Get Clowned: Donald Trump, the Insane Clown Posse, and Nathan Rabin’s Family Dispatch

"I feel like Trump and his ideology are about punching down... Whereas Insane Clown Posse, they're about punching up."

If you follow pop culture as closely as politics, then 2016 has been a dream year, and fewer acts seem as worthy of a metaphorical comparison to Donald Trump as Insane Clown Posse.

Both Donald Trump and Insane Clown Posse (hereafter ICP) trigger a polar reaction between supporters and detractors. In the late ’90s, few bands elicited as much hatred from critics as Insane Clown Posse. In today’s political climate, the most hated politician in America right now is Donald Trump (with Hillary Clinton running a close second).

The mass hatred of their detractors isn’t the only thing Trump and ICP share. Both also share an almost improbable path toward legitimacy. Last year, The Huffington Post‘s editorial policy made the brief decision to only cover Trump’s political campaign in their “Entertainment” section instead of their “Political” section. But before the Iowa caucus, The Huffington Post reversed that decision, because Trump’s campaign could no longer be taken as a joke. Six months later, he was the Republican presidential nominee. Regardless of the outcome of the general election, it’s likely he’s going to get at least 40 percent of the popular vote.

Just as the The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and The Washington Post changed how they covered Trump’s campaign as he continued to win primaries, music publications have changed how they cover ICP. In the late ’90s, their albums were an easy slot to fill for music magazines “worst albums of the year” lists. Their yearly Gathering of the Juggalos was routinely mocked as a music snob’s version of hell. But over the past few years, respectable publications like the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The A.V. Club have either sent dispatches to the Gathering of the Juggalos, or have promoted it, much like they would for Lollapalooza or Coachella.

Nathan Rabin is a respected writer for respectable publications. He was the first head writer of the The A.V. Club (where he continues to write the popular feature My Year of Flops). He writes for Rotten Tomatoes and Splitsider. He is also a Juggalo. This past summer, he took the proceeds of a successful gofundme campaign to write a book that documented a whirlwind week that included attending both the yearly Gathering of the Juggalos and the Republican National Convention, where Trump went from being a perpetual annoyance of the Republican establishment to the party’s official nominee for president.

Rabin’s book, 7 Days in Ohio: Donald Trump, the Gathering of the Juggalos, Brothers Reunited and the Summer Everyone Went Insane, also tells the story of Nathan and his relationship to his half-brother, Vince. Rabin writes candidly about his biological mother abandoning him when he was a baby. At age 14, Nathan was committed to a mental hospital. Rabin grew up in group homes after his father’s multiple sclerosis (and injury suffered from a catastrophic fall) made him physically unable to care for Nathan.

Nathan later reconnected with his half-brother when he was in his 20s. Unlike Nathan, Vince was left to his mother’s care. Before a family reunion in 1999, Vince summed up their mother with the frank declaration “You know mom’s crazy, right?”

Nathan writes in his latest ebook “That line instantly established the tone of our relationship: We shared a mother and a formative trauma.”

In his book, Rabin writes openly about his mother’s mental illness, his financial struggles as a freelancer trying to make a steady living as a writer (he and his wife ended up briefly living in the basement of his in-laws house just outside of Atlanta, Georgia), and the similarities and vast differences between Juggalos and some of Trump’s base.

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Your book is very family-focused, but you had an anything but normal family experience growing up. Can you talk about your family background?

I come from one of those spectacularly dysfunctional families. I feel bad for people who just have “run of the mill, garden-variety” bad childhoods, because they’re not able to write memoirs about it.

Basically, my parents were very very mismatched. My dad was kind of the “golden child” who graduated from the University of Chicago. He’s kind of the leading light of our family, and he married this very troubled, seductive, but kind mercurial, angry and dysfunctional woman. They got divorced when I was about two years old. My mother, she kidnapped me, and she drove me from St. Louis to Texas to California. My father dispatched a bounty hunter to retrieve me. After that, I didn’t see my mother again until I was 24 years old.

Growing up, how did you discover writing?

When I was eight or nine, I was in speech therapy. They would have us do a lot of wordplay. I became fascinated by language then. I remember writing … using vocabulary words in a sentence. I was in second grade, and I would challenge myself to write the craziest, most interesting, most funny, weirdest sentences imaginable. I had English teachers who said “You have a gift here, and you should cultivate it.” I’m so blessed I had those people in my life.

As a writer for the The A.V. Club in the late ’90s, what were your early impressions of the Insane Clown Posse?

Like everybody, I had a negative impression of them. Their whole mystique is sort of self-evidently idiotic, and self-evidently worthless. The whole point of clowns is to be ridiculous, to be mocked. Looking back, I’m not proud of this, but I would use them as a punchline without ever thinking about their music, or their fans, or what their appeal might actually be.

Eminem famously mocked the Insane Clown Posse on The Marshall Mathers LP. Along with being a huge seller, it was also critically adored. How much damage do you think Eminem did to ICP, commercially and critically?

For a lot of the late ’90s and the early aughts, Eminem was [considered] the best rapper alive, and Insane Clown Posse was the worst group in existence. The interesting thing is that I think it didn’t hurt Insane Clown Posse that much, because it kind of forced them to inhabit their own world, and build something on that independent level. In their minds, Eminem is totally the figure of the establishment. Insane Clown Posse defined itself against who Eminem was.

You’ve been going to the Gathering of the Juggalos for some time. Take us back to your first gathering.

