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.
Matt Taibbi is one of several journalists who covered the madness of the Trump campaign on the ground and has since published in longer form about the experience. Taibbi’s dispatches from the campaign trail were released in Rolling Stone as the whirlwind of Trump’s campaign tore across the country. I’m not sure how those stayed off my radar for so long, but when I saw the book released, I somehow only noticed the part about the illustrations, and (fabulous as they are) decided I wasn’t interested. I already know he’s the discharge of an elephant’s ass and I guess I didn’t need to see more of that.
I only realized how wrong I was many glowing recommendations later, and after reading several of the pieces published here in the anthology Best American Magazine Writing 2017. Around the time of the one year anniversary of that surreal election day, I finally got around to reading this. I wish I hadn’t waited.
Taibbi is both an excellent writer who makes his analysis look far simpler than it is, considering how easily readable it comes across, and is gifted with a bold sense of humor that acts like a balm for some of the more painful moments of the campaign we’re forced to remember while reading these commentaries.
We all know the general contexts of what was happening, and in my many other reviews of election, campaign, or political upheaval-themed books over the past year I’ve shared enough of my thoughts, so I’ll share some favorite examples of Taibbi’s:
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.
Once every four years, commentators in New York and Washington will fall in love with some “crossover” politician who’s mean enough to be accepted by the right wing, but also knows a gay person or once read a French novel or something. In the pre-Trump era, we became conditioned to believe that this is what constituted an “exciting” politician.
Interestingly, a lot of Trump’s political act seems lifted from bully-wrestlers. A clear influence is “Ravishing” Rick Rude, an eighties champ whose shtick was to insult the audience. He would tell ticket holders they were “fat, ugly sweat hogs,” before taking off his robe to show them “what a real sexy man looks like.” (I scream-laughed at this one, because come on. It’s like he took notes.)
The maddening thing about the Democrats is that they refuse to see how easy they could have it. If the party threw its weight behind a truly populist platform, if it stood behind unions and prosecuted Wall Street criminals and stopped taking giant gobs of cash from every crooked transnational bank and job-exporting manufacturer in the world, they would win every election season in a landslide.
This is especially the case now that the Republican Party has collapsed under the weight of its own nativist lunacy. It’s exactly the moment when the Democrats should feel free to become a real party of ordinary working people.
But they won’t do that, because they don’t see what just happened this year as a message rising up from millions of voters.
Describing Trump’s cabinet and administration, particularly in comparison to that of George W. Bush: These are the sort of people whose first move upon entering the Oval Office would probably be to order the file on Area 51, or to check the back of the Declaration of Independence for treasure maps. And yet, somewhere north of 55 million voters, and huge majorities of white people, seem prepared to cast votes for this crew.
I took some pissed-off comfort in his frequent hilariously creative and imaginative insults towards Trump and others. How can this not make you smile when it’s so undeniably true? “He charged through the primary season like a pig on strychnine.”
Well, if it looks like a duck. Or in this case, a pig on strychnine.
Or this, which is surely one of the most painful parts in historical context – not only do we have Trump in power screwing things up with far-reaching repercussions for who knows how long to come, but he was our embarrassing leap backwards to Obama’s hard-won steps forward:
Donald Trump may have won the White House, but he will never be a man like his predecessor, whose personal example will now only shine more brightly with the passage of time. At a time when a lot of Americans feel like they have little to be proud of, we should think about our outgoing president, whose humanity and greatness are probably only just now coming into true focus.
Taibbi says this while ruminating on Obama’s response to the election results, how he didn’t have much to say but his succinct response was powerful nonetheless. “Contrast this to Donald Trump, who vomits out great quantities of verbiage, taking so many positions at once that no one of them has much meaning after a while.”
These comparisons hurt, not because I haven’t already made them a thousand times in my own mind, but just the reminder of them.
Okay, just one last jab to make things feel a lighter before returning to grim, stupid current reality:
How Giuliani isn’t Trump’s running mate, no one will ever understand. Theirs is the most passionate television love story since Beavis and Butthead. Every time Trump says something nuts, Giuliani either co-signs it or outdoes him. They will probably spend the years after the election doing prostate-medicine commercials together.
IF ONLY that’s how it had turned out.
Despite the book being published a year ago (paperback edition coming next week) and the essays originally well over a year ago in Rolling Stone, Taibbi’s observations still seem fresh and relevant. And as always, a bold sense of humor is essential in enduring the president and administration that, thankfully, so much of the country has refused to accept as the new normal.
Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus
by Matt Taibbi
published January 17, 2017 by Spiegel & Grau,
paperback published February 27, 2018