observations and opinion
The great and grave question for America is, when did it pledge its allegiance to self-aggrandizing blowhards?
Every time and every place has its charlatans, its clowns, its wide-mouth bass larger than life – public spectacles in pants. At present, the United States is rather thick on the ground with this behaviour. Among its popular artists, no-one represents that type more luridly than the small-minded, large-mouthed person known as “Kanye West”, who calls himself the “greatest artist of all time” so soberly that you know, somewhere inside that thick head of his, he believes it.
But to cast your eyes on American conservative and Republican politics in recent times, it would seem that the self-aggrandizing blowhard has become the standard not only in show business, but in what used to be more serious pursuits. It is there we find the White Kanye, Donald Trump.
In 2012, the Republicans waded through a circus of such characters (remember Herman Cain? Newt Gingrich? ) before reluctantly settling on the inherently modest multi-millionaire Mitt Romney. But in 2016, they have entirely abandoned modesty and gone all-in for gigantic, fragile egocentric monsters.
That would include the most gigantic and monstrous of the blowhards (Trump), but also some lesser figures of the species (Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz) and some blowhards-in-training (Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina leap to mind). These are people who all inflate their own worth, sneer at anyone of seriousness, substitute invective for intelligence and who seem to believe that their shallow self-worship is an actual substitute for personal ability.
I would include, in the quieter and greyer region of the blowhard species, Dr. Ben Carson. Mr. Carson is liked for his soft-spoken version of crazy, frightening antediluvian beliefs. But the man is a surgeon who has plainly decided that despite a complete dearth of policy knowledge or even political talent, he should sit in a job demanding comprehensive knowledge and talent. That’s ego supplanting insight.
What does it say about a political movement that people who present themselves as not crazily egocentric and self-involved (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rand Paul) are unable to claw their way to any attention or widespread support? In part, it speaks to the essential message which has churned within American popular conservatism for some time: uninformed anger, incoherent rage, fury in place of facts. Too many people trust their prejudices more than their senses.
The Republicans were happy to find this source of votes and tap into it, so long as it carried the right kind of people into office. Richard Nixon was the father of that thinking. Reagan and both Bushes followed suit. Romney tried but by then, the “suits” weren’t authentically stupid enough to inspire the necessary rage in the necessary numbers. Over time, the crazy right wing has become bigger and bigger – proof that it’s the thing you feed, that grows. Today, it is the Republican right wing dog now pulling the leash.
This phenomenon gave the Democrats an advantage in 2012, when President Obama managed to stay in office (despite a fairly tepid re-election campaign). The Dems joke now about how the GOP is handing them the 2016 election by nominating a circus freak like Trump or Cruz, but that joke masks a dark fear of what could happen in November. The dynamics have altered in 2016: the Dems look certain to nominate a dull figure laden with negatives and doubts (Hillary Clinton) or, if lightning strikes, an earnest and honest man who calls himself a “Democratic Socialist” (Bernie Sanders). Both are truly vulnerable to media-driven character / caricature assassination.
Never in modern times has the Presidential contest been this unpredictable or hazardous, this late in the cycle: no one knows what Iowa caucus voters or New Hampshire primary voters will do with the weird menu of Republican options available. Trump dominates the polls but because his support has a “lid” (about one third of the vote), few believe he will ultimately prevail. Instead, all the other candidates cluster about, hoping to be the not-Trump (the “Nonald”?) who survives and sops up all those who won’t support the great, gigantic egomaniacal millionaire.
Similarly, polls oscillate back and forth between Hillary and Bernie: the ex Secretary of State so far has a lead in national polls and she scares far fewer people than Senator Sanders does. But Sanders, like the nutball Trump on the other side of the field, excites as many people as he frightens. Sanders is remarkably consistent and authentic, but swims against the current of what passes for “thought” in mainstream U.S. politics. Hillary is gravely wounded by her long, long tail and a weird phoniness. And she is haunted by the email scandal, which actually has the potential to become a legal problem and not just political noise.
Thus, we face the weird possibility of a Sanders-Trump contest for President in November 2016. It may be unlikely but it is not impossible that Americans will have to choose between two native New Yorkers: one, a smart, sincere, egalitarian leftist and the other, a cunning, mean-spirited mendacious plutocrat. Have little doubt that, should such a choice confront the American people, they will be inundated with terrifying noise from the media about the dangers of electing an “extremist.” And they won’t mean Donald.
That such a possibility even exists is an indictment, fundamentally, of the shallow-rooted, soft-headed, lazy population of attention-seekers known very loosely today as “the press.” Political news has become as brainless as show business. Worse, maybe. For every writer or commentator actually willing to learn and think and speak coherently, there seem to be a thousand bobble heads happy to spit out pills of pre-formed noise. Add to that the tribalism of social media, where people go to have their prejudices reinforced, and one despairs at the prospects for American democracy.
Somewhere deep in the soul of the human species now residing on the crust of the earth, this is about ego. We have substituted inflated self-worth, artificial imagery, for inner value. We have shaken off the necessary weight of modesty and, free from gravity, have floated up to an elevation where the air is so thin, nobody can think. For a more comprehensive examination of this grim development, I refer you to David Brooks’ The Road to Character, a book I have quoted more than once in my teaching and work as a lawyer. Modesty is no longer much respected.
So it is that a lukewarm talent like Kanye West can, in all seriousness and without being laughed off the planet, refer to himself repeatedly as “the greatest artist of all time” while a dishonest, shifty, loud-mouth slob like Donald Trump can inherit millions, borrow billions, lose most of it, end up hosting a crummy TV show and then – without any serious scrutiny at all – call himself “a great businessman” and launch himself into the political atmosphere on a rocket of noise and free TV exposure.
You don’t have to like the United States as much as I do, to recognize that it remains the indispensable nation in world affairs. We cannot afford an America turned over entirely to the circus performers of political life. Yet the America political stage, which has known great men, too modest ever to trumpet their own virtues (George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower) now seems crowded with meritless charlatans who have only their own horns to blow.
Those of us not shaping American public sentiment have to hope that honest and sober people step up and make it plain that the Real Estate Mogul has No Clothes. Better another Bush than an American Berlusconi. And those of us not participating in caucuses or primaries in February 2016, can only hope that the good people of Iowa and New Hampshire remember the kind of person America used to admire, before it’s too late.