Bill Clinton was being impeached and I was sitting in a hot Baptist church listening to a traveling preacher denounce rock and roll. He strolled in, set up some slides, and loudly proclaimed that he could mathematically prove rock and roll was satanic.
He hit all the clichés I was too young to know as clichés. He talked about Elvis's hip thrusts like they were still topical, like we should still be urgently disgusted by them. Then he went on to do something involving what he called math, about how the time signatures of rock and roll were actually demonic. After the world's longest run-on sentence, amounting to half an hour, he offered all the parents a chance to take their children out of earshot — "but, brothers and sisters, I think the children should hear this." Then he took a breath and scanned the room and said, "This rhythm" — long breath, make uncomfortable eye contact with a nervous child or two, but dear heavenly father, not me, please not me — "it is the same rhythm as sexual intercourse. It is designed to encourage sexual intercourse."
Bottle that for awhile.
Driving from California into Utah for the first time, I was suddenly struck by how conveniently unholy my state was. No matter how remote your location, no matter how desolate your town, it's really not difficult to get a jug of liquor and a carton of cigarettes and figure out a way to get arrested. But those things seemed more difficult in Utah. By nightfall, half of the little towns I drove through were shut down entirely, and all of the businesses looked too nice and clean to abide much wickedness, or like wickedness was not a factor in their business models. In American Fork, there's a lingerie store that's literally called Husband & Wife.
I think I saw all of two cop cars in three days. Temples and churches were the easiest things to spot from the freeway, and late-night dens of iniquity the hardest. It'd drive you insane to be a night person in Utah. Basically, it felt like you had to be on your best behavior there. Utah is your aunt, and we don't know how many times we'll see her again, and she was raised different, so iron your shirt and tuck it in for once in your life.
I didn't need a discussion on the ride home, so I tucked in my shirt and put on my nice jeans and brought a comb. A couple of hours into Utah, at some truck stop along the 15 that had a glass cabinet of CB radios for $150, I stopped for gas. While I was filling up, I went to stretch my legs and saw an old man walking slowly across the street. He had the healthiest head of white hair I've ever seen and a pristine trail blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He stopped still and stared at me. Then he spoke, very deliberately, with a sure and booming voice.
I nodded, and started to turn back.
"Glorify God! Flesh-and-blood God!"
He pounded his chest.
"The one that's in here."
Then he walked away. It was one of the least religious conversations I would have in Utah.
It takes about 11 hours to drive from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, and you stay on the 15 the whole way. In California, the 15 throws you across the Mojave Desert, which doesn't get any less punishing with repeat visits. Newberry Springs, with its abandoned water park and its crumbling shells of houses and its far-flung trailers in the dirt, feels like a concept model for what the world will look like after it finally ends.
Then you're in Nevada, and after you get past the kitsch decadence of Las Vegas, there's a whole lot of sad and forlorn nothing. Then you're in Arizona for about five minutes, you watch the rocks turn red and purple in the late afternoon, then wham, there's Utah, and all the desolation just evaporates.
The landscape is similar, but it's nicer somehow; there's an intangible feeling of orderliness and will to survival, like it could quietly outlive doomsday without anybody noticing. California and Nevada along the 15 both look like places where doomsday already happened. But Utah, where religion means more than slow-simmering guilt culminating in going to a Christmas service and keeping your eyes locked to the floor, isn't like those places. It's a different planet along the same freeway.
The most prominent feature in Salt Lake City is the Salt Lake Temple. The whole city radiates outward from it. It's the largest Mormon temple, been there since 1893, a monumental architectural achievement. It exerts psychic weight over you that you cannot escape, not even in a hermetically sealed ballroom at the perfectly anonymous Hilton, where I was staying to see some politics.
There was a Democrat debate that night — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were literally working out the whole future of the mainstream American left — but that was none of my business on this wet and dreary Thursday evening. I had to attend a Gathering With Patriots (yes, real name), the kickoff for the Constitution Party convention.
