I watched the latest Republican debate on a glitchily illegal stream from a dull and unassuming corner of north London. The debate was long, lasting roughly four thousand years; when the victor poked his head up from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the vast and mighty empire he had sworn to protect was long extinct, remembered only in Chinese textbooks and a few quirks of heraldry. And the time difference didn’t help; by the time it finished I was utterly exhausted, feverish and all but insensate. It’s hard to talk about what happened during the debate, when I can’t really be sure that any of it had happened at all. For instance, I could swear that at one point the CNN moderators had let eleven wild hogs loose onto the stage, and announced that the Republican nomination for President would be given to whichever candidate first wrestled their animal to the ground. Mike ‘Gabagool’ Huckabee bullishly nutted his hefty porker of an opponent in the back of the head: a meaty thump as two thick craniums collided, echoing with two sets of identical, frantic squeals. Rand Paul, caprine and trembling, faced his pig with hollowed cheeks and hungry eyes; they seemed to weave circles around his podium, fleeing and pursuing at the same time. Donald Trump’s pig just took a place by the man’s side, reared up onto its back trotters, and started oinking along to his speeches. I looked from pig to man and man to pig, but it was impossible to say which was which. That was when I realised that the fatigue had got the better of me: for the last twenty minutes, I had been watching the debate with double vision.
So much of the debate was like that. Did Ted Cruz really try to bolster his arguments by referring to an editorial cartoon? Did Jeb Bush really say that his brother had kept America safe by referring to 9/11? Was there really a long period in which everyone was fantasising about live brain harvesting? Were the candidates really asked what they’d like their Secret Service codenames to be? Did John Kasich really say Unit One? Did Rand Paul really say Justice Never Sleeps? Did Carly Fiorina really say Secretariat? Secretariat? But all I had to do was look on Twitter, and there it was. Once, political candidates spoke entirely in soundbites for the evening news, and that was bad enough. Now, their campaign teams are busy at work as the debates take place, frantically pasting their quips and dribbles onto stock photographs and dumping them online, to be shared and faved by the faithful. As the Situationists knew, any large enough collection of images creates a miniature reality, and these worlds are not required to make sense. Each candidate stood in the centre of their own pocket universe, each fundamentally identical, each identically insane. For someone with an interest in any of these lazily arranged gargoyles, it must have all made perfect sense. For me, it was like staring into a black hole.
It wasn’t really taking place in Simi Valley; we were on the ramparts of Elsinore. A new staging, the worst in history, in which everyone was trying to be Hamlet. First, the ghost of Ronald Reagan, clanking before the gates in his Air Force One-shaped armour, blood and senescence dripping from its joints, finally lifting his visor before his children to reveal a black maw, flesh dripping in streaky rivulets from fang to void. He wasn’t an entertainer who turned into a politician, he was entertainment itself, forgetting everything that precedes it, annihilating everything it faces, politics included. And then the ghost vanishes, and the play begins: eleven Hamlets all at once: they feign madness, they spurn words for bloodshed, they blankly dispatch their one-time friends, they cynically condemn women to a needless death, they dance with poisoned swords. But it’s all idiocy, and the result doesn’t matter: outside, the armies of Fortinbras have taken the walls.
It’s easy to say, with a dismissive shrug, that the Republicans are crazy. But they’re not, and the truth is far worse: they’re all pretending to be crazy. In the pre-debate, the warm-up freak-parade before the main event, each lesser candidates jostled to be crazier than the last. One of them (Lindsay Graham? Bobby Jindal? Does it matter? A beast with four heads and one voice) announced that Iran would only respect America if it started unilaterally ripping up international treaties. Another said that the Iranians would only be cowed by an American president who could bite the head off a newborn baby. Look at me! I’m crazy! I want to nuke the Sun! I’m even crazier! I repeatedly run at electrified fences! I shit the bath! I eat rocks! Early in the debate proper, Rand Paul responded to the idea that the nuclear agreement with Iran should be immediately cancelled by saying ‘I don’t think we need to be rash, I don’t think we need to be reckless.’ It was a weird moment: vaguely sane sentiments coming from the mouth of someone named after a woman who tried to turn psychopathy into the highest moral virtue, whose utopian New Sodom could only exist, even in fiction, with the help of a perpetual motion machine. There was no applause. The crowd stared, with the ravenous confusion of ten thousand starving hyaenas. Faced with the prospect of a weaponised Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina insisted that she had ‘a lot of faith in the common sense and good judgement of the voters of the United States of America.’ Meanwhile, the candidate that the voters of the United States of America have said they prefer – by double-digit margins – proudly thrust a steaming bowl of turds towards the camera. ‘I’m rich,’ he announced. ‘I’ve gone potty in many countries, all over the world. I could make a potty as big as the moon, if I wanted to.’
