Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi

Journalist Matt Taibbi offers an unapologetic account of Donald Trump and the world of contemporary American politics. Read the opening chapter below.

Insane Clown President

Here was a figure of almost supernatural shallowness, who had almost certainly run for the presidency on some level out of boredom, who somehow became the vehicle for a collision of great and powerful historical trends in the world’s last superpower

The rise of CNN, the first 24-hour cable news network, was just an interesting business story to most when it first happened. Not many people really thought about the conse­quences of a news model in which TV stations were sud­denly forced to fill oceans of airtime.

One immediate consequence was that live spectacles suddenly became crucially important to the commercial health of news programs. Something about being able to watch a “breaking” news story live was addictive for modern news audiences, even if the thing they were watching wasn’t terribly remarkable.

The presidential campaign fit like a glove into the new demands of the news business. For nearly two years out of every four, some kind of live campaign event was usually happening somewhere.

If there were no speeches in places like Iowa or New Hampshire, then there were candidate appearances on TV, “Jefferson-Jackson Dinners,” addresses to groups like AIPAC, straw polls, and 10,000 other ready-made news events. And you could fill the hours between those events with endless pre-and postelection analysis.

There are 8,760 hours in a year. During campaign sea­son, you can fill nearly every one of them with campaign stuff if you really put your mind to it. But in the past, all those thousands of hours of coverage have always had to fit into the parameters of TV coverage generally, which like the campaign bubble is a world with very particular (and strictly policed) internal rules, mostly dictated by advertisers.

Donald Trump’s innovation was to recognize what a bad TV show the campaign was. Any program that tried to make stars out of human sedatives like Scott Walker and Lindsey Graham needed new producers and a new script.

So here came Trump, bloviating and farting his way through his early campaign stops, saying outrageous things, acting like Hitler one minute and Andrew Dice Clay the next, and gee, what a surprise, TV couldn’t take its eyes off him.

He dominated coverage and was more than happy to fill all 8,760 of those hours. Networks had long since aban­doned their “public interest” mandate and now were finan­cially dependent on anyone or anything that could revive their flagging ratings. They gave Trump as many hours as he could manage and he was narcissist enough to swallow all of them with a smile.

This part of Trump’s rise really was the media’s fault.

Trump was a legitimate news story. He had to be cov­ered. He was leading a historic revolt against his own party, after all. But so was Bernie Sanders, who got nearly as many votes as Trump in the primaries. Yet Trump received some­thing on the order of 23 times more television coverage than the Vermont senator.

Long segments of Trump’s speeches were broadcast un­interrupted, which seldom if ever happened with Sanders, even on traditionally left-leaning cable networks. If we in the media asked ourselves why that was the case, we came up with some damning answers.

It wasn’t just that Trump was outrageous and sensa­tional and lurid, while Sanders dryly pushed substance over salesmanship. Nor was it just the car-wreck element to Trump’s performances that kept audiences glued to the screen, wondering what crazy thing he might say next.

It was also the content. Trump sold hate, violence, xeno­phobia, racism, and ignorance, which oddly enough had long been permissible zones of exploration for American television entertainment. And the news media was becom­ing more and more indistinguishable from entertainment media.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders talked about poverty and inequality, which are now and always have been taboo. On a level that is understood by news directors in their guts if not their minds, hate is sexy and sells, while the politics of Ber­nie Sanders were provocative in the wrong ways.

A news director who made the decision to run a Sanders speech in its entirety would worry about being accused of making a “political statement.” Meanwhile, running Trump all day long would be understood as just business, just giv­ing viewers what they want. Editorially the press denounced him, but it never turned the cameras off.

By February 2016, when Trump was already steaming toward the nomination, I began to realize the extent to which he’d conned all of us. He first used the media’s finan­cial desperation to secure free coverage, but when the atten­tion became not just negative but condemnatory, he used that, too.

He converted the press’s indignation toward him into street cred with ordinary people, cred that otherwise might have been out of reach for a coddled billionaire like himself. Perversely, the alienation of the political press from its audi­ences helped solve Trump’s own accessibility problem.

The final insult to all of this is that when Trump se­cured the nomination, media companies looked down at their bottom lines and realized that, via the profits they made during his run—Trump is “good for business,” CBS president Les Moonves infamously confessed—they had been made accomplices to the whole affair.

