George Carlin once explained that when "you're born you get a ticket to the freak show, and when you are born in America, you get a front row seat."
Nathan Rabin, former head writer at the Onion A/V Club, cultural critic and author of "The Big Rewind," has decided to test the veracity of Carlin's theory with his new ebook, "7 Days in Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of the Juggalos, and The Summer Everything Went Insane." Rabin is also able to offer insight into who the real freaks are: Are they fans of the socially stigmatized rap group, Insane Clown Posse, whom the FBI has labeled a dangerous organization and public threat, or Republican Trump supporters? At the risk of spoiling the fun, I'll mention that the maniacs are not the ones wearing circus makeup.
In his equally amusing, fascinating and moving new book, Rabin chronicles his week in Ohio, attending both the annual Gathering of the Juggalos and the Republican National Convention. As if that were not enough to provide fodder for entertainment and journalism, Rabin spent the seven days with his long-lost brother, allowing him to further reflect on broken families, fractured relationships and the painful consequences of disconnection.
Rabin writes with his characteristic wit, but he also maintains an empathy that is staggering in its profundity and potency. As clichéd as it might seem, when I read Rabin's account and analysis of Republicans, who frightened him, and Juggalos, who inspired him, mixed together with his own traumatic family history, I experienced the full range of emotional response — rage, laughter, tears.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rabin over email.
"7 Days in Ohio" is a literary exploration of broken families, through your relationship with your long-lost brother, the community of the Juggalos, through your attendance of their annual gathering, and the increasingly hateful and demented community of Republican, Trump supporters, through your attendance of the RNC. You called the approach a "literary mixtape." How did you develop the idea to explore these three seemingly disparate, but actually connected events and topics in one book? With what ambition did you begin the project, and did you feel different about it after actually attending the events?
Every year I make an intense effort to find an excuse to go to the Gathering of the Juggalos. The first few years was for my book "You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me" and then I covered it for The A.V Club, where I was a longtime head writer and remain a columnist. And every year I have to find a new angle to cover it, because there is a limit to the public’s fascination with Juggalos, as my book sales and bank account both unfortunately attest.
Last year I focused on families with the questionable judgment to bring children into a space with, shall we say, several non-family-friendly elements. This involved spending a fair amount of time with the good folks over at Juggalos for Jesus. You can probably guess what they’re all about.
So this year I decided that the big angle for my Gathering trip/coverage would be my long-lost Juggalo half-brother Vinnie, who roared back into my life after I hadn’t seen him in 17 years (and even then, we only spent a few days together) when he showed up unexpectedly at the front door of the giant house in suburban Atlanta where my wife, my baby, my dog and I all lived with my in-laws until about a month ago brandishing a giant sword he’d made for me himself.
It was a hell of a way to be reintroduced to a lost siblings and since we both unexpectedly shared a deep passion for the music and culture of Insane Clown Posse, I figured the Gathering would be the perfect venue for a more involved reunion. So I was already thinking in terms of family reunions and dysfunctional families, and I figured the relationship my brother [and I] share is very Juggalo. It is rooted in childhood abandonment and psychological abuse, in broken homes and wildly dysfunctional relationships and addiction and compulsion and anger.
I didn’t realize that the Republican National Convention was being held so close to the Gathering, in terms of both geography and time, that it would be possible to cover both, until about three weeks before it happened. I had my Eureka moment and decided that I would do everything in my power to combine these three insane adventures into one big trip, one very crazy week in Ohio.
What I was looking for, going in, were commonalities. As with [my writing of] "You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me," which was about Phish, Insane Clown Posse and my nervous breakdown, I wanted to find the myriad places where these seemingly disparate entities overlap and where they deviate. I was looking at the Republican National Convention and the Gathering of the Juggalos as vulgar populist spectacles that together and separately, say something about the fractured, divisive and uncomfortable cultural moment we find ourselves in.
But I was also fascinated by the very different conceptions of law and law enforcement at the RNC and Gathering. At one, law enforcement was deified as the only thing standing between us and violent anarchy. At the other, law enforcement were the bad guys, especially the FBI. You can probably guess which is which.
