“In the last seven to eight years […] I sort of gave up on the human race, gave up on the American dream and culture and nation, and decided that I didn’t care about the outcome. And that gave me a lot of freedom, from a kind of distant platform, to watch the whole thing with a combination of wonder and pity.”
That was George Carlin—probably the most intellectually sophisticated stand-up comic in history—reflecting in 1996 on an evolution of his onstage persona that would endure for the remaining dozen-odd years of his life.
Having begun his career as a clever, if slightly innocuous, presence on late night television before metamorphosing into the countercultural linguistic acrobat for which he is most famous, Carlin in the late 1980s underwent one final act of reinvention that saw his essentially cheerful disposition turn deeply, unabashedly cynical—if not outright nihilistic—as reflected in such onstage quips as “I enjoy chaos and disorder” and “No matter what kind of problems humans are facing, I always hope it gets worse.” Was it mere coincidence that in his final seven HBO specials, he was always cloaked in black?
In Carlin’s hands, this dark, detached view of human nature proved a caustic, fragrant and often exhilarating form of comedic performance art. In a culture of seemingly bottomless hope and optimism, there was a perverse, ironic joy to Carlin’s pessimistic snark. Indeed, the very act of hearing it became a subtle form of rebellion against the system.
The challenge, then, is to resist applying this despairing philosophy to one’s day-to-day life. It’s easy enough to throw up your hands and say, “The whole world is doomed, so the hell with everything,” but you still have to wake up in the morning and make the best of whatever the universe throws your way. Rejecting society doesn’t exempt your existence within it, and there is finally something weak and lazy about proactively dismissing humanity as, in Carlin’s words, “Just another failed mutation.”
But then there are days like last Tuesday, when Donald Trump effectively became the Republican nominee for president, that make me wonder if Carlin wasn’t correct the whole time—that the great American experiment has played itself out and is now little more than an object of our collective morbid amusement.
What we should ask ourselves in this moment—as the gravity of the GOP’s nomination process begins to sink in—is whether the rest of the 2016 presidential election—and, potentially, the next decade of human events—is worth taking seriously at all.
More than anyone who has run for president in the television age, Donald Trump practically begs to be treated with the contempt, embarrassment and ridicule that his candidacy has thus far induced. Here, after all, is a man with no principles, no expertise, no shame, no morality, no restraint, no taste and—by all outward appearances—no interest in behaving like a mature adult.
As of late, we have been informed that the American media utterly failed to anticipate Trump’s wide-ranging appeal among Republican voters while, at the same time, unwittingly enabling his rise to the top with a gazillion dollars’ worth of free 24/7 coverage.
This indictment sounds reasonable enough, but I’m not sure it’s true. So far as I can tell, our mainstream press pretty much nailed its most important duty of all, which was to remove any doubt about Trump’s profound inappropriateness as a potential leader of the free world. Thanks to the media’s stalker-like fixation with every horrible thing Trump has ever said or done, we are now armed with more concrete reasons not to vote for him than for any nominee since Aaron Burr.
If we believe—as we apparently do—that Trump’s total saturation on TV and online was the determining factor for his amazing electoral success—that we wouldn’t have one without the other—we must then follow this assumption to its logical conclusion, which is that admiration for Trump, such as it is, is based on a thorough understanding of his true character. That’s to say, his supporters love him for precisely the same reasons the rest of us hate him, with very little lost in translation.
As it turns out, America is divided into two groups: Those who think an emotionally unbalanced charlatan would make a terrific commander-in-chief, and those who don’t. If Trump is indeed elected this November, it will not be the result of some mass misapprehension about what he represents; it will simply be from an honest disagreement over what a president ought to be. In a democratic republic, what could be fairer than that?
As such, I don’t see why Team #NeverTrump should knock itself out trying to convince the rubes they are misguided and/or insane. The latter have been presented with a year’s worth of evidence that their preferred candidate is a third-rate con man and they have decided to drink the Kool-Aid, anyway. Maybe it’s time we accept their poor judgment and move on.
From the beginning, the real divide amongst Trump haters has been between those who find the prospect of a President Trump terrifying and those who find it hilarious. (Admittedly, the two are not mutually exclusive.)
Call me naïve, but I don’t see where all the existential fear comes from. Once you realize, for instance, that women comprise a majority of registered voters and that Hispanic Americans are the second fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, the notion of a boastfully xenophobic misogynist securing 270 electoral votes becomes pure fantasy, and most Republicans know it.
Which brings us back to George Carlin and his theory that all the world’s a stage and we, the audience, have every right to jeer. We should be very concerned, indeed, about all the misery that Trump’s candidacy has already unleashed—the racial profiling, the fights, the sexism, the general thuggery and pervading sense of menace in the air—but the only way that Trumpism fully metastasizes into a global threat is if the majority of us who find Trump repulsive somehow forget to vote on November 8.
There has been speculation, of course, that a significant chunk of disgruntled Bernie Sanders enthusiasts could tip the scale toward Trump by withholding a vote for Hillary Clinton out of spite. Should that occur, it would effectively signify that a majority of American voters—Trump supporters plus Sanders supporters—have embraced rank nihilism as a political philosophy and genuinely do not care if their country’s nuclear arsenal is placed in the custody of a hyperactive teenager who incites frantic Twitter wars at 4 o’clock in the morning.
If that’s the country we are—if that’s the message we will send to the world in six months’ time—then we have already surrendered any pretense of being a serious people who should be regarded by the rest of the world with a straight face. And if the United States is to become one big fat international joke—if we are to purposefully shoot ourselves in the foot and drag every other country down with us—why shouldn’t we enjoy the show while it lasts? If we are to elect Trump and thereby gamble away our lives and our liberty, we might as well retain our happiness.
It’s a shame George Carlin isn’t alive to experience the Trump circus for himself. I have a feeling what he might say about it, and it would take a lot more than seven words to do so.