08/31/2015 12:26 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

Vaudeville or Tragedy

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Vaudeville and tragedy -- the two ways of experiencing American presidential elections. Entertainment for sure. The slapstick of Donald Trump, the antic comedy of the 17, the pratfalls of Jeb!, Hillary's self-caricatures. Tragedy in that the MSM, the pundits, the political "pros" and the solid citizenry talk earnestly of strategy, of tactics, of policy positions, of political philosophy -- as if the contest for the highest office in the land were a serious exercise in democracy. As if the nation were engaged in sober discourse on the great issues of the times. As if the virtual were not the actual and the actual not the virtual. In a healthy polity, the populace would howl in mirth -- and then jettison them all (Sanders excepted). We are not a healthy polity.

Hence, the dilemma:

To smile, to chuckle so that the mind not suffer
An Escape to be wished
Yet, to awake, perchance to find it real; there's the rub.
To laugh, or to cry, that is the question:
Whether it is nobler to suffer the burdens of good citizenship
Or to laugh if all off. And by scorning it as ill-born humor
To risk heartache and a thousand unnatural shocks.

That brings us to the Trump phenomenon. His campaign is the closest thing to an "off-road" political experience we've seen yet. Lots of thrills, some fun, and a veiled warning not to try doing these sorts of stunts if you're not a media personality. Trump obviously is spectacle, he is celebrity, and as American elections descend into burlesque it is only to be expected that this blowhard would enthrall many. Polls this far in advance of the actual balloting are an expression of vague feelings about individuals rather than an expression of considered judgment about the performers' qualifications for the presidency. It's emotion, not thinking, that counts.

Still, it is becoming equally obvious that in this case we have passed beyond measuring just the entertainment quotient. Trump's ability to maintain, if not slightly increase, his standing in the polls after his grotesque behavior during and after the first debate is important. For it tells us that a significant slice of would-be Republican primary voters are prepared to follow their feelings right into the voting station. Moreover, it tells us that they harbor intense emotions so bitter that they evoke anger, frustration and hate. Donald Trump vents that for them. To hear a candidate shrilly harangue and castigate in language normally heard around the dinette table or bar after downing a few too many is exhilarating. The others sing only half the Mass; he sings the whole Mass -- every time -- and in a stentorian voice. That in itself is a sign of the times.

It follows that the poll numbers which register hefty support for Trump, as well for those fellow demagogues Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, reflect the harsh reality of where at least half of the Republican electorate is today. It's the latest manifestation of the Tea Party mental state. Every society has its dark and dangerous undercurrents. America's is laced with racism and fed by a deep pool of personal insecurities. The recrudescence of coarse racism, the deep psychic anxieties of the white males of Middle America, the embrace of jingoism, the frustrations of trailer park super-patriots, and the desperation of tormented evangelicals torn over the question of whether a prospective nuclear Iran is a sign that the end days finally are approaching or a serious speed-bump on the road to rapture -- together, these elements are creating an emotional maelstrom that has found an odd idol in the buffoonish persona of Donald Trump. The longer it lasts, the more attached he himself becomes to the pipe-dream of writing his name on the wind -- and the more his followers see themselves affirmed and exalted.

We have to come to terms with the dismaying truth that public opinion, in individuals and in aggregate, is only exceptionally the outcome of an informed and thoughtful process of deliberation. It is the rationalist myth that we are by nature thinking creatures inclined to viewing the world around us in an emotionally detached, logical manner. Very, very few persons approximate that model. Inherited loyalties, deep seated prejudices and preferences, private emotions, the attraction or repulsion of personality -- all of these elements come into play to considerable degree. In today's society where attachments of all sorts are weak, where political parties have little cohesion, where associational life has faded, where we are exposed to the barrage of media imagery and messaging, the rationalist model has become less and less valid. Most of us are shaped by influences that we only dimly perceive -- whether calculated intent lies behind their propagation or not.

That probably has always been true -- everywhere. In a democracy, though, where effusions of popular sentiment can prevail in the selection of leaders, those passions can lead to dangerous excess and incoherence. Today, in America, conditions are exceptional insofar as: all bounds on public discourse have been breached; common standards and points of reference are effaced; and the institutions that in past mediated between individual feeling and collective decision have melted away. Our two political parties are either formless and empty (the Democrats) or sounding boxes for the very same demagoguery that moves so many of its adherents (like the Republicans). Other intermediate groups have been eclipsed by the waves of mass culture and the orgiastic mass media. There are no shock absorbers, no adults superintending the hyper-active juveniles, no recognized authority to say 'No Mas!'

So take your choice: Trump; JEB! -- No. 2 son of an "anchor President;" or Hillary and her "anchor husband."