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

Saturday, March 9, 2024

The Great American Election Circus - Two Buffoons And Bad Tuba Players

 'Ooo-la-la', said Antoine de la Villiers, Duke de Gralonde, latest in a line of French nobility that dated back to the Third Crusade, the final victory of the French over the Muslim invaders of Jerusalem. 'Troisieme Croisade', he explained to anyone noting his gold ring, engraved with the crest of Pope Gregory VIII.


Antoine was reacting to the American presidential campaign, an episode which never ceased to amuse him.  'How American', he mused thinking of his ancestors, the long line of aristocrats which had ruled the country nobly and well until the unfortunate happenings in 1789.  Not a few of his forbears' heads had rolled during the Terror, but happily those that escaped La Veuve returned to their chateaux and continued to govern France if not in power, in influence.  

They were the legatees of Charlemagne and Charles Martel, responsible for saving Europe from the Saracen invaders, caretakers of French culture and language.  Charles de Gaulle said, La France, c'est moi', but it was Antoine's ancestors, the royalty, nobility, and aristocracy of France who were the true Frenchmen. De Gaulle was only a commoner, an upstart soldier and bourgeois arriviste. 

It was within this context that Antoine reflected on the buffoonery, charlatanism, Grand Guignol, low-life absurdity of the American electoral process; but his observations ranged further.  The whole country was a freak show.  How and why a country founded on good European principles - Voltaire, after all was French and the Enlightenment illuminated France as well as England - was a mystery to him.  

After the sophisticated, temperate, intellectual and philosophical brilliance of Jefferson, who had been Ambassador to France and honored the King for his support of America's Revolutionary end to British rule, and given the wisdom of Hamilton, Adams, and Franklin, all steeped in the intellectual tradition of Europe, how could this new nation have so quickly become a land of rubes, brawlers, cowpokes, and crackers?

The American electoral campaign, therefore, was only the most obvious expression of a persistently low-brow plebian culture.  Tocqueville had seen something remarkable in America - a can-do, enthusiastic optimism - but was as chary as Hamilton about the majority, as unwashed, undependable, and ignorant as 'the people' anywhere. Shakespeare and Rabelais were chroniclers of this fickleness. Americans might make good bakers, butchers, and candlestick makers, but never would coalesce into the greatness of empire. 

Antoine drove to his chateau, Le Planchat, a 14th century medieval fortress turned 100 room residence and 10,000 acre property for the Villiers since its inauguration.  There he would be met by a familiar phalanx of retainers, cooks, chambermaids, grooms, stablemasters, wardens, and guardians - a trusted staff whose families had served at Le Planchat for generations  It would be a respite from the hectic life of Paris and his many engagements - there was always someone who wanted him to open this or that, break a bottle of champagne over a ship or a cornerstone, make a speech about Europe, or simply show up in formal, aristocratic dress. 


Political observers have noted that this particular election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is one of the worst in American history - an old, doddering, half-senile political hack versus a vaudevillian, a crass, low-brow wild man.  The voters deserve better, they say, but there is not canny Tocqueville among them. Few understand that Donald Trump is America, and that Joe Biden is his twin, as American as apple pie - his persistent Utopian fantasy has been a feature of the American cultural fringe since Whitman, the Oneida Colony, and transcendentalism. 

There is no historical imperative to cite, no empire to recall, no storied mythology in America; so it is not surprising that both Trump and Biden are simply square dance callers, auctioneers, hucksters, and intellectual poseurs.  Utopianism was never a serious enterprise and still isn't.  For all of Biden's calls for a better, more verdant, more understanding and compassionate America, progressivism is an opium-induced pipe dream, a long-ago discredited notion of a world of peace and harmony that has never existed. 

Unlike Biden's whistlin' Dixie, Donald Trump's calls for nationalism, militant patriotism, fiscal and financial restraint, individualism, and social conservatism resonate with a large segment of the population.  Moreover Trump is not only the message but the medium.  Americans at heart are just like Trump or would like to be - bigger than life, wealthy beyond their dreams, squire of the world's most beautiful women, a macho man of the mean streets, a Hollywood icon, owner of mansions, yachts, and resorts.  An unapologetically crass man who loves American culture - starlets, Las Vegas runway  girls, sequins, glitter, and arm candy. 


The election is predictably more about image than substance.  Let Apostrophes, a French prime time television program which featured a round table of intellectuals discussing art, philosophy, and literature, be profound.  No one in America has the patience for such pointy-headed intellectuals. 'What you see is what you get' is the American meme, not on-the-one-hand-on-the-other or resolute probing for the truth.  We know better. 

'Still', said Antoine to the Duke de Guiche over Lapin Bourguignon and a '72 Chateau Lafitte, 'it's fun to watch'; and that summed up the general European view of American politics.  Which is also why the most savvy Americans love the presidential matchup - it is the great WWE American World Wrestling Entertainment fight of the century, all hyped-up, faux body slams and circus antics. Two buffoons, freaks, and bad tuba players. 

The campaign is Shecky Greene and the Borscht Belt, the Carnegie Delicatessen, bosomy girls and jack-booted feminists, boa-feathered drag queens, cowboys and Indians. In America voters only say they care about policy and purpose. What they really and always care about is the show, the side show, and the three rings. 

The world is becoming more and more like America, like it or not.  France is no longer La France but some amalgam of Algeria, Cameroon, and Mali - Tuaregs, Moors, Arabs, ISIS, Islamic fundamentalists - fewer and fewer old-style syndicalistes and demi-liter meal ticket lunch crowd; and even fewer 'une de la devant et une grosse fortune derriere'  aristocrats. 

Italy has always been the most politically American country - Berlusconi was an early Trumpist, and Meloni is not far behind - and Argentina has finally come to its senses with a mop-haired, radical libertarian comedian at the helm; but it is to America that vaudevillian, Barnum & Bailey lovers must turn.  And every four years the very best of America is on display. 

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