The Presidential Candidates in Wonderland

Tenniel illus. from "Alice in Wonderland"

I’m still trying to recover from Newt Gingrich’s proposal that child labor laws be repealed so that (among other things) poor kids can serve as school janitors. The thought of certain children sweeping the floors as their more privileged peers head home reminds me of a devastating little poem that Sarah Cleghorn wrote in 1916:

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

So how seriously should we take Gingrich?  I’m no longer sure as the proposals, charges and fabrications coming out of the Republican presidential candidates have become so loony that, here in America, we’re almost inured to them. Sometimes it takes an article from abroad, like this one from Germany’s Der Spiegel, to remind us how insane it all is.  Here’s a passage from the piece:

Africa is a country. In Libya, the Taliban reigns. Muslims are terrorists; most immigrants are criminal; all Occupy protesters are dirty. And women who feel sexually harassed — well, they shouldn’t make such a big deal about it.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the US Republicans. Or rather, to the twisted world of what they call their presidential campaigns. For months now, they’ve been traipsing around the country with their traveling circus, from one debate to the next, one scandal to another, putting themselves forward for what’s still the most powerful job in the world.

Part of me wonders if it is all merely performance art, the end result of Fox News blending entertainment and politics. Perhaps we should dismiss their rhetoric as Lewis Carroll’s Gryphon casually dismisses the Queen of Hearts’ incessant cry, “Off with their heads”:

The Gryphon sat up and rubbed its eyes: then it watched the Queen till she was out of sight: then it chuckled.
‘What fun!’ said the Gryphon, half to itself, half to Alice.
‘What is the fun?’ said Alice.
‘Why, she,’ said the Gryphon. ‘It’s all her fancy, that: they never executes nobody, you know.

What would these people say and do if they actually became president? One pundit has suggested that they would be like the dog that catches the car and then doesn’t know what to do with it.

The craziness is enough to make one feel sorry for Mitt Romney, once a moderate Republican who is now trying to perform the role of (as Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine puts it) an “Obamacare-hating, tough-on-immigration, climate-science skeptic.” I don’t know what Romney was like before, but now he resembles one of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men, “behaving as the wind behaves.”  To apply Eliot’s words, he is “shape without form, shade without colour.”

As if it weren’t bad enough having, say, Rick Perry threatening to string up the head of the Federal Reserve or Herman Cain proposing a electrified border fence to kill illegal immigrants, now the Romney campaign is defending, as “agit prop,” an ad that charges Obama with saying something he didn’t say. To borrow from Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, truth and reason keep little company with presidential politics nowadays.

Chait does a brilliant job of showing how the ad’s defense is a logical extension of Romney’s strategy.  His only hope in this hall of mirrors Republican primary season is to shield himself from “an interjection from reality.”  Here’s what those who made the ad are saying:

First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business … Ads are agitprop … Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context … All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.

And now here’s Chair’s analysis:

This new justification is a frank embrace of the postmodern approach to truth. The assumption here is that, since a campaign’s arguments are designed to persuade the audience of a predetermined conclusion, they do not need to uphold any standards of truth whatsoever.

This disposition flows naturally from the disconnect between the Mitt Romney presidential campaign and Mitt Romney the man. Romney is running a campaign as “Mitt Romney,” an Obamacare-hating, tough-on-immigration, climate-science skeptic. Now, obviously, all the Republican candidates are running on a similar theme. Most of them actually believe it. But Romney is acutely aware of the disconnect between the character of “Mitt Romney” and the actor portraying him. Because Romney is too intelligent to fall for his own ruse, his campaign is one large Potemkin facade, designed to shield him from the interjection of reality.

Moderates supporting Romney think that beneath all the charade is someone who thinks like they do. But the question is, how long can you wander in Wonderland before you forget who you are and what you stand for?  Here’s Alice feeling her identity starting to slip:

‘Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’ And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them.

At the end of Carroll’s book, the house of cards implodes and Alice awakens and returns to reality. We should all be so lucky.


As I look back over the past two years, I see that I have turned time and again to Carroll’s Alice books to pick my way through political discourse.  Here are some of the previous posts that use him:

Rightwing Rewrites Reality

Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care

Believing Six Impossibilities before Breakfast

It’s Been a Mad Tea Party

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