On Monday of this week, a video went viral. If you’ve been on the internet at all, you probably saw it in one iteration or another, be it .gif or Vine or remixed music video: a raccoon is slavering over a brick of cotton candy. Being a raccoon, it goes to wash the cotton candy in a nearby pool of water. Being cotton candy, the block disintegrates as soon as the raccoon dips it in the water.
The reason the video went viral is the raccoon’s reaction to the disappearing cotton candy. It places its paws on the bottom of the pool, and you can almost hear it say “wait a goddamned second.” It’s such a human movement. And then it feels around in the water, not believing its eyes. Its food is gone, and it cannot comprehend why that would possibly be.
This was the perfect clip to go viral on the day after a holiday break. Millions of people sat at their desks for the first time in a week or two weeks, staring at their screens, watching this poor raccoon act all befuddled every time its meal dissolves into nothingness over and over again on a loop. Raccoons are hideous creatures — they eat garbage and they have creepy little hands and they are becoming less and less afraid of human beings all the time — but this Monday, we all identified with that raccoon. We could feel its heartbreak somewhere deep inside of us. We could taste that cotton candy on our tongues.
We’ll get back to the raccoon in a minute, I promise, but first we have to shift to presidential politics. You probably did your best to ignore the 2016 presidential race in 2015, and that was probably wise of you. But now, there’s no excuse. Now is the time for all adults to look at all the people running for president and make an assessment, even if that assessment does nothing more than get the Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?” stuck in our heads.
Once you finally do turn your attention to the presidential candidates, you’ll likely be confused. They’ve been at it for so long now that newcomers to the presidential news cycle will likely feel overwhelmed by all the backstory you don’t know. You might be in need of a primer, something to introduce you to the major players.
That, presumably, is the idea behind BuzzFeed political writer McKay Coppins’s new book The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House. The past two presidential elections have been followed quickly by bestselling gossipy books written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Game Change and Double Down: Game Change 2012. The Wilderness seems to be Coppins’s attempt to write a prequel to the inevitable 2016 edition of Game Change. It’s the exact same kind of book: obsessed with gossip and juicy off-the-record stories and not so very interested in policy. In other words, if you want to learn what the candidates stand for, you should look somewhere else. But if you want to get a sense of their personalities, or a sense of the kind of petty machinations that play into launching a presidential campaign, this is the smarmy treat you crave.
The Wilderness is full of nasty secrets: the feud between Ron Paul and Rand Paul, the resentment between Paul Ryan and the Romney presidential campaign, Marco Rubio’s smarmy self-regard. One frequently quoted passage details how Bobby Jindal had to sit through an hour-and-a-half long rant from then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the topic of why hurricane survivors should get any government assistance at all, since they’re dumb enough to live in the path of oncoming hurricanes. It’s salacious stuff.
In fact, the best bits of The Wilderness are about Romney, particularly the part when the 2012 presidential candidate flirts in a very overt way with the idea of a 2016 presidential campaign. Romney, it seems, was preparing to get into the race before Jeb Bush’s people bluffed him into chickening out. (Mitt must be filled with self-loathing now that Jeb's bottomed out in the polls.) There’s way too much focus on Jindal in the book, considering how quickly his campaign collapsed. And other candidates, like Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina, are barely in the book at all.
But that shouldn’t matter because very little of The Wilderness genuinely matters. There’s not much truly incriminating evidence. Besides revealing the candidates as venal and hapless, little of what Coppins has to say should have any impact on the presidential race. The closest thing to news is this ridiculous bit of braggery from Marco Rubio about the perks of elected office:
”It’s amazing,” Rubio marveled to a friend at the time. “I can call up a lobbyist at four in the morning, and he’ll meet me anywhere with a bag of forty thousand dollars in cash.”
The overtness, the crassness of that statement is eye-popping. And the fact that Rubio chose to brag to someone about it seems particularly telling, especially in conjunction with the other passages about Rubio’s shaky personal finances. The Wilderness is the strongest case I have yet to read that Rubio is unfit for public office. It remains to be seen if he’ll be held accountable for this quote, but some intrepid campaign reporter really should call him on it.
Coppins does excellent work of making all the Republican candidates look like a bunch of boobs. Jindal, especially, comes across as the virgin in a suit that everybody tried to avoid during senior year of college: he stole his first name from Bobby Brady on The Brady Bunch and often approvingly quoted from the movie Wall Street’s “Greed is good” speech. He’s not the only candidate who went through an awkward patch: Ted Cruz reportedly used to listen to “We Are the Champions” to pump himself up in his dorm room every morning. It’s not that hard to imagine these candidates indulging in this kind of behavior even today.
The book is pretty well-written, in a mass-market soap operatic sort of way, but if you feel a compulsion to read The The Wilderness, it will likely be followed with a profound feeling of emptiness, because it’s basically cotton candy. I sat down with The The Wilderness and I gave it all my attention until there was nothing left of it. But for a book that was published in December of 2015, it already feels incredibly out-of-date in January 2016. And you could read The The Wilderness from cover to cover and still not know the candidates’ records, or their platforms. When people refer to modern presidential politics as a personality contest, a nearly 400-page book about an entire party’s presidential candidates that doesn’t reflect on the issues of the time seems like it could be Exhibit A in their case.
It would be silly to blame Coppins or Halperin for the culture of vapidity that surrounds presidential politics, of course. The culture is bigger than them, it precedes them, and it will surely survive them. We’re primates, and we’re wired to look for personality in everything. For too many of us, the candidate’s personality is the wire frame on which we build our political case. Voters say character is what matters to them, but really by “character,” they mean they want someone who aligns with their self-perception.
But what does a candidate’s personality get you? You can admire it, sure. You can bask in its glow and the pride you feel for selecting it. But when it comes time to govern, to go about the very important task of making sure that the government actually works, too often all you’re left with is a pair of bare hands questing along the bottom of a pool. There was something of substance right here, you think to yourself. I just had it a minute ago. But now it’s gone, like it was never there at all.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant