Journalist Matt Taibbi offers an unapologetic account of Donald Trump and the world of contemporary American politics. Read the opening chapter below.
Journalist Matt Taibbi offers an unapologetic account of Donald Trump and the world of contemporary American politics. Read the opening chapter below.
A little over ten years ago, while writing a book and working as a correspondent for Rolling Stone, I thought I saw a new trend in American politics.
I was spending half my time in Washington watching Congress make some very unsavory sausage and the other half hanging around political extremist movements in various parts of the country. In retrospect, the setup probably predetermined the conclusion. Nonetheless, I ended up returning over and over to the same theme, which had a syllogistic formula:
The country’s leaders are corrupt and have become unresponsive to the needs of the population.
People all over are beginning to notice.
This being America, as ordinary people tune out their corrupt leaders, they will replace official propaganda with conspiratorial explanations even more ridiculous than the original lies.
This was the core idea behind a book that ended up being called The Great Derangement. Between first-person narratives about fringe political phenomena like the apocalyptic “Rapture” movement and 9/11 Truth, the book tried to warn about a loss of faith in national institutions, most notably in my own business, the political media.
I felt sure a collapse of belief in the efficacy of the news media, if it coincided with widespread (and justified) political discontent, could lead in some pretty weird directions. One possible future was one in which politics “stopped being about ideology and . . . instead turned into a problem of information.”
The 2016 presidential campaign, simultaneously the most thrilling and disgusting political event of our generation, proved to be a monstrous affirmation of the Derangement. The stunning rise of Donald Trump marked the apotheosis of the new postfactual movement.
Every mechanism our mighty oligarchy had devised to keep people like Trump out of power failed. This left the path to power wide open for anyone who understood, or sensed, the depth of the crippling weaknesses in our political infrastructure.
I didn’t see Donald Trump coming. But as a campaign reporter I’d surely seen trouble on the horizon. The most obvious problem was the total alienation of candidates and their attendant media from the population.
I’d struggled with this issue from the first time I was sent out by Rolling Stone to cover a campaign, in 2004. One of the first things that struck me was the way the candidates and the “traveling press” moved around the country in what was essentially a roving prison.
Your route was from a bus, to a charter plane, to another bus, to an event hall (where you were kept behind rope lines most or all of the time), back to the bus, back to a plane. Then the cycle would repeat until you got to a hotel in the next city, at night. You slept six hours and repeated the pattern, day after day, week after week.
This moving prison was so airtight that if you needed cigarettes, you had to ask campaign volunteers (the Kerry crew called them “Sherpas”) to smuggle them in.
This seemed like merely a strange detail when I first wrote about it more than a dozen years ago. But it spoke to a much more enormous problem. It was a perfect metaphor for the distancing of the ruling class from the population. Presidential campaigns were bubbles, and the people inside them became myopic codependents. The establishment pols and their lackeys bullied the press into becoming guardians of their orthodoxy. The press in turn savagely policed the agreed-upon lines of decorum.
To campaign professionals, real people became fodder for stylized visual backgrounds and nothing more. In a less self-deceiving future—perhaps under a leader like Donald Trump who better understands that presidential races are now really just big television shows—they will conduct campaigns from a single soundstage in a place like Burbank and just blue-screen in the different crowds and locations.
Campaigns needed “people” only as props. If a candidate wanted to show that he or she was with it on racial issues, that candidate would visit a predominantly black high school and be photographed clapping to a school band performance. If he wanted a worker-friendly image, he’d visit a robotics factory in Wisconsin and be photographed wearing a hard hat and goggles. And so on.
But neither politicians nor reporters were ever in one place for long enough to see or hear what was really going on with the public. In place of that one-on-one experience, politicians and the press increasingly relied upon polls, and each other, to gauge the temperature “out there.” This resulted in a bizarre mutual-admiration-society situation in which everyone inside the plane gradually became more and more removed from the outside world.
When fellow Rolling Stone scribe Tim Crouse wrote The Boys on the Bus nearly half a century ago, he was mostly describing how pack journalism led to faulty reporting. But his description of the culture on the Bus also accurately foretold the derangement of the whole campaign mechanism, which included the politicians with whom reporters traveled.
Stuck inside the campaign bubble for too long, politicians and journalists alike started to operate like high school Heathers, using abuse and shaming to enforce the myriad social rules inside the plane. If Candidate A fell outside either behavioral or policy lines, fifty reporters immediately cried foul and that candidate quickly retreated, or else.
