Sunday, May 22, 2016
Facts At A Circus? Donald Trump And The Joyful Ride Through American Politics
It is always surprising to see how both Republican and Democratic elites are befuddled by Donald Trump. Both have spent decades developing, curating, polishing, and promoting their brands.
Republicans have been the party of small government, low taxes, enterprise, and a strong military; and in recent years have embraced family values, religion, and patriotism to complement the image of strength, rectitude, and exceptionalism.
Democrats have been the party of big government, progressive rates of taxation, transfers of wealth from the rich to the poor, negotiation and compromise, and a culture of mutually-respectful diversity.
This year (2016), however, both parties have been flummoxed by Donald Trump, a man who confounds liberal and conservative policies, talks like a libertarian, and plays fast and loose with ideas and convictions. Nobody inside the Beltway knows exactly who he is or what he stands for. But the 10 million people who have voted for him in the primaries, who pack arenas and stadiums to get a glimpse of him, and who see him as the political savior of the nation certainly do. The insider crowd doesn’t get him, but everyone else does.
The irony is that these liberal and conservative observers have correctly characterized Trump as a vaudevillian, clown, carny barker, and magician; but in their disparagement have missed the point that when people go to a circus, they don’t want the facts or the truth or reality.
The Great Gandolfo was the greatest magician of the early 19th century. Because of a somewhat shady and questionable past, the big circuses like Barnum & Bailey never engaged him. On the small tent, county fair, 4H and watermelon circuit he was a big draw. He performed all the classic magic tricks – sawing a woman in half, wriggling out of a buccaneer’s chains, and making pigeons and rabbits appear and disappear – but his real talent was legerdemain. What his audience saw – a hand of cards, a live toad, a glass of water, or a furled flag – was nothing of the sort. He made everything change in appearance, change places, colors, dimensions, and posture. By the end of his show no one was sure exactly what they had seen or what had become of what they did.
Gandolfo was brilliant, exotic, and absolutely compelling. He wore a traditional magician’s outfit – top hat, white tie, and tails – before every audience no matter how humble. It was a showman’s outfit, what everyone expected; and his hat woven of fine silk, his studs of 14 karat diamonds, and his tuxedo tailored in Bond Street, showed his respect and gratitude for his followers. He never thought of them as gullible or naïve, and prided himself on giving them what they wanted in glamorous style.
Everyone knew that rabbits didn’t really disappear, that no one could possibly read minds or dismember and reassemble women’s bodies; but they willingly suspended disbelief. It was the circus after all, and one didn’t pay good money to see railroad tracks being laid or cows being milked.
In fact the good people of rural America suspended their disbelief all the time; and the circus was just the most theatrical display of it. They were sure that Armageddon was coming within their lifetimes, that the End of Days was coming, and that Jesus would receive them on their entrance to heaven. It was unconscionable to think that man – the most intelligent of animals, gifted with a soul by an all-powerful and –knowing God – could have been descended from the apes. No matter how much paleontological evidence was presented; no matter how many prehistoric fossils were discovered; and no matter how disciplined and rigorous the logical line of inference might have been, they knew absolutely, unequivocally, and with all their hearts that God created Man in his image.
Thomas Jefferson was as wrong as could be when he prevailed over the skeptical Alexander Hamilton in their debates about the sanctity of the will of the people. Jefferson believed in the innate wisdom of the masses while Hamilton dismissed the idea out of hand. The farmers, yeoman, watermen, and tradesmen that he observed might be good people able to tote a column of figures, make a profit, and call forward inventory; but they surely had no enlightenment. They could fall just as easily for a shaman as a parlor trick. The electorate couldn’t be trusted because they lived in a world of distorted ignorance. Not only did they not know a thing; but they invented stories of its origin, nature, and influence.
An apocryphal story made the rounds in Hamilton’s time which was said to influence his decisions about the constitution of the new Republic. It concerned a circus, but this time a big tent – one of those extravaganzas that were common even at the end of the 18th century. John Bill Ricketts was the first to bring his big tent from England to America, and although it was tame by comparison to later circuses, it combined animal acts, the exotic, and the magical. George Washington was reported to have taken in one of Ricketts' shows in Philadelphia.
