Nationwide Arena, Columbus, OH
I’m not sure how many of you have ever been to a John McCain rally, or a Republican rally for that matter. As a neutral, and speaking purely from an entertainment perspective, I wouldn’t recommend it. And certainly don’t go expecting to slip neatly into the role of Hunter S Thompson at the 1972 Republican Convention.

It was all a bit of a disappointment. We got to the Nationwide Center in Columbus hoping to see all manner of weirdness, whipped up crowds, shady merchandisers dealing in symbols of hate juxtaposed with all-American cheerleaders and jaunty music. Well, we got the latter.

Half of the basketball arena was closed off and the part that wasn’t was set up to resemble an Ohio farm. A round stage was ringed by wooden fencing and a small patch of artificial grass. Tomatoes and pumpkins were piled around the stage, or in crates to one side while one side of the stage was lined by a red-barn facade. It was pure Ohio kitsch, appealing to the “heartland” while providing a cruel parody of actual conditions for American farmers, who have been leaving the land in droves over the past 20 years. Naturally, the Republican Party has nothing to do with that.

But the real countryside isn’t the point. What was the point was that rural life could be mobilized to unify the assorted peasants, businessmen and urban nostalgics behind a right-wing agenda. It’s quite an achievement that the GOP can still mobilize millions to protect a way of life that its policies have decimated, if it ever existed in the first place.

Hank Williams Jnr sang about how much he loved his gun, and landing kids their first Ohio buck, lauding farmers for their values before launching into a barely musical rant against the Liberal media for chiding John McCain. Like U.S. Farming, Hank represents decline and consolidation into larger units (well, his granddad was never so darn fat).

As Hank ranted away, the arena tried its hardest to fill up, but lamely failed. It may have been two thirds full. I reckoned on 5,000 being present, no more, and many of those were children. I wouldn’t put it past the GOP to get ’em on the rolls, but they really shouldn’t be swinging Ohio.

Down in the media enclosure, when they weren’t hiding under tables ducking paper cups from the crowd, journalists only half filled the allotted tables. Even before the main attractions arrived, the atmosphere was hollow.

Even so, when they did arrive, the crowd quickly erupted, wildly cheering into view the Straight Talk Express, which slowly negotiated the players entrance and disgorged its elite inhabitants onto the stage. Even I, couldn’t resist a cheer when Arnie, the Gubernator, took to the ol’ Ohio livestock pen to warm up the crowd. I don’t know why. He talked nonsense, and looked smaller than I expected, which was odd, as he spent most of his time mocking Barack Obama’s “scrawny” physique and meatless ideas.

Hank Williams Jnr hooted away behind him, fists pumping and belly wobbling. Doddery Mac swayed in mirth too. Mr Universe was certainly a draw, but it was more Kindergarten Cop than Terminator. I wanted more.

At one point, Arnie made the startling admission that “it isn’t wrong to raise taxes.” You could hear a thousand eyebrows rise. It wasn’t a joke. In Arnie’s world, it’s OK to raise taxes to pay for massive budget holes, and to tax sales. But it’s not OK to raise taxes to pay for social programs and to tax capital gains or corporate profits. I don’t know why the crowd roared, but it did.

At another point, the second most famous Austrian in history said that John McCain’s body is “built like Iraq and his ideas are just as sound.” Built like what? Like Iraq? But of course, it was “a rock” filtered through Central Europe. Nevertheless, I had to agree, he had a point whether he meant it or not.

But Arnie was stumping for Mac. It wasn’t all laughs, all the time. At one stage, as he called on voters to back the GOP’s maverick, Arnie urged them “When you go into the voting booth ask yourself this. If you were in a POW camp, who would you want to be there with you?” to rapturous applause. Between us, we agreed that our partners would have been a better choice, but John McCain would have been slightly further down the list. Not for Arnie.

Arnie left center stage, eventually, allowing Mac to reel off his stump speech. Everyone seemed to know it, and clapped the lines well before they had ended, leaving their candidate to trail off almost every time. Naturally, they clapped everything, such as McCain’s pledge to “keep American business in America” and his promise to freeze public spending on everything – everything except the military and  veterans health care (with a little left over for the rest of America).

They clapped McCain’s contention that preventing people from defaulting on their homes (and driving down property prices) is “the American Dream” – although various Disneyesque propaganda pieces from the past suggested that said dream could be rather more ambitious that merely preventing homelessness.

He also spieled off his energy proposals, in many ways the centerpiece of his stump speech, and in all ways damaging for humanity. There was no mention of climate change, mass extinctions, deforestation, nothing like that. What there was was a maniacal commitment to drill everywhere within America’s borders. A McCain presidency is shaping up to resemble a lunatic asylum for home improvement nuts. “Drill Mac Drill!” the crowd chanted.

McCain also promised to rape America’s coal country, “cleanly” of course, and put thousands of Ohioans to work in its production. He promised 700,000 jobs in the nuclear industry which he declared “safe” and we all cheered.

We all cheered soon after when McCain came to the crux of the matter. The issue facing America. The one key point that we are all really thinking about as we see the system crumble and people struggling.

I’m talking about, of course, Joe the Plumber.

“An attack on Joe the Plumber is an attack on small businesses all over the country,” the Senator with x amount of homes and no sympathy for those earning under 5 million chimed. “I’m going to be the commander in chief, not the redistrubutionist in chief” he avowed. I half expected him to add, “and I’ll command you all to be rich, not poor” which is essentially what his policy amounts to.

Finally, he moved onto foreign policy, accusing Barack Obama of promising to “sit down with the world’s worst dictators” – which of course the Illinois Senator has not done. He also accused Obama of calling for Georgia to exercise restraint in its recent conflict with Russia, calling the Caucasian nation the country that was invaded, which it was, but only after invading South Ossetia in the first place.

No matter. No problem at all. Whooooop. “We have to fight, fight, fight for our children’s futures” Whooop, whistle and roar. “We have to fight for America, we have to fight…” and that’s how he left it, as the applause rose higher. I have to admit that the ending was energised, and McCain too, especially compared to his previous stump speeches.

But it was all so hollow. It was all oddly restrained, too poorly attended. It didn’t feel like “Victory in Ohio” was going to follow from what I heard in the Nationwide Arena, at least not for John McCain.

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