You probably haven't heard of the Constitution Party. They have no seats in the House or the Senate, and probably never will. They don't have any spokespeople telegenic enough for Fox News. They've only been around since 1991, and they've only been called the Constitution Party since 1999. (They were the Taxpayers' Party before that.) Basically, it's a party for conservatives who think Republicans are too secular.
The Constitution Party was the brainchild of one Howard Phillips, born in 1941, a Jewish guy from Boston who became born again in the 1970s. Nixon boy. Back in the day, he said "I believe Richard Nixon epitomizes the American dream and represents all that is great in America." He was even tasked by Nixon with tearing down the Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency that administered Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs. But it didn’t work, Democrats sued, Nixon relented, and Phillips resigned.
Founder and chairman of the Conservative Caucus, Howard Phillips was hard right — military-grade titanium alloy hard. "Even among stalwart conservatives," wrote the New York Times, "Mr. Phillips was known for being especially devoted to the ideological principles of the right, including limited government, traditional family values, strong national defense and opposition to abortion." He simply didn't play ball with ideological compromise or bet-hedging, and his party doesn't, either. In their preamble, they lead with Christianity as explicitly as possible.
"The Constitution Party gratefully acknowledges the blessing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as Creator, Preserver and Ruler of the Universe and of these United States.
"This great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions but on a foundation of Christian principles and values.
"The goal of the Constitution Party is to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries."
They've got seven principles, which I'll summarize without flash:
No gay marriage,
Personal liberty (but hey, be Christian about it),
No government interference with personal property,
Always defer to the Constitution (and no, college boy, don't get clever about it),
If it ain't in the Constitution, defer to states' rights,
A strong and strictly isolationist defense.
Basically, it's as right-wing and churchy as right-wing and churchy can get. And they want to be left the hell alone. Take a libertarian and make him a teetotaler who believes marijuana is a sin, and you've got a Constitution Party member.
As for history, they don't really have any. Ron Paul spoke at their first convention, Pat Buchanan threatened to run for president for them in 1996, and Alan Keyes tried to run in 2008 but lost to a guy Ron Paul endorsed. Those are their big celebrities, not one of them a member of the damn party. Which, in an era in which presidents have to be game to wear clown shoes and ride a tricycle with Jimmy Fallon, basically makes them a hobby group. Howard Phillips, who looked like he darkened every room he entered, absorbed fun, and spit it back out as lectures, was their nominee in 1992, 1996, and 2000, and he never got over 0.2 percent of the vote. He was their best bet, and he's dead now. They've never even flirted with national success. In 2008, there were 438,222 registered members of the Constitution Party, and by 2014 there were only 76,425.
Constitution Party candidates don't win anything, and they don't make a big show out of losing anything. I hadn't heard of them, either, until about two weeks before the convention. And about all I knew walking in was that their current chairman is named Frank Fluckiger and their vice-chairman is named Randy Stufflebeam. These cannot be real names. These can only be rival magicians in a World War II–era English children's novel.
But I discovered a whole lot more in the lobby, before I even got to sit down with all those patriots. For starters, I discovered that registration was $300. I also discovered that the night's entertainment would be provided by a children's choir. The first sight I saw was a bunch of kids shuffling out of the meeting hall foyer, followed closely by a shout-whispering choir mom. "JOSH! She has a mic, and it's on! Her mic is on! Josh! The mic! Tell her it's on!"
There were vendor tables set up all over — sad hotel vendor tables full of unattended books and untouched business cards. A sign near the entrance said "This Is A U.N.-Free Zone." There was a man of about 70 in a cowboy hat, sprawled on a chair, his mouth wide open, sleeping so hard that the hotel would probably have to wake him up later. There was a Benjamin Franklin impersonator milling around. But most everybody was in the meeting hall already. I went inside.
Everybody there was in their Sunday best, everybody was quiet, nobody was really talking about politics. I heard exactly one political figure mentioned before the speaker went on, and it was Ron Paul, who a fellow from Wyoming thought was "pretty all right, I suppose."
