Fear and Loathing in Tampa
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."
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.
Scott's biggest priority in office, though, has echoed his Republican overlords' national plans: Suppress poor and minority voters. Last summer, he signed a law that slashed early voting from 14 days to eight and outlawed voting on the Sunday before an election, coincidentally the day that black churchgoers usually drive en masse to vote for Democrats. The law made it more difficult for liberal-leaning students to update their addresses to get ballots, and it threatened voter-registration groups with fines. Even the Boy Scouts of America took offense.
And Scott targeted Hispanics by ordering a purge of "potentially ineligible" voters from the rolls. It turned out that hundreds were perfectly legit citizens—including one guy who had survived combat in World War II.
You might think you're safe from this insanity in your East Village apartment or Los Angeles rancho, but the Republicans' Frankenstein-like experimentation in Florida is already beginning to spread. The most infamously insane idea to go viral is the Stand Your Ground law, at the heart of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman's defense for fatally shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
Normally, in order to claim self-defense, someone is required to retreat from a threat before opening fire. But in 2005, Florida put the onus on prosecutors to show shooters' lives were not in danger. Soon, the legislation quickly spread to 24 other states.
In Florida, Stand Your Ground has been used by drug dealers to escape murder charges, invoked by one guy after shooting a bear, and cited by a jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the law is unevenly enforced to favor whites over blacks and Hispanics. And researchers at Texas A&M University recently found it has increased homicides across the nation.
Sadly, Stand Your Ground isn't the only scourge Florida has unleashed upon the States. Decades of deregulation have made it the epicenter of the country's foreclosure crisis. That same blind faith in business has also turned it into a veritable Scam-istan, ruled by Ponzi schemers such as retiree-bilking Bernie Madoff, cricket-crazy R. Allen Stanford, golden-toilet-owning attorney Scott Rothstein, bogus University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, and dozens of others.
Meanwhile, poor residents have borne the brunt of steep budget cuts. Programs for mental health, substance abuse, and the homeless have been slashed. So when "Miami Zombie" Rudy Eugene ate the face off of indigent Ronald Poppo a few months ago, Floridians weren't nearly as surprised as the rest of the nation.
Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn has Technicolor nightmares of what could go wrong at the RNC. The moderate Democrat didn't ask for his city to host the event. But if anything goes awry, it will be endlessly looped on television and YouTube, and he'll be blamed.
"Other than the Olympics, this will be the most-watched television event in the world this year," he says. "So yeah, hosting a convention in the middle of hurricane season in this economic and political environment leads to a little gray hair."
Inside the convention center will be titans of industry, the billionaire Koch brothers, hordes of Tea Partiers in tricornered hats, Bill O'Reilly and Fox News freaks, Karl Rove with his Crossroads GPS Super PAColytes, and a few thousand fawning female Christian fundamentalists toting "Enraptured by Paul Ryan" signs.
On the other side of the picket line will be those resisting America's rightward shift: Code Pink matriarchs clad as papier-mâché vulvas, carbon-neutral nouveau hippies, and the moldy leftovers of the Occupy movement. More than 15,000 protesters are expected. Videos threatening violence, supposedly by international hacker group Anonymous, have already been uploaded online.
"Mayor Buckhorn can shove his authoritarian zones up his ass," says a masked protester in one video. "When protest becomes illegal, there is no other option left but to fight."
Buckhorn says demonstrators have nothing to fear: "I've been very clear from the get-go that if you're coming here to protest, you're welcome. But if you step out of line, and if you're coming here to cause mayhem, we are going to deal with you."
The mayor is a cheery man with bright, beady eyes dropped like blueberries onto a doughy face. In true American fashion, he'll be happy if he can survive August with maximum profit and minimum scandal.
"I'm agnostic until the convention is over. For me, it's not about red state, blue state. It's about green," Buckhorn admits, estimating that the convention will bring Tampa more than $175 million.
Bipartisan bonhomie goes only so far, though. The Secret Service prohibits guns within the convention center, but in a state with more than a million concealed-weapons permits, Tampa will be swimming in sidearms. When Buckhorn asked the governor to ban concealed weapons temporarily in town during the convention, Scott scoffed.