Insane Clown Posse’s campaign against the FBI labeling its fans a loosely organized hybrid gang has lent an overtly political element to ICP’s ideology, as does the intense focus on class warfare and the duplicity of the wealthy found in Insane Clown Posse’s music. So I was hoping that the Republican convention would feel like a crazy carnival spiraling out of control and that the Gathering would feel more political and engaged and ambitious than ever before. I got my wish on both counts. The Dark Carnival was really looking out for me on that end.
I’m thinking of "7 Days In Ohio" as a literary mixtape because it’s something of a stopgap measures between proper releases. It’s also on the short side and there’s an immediacy to it that recalls mixtapes. My first memoir took over a year to be published after it was finished. This hit the market less than two months after the week chronicled, thanks to the magic of Amazon. I wanted to say something about the world we live in while it was happening, sort of like an e-book version of "Medium Cool."
The way in which you write the book oscillates between the introspective, the sympathetic (for Juggalos), and horror (at the RNC). You do, however, find a man grieving for his son, and seeming to fill the void in his heart with vociferous Trump support. Throughout the book, you maintain a remarkable human, and humane, approach. Does this come from your own experience, or the experiences you had when writing the book? Do you believe that the Trump ugliness is a harbinger for a cold streak running through America? Or is the humanity with which you write more prevalent in our culture?
That is very kind of you to say. One thing that I try to do in my writing, especially of this variety, is to acknowledge, and respect, people’s fundamental humanity and dignity. And I say this not flippantly, but because I deeply believe it to be true: I do not believe Donald Trump possesses any humanity.
I believe there is a cold, empty vastness where compassion and empathy and kindness should be within Trump’s black, desiccated soul. He is a hollow man, a shell, a narcissist incapable of self-reflection or humility or vulnerability. Look at how Trump handled the “birther issue.” This was a super-racist obsession he’d been carrying on for over a half decade and when it became politically expedient to drop the issue, he first gave himself wholly unearned credit for ending something he himself worked harder than anyone else to promote and then blamed the entire thing on Hilary Clinton. And you could tell he was just so fucking pleased with himself that he wanted to do a mic-drop and then moonwalk out of the room.
But if I can’t wrap my head around the concept of Trump as a man with feelings (probably because he’s made depicting himself as a Superman devoid of feelings a big part of his brand) I did want to respect the emotions that brought some people to Trump. And I write with what I hope is compassion about a man who lost his son to heroin and found solace in singing about Trump, and a mother who lost her son at Benghazi.
I think that the places these grieving parents’ grief has taken them is unfortunate and counterproductive but as a parent and a human being my heart goes out to them. I want to believe that some of his supporters are good people who just happen to support a very bad man with very bad, very hateful ideas, and you can see glimmers of that throughout the book.
But I’m not going to lie: It was a challenge not being overcome with anger towards people who want to take our nation in some very dark, very wrong directions, and to do so out of fear and ager and paranoia and rage. I feel like I understand where some of that fear and anger and paranoia and rage comes from, and I try to be empathetic about why people feel that way, but there are limits to that empathy rooted in just how toxic and destructive a figure Trump is.
One can trace a connection between your broken family experience, the brokenness (your word) that inspires much of the Juggalo gathering, and the fractured community of America that is visible in the Republican Party. How best to repair the fracture? The Juggalos and the RNC certainly take a different approach.
One of the goals of my trip was to try to either repair my relationship with my brother, or to try to forge a new, healthier relationship, since I did not know him at all growing up. Hell, I don’t even think I knew he existed until I was in my twenties. I am deeply socially awkward, fairly shy and self-conscious (but with the right drugs oh boy am I a gregarious extrovert!) but I felt like the key to reconnecting with my brother was listening to him, and respecting him, and making this about us more than it was about me.
Acceptance, I think, is the key to repairing this brokenness, this damage, these fractures. That’s what the Gathering offers Juggalos: radical acceptance. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat or skinny, tiny or tall, tattooed or prim: at the Gathering, people are going to accept you, and embrace you, and that can be incredibly validating and healing even.
This is very different than the Republican National Convention, which was founded not on acceptance and empathy but on radical non-acceptance. It’s all about dividing people, about dehumanizing them, about depicting 60 percent of the country as the enemy. So I would say that if we’re looking for ways to heal the rifts in our culture, we have more to learn from Insane Clown Posse and the way they conduct themselves rather than the Republican Party. But George Will has been driving that message home for months. I don’t want to seem derivative of his work.
