Other than the need for oxygen to live, I never thought that Kid Rock and I had a lot in common.
Sure, our paths have crossed a couple times. I met him once, when I produced his appearance on the late-night talk show I used to work on. He seemed like a nice enough guy and even gave me a courtesy chuckle when I asked what his favorite Celine Dion song was. And then there was the lunch date I once had with a woman who showed up nearly an hour late, completely hungover and boasting about partying with Kid Rock until about 60 minutes earlier.
Still, these experiences aren’t nearly enough to know what makes the guy tick, so I can’t really speak to what’s inspiring his desire to run for the U.S. Senate. Maybe he thought getting to go to dinner at the White House this past spring was so cool, he might get to go every week if he was working just up the street. Or perhaps if we deconstruct songs such as “Bawitdaba” or “You Never Met A Mother*****r Like Me,” we might discover his lyrics are actually a modern-day equivalent of The Federalist Papers. We just don’t know.
So imagine my surprise this week when Kid (or Mr. Rock ― I’m not sure which he prefers) more or less confirmed his interest in running for the U.S. Senate, which meant that he and I now share something more than just an appreciation of air. We both also have a firm belief that the most significant cornerstone of American democracy is that anyone can run for office. I realize the trouble I’ll be in with pretty much everyone I know for admitting this, but seriously, I have to give the guy some credit for potentially taking this leap.
In his website post teasing the impending campaign, he played the Average Joe card: “I believe if you work your butt off and pay taxes, you should be able to easily understand and navigate the laws, tax codes, health care and anything else the government puts in place that affects us all.” Nothing necessarily wrong with that, right? It’s all about celebrating that “forgotten America” pundits have discovered post-Trump victory. Which happens to be the same group I discovered while writing a book about the 2016 election.
The Can’t-idates: Running For President When Nobody Knows Your Name is the chronicle of my 10,000-mile journey across America to meet some of the 1,700+ people complete unknowns and political novices who filed the appropriate FEC paperwork to run for president in a year when a similarly inexperienced (though far wealthier) guy actually won the entire thing. We tend to dismiss these “real people” as tin foil hat-wearing loonies who live in mom’s basement simply because they’ve set an impossible goal for themselves. And judging by the daily news flow in 2017, the idea of an inexperienced person in the White House hasn’t exactly been a plus for the country. Still, at least for the characters in my book, there is something refreshingly noble in their bids to be commander in chief. The idea of their running is something that should be celebrated, not scorned.
Don’t get me wrong. Appreciating someone’s desire to run isn’t the same thing as wanting them to actually get the job. I’m not saying I’d ever vote for the Hell’s Angel in Boise, the political prankster in New England or the street preacher in Cleveland. (Or, for that matter, a rock star who once reminisced about the early days of his career by explaining, “I think I got more p***y than f******g anybody because I always treated people nice.”) I just admire the fact that they’re so willing to expose themselves to the inevitable ridicule that comes with running for president despite having no political background.
Let’s face it. Most of us have a cynical view of the electoral process, firmly convinced that the playing field is tilted at a 90-degree angle toward either the brothers Koch conspiracy or the Clinton cabal (depending on where your party allegiances lie). The folks in The Can’t-idates, however, wake up every day and say, “I’m doing this thing that will cost me family, friends and my savings. Strangers will assume I’m nuts. And there is zero chance I’ll succeed… yeah, sign me up!” Their need to get involved in the system few of us trust is something that I grew increasingly jealous of the longer my trek continued.
Naturally, there were some exceptions to this. For instance, there was the truck driver in Missouri who told me he was running to stop the smut in movies like Birdman, which he’d seen three times just to confirm the pornography. And there was the Seattle woman who insisted then-President Obama liked to call her late at night to seek her advice on policy matters. Oh, I can’t forget the gentleman who was running in order to broker a peace deal between Earth and the alien worlds who would like to help us out.
While my political activism consists of some sharply-worded Facebook posts in search of “likes,” however, the 15 people I ended up including in the book were eager to hang their reputations out there for all the world to mock. I know, I know… if they really want to make a difference, why not start locally by running for a school board or city council seat? That’s certainly the sensible approach. However, their odds of winning a zoning board election are no more or less than their odds of getting to the White House so why bothering being sensible?
The more I talked to them – and some of my interviews went on for five or six hours – the more I realized that the motivation for their quixotic quest was not so much political as it was personal. The Vietnam vet and Agent Orange victim was tired of seeing fellow vets die because of VA incompetence. The karate instructor with four DUIs in his past wanted to prove to friends and family he was capable of doing something great. The Hispanic jokesters, who were running a protest campaign as “Sydneys Voluptuous Buttocks,” were reacting to the racism they’d experienced growing up. The jobless single mom with a severely autistic teenage son was sick of being caught in a bind where she couldn’t afford care for her boy without work but couldn’t find work because she needed help affording his care.
Look, I have no idea how genuine Kid Rock’s interest in pursuing a U.S. Senate seat is. Perhaps he’s a very altruistic individual who wants to fight for his constituents’ right to decent and affordable health care and not just their right to party. Then again, his senatorial ambitions might very well be little more than a publicity stunt to support his fellow political newbie, Donald Trump. Either way, though, I can’t fault him for giving this a go. After all, it’s as much his right to do this as it was Al Franken’s when we knew him as a comedian and not as a politician.
Both men – and Trump too, come to think of it – recognized the public’s frustration with politics as usual and its appetite for elected officials who seem more “like us.” The further away from the system a candidate appears to be, the closer he or she seems to our lives. It’s not great that experience now takes a back seat to authenticity, or at least the perception of authenticity, when it comes to elections. Still, this is a phenomenon that has at least a little bit of merit.
Granted, this experiment hasn’t exactly worked out very well so far considering the tire fire that has been the Trump administration. Still, I keep going back to what I heard from nearly every Can’t-idate (as in, they want to run for president but everyone says they can’t). I’d ask if they were aware that the rest of the world thought they were crazy to do this. They’d answer with, “Actually, we’re guaranteed the right to do this so you’re the crazy ones for not doing it.”
That’s precisely why I wrote The Can’t-idates and why I can’t begrudge Kid Rock for throwing that fedora he’s always wearing into the ring. Running for office – any office – isn’t supposed to be a velvet rope event where only certain invitees get in. Trust me, I get the humor and horror of someone vying for a job that is way over his or her head. Still, while it’s definitely not fashionable to wish Kid Rock well in his quest, writing my book has shown me that if somebody wants to do their crazy thing, why not just let them? We all have some kind of crazy dream in the back of our minds that we should be allowed to try. The Can’t-idates’ task just happens to be a bit more visible.
Here’s the thing. If you think someone’s campaign is a joke at which nobody should laugh, you’re totally free to cast your vote elsewhere. That’s what the kids call “democracy.” So, Kid Rock, enjoy your run. I like to think at least your fund-raising parties will be something to remember. Just don’t do something that would be really crazy, like launch a campaign for the Rock and Roll of Fame.