Frank Fluckiger was there, in the flesh, Fluckiger himself, but he wasn't a magician. He was a lanky old guy whose voice did not project, who looked like he probably had a really good rapport with his doctors. He delivered the invocation. Everybody bowed their heads and everybody said amen. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung, then the first speaker was up: Bryan Hyde, a Utah radio host. Imagine Glenn Beck if he weren't syndicated, and you know Bryan. His speech was called "America, America, Awaken to Your Awful Situation!"
Someone's cell phone went off. It was a MIDI version of "Taps."
"Nobody in America wants to believe that we're in the awful situation that we're in. And I'm not going to use the word slavery to describe it," Bryan declared, before using the word slavery to describe it: "We all know the direction that it's headed, and it is not headed toward freedom, so if the polar opposite of freedom is slavery of some sort, then you know that's the direction that we're going."
Bryan did a lot of pandering, which was useful for learning the accepted wisdom of the Constitution Party. That wisdom is that Republicans and Democrats are the same party — for policy reasons to a point, but mostly because they're both too secular. The Constitution is essentially a holy document. God comes first in all matters political. America is on the brink, almost over, the Roman Empire in decline, just about gone. And it'll take a miracle, intervention from God, for liberty to return.
The next speaker was a guy named Scott Bradley. He ran for Senate in Utah twice as a Constitution Party candidate. In 2010, he got almost 6 percent of the vote, which is staggeringly high for this party. He had the air of a dad who shows up reluctantly to a middle school career day to talk about why it's cool to be a patent attorney. Scott's speech was called "America Has a Destiny to Fulfill."
I flashed back to the traveling preacher. This was the same exact sermon, tonally. It's like it was hurtled out of 1998 by way of 1958 and put into 2016 by accident, as every single component of the Constitution Party feels. I was 10 years old again, and the recycled air of the Hilton, the lack of windows, and the lack of my dad's car in the church parking lot was urgently upsetting. I didn't feel like I had permission to leave.
This was already a church service, but Scott brought back parts of the church experience you forget about: the huge crowd silence, the coughs that sound like bullets being fired, people saying "amen" reflexively, the old men falling asleep and pretending to pray to cover it up.
On and on he spoke about how America is a Christian nation and how our great leaders were all Christians and how our successes all came from God and reverence to Him. Then hymns, then benediction, then church let out. I left the hotel as fast as I could. I had to find stimuli. But there weren't any. Salt Lake City is a commuter town. By 10 p.m., it's quiet as a back road at night, and the most exciting thing you can do is stare at the spires of the temple. If I wanted any casual paganism to restore balance, I'd have to go back into Nevada.
Pacing around the deserted, freezing streets, something was gnawing at me. I'm surrounded by deeply religious conservatives, and I'm a stone's throw from Mormon headquarters. Did I just back into a weekend with a crypto-Mormon interest group? I wasn't qualified to answer.
I called a friend who grew up in the church to ask. There were all these hymns I didn't recognize, there were religious talking points I was sort of familiar with but not quite; there was something I was missing. They were speaking a language that shared a root language with my own but was not the same. I relayed everything that happened and the reading material I had been given.
She told me that believing the Constitution is divinely inspired is culturally a Mormon thing, as is making the Founding Fathers into de facto saints. She also told me about the White Horse Prophecy, a piece of extra-scriptural Mormon folk doctrine that's attributed to Joseph Smith but not endorsed by the church. It claims that a Mormon president will rise up and save us when "the Constitution is hanging by a thread."
There's nuance I'm missing and incapable of finding because I didn't grow up in the church. But those were the broad strokes. My impression is that there was a deep Mormon undercurrent at this particular convention, but you can't stamp one church’s sigil on it and call it a day. The Constitution Party is definitely non-denominational. There were way too many Baptists around to suggest otherwise. At any rate, I wouldn't want to pin any of the dangerous shit I heard on a particular doctrine. If you take your faith and use it to engender fear and hopelessness, that's on you.
