In Search of Tulsi Gabbard, Part VII: Darkness and Squalor

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Tulsi Gabbard speaks in Rochester, New Hampshire. Notice the young man with the “Keep America Great” cap in the front row.

A brutal rain besieged the New Hampshire seacoast on the night before Thanksgiving, reducing my windshield to a soggy, bleached-out blur as I made my way across Route 125. Long before the squall started raging, I’d regretted my decision to drive all the way to the border of Maine to attend yet another Tulsi Gabbard town hall. It wasn’t because I lost count long ago of the number of times I’d heard her speak, though this event would be my fiftieth, at least. No, I was reluctant because I get the grimmest feeling whenever I travel to Rochester—supposedly known as the Lilac City, but truly known as the City of the Dead. While it is not New Hampshire’s poorest or most pathetic city, for me it is the most striking illustration of the Granite State’s decline.

Rochester was never an inspiring city. For the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, it was known throughout the rest of the State for its dysfunctional schools, ubiquitous boozing, and belligerent working class, but it possessed enough momentum and spunk—required of every living culture—to sustain it. As the second quarter of the twenty-first century nears, Rochester has been reduced to an awkward punchline, a surreal portrait of the past continuously attempting to overwrite itself. Walk the undulating streets of downtown or explore the claustrophobic husk of the Lilac Mall and you will witness the rotation of temporary shops and businesses, opening weeks before they shutter and shuttering months before they open once again.

As the internal economy tanks, the peripheral society decomposes. The denizens of Rochester are no longer a group of sympathetic, if visibly unstable, blue-collar spirits; they are now the wayward sufferers of opioid addiction and impoverished inertia. Thrashed and disfigured by the economic crises of the last twenty years, they know their days of relative strength are over, and their prophecy is unrelentingly dreary. Strafford County may have gone for Hillary, but only because Rochester and Somersworth—or Rottenchester and Scummersworth, as the millennials say—couldn’t outmuscle Barrington, Dover, and Durham at once. Thus, Rochester stands concealed behind the Spaulding Turnpike, which whisks away the wealthy and the unsuspecting to prettier places, like Newington and Portsmouth, bringing us the face but denying us the heart.

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An all-too-common sight in Manchester, New Hampshire, and not one of the city’s scariest.

Unfortunately, none of this was discussed at Gabbard’s rally, held at an old-fashioned tavern called the Castle on Charles. The conversation was hijacked by two men and one woman who were vocal proponents and an indignant critic, respectively, of the 2nd Amendment. The men warned Gabbard that, if she were to revoke their right to own assault rifles, then the nation would unravel and give way to the kind of freewheeling knife fights that are so tragically common in England, apparently. Meanwhile, the lady in the crowd declared, “My eleven-year-old daughter’s life is more important than your right to own instruments of war.” Gabbard hurriedly tried to explain that the two are not mutually exclusive, but to no avail: their heels had been dug into the ground, and their squabbling will continue long after she returns to Hawaii.

Thirty years ago, Rush Limbaugh wrote that he rarely engages in debates on the subject of abortion, recognizing the great unlikelihood of anyone ever changing their mind. I’ve reached a comparably cynical state of resignation vis-à-vis these insufferable arguments over gun control: clearly, no one in this country understands or respects weaponry, hence the inevitable dissolution of every debate over guns to childish speculation of hypothetical extremes. We grimace when we hear the sheltered shrew scream, “Think about the children!” We groan when we see some vulgar degenerate put up a poster of a pistol-packing snowman, especially when he does so moments after a school shooting. Yet, I don’t think we apprehend the commonality of these seemingly irreconcilable attitudes: both emerge from the same source of intellectual immaturity, which is why it is so tempting for the political media to milk the subject for its sensationalist appeal. How will we resurrect Rochester: by ridding the city of guns or by flooding it with them?

A few days later, I was still thinking about that argument at the town hall. It was a soft little spat, scarcely even heated, but it raised interesting questions about the priorities of the American people. Who were these people, and why were they so concerned about guns? I’m not suggesting the 2nd Amendment is irrelevant; rather, I’m wondering why it was so relevant to them. They didn’t seem to be willing to vote for Gabbard, any more than the young man in the front row who said nothing throughout the exchange, only listening intently and sporting a cap reading “Keep America Great”. They said nothing about the conditions, economic or social, in Rochester, and in fact, no one said anything about Rochester at all. While I don’t expect the candidates to be experts in the goings-on of the cities in which they hold their rallies—it would actually be pretty weird if they were—why don’t the people in the audience discuss local issues? Why is everything projected onto the national level? Why do we reduce ourselves to the shapeless insipidity of “the national debate”, which is only a euphemism for the commercial product of the national media?

