Matt Taibbi’s book Insane Clown President, provides us with the stand-up comic version of the 2016 Republican Convention, presidential election. Featuring all the participants seeking election throughout the 2016 run, Taibbi shows us how absolutely maddening the current political arena is in America. Definitely written with a liberal leaning slant, the book is completely politically incorrect, disturbing, and frightening all at the same time. I wasn’t sure if this ended up being a comedic thriller or a horrifying comedy – the book concisely demonstrates how our political system currently manifests all the troubling qualities of an impending train wreck that people simply can’t look away from. (But I am not sure that was Taibbi’s actual intent.) Written prior to the actual election, much of the book reads like a prognostication of the impossible – it is particularly interesting to read from this side of the presidential election, in the post “what could never happen, has happened” environment. I am sure it is a book that most republicans will find offensive, democrats will find hilarious and those in-between will come away shaking their heads and wondering where we ever went so horribly wrong.
I was born in what is arguably one of the most conservative states in the nation. Raised in a borderline rigidly religious Utah environment, I was instilled from a very early age with strongly moralistic, highly conservative beliefs. However, I was raised in a home with a democrat leaning mother and a fiercely independent father, who considered political parties the inevitable apocalyptic, impending demise of the entire American government. This resulted in what I refer to as politically schizophrenic children, with both conservative leaning and liberal leaning tendencies. I also feel that this has left me – now living in a strongly democratic state – a little adrift in this highly polarized political environment, in the wake of the successful Donald Trump campaign. So in reviewing this book, I am not sure I took away what Taibbi necessarily intended to convey. But I did find some interesting insights underneath this very well written political satire.
I think the first and probably most salient point the book makes – and one that has since become a daily theme of the current administration – is the influence of the news media. Taibbi makes the argument that “[w]hen you make the news into . . . consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing – shopping.” I find it interesting that we live in an age where information access is easier and faster than it has ever been. The amount of information at our fingertips is staggering. And yet we have a less informed public than at any time in American history. (See: Public Knows Basic Facts About Politics, Economics, but Struggles with Specifics; Pew Research Center; Nov., 2010). Taibbi argues that this is the result of the commercialization of the news media conglomerations. Pandering to the masses, rather than informing the public, news media networks no longer fulfill their primary purpose. Their objective shifted from wide distribution of facts to “airing” what sells – sex, lies and violence – leaving the public’s confidence in news outlets falling faster and farther than President Trump’s approval ratings. (See: America’s Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low; Swift, Art; Gallup; Sept., 2016).
Taibbi’s book identified this trend even before Trump’s election and subsequent war on the major news outlets became fact. News outlets systematic, dual pronged attack of a rise in marginally polarized news sources combined with a generalized undermining of the interpretation of facts has led to a politically compromised public. This crisis can only lead to poorly informed voting trends and a public unable to determine who qualifies as the best candidate in an environment of nothing but poor choices. As Taibbi suggests, “The time to start worrying about the consequences of our editorial decisions was before we raised a generation of people who get all of their information from television, and who believe that the solution to every problem is simple enough that you can find it before the twenty-one minutes of the sitcom are over. Or, before we created a world in which the only inner-city black people you ever see are being chased by cops, and the only Muslims on screen are either chopping off heads or throwing rocks at barricades.” The irony in all of this is that with Trump’s declaration of war against the majority of news sources, our facts and news reports are probably more accurate today than they ever were. The more Trump decries their lying tactics – the more incentive there is to prove him wrong; the best way to accomplish that feat is to simply print the truth. But, as Taibbi suggests “American is now too dumb for TV news.” Our ability to recognize truth is so compromised that most of us aren’t surprised when government administration representatives actually make ridiculously absurd statements such as the recent assertions of “alternative facts.”
Rather, we simply shake our heads and decry the dishonesty of the news – because that is the way it has always been.
Personally, I came away from this book feeling that it is time to demand more from our politicians, more from our leaders, and more from our news sources. Taibbi’s prose eloquently convey this message and his sharp wit makes it slightly less painful to get down. He does present a casting call line-up based on what I assume was his Twitter feed survey for election participants – should they be cast as a movie rendition of the 2016 election. This portion of the book, if no other is well worth the listen. But if you are a highly political person, this is one book that you will want to know going in, is highly liberal and I am sure offensive to many republicans.