About this series: What's happening in America? What does it mean to be an American? These are questions defining a campaign unlike any other. For nearly 35 days, we crossed the nation looking for answers. This is what we found.
Where else to pick up but in Las Vegas, our nation’s great national cliche, more excessive in its hyperbole than the boasts in a Donald Trump stump speech, at once the representation and perversion of the American Dream. It is by its very sustenance a city teeming with losers, yet the tallest residential structure in town has Trump’s name on it. People flock here in hopes of something gained, of some miraculous transfer of wealth, of beating or evening the odds rigged against them, of leaving inhibitions behind, in fear and loathing, in remembrance of things lost. All various ways of interpreting what the 2016 presidential campaign is about.
It was 45 years ago that gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson beat his way to Las Vegas, longing for something already gone, a time when “there was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.” He was writing in 1971 about the heady counterculture days of the mid-’60s, although the words could be appropriated by various ideologies this election year. Feeling out of time, his senses altered by hallucinogenic drugs, Thompson rendered a novelistic evocation of Las Vegas as the wasteland of the righteous capitalist ideal.
One can only wonder what Thompson would have done with the materialization of candidate Trump. Watching the Republican Party leadership deal with Trump, one person said, was like witnessing a high-
anxiety Vegas act — the illusionist David Blaine trying to escape from a water tank. Surely he will loosen his way out from the chains and handcuffs and rise to safety. Time passes, even in this city without clocks, and is it already too late? How much longer can he hold his breath? The establishment was in the water tank, running out of air.
The Trump International Hotel Las Vegas is understated compared with the man himself, and in contrast to the neon madness nearby. The owner might call it low-energy if it were Jeb Bush’s joint, not his. A block off the metastasizing gaudiness of the Strip, it has no casinos, no 24-hour slot machines dinging and clanging, no motley hordes marauding over the vast carpeted expanses in search of a magic show or a buffet line. Inside the gold-plated doors, in the clean, bright restaurant off the lobby, Mary Robinson sat enjoying breakfast.
It was only by chance that Robinson had spent the night at this hotel. She had arrived from Georgia earlier than her friends, and her travel agent booked her there for a night before moving her to the Encore casino hotel on the Strip. “You’re not really going to stay at Trump’s?” one friend chided her upon hearing the news.
As a 70-year-old African American, an IBM retiree and a staunch Democrat, Robinson expressed shock about Trump’s success and concern as to what it meant. She worried that the Trump movement was fueled at least in part by racism, an angry backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama and the changing demographics of the country. She confessed to having felt compelled to “defriend” some people on Facebook who were supporting Trump and defining what it means to be an American in ways that were disturbing to her.
“I posed this question to some of these Facebook friends: What would be one thing that would change if you ‘got your country back’?” Robinson said. “And by the way, who stole it? Would you take it back to the 1950s, when blacks faced segregation laws? When white men controlled everything? Is that the country you want back?”
Did she have any empathy for white men who felt betrayed or left behind by the powers that be? This was as foreign to her as that possible new planet past Pluto. “No,” Robinson said, and then she added, slowly enunciating every word to emphasize the point: “I don’t get that whole thing about them being screwed. When you are brought up black, in the South, that is a leap I just cannot make.”
One of the name-tag people who helped feed tourists such as Mary Robinson was 55-year-old Alma Zamarin, a petite, black-haired food service worker who grew up in the Philippines and “jumped ship” more than 20 years ago after marrying an American. She was now a citizen, and she also happened to be a committee leader in the employee group at the hotel that organized under the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 banner. She is no fan of Trump and his followers. The Trump management was challenging the union election, but the vote seemed likely to hold. For the man who promises that as president that he would win so much that the public would grow tired of it and beg him to lose just to break the monotony, here was one for the loss column.