"I'm not an anti-gun kind of guy," Buckhorn says. "I've got guns. Up until probably six months ago, I had a concealed-weapons permit. But to interject guns into a potentially combustible environment to me is absurd."
He says Scott's snarky response was probably written by the National Rifle Association. "He has his opinions about the Second Amendment, and he isn't going to let the safety of the public or our police officers get in the way of it."
Scott's decision isn't popular in left-leaning Tampa, but it has gone down well in nearby, rabidly Republican Hillsborough County.
"Who's more likely to have a gun: a pinko commie liberal or a God-fearing Republican?" reasons Joseph Wendt, a Romney supporter in the area. "If you're a bunch of liberal activists going to protest a conservative event where people are legally allowed to carry guns, you better behave."
Buckhorn's stance hasn't exactly endeared him to progressives plotting to protest the convention, either. They decry his plan to put them in three "clean zones" located several blocks from the Times Forum. And they fear retaliation from the 4,000 heavily armed police officers—paid for by a $50 million Homeland Security grant—who will cordon off downtown.
"We're not going to do anything illegal," says Corey Uhl, head of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of South Florida. "But with the recent frame-ups of NATO protesters in Chicago, you never know what the government will do."
Others are arguably already breaking the law. A group called the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign rented the land behind an Army surplus store near the Forum. They spread mulch on the parking lot, set up a portable toilet, erected Pepto-Bismol-pink tents, and called it "Romneyville." Local officials say the tents violate zoning laws, but protesters say they'll handcuff themselves to fences rather than leave.
"Republicans can't ignore us," says Bruce Wright, one of the campaign's organizers. "This is the future of the United States if things don't change."
Buckhorn's office has tried to contain the craziness by barring protesters from bringing props such as puppets and masks. But he will have his hands full with Code Pink's vagina costumes.
The outfits were inspired by an incident last year when a Democratic state rep joked that the only way for a Florida woman to avoid Republicans' invasive reproductive regulations was to "incorporate her uterus." Republicans scolded him for using the word on the House floor.
"These stupid, old boy white men want to legislate our vaginas," says Anita Stewart, a home health care practitioner. "They came out of a vagina and spend the rest of their lives trying to crawl back up in one, but they don't want to hear the word.
"We're not in the 17th century anymore," Stewart says. "Vagina!"
"Governor!" The shout spun Rick Scott away from his budget presentation and toward the press pool. "You benefit from hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year," said a reporter he didn't recognize. "So would you be willing to pee into this cup to prove to Florida taxpayers that you're not on drugs, that you're not using that money for drugs?"
"I've done it plenty of times," Scott stuttered.
"Would you pass this forward to the governor?" the reporter asked, handing another journalist an empty plastic piss cup.
Sadly, Scott didn't take a leak. But the governor had been punked. Two months later, the stunt aired on an episode of The Daily Show, lambasting Scott for his welfare drug testing.
It was the most visible victory yet for a native son bent on airing his home state's unparalleled craziness. "When I first came to Florida as a boy, I said to myself, 'One day, I'm going to ask the governor of this state to give me a urine sample in the middle of a press conference,'" says Aasif Mandvi, the comedian-cum-satirist. "Finally, my dream came true, and I can cross it off my bucket list."
Daily Show host Jon Stewart insists the program is "fake news," yet its skits surgically expose political hypocrisy better than any 60 Minutes piece. Florida is a favorite target, and Mandvi, who grew up in Tampa, is the perfect guide.
Born in Mumbai, Mandvi moved to northern England when he was a year old. Fifteen years later, his shop-owner father saw ads for real estate deals in Florida and moved the family to Tampa. "I came from an all-boys British boarding school to a place where girls were wearing short shorts, and everyone was running around on skateboards," he remembers. "It was completely another dimension for me."
As a Muslim Indian with a British accent, Mandvi was triply out of place. His new neighbors didn't know what to make of him. "I don't think that in the 1980s Americans knew that there were other countries," he jokes. "They knew that the oil came from somewhere, but they weren't sure where exactly."
