The Delights of Jon Huntsman’s Journey Off the Reservation

Yesterday, Jon Huntsman suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly diverged from the ideologically idiosyncratic but conventional presentation he’s stuck to throughout his campaign for the Republican nomination and tweeted “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” He followed that up with a cheerful “I wonder if a tweet where I admit how much I like Captain Beefheart will make the followers skyrocket even more!” And then this morning, Huntsman pinged Piers Morgan, who’d made headlines earlier this week for upsetting Christine O’Donnell so much with questions about equal marriage rights that she walked off the show to say “Looking forward to being on Monday’s show. Will try and have as much fun as @ChristineOD did.” Clearly, something is afoot.

Jon Huntsman is not a remotely plausible candidate for president as a Republican in this election cycle. As a rising generation of young evangelicals is less compelled by calls to discriminate against gay people but potentially remains fiscally conservative, Huntsman might be a plausible candidate several cycles down the line. But if he continues in this loose, improvisational vein, Huntsman might be giving up that opportunity in favor of demonstrating the ridiculousness of our political conventions now. As Benjy Sarlin put it: “Full. Bulworth.

In Bulworth, Warren Beatty’s defenestration from the ranks of respectability comes when he confirms all the negative stereotypes people have about politicians and acts out in a way that’s not necessarily authentic to himself:

Huntsman, it appears, is doing something rather different. Rather than illustrating the evils politics involves, Huntsman’s demonstrating what it won’t accomodate: a guy who left high school early to play in a rock band called Wizard, and who still is passionate about music; who looks at some of the more bizarre ideological conformities of contemporary politics and names them as bizarre; who would sometimes rather be funny than dignified.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe a bunch of stuff that I find objectionable, and it doesn’t mean I’d vote for the guy. I also sort of doubt this will last, or that Huntsman will commit to staying in the race as a means of illustrating its ridiculousness—people who tend to want to be president tend to feel that desire pretty powerfully, and to have trouble giving it up. But if Huntsman does go all the way to the general as a wild Independent, I’ll appreciate it. As theater, our national elections have become pretty calcified. I would’t mind seeing what happens to the form if someone manages to introduce new signifiers and assumptions to it, like the idea that inoffensiveness or blandness isn’t actually valuable. I think it’s a myth that some straight talk would cure all of our ailments when the people who are in our politics are the kind of folks who wouldn’t actually have anything revolutionary to say if they spoke what was on their minds. But that in and of itself is worth illustrating.