A classic example was Howard Dean. Now a dependable party creature, Dean in 2004 initially garnered enthusiasm for his opposition to the Iraq War and his heretical reliance upon small online donations as a way around the Democratic leadership’s kingmaking corporate donors.
Dean spent much of his campaign’s first summer fending off questions from reporters about whether he was too “liberal” or “pointed,” not “nuanced” enough, etc. Many of my colleagues really didn’t even know what they meant by these harassing questions. They didn’t need to. The constant pestering questions were all code. The complaint about Dean was that he wasn’t enough of a company man, that he’d stepped outside the lines of the agreed-upon orthodoxy.
When the Vermont governor finally stumbled with that infamous scream in Iowa, the press piled on with what another reporter I know jokingly describes as the “Seal of Death.” This is a maelstrom of negative reports that is expected to inspire a plunge in the polls, followed by a series of humiliating rituals.
First comes the Abashed Public Apology, a scene reporters enjoy to the point of it being unseemly. Next comes the short Dead Man Walking period. Candidates, Dean included, usually try to soldier on after being excommunicated by the media, clutching at single-digit poll numbers and speaking in increasingly desperate or even angry tones to half-empty halls. This tragicomic narrative may last weeks, even months.
Finally there is the Anticlimactic Withdrawal, when the already-dead candidate quietly announces his or her exit and disappears for a while to “spend more time with my family” or go into literal or political rehab. Anthony Weiner’s recent exile to Tennessee for a stint of horse-riding therapy to treat his sexting addiction is a typical endgame for a Seal of Death victim.
Before 2016, nobody had ever survived the Seal of Death, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, who pathetically squirmed free from the Gennifer Flowers episode.
In the case of Dean, TV stations around the country played the “scream” tape a whopping 633 times in the first four days after Iowa, according to the AP. They were like piranhas skeletonizing a waterfowl. It was viral media before YouTube. As Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, later put it, “The establishment wanted to stop us and they did.”
Trippi’s comment implied that reporters were part of that establishment, which was a pretty damning criticism. But it was true. And people noticed.
It’s impossible to overemphasize the toxicity of this dynamic. Politicians and political journalists were volunteering to be trapped in an endless conversation with one another about which candidates, and by extension which ideas, were and were not suitable for consumption by the American people.
It wasn’t a substantive conversation, either. The big topic on the Bus was who was winning: the horse race. Policy ideas had no meaning except in terms of their efficacy in helping the candidate win the horse race. Of course, an idea that was too popular, like Dean’s anti-war gambit, could run up against that internal policing mechanism again and be dismissed as “populist,” which was something very bad in the campaign-trail lexicon.
Ultimately, most all of the talk on the Bus ended up being concerned with the narrow question of which party-approved candidate pushing acceptably non-populist ideas would edge out the other. We pretended this was a fascinating intellectual question. It even became fashionable to become a kind of PhD in these moronic dynamics.
Nobody thought it was odd when a baseball statistics guru, Nate Silver, became a godlike figure in the campaign bubble and America’s foremost expert on what was going on in the heartland.
I have nothing personal against Nate Silver—I was a big fan back in his Baseball Prospectus days—but elevating a bespectacled sabermetrics geek to the role of Nostradamus of middle American attitudes speaks volumes about where the country’s political elite was at, mentally, heading into this campaign season.
Even in baseball there’s value in looking beyond the numbers and seeing and talking to a player in person. But trying the Moneyball approach in politics is insanity. Reducing people to stats in politics is both a strategic and moral error of breathtaking proportions. Elections may be about winning and losing, but they are not a game—except, sadly, to the people who leading into this campaign season made electioneering their business.
If you want a graphic picture of the cluelessness of the people inside campaign bubbles, just watch Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous “Mannequin Challenge.”
Watch as the camera pans over the plane full of photogs, aides and pols, proudly clutching their tablets and pens and pizza boxes, all dressed in blazers and “smart glasses” and crisp gingham shirts and buzzed at being on the same plane as two Clintons and Jon Bon Jovi.
As a metaphor for an overconfident and incompetent ruling class that was ten miles up its own backside when it should have been listening to the anger percolating in the population, the “Mannequin Challenge” is probably unsurpassable. Here was a planeload of effete politicos making a goofball video when they should have been frantically bailing water to stave off maybe the most disastrous loss in the history of American presidential politics.