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Past presidential campaigns, frozen in time on the walls outside the auditorium at Saint Anselm College. Will Gabbard’s poster be found on this wall fifty years from now?

Nobody mentioned local issues during Gabbard’s next town hall, either. This event took place at St. Anselm College, the same institution whose “polling center” recently pegged Pete Buttigieg as the clear first choice of New Hampshirites. This institution is situated just beyond the outskirts of Manchester’s west side, and while it would be a difficult task to determine which side of Manch Vegas is the cruddiest, filthiest, and most impoverished, the west side certainly appears to be on the brink of dilapidation and collapse, and it has been for as long as I’ve been witness to its rot. Did anyone ask why the Manchester Police Department roams the city in armored vans, sending out SWAT-style agents to arrest people for drug possession? Did anyone inquire about the state of the city’s homeless shelters? Did anyone ask what happened to the city’s many prostitutes when the Trump Administration finally shut down Backpage?

It wasn’t a boring rally, not by any means, as one man vigorously insisted on enforcing the use of the metric system in America while another man asked Gabbard if she was willing to address Israel’s role in planning 9/11. Gabbard sidestepped the Israeli question by focusing on the culpability of the Saudi government, and immediately, I remembered her salient discomfort when, at a rally at the University of New Hampshire in October, a woman asked her about Bill Clinton’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein.

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Ooh, does it seem as though I’m criticizing Gabbard? Am I allowed to offer a critique? Will doing so reduce the number of times this article is shared on Twitter and Reddit? Is anyone even reading any of this stuff? If no one’s reading me, then I know people are watching, because I received the most aggressive criticism of my nascent career just a few days before the rally at St. Anselm. Prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, I had been a member of a “private Twitter group” made up of fans of Tulsi Gabbard. “Private Twitter” is a contradiction in terms, but nevertheless, these folks supported my work and shared my articles, thereby surging traffic at overwritten.org every time I wrote about the Gabbard campaign.

Alas, on the twenty-fifth of November, someone in the chat chanced upon a video I had made with D Pearce SSC, in which we discussed the difficulty that Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, and Andrew Yang have in connecting with the American public. “Her message is very good for people who have an IQ above room temperature, but there isn’t a real sincerity or [genuineness] to her delivery, and that’s part of the reason she strikes people as socially awkward … She’s never gonna strike people as a likable, approachable person, and in the day of, ‘The president should be someone you could sit down and have a beer with,’ that is going to be to her disadvantage.”

In reviewing this statement, and several others that I made in the same video, it is clear to me that I should have been more nuanced, if only to incorporate the undeniable counter-perspective of her energetic fans. Nevertheless, it should be very clear to anyone who has any knowledge of my work that my comments, while probably excessive, were meant as an indictment of the American people for their juvenile approach to politics. Campaigning is still an adolescent popularity contest, which is why an intelligent candidate like Gabbard, or Ron Paul, or Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader, will strike the average American as an oddball or a curiosity. This is the point I was attempting to make during one of several videos that Pearce and I have made on this very subject.

Unfortunately, several of the people in the chat believed I had blasphemed, and they demanded I be banished from the group. I will share a few of their comments, though I will leave the authors unnamed:

“It’s fucked-up! And bullshit! Completely tone-deaf.”

“I’m not interested in what Jack has to say anymore [sic]. He has become full of himself. Yes, that’s what he has come across now, a not likable arrogant [sic].”

“I don’t care much for his little coup out [sic]. ‘I’m entitled to dunk on her for being introverted because I’ve seen her talk a lot’? Also, who gives a fuck? Her message is what matters, not her ability to crack a joke.”

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For the record, I never said I was entitled to speak critically of Gabbard because I have seen her in person many times. I said, and I quote: “I feel like I’m entitled to criticize Tulsi Gabbard’s style after all that I’ve written in defense of her substance. I feel like I’m allowed to make some critical remarks, especially at this late hour, when we’re only three months removed from the New Hampshire primary. This is where we start to separate the wheat from the chaff.” However, I have no need to seek entitlement, much less to earn it: allegedly, we still have something called “the 1st Amendment” in this country, and that enables anyone to speak critically of anybody else. I don’t need to earn my right to comment on Gabbard’s ill-fated campaign any more than the imbecile quoted above had to earn the right to criticize me.