Zamarin is part of the other Las Vegas, the real city, largely working-class and with a predominance of Hispanics, along with blacks and Asians, and strongly pro-labor. In the power structure of Nevada, the culinary workers play a vital and uncommon role. They make this casino wonderland possible, serving the food, washing the dishes, cleaning the rooms, carrying the luggage, parking the cars. Their strength comes not through money but because of the necessity of the work and the magnitude of their numbers. And they know how to organize, both to win contracts and affect elections.
This side of Las Vegas was on display when Zamarin walked a picket line in the late-afternoon dusk on the sidewalk perimeter of Sunrise Hospital along with several hundred others. The mass demonstration involved a dispute with Sunrise’s parent company, the Hospital Corporation of America, a giant for-profit hospital conglomerate, over higher rates the hospital wanted to charge union members in its health network. This was not a campaign event, and yet it was, falling under the rubric of the little guys saying they were being squeezed by corporate greed. What does it mean to be a culinary worker in America?
The chants resounded up and down the line.
The picketers were barely 20 minutes into their demonstration when a caravan of dark SUVs pulled to the curb. Out flew Secret Service agents and a covey of aides, all unavoidably inflated with the adrenaline-rush self-importance of big-time campaigning, and then from behind the tinted glass came Hillary Clinton. She was perfectly put together, ready for another go at a town hall showdown with Bernie Sanders, as she made her way along the curb and down the line.
The chanting continued unabated.
Who sucks? Sunrise sucks!
The candidate was shaking hands and offering encouragement.
You’ve got a good protest going on here.
Keep the pressure on.
Good for you. All right! All right!
She stopped to pose for photos with workers.
And soon enough, she was gone.
Twenty minutes later, another caravan pulled to the curb, with another rush of agents and aides, and another candidate working the line.
“I’ve been Bernified!” one union steward yelped joyously after Sanders gave her an embrace.
If you are looking for the issues of modern America, they are all here in abundance, like everything in Las Vegas. During the last recession, this place became known as the foreclosure capital of the country. The jobless rate and homeless problem grew accordingly, and they are still evident. The schools are stressed. The population has swelled with Mexican and Central American immigrants, legal and not. Poor mental health is a problem, with a suicide rate well above the national norm. The desert environment is endangered. Water is always the question: how to get it, how to preserve it.
And if you are looking for quirky American stories, they are here in abundance, too. Consider first the case of Justin Lepper, an artist with his own studio, who studied political science at Indiana University and worked on election law for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004. On a day just before the caucuses, he was curating an exhibit of paintings of Sanders that would be auctioned off that night. Lepper had painted a few of them himself, including one of Sanders dressed as his hokey namesake, KFC’s Colonel Sanders, with double vision.
From Bush to Bernie? Lepper called himself “the world’s most liberal conservative.” Pro-choice, supportive of gay rights, pro-gun (although he doesn’t own one), a “capitalist at heart” who had a marriage fall apart and a house out near Centennial Hills get foreclosed on. He thought he was living the American Dream, and now he had reinvented himself with a new one, like so many people out here.
He called the Sanders-as-the-colonel painting “I Love Chicken.” “Chicken is very American. Colonel Sanders is very American. Bernie Sanders is very American. Fighting for the American middle class.” Something else was very American, as it turned out. Although he considered Sanders “the best choice we have this year,” Lepper will not vote for him. He does not plan to vote at all. Just like 43 percent of the registered voters in 2012. It is always instructive to remember this aspect of American democracy: Voting is a right people died for; choosing not to vote is a freedom.
Melissa Petersen, a leading arts advocate in the city, was not only planning to vote, she was the Democratic Party’s site leader for the five neighborhood precincts that would caucus at the John C. Fremont Middle School. Petersen was a Las Vegas native who knew the neighborhoods block by block — where the Bernie signs were, where the “corn man” and the “tamale lady” might situate their carts, where the other colonel, Elvis’s Col. Parker, kept his ostentatious residence, where the voters who might need a Spanish-speaking interpreter lived. It was the diversity of the city, she said, that explained what it meant to be an American. She was a liberal, supportive of undocumented immigrants and gay rights, worried about climate change, but she said most of her relatives lived out in the gated communities and would vote for Trump.
