Saturday, March 5, 2016


For a while, I was as baffled as anyone at Donald Trump's success, and I just couldn't see how any voter could listen to what the man says, and know what he's done, and still support him. But a few things have dawned on me, and I think they go most of the way toward explaining what's happening.

In 2006, I voted in my last Texas gubernatorial election. One of the candidates for governor was Kinky Friedman. In case you haven't heard of him, he's a novelist, musician, and a humorist, and he ran as a joke. He had several slogans, but the one I remembered without having to check Wikipedia was, "How hard could it be?" I was mystified and frustrated as to why so many intelligent people were voting for him, until I realized that they weren't in favor of Kinky Friedman at all; it was just that they fundamentally held the office of Texas governor in contempt. 

They had been fed a steady diet of maddeningly context-free political bickering through the Perry, Bush and Richards administrations, and probably before that as well. At some point it just became too much, and now their most accessible impression of the entire institution of Texas state government was that it was broken, dysfunctional, ineffectual, and good only for a laugh. Thinking too carefully about it was a baited trap, a whirlpool down into charges and counter-charges and attacks and counter-attacks. Why not elect a comedian? Why not? In fact, that was actually another one of his slogans: "Why the hell not?"

Now, I fully get that political campaigns are supposed to be partisan. I understand and agree that highlighting the contrasts between candidates makes it clear to voters what their choices are. I also am not so romantic that I think political campaigns in the past were dignified and polite; I'm well read enough in American history to know that even the founding fathers took vicious cheap shots at one another. But we clearly have gone roaring past some critical point of structural integrity in our ability, or possibly our motivation, to think carefully about our national leadership. The people who are turning out in enormous numbers to vote for Donald Trump are not, I genuinely believe, passionate admirers of Donald Trump. Some are, sure, but some people also think the earth is flat and vaccines cause autism. For the overwhelming majority, I think a vote for Trump seems like a good idea not because of his merits, but because of the utter meaninglessness of the presidency. 

I imagine there's some parallel between this turn in American politics and the explosive leap in power and appeal of British comedy in the 1960s. One explanation that accounts for a lot of types of humor is that humor is about toppling the powerful, about bringing low the mighty. At the start of the twentieth century, Great Britain was still an empire and global superpower, but the first fifty years of the century didn't go so well for them. By the nineteen sixties, with their power hollowed out and their colonies nearly all independent, they were cranking out performing groups like Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python and the Goodies and the Two Ronnies, who took sacred institutions and shared understandings from the glory days and made them fodder for jokes. Anyone at all who proposed anything in earnest, anyone who treated any person, situation or institution as important, was begging for a truly pulverizing salvo of ridicule. What I think provided such fertile soil for all that truly acerbic and hostile humor was the steep decline, the fresh memory of depleted strength, the echoes of lost confidence. 

And I think the largest segment of the Trump vote is a variation on the same theme.

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