LWC Book Review
Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi
att Taibbi is one of the best political journalists in America. He is also one of the (surprisingly slender) reasons for subscribing to Rolling Stone magazine. In his latest book, a sort of mea culpa, Taibbi turns his trademark powerful wit and analysis on a new and slippery target—himself.
The book, Insane Clown President (2017), begins with the author’s coverage of the Presidential campaign back in the turbid swelter of August, 2015, and goes through the 2016 election. Taibbi comes to terms with the massive failure, including his own failure, of the national media to believe that Trump could win. Here, from his dispatch on October 16: “Trump’s shocking rise and spectacular fall have been a singular disaster for U.S. politics…Trump can’t win,” [page 276-77]. Back in May, Taibbi had written that Trump was “killing the Republican Party,” [Ibid, pg. 171]. The GOP was an absurd “clown car” with no hope of producing a winning ticket.
Giuliani was onstage “with his eyes spinning & his arms flailing like a man who’d come to a hospital lost-&-found in search of his medulla oblongata.”
Well, we know what happened. How it happened turns out to be quite interesting, and, with Taibbi at the wheel, it’s more than a little guilty fun. The book has plenty of delightfully trenchant Taibbi-isms. Scott Walker is a “central-casting Charmless White Guy who looks like a vice principal,” [pg. 31]. Mike Pence “makes Al Gore seem like the Wu Tang Clan,” [pg. 221].
Watching Katrina Pierson at a particular news conference was “like watching a kitten try to crawl out of a wood-chipper,” [pg. 242]. At a Trump rally, Rudy Giuliani was onstage “with his eyes spinning and his arms flailing like a man who’d come to a hospital lost-and-found in search of his medulla oblongata,” and he and Trump shared “the most passionate television love story since Beavis and Butt-head,” [pg. 269]. And so on.
There are two excellent chapters on Bernie, Hillary, and young voters. In the first, Taibbi makes a very strong case for Sanders. He goes after the many foolish hit pieces on Bernie, from the New York Times to the New Yorker. Here’s an exceptionally stupid one, by New Yorker writer John Cassidy, writing that Bernie “will occupy the space to the left of Clinton, thus denying it to more plausible candidates, such as Martin O’Malley.” [pgs. 163 & 221] Oh, John. What on earth do you mean by “plausible?” Strain your imagination, and try to conjure up a stadium full of vigorous young people cheering for Martin O’Malley—it can’t be done. Even Martin O’Malley can’t imagine it.
In the second, things get personal. This chapter, on young voters rejecting Hillary, deals with Taibbi’s journalistic home, Rolling Stone magazine. During the primary season, the magazine’s founder, Jann Wenner, surprised many people by endorsing Hillary Clinton. Taibbi’s dispatch of November 3, 2015, dissented from Wenner’s (and the magazine’s) position. Those of us who are long-time Left-wing readers were disturbed by Rolling Stone’s move to the Right-center. Wenner himself wrote the magazine’s defense of picking
“To campaign professionals, real people became fodder for stylized visual backgrounds and nothing more.”
Hillary, a wildly unpopular candidate with young people. “Rolling Stone has championed the youth vote since 1972,” he wrote [pg. 163]. He then recounted the succession of disastrous Left-leaning Democratic Presidential candidates, the lesson being: the Left can’t win, forget about Bernie, pick a mainline Democrat and go forward. He was, evidently, trying to sell Hillary to his young readers, a strategy which failed badly. As Taibbi points out, young people are not likely going to be swayed by telling them that, you know, McGovern in ’72, that didn’t work, so, fuck it. Especially when Bernie came so damn close, rising on a tide of young primary voters.
When Bernie was coming on strong against Hillary, we began to hear some shop-worn phrases: “pie in the sky” and “incremental politics” and answers that “stand a chance of working.” The incremental change meme was used by Wenner in his defense of Hillary, which should cause a red flag waving in your head. This idea, that change can only come incrementally, is a conservative hallmark, going back to Edmund Burke, the granddaddy of conservatism. When many Democrats—and liberal magazines like Rolling Stone—re-orient themselves to classic conservative thinking in times of crisis, we are in trouble.
Matt Taibbi flubbed the election—he became cynical. In the book, he has his heart-of-darkness moments. On the campaign trail, he notes, the journalists and the politicians travel and live in a bubble. Number-crunchers, pollsters, pundits, and hacks explain away the confusing, scary stuff, and actual non-bubble people play only a tiny part in the process. “To campaign professionals, real people became fodder for stylized visual backgrounds and nothing more,” [xv, introduction]. Then, this bubble-crap is turned into a TV or internet story, which can be (and was in this case) far removed from reality. When Bernie fell to the Demo-corporate machine, the old story (‘we can’t actually ever change anything’) won, and the autumn script was set. Trump will lose. Taibbi bought it. Everyone bought it, except millions of voters.
Should you buy this book? You bet. It’s well-written, and insightful. There are some amazing dispatches, throughout. The chapter in which Taibbi attacks and destroys the ‘too-much democracy’ argument is worth the cost of the book, all by itself. Buy the book, but remember. Remember, the truth, the reality is outside, is all around you. Pop the fucking bubble.