On Friday, the scene was totally different. Thursday was church; Friday was a proper convention. There were rule committees and keynote speakers and the customary catering platters of almost-fruit and not enough plates. We had us a show. Some people were actually drinking the complimentary coffee. The real psychos, these guys who throw parties people don't come back from, were drinking Coke Zero. The vendors were out in force, selling bullet-shaped USB drives, books on surviving an EMP bomb, fire starter kits. I half-expected them to be selling bug-out bags, too, but these folks probably knew how to make their own.
It makes sense that doomsday prepping would be hip with the Constitution Party, since as a deep-fringe group, they can only get viable if conventional politics is totally obliterated and all we have left are laminated decorative prints of America's founding documents. Doomsday prepping, like joining a political party that requires a doomsday to function, is about the superiority of knowing that, Well, I'll make it when the ship sinks.
Festivities had moved now to the big ballroom, and decorations were in place. Lots of slogans in patriotic fonts, lots of colonial kitsch. And if you want to know what the Constitution Party is really like, if you want to walk around inside the soul of this party, you don't need to know a single damn name I'll mention except one: Jon McNaughton. He's a painter from Utah. He made a real painting you can really buy in which Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, is holding up a Constitution with the Founding Fathers and Ronald Reagan and everybody else Jon McNaughton likes behind Him. In the foreground, Roe v. Wade lies forgotten on the floor. There's also one of Obama stepping on the Constitution, with past presidents behind him. The "good" ones (your Washingtons, Lincolns, Reagans) react with intense disapproval, and the "bad" ones (your Clintons, your FDRs) react with polite applause.
These paintings may be fundamentally absurd to us, but to members of the Constitution Party, they are true and beautiful. If you want to step inside this party's shoes, stare at a Jon McNaughton painting until you figure out a way for it to move you to tears, for the intended reasons. Get real Method, real Stanislavski. Become somebody who tears up at a rendering of Obama burning a Constitution. You'll learn all you need to know. (Please don't, though. You might never come back.)
It's cold water in the face if you're trying to understand Republicans now. The appeal of Trump, and the candidates who will come after Trump, is that he allows you to be a conservative without being a bone-deep, blood-curdling square. Trump lets his followers identify as conservative without dressing up or saying any prayers. That's still pretty new.
And if you grew up around the kinds of conservatives who might be sympathetic to the Constitution Party, with true believers in church clothes, Trump is fucking Richard Hell & The Voidoids. Punk rock. Year zero. Rip it up and start again. And he poses a huge existential threat to old-guard conservatives like the Constitution Party. They're part of what he's ripping up. Leaders who have fond memories of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and think Reagan wasn't conservative enough with his Supreme Court appointees, they're just not coming back.
As Friday afternoon wore on, a few things stood out. There were more western suits than regular suits. One guy had a tie depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments. There was a guy wearing one of those American flag snap shirts most frequently purchased by prop departments for dressing extras in rodeo scenes. There was a nine-year-old girl who sang Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." If there was anybody in the audience under 40, they kept their heads down. It goes without saying that there were zero people there who weren't white, until eventually three black men trickled in, all at the same table in the front. They looked still, composed, just like everybody else — unhappy.
And damn was everybody old. If the apocalypse happened and that ballroom were the only structure spared, could the world even be repopulated? The misery of a movement dying off was in the air. There was no joy, no life, just a giant windowless room full of people breathing recirculated Hilton air who thought America would end if it didn't become a theocracy.
The absence of vitality was so oppressive that I thought about darting around the room trying to get Alan Keyes's cell phone number, just to introduce chaos. I had a whole plan. I'd say I was an ex's child from a previous marriage. I'd say "his storage unit is going to be auctioned off. They cut the lock last week. I need his number. It's 10 a.m. Saturday. No, his new number." I felt very strongly that this would have worked, but I also felt like I should remain seated except for the Pledge. And anyway, the presidential candidates were about to speak.