Covering the presidential campaign trail has been a staple of Rolling Stone’s political coverage dating back to the Fear and Loathing days. It’s been my honor to uphold the tradi­tion for the last four presidential races. Although some complicating factors kept me off the road this time more than I might perhaps have liked, I was still sent out regularly by the magazine to file reports during the 2015–16 cam­paign.

These long features from the trail, along with a selec­tion of shorter dispatches and columns about the evolving catastrophe of this election season, form the basis of Insane Clown President. We didn’t travel together, but illustrator Victor Juhasz and I collaborated from a distance. Victor and I went through a lot of the same struggles.

In his case, given that his first drawing about the 2016 campaign had a giant Trump emerging in clown face from an elephant’s anus, the challenge was: where would he go for the next six pictures? We both ran up against the same problem of trying to find new ways to describe the worsen­ing of a narrative that was pretty awful from day one.

The idea for his last illustration, done right after the “grab them by the pussy” scandal hit the news, came to him as he listened to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which re­minded him of a sculpture on that theme by a French artist named Hébert.

The substitution of the Statue of Liberty for the maiden, with Trump’s hand creeping just a bit higher than Death had ventured in the original sculpture, made for an iconic image that captured everything appalling and frightening about what, in retrospect, was just about to go down.

For most of the 2015–16 race, I felt as certain as a jour­nalist can be that I understood what I was seeing. I think it comes through in these pages that nothing about Trump’s initial success came as a surprise to me, because I saw he was giving people a means to express their disgust at a campaign process that had long ago stopped working for voters.

Where I screwed up—and this is a glaring error in my coverage—was in dismissing Trump’s chances in the gen­eral election. I fell for a lot of the popular myths about the invincibility of the multicultural consensus Barack Obama twice rode to victory. I thought Trump’s legacy would be the destruction of the Republican Party. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Insane Clown President

They were expecting this man to finally vanquish the liberal enemy and restore their lost paradise of pre–Civil Rights Act America, whatever their idea of that was.

During the Republican convention, I’d had what I thought was a moment of clarity. I was in the stands of the Quicken Loans Arena, watching Trump muddle through a horrible, violent, and racially loaded acceptance speech that was a transparent knockoff of Richard Nixon’s infamous “law and order” address of 1968.

I remember looking around the stands at the thousands of faces staring in Trump’s direction. They were all anxious and hopeful, almost childlike, even the older faces. They were expecting this man to finally vanquish the liberal enemy and restore their lost paradise of pre–Civil Rights Act America, whatever their idea of that was.

God only knew what fantasies were playing out behind those faces. Maybe it was cattle cars of Mexicans, maybe mushroom clouds over Mesopotamia, or maybe it was just one-family households with dinner cooked by Mom ready on the table when they came home.

Maybe it was a big beautiful wall and a million cops rounding up and sending to gleaming new prisons all those dope-slinging black “thugs” with their underpants showing who for years have been spilling out of the affordable hous­ing high-rises Hillary Clinton types had spent decades sticking in their towns, lowering their property values. If anyone understood property values, it was this guy, Donald Trump! Trump would fix it!

What else were they were dreaming about? Maybe for some it was just a better job and lower taxes, with minorities and foreigners taking a bit of collateral damage (but that was OK because after all they’d had their eight years in the White House). Maybe others were secretly tired of having to watch what they said all day at work and were just living vicariously through this ribald, lecherous go-getter who de­fied the unwritten rules on the biggest stage and got away with it.

Who knew, but uniformly in the Q seats there was a look of breathless anticipation. Trump had promised a lot during campaign season. He said restoring America’s great­ness would be easy, no problem, that his America was going to be so great, you couldn’t even imagine it.

“You’re going to say, Mr. President, please, we can’t take it anymore, we can’t win anymore like this, Mr. President, you’re driving us crazy, you’re winning too much,” he’d said, in the weeks before the convention. “And I’m going to say I’m sorry, we’re going to keep winning!”

Wow. That sounded amazing! What would all that win­ning feel like? You could see in the crowd, they almost couldn’t wait to start finding out.

But then I looked down at Donald Trump and I was sure I saw a con man who was just barely holding it together. His convention had been kind of a fiasco (Scott Baio as an opening-day speaker?), and his own speech now had none of his usual breezy bluster. He sounded like a politician. In­stead of shooting from the hip, his every word was off a teleprompter.

