Frank Rich on Politics Without a Playbill

Our guest Frank Rich of New York Magazine and HBO’s Veep says 2016 feels like the best kind of theater, because it is deeply, chaotically unpredictable.

It’s not just that voters don’t know how the plot will turn out (for now, we’ve dodged a cliched Bush-versus-Clinton melodrama). On the podcast this week, we admitted we don’t even know the forms:

Who knows where the stage ends, whether we’ve booked a ticket to a comedy or a tragedy, or if the man in with the chlorine-orange pompadour is emcee or protagnoist? Rich, whose friendly face we miss on the Times op-ed pages, called it “a journey without a map”:

We’ve tried various maps. We tried the map of the FiveThirtyEight kind of journalism map and so far it doesn’t seem to be working for this cycle. The map of where the money comes from, the PACs! Many people including me believed that “Oh, as go the Koch brothers. As goes Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, as goes Sheldon Adelson or George Soros, that’s the story we’re going to follow. The Koch Brothers are going to annoint Scott Walker!” Well, it didn’t happen. It turns out that even all that dark money may not give us the map to what’s going on. The map that Teddy White or Johnny Apple followed of the local leaders and the local pols and the Mayor Daley’s, the people who ran political machines — that’s all gone. The idea that the television networks would control the narrative — that’s gone. I find it all fascinating. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of this. But I think it’s probably foolhardy to know where we’re going to end up.

Unpredictability is nice in a darkened theater heading somehow for catharsis. But I crave something firmer — less ecstatic, but also less threatening than whatever Donald the director has in store. We’re 200-plus years past our warlord period, but politics — especially this year — still feels dangerous in America.

We can admit that nothing is written but still reject the worst old scripts, whether they’re mailed in from Trump Tower or Kennebunkport. To me at least, a good ad hoc mantra for America this year might be: know your history, and be more like Canada.

On that score, we took all the advice we could from Canadian novelist Stephen Marche and our friend the historian Heather Cox Richardson. They agree that 2016 is unpredictable, but they’re reviewing the show more harshly.

Intermission now and we’re still off-Broadway. Who can say? By March, Springtime For Donald may take the Great White Way.

Hard to know, but you know how it ends.


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— Pat Tomaino