Fear And Loathing At The Last Presidential Debate

“I think that they’re being childish, and they’re not addressing the real issues, they’re fighting each other.”

LAS VEGAS — The vanity license plate business is booming in Las Vegas, a city that acts as the sharpening steel of American vanity. So it was fitting that the final debate of this bonkers election would take place in a city full of real, stylized artifice. Earlier in the day, I had walked past the New York-New York hotel complete with Lady Liberty next to a roller coaster, and in the lobby at my hotel, a handsome man in a striped top and a straw hat plucked a guitar winsomely, looking to evoke the feeling of being in Venice. (I was in the real Venice last summer. This was not like that.)

The first slot machines turned up, incongruously, just after baggage claim at the airport, and the gentle surreality just kept giving as I entered a sea of slot machines at the Venetian, where I heard accents from the north of England mingling easily with languages from Asia, and where cuisines that had no business living together were cohabiting under one roof. And of course, throughout Las Vegas there are indoor fountains, and a pirate ship in the frontage of one hotel, and the constant, incessant ringing of the money-swallowing machines. Vegas’s lights never go out, and the drinks never stop being poured, and the house always wins; the constant brightness requires human power, and an army of service workers, beavering away to keep things running.

Because for all of its gilt and glamour, Las Vegas is also a city built on service. When I turn on the telly in my hotel room at the Venetian (a hotel that triggered a Proustian response when I spotted its ceiling frescoes and recalled a long-suppressed memory from 2002) a woman huskily tells me that my pleasure is her business. On the way to the hotel from the airport the day before, my taxi driver told me the debates had caused a spike in traffic, especially by the airport, but he wasn’t complaining. As we whizzed down the roads, I spotted a billboard for a performance by Drake on New Year’s Eve, and another by Calvin Harris for that old and established holiday, “Halloween Weekend.” And there are other service industries here in Vegas, besides musicians, transport, and sex workers. Walking around, you can’t fail to see the civilian army that is so dedicated to fulfilling pleasure-seekers’ needs and wants.

My fourth or fifth taxi driver of the day, a Kenyan immigrant who told me he liked Nigerian fufu, laughed when he told me, of the debate, “We call this ‘a show.’ Just like the Cirque Du Soleil.”

Outside the Trump International Hotel on Wednesday morning, under an endless blue sky, a small battalion of the service army stood up and caused a mild ruckus. The Culinary Union built themselves a big, beautiful wall of taco trucks outside Trump’s golden (facade) erection on the Vegas strip, and made as much multilingual noise as they could before they left a few hours later. The speakers came up and spoke, wearing the red T-shirts their union had made (“CULINARY WORKERS UNION LOCAL 226”) with matching red sashes reading “MS HOUSEKEEPING.”

Ruben Kihuen, state senator and candidate for Congress in the state’s Fourth District, was an exception to this: He wore his sash over a white button-down, shirt sleeves rolled up for that "can do" air we like to see around young male politicians. “I am a state senator running for United States Congress. But most importantly,” — and here he grabbed his sash with both hands — “I am the son of a housekeeper,” he said.

The crowd, a good number of them Latinas, wearing the same satiny sash, cheered. Kihuen was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, in Mexico, and he sold his rise in politics as the American dream. “We have workers in this property,” he said, gesturing at the hotel behind him, “53% of the workers voted to become union and Donald Trump refuses to come to the table to negotiate. Mr Trump, you need to sit down with your workers — the housekeepers — show ‘em respect, negotiate, and give them the contract that they deserve.” The cheers came again. They were even louder when he repeated his speech in Spanish.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson also spoke, oratorical skills somewhat diminished by age, but still an earnest friend of the worker. He mentioned MLK and Cesar Chavez in quick succession; “Si, se puede!” he said, and the largely Hispanic union crowd loved it, almost as much as they loved when he called out, “One day longer!” A man had painted his face an alarming shade of tomato red and was sporting a blonde wig, marching behind a union member. “What the beep?” he asked, and the response came back: “Trump is cheap!”

A young woman dressed in a costume to look like the contraceptive pill handed out condoms in little packets that read, “PROTECT YOURSELF FROM TRUMP.” One small group began a chant, “Donald Trump, look around / Vegas is a union town!” Nearby, a man with a reedy voice tried to talk over the chants with his own little rhyme, “He’s the coolest dude in town!” The protesters gave him a once-over and didn’t engage. A young man named Nestor turned up in a red “Make America Great Again” cap and a “GAYS FOR TRUMP” sign. He planted his red Converse sneakers hip-width apart and asked one woman, “What has he said that’s anti-gay? In my opinion, he hasn’t said anything anti-gay ever in his campaign.”

Another woman walking past Nestor said in an almost conversational manner, “I bet I suck a dick better than you!”

Tom Moran, 61, from Fenton, Michigan, who said he was a Republican, had travelled down to Vegas with a homemade banner he’d painted himself. “I’m retired now, so now I get to do things that are important to me in the years I got left,” he said. “Easier to be sitting at home, but this is too important.” There was a cardboard wall set up, which protesters and supporters were urged to sign. And the Laborers' International Union of North America brought their bagpipes. That’s how you know shit is serious.

As the last food truck reversed slowly out of formation, there was still a line for the final station that was serving tacos. One of the red T-shirt wearers dismantled the fortifications holding up the cardboard wall, and with nothing to keep it anchored, it toppled over in the breeze. “Whoops, down goes the wall!” said a woman behind me, and everyone in the line tittered.

