The miles of Highway 41 in Wisconsin north of Fond du Lac feature a lot of billboards. Somewhere just before the town known as "Sawdust City," a succession of billboards advertise both the Supreme adult gift and lingerie store and "All Life Is Precious" anti-choice abortion messages. This juxtaposition of open sin and Christian values has historic president in Oshkosh. The raging alcoholic for whom the city is named died in a drunken brawl in 1858, years before the Menominee chief could see Oshkosh become the annual home to the Christian music event, LifeFest.
Soon, the night will be summed up by John Boehner crying over my radio while hoots of "USA! USA! USA!" rise behind him. But first, I'm pulling into the parking lot at 3000 Poberezny Road, just off a section of Highway 41 that is heavy with construction cones, possibly part of the $3.5 million the city of Oshkosh received in federal recovery funding.
The EAA AirVenture Museum lot is nearly full just after 7 p.m. and an army of grizzly old men direct cars with those mini-light sabers. SUV. SUV. Cadillac. Conversion van. SUV. SUV. F-150.
So this is what the triumph of ignorance over knowledge looks like. It's unremarkable.
Nowhere are the apocalyptic tribes of slobbering half-wits armed with pitchforks and dressed in hides, howling at the moon like rabid beasts. Where are the illiterate savages? The Morlocks? Everyone appears to be a well rounded human, in that many of them are, well, round.
Throughout the night, I eavesdrop on conversation after conversation, desperate to find some exchange that will redeem my home state. I do not want to write that, almost without exception, these people are terrible. Overconfident. Insistent. Ignorant and proud of it. I do not want to write that America, as a whole, would be better off without any of them.
The event is open bar, and not garbage either. Johnson has sprung for microbrew tap beer served frosty and delicious in sturdy mugs featuring the candidate's own mug and a quote about freedom topped with his own autograph. The perks of being in plastics manufacture, I suppose. A young Republican named Shane pounds a few beers and hangs with a big-bosomed young woman. Shane wants to bang. But not before Fox calls the race. And not before they chow on some of the bacon-wrapped water chestnuts on offer from the hors d'oeuvres trays winding their ways around the room, carried aloft.
Shane and his unfortunate prey are indeed special amongst the crowd. Not in that they are likely to have had sex in the last three months, but for their youth. Looking around the room, those lamenting Johnson's victory over Feingold can take solace in the fact that some of these supporters will not live out the newly minted Senator's term. For many, the end will come from natural causes; for others, the end will be a distinct combination of chest tightening and left arm pain. This crowd is old. Old and white. Old and white and male.
The 2000 census notes that Oshkosh is 92.73 percent white, which means the city is a multicultural wonderland compared to Johnson's event. I do finally spot one black person, and photograph him speaking with a guy wearing a "Do You Miss Me Yet" George W. Bush shirt. Though I never confirm if he works at the facility or if he is part of the party. The black guy I mean.
How white is the party? So white that the most intelligent conversation I overhear all night is with a man named, no kidding, Kevin White. White says he is from Chicago and involved in politics there. He's speaking with a British guy for some reason. Responding to the Brit's question, White chuckles about Johnson's attack on the number of lawyers in the Senate. "Yeah, but can a manufacturer write a bill?" White asks.
"I'll tell you this, if he goes to the Senate his staff will be packed with lawyers," he sys. I'm not a gambling man, but for the rest of the night I work off the assumption that Mr. White is a lawyer.
Standing at a table, a young man named Paul Durkee mocks John McCain's Presidential run. Giggling along with him are a short man named Chad Schroeder and a tall Laura Dern doppelganger named Mimi that shares his same surname. These are not Tea Partiers; they are Coulter Republicans, Anne obviously a style icon of Mimi's. Mimi is owner of Schroeder Photography in Oshkosh and it's unclear if she's here because she worked for Johnson. Regardless, in a city of 63,000-odd people, it's probably a good small-business decision to support the local multimillionaire who suddenly decides to use his considerable wealth to play Senator.
