So Scott Walker has packed his tent and gone, and the voice I hear is Lizzie Bennet’s in Pride and Prejudice as George Wickham recedes in the distance: “Go, go, we would not wish you back again.”
Alas, I suspect Scotty will be back whether we wish it or not; for the shameless, there’s always a second act.
Speaking of tents and shamelessness, the Carnival That is Trump seems to have secured a longer engagement than most of us (yours truly included) thought possible. I was groping for an explanation when The New York Times’ Joe Nocera’s description of Mr. Trump as “our era’s P.T. Barnum” made everything clear. There he is, I thought, our very own, russet-haired Phinias T., forever trolling for suckers. Perfect.
I knew about Trump – excuse me, Barnum - because I’d written about him in a novel called God’s Fool, roughly a century ago. Now what I’d written came back to me, casting light on the political moment.
But if the public’s hunger [for curiosities] seemed insatiable at times, it was as nothing compared to Barnum’s; after all, if the masses paid to see 161-year-old Joyce Heth, ‘Washington’s Slave,’ or ‘the Feejee Mermaid,’ a dried-up monstrosity consisting of the tail of a fish, the body and breasts of a female orangutan, and the head of a baboon (a thing with all the appeal of a giant piece of hair-covered jerky), it was because their appetite had been artificially stimulated. Barnum’s was real. His was a shameless, a prodigal gluttony. Gorged and stuffed to surfeit, glutted to the gills, he hungered for more.
A shameless, prodigal hunger for market share. A willingness to do anything, say anything, to gull the customers into the tent. Who knew I was anticipating a candidate for the presidency? Still, what I find most interesting (terrifying is also a good word) is that just as some percentage of Barnum’s dupes knew ‘The Feejee Mermaid’ wasn’t a mermaid, and went along simply to be entertained, to laugh at the lie, so Trump’s ‘customers’ know he’s as much a presidential candidate as he is a Feejee Mermaid, and tune in just to catch the show.
These people give me hope (I know - this is what it’s come to), because in time, artificially stimulated, they’ll grow bored and change the channel.
Which brings us to the adults waiting in the anteroom of hell, listening for the call to duty – Hillary aaaaand Bernie!
My guess is that for those on the left – like me, generally speaking – Hillary and Bernie represent the head and the heart, reason and desire, bird-in-the-hand practicality and two-in-the-bush dreaming. Bernie, who’s been drawing serious crowds for a while now, speaks about the environment as if it was the basis for everything else instead of a special interest, advocates for breaking up the banks and bringing down the billionaire class as if he actually means it, argues that the political process is broken (which it is) and that what we need, therefore, is something like a revolution – a revolution to repeal Citizens United, to cut the big money out of politics, to return the political process (imagine it!) to the people.
This is strong stuff. So far has the pendulum swung to the right over the last few decades, so utterly has one notion of ‘value’ come to dominate all others, so completely have many of us been convinced (by those who stand to profit from it), that the un-free market must be allowed to favor the few and devour the many and that any regulation is a form of tyranny, that to hear someone saying the things Bernie’s been saying is almost too much. It’s so uncompromised, so refreshing, so... true. Didn’t we believe these things ourselves, passionately, back before we learned to behave?
Could it be, then? Could Bernie be The One?
But then there’s Hillary. Tough, tactical, whip-smart and miles ahead of the pack in terms of experience, she’s the one candidate you feel could walk into the White House tomorrow without having to be brought up to speed, the one candidate (maybe Bernie Sanders; less so, Joe Biden) that I can imagine sitting down with Vladimir Putin without feeling sick to my stomach. (Carly Fiorina? Ben Carson? If that doesn’t scare you, nothing scares you.)
Alas, going with Hillary means recasting compromise (and worse) as political savvy, making the case that the art of the possible is not for revolutionary idealists (of either party) but stone-cold realists who can take some hits to get it done. Which might be ok until we ask what ‘it’ was getting done, precisely, when Hillary voted for the Patriot Act in 2001, when she voted to authorize the war in Iraq in 2002, when she voted for the deeply flawed emergency Wall Street bailout fund (TARP) in 2008. Might it be the ‘it’ of business-as-usual? Or the ‘it’ of political expediency?
And so the argument between the heart and the head goes on into the night.
Heart: In all the above cases, let’s remember, Bernie voted the other way - took the principled stand. Argued for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall and all that.
Head: And in all the above cases, the idealist went down in bloody defeat – hopelessly outnumbered.
Heart: But surely the principled defeat is preferable to the compromised ‘win.’
Head: Is it? What does it get you?
Heart: Maybe nothing in the short term, but –
Head: The moral high ground?
Heart: Fine – the moral high ground.
Heart: Well, but hang on – surely there has to be a line, a point beyond which, having eaten all the compromise you can stomach, you just can’t take another bite. A point beyond which, like Howard Beal, the ‘mad prophet of the airwaves’ in Network, you open the window and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.”
Head: Wow – passionate! I’d say that’s a dangerous line, or point, or whatever.
Heart: You never feel like the corruption’s too deep, the powers-that-be too entrenched, the game too rigged? That by playing along, all we’re doing is oiling a machine that’s out of control – at least the peoples’ control?
Head: All the time. And so does The Tea Party.
Heart: That’s ridiculous – I can show you how their bullshit, anti-government populism actually plays into the hands of the –
Head: Relax – I completely agree.
Heart: So -
Head: So the problem is - they don’t. And they can vote – regrettable but true. And the only reason they’re not in power right now is that, like you, they feel the time for compromise is over.
Heart (after a pause, downcast): So . . . Hillary?
Head: Always so impatient –
Heart: But you said . . . the Tea Party thing . . .
Head: Look, I’m not heartless, or hopeless. I’m just trying not to be stupid. Let me put it this way: One of the problems I had with Nader back in 2000 was that he didn’t have a prayer; every principled vote for him was a vote for Bush, and the couple of thousand votes he won made it that much easier for the Supreme Court to steal the election.
Heart: Now you’re beginning to sound like me.
Head: It was a judicial coup – don’t get me started. But my point is that Bernie’s polling well – he may have legs. If nothing else, he’ll nudge Hillary in the right – I mean, left - direction; hell, it’s already working – look at the way she switched her vote on the Keystone Pipeline.
Heart: So . . . wait? Hear them out?
Head: That’s the spirit. Then balance what you might gain against what you stand to lose, and pull the lever.