An excerpt from the new book, From the Campaign Trail or Thereabouts, which is available now.
Desperate to break a story in the final weeks of the 2016 election, journalist Harold Carlyle arrives at the second presidential debate in St. Louis, where he mills around the press area hoping to catch wind of a scoop.
Harold approached the outer edges of a dense circle of men and women huddled around a small TV screen. Standing on his tiptoes, he craned over their hunched heads, hoping to get a glimpse of the candidates. He could see the top half of a middle-aged person’s yellow hair but, unable to hear, could not make out who was talking or what had occurred.
“Who do you think is winning?” a woman with dyed black hair asked the collective.
“Well, Trump had a poor performance last time, so he should come back,” a reedy, pale man in his early thirties with a thin, slightly creased face and deliberately rumpled clothes answered determinatively.
Harold searched his pockets for his notepad. He leaned toward a man with a shaved head and stubble standing next to him. “Do you have a pen?” he whispered. The man shook his head no. “Trump should come back, Trump should come back,” Harold murmured to himself, hoping to memorize the information.
A broad-shouldered man with dark-rimmed circular glasses and slicked-down silver hair leaned closer to the screen from his place in the huddle. “You can see where Trump’s answers are direct and forceful,” he commented. “He’s drawing a clear distinction in leadership styles.”
“Mmm,” concurred a slim African-American man in a charcoal suit and cobalt blue tie. “Yeah, that should play well. I think we’re in the second act of the debate now? Hillary’ll start to fall short of the audience’s expectations. She’s getting too nuanced, and this election is about clear change.”
“You think that makes sense for the character?” a bouffanted woman with glistening gold bracelets asked skeptically. “Hillary’s well-defined as haughty and morally dubious, but not nuanced, necessarily.”
“Good point,” the African-American man agreed. He thought for a moment. “Well, she hasn’t talked about her paid speeches.”
“There we go. Although she was typically competent, she conspicuously avoided addressing any of the scandals that have plagued her candidacy.”
Harold shook his head in wonder. “Where do they get these scoops?” he whispered to himself. “It’s like watching Brian Wilson record Pet Sounds.” He studied the faces of the people standing around him, searching their eyes and pensive expressions for stories unwritten. He took a step closer to the man with the shaved head. “What network are you from?” Harold asked.
“You’re not with CNN?” the man asked skeptically.
“Oh, um,” Harold began.
“Oh, wait, you’re with CNN-Netherlands, right?” A look of recognition swept across the man’s face. “You guys speak English better than we do,” he complimented gruffly.
“You speak very well, yourself!” Harold smiled, affecting what he felt was a Dutch accent. “Harold van der Kampt.”
“Brandon Christopher.” They shook hands.
“So, how’s it going?” Harold asked. “There are so many leads here, it is crazy!”
Brandon nodded knowingly. “Absolutely electric. Unbelievable, some of the shit I’ve heard.”
Harold leaned in conspiratorially. “What have you heard?”
Brandon looked around. “You know Trump Model Management?” he whispered.
Harold contemplated whether to nod yes or no. “Brandon!” the African-American man called, clapping him on the back. “You’re missing this! He’s stalking her!”
“Ah, damn!” Brandon exclaimed, turning his attention back to the TV. “He’s like a hunter on the prowl.”
“Definitely,” the man with slicked gray hair said. “He’s appealing to voters’ preternatural instincts. In prehistoric times, the leader of a tribe would have been the best hunter. And the most sexually virile.”
“America is seeing the presidential pivot,” Brandon commented, rubbing his chin. “It took Bannon and Kellyanne a little while to find that balance and shape his tone, but I think tonight we’re seeing a more refined version of the elemental qualities that attracted Americans to him.”
“Did you see how deftly he handled that ‘puppet’ question? He reframed the entire exchange. That’s a new discipline we didn’t see in the primaries.”
Harold followed the exchange, mouth half-agape, as the journalists bounced analysis from one to another like a volleyball match. “New discipline,” he whispered to himself. “Trump should…damn it.” He had forgotten what Trump should do, his thoughts clouded by vague images of primates and dominance rituals.
“Tell me, are elections in Holland as crazy as they are here?” Brandon asked Harold, his eyes still fixed on the TV screen.
“No, non,” Harold said, drifting in and out of accents. “They are more…respectful? But we have many political parties. It is not like here.”
“I’ve heard that,” Brandon nodded. “You have, like, Nazis and Socialists running for parliament over there, right?”
“Uh, ouais. Yes.”
“That’s nuts. Like seeing World War II play out every couple years. Must be a blast to cover those elections.”
“Yes, yes. Very stimulating.” Harold paused. “Also, we have many beautiful cathedrals.” Brandon looked at him. “It is not related to the elections, but it is a very nice part of living there.”