Of the many rituals that accompany U.S. politics, one of the least-important but most-discussed is the spectacle of watching a hopeless, clueless and joyless presidential campaign falter on the runway before swiftly concluding in a fiery crash. Every four years, there’s at least one — and often more than one — such campaign. The candidate is usually already a figure of derision among the press, and it’s often not clear to outsiders whether even they truly believe they will, or even should, become the president. The whole quadrennial enterprise tends to be either a guilty pleasure or a cause for sorrow, depending on how idealistic (and sadistic) you are already.
Some recent examples: In 2004, Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich was the at least somewhat earnest candidate that the press preemptively dismissed, while Rev. Al Sharpton was the one whose sincerity was widely questioned. Kucinich reprised the role somewhat in 2008, but had competition from former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel; Sen. Joe Biden, meanwhile, was the guy the press didn’t take seriously enough to let voters decide for themselves. On the Republican side in 2008, Rep. Ron Paul ran a heartfelt campaign that the media deemed unserious, while one-time ambassador Alan Keyes provided comic relief. And in 2012, one of the media’s favorite punching bags, Rep. Michele Bachmann, was a kind of right-wing Kucinich, while pizza mogul Herman Cain left many wondering whether he was engaged in an elaborate form of performance art.
At this point, it’s too early to know for sure who will fill these designated roles in the 2016 presidential race. And if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nabs the Democratic nomination with little effort, as many expect, the potential cast of characters will be smaller than is the norm. Still, it’s starting to look like there will be at least one presidential candidate who will waste everyone’s time by pursuing the White House. I’m thinking, of course, about the nascent presidential campaign of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has begun flirting with some noxious forces in our society, and who is otherwise completely undeserving of anyone outside of Louisiana’s attention. Jindal will never be president — but whether his campaign is remembered as a routine failure, or a shameful disgrace, is far less certain.
Most of the worst stuff Jindal’s done lately has flown under the radar, so here’s a primer for those of you who haven’t paid much attention to the Louisiana pol since 2009, when he blew his State of the Union response by reminding everyone of “30 Rock’s” Kenneth. While Jindal still hasn’t formally announced his intention to run for president — and hasn’t even launched the pro forma exploratory committee, either — his desire to live at 1600 remains one of Louisiana’s “worst-kept” secrets. Yet ever since that embarrassing introduction to the television-watching public, Jindal’s had a problem: beyond his own ambition, a reason for him to run has been hard to find. And with each new iteration of a pre-campaign shtick, Jindal gets worse and worse.
Initially, Jindal wanted to be seen as a new kind of Republican, a GOPer for the Obama era. Needless to say, Jindal’s Indian ancestry was a component of this framing. But so was his allegedly fearsome intellect, which earned him degrees from Brown and Oxford and made him a Rhodes scholar. When his disastrous TV debut necessitated he shed that persona in favor of another, however, Jindal decided to go the other way, presenting himself as the ultimate anti-tax governor. He proposed Louisiana scrap income taxes altogether, but in part because his plan made up the revenue difference with sales taxes, which disproportionately hit the middle and working classes, the policy achieved little beyond sinking his approval rating. It remains low to this day.
After President Obama’s reelection in 2012, Jindal seemed to think he had another chance to claim the mantle of Sensible Republican. He charged out of the gate in 2013 with a call for the GOP to “stop being the stupid party,” which was, as you might imagine, not particularly well-received by the people who thought he was calling them stupid. Having seen his latest attempt fizzle out nearly as soon as it had started, Jindal proceeded to lay low for a while, but did little to change the perception that he still intended to run for president. Over the past few weeks, though, we’ve gotten a sense of what the latest version of Bobby Jindal might look like. And it isn’t pretty.
Lately, the man who urged his fellow Republicans to stop being stupid has grabbed headlines by pandering to the Islamophobic sentiment that’s widespread among the fundamentalist Christian bloc of the GOP base. The first sign was Jindal’s embrace of a paranoid fantasy that’s increasingly popular among far-right Christians, the supposed prevalence in the United Kingdom and Europe of “no-go” zones. These zones, according to the McCarthyite narrative, are neighborhoods or regions that have become so dominated by Muslim immigrants (and, of course, Shariah Law) that non-Muslims dare not enter them. The whole idea is a hysterical exaggeration, so much so that even Fox News has apologized for disseminating it. But Jindal has refused to downplay the no-go threat, despite being unable to point to any real examples.
If Jindal had left it there, you could have chalked it up as a momentary lapse in judgment, coupled with the typical arrogance of powerful men who are not accustomed to admitting they’re wrong. But he didn’t leave it there; he took it much further. He not only went on to flaunt his defiance on Fox News, promising he would never “tiptoe around the truth” when it came to “radical Islamic terrorism,” but also made clear that his turn to angry tribalism was no accident by grousing that he was “ready for us to stop calling ourselves hyphenated-Americans.” What connection there was between these two fearful mental spasms (it would be too charitable to call them thoughts) was unclear — until, that is, Jindal was able to get to what seemed to be his real message, which was little more than a nativist rant:
My parents came over here 40 years ago, they wanted their kids to be Americans, they love India, they love our heritage, if they wanted us to be Indians, they would have stayed in India. We also need to be teaching our kids in civics, in our schools about American Exceptionalism. We need to insist on English as our language in this country. I have nothing against anybody who wants to come here to be an American, but if people don’t want to come here to integrate and assimilate, what they’re really trying to do is set up their own culture, their communities, what they’re really trying to do is overturn our culture.
Unsurprisingly, the governor’s attempt to explicitly intertwine the conservative base’s dual fears of Muslims and immigrants was met with cheers from some of the more xenophobic and fear-stricken of conservatism’s leading lights. National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, for example, took a break from promoting torture to praise Jindal for his “Reaganesque” vision and willingness to call out the Islamic enemy within. But if Bobby Jindal wants his impending campaign for president to resonate outside the confines of National Review, his new persona is his most embarrassing miscalculation yet. Pretending to be a combination non-white Joe Arpaio and Christian Pamela Geller may do wonders for Jindal’s standing among the religious fundamentalists in the GOP, but to those of us who think America has more serious concerns than creeping Shariah, it makes him look like a fool. At best.