The first was J.R. Meyers. With a ponytail and a leather vest, he looked like a guy from a documentary about the early days of video games who made the first home version of Galaga and didn't get any royalties and now he lives in a trailer in the desert where he's devising a new religion based on electricity. He talked about how we had no liberty anymore, and how scary RFID chips on lanyards at other conventions were. Then he bemoaned how few people were actually in the party, and how its numbers had suffered, and how little money it had, before saying, unconvincingly, that it "looks like God is choosing this group as one of the main vanguards, the tip of the spear, if you will, in our second American revolution."
The second candidate was Tom Hoefling. He looked like what he was — a slow-moving, soft-spoken, old-time conservative who homeschooled nine kids. He had run for president before in 2012, under the American Independent Party, receiving about 40,000 votes.
The third candidate was Daniel Cummings, a family doctor with a practice in Casper, Wyoming. Unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2014. He looked like Ron Paul's more religious cousin, and he made Ron Paul seem like one hell of a showman. The guy read his whole speech from a three-page printed document, hunched over it, clinging to the podium with both hands.
These early guys didn't really feel like candidates. You shouldn't run for president, even fairy-tale third-party president, without showmanship. Go ahead and use outmoded moves if you have to, just don't skip the whole damn thing. If you skip the whole damn thing, depression sets in and oxygen leaves the room.
The first guy who displayed any public performing prowess was Scott Copeland from Jackson, Mississippi. Well-maintained white hair, smiley by default, had an iPhone, knew how to use it, ordained Baptist minister. Faux-jovial fire-and-brimstone boy. He had him some showmanship. And if you grew up Baptist, you know how that works. It can be very breezy, funny in an avuncular way, but it can turn on a dime toward apocalyptic yelling.
After some gags, some crowd buttering, he was right into scare-you-senseless territory. "We have become a nation of DEATH!" — "That's right!" hollered somebody toward the back — "not of life. And it is high time that someone of the cloth STOOD UP AND SAID TO AMERICA …
IT IS TIME!
Amen, amen, amen, amens all around. He was talking about abortion, of course.
"From the point of conception through all the way to natural death!"
This is the part where you open up the throttle and get as loud as you can.
"THIS IS AN ISSUE THAT THE CONSTITUTION PARTY MUST RISE UP ABOUT AND BE STRONG IN!"
Then there were two speeches by candidates who weren't doing presidential campaign cosplay so much as giving their born-again testimony, and I don't believe in sharing testimonies outside the congregation. But during that time I figured out the platonic ideal of the Constitution Party voter and their platonic American family. Ultimately, it's a rancher family. A husband and a wife on a whole bunch of land. They homeschool their four to seven children, the kids all love George Washington, the boys wear cowboy clothes and the girls wear prairie dresses, and they all know how to fire a hunting rifle. That's their ideal voter. Of course, this family barely exists, it's dying off as a dream, and it's not coming back.
This thought exercise was punctuated loudly by the token vile candidate who can bring you to dry heaving just by locking eyes with you. His name was Don Grundmann. He looked like the boss of the bad guys in one of those post–Lethal Weapon movies that only exist at 1 a.m. on TNT, the guy who kills his henchmen if they tell a joke he doesn't understand or if they don't, you know, get to the warehouse in time. Don was one of those guys who was perpetually running for Senate or president without registering for even a second on the Richter scale.
"I haven't filed a tax return or paid income tax since 1994," he said, thinking it a big selling point. Then he plugged a website he didn't remember the name of, then he went and said a billion terrible things.
Then he moved on to black folks.
"If you go to my website, you'll see a picture of six black gentlemen who have been lynched under a tree. My caption to that is from a white American, to black Americans. You're all chumps. And the reason I say that is because the greatest killer of black people in the history of our nation is Planned Parenthood."
He quickly promised to reach out "to our black brothers and [say] we are the white guys who are gonna save … we wanna lend you a hand and save you from the house negroes which are backstabbing you to keep you on the plantation. And the biggest house negro of all is our Muslim sodomite president Barack Obama. That's a fact." You got the sense he used some different words for different crowds, the way he hung on parts of his speech.
