Fear and looting on the 2016 U.S. campaign trail

Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus
By Matt Taibbi
Spiegel & Grau, 352 pp., $35

More than 40 years ago, Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson filed a series of dispatches — collected in his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 — documenting how an ethically challenged Republican, Richard Nixon, trounced feckless Democrats and a vacuous press blinkered by its own pack mentality.

Nearly a half-century later, another Rolling Stone writer, Matt Taibbi, has assembled a selection of his own 2016 reports. And — spoiler alert! — the outcome is arguably not much different.

President-elect Donald Trump’s “vulgarity and defiant lack of self-awareness make him, unfortunately, the perfect foil for reflecting the rot and neglect of the corrupted political system,” writes Taibbi in the introduction to Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus. “A system unable to stop this must be very sick indeed.”

Taibbi’s diagnosis, which draws heavily on his 2008 book The Great Derangement, is not just that politicians have lost touch with average Americans. It’s that many average Americans have lost touch with reality, thanks to a deep distrust of authority, and a TV news diet that caters to what they want to hear.

“We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business,” he wrote in a 2015 piece included here. “Pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.”

Trump’s advantage, he writes, was that he both produced TV spectacles, and was produced by them. The president-elect’s limited attention span and his telegenic postures of resentment, Taibbi suggests, reflect the TV-saturated culture as a whole. (Oddly, given Trump’s reliance on Twitter, Taibbi largely ignores social media.)

That’s not to say Taibbi, whose resumé includes a stint running a newsweekly in the Rust Belt town of Buffalo, New York, is unsympathetic to the economic grievances Trump tapped.

“Things get physically tense when people are forced to fight for their economic lives,” Taibbi writes. “Yet Trump’s campaign has been the first to unleash that menacing feel during a modern presidential race. … He’s peddling hope, and with hope comes anger.”

By contrast, he contends, mainstream Republicans wage bogus culture wars, “taking advantage of the fact that their voters didn’t know the difference between an elitist and the actual elite, between a snob and an oligarch.” And when Democrats like Hillary Clinton aren’t cashing cheques from Wall Street, they are “bending so far back to preserve what they believe is their claim on the middle that they end up plainly in the wrong.”

Taibbi may be best known for his scathing takedowns of Wall Street, which include his description of Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” Those villains turn up here, and Taibbi hasn’t lost his ability to turn a phrase: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, he observes, has a face that looks “like someone sewed pieces of a waterlogged Reagan mask together at gunpoint.”

But of course, Taibbi isn’t exactly the first political observer to note the similarities between a presidential campaign and a reality-TV series.

And if you’re looking for a sympathetic take on Trump supporters — you know, the kind hand-wringing pundits say we need — you won’t find it here. Taibbi seems to think they’re every bit as dumb as the White House press pool.

I wish Taibbi had delved into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 election, which was on display as early as last fall. He’s lived in, and written extensively about, contemporary Russia, and might have revealed some interesting comparisons between the political culture there and here.

But in one of the season’s first post-election books, Taibbi forcefully raises bigger questions than why Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign more in Michigan. How do Americans choose a leader when no one trusts authority? How do they live alongside each other when they talk only to themselves? Taibbi doesn’t provide an answer. But then, neither has anyone else.

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