Nobody saw it coming. We all got it wrong. Big league. Sure, there were warning signs but nobody took them seriously. Yeah, okay, there were obvious structural failures worming through and weakening the entire system for years—generations!— and it took this disaster to throw them into such sharp relief that we are all now just kind of standing here, shell-shocked, scratching our dumb heads, wondering who to blame.
Enter Matt Taibbi, intrepid reporter for Rolling Stone and his new book Insane Clown President. He knows who to blame and, more importantly, how to make it stick. Maybe it was his training as a journalist, or his quasi-coronation as the heir to Hunter S. Thompson on the campaign trail for Rolling Stone. Maybe his years spent raking through the murky depths of America’s corporate governance and its inexorable descent into the present-day institutionalized predation of working people has placed him in the unique position to write a detailed, analytical, and yet humorous and exciting book about this most tragic and historical campaign season.
Taibbi did not predict Herr Trump’s ultimate, gloriously obscene victory. He laughed and lamented right along with the rest us, shuddering in horror at all the appropriate times, postulating what this or that obscenity really meant for the future of the American Experiment. He may have made a bad call as to the final score, but he got the play-by-play right throughout the campaign.
Taibbi grounds his account of the 2016 election, taken mostly from stories he filed for Rolling Stone, in his earlier observation of the growing distrust by the public of the government, politicians, the media and all other “elites.” In 2008 he wrote a book called The Great Derangement in which he shows these fissures opening up along the fault lines between “the people” and the so-called “elites.” He feared a future “in which facts would gravitate more and more toward conspiratorial politics. This situation was fueled by the repeated failures of once-trusted institutions to respond to the frustrations of ordinary people.”
Those failures include the off-shoring of good jobs, the failure to raise wages, the failure to punish bankers after the housing crisis, the as-yet unresolved healthcare crisis, and anything else people were upset about and have been upset about for twenty or thirty years. The entire Republican platform has been, for decades, to blame the politicians who run Washington for not caring about the working family, the inefficiency of government, and the liberal elites from the coasts not really caring about the regular guy, either, but hey, vote for me for another term and I’ll really take care of it this time. The mantra of cutting government spending, of eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse and reigning in those spend-crazy liberals has been the only thing holding the Republican Party together, and this time, well, Trump beat them at their own game. Big league.
Taibbi hops right in to the “Clown Car” with the 217 other sad-sacks who ran for the 2016 Republican nomination. There’s the establishment favorite Jeb! Bush, the embattled Chris Christie, the indebted Little Marco, the sinister Lyin’ Ted Cruz (who is NOT the Zodiac Killer, according to his wife), Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and who could forget the one and only Dr. Ben Carson? Along with a bunch of other nobodies like George Pataki. Nobody even knows who that is. Taibbi patiently follows these candidates as they try to break into the single digits in the polls. But Fortress Trump proves a hard target. Every time he says something that would normally be the end of a campaign, somehow he comes out doing a little better in Iowa or New Hampshire. Taibbi digs in to this phenomenon: Trump is saying he’s going to tear the system apart, and the elite press says “Oh, he can’t say that!” and his voters say “He just did, bitch!”
But the press couldn’t look away, because, Taibbi explains, Trump figured out that modern political campaigns were just reality shows, and he already knew how to act in one of those. He steamrolled through the primaries and the establishment couldn’t do anything to stop him. They threw Jeb! right at him with $100 million and he barely broke 5%!
Taibbi takes a moment here to delve into the Democratic Party’s own pathetic disaster. Not the November one, but the fact that Hillary Clinton almost lost to a cranky old socialist from Vermont who had no big donors or endorsements. Taibbi is careful to explain how, even though they don’t result in the Democrats nominating a Hitlerian maniac, the same forces that are pulling the Republican Party apart are at work across the political spectrum. Turns out liberals aren’t too crazy about oligarchs running our political system, either. They may have different world views and some wildly differing policy ideas, but the Trump voter and the Bernie voter both fundamentally agree that the status quo, as it has operated for a generation, has left “the people” behind to fend for themselves.
Taibbi goes to the convention, Melania gives Michelle’s speech, Trump gives Nixon’s speech, and everyone really starts to worry. Of course, he’ll never win, but jeez he just got nominated! He’ll moderate himself now that he has to pivot to the general. He’ll start giving prepared speeches instead of just winging it. Nope.
By the time Trump loafs off that bus with that little moron, giggling about molestation and how great it is to assault women, he appears to be just about dead in the water. There is NO WAY he can win now. He’s on tape bragging about assault! Well, that’s what everyone thought, including Taibbi.
We all got it wrong.
And then November 8th came. Taibbi points out at the beginning of Insane Clown President that the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace on November 8, 1917, 99 years to the day before Trump won the election. This is an amusing fact, but there is something meaty in there about, oh, I don’t know, the sclerotic, disconnected aristocrats (in both parties, as it happens) being driven from power by the angry masses. This is Taibbi’s lesson for us:
“Trump made idiots of us all. From the end of primary season onward, I felt sure Trump was en route to ruining, perhaps forever, the Republican Party as a force in modern American life. Now the Republicans are more dominant than ever, and it is the Democratic Party that is shattered and faces an uncertain future.
And they deserve it. The Democratic Party’s failure to keep Donald Trump out of the White House in 2016 will go down as one of the all-time examples of insular arrogance.”
Matt Taibbi takes on the worst in American society with humor, vigor and a sense of purpose. Insane Clown President seems like the culmination, or the natural extension, of all those malignant forces that have been brewing in American culture since the founding of the Republic. We are at a cross-roads for the democratic process in this country (General Michael Flynn, Herr Trump’s National Security Advisor, just resigned last night in the midst of a total shit-storm involving his lying to the Administration and possibly being compromised by Russia. Oh, well.)
There were a lot of tears on 11/9, and a lot of blaming and shaming, and none of that is going to move the country away from the edge. I recommend this book for anyone interested in some of the mechanics of, as Herr Trump would say, what the hell is going on.