries his youngest daughter across the stage; she's wearing a pink dress like her sister. He takes a speech out of his left pocket. "The screaming you hear from across the Potomac is the Washington cartel in full terror," he tells the crowd, before moving on to some other stuff about God and gratitude and the decency of Jeb Bush.
Nothing he says seems particularly new or revelatory—it's mostly his standard stump speech, a political sermon filled with right-wing rallying cries and other allusions to God and the Constitution. The people here have likely heard it before, but they're yelling and cheering anyway—it's what they came for.
Later, as Cruz walks off stage, he sees a young girl in a purple dress in the crowd; she's leaning against the stage railing with a copy of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, the book Cruz read "to his daughters" during his 21-hour protest of Obamacare in the Senate in 2013. The girl opens the cover, and Cruz autographs the inside. Then he looks to her, to everyone, to America, and says, "God bless you," enunciating the double s so hard I wonder if the eyelashes on the woman next to me might blow off. As Cruz walks off, two people ask the girl if they can take a picture of his signature in the book. She holds it up like a marlin.
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