‘Warm the dice man, warm the dice’ —Craps player, to the designated player, Rio Casino
Bernie Sanders loomed large on the screen above the ReBar, Las Vegas, looking like he always does, an aggrieved pensioner sending back a meal. Touch of the old man resting bitch face. It’s only when he starts speaking that his form integrates, and he wraps around the words, angry, forthright:
‘We want Medicare for all, so that 87 million Americans do not remain un- or underinsured, so that 30,000 do not die because they cannot see a doctor, so there are not 500,000 bankruptcies for medical bills a year. We want a fifteen dollar minimum wage…’
But the crowd didn’t let him finish, rammed into the hipster bar full of old armchairs and vintage ad signs for hair cream and dental work, Day of the Dead art and old record covers (ah, retro, don’t ever change). Hard-core organisers, young and post-hipster, ie every visual trope thrown in the mix, waxed moustaches with Bermuda shorts, bob-haired grrrlnerds, some union guys, all too-cool-for, but they all lost it as he started to speak. Now a full eight hours after the Nevada caucuses closed, still only five percent counted, but they’d called it for Bernie at 45%, with Joe Biden coming in second with 19%, Pete Buttigieg third at 15%, and a disappointing fourth, at 10% for Elizabeth Warren. ‘Bernie, Bernie, Bernie’ the chant started, got louder, drowned him out. Doesn’t matter. He was doing the stump speech, everyone knows it. But he always does it, the old campaigner, always a vote out there somewhere.
I latched onto the only bloke older than me.
‘PRETTY GOOD HUH!’
‘BETTER THAN WOODSTOCK!’ I yelled
‘I DON’T KNOW MAN, I WAS TWELVE DURING WOODSTOCK!’
Jesus. It is late in the day.
‘Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.’
Later, Pete Buttigieg, the squeaky-clean 38 year old mayor from South Bend, speaking from somewhere else in Vegas, claimed victory on a third place finish. But he always does. The stage behind him was filled with motherly looking African-American women, after he got 2% of the af-am vote. On CNN, Van Jones congratulated him on getting his whole west black base onto the stage. Later, Warren came on, from Seattle, putting a brave face on a bad finish. ‘Thank you Nevada for keeping us in the race!’ she yelled, as her shivering supporters cheered.
Vegas is a hell of a place to hold the third Democratic primary, and it was a hell of a week for them to happen. Every time I come back here it turns out the city has found new ways to rip you off, sell exhausting excess as luxurious pleasure, and slice and dice every moment of existence into a commodifiable commodity. God knows how people who live here get used to the place, because I never do. What was once a town of ‘luxury hotels, of the scale and bearing of the Old Sebel Townhouse, and devoted to adult pleasures, gambling, good dressing, martinis and high-price hookers, became some ghastly mash-up of family friendly entertainment and buffet style burlesque shows, with casinos housed in fake Arthurian palaces, pirate ships and, for those who will never go to New York, a pastiche of New York (New York, New York).
The rooms are full of drugs, the hookers are in the bars, and you roll the craps dice in a building shaped like the cubby house you squatted in at age eleven. They charge you to check in early ($20), to use the ATM ($9.99 service fee in the casino), $7 for a coffee and the Starbucks has a normal and priority line, for platinum card holders. The sheer demand for cash for every single human interaction is like being triple-teamed every waking moment of the day. The combination of pornification and infantilisation is America at a pitch. This Vegas, Vegas II (actually III, IV, V) is already fading. It has a Baudrillardean aspect to it, as if your strange half-waking dreams and fantasies had suddenly materialised in the shimmering desert, which is to say, there is an 80s retro quality about it, the past’s dreams of a future we now know to be absolutely impossible. Vegas is America’s filled nappy and also the brown paper bag filled with cash.
In other words, it’s a very Trump kind of town. Trump Hotel towers in the centre of the Strip, a straight stack of gold, none of your playtime malarkey, the only hotel here without a casino. The man himself was in town this week, to live-troll the Democrats, with a Friday rally, the day before caucus, packing them in to the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Folks began arriving for it the night before, setting up tents in the car park, watching TV in their RVs, a little village in the heart of a liberal city. Some of them had trucked it straight across the desert from Phoenix, Arizona, where he’d rallied a day earlier. They all had tickets, they were all going to get in. They wanted to snag the best seats. But they wanted to be part of something too. They were almost giddy with the excitement of it, two weeks after the Dems’ Iowa debacle.
