There is nothing quite so entertaining as the slow labored death of the aristocracy, the white-gloved fingers clinging in desperation to their manor houses and flamboyant hats. And in America, though we lack the boundless schadenfreude of the gradual demise of the House of Lords, we get the next best thing: Jeb Bush.
When our third favorite Bush announced his campaign last June, the full support of the Republican establishment behind him, Jeb stood with all the blocky confidence of his campaign poster’s characteristic exclamation point. But if you observe the Florida governor today, with his drooping poll numbers at a tragic fifth behind Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Carson, our “Jeb!” looks more like a “Jeb…” or even a “Jeb?”
And if his lackluster jab at Trump at a recent debate (“Thank you, Donald, for letting me speak…what a generous man you are”) wasn’t pitiful enough, Jeb☹ made up for it in a sneak peak of a new Huffington Post series about life on the campaign trail. The clip features an exhausted Bush sitting in front of a flimsy gray window shade with a small sign hopelessly asserting that “Jeb Can Fix It!” Jeb, for his part, looks unlikely to fix anything. As the shaky cam approaches his face, zeroing in on his nose-hairs and the wrinkles under his eyes, Jeb resembles a wealthy Willy Loman, or perhaps a man who has just been run over by his own expensive campaign bus.
Desperate times, however, call for uncomfortably desperate measures. As soon as he realizes the camera is on him, Jeb! perks up and flashes the reporters his apparently not so election-winning smile. “What are we doing here?” he asks with shaky bravado. The Huffington Post journalist wants to talk about emails Jeb has gotten, and after a few compulsory jokes about old people being bad at the internet, and the upsetting and unnecessary comment “I’ve got to figure out which ones are not X-rated,” Jeb! finally reads an email. The potential leader of the free world adjusts his reading glasses and squints at his phone: “They said, if you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you? I need to know.”
Salivating with curiosity, the HuffPost reporter replies: “And?”
Jeb laughs. “Hell yeah, I would!”
“Even if he was really cute?”
Jeb shakes his head at the journalist: “You gotta step up man.”
The tabloids went wild. Bush’s admission that he was in favor of killing baby Hitler was the most interesting news since the season finale of the Kardashians, and certainly more interesting than any of Jeb!’s actually policy positions. Not to be outdone, Ben Carson immediately came out as not just against killing baby Hitler, but even against aborting him. To modify the lack of righteous violence in his time travel plans, however, Carson made sure to clarify that he was staunchly in favor of going back in time to give the Jews guns.
All across the nation, interested parties either jumped to discuss the candidates’ newly revealed baby-Hitler-killing positions, or to mourn the death of American political discourse. Why, the latter group bemoaned, did Jeb! Bush, the establishment darling, feel the need to garner attention with cheap tactics worthy of Trump?
Maybe because everybody else is doing it. Ted Cruz recently announced his deeply held belief that Captain Kirk is a Republican. Hillary Clinton declared support for a Kanye West presidential run in 2020. Even Bernie Sanders, whose incessant injunction to focus on the issues was, frankly, getting annoying, went on Ellen DeGeneres and answered the quintessential presidential questions: “Boxers or Briefs?” (Briefs, for the record, though I’m sure you didn’t want to know that.)
Perhaps the most desperate attempt to entertain the American people, however, was performed by a hapless Lindsey Graham, when he allowed a reporter from CNN, no less, to compel him to play a G-rated version of the classic teenage sleepover game “F***, Marry, or Kill.” Asked to choose between Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina, and Hillary Clinton, the squirming Graham finally said he would marry Fiorina for her money. The whole horrifying interaction thereby achieved the offensiveness trifecta of classism, sexism, and potentially homophobia, since Graham looked like he’d rather throw up his Iowa corn casserole than sleep with any of them.
But you will note that uncomfortable though he was, Graham did not refuse to answer any of the questions. Because, like any good presidential candidate (or reality TV star) knows, entertaining the viewer (ahem, voter) is how the game is played. And entertain us they will, or drop out trying.
Even the official debates bear a suspicious resemblance to Reality TV. The most recent spectacle featured an introduction with cheesy B-reel footage of American flags waving and of suns setting and rising with abnormal speed over Midwestern hayfields. As the camera panned over prototypical U.S. highways, dramatic music underscored a masculine voice declaring, “The road to the White House is long and windy.”
And the debates themselves, invariably held in front of a display of Ronald Reagan’s plane, or his office, or his toothbrush, have all the drama of trashy television. That’s not to say the candidates don’t talk about the issues every now and then. At one recent extravaganza, several candidates showcased groundbreaking thoughts about foreign policy including a brilliant insight from Ben Carson that “the Middle East has all kinds of factions,” and the profound perceptions from Trump that “China is becoming a very, very major force,” and “Assad is a bad guy.” But it is only once this complex policy discussion is over that the real fun begins. For the main reason Americans tune in to watch the debate is to sit back and enjoy their popcorn as the candidates insult each other.
And boy, do they love to insult each other. Trump has called Kasich a “pinhead,” and accused Rick Perry of only wearing glasses so he could look smart. Jeb Bush, for his part, labeled Trump a “buffoon, a clown, and an asshole.” At a recent campaign stop in Iowa, Trump described Carson as “pathological” and compared him to a child molester, suggesting Iowans should vote Trump because “[Carson] hit his friend in the face with a padlock. I never did that.” And, probably because he was feeling left out, Rand Paul came out of nowhere and called Chris Christie the “King of Bacon.”
Across the country, every publication from Newsweek to Salon to The New Yorker has decried the current election cycle as a circus (in between reporting every gory detail, of course.) If we’re honest, however, the American political circus didn’t start in 2015. During the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In response, a newspaper supporting Adams replied that if Jefferson won, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, and the soil will be soaked with blood.” Melodrama in politics is nothing new.
And even if this year’s election is slightly more ridiculous than usual, that might not be altogether a bad thing. After all, it is my cursory understanding of Roman history, that it was when the emperors were most afraid of revolution that they held circuses. In the desperate glint of Jeb Bush’s glasses, we see his nightmare: white-gloved fingers clinging to a Jeb! poster as the pounding steps of the masses close in. One day, even Trump and Carson will perform their show for the last time, dancing faster and faster as their stage cracks away beneath them. When the foundation shakes, it won’t be just the aristocracy who fall. But, for now, the millions of feet make no earthquake. We are content to watch the most powerful men in the world dance for us, to make them play our sleepover games, and to answer our questions about time travel and underwear. From La-Z-Boy recliners across the nation, the American People flick their remotes on, grab handfuls of Chex Mix, and speak with a single voice: “You want to be President of the United States, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and Leader of the Free World? Okay. Entertain me.”