David Rothkopf

Elephants and donkeys make way for the rhinos

It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy. No one is sure who deserves top billing. There’s a massive debate over what would constitute a happy ending. The frenzy over the edition of Cirque du So Lame headlining in Washington has turned everyone into a theater critic. Jackie Calmes, writing in the New York Times, sent the ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy. No one is sure who deserves top billing. There’s a massive debate over what would constitute a happy ending. The frenzy over the edition of Cirque du So Lame headlining in Washington has turned everyone into a theater critic. Jackie Calmes, writing in the New York Times, sent the White House into a tizzy, for example, with her assertion that President Obama has in fact become a supernumerary in the current drama. 

Personally, I think the whole thing was scripted not by Boehner nor Reid nor Norquist nor even by the elusive Master Teabagger writing from his secret retreat somewhere near Black Helicopter, Montana, but by Eugene Ionesco, writing in Paris in the late 1950s. Back then, the play was called "Rhinoceros" and with it Ionesco helped introduce the public at large to the theater of the absurd in much the same way the denizens of the swamplands of the Potomac are doing for America and the world today. 

In the original version of the play, a town is gradually destroyed as each of its citizens, save one independent minded fellow with a healthy appreciation for wine and conversation, is transformed into a rhinoceros. Ionesco captured the thrust of what he was getting at in an interview for Le Monde in January of 1960 when he said:

I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic. People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism. …  At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation. I don’t know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters-rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candour and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences."

That was all half a century ago and in France both of which would in other moments make it all seem wildly alien to most Americans. But despite Ionesco’s own observation that "you can only predict things after they have happened" he would see much that is painfully familiar in Washington today. Lines from "Rhinoceros" ring as true in 2011 as they did 51 years ago (when the play was seen as an allegory about the rise of extremist movements like Nazism). 

"There are many sides to reality," he wrote as if prescribing the game plane adopted by many players in the current battle over the role and size of American government, "Choose the one that’s best for you."  Surely, this approach, used by everyone in this town in which the most dangerous entitlement program is the one that leaves everyone believing they are entitled to their own facts, is taking the theory of relativity to new depths, previously unimagined by science.    

Or, as the United States hurtles toward outcomes that were once unimaginable — like debt downgrades and withering gridlock in what was once the world’s most outstanding set of government institutions — Ionesco offers the following dry acceptance of what follows when the absurd becomes the commonplace: "I can easily picture the worst, because the worst can easily happen."

In Washington today, the rhinoceroses are winning. Our extremists are not murderers like the jihadists we are at war with or Anders Breivik, but they are nonetheless at work on America’s political system in a way that follows the pattern about which Ionesco warned.  They promote a doctrine that is a kind of solvent for facts-breaking them down and distorting them until they become unrecognizable.  They argue in the true absurdist tradition that somehow they offer a superior form of mathematics that involves only subtraction.  They deny history-whether it is the compromises of Reagan, the big-government spending of every recent Republican president, the debt-ceiling extensions of the past, or the culpability of failed Republican tax cuts and spending n unnecessary wars for creating the problem we face.  They view reason and compromise as weakness. And they claim they are helping those who they are irreparably hurting.

Magnificently … from an absurdist perspective…they are combining inexperience, ignorance, intolerance and intransigence into a formula by which they are setting the rules for America.  They recognize that, as military strategist Ed Luttwak once observed to me, "In most wars, it’s the dirtiest fighter…or the craziest…who sets the rules of the game." Regardless of the final outcome of the debt ceiling drama, a few things are emerging as new realities in Rhino DC:

  • Until the election nothing will happen that involves a major spending increase or a major revenue increase. With these off the table, that means essentially nothing will happen. And if we get into a further economic downturn, that will leave all responsibility for getting us out with the Fed. QE3 is becoming more likely all the time.
  • Even more likely is a downgrade of U.S. debt. Where that leads-small increases in borrowing costs or big ones-is uncertain. (See David Wessel’s excellent WSJ piece on this.) But if we’re honest with ourselves, we should not be surprised. In fact, if the going forward policy of the U.S. is that we can’t incorporate increasing revenues in our efforts to balance the budget, then we deserve to be downgraded.
  • The decision by President Obama to support the extension of the Bush tax cuts may go down as one of the worst of his first term. It was a bad compromise that set an unfortunate precedent for future deals and it was lousy economics.
  • Obama has been thoughtful, reasonable, constructive and not terribly effective. As presidents go, it increasingly seems as though he would make a terrific Supreme Court justice. Jackie Calmes had it right in her Times piece.
  • We need a new edition of "The Federalist Papers" that deals with the issue of tyranny of the minority.

It was all put into perfect perspective for me in a conversation with one of the most experienced diplomats currently resident in Washington who, after expressing deep concern over the current follies on the Hill, recounted a cartoon that had recently run an international newspaper which showed Hamid Karzai and another leader from the region reading headlines from Washington and wondering aloud whether America was ready for democracy.  Or, as Ionesco, observes in "Rhinoceros", "Lunacy is lunacy and that’s all there is to it."

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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