I must confess that I was surprised by your genuine affection and admiration for the Juggalos. When you first started covering the gathering, how did you feel about them? What caused your feelings to change?
I have built my career around trying to find the value in things that our culture and our society considers valueless, most notably in "My World Of Flops." There are few things our society values few things less than Juggalos and Insane Clown Posse. Yet I initially approached the music and the culture not from a place of empathy but from a place of snarky derision.
When I sold the book proposal that would become "You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me" the working title was "Confessions Of A Pop Culture Masochist." Truth be told, I might have sold a lot more books with that title, because there is a bottomless cultural appetite for lists and listicles and mean little articles about how Phish sucks, and Insane Clown Posse sucks and how the only things that suck worse than Phish and Insane Clown Posse are Phish and Insane Clown Posse fans.
My paychecks were paid by Pitchfork for two years (I was a staff writer for The Dissolve, its short-lived film site) and I’ve written two books about Insane Clown Posse. I am ashamed to be associated with people with such awful taste in music, but going to work for Pitchfork seemed like a good idea at the time. Oh, but I was exquisitely naive!
And I originally approached both Phish and ICP from a detached, quasi-sociological, quasi-cultural-anthropological perspective. I am irrevocably drawn to the strange, the maligned and the reviled. I thought I would be writing a satirical exploration of these strange experiences from an outsider’s perspective. That’s what my editor wanted. That’s what my agent wanted. That’s what my publisher wanted. And that’s what I thought I wanted as well and it took, honestly, about a year of banging my head against the wall trying to will this version of the book into existence before I realized that it was just not going to happen.
I remember vividly going through the notes I took at the first Gathering of the Juggalos and literally crying because I felt so terrible about how little I had of substance and value that I could actually use and also because my writing about Insane Clown Posse felt so mean and wrong. I found myself thinking, “Who the fuck am I that I think it’s funny or smart or worthwhile to disparage human beings like this because of how they look and the music they listen to and the way they wear their hair?”
At my first visit to the Gathering of the Juggalos I didn’t even think it was necessary to actually see Insane Clown Posse’s big closing performance. The wife had work the next day and I thought, “Eh, I probably don’t even need to listen to their music to write this book.”
And I was wrong. Oh holy sweet fucking Lord was I wrong. And I had such a hard time with this aborted, first attempt at the book that I essentially had a nervous breakdown and came to have a relationship with the music and culture of both Phish and Insane Clown Posse that was passionate and engaged and, dare I say, spiritual, whereas once it was cold and mocking.
I had to lose myself to find myself. The hipster, the cynic, and the glib outsider had to die so that I could write a book that felt honest and real and valuable, and that ended up being about how I fell in love with Phish and Insane Clown Posse and that kind of saved both the book I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to finish writing and my life, in a weird kind of way.
I surprised myself in part by genuinely developing an affection for Insane Clown Posse’s music, which is a lot more fun and hooky and funny and weird and self-aware than people give them credit for. And, in terms of live performance, they are among the best I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen a bunch of times and Phish somewhere in the area of 37 times.
But it went beyond that. There was an incongruous sweetness and childlike innocence to the world Insane Clown Posse created that spoke to me for a number of reasons. But the main reason, I suspect, is that I was the project of a broken home and parental abandonment. I didn’t really have a childhood, and what few happy childhood memories I possess are rooted in escape, in making up a world in my own imagination, and in getting lost in pop culture, in movies, and make-believe, and that is very analogous to the world of the Dark Carnival and the world of ICP and the world of Juggalos. I go to the Gathering every year in part to experience the childhood I never had in the company of people who, by and large, similarly had traumatic to impossible upbringings.
It is interesting that, even though the FBI absurdly classifies the Juggalos as a dangerous organization, and that much of American culture would view them with contempt, your experience and perspective is quite different. What group constitutes a larger threat to stability and harmony in America — the Juggalos or the Trump supporters?