Chad gets interviewed on camera and comes back and all three do whirligigs about how on message he was.
Taking a kebab of mozzarella and sun dried tomato off the platter, I ask my server if she voted today. She says she did not have time.
Mark Sonnabend, a tall lanky kid wearing a blazer over an artificially vintage GOP pachyderm ringer t-shirt, is droning on about the Catholic church and the history of politics. His dad just stares ahead. Mark's forceful confidence combined with his youth is insufferable. He will someday make some lucky lady completely miserable.
When Johnson finally takes the stage a little after 11 p.m., he's flanked on three sides by women. This is certainly a conscious decision, meant to soften the image of man who is on record testifying against the rights of sexual assault victims. And while there are women to be found at the event (like Mimi), it is predominantly male. A real sausage fest. The ultimate evidence of this is at the restrooms. Where women breeze in and out, men wait in line to piss, all making jokes about this odd switch of roles.
But then, our nation's sporting championships are largely attended by men. And what was last night but a sort of annual championship? The Green Bay Packer gear liberally displayed by the attendees spoke to this crowd's predisposition for team orientation. This is especially true even at this so-called "Tea Party" candidate's event. Not unlike Sunday, the crowd all watches the widescreen, cheering Fox News updates on races where Republicans are leading. They cheer when Palin shows up. They boo when a losing race is highlighted. The biggest boo of the night comes when Fox announces that Barney Frank will keep his seat. You know what they're thinking: that fat fag.
Tea Party types mistakenly believe reasonable and progressive Americans disrespect them for their anti-government rhetoric. That's untrue. Despite its use in attack ads, there is no such thing as an "anti-jobs" candidate. Everyone wants less spending, reduced deficits and decreased government control of everyday life. Russ Feingold has wanted that for 18 years and has been rewarded, by the very people who should most champion him, with unemployment, ironically putting Feingold, once again, more in touch with the average American than any other pol. So it's not that many of us don't want what the Tea Party wants; it's that we don't believe the Tea Party genuinely wants those things.
How do I know the people before me tonight are hypocrites and counterfeits? Math. So far, the Republicans have notched gains since the last election nearly across the board. With women, GOP candidates recorded six point gains. With men, eight points. White people are voting nine points higher for Republicans than they did previously. Yet, when asked how they feel about the GOP, 53 percent answer that the are "dissatisfied" with the party. Bullshit.
But more than that, I know they are phonies because they openly champion this greatest phony. This is a man who claims to worship the values of Atlas Shrugged's objectivism, with its stress on personal responsibility and freedom from government regulation of the individual. Yet he is for government restrictions against homosexuals. In his victory speech, Johnson praised his hometown of Oshkosh, yet he would not grant that very same hometown's newspaper an interview (maybe because of how the interview went with the nearby Green Bay Press Gazette). He has been named the "Tea Party" candidate. Yet, his opponent Feingold was endorsed by none other than Bob Barr. He has criticized the bank bailout even while accepting political donations from those same bailed out banks. He lambastes the stimulus and champions tax cuts even though a huge portion of the stimulus was tax cuts. He calls climate change fictive, blaming temperature changes on sun spots. He is anti-government subsidies—yet his business has directly benefited from them. They are him and he is them. And they will all abandon him in six years when he hasn't delivered these people from their disappointment and personal joylessness. A feat which, of course, nobody is capable because they are fundamentally joyless people.
Johnson's election night party was held in the Eagle Hangar at Oshkosh's EAA AirVenture Museum. The rhetoric about smaller government and federal spending cuts washed over the meticulously-preserved aircraft, all a historic record of man's faith in science and his desire to do more than to just say "no." It's a wonderful facility that, in fact, has received significant federal subsidies. Johnson and his smiling and laughing guests, who grabbed rickshaw rides back to their parked cars, probably don't know this, nor would they likely care.