Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus
By Matt Taibbi
Spiegel and Grau
314 pages, $26
Why should it be that in 2017, America's essential political writer is a fellow who once covered John Kerry's presidential run by wearing a Viking costume at the candidate's press conferences? (He'd previously worn a bear costume but it got too hot.)
For that matter, why should the most acute reportage of America's 21st century political chaos come from a fellow who previously, in Moscow, was a party to the chucking of a pie full of horse sperm at a journalist for the New York Times? Just how "merry" a prank was that, after all? And while we're chewing on unanswerable matters, let's not fail to note that in our era when U.S. presidential elections can be engineered, in no small manner, by Russian computer hackers, the most gifted political diagnostician we have is a writer who first cut his teeth in Russia because he greatly admired the Russian literary masters, particularly such comic masters as Chekhov and Bulgakov.
We had more than a taste of Matt Taibbi's prankish excesses when he briefly edited an anarchic "humor" alternative press periodical in Buffalo called "The Beast."
Taibbi herein admits "I didn't see Trump coming. But as a campaign reporter, I'd surely seen trouble on the horizon long ago. The most obvious problem was the total alienation of candidates and their attendant media from the population." He had, in fact, been trying to deal with that alienation since first covering political campaigns in 2004 for Rolling Stone.
What national journalistic forum could be more appropriate for registering such shameless alienation from political and journalistic orthodoxy than the magazine that so disgraced itself with its prevarications in a story about campus rape? Taibbi, in his way, turns the magazine's disgrace on its head.
In 2017, American journalists everywhere wonder if their profession itself has been exiled from American legitimacy. There's a kind of perfect justice to so much truth and wisdom coming from the antic literary prodigy who so joyously functions so far away from journalistic orthodoxy.
We're now watching an unpredictably unorthodox presidential administration guided by those who come from the alt-right. Why, then, shouldn't so much illuminating wisdom come from some of the dicier and more prominent precincts of American alternative journalism? Who better to to clarify our current radical bafflement than the most gifted current writer at war with journalistic respectability?
You can read Maureen Dowd's column collection profitably, if you must. Or Tom Friedman's. Or anyone else's for that matter. But if you're forced to, you'll have to admit that no regular American journalist anywhere is more attuned to the current conundrums than Matt Taibbi.
The biggest trouble, perhaps, with "Insane Clown President" (named after the militantly dumb-down gang who call themselves "Insane Clown Posse") is that the essential metaphor of the book's subtitle has collapsed along with so much American faith in journalism itself.
The political documentaries on Showtime may have called the past presidential campaign a "circus." And it's the basic metaphor of Taibbi's book too. But our current era is presenting us with a world where Ringling Brothers is going out of business.
Whatever amusement there may have been in a savage satirical prankster called Trump the "Insane Clown President" has been obviated somewhat by what we have seen in our political reality. That doesn't mean you'll be able to read a collection of Taibbi's 2016 presidential campaign coverage without revelation's of Taibbi's acuity and clairvoyance on virtually every other page.
Nor does it mean you'll be able to read this book without roaring sometimes at its antic comic satire while, at the same time, you're trying to remember the make and license number of the Trump truck that just hit us all. A highway wreck is probably, in truth, a more apt metaphor for our presidential politics than a circus which, once upon a time, presumed to be fun.
Among indispensable understandings Taibbi brings to our current trauma is that America is the basic problem, not those who succeed in exploiting it.
In November 25, 2015, Taibbi's dispatch from the road -- as collected here -- is titled "America Is Too Dumb For TV News: Trump And Others Are Proving It; We Can't Handle the Truth." Inside, you can read this about George Stephanopoulos' dynamiting Trump's claims that he watched New Jersey Muslims applauding 9/11 on TV. "Politicians are quickly learning they may say anything and get away with it. Along with vindication, apology and suffering, there now exists a fourth way forward for the politician spewing whoppers: blame the backlash on media bias and walk away a hero."
The Chapter from Dec. 9, 2015 reads "It's Too Late to Turn Off Trump: We Can't Change Channel on the Culture He's Exposed." Or, as the son of NBC newsman Mike Taibbi says "the time to start worrying about the consequences of our editorial decisions was before we raised a generation who get all of their information from television and who believe that the solution to every problem is simple enough that you find it before the 21 minutes of the sitcom are over."
He knows, he says, when he published "The Great Derangement" 10 years ago, that "as ordinary people tune out their corrupt leaders, they will replace official proganda with conspiratorial explanations even more ridiculous than the original lies."
And so a president who, for a long time, denied his predecessor's Hawaiian birthplace, was the natural result of "the most thrilling and disgusting political event of my generation....the stunning rise of Donald Trump marked the apotheosis of the new postfactual moment."
Two days after Trump's inaguration, his minions claimed a "yuge" throng of witnesses to it that was belied by every actual photo of the event. When reporters became "part of the establishment" says Taibbi "people noticed." Their verbal coverage could be thought biased.
So when candidates like Hillary Clinton thought to cement support among the millennials who incite so much American yearning by doing a "Mannequein Challenge" aboard a campaign plane full of press, Taibbi had no difficulty seeing that "as a metaphor for an overconfident and incompetent ruling class that was ten miles up its own backside when it should have been listening to the anger percolating in the population, the 'Mannequin Challenge' is probably unsurpassable."
It is, obviously, Taibbi's occupational habit to go over the line, to be outrageous.
At this moment, on the subject of the presidential election of 2016, his coverage may turn out to be unsurpassable.
Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books Editor.