Sunday, 29 January 2017

Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the American Circus by Matt Taibbi Review


The wonderfully titled Insane Clown President reprints Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone articles from this past election, starting in August 2015 to the aftermath of that apocalyptic Election Night. The book has its moments but Taibbi isn’t the most original of commentators, more often than not going with the overall media narrative, so, if you followed the election closely like me, this reads more like a summary of the whole thing than a unique insight from the campaign trail. 

Annoyingly, it takes a while to get going. His intro and reprinted intro from his 2008 book The Great Derangement(!), basically say the same thing: America’s getting dumber and shallower and that doesn’t bode well for the future. He’s essentially taking credit for predicting Trump which, no, sorry, and besides it’s a weak, repetitive beginning. To be fair though, later on in an early 2016 piece he writes a fair assessment of Trump, highlighting his good and bad points, and is savvy enough then to predict a Trump presidency. 

Then (12% in! I read this on Kindle) we’re into the book proper with the 17 Republican candidates (labelled the “clown car”) blathering it out among themselves for the nomination. Taibbi laughs off Trump as unserious, how his very presence there shows the end of the Republican Party, and that he’ll never be the nominee, let alone win against Hillary. There was also a lot of talk about Republicans needing to completely revamp their party in a 21st century style to appeal to minorities and that Trump seemingly losing the Latino vote with his offensive comments would cost him the election. I’ll admit to thinking these same things, as many people did, and how wrong we all were! 

It was funny to be reminded of the bizarre mudslinging that went on during the nominations, particularly what went Ted Cruz’s way. Cruz was literally accused of being the Zodiac Killer whose dad was in league with Lee Harvey Oswald in the JFK assassination, and a neurologist actually wrote an article on why his face is so punchable. I laughed so much at those insane accusations - it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving candidate! The drinking game articles on the Republican Nominee debates though were lame, as was the one on casting the movie of the election. 

Taibbi reviews the culture that allowed Trump to rise to the top and finds its roots in Dubya. Almost as a reaction to having an intellectual like Obama as a two-term President, a trend of anti-intellectualism was on the rise which Trump was able to exploit. But of course there’s more to it than that. Trump and Bernie Sanders were the two candidates people were most pumped about as Trump made it a point that he was funding his own campaign while Bernie wouldn’t take corporate money. The message was clear: neither would be beholden to corporations in office unlike Hillary who couldn’t stop taking their “donations”. It shows the mood of the country, that people in general are sick of insider corruption and feel betrayed by their politicians hence why a significant number of voters respond to candidates who appear to be separate from it. 

He also takes a look at the left, criticising the Democratic National Committee who didn’t learn from Bernie’s popularity and just how close Hillary came to losing the nomination, as well as noting the startlingly crazy stuff that emerged from Trump’s victory with some commentators – sadly one of my favourite political writers, Andrew Sullivan, was among them – talking about changing the system to stop dumb people from voting! 

The post-election article where he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened was definitely my favourite. To his credit Taibbi is aware of the media’s shortcomings in this election cycle – including his own – in overestimating their influence (earlier in the book he talks almost proudly of the media’s ability to destroy candidates like Howard Dean after a gaffe – but somehow they couldn’t bring down Trump, signalling their decline in power) and talking too much amongst themselves instead of listening to what ordinary voters were saying. 

More importantly he highlights the shocking failings of the Clinton campaign and why Hillary lost. Bill and Hillary were once optimistic and idealistic, pursuing policies to benefit the American people but, after decades of being ground down in the realities of politics, they’ve become cynical and made a conscious decision, shortly after Bill’s presidency, to pursue money instead, becoming multi-millionaires in the process. 

Obama indirectly criticised Hillary by noting in a post-election speech that when he ran for President he campaigned tirelessly in the smallest communities, even the ones where he was told he didn’t stand a chance, meeting as many people as possible – a tactic that Trump also used in this election. Hillary meanwhile did far less grassroots campaigning, allegedly doing over 400 corporate fundraisers instead and relied on public opinion from a computer program called Ada! 

Hillary was an unlikeable, unappealing candidate who ran a garbage campaign, blocking out dissent and living in an echo chamber, so divorced from reality that there was a story that in her campaign headquarters her staffers were popping champagne on the morning of the election! As weird and important as Trump’s ascension was, it feels like there’s a more fascinating book to be written on Hillary’s enormously corrupt campaign. 

If you followed the election closely, there’s not going to be a whole lot new to you here, though if you didn’t, Taibbi is an informative, sometimes witty, and largely non-partisan writer who does a decent job of summarising the madness, particularly as the pieces were written as the events were happening, reflecting the perceptions of the time. That’s also its flaw as Taibbi tends to often defer to the mainstream political narrative than question it and try to be more objective. That said, it was such a strange and eventful election that reliving parts of it remain entertaining and he is occasionally insightful on certain aspects to make reading it worth my while. It’s not the definitive book on the 2016 Election but it’s not a bad one on the subject.

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