‘He’s doing better than ever!’ said Cindy, in a red hat, the new ‘KAG’ (Keep America Great!) ones, and a stars and stripes shawl. The battered Toyota behind her has ‘KAG ’20’ spangled across it in glitter.
‘The Democrats—they can’t even run a caucus, and they want the government to run our health care!’ says Doug, her, well I guess the old term would be ‘common-law husband’. The caucus/health care thing is a FOX meme, they’ve been pumping it out 24/7 since Iowa, and thus it droppeth from the mouths of the faithful. These are the hardcore, the cult, the Trump deadheads, turning up to each event to hear a new twist on this new ‘Dark Star’ for our era. (Trump won’t disappoint. During the rally he’ll do a five minute riff on the absurdity of a South Korean movie winning Best Picture Oscar).
Some of them might have been Deadheads. These aren’t Trump’s suburban supporters, the tan-dressed types standing beside their SUVs before McMansions, like 70s photorealist art. This is Trump’s counterculture, the last stop on the long, strange trip from the 1960s, a man Burning as Orange as his own shining tower, in this peyote trip of all American history. Meanwhile, out in the ‘burbs of this vast fantasia, the endless sprawling tracts, the Red Pill estates where the workers who service the fantasy live, team Bernie, team Biden, team Warren and even team Buttigieg have been pounding the dusty streets for months, in what has become the most important early primary of them all. Bizarre. A decade and a half ago it barely existed, and everyone skipped it on the way from New Hampshire straight down to South Carolina. When they held it all, it was run by the party machine and the head goombahs at Culinary Workers Union 226 (which covers most hotel employees). Anyone wanting to run a dissenting campaign was likely to find that the location and time of the caucuses had changed the night before. And, on occasion, they were liable to get a rough welcome when they did turn up.
Now, as part of the Dems’ takeover of Nevada politics, it’s a festival of democracy, reporters ferried to caucuses in the tracts and desert, to see democracy in action. Nevada is about as close as any state gets to representing the rough 68/12/18 white/black/latinx ethnic split of the country, and it’s a swing state leaning Democrat. It would be a perfect first in the nation caucus for the party, if 70% of the population were not concentrated in this whack job kiddy castle carbaholic money drain of a desert simulacrum. Someday someone will build a casino called Ozymandias, with two vast legs for towers, each holding a thousand rooms, and Nickelback doing the four o’clock show in the Left Foot Lounge, while tour groups suck down Yard o’ Margaritas in the ‘Look On My Works Ye Mighty And Despair’ Bar.
‘He made a fortune and now he’s using his wealth for good.’ In Vegas Mike Bloomberg is everywhere but nowhere. Coming out of the TV a dozen times an hour. Since announcing his candidacy, the financial services decabillionaire ($60 billion at last count), has flooded the primary media markets with $315 million worth of advertising and paid organisation, a prefab political apparatus assembled from scratch. He’s not even on the ballot in Nevada, but he’s advertising here, just for the hell of it.
This is what it looks like when real plutocracy starts. Recall that Trump didn’t spend a dime on advertising for months, relying on free coverage for every fresh outrage to get by. Trump wasn’t a billionaire, he just played one on TV, and his candidacy was more of a piece with the media careers of other political celebrities from Beppe Grillo to Boris Johnston. By the time Bloomberg has crashed out in utter failure or bought the nomination, he will have spent half a billion just to have the chance to lose to Donald Trump. That’s serious money. That’s what Bill Gates would pay for a yacht.
Can you believe the fucking point we’ve got to now? The nationwide ad blitz ensured that Bloomberg could qualify for the Nevada debate held three days before the caucus (hitting two polls above 10%?) while a party rep like Tulsi Gabbard, with a following, and a distinctive position, got squeezed out. He may well have wished he hadn’t. This was the ninth debate in six months, and from the moment he came out on stage, purse-lipped, a little hesitant, his suit exquisitely tailored (Bernie’s number looks like one in his size he found in a gas station toilet) it must have been obvious that this was a big big mistake. He stood a little aloof and distant from the others, as they did the pre-debate wave, and when it started, they went him.