“It is finally time for a straightforward assessment of the  state of our nation,” he said, in painfully clean syntax that sounded like anyone in the world but Donald Trump.

The address he went on to deliver was a pathetic pastiche ripped off from the very Republican establishment he claimed to hate—five decades of dog-whistle clichés stolen from Nixon, Bush I, Jesse Helms, and countless others. He was going through the motions, trying to deliver a tradi­tional boilerplate political scare speech about crime and ter­rorism. But Trump is an awful actor when not playing himself. He looked terrified, as if he was about to be found out.

In that moment I suddenly remembered the Archibald MacLeish poem “The End of the World.” The poem is about a traveling circus. The audience is enthralled by the acrobats and lion tamers and freaks, until suddenly the top of the tent blows off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over

Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,

There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,

There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,

There in the sudden blackness the black pall

Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

To me this was a perfect metaphor for Trump. He had promised the world, but when we finally pulled the lid off him, there was not a Hitler or a Trujillo or even a Boss Tweed underneath, but just blackness, a void—nothing, nothing, nothing at all.

Trump was a cipher, a cheap fraud and TV showman who had gotten in way over his head and was now just gamely trying to play out the string. He seemed destined to be buried under a mountain of his outlandish promises, in the process leading these thousands of hoodwinked follow­ers of his off the cliff of history.

I still believe this is true. For all the investigative energy focused on Trump, there was never much depth to discover underneath. A few scams maybe (well, more than a few), and possibly even some very serious crimes, philandering, sex­ual assault—a crook with money. But the only thing pro­found about the man was his level of self-absorption. The story might ultimately be that this preening idiot was bril­liantly appropriated by forces that did harbor far-reaching revolutionary ideas, like Steve Bannon and the “alt-right” movement. But if Trump himself turns out to be a man of ideas, it will mean it’s something he came to late in life—the same way George W. Bush didn’t really get a job until he was around forty.

Who knows why he got in the race, or if he ever in­tended or even hoped to win. But the narrative in which this discombobulated bundle of urges was swept toward the presidency in spite of himself was an awesome and terrible black comedy.

Here was a figure of almost supernatural shallowness, who had almost certainly run for the presidency on some level out of boredom, who somehow became the vehicle for a collision of great and powerful historical trends in the world’s last superpower.

There was the rise of a racist revanchist movement in the heartland on one side (merging with a distinctly upper-class, college-bred “alt-right” racist movement), and the col­lapse of the neoliberal consensus on the Democratic side. All of these movements took place against the backdrop of a splintering and collapsing of the media landscape that, en­tering the 2016 race, left us without any real forum for a national conversation, without a dependable way to commu-nicate with one another. America was so divided, so alienated from itself, so vul-nerable, that even a zero like trump could penetrate our political system without breaking a sweat. to put it in terms the casino- owning candidate would understand, he won the presidency without so much as a pair of twos in hand. It’s impossible to say what kind of president donald trump might be. the early returns are not good. His attorney general choice is Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, who lost a judgeship because he apparently once jokingly said the KKK was “oK” and called the nAAcP “communist inspired.” Steve Bannon, a conniving monster who looks a lot like the late chris Hitchens, only unhealthier and with a worse case of neck bloat, ran a Breitbart site that is a sewer of the foulest racist memes. He is set to be trump’s chief strategist, playing the david Axelrod role. Who knows what will come next, but that’s not really what this story is about. Insane Clown President instead describes how we got here. It’s an Alice in Wonderland story, in which a billionaire hedonist jumps down the rabbit hole of American politics and discovers a surreal world where each successive barrier to power collapses before him like magic. From a literary standpoint it makes perfect sense that trump would be the grotesque and charmless protagonist that he is. His bellicose pussy-grabbing vulgarity and defiant lack of self- awareness make him, unfortunately, the perfect foil for reflecting the rot and neglect of the corrupted political system he conquers. A system unable to stop this must be very sick indeed. 

To return again to MacLeish’s poem, we are all staring up at the same nothingness now. Who knows how it will be filled, but the real shock this past year was finding out how frail has been our illusion of stability all along. We were a shallow country, held together by stale rituals and muscle memory. And now it is a shallow man who will take us wher­ever he pleases.


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