If those people had known the election was even going to be close, they would have outlawed smiling on that plane, let alone making nutty souvenir videos. But they had no clue what was coming.
Why would they worry? After all, there were fail-safe mechanisms built into the campaign infrastructure to prevent any of this foolishness from ever backing up on them.
Yes, Donald Trump’s campaign was massively fueled by racism and xenophobia. But racism and hatred and fear of foreigners were not irreconcilable with hatred of the arrogant establishment that controlled major-party politics. Many voters out there hated both, and some hated those latter folks with the heat of a thousand suns.
Donald Trump was tuned in to this. Better than any candidate we’d ever seen, he ran against the Bus.
The media was the only group on his long list of cultural villains that was actually in the room for all of Trump’s enormous rage rallies. We were part of his act. And his triumph over us was a major factor in convincing ordinary people that he could deliver on his rebellious rhetoric.
A key moment in the race came in the days after July 19, 2015, when Trump made his infamous comments about former prisoner of war John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Earlier, Trump had made even more outrageous comments, calling Mexicans “rapists.” For some reason, that scandal was not seen as immediately disqualifying across the political spectrum.
But insulting veterans? That was a bridge too far, especially for other Republicans. Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer tweeted: “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.”
New Jersey’s Chris Christie added, “Senator John McCain is an American hero. Period. Stop.” Wisconsin’s Scott Walker said of Trump, “I unequivocally denounce him.” Lindsey Graham said, “At the heart of [Trump’s] statement is a lack of respect for those who have served—a disqualifying characteristic to be president.”
With universal statements affirming that Trump was now “disqualified” from running, reporters rolled out the Seal of Death script. There were a gazillion stories. The vid went viral. Twitter went nuts. We anticipated Trump assuming the position and commencing the Expected Rituals, beginning with the Abashed Public Apology.
It didn’t happen. Trump not only didn’t apologize, he even denied that he ever said McCain wasn’t a war hero.
“If somebody is a prisoner, I consider them a war hero,” he said.
Reporters freaked out. How could he deny he said it? It’s right there, on video! He said it!
But it worked. Trump not only didn’t sink after the McCain incident, he rose in the polls.
This happened again and again and again in Trump’s campaign. First, he would say something crazy, something that would have eliminated any previous candidate. Then reporters would try the WWE takedown maneuver, only to find themselves chair-whacked and tossed out of the ring.
For instance, after Trump’s comment about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever” in the first primary debate, journalists and political analysts alike harrumphed: “nobody can win after making a joke about women’s menstrual periods.” Women were 51 percent of the country. How could any candidate survive alienating more than half the voting population? It was impossible.once again, we tried to apply the Seal of death. But trump survived the Kelly episode. He similarly survived episodes in which he mocked disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, threatened to kill the families of terror suspects, promised to ban all Muslim immigrants, offered to pay the legal fees of anyone who beat up people protesting him, insisted that women who had abortions should suffer some kind of “punishment,” and a hundred other things. By the end of the campaign, even more serious accusations and scandals bounced harmlessly off that maddening false pompadour of his, seemingly having no impact at all. America’s population of otherwise Smart People was stunned. How could the electorate not care that a billionaire admitted to not paying taxes? Why was no one troubled by the threat of a child rape lawsuit? How was the “pussy” thing not fatal? What about the mountain of extant lawsuits— 75 open cases, according to some reports— for offenses ranging from simple nonpayment for services to sex discrimination? Why did no one care? Incredibly, the popular explanation floated inside the nY- Washington- LA corridor was that this was the media’s fault, that reporters were “not calling trump out” while simultaneously overfocusing on issues like Hillary clinton’s emails. But this explanation itself was a continuation of the same original misread of the public. Here was this massive new revolutionary movement rising out of the population, and the first instinct of the establishment was to turn other members of the establishment for an explanation of why this was being allowed to happen. As in, where’s the Seal of Death? Why haven’t you vaporized this guy yet?
But we not only couldn’t draw blood against Trump, we actually helped him every time we tried and failed to knock him out.
In his speeches, Trump would rip into the “crooked people in the press” for criticizing him and inevitably follow up with a tale of how well he was doing in the polls in spite of us.
Sometimes he’d call us “bloodsuckers” and “dishonest people” or even “highly paid,” a dig that seemingly makes no sense coming from a Richie Rich real estate scion like Trump, unless you’ve listened to a lot of his voters talk.
