I feel something so right
Doing the wrong thing
I feel something so wrong
Doing the right thing
I could lie, could lie, could lie
Everything that kills me makes me feel alive
– Counting Stars, OneRepublic
Rollingstone political reporter, Matt Taibbi’s latest book, Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus, is a hastily assembled compilation of his epigrammatic, incisively funny columns about the recent Republican campaign for the presidency. In real time, without the editing benefit of hindsight, Taibbi describes Donald Trump “bloviating and farting” his way through the early battles for the Republican nomination, a contest which, in off-the-cuff Gonzo style, Taibbi (who tags Hunter Thompson in the acknowledgements) calls the “greatest reality show ever conceived.”
“Take a combustible mix of the most depraved and filterless half-wits, scam artists and asylum Napoleons America has to offer, give them all piles of money and tell them to run for president. Add Donald Trump. And to give the whole thing a perverse gravitas, make the presidency really at stake.”
The unforeseen result is frightening to just about everyone involved. Taibbi describes Trumps election as the beginning of the end of America’s hegemony or “Western civilization’s very own car wreck.” Fortunately, Taibbi, an irrepressible inventor of Falstaffian sobriquets, has a vision of the big picture as well the entertaining details.
The system, he tells us in plain English, is corrupt, owned by big money and lobbyists. Congress and the two parties are so out of touch that their old ploys and false promises no longer effectively manipulate their constituents to vote the way they want them to (the fringes of the far left and far right, Taibbi observes, are sounding more and more alike). The “big media” (Taibbi can be as hard on the miscreant and smug press corps as he is on Republicans and Trump) is trapped in the bubble too, coerced into endless punditry about what makes or doesn’t make an orthodox candidate viable. And the populace is too sick and tired, too angry and whiplashed by spin to listen or trust anyone. “When the people can no longer agree even on the basic objective facts of their political existence, the equation changes,” Taibbi writes, calling this state “The Great Derangement” – the title of one of his earlier books. “A stage of our history where politics has seemingly stopped being about ideology, and has instead turned into a problem of information. Are the right messages reaching our collective brain? Are the halves of that brain even connected? Do we know who we are anymore? Are we sane?”
We are living in what Taibbi calls a postfactual culture. Lost in our over-televised, internet-induced dumdum land, Taibbi says we have been “trained to be little more than good consumers… A nation of reality shoppers, mixing and matching news items to fit our own self-created identities.” In choosing a candidate, we no longer educate ourselves by gathering pertinent information, we merely shop for what seems to fit our point of view.
But, I wonder, as proficient shoppers shouldn’t we be able to tell the difference between a good product and a bad one? How could Trump, who is the exemplar of all that is wrong (self-obsessed, rapacious, intolerant) with America and all that is misguided and shallow about our culture, have convinced the tens of millions who voted for him that he was a crusader for all that is right and good about this country and about being American?
As Taibbi and the rest of the American public witnessed, Trump didn’t trip up embarrassingly once or twice during the campaign and apologize publicly on bended knee as most pols have done before him. Instead, his response to any outcry raised against his constant provocations, lies and gaffs was to deliberately and defiantly make wrong seem right. Not paying taxes was being smart. Insulting women and minorities was being forthright etc. Being a winner and a billionaire Trump didn’t have to abide by the rules of decorum or political correctness, he could say whatever he wanted. He could even transform fiction into fact, because he was Trump. “Uniquely, perhaps in the history of presidential candidates,” Taibbi writes, “Trump’s success hinged on his ability to stay true to himself. The promise of his campaign was Trump the man, all day, every day.”
The election wasn’t so much about policy, it seems, as it was authenticity (for more on this see Neal Gabler http://billmoyers.com/story/tale-two-countries/). As one Trump female supporter I heard on the radio say, “I didn’t want a Ken Doll waving at me saying the right things.”
Being outrageous and saying the “wrong” things, Taibbi deftly reminds us, used to be the province of outspoken, passionate liberals. They were the underdogs then, disdaining orthodoxy and courageously expressing themselves in defiance of the establishment – though, until recently, there were limits of decorum.
Today, being “yourself”, no matter how vile (the more you expose your craven selfish needs and ambitions the better) is the popular, winning virtue of our time. It trumps quainter virtues like Temperance, Wisdom, Courage, and Justice once espoused by the ancient Greeks who tied these virtues to self-preservation.
In America, authenticity and virtue, it seems to me, go hand in hand with the fight for self-esteem. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a rebellion against the all-white, Wonder Bread, Doris-Day Perfect image of America – the once “great America,” victor of World War II and economic superpower that Trump promises to revive. Urban intellectuals, artists, queer poets, early rockers, African-Americans, Hispanic farm workers, feminists began to cry out for inclusion: “I am not a shelf product – the homemaker wife, the straight soldier, the obedient teenager – I am me!” The homogenous packaging of America promising perfection and normalcy was attacked as the façade that it was.
This painful shedding of our cultural wrap, call it the undressing of “American” virtue, became a phenomenon. A literal baring of our naked, vulnerable selves. Whether it was on paper with artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, who rightfully proposed that his photographs of immaculate black asses were as “beautiful” as any memorialized by Rubens, or on stage where pop divas literally undressed and convulsed for their ecstatic teen audiences, it was a declaration of war on inauthenticity, on being fake and hiding the truth.
But American consumerism has this chameleon-like ability to transform almost any transgression into new-found loot. Even as it attacked the establishment, the avant-garde political-cultural movement became the new it thing, commoditizing its ironic stance – think Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Jane Fonda, or fill-in-the blank – into a product of the system. It’s a kind of reification. A process not just about monetization, but the mysterious turning into its opposite, losing its meaning (authenticity) and value at the same time as it becomes accepted.
What was parody and irony not so long ago, Taibbi points out, has become reality. He mentions television shows like Married with Children, Roseanne and The Simpsons. He somehow misses All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. The original blabber-bigot. Truth speaker. The one so many liberals loved because he clearly did not know what he was talking about. And unlike Trump he was a powerless working-class schlump, incapable of actually acting on his opinions. President Trump, unfortunately, can now fire at will.
Taibbi shows how, in the political arena, by way of the Clinton-era shifts and compromises, liberal Democrats became the establishment elite. We progressives may have continued to think we were model secular, post-Enlightenment humanists – sexually and racially tolerant, socially aware, environmentally sensitive, technically adept, global citizens. A movement that had elected an African-American president and deserved to be followed! But no, in 2016 it turned out the people, the “real” “authentic” Americans, wanted to model themselves on a self-aggrandizing, Atlantic City casino and hotel operator. “They don’t want you (politically correct fakers),” Trump might as well have snapped at us, sticking out his tongue, during the campaign. “They want me (the real deal)!”
It’s shocking to see fifty years of hard fought battles to include gays and minorities, to safeguard civil rights and protect our environment, to promote equality and improve our health and education systems, evaporate over night. Until you remember, strictly by-the-numbers, Trump didn’t win. In addition, millions of Americans were so disgusted by both candidates and the political carnival Taibbi so colorfully and insightfully describes in his book, that they opted out. They stayed at home and kept their virtue intact. It was the others, the undercounted, wounded heroes of yesterday’s America, so run-down and bereft of hope they fell for that old fashioned gold glitter. And that cranky, but still hard to resist Sinatra tune “My Way.”
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