Then again, perhaps the spirit of my critics was articulated most successfully here:

“Wow, where’s Jack Rouleau [sic]? I didn’t expect this from you, Jack [sic]. TO ME AND I THINK THE REST OF ALL OF US HERE, TULSI IS VERY GENUINE, CARING, AND APPROACHABLE.”

Ah, the inherently unbecoming element in the democratic process. The politician must shamelessly prostrate herself before the ignorant masses, and the people must cheerfully and proudly surrender to the supremacy of the politician. It’s an embarrassing, reprehensible ritual for everyone involved, but it isn’t nearly as lethal to the soul as the state of misery and helplessness that an adult must reach before she is not only willing, but psychologically compelled, to write an impassioned defense of a politician’s genuineness, caring, and approachability—in all capital letters, no less. Such behavior speaks to the voter’s desperation for a sense of belonging, for anything that shall spare her the existential despair of recognizing that the celebrity in the blazer with the gray streak in her hair might not extend her heavenly aura unto her.

With these misplaced priorities on striking display, it is no wonder that the people in the audience have forgotten their communities, and have forgotten that they belong to one, even. What is their community, what is its value, when the next president will deliver them out of all their sufferings? Just as the local problems lose their definition when juxtaposed against the monolithic national controversy, so are the local problems solved by the omnipresent presidential figure. Myopia can be a state of bliss, but only for the duration of the illusion. When reality settles in, disorientation follows, and it is always disheartening and often frightening.

Nevertheless—or, perhaps, accordingly—I decided to leave the chat. It is not my task to deliver reality to the zealous, infatuated apologists in the carnival of politics. Reality will descend upon them in the form of the New Hampshire primary, which will see Gabbard finish in fifth place—not because of anything I have ever written about her, but because the bourgeoisie, with their misguided wish for cosmopolitan prestige, have lost sight of their community, and all of its problems, in favor of a blinding view of the nation and its awesome, monstrous image, which must be projected through the entire world if the American Empire is to maintain its illusory strength.

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The scene of the crime: the former cinema at the Lilac Mall in Rochester, NH.

The next time Tulsi Gabbard is in Rochester, perhaps she will host a rally at the Lilac Mall—or the Lilac Hall, as the millennials say. What was once Rochester’s most successful shopping center, a capitalist’s triumph in the Clinton years, has become, as I said at the start of this essay, a skeletal vestige. Most of the venues have been stripped from ceiling to floor, from corner to corner, their lights have been killed, and their doors have been sealed. I’m not terribly heartbroken about the fall of Sears or K-Mart, much less the demise of Limited Too, but there is one part of the mall that I can’t look upon without feeling sick.

The Lilac Mall once held a movie theater, part of the Spinelli Cinemas chain. A little four-screen structure, it was probably my favorite place to be as a child. I saw my first movie there, exactly, going to Toy Story at the age of three. I could fill more than one essay with extensive descriptions of the philosophy of the theater, explaining what movies would play there and why, and which movies wouldn’t play there and why, as well as the aesthetic arrangement of the seven posters framed from one end of the theater to the next. But I don’t want to do that, at least not right now, because it hurts to look at these pictures of the theater’s remain, the theater’s corpse, and to know that you, you who have never been to the Lilac Mall, and you who never looked upon the theater, would never understand, from looking at these pictures, that there a theater once stood.

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‘Merica.

The box office and the entrance have been buried behind a thin layer of drywall. We could probably tear it down and free the theater without too much trouble, but for some reason, we don’t. We can’t look upon the doors to the four auditoriums, empty though they are, lacking though they are a film and, perhaps more importantly, an audience. The posters and their frames have been ripped from the wall and attached to the drywall, though today they advertise something other than movies, anything other than movies, in fact. You can’t see this detail from the pictures I have offered, but if you were to stand at the mall and to look at the bleak, blank wall where the posters used to be, you could see their shadowy marking stills born into the paint. There are even a few pieces of popcorn stamped into the carpet, though you probably wouldn’t see it; after all, what reason would you have to walk upon it when there is no theater to reach?

I want Tulsi Gabbard to tear down that drywall and host a rally in one of the auditoriums. There’s room enough, at least. And I want someone in the audience to ask her: “Why did this theater die, and what will you do to bring it back to life?”

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