* * *
Across the nation, in Columbia, S.C., a member of Marco Rubio’s staff had just beckoned Steven Diaz, 31, a stocky former Marine with a “#marcomentum” button affixed to his pullover, to stand in front of a black curtain that protected a hotel bathroom and hallway that served as a makeshift green room for the candidate and his aides.
Diaz stood there, folding his arms across his broad chest.
“There’s another bathroom around the corner,” he told each person trying to get behind the curtain.
As one scooted away, Diaz smirked.
“I actually don’t know if there’s a bathroom that way,” he said. “People just follow me. They think I’m intimidating because I have no eye.”
His left eye resembled a marble. A scar on his right side stretched across his skull like the lines of a basketball. It had been more than 20 years since his family moved from Mexico, 13 years since he became a Marine and 10 years since he was hit by an IED in Iraq’s Anbar province. The shrapnel went through his left eye and into his right brain, affecting his short-term memory and causing doctors to replace a part of his skull with plastic.
It had been eight years since he had come home and faced depression, five years since his marriage and four years since he said he finally understood what love really meant. Four months since he began volunteering for Rubio. He was just proud to be serving again.
“When you come back, you realize that when you’re away the politicians have control over so much,” Diaz said. “A part of you knows you’re being used as a pawn. But you focus on protecting people and helping out kids or building roads, and that’s what we have to focus on. Because if you try to understand the politics, whew.”
The 2016 campaign offered opportunity and confusion for Diaz and many veterans like him. The military molded him not to question the commander in chief. But the country he fought for was waging a fierce internecine battle. In his conservative, evangelical circle, things had changed. No one there seemed to think President Obama was utilizing the talents of troops abroad or respecting veterans at home.
The questions unsettled the fundamental fabric of South Carolina, a state that prided itself as being the most patriotic in the country. Spending cuts were diminishing communities whose economic vitality relied on the military-
industrial complex. They were polarized, angry and struggling. Was the American promise still real? Or had it become as seductive and improbable as a slot machine in Vegas?
And then there was Diaz, a patriot in a country that felt less patriotic. Diaz was critical of Obama but tried to find a balance between being open about his personal struggles and avoiding needless bickering. If South Carolina would do the same, he hoped the answer would lie with Rubio. He was drawn to the senator’s optimism and his multiethnic group of conservatives. Rubio’s father had moved the family to the United States when Marco was 4 to be the pastor of Iglesia Latina de Columbia, and now Diaz relished the idea of a Hispanic president.
It also meant something to Diaz that Rubio thanked veterans at each campaign stop. Old-timers wore baseball caps with their military branch embroidered on them, but his generation tended to wear subtle black wristbands, often with the names of a friend who lost his life during the war. The last time he was at a campaign rally, and Rubio asked vets to raise their hands to be acknowledged, Diaz made friends. One of them was Michael Banks, a 31-year-old Air Force vet who had started a martial arts studio in town.
“There’s a lot of piss and moan going on right now,” Banks said in a conversation with Diaz. “But there is still a lot of opportunity in this country.”
“Yeah, when you spend days sleeping in holes, and seeing people who want to destroy your freedoms, it changes things,” Diaz replied. “What I loved about the military was that there was no division. In the bigger perspective, we were all willing to kill for each other and die for each other. Now, in the civilian world, everyone wants you to pick a side.”
After he was injured, Diaz oscillated between anger and guilt. It anguished him when he heard about friends in the war zones getting hurt because he thought he should have been with them. It angered him whenever Obama withdrew troops from Iraq or Afghanistan before the countries were stable, thinking it risked everything for which they had fought. His return meant dealing with the VA bureaucracy while attempting to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and seizures. He tried to stay positive while he watched friends sink into depression and alcoholism.
