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The Nervous Breakdown of U.S. Politics

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 6/11/2015 Howard Fineman

WASHINGTON -- Here’s all you need to know about the not-funny nervous breakdown now going on in American politics.

In a respected new poll, the Democratic Party front-runner, a former secretary of state and senator, loses a test match -- overwhelmingly -- to a political novice who says that evolution is the devil’s work and that Joseph, of the Bible's Old Testament, built the pyramids in Egypt to store grain.

It’s true: A retired neurosurgeon, Republican Ben Carson, crushes Democrat Hillary Clinton by 50 percent-40 percent in the poll. 

The news is that this news was not news in the U.S. It did not create a twinge of alarm or even amazement in political circles.  

Why? Well, it’s just one poll, and we're still a year away from Election Day. Yes, Carson is rising steadily, and in many polls has replaced real estate billionaire Donald Trump in the GOP’s top spot. But Carson could yet fade; Trump, after all, seems to be doing just that in some states.

But the real reason for the lack of blaring headlines is this: Americans have become used to an extreme level of gaudiness and even insanity in the 2016 campaign. 

They have grown so cynical and detached from politics -- the opposite of the earnest hope they had after the election of Barack Obama -- that weirdness rules the day.

For now, the 2016 election looks as much like a national unraveling as a stately transfer of authority by the world’s oldest democracy.

It's especially messy on the Republican side, where 15 candidates -- a record number -- are vying for the party nomination. The field’s size encourages attention-grabbing statements and behavior, as do “debates” with crowded stages, and the images, video and discourse of social media, which reward outrageousness.

The GOP contest is so crowded and chaotic that Karl Rove, the party’s shrewdest operative (he managed George W. Bush’s rise) said he thinks the race may not be decided until the convention in July in Cleveland, Ohio. The last time Republicans took that long to pick a candidate was in 1948.  

In the meantime, the American public is being entertained, excited or embarrassed by candidates who have, shall we say, vivid views and a loose allegiance to boring facts.

Trump shows both tendencies at once in a paragraph of his standard speech: His pledge to built a “great wall” with a “beautiful door” -- the former to keep out the 11 million undocumented people he is going to kick out of the country, the latter the gateway for some to return.

It’s the kind of fantastical image that is vivid, but not believable. His supporters don’t seem to mind.

Take Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. His father, a Cuban immigrant, is an evangelical preacher of the most fervent kind. His son has translated that into, among other things, a love of guns that is so extreme as to be practically sexual.

In a campaign video produced over the summer, Cruz -- a graduate of two of America’s most prestigious academic institutions, Princeton and Harvard -- does the following:

He wraps strips of bacon around the barrel of a rifle at a shooting range in Boone, Iowa, then wraps the bacon in aluminum foil, then fires the rifle quickly and repeatedly until the heat of the barrel fries the bacon, then he eats the bacon with a grin as he stares at the camera.

Leftish commentators jumped all over Cruz. But not for the over-the-top, bloodthirsty appeal to gun owners. Instead they ridiculed him for saying he had used a "machine gun" when it was obviously only a semi-automatic that required him to pull the trigger on each shot. Only in America would that be a left-wing critique. 

As for Carson, he continued to insist on his Joseph version of the pyramids, even though archaeologists and historians regard it as lunatic. No one bothers anymore to question him about his faith-based opposition to the science of evolution.  

But the good thing about American politics -- and America itself -- is that one trend is soon enough replaced by another.

And there were signs at the end of this week that a sense of human-scale sobriety was about to enter the GOP race.

The Huffington Post happened upon New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the lesser lights in the race, giving a calm, heartfelt account at a town hall event of the death of a friend of his who had become addicted to painkillers.

Christie, a blustery figure who also has a sense of empathy for average folks, has worked hard as governor to increase funding for addiction programs and alternatives to incarceration -- the standard American answer to drug use.

The HuffPost video -- super-long by social media standards, at more than six minutes -- went astoundingly viral. And it prompted a new, serious discussion of America's rampant drug use, and what to do about it.

As it happens, the cities and towns of New Hampshire (where Christie spoke) are riddled with heroin and meth addiction, and a recent local poll showed it to be the top issue there.

Other GOP candidates immediately chimed in with their own stories of friends and loved ones who had suffered from addiction.

Christie struck a chord. Maybe it will be a wake-up call, yanking the campaign back into the real world -- and away from the pyramids.

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