Fear and Loathing in Tampa

From cash-hungry strippers to protesters dressed as vaginas, your gonzo guide to the Republican National Convention

As Republicans prepared to renominate Richard Nixon for president, journalist Hunter S. Thompson had a moment of clarity inside his Miami Beach hotel room.

"This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves," Thompson wrote in his classic Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. "We are really just a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."

Now, 40 years later, the Republican National Convention is returning to Florida. On August 30, Mitt Romney will don a sleek suit and flash his Vaseline smile to a sea of pale-skinned delegates in Tampa. He will compliment the city on hosting the four-day, $123 million orgiastic event. And he will implore the crowd to obey the banners hung from the rafters: "Believe in America."

Rick Sealock
Rick Sealock

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Outside the towering Tampa Bay Times Forum, meanwhile, ornery unbelievers will be confined like cattle to designated protest zones. There will be Black Bloc anarchists, Code Pink soccer moms dressed as giant vaginas, a poor people's camp called Romneyville, and tens of thousands of Ron Paul fanatics descending like libertarian locusts to devour whatever scraps their septuagenarian savior tosses them.

Barred by city officials from bringing masks, puppets, or tricycles, the malcontents will be surrounded by 4,000 heavily armed police officers—not to mention a city full of conservatives with concealed weapons and a distaste for godless liberals. More than 35,000 diehard believers will jet into town for a week of GOP glitz, gluttony, and gun worship. They'll be joined by 15,000 headline-hunting journalists and another 15,000 protesters.

The RNC's return to the Sunshine State is no fluke. For Romney and the rest of the party, Florida is the future.

Since Nixon's days, conservatives have transformed Florida into a hellish post-governmental wasteland. Here, Super PACs run wild through suburbs in foreclosure, people trust in only God or their Glocks, and the poor are left to literally cannibalize one another on the nightly news. But hey, there's no state income tax!

As in '72, Florida is the template for a right-wing takeover in 2012. Pay attention, America, because this crazy, collapsed state could soon be yours, too.

Americans have long known Florida as the tacky tropical paradise where grandparents go to die, a peninsula of endless sandy beaches and unlimited cottage cheese. Then came the 2000 election, and like a maggot-infested mango, the Sunshine State was revealed to be full of crap.

The backwardness goes way beyond blowing the election and ushering Dubya into office. Decades of conservative dominance in the capitol have made Florida into a dystopian test kitchen for Republicans' craziest ideas. Mass deregulation coupled with hacked education budgets has made Ponzi schemes the state's biggest industry. More than a million residents are packing heat. And murder is essentially legal thanks to the Stand Your Ground law.

But all the evidence you need of Florida's dysfunction comes from a quick study of the state's fearless leaders—the ones America will soon meet via cable-news broadcasts from Tampa.

Let's start at the top: At the head of the crazy parade is Governor Rick Scott. His poll numbers read like a thermometer in Reykjavík. For good reason. With his pale, shaved head and unblinking eyes, he looks—and governs—like Lord Voldemort.

Scott's shadiness preceded his election by decades. As a young lawyer in Texas, he turned a $125,000 investment in two hospitals into a massive health care empire. Then the feds came sniffing around. They accused Scott's company—Columbia/HCA—of billing Medicare and Medicaid for bogus lab tests and charging the government for luxuries such as Kentucky Derby tickets. When the investigation went public in 1997, Columbia/HCA's board booted Scott, but not before handing him $10 million in cash and $300 million worth of stock. Three years later, the company pleaded guilty to 14 corporate felonies and paid the government a record $1.7 billion in fees.

You'd think the stink from the largest Medicare fraud case in history would stick to Scott, but in 2010, he ran for governor and dropped more than $75 million of his fortune to recast himself—like Romney—as an entrepreneur. He won by just 1 percent over Democrat Alex Sink (a candidate so bland she's best remembered today as the great-granddaughter of a Siamese twin circus performer).

Scott's two years in office have been a nightmare of GOP talking points turned reality. First, he pushed through a law requiring drug tests for welfare applicants, saying it was "unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction." Instead, taxpayers have subsidized $200,000 worth of tests, many of them conducted by a company owned by Scott's wife. Capitalism! (Oh, and so far, only 2 percent of the tests have come back positive.) Never mind the fact that the law is likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.

Scott didn't stop there. He also required drug tests of every state employee (because society falls apart if the dudes at the DMV smoke a joint once in a while) and signed a truly bizarre law banning doctors from discussing gun ownership with their patients. He let local governments steamroll the Everglades and then rejected a $2.4 billion high-speed rail system between Orlando and Tampa (which was to be paid entirely by the feds and private businesses). Why? Because trains are communist, you pinko.

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