After a good friend committed suicide, Diaz co-founded Hidden Wounds, a nonprofit organization that connected veterans with therapists and private doctors as they waited for an appointment at the VA hospital — which he said could take up to six months. About 2,000 veterans, mostly from South Carolina, had taken advantage of the program, and the group footed the bill for 500 of them.
When Mario Rubio, Marco’s 65-year-old brother and a former Green Beret, came to town, a staffer asked Diaz to organize a dinner with him and other vets. Diaz put on a blazer and found an American flag to commemorate the event.
Diaz sat down at Lizard’s Thicket with his wife, Laura Diaz. She was the daughter of a stay-at-home mom and a truck driver who saw his wages stagnate, then decrease until he was eventually laid off. Her mother had to reenter the workforce in her 60s but found little luck applying for jobs against underemployed college graduates. “We plunged from middle-class to poor,” Laura Diaz said. “I’m not sure how we’re gonna get back.”
Joining them was Jesus Caldera, a soft-spoken 27-year-old with gelled hair and rimless glasses, who had to drop out of the University of South Carolina after administrators asked students for proof of citizenship. Caldera had none. His parents had immigrated illegally from Venezuela when he was an infant, and he grew up with Steven Diaz in the evangelical church.
Although he was as conservative as his friends, Caldera found a reason to thank Obama for giving him “the biggest break in my life” when the president issued an executive order allowing “dreamers” like him to get driver’s licenses and work permits. He now managed a 50-person call center at the United Way and was drawn to Rubio because of his work on immigration reform. “I know he has to distance himself from it now,” Caldera said, “but I remember what he did. I know he’ll look out for people like me when he’s in office.”
As they began to dig into dishes of fried catfish and green beans and okra, Laura Diaz confessed that she was afraid they would have offended somebody by simply bringing an American flag to the restaurant. This is the fear that political correctness had wrought after a tumultuous summer in South Carolina. They marveled at how quickly their state supported the families of the Emanuel Nine, the black churchgoers who were killed by a young white gunman, but found themselves exhausted at the subsequent controversy over the Confederate flag.
“It just seemed like it wasn’t causing any trouble being up there,” Laura Diaz said to the table. “But then, people just used the moment for their own agenda.”
“Does it ever feel to you like we are going back a generation?” Steven Diaz asked. “With Black Lives Matter and all this aggression, sometimes it feels like we have forgotten how far we’ve come.
“I mean, there was a time we could not eat with these people,” Diaz said to Caldera. He looked at his wife, a white woman from Mississippi.
Mario Rubio, whose struggles with the VA bureaucracy are invoked in his brother’s stump speech, approached Diaz’s table and patted the young veteran on his back.
“How’s the VA treating you?” he asked.
“Well, I’ve learned how to play the game,” Diaz said. “No, let me rephrase: I’ve learned how to work with the system.”
Rubio laughed and said, “Can you teach me?”
If Walter Holm, a 67-year-old Vietnam War vet, could teach young Americans a lesson about the country, he said it would be that the place was “hallowed ground, brimming with opportunity.” Yet he couldn’t find any. At the unemployment office near downtown Columbia on another day, Holm walked out of the place feeling frustrated, again.
Holm spent his childhood in rural Rhode Island, worked as a commercial diver in New York, designed cabinets in California and built houses in Alaska. He said he lost all his money paying for operations on his back and his digestive system and moved to Columbia to find building work after last fall’s floods. “I always thought by this age I would retire and feel good, but this is a little depressing,” he said. Then he paused, looked to the sun and added: “I’m homeless.”
He wore glasses and hid his thin white hair under a navy-blue veteran’s cap, trying not to worry. As the Republican primary approached, he focused instead on the condition of the nation, which he thought was in the midst of its own crisis. “We used to be a country that valued integrity, that meant what we said.”
He watched Obama with confusion after the president did not fully back Syrian rebels against a ruler who allegedly used chemical weapons. He wondered why Obama did not keep a larger sustained presence in Iraq, instead of “using the military like little specks at a time, instead of using our firepower.”
