The first thing you see when you step onto the dock on Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands, is a two-story Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett’s chain restaurant, decorated in neon parrots.
The night before, I’d been invited to lunch with John O’Sullivan, a British columnist for the National Review who is white-haired and speaks in a compellingly slow and erudite Queen’s English, often about the dangers of “Islamists.” He lives in Alabama with his wife, Melissa, who has the lilting accent and winsome charm of a southern socialite. She asked me with genuine concern about the problem of Muslims owning all the taxi medallions in New York City. “How the hell did that happen?” she asked.
With six other cruisers, we ventured to a restaurant called Grand Old House, recommended to O’Sullivan by Richard Rahn, the supply-side economist who helped bolster the Caymans as a tax haven for people like Mitt Romney. It’s a Colonial-style restaurant that might make a good set for a movie about nineteenth-century plantation owners: a view of the Caribbean through white columns, complete with rattan furniture and slow-moving ceiling fans carved into the shape of palm leaves.
Over tuna tartare and caviar and a bottle of 2008 Byron Chardonnay, O’Sullivan, wearing a pink oxford and Wayfarers perched on the tip of his nose, discussed issues as diverse as modern slavery, Hispanic Catholicism, male prison rape, and the preservation of “the Anglosphere,” which he defined as the former British colonies “who use English as their common means of communication.”
During a discussion of Iran, a tall, jovial foreign-policy columnist named John Thomson was shouted down by everyone at the table for calling Barack Obama “an intelligent man.” “He’s not with us,” whispered a woman named Nancy from Key Biscayne.
I casually mentioned that the phrase “Anglosphere” was perhaps unfortunate given the right’s image problem as a majority white party. O’Sullivan agreed they might need a different word.
“We haven’t done our marketing that well,” conceded Thomson. “That was Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney messaged whiteness. That was one of his greatest failings. ‘I’m a white Anglo-Saxon.’ ”
Melissa O’Sullivan, the Alabaman wife of John, wasn’t buying the idea that Republicans had alienated minorities. “We’ve invited them to join us!” she insisted.
Susan from Princeton granted that the Republican Party is “lily white and it’s a problem and it is messaging and Mitt Romney screwed up royally.”
But Ms. O’Sullivan again took umbrage. As everyone went silent, she recalled a conference she attended in Australia in which a liberal nun (who “didn’t even have the decency to wear a habit”) criticized America for its “inner-city racism.” Offended, Ms. O’Sullivan recounted what she wished she’d said to this nun:
“Pardon me, madam, but I have been in your country of Australia for ten days and the only Aborigines I’ve seen have been drunk on the street, and at least if we were in my country they would be serving the drinks at this conference!”
Ms. O’Sullivan then warned against watering down the purity of the conservative agenda to placate minorities or, as she put it, rather succinctly, “the bastardization of the product.”
Under the shade of some palm trees, Ralph Reed took off his shirt and fed an orange to a giant iguana.
Day five, Friday afternoon, and we were on a white-sand beach in Honduras, biding our time until a boat would take us offshore to snorkel over the shipwreck. Even Reed, among the youngest people on the cruise, was in a way a figure from an earlier time. Rob Long, the right-wing Hollywood writer, told me the night before, over cocktails on the midship deck, “I like Ralph Reed, but he’s done.”
“We lost,” Long continued during a long interview over coffee later that week. “We are losers.”
Which meant they must necessarily compromise. The C-word I heard nowhere else onboard during this cruise, except from Long, the self-appointed Cassandra who told the crowd the night before that “our operatives are incompetent and we live in a dream world.”
“That’s what losers do, they compromise,” Long told me as Freddie Mercury belted out “Somebody to Love” over the cafeteria sound system.
On Saturday morning, I found myself in a hot tub with Dorothy from Utah. Late seventies, short hair, nice tan, sparkly blue eyes. Her husband collapsed in the heat in Jamaica, and she was monitoring him while he ate breakfast under an umbrella. Dorothy voted for Romney and was so devastated when he lost that she spent the day after the election praying for America.
It was hard to lose. And losing didn’t always bring out the best in people. They were struggling to comprehend the rejection, to understand how it had come to this. As talk turned to her family, Dorothy lamented the misfortunes of her oldest son, who she said was stolen from her by “the seventies,” which was her code for drugs. She had grown up in the early fifties and was utterly bewildered by the sixties, ill-equipped to navigate the cultural upheaval. At 58, her son was now divorced and unemployed, living in various campsites, and she didn’t know who to blame. I saw tears on her cheeks and I put my hand on her shoulder. “I’m afraid,” she told me. “Write that. We’re scared to death.”
Indeed, that sense of fear was everywhere on the ship, fear of an impending debt crisis that would crush all fortunes, fear that the Anglo majority was now marginal for the first time in their adult lives, fear that the country the cruisers once knew had fully given way to something more … diverse, foreign, incomprehensible.