This is an easy one for me. The thing about Juggalos and Insane Clown Posse is that they don’t want power. They don't want to be revered. They just want a place at the table. They just want to not be treated like criminals or losers or gang members or degenerates just because of the music that they listen to. They’re asking, really, for very little.
And the opposite is true of Trump supporters. They want Trump not just to be president, a job that generally entails being the most powerful man in the world, but to be something more than a president, because in order to realize even half of the insane, hateful promises he’s made throughout his campaign, he’s going to have to look at the limitations of power endemic to the functioning of our democracy as an outdated nuisance to work around.
That’s one of the many poisonous ironies of the Trumpism. [The] rhetoric [of its believers] makes an elaborate show of not just respecting but revering the Constitution but their actual words and ideas betray an incredible contempt for what the Constitution actually says. I think a Trump presidency would be disastrous and potentially calamitous for society, and it might take decades to recover.
I suspect, however, that if elected, Trump would probably pull a Sarah Palin, and, after five months of not getting anything done and being humiliated, resign under some flimsy pretext because, truth be told, Donald Trump probably does not want to be president. It’s a hard job with unrelenting scrutiny and he is a soft, weak and lazy man concerned exclusively with his own well-being.
Hillary Clinton recently slipped into controversy with her analysis that half of Trump supporters are a "basket of deplorables." The data validating her view is overwhelming, but what did your up close encounters with Trump supporters teach you about them? Was Clinton's indictment accurate or overly severe?
I think Clinton’s words were, if anything, not severe enough. Before I flew to Cleveland I spent a lot of time seething with rage towards Trump supporters and towards Trump himself, and, because this is 2016 and I am a crazed introvert, most of this seething happened via social media.
And when you’re interacting on social media, people become abstractions, avatars, bios. You forget that they’re real. But being in Cleveland, three blocks away from where all the awfulness was happening really drove home that these were real people who really hate other real people, and have targeted their rage towards the people who are powerless.
It’s populism turned upside down, the boorish, evil representation of white wealth at its most unearned and debauched attacking the poor, immigrants, people who want a better life and see our country as a beacon, whereas Trump now seems to see it as a safe room to be locked up tight to protect all our country’s valuables: money and white people and white people’s money.
So yeah, my anger took on a new urgency and immediacy in Cleveland. It’s not just Trump who’s terrible: He’s liberating and empowering people to be their worst selves, to be racist and greedy and white nationalistic and angry.
So, again, Clinton was being too nice. But that’s probably because she’s a politician, something that (and I know this is going to sound crazy but hear me out) I would argue qualifies her for the top political job in the country.
The Juggalos themselves are planning to enter into politics. What announcement did they make at the gathering? Do you think it is necessary? How will it play out?
I would feel weird spoiling this for readers but, fuck it, it’s $1.99, I have a baby, buy the goddamned thing. So the big climax to the Gathering, for me, was when Insane Clown Posse announced that next year, like Martin Luther King before them, Insane Clown Posse is going to march on Washington to protest the FBI naming Juggalos a loosely organized hybrid gang.
It’s going to be a whole big weekend-long fandango with free wrestling and free music and free concerts and a big free picnic and speeches from leaders of the Juggalo movement, including the family of a Juggalo who died protecting a mother and daughter from a knife-wielding attacker, about why it’s a goddamned travesty for ICP’s fans to be designated as a gang.
It’s a hugely risky gamble, in part because ICP is calling upon Juggalos to behave in a very un-Juggalo fashion. They’re asking Juggalos to be respectful and well-behaved and civil and good citizens. I hope Juggalos are up to the challenge. I’d like to think Juggalos are up to the challenge but I just don’t know.
I’ve actually volunteered to be one of the speakers and I would not miss the protest for anything. Hell, I hope to march with my family, although I would understand if they sit this one out. I’m talking about my wife and son, but I really want to be there with my brother. I’m hoping he’ll be my companion at events throughout the Juggalo year, from the first “Juggalo Day” in Canada to the first Gathering outside of the Midwest, which will be next year in Colorado, where pot is legal. This is important, because only 100 percent of all Juggalos had easy access to pot in its previous location in Thornville, Ohio.
So I’m hoping for the best and prepared for anything. We’re going to plant the Hatchet Man Flag on the White House, dammit. And it will be a moment. Oh yes. It will be a moment.