Holm was not registered to vote in South Carolina, but he said he would vote for Ted Cruz if he could. He liked that the senator from Texas was willing to shut down the government to voice his disdain for Obamacare and Planned Parenthood funding. Although he opted against Trump out of fear that he would be too eager to use his war powers “as a showmanship thing,” he appreciated that the New York billionaire pounded away against illegal immigration.
Every morning, Holm sees groups of brown-skinned men huddled on a street corner, waiting to get picked up for day-
labor jobs. Holm acknowledged that he was old and could not move as fast as any of them, but he figured he could at least supervise. In the meantime, he would fill out 10 to 30 applications a day sitting in the local library or McDonald’s. The only job he was offered paid $8 an hour, which he thought was too little.
* * *
At South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, Nikeeya Ali’s goal for this election season was to stay “woke.” That meant being aware of the injustices of institutional racism and countering efforts to demean black culture. It was part of the political awakening among young black activists in America, and it was disrupting the otherwise cozy relationship the Clintons had with African Americans.
Ali was friendly and curious, a 19-year-old sophomore class president, and she had just learned about the 1994 crime bill’s disproportionate effects on black men. It was a measure that Hillary Clinton had supported as first lady.
The morning after learning about the crime bill, Ali was in the audience when actress Angela Bassett came to the historically black public college to stump for Clinton. Ali approached the microphone. “I just want to say your outfit is amazing,” she started. Then she said her professor had played a video in which Clinton talked about how black men could seem scary when they wore hoodies. “As a black woman with two sons, why do you really advocate on Ms. Clinton’s behalf?”
Bassett, who actually has only one son, stumbled briefly before saying Clinton was ready to have conversations and “put in place a concrete plan.” Ali couldn’t remember that part. She was too thrilled, too nervous. She wrote about the experience on a personal blog and watched with amazement as it received about 43,000 page views.
Intellectuals including Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander had abandoned the Clintons. And just as a segment of white America was defying conventional Republican dogma and going for Trump, Ali and her friends were debating whether they, too, had too much faith in a politician who seemed to pander. Given the string of unarmed black men being shot by police, and the battle over the Confederate flag, Ali and her friends could not help but be woke. Those incidents were discussed so much on campus that faculty put on a seminar called “How to Not Get Killed by the Police.”
“I have two brothers, and it bears on my soul every day,” Ali said. “It’s always in the back of my head that something might happen to them. He might not even have to open his mouth — just by the color of his skin. I want a politician who will address that and mean it.”
After writing her blog post, Ali took increasing pride in being part of the new black consciousness. There was a history of activism at the school. In 1968, students began protesting a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg, and after an officer was hit with an object during a campus protest, police fired into the crowd. They wounded 27 and killed three. The Orangeburg Massacre predated similar incidents at Kent State and Jackson State, but it was underplayed by newspapers covering civil rights in the South.
Now the campus had a bowling alley of its own but struggled with declining enrollment and state funding. Broken windows. A vacant dorm. A shuttered Starbucks. But the roadshow of American media was about to clang into town. Clinton was coming to the school. Ali had concerns about inconsistencies in Clinton’s story. Not that she was certain about Sanders. Some of his ideas seemed impractical, and his notion of providing free tuition at public universities, she thought, might harm enrollment and funding at historically black colleges.
Two days before Clinton arrived, Ali and her friends spoke about how proud they were that Beyoncé took on a political cause with her video “Formation,” and rejoiced at how unapologetically black Kendrick Lamar’s performance was at the Grammys, where he came out in a prison uniform while his band played in jail cells before being released to joyfully step with dancers in African garb. The word they used was “authentic.” It was not a word they would use with Clinton.
Khadeja Ceasar, a 21-year-old majoring in political science who grew up in Sumter and dyed her afro puff in a color somewhere between brown and green, declared that Clinton could not construct an actual policy argument to help black people.
“I’m personally excited to see her,” said Nakea Pennant, 19, a biology major. “She’s the one who can get the job done. She has years of experience.”
The others at the table stared at her.
