Opinion » John Rember

Pricking of My thumbs

A clownish carnival this way comes


John Rember

How did they get all those Republican presidential candidates in that little car? As I write this, Jeb! Bush is trying to generate enthusiasm for his campaign with an exclamation mark behind his name. It makes me think he's in trouble with his mom: "Jeb? Jebby! Jeb! Get over here!"

Then I think, "Oh wow, there's another one. Where are they all coming from? Is there a trapdoor under the back seat or what?"

And then I think that there must be clowns still in the car, trampled in the rush, the hobnail-marks of big clown shoes on their foreheads, the paunches of their big ol' overalls vomiting rags, the big ol' glistening tears on their cheeks real. It's time to call for the Jaws of Life before the whole thing catches fire, right there in center ring.

I'm not the first to use a clown car metaphor for this year's crop of Republican candidates. I've seen it a couple of times in national publications, but it seems to have died down for the moment.

Perhaps editors had concerns about the questionable taste of comparing a series of primary elections to a traveling circus. It's more likely that at some level, people know that clowns aren't far from the demonic. We pretend they represent a disempowered kind of evil, like the gods of exterminated enemies, able to bring children to laughter and adults to scorn.

Except they're not always disempowered. That idea that something remains alive and empty behind the greasepaint scares the bejeezus out of us. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals the titles of 35 evil-clown films. Ray Bradbury's fine novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, is an all-too-real fantasy about Satan arriving in a small Midwestern town with his carnival, the faces of his victims already tattooed on his back. From nonfiction comes the chilling example of John Wayne Gacy, the Illinois keeper of 30 strangled bodies in his crawl space, who appeared as Pogo the Clown at political fundraisers, parades and children's birthday parties.

Right now Republican presidential aspirants are trying on traditional clown identities for the primaries. Without too much trouble we can squint and see the Sad Clown, the Clumsy Clown, the Rodeo Clown, the Fool, the Harlequin and Poor Yorick the Skull, whom I think is Richard Nixon trying for one last comeback.

In their unscripted moments, all of them look a bit like Pogo, and while that may seem unduly harsh for a nice lady like Carly Fiorina, a lot of laid-off Hewlett-Packard employees would agree that sure enough, that's Pogo the Clown under all that makeup. Jeb! (¡Jeb! if you're a Hispanic voter) looks like the Sad Clown, weighed down by the burden of maternal expectation and some resentful things he's said about single mothers. But many of those same single mothers would look at Jeb! and say, "¡Ay! ¡Pogo!"

I wish I were exaggerating. But these are people busily transforming themselves into grotesques. Imagine Donald Trump saying, "You're fired," to all the Americans who won't salute his hairpiece: Pogo. Lindsay Graham? Some genuine Pogo anger behind that grin. Ben Carson? Now there's some serious Pogo whiteface.

We've been through this before.

John McCain comes off as a harmless guy, but imagine him as a president ordering nuclear weapons into Ukraine: Super-Pogo, with the serial deaths of billions on his patriotic hands. Mitt Romney seems like your normal unselfconscious and overconfident small-town Mormon bishop until you imagine his hands around the economic fate of 47 percent of American men, women and children: Pogo. Sarah Palin, crashing neighbors' yard parties with Dick Cheney's security goons as an entourage: Pogo with a vengeance.

George Bush, clowning around on the plane with reporters, joking with his national security adviser about torture: Pogo. Ronald Reagan's idiot grin that disguised the throes of Alzheimer's: Pogo. Nixon, telling the South Vietnamese to hold off on a peace plan until he was elected and could get them a better deal: Pogo in spades, and 25,000 extra American deaths in the bargain.

A Pogo will be on the ballot in 2016. Millions of people will vote for something that smiles and looks human.

Traces of human DNA may lie under the greasepaint somewhere, but what was once a private self has been eaten away by a public identity. The shell that's left becomes a good place for a demon to hang out.

Do the Democrats have their own clown car? Not exactly. They certainly have their candidate who is all surface, whose public persona has devoured the private person, whose every move, every gesture, stems from a calculation of how it will play to voters. I'm pretty sure there's nobody human inside Hillary Clinton, but she's not a clown. Instead, in her ability to convert herself to pure purpose, in her earthly ambition, in her willingness to say and do whatever it takes to win, she seems to be possessed by the same entity that possessed Lady Macbeth.

The Republicans have already noticed this about her. As usual they prefer to examine the inhumanity of opponents rather than peering at the darkness within. The result will be an election with a surfeit of exclamation marks: "Jeb!" and "¡Jeb!" and "She's a witch!" and "¡Ella es una bruja!"