After high school, he stayed in Tampa to attend the University of South Florida. He majored in theater and later landed a job making fun of guests as part of a wandering improv group at Disney-MGM Studios. Three years later, he moved to New York.
Watching the city grow suspicious of Muslim-Americans following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mandvi turned his comedy political. In Off-Broadway plays, he mined the "idea of sitting between cultures, between East and West, being Muslim-American but having that experience of being a kid in Florida." The Daily Show asked him to audition in 2007, and he was hired the same day.
During the past four years, he has traveled the country for segments, but many of his most memorable moments have happened in the Sunshine State.
"Florida is such a huge piece of the pie in terms of national elections," Mandvi says. "So it becomes a kind of lightning rod for all kinds of political energy. There is a reason why the Republicans are having the convention in Tampa this year."
He pauses before offering another explanation for the locale of next week's event: "You can't ignore the fact that the Republicans are coming and having their convention in the city that has the best strip clubs in the world."
In five years on the campaign trail, Mandvi has learned what to expect from moments like the RNC. In Tampa, there will be a vastly different scene from the one at the Dems' convention in Charlotte.
"The DNC felt like just a big frat party, with kegs and people having a great time and dancing. The after-parties were all video games," he says of the 2008 convention in Denver. "Then the parties at the RNC always seemed to be debutante balls, with ice sculptures and women in ball gowns."
In Florida, The Daily Show won't struggle for material. Just ask executive producer Rory Albanese, who has helped coordinate coverage of six past conventions.
"A lot of that is just because it looks like America's penis," he says of Florida. "We didn't invent that. If it was Long Island, like I'm from, we wouldn't be a very well-hung country."
The Tampa convention also dovetails with two of The Daily Show's most recurring themes: the mainstream media's failings and money's ever-expanding role in politics.
"We all love watching CNN during debates or on election night," Albanese says. "It's like they have Q from the James Bond movies in the basement saying: 'OK, Anderson [Cooper], here is the new jet pack. You're going to be flying around the studio.' What weird piece of technology will CNN have spent $50 million on and have no need for tonight?"
In May, The Daily Show's close cousin, The Colbert Report, poked fun at a mysterious South Floridian named Josue Larose for forming more than 600 PACs and 64 Super PACs, supposedly representing everyone from supermodels to Taco Bell customers.
As usual, Comedy Central's pranks hint at a deeper, darker truth. For months, the Tampa area has been flooded with political attack ads by shady, well-financed Super PACs, says Mayor Buckhorn. On a national scale, these anonymous expenditures could decide the election.
"There is so much political advertising coming through here, none of which is saying anything nice about anybody. And that's true of both sides," he says.
For a moment, Buckhorn sounds almost as cynical as Mandvi peeking behind the political curtain and finding nothing but frat boys drinking and screwing.
"The ads are just nonstop," he admits. "It's gotten to the point where we see so much of it that I almost long for the days of those Cialis ads."
Under the black lights of the Mons Venus strip club, Monica's eyes and teeth glow like St. Elmo's fire. Six-inch stilettos dangle from her toes as she sits at a waist-high table. Her folded arms prop up her bare, surgically enhanced breasts, nipples staring in opposite directions like a gunslinger's pistols. She smells like mint chewing gum and cigarettes.
It's a Monday afternoon. On an octagonal stage, a thin Asian girl grinds her naked hips against a pole as a few customers gaze at the gyrating spectacle.
"It's going to be as big as the Super Bowl," Monica says of the convention, over the heavy thumps of a hip-hop song. "Why do you think they are having it here in Tampa? It's the Mons. People have got to see what it's all about, even Republicans."
For millions of Americans, the RNC will be a pivotal political moment. In picking Romney and Ryan, Republicans will commit to a radical vision in which government and its social role are decimated, while the rich pay lower taxes than at any point since the Spanish flu ravaged the earth.
But for strippers, porn stars, and a small group of savvy small-business owners, the convention means something much simpler: money. And lots of it. They're banking big on the fact that the same guys waxing nobly about family values will be lining up at titty bars after midnight.