Hamilton apparently saw an offshoot of Ricketts’ events. A group of Boston entrepreneurs saw money in circuses and opened their own show in Bucks County. They were the first to open the circus to the scandalous and deformed, and their side show was nonpareil. Not only were their bearded ladies but dwarf, bearded, bare-breasted ladies on display. Not only did horses do unique equestrian feats, but they copulated with smaller animals and, if reports are to be believed, with young women from Delaware.
The lines for the side show were hours long, and the Boston brothers, the geniuses who anticipated this demand, were delighted. Ticket prices doubled overnight and larger and larger venues were sought for what they called the ‘freak show’ but labeled it ‘Exotica’ for Pennsylvania audiences.
Hamilton reportedly was very impressed by both the Ricketts’s circus and the Boston Brothers’ side show. In fact his attendance on a Saturday evening show was apocryphal. He knew then and there when he saw his fellow citizens fall hook, line, and sinker for transparent legerdemain and a collection of human deformities, that there was no way in hell that he would ever support his colleague, Jefferson’s misguided populist views.
Hucksterism, snake-oil salesmanship, and ‘a-sucker-is-born-every-minute’ marketing has not only persisted in America but grown. The more complex society becomes the harder it is to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the imagined from the real, and truth from fiction. In other words a field day for the canny politician.
Americans, with their long tradition of falling for clever tricks, absolute belief in a religion that is in reality as relative and speculative as any, a weakness for circuses and magic tricks, and an education which has not progressed much past that of the one-room schoolhouse, will believe anything as long as it is wrapped up in ribbons, decorated with tinsel, and accompanied by music.
Along comes Donald Trump, a genius for understanding this, the most fundamental and elemental characteristic of American culture. Thanks to his intelligence, arrogant confidence, absolute ambition, and vaudevillian sense of timing and audience appeal, he has run the perfect electoral campaign. The circus is the message, not the issues.
The members of the Washington Establishment are like hundreds of Chicken Little’s who cluck, peck, and scurry because the sky is falling; and like Chicken Little have no intelligence, insight, or reason to figure out what is going on. They attack Trump, vilify him, threaten to move to Canada if he wins, shake their heads in dismay, and commiserate with like-minded, serious observers of the political scene, but completely miss the boat.
No matter what he says and in fact because of it, he gains in popularity. He calls Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ because of her venal and ridiculous claim to Native American ancestry. He calls interviewer Megyn Kelly a bimbo and Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary’ and his ratings go up. Protests of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are not only dismissed but used by Trump and his supporters as examples of outrageous and unacceptably politically correct attempts to cloture free speech.
By trying to fit Donald Trump into an acceptable ‘presidential’ box, both liberal and conservative critics miss the boat entirely. Trump is not a presidential candidate. He is a circus performer playing the role of presidential candidate. Moreover this is exactly what people want.
This 2016 presidential campaign is like no other. It is not because a very right wing candidate is running for president. Such ultra-conservative movements are now common throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in reaction to the threat of ethnic separatism, misplaced ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’. It is not because of eight years of a weak, accommodating, and impotent American presidency.
It is because for decades, a very American spirit has been muzzled, wrapped, and stifled. We are not jaded Europeans who have seen it all for a thousand years; nor Middle Eastern Muslims who finally have had enough accommodation to secularism; nor North Asians and Eastern Europeans who want, finally, to succumb to the siren song of Empire and past glory. We are frontier Americans who built the Republic on faith, ambition, enterprise, and practical good sense and logic be damned. We know what we know and resent government telling us otherwise.
Donald Trump is a man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, vaudeville, and Barnum & Bailey. He is the first candidate to understand – and embody – our deliberately illogical preferences, our passionate anti-intellectual populism, and our anti-establishment moral rectitude.
Issues don’t matter for either him or for us. Not even Ronald Reagan stirred so many legitimately nativist aspirations. Fuck logic, issues, and moderations. The way forward is visceral, and absolute. There is no on-the-one-hand-on-the-other dispassionate consideration here. Hillary and poor Bernie don’t have a clue.