‘What we have to talk about is a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians and no I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Michael Bloomberg,’ Elizabeth Warren led off as her opening remarks, as the others snickered. By now the Sanders-Warren-Biden-Buttigieg-Klobuchar quintet have done nine debates together, and they are uniformly tight and fluid like a travelling wrestling ensemble, breaking apart and coming together in a series of shifting alliances. There were a few side stoushes, such as Pete Buttigieg whaling on Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar for forgetting the name of the Mexican President, which Klobuchar reversed on him, in her slightly whiny sitcom voice (‘Are you saying I’m dumb Pete? People forget names. It happens.) making Buttigieg look like the snotty little shit which he seems to be. Warren went after everyone else’s health care plan or lack thereof—Pete’s is a two paragraph Powerpoint presentation; Amy doesn’t even have that—she’s got a Post-It note saying ‘insert health plan here’—including Bernie’s Medicare For All (ie UK NHS style), which she portrayed as an overreach. Bernie stayed rock-solid, still in angry deli customer mode (Larry David voice) ‘I do not believe it is beyond our power to do what every other western country manages to do….’ (‘It’s a Reuben! How can you screw up a Reuben?!’), which is what is doing it for him.
But really it was all pile on Mike, a desert Democrat cuddle party, claws out. Warren led the charge on the 40-plus women who’ve had settlements from Bloomberg corp on sexual harassment, with non-disclosure agreements attached. ‘Why don’t you release the women from these agreements?’ Warren charged. ‘Well that is an agreement between parties,’ Bloomberg spluttered. ‘None against me—well maybe a couple for you know because I told a joke they didn’t like,’ as the crowd groaned. It’s a very interesting thing, to watch a man lose ten million dollars a word, for that was what was going on. Biden joined in. ‘It’s very simple all you have to do is release the women,’ as if Bloomberg had them in a cellar.
Joe got onto Bloomberg’s ‘stop and frisk’ policy as (Republican) mayor of New York, a ‘throw em against a wall’ policy of utterly indiscriminate searches of black and latino men. Biden: ‘Barack and I had to send monitors in to stop it,’ like they were a pair of caped superheroes. Bloomberg fluffed it, saying he’d inherited the policy (he hadn’t, per se), and he…well it was like that all the way through. His wealth, his equation of Sanders’ socialism with communism, his wealth, back to the women… It was a disaster, enacted before twenty million viewers, the largest debate audience ever, and may well have screwed him well before he began. Bloomberg is aimed at Super Tuesday on March 3, and the two lots of four primaries in the fortnight after. But Bernie is on track to win California bigly, and if he can hold the other candidates under 15% of the vote, he gets all the state’s 495 delegates. At that point, the party will have to knock him off at the Convention, if they want someone more mainstream. Bloomberg’s performance last Wednesday just made it a lot less likely that he’s the guy they’d get behind, unless the prospect of his two billion dollar self-funded spend is too good to resist. Still, man, a lot of people leave a lot of money in Vegas. But $315 million…?
On Friday, after two days in the forty-dollar-a-night suites at the Rio casino/resort, a vast carnivale-themed series of towers away from the Strip, which hosts the Australian Bee Gees show and the Chippendales, and the cocktail waitresses wear what appears to be two knotted multicoloured scarves above and below, we moved the Meanjin Global Affairs Desk to the Super 8 motel on the old northern end of the Strip, a wilderness of vacant lots, boarded up motels, strip club/sex shops and Wedding Chapel row, all the famous ones, still going strong.