"The history we've heard about the RNC is that there are people who will come out and spend, whether it's the delegates or the construction guys setting up and breaking things down," says Tony Hernandez, the manager of the Tampa Gold Club.
Strip clubs have pimped themselves out in anticipation. The Gold Club has installed more black granite and marble tile than in a P. Diddy mansion. There will be $7 grouper nuggets and an $18 veal shank on the menu, Hernandez says, plus Dom Pérignon and cigars, of course. There will also be giant flat-screen monitors, so delegates can tweet about the convention even while getting a lap dance.
But if that isn't elite enough for 1 percenters, they can rent a private skybox with its own bar and stripper stage. A private entrance allows limos to pull right up to the door and prevents paparazzi from snapping politically embarrassing photos. And as a special convention bonus, delegates will also be treated to an assortment of their favorite adult-film stars.
"We're bringing in different porn stars from everywhere," Hernandez says, rattling off names like Nikki Delano and Nina Mercedez.
In fact, nearly every club is already seeing an influx of porn stars, as well as out-of-state and out-of-retirement strippers. Hernandez says his club will keep things strictly apolitical, but others are playing right into the RNC theme.
"I'm going to do my Palin show," says Lisa Ann, a porn star who over the past four years has impersonated the Alaskan VP candidate in classics such as Who's Nailin' Paylin? and the point-of-view flick You're Nailin' Palin.
"I come out in my Sarah Palin suit with my hair up and my glasses, and I dance and strip and give away a lot of Palin paraphernalia," she says of her two-night performance at Thee DollHouse. "It's going to be fun."
Ann, who once appeared in a live sex scene with a Mitt Romney look-alike almost as stiff as the real thing, swears her performance isn't political commentary. "I'm sure that there will be a bunch of people from the convention there," she says. "But I'm not here to make fun of politicians."
There is at least one Tampa luminary for whom flashing t&a will be about more than making some cash. Joe Redner, the 72-year-old owner of Mons Venus, is a philosophizing free-speech advocate who has donated his land to the Occupy Tampa movement. He's also a pain in local politicians' asses. In 1976, Redner took over a bar called the Night Gallery, and after hearing on the radio about the Supreme Court's decision to allow nudity in movies, he concluded that nude dancing would have to be protected as well.
For years, Redner played cat-and-mouse with Tampa police. When a woman stripped onstage, undercover cops would arrest her. But as soon as they took her outside, Redner would replace her with another. Then he'd go bail out the first woman. "It took nine girls on a three-girl rotation for us not to get shut down," he says, laughing. "They ran out of undercovers!"
Redner himself was arrested dozens of times. Eventually, he won an injunction against the city's nudity ordinance. Since then, he has run eight times for political office. In 2007, he lost in a runoff for city council with 44 percent of the vote. He has pretended in court to be gay in order to prevent a homophobic law from being enforced. His battles have pitted him against Hillsborough County Christian fundamentalists such as State Senator Ronda Storms, who has likened Redner to the Devil.
Like other strip-club owners, Redner says he looks forward to taking Republicans' money. But he sees it as long-overdue economic redistribution from the rich to the poor. (His dancers are self-employed and receive 100 percent of their lap dance fees and tips.)
"The big businesses, energy companies, and banks that back the Republicans have been stealing from the little people for years," he says. "Now, we're going to take some of their money. I'm glad to."
Redner doesn't hide his opinions. He doesn't have time to. He's got stage-four lung cancer and a deep cough that reminds him of his inevitable death. He doesn't want to see the country he has gone to jail for more than 150 times—yes, a country with titty bars and pornography—thrown out for a reactionary Reich.
"I'm already used to the invasion of conservatives," he says. "They've invaded our whole country and taken over our whole system."
He won't be in town for the RNC. Instead, he'll be in Vegas for a strip-club convention. It's better that way, he says. In Sin City, Redner won't have to watch Mitt Romney preach about "family values" while calling for a war with Iran.
Redner wants no part of Romney's America. He gazes around at his club. "I prefer to be in here with the decent humans," he says.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.