"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 1, 2016

American Political Campaigns–The Circus Act That Europeans Will Never Understand

While Europeans sniff every four years at American presidential campaigns and  dismiss them as vaudeville,  three-ring circuses, Las Vegas glitz-and-glitter, Hollywood tinsel, reality TV, and Madison Avenue hucksterism, they miss the point.  The campaigns are indeed showy fol-de-rol and a far cry from the more traditional, temperate, and short campaigns they are used to; but that’s who we are.


America is without a doubt a raucous, Wild West, Barnum & Bailey circus. In a country where anything goes and the most exaggerated expressions of individuality are encouraged, how could political campaigns ever be somber and serious affairs.


One of the most popular show on French television not long ago, Apostrophes, was a roundtable discussion of ideas.  French writers, thinkers, philosophers, and intellectuals met once a week to discuss books, their importance, and most importantly their place in French culture.  While the debate was always animated and lively, it was always civilized, restrained, and respectful. Apostrophes represented the best spirit of French culture.  The works presented and discussed might not have been the most significant and historically important, but the discussion of them displayed French intellectual virtuosity – an ability to put new ideas within a historical context. 

Ideas to a French intellectual mean little unless they are understood within a broader cultural context.  No event or action is without antecedent, they argued, and unless their origins were determined and their evolution traced, they would remain intellectual silhouettes.


Up until recently and before non-European ethnic and religious minorities began to exert their own influence, French European intellectualism retained its rigor and its sense of right.  Neither intellectuals nor  politicians schooled in the same academic tradition would ever think of abandoning such a revered philosophical tradition.  As the popularity of Apostrophes demonstrated, this  intellectualism was by no means restricted to the French elite.  While the worker at Renault or Michelin could not be expected to debate the likes of Sartre, Camus, or Derrida, he most certainly was very much aware of French history and destiny.

The Americanization of French culture has been a real concern for the French, and various political, legislative, and fiscal means have been enacted to keep out what many French intellectuals consider the crassness and mawkishness of American film, the corrupting influence of American popular language, and the incessant intrusion of street creds and appearance.  All to no avail, of course; and France is far more American than it ever was.

America, however, hasn’t changed a bit since its earliest days.  Despite the growth of government and the economy, the complexity of foreign political and financial affairs, and the very different complexion of the American population, we haven’t lost our nativism.  We are still fiercely individualistic and independent, dismissive of intellectualism, and as taken with vaudevillians, hucksters, and political circus acts as ever.

Las Vegas should be at the top of the list for any foreigner about to visit the United States for the first time .  Although New York is impressive, Washington monumental, Los Angeles icon, and Texas symbolic, there is no city like Las Vegas that best captures the permanent American zeitgeist.

Everything in Las Vegas is proudly, unashamedly fake – the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, and the Roman Forum. It is a re-creational tour de force.  It is more than enough for visitors to experience the recreated, fantasy world of the Seven Wonders of the World without ever having to leave America.  No one who goes to Las Vegas is concerned with facts, or ‘reality’. No visitor has his feet on the ground or is looking for meaning.  It is a pre-virtual world in which every fantasy can be created and shared.


Everything in America is about fantasy, hyperbole, and big top circus acts.  While Hollywood can make its ‘meaningful’ films, its genius is  Avatar, Star Wars, Mad Max – Fury, and Hollywood’s sexiest and sensual stars.

One of the best movies about Hollywood and perhaps Robert Altman’s best film is The Player, a story about a Hollywood film executive who commits a murder, is never caught, and who through canniness and nerve rises to the top of the studio.


A movie that the studio is producing is about an innocent black woman wrongly accused of murder and who is sentenced to die in the gas chamber.  After the producer who has sponsored the film has finished his pitch, the studio head asks, “Do they screw? If I am going to have to sit through an hour-and-a-half of guilt, gas, and the death chamber, someone has to screw.”

The hero of the movie takes over the project, changes the characters, tone, and intent of the movie and finishes it with a Hollywood ending. “Up”, he says, “is the nature of Hollywood.”
There is no room anywhere in America for Camus’ dreary existentialism or Derrida’s and Lacan’s abstruse, depressing deconstructionism.  Europeans may like to grapple with the nature of art, the meaning of suffering, and the purpose of life; but not Americans.  History for us is an inconvenience, something to stumble over on our way to building a better world.


Confounded Europeans have no idea what to make of our religious expression. Southern Pentecostalism, religious charismatics, storefront churches, and an absolute, fundamental belief in the written Word of God are so stupefying and so far beyond Descartes, Voltaire, and Rousseau that they cannot be real.

Where have they been?  Religious extremism, guns, snake-oil salesmen, carny barkers, vaudevillians, sexual puritanism-cum-exhibitionism, political hysteria, and true belief have been around since 1776 and long before.  Anyone who had the curiosity to look would find that we have not changed fundamentally since the days of the Founding Fathers.

Why then do Europeans shake their heads at the braggadocio of Donald Trump who is Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Barnum & Bailey all rolled into one? Why do they sniff at Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson for their religiosity and sanctimonious invocation of God at every turn?  Nathanial Hawthorne wrote about Salem, Puritanism, and the foundations of American religious culture almost two hundred years ago.  The same spirit of Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny of the 19th century animates our optimism and entrepreneurial enthusiasm today.

What they overlook is that Donald Trump is the smartest person in the race.  He is the quintessentially American candidate.  While others may reflect the faith and traditional values of middle-Americans, talk the Ronald Reagan talk of a powerful military and present a defiant posture to the rest of the world, only Trump has it all.  He is an absolute master of the media, has an uncanny insight into the frustrations of the American voter, sees the weaknesses and pitiable vulnerabilities of his opponents, and is not afraid to go after them.


It is a mistake to dismiss Trump as a serious candidate and wonder about a Trump presidency.  He will be as transformative a president as Ronald Reagan who had little grasp of intellectuals’ idea of ‘the issues’ but so understood the country that his simple, unvarying principles and commitment to them made him one of the most significant and loved presidents in recent history.  Trump is far smarter than Ronald Reagan ever was, has the same grasp on the zeitgeist of America, will choose equally smart men and women to run his Cabinet, and will be a force to be reckoned with.


Trump is a clown and most definitely is NOT a clown.  Europeans have a difficult time holding both ideas in their head at once.  We Americans can.

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