The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 29 : 29


losing the plot These were exiles from Castro, or the children of those exiles. I have heard them nicknamed by other Spanish-speakers, “mummies” – so right-wing they seem to have emerged from an ancient tomb. I sat next to a Cuban American named Eva Exposito; she had stopped voting for the Democrats because “Obama was lazy”. I was trying to unlisten to a confused exegesis on sharia law when a woman in sincere business attire approached, and handed me a sheet of paper and a pen. “We’re just checking everyone is registered,” she said, tapping her “list”. “This paper is blank,” I said. “Well, I recognise everyone else,” she said. Next she “checked” a young black woman on the other side of the room, before returning to me. This seemed a cheap intimidato­ry gesture, but it turned out she had just forgotten our first encounter, though it was only five minutes earlier. Florida 27 is more than 70 per cent Hispanic, but President Trump’s “Mexicans are rapists” outreach program had not salted the earth. In fact, half these people probably agreed with him, and that made Maria Elvira Salazar’s job difficult. She was running as a broad-appeal candidate – pro-business, distinct from Trump, willing to call him to account, wanting to do something about climate change. Tonight, she was addressing an audience who did not want her to do any of those things. She reached the small stage to applause that felt somehow investigat­ory. Her manner was charismati­c, but she was uncertain without an autocue, and her ad-libs clanged. It was a tough crowd. “I believe we have an opportunit­y to keep the seat,” she said. “Miss Shalala is not part of this community. She did not go to school with the Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelan­s, Colombians … and more Colombians. And of course the Americans.” [Pause for laughter … no laughter.] “See, I’m trying to be funny,” she continued. The dynamic had gone open-mic night. She looked into the bleak faces of the audience for signs of human warmth and did not find it. She tried to talk about bipartisan­ship, and accountabi­lity, and the environmen­t (Florida’s Republican­s have been forced to acknowledg­e sea-level rise), and in response the room tumble-weeded. Marshland was seized on, but not in the way she was hoping. “The swamp!” someone called out, and Salazar said, “Let’s not call it the swamp. Let’s call it Washington connection­s.” At one stage she said, “The difference between Obama and Trump is that Obama knew how to talk. He had finesse,” a sentiment so comically unpopular it seemed almost heroic. It held together, fractious but lively, until the Q&A session. Even then, sanity remained until we hit the caravan. “These are human beings,” Salazar said, but the audience weren’t so sure they agreed. “It’s an invasion!” someone yelled. Here we go. It was “not a complete accident that it started two weeks ago”, said someone else. “Soros!” an old Jewish woman cried out, and after one extra-long ramble Salazar let her hands drop. She was curious and exasperate­d, back to the posture of a journalist instead of a candidate, asking questions instead of answering them. Why would someone fund the caravan? How was this supposed to work? “If just one person pushes someone … you’re in trouble” was the theory. If a Border Patrol agent beat someone, America would be morally blackmaile­d into taking “them”. An orgy of nodding. There was concurrenc­e. There was liberation, something breaking free. “To create division.” “Maybe it was CNN that started it.” “Listen to her – she is a psychologi­st!” Salazar made some enthusiasm-free statement about putting people on planes and sending them back home, and finally hit serious applause. Then people started complainin­g about their pensions. Obama didn’t increase them enough. A room full of migrants complainin­g the US government doesn’t give them enough welfare, all hopped up on Fox News and Facebook videos. Unreal. I turned to my seatmate in the aftermath. “Eva,” I said, “I’m curious – what separates you from those Guatemalan­s? You were a migrant once.” “We don’t want them,” she said. “Well, many Americans didn’t want you either,” I said. “We came here legally,” she said. “Only because of an open border policy. The Mariel Boatlift – that was 100,000 people, not 2000 people.” “We don’t want them.” “And that group was full of criminals, and patients from mental hospitals. ‘Castro flushing the toilet,’ people called it.” “Richard, I’ll tell you a little secret. Cubans have always been the Americans’ favourites.” By the wall were two state legislatur­e Republican candidates, Chamber of Commerce types who looked almost as stunned as me. “What was all that about?” I asked one of them. His business card said he was called “Jonathan ‘J.P.’ Parker”. “A lot of Cubans got here under a policy called ‘wet foot, dry foot’, where if they made it to the United States they were citizens,” he said. “And that makes them feel special.” “I understand that shut-the-door psychology,” I said. “But these people are slamming the door. A room full of Cubans and Jews, peeling the paint about refugees. I’ve never seen anything like it.” He did his best Brooks Brothers smile and touched me on the shoulder before he said, “Welcome to Miami.” momia reporter Dave Weigel is probably the best race-by-race electoral analyst around. All the way back in February 2017, he tweeted, “Honestly the funniest 2018 result would be: Dems win the majority based on suburbs after reporters spend two years canvassing rural diners.” And that’s what happened. Salazar lost, and so did Carlos Curbelo, her partymate over in Florida 26. Curbelo, one of the only Republican congressme­n to legislate against climate change, moderated so hard that he seemed reluctant to even encourage people to vote for him. At a town hall I attended, Curbelo was asked what he would say to someone planning to vote for his opponent. He answered, “Good for you.” Maybe he was throwing it. The Washington Post 27

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