He said that climate-change scientists would run like Dracula before a cross in a debate with him, because he stood for real science. "I'm a doctor of chiropracty, and they know I could kick, give me the, give me their champion, Bill Nye the so-called Science Guy, I'll eat him for breakfast." He was starting to talk about NAMBLA when he ran out of time.
He didn't seem to be with anybody, and promptly walked all the way to the back of the room, where he sat next to me. He was totally rigid; every part of his body was tensed up. I was sure that if I violated his personal space in any way or made any eye contact, he would bite me and maybe start speaking in tongues. I couldn't believe they let him in. Somebody failed. Was it Fluckiger? Did Stufflebeam let this happen?
I went into the lobby and paced while I listened to the last man up. His name was Darrell Castle. Darrell is a personal injury and bankruptcy attorney in Memphis and a former deacon in his church. He's never held political office. But he had been the party's vice-presidential candidate in 2008, and he conducted himself with well-spoken doom. He spoke like a dark cloud on the horizon getting indiscernibly closer but always far enough away to ignore. I figured he was going to win, because he was very old and had served in Vietnam and all of his actions were slow and deliberate. That codes as the height of respectability to old conservatives. Plus, he had the best table in the foyer, with buttons and everything.
Castle had been in the party since it started. He had known Howard Phillips. He was the only one not constantly talking about God. He talked about states' rights. He believed in the Constitution the way an 80-year-old trucker believes in John Wayne. The Constitution simply is perfect, and that's the ideological bedrock of everything he says.
He wanted to get us out of the U.N., he wanted to get rid of NATO, he wanted to end the Federal Reserve and eliminate our debt. He looked enormously tired. "I don't think America is dead," he proclaimed with weary resignation, "I don't think it's too late to save the American system of law and government. But it is sleeping. She sleeps rather soundly right now."
He was somehow the saddest man there. Everybody else seemed to believe there was hope left for this country. Castle said as much, but he didn't seem to believe it. The next day, when he won the nomination, taking Bradley as his VP, his speech seemed tailor made for a movement's funeral.
"God controls the civil affairs of man. God may not favor us; we have to face that. God may not lift me up and make me president. And if he decides that a wicked ruler is to rule over America, he must have some reason for that. If he decides that Hillary Clinton will be president of the United States, he must have decided that's all we deserve."
Then it got even more desolate.
"Soon this meeting might not be possible. Some of us are getting a little long in the tooth now. There's a lot of gray hair out there."
I got out of Salt Lake City as fast as I could. I wouldn't wish that much emotional barrenness, all that absence of compassion, on my worst enemy. These people were so old, so braced for the end of the world, so depleted, so humorless, so hopeless. It was all death.
So what does this party even do now? Nobody running for president there was planning on becoming president, they were just planning to hang close in case God is an interventionist. That's all they can do on the national stage. Besides waiting for God, all they can do is what they've been doing. They get slots on school boards. They become sheriffs. They stay regional. They continue to hold conventions like this, and watch their numbers trickle away. That's all.
The party's problems are starkly obvious: Theocracies don't work. Hero-worshiping the men who wrote the Constitution is fallacious. Expecting their ideals to save us in modernity is absurd. The Founding Fathers were regular men, with everything that entails. They were assholes sometimes. They had petty fights at the dinner table and said incoherent things when they were tired, and they were ultimately playing this country's creation by ear. Thomas Jefferson's concept of liberty was specifically designed for landowners. George Washington only let his slaves go after his wife died. John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. You can't reduce them to their highlight reels. It falsifies them.
The Constitution is the work of regular men, men from what might as well be a different universe, where people killed each other in duels and there was nothing odd about it, where you could legally own, buy, and sell another person, where you had to have a bunch of kids because so many of them would just die. America was mostly undiscovered back then. To the Founding Fathers, it was all just a few nice towns back east. But it's all discovered now. There's no frontier. There's no expanding to do. We did it already.
