Those looking for a unified metaphor to explain the sheer nuttiness of the Republican primary season need look no further than the return of Donald Trump -- and his distinctive hair infrastructure project.
For a time there, Trump had been off the radar. He had receded after resurrecting the hoary "birther" issue -- which finally prompted an irritated President Obama to produce his much-discussed long-form birth certificate -- and toying with the media about a possible run for president himself.
But the spotlight of this primary season has clearly been too much for him to resist; the man's like a plant who gets his energy from the media spotlight. And what better way to capture the media gaze yet again than to offer to moderate a Republican debate?
Never mind that Mitt Romney, Jon Hunstman and Ron Paul have said no to the stunt. Trump -- and his sidekick, the extravagant comb-over -- are actually perfect for the job.
Why? Because Trump's comb-over captures everything that's wrong with American politics today. Each party uses its own strategic barbering to mask an unattractive reality below. And their partisans are not just fine with that, they welcome it. The more elaborate the disguise the better. So the inevitable baldness below -- whether it's an unsustainable entitlement system or the needto both raise taxes and cut expenses -- isn't just hidden, but almost pridefully submerged.
On the personal level, nearly everyone in the Republican primary campaign has been struggling with some comb-over imperatives of their own. Romney, who has such perfect hair that the New York Times devoted a feature story to it, is trying to recoif every progressive or even moderate resume item from his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. Newt Gingrich has a hairy mix of personal and political indiscretions to hide, ranging from adultery to policy switches on climate change. Perry would rather we didn't look directly at Texas' high school graduation rate.
The thing about Trump's hair that's so fascinating, though, is that it's intended to be an artifice of disguise, yet it simultaneously calls attention to itself. It's the ultimate signal of disdain for your audience, a belief in the continuing triumph of the masquerade over the material. If you look at something obviously false long enough, it will appear as true. The Big Lie meets Big Hair.
The same arrogance applies to what we've been seeing during the Republican debates -- and that's why Trump is really the perfect moderator. Each candidate has a firm conviction in his or her ability to distract the public from the truth below the surface, like the way Romney tries to explain away Massachusetts health care legislation with an elaborately layered and twisted rhetorical comb-over.
Romney insists, despite the glaring facts staring us in the face, that "I've been as consistent as human beings can be."
Trump is also the perfect moderator because as debates have become machines for entertainment rather than mechanisms of enlightenment, he is the natural ringmaster.
The tragic part of all this is that Americans are desperate for real leadership. The economy remains bruised and battered. Trust in Congress is at an all-time low, the president's ratings are at a level which have been historically inadequate to re-elect an incumbent, and the vast majority of Americans feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.
So how do we react? In the absence of leadership, we do what comes naturally to Americans. We default into distraction and seek the celebrity narrative. Seduced by spectacle, we again bask in the convenience of forgetting our problems. We don't need a national comb-over, we need a national haircut.
Cross-posted from Daily News Online