The other candidates knew better; their Howard Beale shticks were immaculate. They ranted about mass deportations, wars of extermination, burning flags, burning everything, the end of the world, and then insisted that Iran must not be allowed to enrich plutonium, because it’s ruled by a fanatical doomsday cult. (Honourable exception: Ben Carson, who just mumbled about nothing in particular with the breathy, halting affectlessness of a six year old child trying to read a phone book, and should probably give up rhetoric for his far less demanding day job as a paediatric neurosurgeon.) For all that they claim to love the American people, the thing these people actually addressed was an ugly caricature, and, like fast food or architecture, politics tends to create the people that it panders to. Driven by packs of bankers and witless condescending liberals from plywood mansions to breeze-block slums; bloated on imperial superprofits and dodgy credit; taunted by a myth of Rugged Individualism, deserts and danger, big leprous skies and the open road, as they teem like farmed salmon in the sluices of human history’s most advanced and uncaring bureaucracy; convinced that there’s nothing beyond America’s shining shores but threat and violence and, somewhere, a little gremlin of an ayatollah laughing at their ignorance. A creature that needs pills to fuck and foreign wars to not mind. It craves death, not in the sense of any flouncy romantic void, but megadeaths, irradiated zones, mutilated corpses on live TV. It doesn’t want a president, it wants a holy madman, a barbarian warlord, and a hug.
But it’s not enough to blame the voters. This is the eliminationist impulse of the terrified metropolitan liberal classes, every bit as vicious and bloodthirsty as the proles they despise, but less willing to cop to it: democracy doesn’t work, gas them all and bring in some drab rational middle-managers to return the country to prosperity. But in fact, the feigned frenzy of the Republican Party is just an American version of the administrative technocracies already imposed on much of the rest of the world. It’s not that the political right has gone insane; insanity has come to function as an effective substitute for politics. Case in point: Donald Trump. Earlier in the race, he said of the the Vietnam War veteran (and good friend of Ukrainian neo-Nazis) John McCain – who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down during an attack on civilian infrastructure in Hànội – that ‘he’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.’ Normally this would have ended his campaign; the one solid law of American politics is that you do not criticise The Troops. But his surge carried on unabated. He didn’t even have to apologise. This isn’t even liberal democracy any more: everyone involved is just form, blank and total, without any possibility of content; language without signification, madness without a psyche. This holds across the spectrum: Hillary Clinton, a blinding-white astral demon made of chicken gristle and wax-paper, doesn’t even pretend that she’s running for any reason beside her own personal hunger for power. She wants to rule the world; it’d be hers by birth, only she wasn’t born, she emerged like a lizard out its egg from the cold undeath of money, fully formed. Her entire campaign is less advertising than a judicial sentence. We have been condemned to four to eight years of Hillary Clinton, because it’s her turn now. There’s not much that’s good about the Republican party, but at least they’re from this planet.
During the debate the biggest issue was (of course) Iran, and the deal that had just been agreed that would prevent Iran from building any of the nuclear weapons that it wasn’t building anyway. This incensed most of the candidates, who seemed to think that eliminating Iran’s nuclear capacity was only worthwhile if it took place in the context of eliminating Iran as such. Which raises the question: what’s the point of making sure Iran can’t have the bomb, if we’re then just going to give it to Mike Huckabee, or Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton? Watching the debate as it ended, as the streets outside me filled with cars and chatter, normal people with something to live for, my head throbbed and my teeth chattered and the parade of lunatics onscreen seemed to turn to me and hiss vague personal threats through secret corners of their mouths obscured by the blurry low-resolution feed and I thought: give Iran the bomb. Not that it matters, but the country is a plateau of stability in a region turned to jelly by successive waves of imperialism; surrounded by Isis on one side, the Taliban on the other, and Saudi Arabia across the Gulf, Iran may as well be a Denmark on the Caspian. Not that it matters, but an Iran with an independent deterrent, safe from attack and invasion, no longer cowed in the shadow of Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, might be the only thing that can save the human species. Not that it matters. Give Iran the bomb, because when the sun came up all I could see was a mushroom cloud, the flash before the devastation, and if we all go out together and the fire laps from pole to pole, I don’t want it to be because of Donald Trump.