At the final presidential debate, which took place at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas later that day, Clinton wore white, the final color to complete her American flag of outfits (red for Debate #1; blue [and white] for Debate #2). Trump wore his customary red tie. I thought of Kihuen, and the women union workers in the red shirts, when I spoke to twentysomething Lala several hours later, at the end of debate. I was sitting at the bar less than a mile away from the Cox Pavilion on the campus where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were wrapping up their duties for the last miserable time, with Trump calling up one more memorable takeaway, branding Clinton as “such a nasty woman.” It was in a German beer hall and restaurant, and the patrons were celebrating Oktoberfest. On the stage in the main hall of the restaurant, an Alpine horn rested its ungainly length.

At one point, someone gave a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to patriotic whoops. Lala, who is a student at UNLV, had tried to attend the debate in person, but couldn’t get a pass. So this would have to do. At one point she asked the bartender to turn up the volume, as two men behind us got too noisy, for too long. According to Lala, the great swing state of Nevada will turn blue, maybe soon. “There is a high chance. It’s gonna happen. I don’t know if it’s gonna happen with her, but eventually. In the next four to eight years.”

She had recently seen Clinton speak, and was impressed, particularly with her interest in lower-earning women. “I watched her speak a couple weeks ago and she was great. Her points are direct and she was genuine and she just wants…” she trailed off. “Nevada has a lot of low-income people, and it also has really rich people. So I think she’s trying to get more benefits for women who are single, and who have kids, and she wants to increase [tax breaks] for them.” I had noticed Lala, and her friend Ruby earlier, oohing at crucial jabs from Clinton (when she spoke about Trump’s tax returns, for example, and when she mentioned his birthplace of Queens, New York), so I had to ask: Does their vote belong to Hillary? Enh. They are both Bernie supporters, and their vote did not automatically transfer to the Democratic candidate. “I’m not a Republican,” is all Lala would say. But she said it firmly, leaving no room for discussion.

David, who is on a journey across the nation, taking the scenic route as he moves from Chicago to California, said he’s a decided voter. So I asked why he had been so determined to watch the debate. He was most interested in how the candidates would talk about the steel industry, because that’s “very tied to the business that I own and run.” Even so, he had made up his mind in advance. “It’s a giant game to both of them, and they know how to play that game,” he continued. “I think that they’re being childish, and they’re not addressing the real issues, they’re fighting each other.”

Vegas is full of vacationers and there didn't seem to be a lot of interest in the debate.

Vegas is full of vacationers (perhaps some of them were seeking to avoid the very election for which the city was hosting a debate) and there didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in it. But David had been traveling through the country for the last eight weeks — did he think Americans were engaged? “Absolutely,” he replied immediately. He had watched the last presidential debate on his first night in Seattle. “I went out — people were flocking to televisions. And they weren’t talking. They were listening and paying attention. They were interested.” But in a place like Vegas, there was more coming and going. “People are here for a purpose, and not living their standard lives. They’re taking a break from their standard lives.”

Bry and Ty are Nevadans I bumped into outside the beer hall, smoking. This will be their first time voting in a presidential election, and they had been huge Bernie fans. “I really wish that he had more supporters. He would’ve changed something, even just a little bit,” said Ty, 20. Mightn’t Hillary now fulfill some of those Bernie promises, given all the pressure from Bernie Democrats, I asked. “I feel like she can. But do I feel like she will?” asked Ty rhetorically, eyes narrowed. “She’s only on top because of the way people feel about Trump. A lot of people feel strongly about him being in the Oval Office.”

OK, but, I asked, how do they feel about him? “He’s all the way off. That nigga is just all the way...off,” said Ty. “He should never have run in the first place,” added Bry, 19. They both think he’s going to be president.“He’s had supporters since Obama became president,” said Bry. “I think for sure, he’s going to get the Vegas vote.”

“Period,” Ty chimed in. “Because a lot of people that are not going to vote are the main people that don’t want Trump to be president. But everybody that does vote wants Trump to be president.” Bry sighed when she told me, “I’d rather her be my president than Trump.”

Earlier in the evening, I had spoken to Nick, who had a soft face and a shy smile, and was also watching the debate at the bar. A transplant to Nevada from New York, he’s in the military, and he still wasn’t decided on whether to vote for Trump or Clinton. There are 20 days until this election. He had also been a Bernie supporter, and was not a fan of his candidate’s defection to the Clinton camp, post-DNC. “Only the first debate mattered,” he said, wearily. He thought the second and third debates just showcased two candidates tearing strips off each other. “Everyone’s already decided,” he said. “But you haven’t,” I pointed out to him gently. He conceded the point. “OK, not me. Not yet. But most people have.” He left midway during the debate.

On the walk back to the taxi rank, a truck came into view. Behind the wheel was a middle-aged man, speaking into a microphone gripped in his right hand while his left steered the vehicle. In the passenger seat sat a woman wearing spectacles, and silent. “The Democrats are ungodly,” the man intoned solemnly. On the side of the truck, there was a painting of a Kenny Loggins-looking Jesus, on a baby blue background. “Jesus is the Alfa and Omega,” read the writing next to him. “We need to vote for Jesus,” the man said.

This is what a swing state looks like, I suppose.