Many readers will find it shocking that the Juggalo gathering moved you to tears. Why did this happen? What do the Juggalos understand about human connection that could offer instruction to all people — face painters or not.
I was thinking about this question last night before I went to bed and I had something of an epiphany, although it is perhaps overly generous to myself to describe it as an epiphany when it’s so fucking, screaming, insanely obvious. On one level, I was weeping (not crying, mind you, weeping) because over the course of the seven years I’ve been following ICP and attending the Gathering I went from finding ICP’s music so irrelevant and insignificant that I somehow imagined that I could write a book about the duo and its followers without ever having to listen to their music to being so deeply invested in their music, and so knowledgable, that the right song, in the right context, could just devastate me emotionally.
I also was deeply touched by the incredible effort Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are exerting to try to be good people, and be a positive force for society, and by extension, to try to help their fans be good people and be a positive force for society even though ICP and Juggalos have both been relentlessly mocked by just about everyone for decades.
ICP and Juggalos have every reason to be angry and aggressive and pissed off and they’re trying to make the world a better place. Yet they’ve come to a place of positivity and warmth that’s utterly disarming and deeply touching.
I somehow only realized this yesterday (hence the “epiphany” part) but, sure, I was crying because I was deeply moved that ICP was ending an unusually emotional festival with a song calling for all Juggalos to follow God and pursue a righteous and moral path. But I was also fucking crying because of everything else that had happened to me, and was happening to me, before the Gathering and during it. I was crying because my mother had abandoned me when I was a baby, and again when I was 23 years old and I form a relationship with her as an adult and had to pull away when I realized she was emotionally incapable of taking responsibility for her actions or being any kind of a mother to me, even of the casual, long-distance variety.
I was crying for my brother, because his life is filled with pain and he’s seen and heard and done things nobody should have to. And I was crying because I was 40 years old and I was only now getting to know my brother under such bizarre yet oddly perfect circumstances. And I was crying because I missed my wife and son and dog and even being away from them for a week is really, brutally hard.
And I was crying for our country and the awful mess it’s in. I was crying because we live in a world where a crazed, dangerously unqualified hatemonger might be elected president because we hate and fear women and minorities and immigrants and ourselves so much. I was crying about everything, really. It just happened to be an Insane Clown Posse song and performance that triggered me.
It’s been a strange year.
As a father who came from a broken home, as a Juggalo, and as a Democratic voter, do you have hope for the future of America?
Becoming a father changed everything for me. I no longer had the luxury of cynicism. I no longer had the luxury of sneering at the world from a place of smug satirical superiority. No, I have to be deeply invested in this sick and sad and wonderful and transcendent world because my son’s future and his happiness is the most important thing in the world to me. Sometimes I think it’s all that matters. I think that’s part of the reason the rise of Trump terrifies and enrages me. I don’t want my son’s future to be dictated, on any level, by the crazed whims of this rancid orange bloviator.
I believe in the future of America because I believe in my son and I want and need the world to be kind to him. Kinder than it was to me (and I am, in many ways, an incredibly lucky motherfucker, or I would not be pontificating on my fifth book and the incredible opportunities the world has afforded me) and certainly kinder than it is to Juggalos.
So my son gives me hope for the future. And the prospect of Clinton being elected our first woman president gives me hope. My time at the Republican National Convention convinced me that she’s not just the lesser of two evils: She’s an inspirational, aspirational figure in her own right. Will I be as excited to vote for her as I was when I voted for Obama? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve to be elected. Nor does it mean she won’t do a fine job.
And I’m hopeful for our nation’s future because, honestly, I think that what Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are trying to do, in terms of fighting for their fans’ civil rights (and their own right to sell merchandise at Hot Topic) represents what’s legitimately great about our country. It’s the misunderstood and reviled underdogs taking on entrenched, corrupt power and trying to make a positive change.
I’m hopeful for America’s future because I look forward to that halcyon day, unbelievable as it may seem, when I will walk alongside my fellow Juggalos and demand justice. The world is a scary place right now but it’s not devoid of hope. I have discovered, however, that sometimes hope can be found in the unlikeliest of places, and at this point the whole dark carnival is looking like a shimmering beacon of pure light.