This was Vegas’s first big weekend after the Xmas slump, and the room prices had gone into the stratosphere, the headline act being the Tyson Fury v Wilder heavyweight championship, in which Deontay Wilder (six-eight, US, black) went up against Tyson Fury (six-nine, British, pale mouthy white), thus giving the audience the chance to root for nation or race as they wished. But that’s just a cherry on top really. The thousands streaming into the hotel casinos on Friday afternoon, the taxis and ubers pulling up and flying away again in ceaseless motion, the crowds in their schlocky best, shiny black jackets with dice on the breast bought at the airports, thirty-nine dollar diaphonous Beyoncé dresses floating in the winter desert sun, they don’t know that’s on. The caucuses? Somewhere in the conference centre of one of these behemoths, the American Coptic Church, or the Connecticut Secession Movement is having its annual meeting, and the caucuses are as obscure as that, for the high-rollers in the resorts, the pink-limo and balloons chubby Italians wedding happening in the Graceland Chapel, and the crackhead nuptials—six people, the haggard hard-faced bride in white silk and smeared mascara, groom in pressed black jeans, all six smoking in the oil-stained forecourt beneath a Taco restaurant neon sign—at the Little Chapel of the West.
‘Why’d you get married in Vegas?’ I asked at the Italian one.
‘It’s Vegas baby!’ They’re daquiri-squiffy already. The bridesmaids are all in black miniskirts and felt thigh-high boots. Flown in from Rhode Island.
‘Following the caucuses? The election here?’
‘Election’s November my dude.’
‘No, I mean the uh primary.’
‘Who’s going to win.’
‘Bernie Sanders I think…’
‘He gonna do something about healthcare?’
‘That’s his whole…’
‘What about Russian interference?’
‘They talking about Russians again?’
The celebrant has emerged from the drive-thru office. They’re getting married ’round the pink Cadillac.
They are. As America went about its business this week, the last institutions separating it from the sort of Latin American junta it used to set up seemed to be dissolved as, on , Trump bypassed acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, and replaced him with Richard Grennell, a crony, with no intelligence experience. Since the role of DNI was established to co-ordinate multiple agency intel in order to avoid a repeat of 9-11, you would think this would attract some push back from within the Republicans. To add to it, on Thursday, the New York Times revealed that Trump had been briefed as to Russian interference in the 2020 elections, with the end of getting Trump re-elected. Trump responded by bypassing Maguire and installing Grennell, saying nothing on the matter of the Russians.
Bernie Sanders, briefed that the Russians were intervening in the primaries on his side, issued a condemnation of, and warning to Putin on Saturday, which made him sound presidential, rather than insurgent, an interesting take. But, I mean, Trump just sacked the head of national intelligence, for giving him national intelligence, and it … not much. From the Right, of course, and sections of the Left.
The hysterical and anti-Sanders exaggeration of Russian involvement in the 2016 election has prompted an equal and opposite overreaction, whereby any suggestion that a rival petro-power with a rich heritage of subversive expertise might not spend the chickenfeed required to mess with the public sphere, is ridiculed. Add to that the Republicans’ refusal to pass the bipartisan Rubio-Van Hollen DETER Act, which would authorise the imposition of sanctions on countries making electoral cyberattacks on the US, according to intelligence reports. You’d think, if you had a national-security state, that’s the sort of things you’d use it for. Unless. Oh no, conspiracy theory!
This is once again, the ‘Hollywood Effect’ that I’ve spoken of. Whatever you’ll accept as plausible in some crappy thriller—’you fools! He’s sacking the last man who can tell the truth!’—simply gets caught up in the slipstream of life. Oh yeah, the President sacked the head of intelligence of a much-targeted imperial nation, after he tied foreign policy to political favours from a foreign nation—Ukraine, digging into Biden family wheeling-dealing—and one of his proxies (Rudy Giuliani), appears to have been involved in a plot to physically harm the US ambassador to the Ukraine because she knew about the Biden dirt scheme. This is happening in real time, in daily instalments now. And yeah, you don’t want to get stampeded to the centrist, elite position, that anything that damaged the trajectory of Hillary Clinton is a product of global subversion. A President has a right to sack resistant public servants, as any leftish President would have to do. And to replace insiders with politically-aligned outsiders. But come on, look at the timing. Look at the content. Look at the wider party’s refusal to authorise basic natsec matters. For once, Rachel Maddow’s Indigo Girls/90s student union president manner was not out of place: ‘the dark times aren’t coming. The dark times are here’.
