REVIEW: Matt Taibbi on Donald Trump, Our 'Insane Clown President'

Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus
By Matt Taibbi   Illustrations by Victor Juhasz
Spiegel & Grau314 pp.  $26.00

By Jim Swearingen


Strangely enough, the “blame game” has fallen into disrepute in our Age of Accountability — attention spans are short and everyone seems to want to look forward.  It’s notable that neither the winner nor the loser of the 2016 presidential election seems to desire a sober accounting of what we voters did to ourselves last November.  Fortunately, Matt Taibbi does not feel that way, and his new book, Insane Clown President, enthusiastically dives into the muck and mire to try to figure out what happened and how it landed us . . . here.

Insane Clown President combines Taibbi’s Rolling Stone campaign trail pieces written between August 2015 and last November with cleverly disconcerting illustrations by Victor Juhasz. In the Rolling Stone “gonzo” journalism tradition of Hunter S. Thompson and cartoonist Ralph Steadman, Taibbi and Juhasz reflect on a lurid electoral battlefield that has left us no reasonable political alternatives. They do not hold back in assigning blame — on both political parties, both candidates (and quite a few more also-rans) and the political media.

Taibbi puts much of the fault on two well-deserving institutions: our major political parties, whose cynical political strategies over the past 50 years have badly degraded our politics, and our news media-turned-entertainment-industry, which constantly jockeys for greater market share of a citizenry suffering from A.D.D.

The ongoing dismantling of the Republic can, to some extent, make a book chronicling the month-by-month suspense of the 2016 election anti-climactic. Reading Taibbi’s reportage can feel a bit like waking up nauseated after a night of heavy drinking and having your mind reel back to the excesses that got you there. But if you’re inclined to relive all of the horrors, Taibbi’s prose and Juhasz’ drawings will bring back the whole mad ruination with disturbing clarity.

Taibbi blames Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic defeat on the Democratic establishment’s abandonment of working class Americans, the candidate’s lesser-of-two-evils campaign strategy, the Republican Party’s Reign of Terror that decapitated a battalion of retread establishment candidates, and a complicit media establishment that preferred catering to viewer ratings over deep and thorough coverage of why flyover America is so angry.

The Republican Party, Taibbi says, has been running on uneducated white voters for decades—distracting them with flag-burning, gay-friendly, pro-abortion multiculturalism while outsourcing all of their jobs. And he pegs the Republican nominee as a flim-flam man who sensed that the con had one more trump card left in the deck, just enough juice to snow the rubes one last time. That Hillary Clinton was a well-heeled Democratic version of the same shell-game was not lost on young voters, Taibbi argues. Having gone along for the ride when her husband sold out labor with NAFTA, laid the groundwork for a devastating recession with Wall Street deregulation, and incarcerated a generation of African-American youth with tougher sentencing guidelines, she was not so evidently the better-than-the-alternative choice. Bill’s two terms as President were secured, Taibbi reminds us, at the expense of traditionally Democratic demographic groups that were lukewarm, at best, toward his wife.

There is one more prominent institution in Taibbi's rogues gallery: the political media. Taibbi explains how and why it failed to act as a fourth estate check on political sell-outs and aspiring despots. He find the news media's complicity in Trump’s garish assault on democracy fairly inevitable once it has decided its first allegiance is to selling products rather than safeguarding the public.

Taibbi also picks apart the process by which the political press anoints acceptable winners and destroys real challengers to the status quo. If Trump did us any favors, Taibbi argues, it was in smashing the media’s king-making power. Trump gleefully broke every rule of civil campaigning all the while berating the very media establishment that propelled his candidacy with its wall-to-wall coverage.

While Taibbi’s essays were undeniably smart and cleverly written when they appeared — he was calling out the horrors long before the primaries ended — it must be said that many of his observations can verge on the trite today.  At times, the book’s point seems to be a resounding, “I told you so!” Notably, the opening chapter is a reprinting of the first chapter of his last book, extensively footnoted, to show just how prescient he was.

Juhasz’ illustrations, meanwhile, nicely allude to some of the most jarring artistic depictions of human despair and suffering: Trump depicted as an Ingmar Bergman-ian Angel of Death as he checkmates the corpse of the GOP; Trump as a Hieronymus Bosch-ian mouth of Hell devouring a suffering elephant; Trump as a leering Darth Sidious reaching up Lady Liberty’s dress.  It’s unfortunate that the book does not include the full color versions of these illustrations, which accompanied the original essays in Rolling Stone. They are well worth finding online.

In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, licentious television producer Alan Alda pompously expounds, “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.”  Matt Taibbi’s humorous dispatches test that axiom to the limit. The Republic could easily withstand the comic pratfalls of a Gerald Ford tumbling down a jetway or W becoming lost in the maze of his own bizarre syntax. It could even survive the lascivious, cigar-savoring Bill Clinton.

What remains to be seen is whether it can endure a churlish middle-schooler pulling the wings off the United States Constitution. If we are not that lucky, when the dreadful historical accounting comes, there will be plenty of blame to go around.