The word is hiraeth. It's a Welsh word, and it means pining for a home you can’t return to, or a home that never existed. It's similar to nostalgia. That's the sadness of Constitution Party supporters. They can't go back to what we had because we never had it. America wasn't pristine in its beginning. It was a place of huge suffering and short lives lived too hard. The perfect town with a church in the middle where everybody's glorifying God all day, it doesn't exist because people have always self-medicated with alcohol and fucked around on their spouses and lied and cheated and killed each other.
Way outside of Salt Lake City, in empty southern Utah where the landscape is so beautiful it almost hurts, the poison of the apocalyptic thinking in the Hilton finally bled away. Negative energy needs a crowd. It feeds off itself. You introduce the idea that the world's ending and here's why, and soon everybody furrows their brows and contributes additional evidence. The world is ending because of moral corrosion and how about unjust wars and how about not enough Jesus and why not throw in non-procreative sexual intercourse. But when it's just you, alone in a landscape, it all blurs into the abstract. The mechanism stops.
Salt Lake City has nice, broad, sterile streets. It's extremely orderly. And there's something ominous about all that order, and the Brutalist buildings, and all the restaurants you can walk to from a bank or a hotel, and all the bars where you pretend this local beer is definitely better than the other local beers. It's all so predictable. It's stifling. You have to leave it behind sometimes. Nobody in that Hilton looked like it had ever occurred to them to try.
I wanted to get back to California as fast as I could. Utah suddenly became too clean and composed. Every town in the state seems to have an invisible janitorial staff, and it all suddenly became wrong. I missed the small towns in California. You step out of a car in Chowchilla and you feel dirty. The streets are dirty, the cars are dirty, the motels are falling apart, the air is stale cigarettes and diesel fumes. I missed that. You can be yourself amid desolation. Nobody tries to impose a worldview on you, nobody eyes you suspiciously when you get that jug of liquor and carton of cigarettes. It's nice to have the option of wickedness around so you can realize you don't want it.
And California has tons of conservative outposts. I figure Bakersfield probably votes as conservatively as the most conservative district in Utah. But California's conservative outposts don't hide the darkness that's innate to being alive, and they're surrounded very visibly by fire and sin and hell, so it balances out. Sometimes it's nice to let a porch go unswept.
I thought back to the traveling preacher. It occurred to me that he was in his seventies when he gave that sermon. He's almost certainly dead now. I was seeing the end of a certain model of Christian conservativism then, not the beginning. And what I saw at the Constitution Party in 2016 was the same model over and over, its paint flaking off, barely moving in a series of sterilized windowless rooms. These were cold, weary, bitter people, and their passion was gone.
They were waiting on the world to end so they could rebuild it, no matter how few their numbers, no matter how old their leaders. And that's fine, to a point, as a parlor game. It's fun to imagine how you'd survive an apocalypse. It gives you a new role in a new society, which is a nice thing to imagine when you feel left behind by your country, when you feel irrelevant. If you think there's going to be a world where the rest of us will trade liquor and bullets for canned corn and you'll beat us because you know a thing or two about subsistence farming, great. You'll know exactly what to do in that world. You'll matter so much. But you can't play that game for very long.
There were good people there in the Hilton. There were some real nice folksy salt-of-the-earth people in the crowd who treated the convention like an extension of social lives they built around their churches. They were wrong about the world and how it should operate, but good people can have bad worldviews; we can love our racist grandparents. It was just a shame to see them rolling in sadness, it was a shame to see them lining up for sliders and lukewarm macaroni and cheese in an underlit ballroom instead of going outside and finding something else.
And it was a shame that they hid themselves away in a hotel in the least interesting slab of Utah. You can do so much better out there. You can go out to staggering widescreen national forests, you can go out to the breathtaking sculpted rocks at Capitol Reef, feel how small you are and how big the world is. If you just spend a while bombing around the 24 or 62, if you get out on those roads where you can drive for hours without cell reception or seeing another car, you just won't be able to believe the world is ending. Apocalypses are contrived in sad rooms with sad people. If you go out and actually see the country that's right over there, damn it, if you simply walk out and forget about that conference room in that commuter town, then this country's just not as bad as you want it to be.