These are the voters who’ve never met a New York billionaire, but they’ve sure met a lot of corporate middle managers and divorce lawyers and professors and other such often-overcompensated members of the intellectual class.
Trump voters almost uniformly don’t begrudge someone for being an entrepreneurial success (“If the guy pulls his own weight, I don’t care how much he makes” was a typical comment I heard). But they can’t stand the book-smart college types who make cushy livings pushing words around in what these voters see as competition-averse professions that reward people who in real life need to call AAA to change a tire.
Trump tapped into all of this. His speeches were visual demonstrations of his power over us. We in the press, obediently clustered inside our protective rope line and/or standing mute on a riser in the middle of the hall, would sit looking guilty, like the pampered, narrow-shouldered, overgroomed hypocrites we are, while Trump blasted us as the embodiment of the class that had left regular America behind.
Then he’d point to our very presence following him in such huge numbers as proof of our defeat and moral lassitude. Even as we dismissed his campaign in print, we kept flocking to it in ever-bigger numbers. No matter how much we sneered, he insisted, we were slaves to his success. Just as everyone else would be. The Mexicans. The Chinese. ISIS. Everybody.
“See all those cameras back there?” he’d say. “They’ve never driven so far to a location.”
Very often this victory over us was the first thing I heard about when I went into crowds to talk to Trump supporters.
“What do I like about him? He’s got all you assholes jumping through hoops,” hissed an older Trump supporter in Wisconsin, before launching into an impressively obscene tirade about Rolling Stone and the UVA rape case.
“He’s gonna be his own man,” a Trump supporter named Jay Matthews told me in Plymouth, New Hampshire. “He’s proving that now with how he’s getting all the media. He’s paying nothing and getting all the coverage. He’s not paying one dime.”
This was part of the reason Trump’s supporters seemed so stubborn in their lack of interest in “the facts.” They were contemptuous of anything that came from us and our habit of trying to rub their noses in their mistake—well, it was just as off-putting as correcting their spelling, another thing educated liberal types tended to do a lot, especially on social media.
But the ineffectiveness of “facts” didn’t stop there. The election of Trump was not just a political choice, a vote against minorities and foreigners, against intellectuals, a cry for better jobs, etc. This was also a metaphysical choice.
Sixty million people were announcing that they preferred one reality to another. Inherent in this decision was the revolutionary idea that you can choose your own set of facts.
Blue-state America could not wrap its head around this during election season. Facts, they protested, are facts! But Trump voters did not agree. They believed facts were a choice. We had made ours, choosing to ignore certain things, and they would make theirs, doing the same. No amount of “calling Trump out” would change that.
Once upon a time, if the three major commercial networks said a thing was a fact, everyone agreed it was a fact. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because the three networks lied a lot, but still. Back in the day, when America argued with itself, it mostly argued over the same data.
News programs originally had little financial incentive to lie. They were designed to be loss leaders. Way back when, the Communications Act of 1934 set out the media business as a civic trade-off. The government would license out use of the public airwaves, but in exchange, private media companies would use those licenses for “public interest, convenience and necessity.”
Eventually this morphed into a model where big media companies made money through sports and entertainment and satisfied the “public interest” portion of their mandate by creating news shows that had some degree of ethics and factual standards.
That worked relatively well, until the networks started to see that they could make very good money by altering the formula.
A key innovator was the new fourth major network, Fox, which along with conservative talk radio began cleaving media consumers into two groups in the Eighties and Nineties.
For decades, CBS, ABC and NBC mostly told America the same story. But when Fox and figures like Rush Limbaugh came along, they preached an alternative political gospel with starkly different interpretations of the news. This new consumer choice often offered very different “facts” as well.
In 1997, Fox fired a husband-and-wife duo of TV investigative reporters named Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. They’d refused to water down a documentary about the potential hazards of bovine growth hormone.
In a lawsuit, it ultimately came out that the Fox station manager in Tampa had told the pair, “We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.”
Looking back, we should probably have paid more attention to moments like this. There was clearly an underserved market of reality-agnostic media consumers, and it was hardly invisible. It had already identified itself in the vast audiences for tabloid television news shows, lurid daytime talk shows, absurd televangelists, infomercials, home-shopping networks, and, of course, reality TV. Fox News decided it wasn’t above picking its audience from this low branch of media consumers, and it became phenomenally successful.
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.
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.