A man is yelling at Jeb Bush, and Jeb is cowering.
The man’s name is Austin Sissel, 28, and, at an event in Sioux City, Iowa, he is screaming about net neutrality. Bush, who 30 seconds earlier was going into intricate, exhausting, stuttering detail about how he took on the teachers unions in Florida, had been speaking to a room full of supporters at Bev’s on the River, an upscale but still homey restaurant with a lovely view of the Missouri River that separates Iowa and Nebraska. He was taking questions from the audience and mentioned that he only had time for one more.
Sissell, who had asked a question already, blurted out, “What are you going to do about net neutrality?” Bush, after a moment, wearily trudged out a long, dutiful answer about free markets and government staying out of private business, a wonky, tech-heavy discourse that seemed to baffle the almost-exclusively elderly audience. But Sissell apparently didn’t like the answer, because he began shouting nonsense. “What are you doing about stalking people on Facebook? Why can people just go after anyone? Can’t you stop the stalking?”
Now, I had met Sissell before the event began, when he showed up with a baby goat.
Despite repeated questioning, Sissell was unable to come up with a coherent reason as to why he wanted to give a baby goat to the former governor of Florida, other than some confusion about a website he hoped to launch “someday” called GoatTV.com. (“It’s the year of the goat!” he said.) Sissell was accompanied by a friendly, patient older man who told me he was here to make sure Sissell “behaved.” “Sometimes I make a bit of a fuss,” Sissell told me, before going into a long-winded theory about why Jeb’s brother George was the only reason his direct-e-mail business—“spam, you know, like those e-mail messages you ignore, you can make money off those, you know?”—had failed to take off eight years ago. Sissell seemed like a nice man, and certainly not dangerous or threatening, but by the time the restaurant manager informed him that bringing a barnyard animal into an eating establishment was probably not something that was going to happen, I concluded that Sissell was, well, perhaps a bit off.
So when I saw Sissell yell his question at Bush, I worried for him: He was starting to get looks from around the room. But Bush’s reaction was what was most telling. When Sissell shouted, Bush—instinctively, but undeniably—flinched. He pulled backward, as if startled by a spider. He then recovered and went into his net neutrality spiel. But when Sissell found that answer unsatisfying and began screaming about Facebook stalking, Bush did something that might just sum up his entire campaign: He turned away, muttered a line about “I’m sorry, sir, I’m not the one who stalked you on Facebook” that would have sounded like a joke had Bush the heart to deliver it as one. Then he went silent for a few seconds. He looked down at the floor. Two men standing by the door escorted Sissell out as he yelled more about Facebook. Bush clasped his hands and waited for them to finish and shut the door behind them.
He adjusted the glasses on his face and composed himself. “All right, maybe we have time for one more question.”
Jeb Bush is a fundamentally decent person, and his followers are fundamentally decent people. They are supporting him because they supported his father and therefore they are supporting him. (A man sitting next to me at the event said, “What kind of guy would I be if I didn’t come out for him when he needed me most?” his tone sad, almost wistful.) The crowd at Bev’s was entirely white, mostly well-dressed—people dress a lot nicer at a Jeb Bush meet-up than they do at a Ted Cruz or Donald Trump rally—and very, very old. This was commented upon several times during the event, even once by Bush himself. The room was polite and kind and awfully quiet.
I sat next to a woman named Joanne Balantine, who is 84 years old and plans on being a precinct captain for Bush. She has been hosting events for the Bush family for years in Iowa, and she and her husband even had Neil Bush stay at their home for a night. (“He’s a very kind man.”) Joanne asked to see pictures of my children, and thanked me for not staring at my phone while talking to her (“That’s so rude when people do that”). And she’s worried about Jeb. “He looks tired, and like he’s lost too much weight,” she said, pausing. “I just wish he were doing better.”
Bush is an awkward campaigner by his own admission. (“I look at those guys on the debate stage, with the way they talk, and heck, I’m envious,” he says at one point.) He stammers a lot, he changes direction, he loses his train of thought, he struggles for words, he chases thoughts down corridors, leaving anyone trying to listen far behind. He knows what he’s talking about—he goes into more detail on specific policies and issues than any other candidate I’ve seen in Iowa—but he’s just not good at communicating that fact. He hasn’t run for a public office in more than 11 years and it has obviously shown this entire campaign. It’s why that exclamation point in his logo was so devastating to him, why it’s so easily mocked: an exclamation point is the exact wrong way to describe Bush. He is an ellipsis, at best.
Bush’s deficiencies as a candidate have been well-documented—he has the long-winded wandering of his father without the message focus, he has the slack cadence of his brother without the Texas have-a-beer-with-that-guy folksiness—but more than anything, he has seemed completely out of step with the temperament of the times. Cruz is going to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State. Trump is one constant scream. But Bush just doesn’t have this side to his personality, because, well, most people don’t. I mean, how would you respond to this?
Bush has never been the same since Trump did that to him and it's hard not to think, his posture has the slack of the bullied. The problem with being bullied is that trying to respond on the bully’s level just makes you, because you are not a bully, look weak. This was what Saturday Night Live got so right about Bush, in such a cruel way.
Once you are in the public consciousness like this, you can’t escape it. Now it is worth nothing that this does not in fact mean Bush is weak. This is all performance after all: All told, I bet Bush could probably take Trump is a fistfight, if it (gloriously) came to that. But Bush knows how people see him now and it comes through in every statement. Even at the Trump-less debate on Thursday, Bush couldn’t muster up fake bluster and brawn. He did fine. But he wasn’t that. And he’ll never be that.
This has led to confusion and, ultimately, acceptance about Bush from his supporters, who can see where all this is going and mostly just feel bad for him. Balantine says watching Trump on television just makes her upset, so much that she has to turn the TV off. “Is this what people want?” she says. “I’m glad [Jeb’s] not like that.” Bush is seven years younger than Trump but feels decades older, a throwback to a time when nice people could get into a room together and politely applaud for him and pretend they’re interested in hearing lax stemwinders about tax credits. There was a time when this room of wealthy older white people just trying to hang onto the lives they and their families have constructed for generations was the whole world of politics. It is no longer. It’s not Bush's fault. It’s not his supporters'. It’s just the way it is.
And Bush is obviously threatened and spooked by it. His talk was fine, and polite, easy-listening Jello for a crowd not looking to be challenged. But he can hear the demons outside the room, the bullies, the rampaging hordes who have shifted the terrain beneath them. So when Sissell began yelling about net neutrality and Facebook stalking, Bush instinctively recoiled: This calm place that had been constructed for him had been invaded and coarsened, once again. Bush could have firmly rejected Sissell, had him kicked out the way other candidates forcible remove anyone who makes such a public fuss.
But this is not who Bush is. When the invading hordes push him, he does not push back. He looks down at the floor and politely waits for them to leave. This is honorable and decent and the most mature way to handle the situation if you are in the interest of an elevated public discourse and basic human decency. But you can wait all you want. Sometimes, well, sometimes they don’t leave.