Democracy 2016: The Circus Comes to Town

Donald Trump says he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and not lose any votes. I believe it, too.

Donald Trump says he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and not lose any votes. I believe it, too.

First of all, it’s a hypothetical—the Donald doesn’t really mean it. Secondly, if he did, he’s right: it wouldn’t have any effect, unless the victim were a Trump supporter. (In Manhattan, this would be unlikely.)

Why is this so? Because our democracy has finally morphed into full-time, round-the-clock entertainment, and in entertainment anything goes and nothing is believed. When a guy is shot on TV, we know that he will get up and collect his paycheck. That’s the make-believe that Trump is invoking when he projects himself as the hero of his own Western. There’ll be one less bad guy in the world, maybe several, and no one will really get hurt. Trump himself is a celebrity entertainer, so how could we take the whole scenario seriously?

But Donald Trump is auditioning to be President of the United States, and, after several months atop the polls among Republican voters, some people are taking this very seriously. Jeb Bush, for one. George Will, for another. Michael Bloomberg, too.

Welcome to Absurdo-Land.

We could start with the idea of an electoral process that runs eighteen months, half of it pivoting on what the good folks of Iowa, fed on way too much corn, think about public affairs. It isn’t just that Trump has the support of about a third of Republican voters, but that the unholy trio of Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson scarf up about 60% of the vote. That correlates roughly to the number of Iowa Republican voters who describe themselves as Evangelical or born-again Christians. Oh, my. We really do seem to be getting the democracy we pay for, at least in the Ethanol State. And, bite on this: Trump is far and away the best candidate of these three. Ben Carson, who led for awhile in the Iowa polls, thinks that Joseph built the Egyptian Pyramids. And Ted Cruz thinks that he did. At least the Donald knows that he’s wearing a clown suit.

Further down, there’s Marco Rubio. Asked why he celebrated the birthday of the Prince of Peace by buying hardware from his local gunshop on Christmas Eve, he answered that if ISIS came down the street looking for his family, his private arsenal would be his last line of defense.

Central casting, where are you?

The Democrats aren’t really much less bizarre. Their national poll leader is Hillary Clinton. Wait, wasn’t that the lady who lost a shoo-in nomination to a guy with big ears and a foreign-sounding name eight years ago? Yup, the same. And what has the Hillary done to burnish her stellar credentials since? Well, there was a turn as Secretary of State, notably distinguished by her cheerleading the destruction of Libya, now a failed state and a haven for those selfsame ISIS fighters who are about to terrorize Marco Rubio’s neighborhood. And, déjà vu all over again, we get a septuagenarian senator who’s about to knock her off just as Barack Obama did, or I very much miss my guess.

Obama, who’s said he isn’t endorsing anyone until the primaries are over, did allow that Hillary was the most qualified candidate other-than-a-vice-president to take charge of the Republic on Day One in American history (translation: unless Joe Biden gets into the race after all). George and Abe, move over on those monuments. If this is the case, though, it must be because nothing succeeds like failure. Hillary Clinton’s entire accomplishment in politics, as far as I can see, has been to make herself by every measure the least trusted figure in American public life.

Do both our major parties have a death wish? Or is it simply that everyone knows that, whoever runs and whoever wins, Wall Street rules as usual? And isn’t that why our elections have turned into such a stupefying farce? The emptier our politics get, the louder they become. In its final end-stage, democracy becomes pure noise.

Which brings us to the sleeper candidate of 2016, Bernie Sanders.   Because there’s always got to be one honest contender in the race, just so the cynics can’t announce that the Emperor has no clothes.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are, in certain respects, two sides of the same coin. This point has been made ad nauseum by establishment pundits, but it bears further examination. Trump boasts that his campaign is entirely self-funded (actually, not true), and that he is beholden to no interest—that he is his own man. Sanders says that he is funded exclusively by small donors, which appears to be the case. He too has no drawstrings, and his entire net worth appears to be roughly what Hillary Clinton got for speaking twice to Goldman Sachs in one year.  Both men promise big changes. Trump says he is going to make America great again, how and by what standard to be determined later. Sanders says he will make both health care and college affordable. Which promise is the more incredible is yours to judge.

In some ways, though, Trump and Sanders are not the outlier candidates they’ve been made to seem, but very traditional. Shakespeare’s King Lear, shaking his fist skyward, says he will do such things as will be the terror of the earth though he knows not what they are. This sounds very much like the Donald. In fact, it sounds very much like Barack Obama too. Didn’t Obama promise us all change we could believe in eight years ago? He never bothered to explain what that change would be, but people bought the credit coupons.   Now they hold the empty paper bag. Trump figures that what works once can work again. You just have to amp it up a little.

Sanders, though, the self-avowed socialist, a traditional figure? Well, yes. Tuition-free public higher education? Fifty years ago, we had that. Public health insurance? Otto von Bismarck introduced the first such plan in the 1880s, and remember this was a guy who started his career as a supporter of serfdom. You could call Bernie the most quaintly conservative candidate in the race. Everything he wants is so—nineteenth and twentieth century. Ah, socialism, where is thy sting? If Bernie Sanders represents the left, it’s only because the center of American political gravity has moved to the right of Genghis Khan.    We are certainly to the right of every developed country in the world on almost any issue you could name. If everything Sanders dreams of were to come to pass, we would be approximately where we were with the 1948 Democratic Party platform.   And the chances of that, in our gerrymandered, media-distracted, corporate-controlled world, fenced and policed by the nine-headed hydra of the Supreme Court, is, at present, effectively nil.

When Rome lost its liberty, the Caesars gave it panem et circenses—bread and circuses. The election of 2016 is the circus. But nobody’s handing out free bread. Serfs don’t get that benefit.

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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