GREENVILLE, SC - What’s a Democrat like me doing at a Republican debate, you might ask? In my case, the opportunity had presented itself and I thought, “Why not?” It was a hot ticket. Some 25,000 people had entered a lottery, initially open to the general public, for just over 2,000 seats. As it turned out, the Republican National Committee decided to hand pick ticket recipients instead.
Approaching the venue, the performing arts complex known as the Peace Center, I saw a typically sedate downtown Greenville exploding in a riot of Republicans carrying party signs. Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz supporters dominated my field of vision, with a far lesser number heralding Donald Trump and Gov. John Kasich. Even fewer “Jeb!” banners were visible but not one Ben Carson sign caught my eye. In front of the secured area, two Rubio Robots — dancing what else but “The Robot” — entertained an appreciative crowd before being completely obscured by a bunch of chanting Rubio supporters.
In the meantime, a large pick-up truck pulling a silver Airstream travel trailer and covered in Kasich banners tried to fit into a narrow parking spot in front of a nearby Netflix “House of Cards” pop-up structure. Inside was a recreation of the show’s Oval Office e where fans could be photographed sitting in the “president’s chair.” As the trailer ripped the front bumper off an unoccupied silver Nissan compact, those waiting to get into the NetFlix venue reacted with a mixture of horror and amusement.
The truck’s driver got out, smiled at the crowd and placed his business card under the Nissan’s wiper. Just moments later, the trailer was seen circling the block followed by a flashing Greenville Police car, resulting in cheers from the crowd.
Earlier that morning, I had stopped at Clinton’s headquarters and picked up a few stickers, one of which I stuck onto my coat’s lapel. Upon learning of my plans for the evening, a young office worker expressed concern about my wearing it to the debate. “South Carolinians can be brutal,” said the New Jersey native. I had to smile at the thought of a New Jersey guy calling South Carolinians brutal.
But when I tried to get a photo in front of all the chaos outside, a man immediately yelled “There’s an H!” and spewed anti-Hillary sentiments at me. I have to admit that I naively hadn’t expected such a rude reaction in a part of the country known for its manners and hospitality. I hadn’t exactly planned to wear it into the forum but that settled it. No sticker.
Stepping inside the auditorium was surreal. You see enough of these debates on television to feel as if you’ve “been there and done that” but nothing prepares you for being there live.
Mega-bright lights blasted the space and a sea of red seemed to emanate from the stage. Just weeks before, I had been in that very theater to see the play, Matilda, featuring a cast of adorable little girls. The only little girls I saw on Saturday night belonged to Cruz (sitting stage left), and I questioned the wisdom of allowing them to attend.
Right before the debate went on the air, a small army of young Republican “fillers” excitedly took the ticketed seats that remained empty. As VIPS made last-minute arrivals, their faces fell as they were forced to vacate their seats.
As the candidates were announced and made their ways to their assigned podiums, it still felt as if I were looking at my television screen but once the energy of the crowd began to surge around me, all that changed. I felt my heart rate rise. It’s one thing to listen to them from the comfort of one’s own home it’s another to be there in person. My disbelief at their ideas increased upon actually seeing and hearing the candidates. At points during the evening, I would close my eyes and imagine myself at a boxing match or on a roller coaster, with the screams of the riders rising with each plunge.
Based on applause alone, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz seemed to be the crowd favorites, followed by Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson. While Bush seemed more invigorated than he has ever appeared on television, Carson seemed even more subdued.
And though he did not receive the most applause, Trump appeared defiant and ready for a fight, and as far as his supporters were concerned, he did not disappoint.
A moment of silence in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was the only quiet and reverent part of an evening that was later likened by the press to a World Wrestling event with a bit of Jerry Springer thrown in for good measure.
From my vantage point I could see just one lone black woman seated in the middle of the crowd. I did not notice any Latinos. The only Asian people I saw were two men who were trying to take photos in front of the stage.
There were quite a few young couples present. In fact, I had never seen so many fancily clad professionals outside of a wedding. Men with carefully sculpted hair stood in serious suits and ties while the women milled about in form-fitting cocktail dresses, blingy jewelry and stilettos. Many wore their newly coiffed Texas-style hair and clutched designer bags proudly. One woman donned a pair of over-the-elbow black gloves.
As they posed for photos, I was reminded of a homecoming dance. Couple after couple entered the restricted area for an elevated shot near the stage despite an elderly usher’s repeated requests to clear the area.
The roar of the crowd echoed throughout the auditorium all evening, finally erupting into an unrestrained booing fest when Donald Trump attacked Bush over Iraq. The civility that had marked the beginning of the debate soon became a distant memory as the audience seemed to feed off a mixture of supportive cheers, negative howling and even booing as the evening progressed.
During one break, CBS News anchor and moderator John Dickerson asked the audience to please lower their volume but that did not help at all.
The candidates spent the bulk of the evening chastising one another. Adults learn not to interrupt each other, Cruz reminded Trump. “Cruz is a nasty guy and a bigger liar than Bush,” Trump reminded the crowd. Bush said he was tired of Trump attacking his family. And I was reminded of a bunch of kids who had gotten into trouble and were all blaming each other.
Cruz doesn’t really speak Spanish, Rubio said. Cruz responded in Spanish saying he and Rubio could continue the dialogue in Spanish if Rubio liked. Seriously, people? The only issue they all seemed to agree upon was that President Obama should not be permitted to nominate the next Supreme Court justice.
Kasich probably uttered the wisest words of the debate: “I think we’re fixin’ to lose this election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this!”
During commercial breaks, I noticed Bush and Rubio interacting and shaking hands with members of the audience. Cruz bent down from the stage to talk to his wife and daughters during a break. Whenever Trump crossed the stage, his demeanor suggested that he had just added the Peace Center to his list of acquisitions. During the finale, the contenders shook hands and smiled tightly. When the cameras went black, the facade was dropped.
I come from an extended family of Republicans, which can make it difficult, to say the least, at family gatherings.
Native New Yorkers, some of my family members seem to have become even more radicalized since moving down South. One of my sisters is now raising her sons to embrace the gun culture—which is heartbreaking and inconceivable to me. But there is no point in confronting her. Her hostility seems to simmer just below the surface, ready to erupt whenever someone doesn’t share her views.
For better or for worse, my response to political talk during family gatherings is to find a reason to leave the room. For me, the Democratic Party champions a fair and compassionate society and is my obvious choice. We need to help and support one another, not waste our time focused exclusively on ourselves. How is it possible for so many of us to care so little about others?
Now, imagine an entire concert hall brimming with views, as well as attitudes, that vastly contradict your own? I felt the sudden desire to test drive a Democratic debate. Would it be different? Would I feel at home? Instead of feeling angry at this debate, I found myself feeling sad.
It disturbs me that we are so divided a country that our current president, a man of great intelligence and compassion, is still not treated with the respect and support he deserves.
I also felt fear — fear that someone like Trump could be garnering so much support. I certainly never thought he’d make it this far.
It was almost midnight as I made my way through an array of human and canine security and headed out into an unusually frigid South Carolina night. As I passed the explosion of Republican campaign lawn signs that seemed to overwhelm every bit of green space downtown, I took in the quiet of the night sky and let out a huge sigh of relief.
Kate Stanton has 20 plus years of writing for a variety of national
magazines, newspapers and websites. A natlve New Yorker, she currently
lives in South Carolina where she loves the weather but hates its rabid gun