Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi is a collection of his reports for the Rolling Stone magazine on the 2016 US presidential election campaign. They are very much in the tradition of the now deceased Hunter S Thompson. The essays stretch from the beginning of the race to Trump’s election.
Reading the introduction, you can see that it hurts the author to look back and see just how wrong he called it at the end, just like most of us. But if he had stuck to his insights into why Trump had won the Republican nomination, and how Bernie Sanders nearly knocked off Hillary Clinton, he would have most likely predicted the outcome correctly.
As Taibbi points out, US elections have always produced contemptible candidates fuelled by corporate money, but the 2016 election took this to new heights. The floodgates for unlimited corporate cash had been opened by two successful court cases prosecuted by the billionaire Koch brothers’ front organisation Citizens United.
The hashtag #ClownCar was the most popular description for the bag of turds known as the Republican nominees. From the beginning, Taibbi recognised that something unprecedented was happening in this election. Trump opened his campaign by bagging John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam and followed it up by calling Mexicans rapists. The author then describes the three steps that usually follow those that veer, or in this case, swerve uncontrollably off the mainstream script.
Firstly, the commercial press in all its forms, crucifies the offender. Then the offender does what Taibbi describes as the ‘death walk’, where they appear at a news conference and apologise for their misdeeds. This is followed by the rapid retreat into oblivion. We recently saw an Australian version of this when our own jackals masquerading as journalists pounced on Yasmin Abdel-Magried forcing her to apologise for the most innocuous comments about ANZAC Day.
To the shock of the press guardians of corporate orthodoxy Trump refused to apologise, and again and again he either doubled down on what he said, or denied he ever said it. Instead of the usual plummet in the polls his numbers soared. To the horror of press establishment, they discovered a population that not only was no longer listening but celebrated every humiliation at the hands of head clown Trump. On the other side of the fence, Sanders packed out venue after venue despite almost no media coverage.
I found I needed to read this book with Google at the ready as Taibbi constantly references American politicians, celebrities and events that I was not familiar with. He covers the Democratic nomination and throws his support behind Bernie Sanders despite Rolling Stone’s editorial support for Hilary Clinton. I laughed out loud many times reading this book as Taibbi reminds you of both the parlous state of American society, and the seriousness underlying this feast of absurdity.
Once the battle for presidency begins in earnest Taibbi cannot believe Trump can win, though he does notice worrying signs. While Taibbi attempts to peer outside his own journalistic bubble he never truly escapes. You will have to go elsewhere for a serious analysis of the contradictory class forces moving under the surface. His soft spot for Obama, his pleading with the Democratic Party to change direction, to become a party of the people, is a hopeless wish and contradicts every one of his most astute observations.
Nevertheless, Taibbi presents us with an America in ideological crisis: large sections of its ruling elites, as well as the American people, no longer believe in the ‘truths’ that have been fabricated for them. Reality itself is tearing the old consensus of ideas apart.
Having paid the price for the financial crises and suffered through the latest military adventures, working class Americans are starting to wake up. Tens of thousands are drawing socialist conclusions as reflected through the Bernie Sanders campaign and the surge in membership of socialist organisations across the country. Ideas are on the move in America as the masses search for new truths, truths that actually match reality, truths that can set you free.
I highly recommend Taibbi’s book as it taught me a lot, made me laugh, and was a welcome break from some of the drier reading one must do when grappling with serious political questions.
Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus
By Matt Taibbi
Published by Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by Simon Millar