But which of three KISS tribute acts playing the Strip should we see? That would appear to be Vegas’s latter day role. It is a margarita-frozen memory of the US in its last heyday, the period from the 1960s to the late 1990s, when the Soviet Union had been eclipsed as rival, and then disappeared, and the US we now know—rock, cable TV, great popular movies, fast food, chains and brands, fads and subcultures—expanded outwards, to history’s apparently infinite horizon. They’re all here in Vegas, from Grand Funk Railroad to the Mob Museum, Carrot Top, the perennial Johnny Carson comedian, to the Neon Boneyard, where all the old signs from demolished joints have been dragged to an unlit afterlife. In Vegas 9-11 never happened, is absent from the city’s synchronous memory, its America all-at-once. The question is whether Vegas really is America, and America Vegas in this respect, Synecdoche, Nevada. Was Donald Trump impeached and tried in the Senate last month? It seems as deliquescent in the memory as a demolished casino, the vacant lot with a few of the old hoardings visible through chain link fence, leaning against dirt mounds, waiting for the next big thing.
Eight hours before it all went off at ReBar, we were all at the Bellagio, a vast prefab aping Renaissance Florence, an Ottoman touch here and there, Venice, the lot. Here was one of the press-authorised caucus locations, one put on especially for Strip workers with shifts finishing or starting either side of it. Two hundred caucusers and about three hundred press traipsed a kilometre of marbled corridors to a boxy conference centre room, with plain walls and paisley carpet, casino backroom staff in chinos and button down shirts, the occasional suit and tie, a few cocktail waitresses with a jacket thrown over their skimpy outfit (basic black here), some kitchen staff in whites and check pants, and dozens upon dozens of shorter Latina women in dark blue loose drape uniforms, the housemaids.
Seventy five per cent of last year’s turnout had already voted (using a preference ballot, to mimic the caucus’s two stage system), so even this had simulacrum aspect, but still and all. The chair at the podium—appointed that morning, reading from a script, pronouncing ‘Aye’ ‘Eh’—rattled through the rules in English, then Spanish, and then the room divided, almost cleanly in two, an island of a half-dozen Warren supporters in the middle, most of the chinos and suits going to the Biden sign, and, on the other side, to the Bernie sign, a line of blue, from wall to wall, the housemaids, with a few chinos, and half a dozen of the post-hipster youth organisers. I was suddenly, immensely, moved.
Their union, the Culinary, had refused to endorse Bernie, and lobbied against his health plan, saying it would destroy the union’s well-established health care system (they have their own hospital, clinics, care facilities). To a woman, aside from half a dozen or so, they went with Bernie, and when I asked them as they came out, it was all healthcare, healthcare, healthcare. ‘I’ve got a son with ADHD…’, ‘I mean, Guatemala has better healthcare….’ ‘my mother has Alzheimer’s…’. Moved, as I said. And shamed. We’re a long way from Bush v Gore, when we could sneer at American oligarchy. Can anyone imagine the student politics shitsacks who run the Australian Labor Party submitting to this sort of actual politics? Workers voting for what they want, not directed by some arrogant twenty-two year old? Bernie beat Biden two-to-one here, same ratio as across the state. On CNN and MSNBC the panic was visible in the faces of Democratic establishment figures, gathered to give soundbites.
The new Vegas, this permanent present stuck in the recent past, lives off the memory of old Vegas, but that Vegas was always a myth.
Vegas now has fifty million visitors a year; Vegas in the fifties had eight million, and half of those were California car-trippers, who stayed in the breeze-block motels of East Vegas, all now abandoned. They were built on the site of District 19, an encampment of workers on the Hoover Dam, where card games and brothels ran out of Nissan huts. (It was ahead of the dam’s construction, in 1931, that Nevada legalised gambling and prostitution, to keep the workers wages in-state. In thy end, is thy beginning.) The scattered casinos of the Strip were for the American upper-class, invisible as such in a ‘classless’ society, lived vicariously through Rat Pack movies and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy TV show.
Now in a country closing its factories, the Strip is the factory, the housemaids the last proletariat (in a hundred years, it will still be easier to have a human clean a room, than any sort of robot). Whether it’s better or worse to work amid clanging metal, or walk the miles of marble for nineteen dollars seventy an hour, I don’t know. But if Bernie can regroup the working-class across the long Strip of America, then Trump will have a hell of a fight on his hands. Warm the dice man, warm the dice.