“What? You have an issue? Chime in.”
Ali jumped in. “I saw her on video singing ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow,’ because she was speaking to some black people,” Ali said, referencing a familiar song in the black church. “Now, you know she doesn’t sing that song to herself. Who taught her that?”
“But that’s how politics are played,” Pennant said.
Their generation was promised a new type of politics that they believe never fully came. Most were tweens and teenagers when Obama won and remember their parents and teachers crying at that unlikely moment. As they grew older, they all knew Obama would not solve racism in America. He was one man. But they did not expect to come of age at a time when perceived injustice would lead to looting in Ferguson, Mo., and rioting in Baltimore, and a Republican front-runner singling out Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
“If Trump wins, America is a country that is willing to accept racism,” Ali said. “And if Hillary wins, it makes us know we’re moving in a direction of diversity.”
“If he wins, now we know they hate us,” said Keith Gilliard, 27, a broadcast major who was invited by Sanders’s staff to perform his rap song “I Love My HBCU” on the candidate’s tour of historically black colleges and universities.
The conversation sped up. Although they appreciated Obama’s legacy, one student noted that few of the people who had most powerfully worked for change in the black community did so inside the electoral system. They were people such as Malcolm and Martin, who exacted pressure on a system that did not present solutions quickly enough.
“Things are going to get worse, but it’s getting better because we are getting people to listen,” Ali said. “You can’t ignore Beyoncé, you can’t ignore Kendrick Lamar, because black people are becoming more serious about our state in society. So many people are becoming, like, woke.”
“Now we have the power of the people,” said Raven Barker, a 23-year-old broadcasting major known to his friends as Jim West, his hip-hop name. “By the time we hit our 30s and 40s, we’re going to be the ones that are leading the line and we will have the power to control the conversation.”
“I think the old people have already accepted ‘This is my life,’ ” said Deja Wilson, 19, who was studying criminal justice and planned a career as a police officer and then a prosecutor. “They are like, ‘I raised you, I gave you the information [about racism], I bust my ass every day, I make sure that there was food on your table, why do I have to be rioting for you?’ ”
The students were asked whether they had any talks with white people about race relations. They were told stories from Iowa about how many people there thought Obama spoke too much about race, fostering even more division.
“Are they trolling?” one student asked. “I would assume they are looking for a laugh.”
“Do they not watch the news every day?” another asked. “I would have sympathy for them, but I would feel sorry about their mental state.”
With the election approaching, Ali was about to make up her mind. Her friends had shared a video of a protester who bought a ticket to a private Clinton fundraiser in Charleston. The woman hoisted what appeared to be a pillowcase that said “We have to bring them to heel.” It was a reference to a Clinton quote in which she discussed the importance of tougher prison sentences for “super-predators.” It seemed she was talking about young black men.
“Will you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?” the protester asked.
Clinton tried to answer, but the woman continued talking. As she was escorted out, Clinton told the audience, “Back to the issues.”
The video horrified Ali. Back to the issues? Clinton’s support of the crime bill was the issue. By the next afternoon, Ali was wearing a “Bernie Sanders” T-shirt as she looked out a window and saw a long line forming to see Clinton. The melody of “Lift Every Voice and Sing’’ could be heard ringing out from the campus bell tower.
* * *
When at last it was all over in South Carolina and Nevada, and Clinton had won each, Nevada narrowly and South Carolina overwhelmingly, and Trump had cleaned his opponents’ clocks in both states, Melissa Petersen would sit in the back yard of her home on Barbara Street in Las Vegas and listen to the shrieks coming from atop the Stratosphere, a giant observation tower that rises high above her Beverly Green neighborhood. She knew the screams by heart — three variations that differentiated the amusement rides that provoked them, from the mechanical claw to the bungee jump to the capsule shot up and down.
Las Vegas again capturing the American mood. There was the hysterical giggling scream. There was the scream of utter terror. And there was the undulating scream that started high-pitched and fell to a long and low moan.