I initially wanted to write a book about Phish. “Who are these people. Why do they love this music that so many people dismiss out of hand?” I went to my editor, and they were like “We like this as a germ of an idea… but why don’t we do a couple of subcultures?” The first one that came to me was Insane Clown Posse, and Juggalos, and the Gathering.

For the latest gathering, you wrote about your half brother showing up at your in-laws unannounced, and with a homemade sword.

Basically, he told me he was going to give me a massive homemade sword that he had created. I said “That’s great, I don’t know how exactly you’re going to ship a giant homemade sword through the post office.” I didn’t realize five days later, my wife and I were out strawberry picking with our baby, and we got a call from our mother-in-law, saying there’s a strange man here with a sword … and he said he’s your brother. I’m like “Oh shit, that is my brother.”

It seems like a lot of Trump supporters and Insane Clown Posse fans share similar experiences. You talk about how each of them feel like they’ve been marginalized from mainstream society.

Totally. I think they both [Trump and ICP] speak to people who feel oppressed, people who feel angry, people who feel like the mainstream of American culture doesn’t speak either to them or for them. But I think they both take these ideas in very different directions.

Both Trump and ICP seem to have gone through a similar path in the media where at first, they were dismissed as a punchline, but have attained legitimacy. For Trump, it was winning the Republican nomination for president. For ICP, they now have major mainstream publications doing dispatches from the Gathering of the Juggalos.

Definitely. I think part of that is people have a certain respect for people who have a very, very short cultural lifespan… but who end up lasting a lot longer than anyone imagined possible. I co-wrote Weird Al [Yankovic]’s coffee table book. In 1979… here was this crazy-haired kid who was making goofy mix-em-ups for the Dr. Demento radio show. That’s something silly. That’s the kind of thing that wacky radio DJs do. But 36 years later, Weird Al is more important, he’s more popular, he’s doing some of the best work of his entire career. He’s a genius.

Same thing with Insane Clown Posse. When people first saw them… these people are dressing up as clowns, they’re spraying their audience with cheap soda. Everything about it seemed ridiculous. A quarter century later, we’re still talking about Insane Clown Posse. With Donald Trump, a lot of people, such as myself, thought “OK, he was one of these clown candidates.” These Herman Cain characters who mesmerize people for a week and a half. People thought Trump was going to be the same thing.

One of the things I’m wrestling with is “What happens to Trump on November 9th. What is his life going to be like after he’s completely demolished in the election?” Part of what I think is that he’s going to fight this as far as he can. He’s going to claim the election is stolen, the electoral college is rigged, the media is against him. Will he go away, or will this be the start of an awful movement? The narrative is already written. He’s just waiting to inhabit it.

Both the Gathering of the Juggalos and Trump rallies have had outbreaks of violence. Tila Tequila was attacked at one of the Gatherings. But your brother was more worried at you getting hurt while covering the Republican National Convention than at this year’s Gathering.

Bad things happen at literally every music festival. If someone dies of a heroin overdose at the gathering, it’s more of a story than if someone died of a heroin overdose at a Bonnaroo or Pitchfork concert. Any time you have ten thousand people on a lot of drugs without a lot of water, bad things are going to happen. I would definitely say the Gathering of the Jugglaos has become a lot more sedate over the years. Part of that has to do with the fans getting older, the group getting older. The element of shock being less of a factor. It’s definitely gotten less violent, less angry, less scary, less weird.

Trump really seems to be advocating this violence to a certain extent. He says these ominous things about how you need to go to these neighborhoods to make sure rigged voting isn’t happening. He kind of passively and not-so-passively approved of the violence that has happened at his rallies.

Covering both events in a week, did you see much overlap between Trump supports and Insane Clown Posse fans?

I do not. Every gathering, there’s kind of an angle that you’re supposed to approach. I was supposed to write about how Jugglaos were huge Trump fans. I said “That’s a wonderful idea. That’d be a great piece. I think it’s probably impossible. I’m not sure these people exist.” It would have been amazing and fascinating to talk to people who embraced both the ideology of Insane Clown Posse and the ideology of Trump. But it just didn’t happen.

While there are a lot of commonalities, there are also a lot of ways that they are starkly different. They’re both very anti-establishment. But I feel like Trump and his ideology are about punching down. They’re about scapegoating. They’re about blaming people at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder for the problems of America. Whereas Insane Clown Posse, they’re about punching up. They’re saying “We’re angry at law enforcement. We’re angry at rich white people who are evil. We’re angry at the corrupt establishment. We’re angry at people who have everything while you have nothing.”

Regarding the buildup to the Republican National Convention, there was a general sense of unease in a lot of media circles, and from the general public, that there could be widespread demonstrations comparable to the protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. However, that didn’t come to pass. Any theories on why it was so relatively sedate?

It’s kind of like the Gathering of the Juggalos. There’s this expectation that because it’s so crazy, it’s so extreme, that something has to happen. I had a very split opinion of that. As a human being, I did not want to go back to my wife and baby battered and bruised. One of the reasons why things went so smoothly is because there was wall-to-wall enforcement there. You literally couldn’t go anywhere without seeing cops. There were maybe ten to 15 cops on every block. They brought in people with guns from everywhere.

Part of me was like “This would be a better story, I could totally live out my Hunter S. Thompson fantasies … if there was some crazy riot, and I’m in the middle of it.” On that level, part of me was a little disappointed that it was more sedate than I anticipated. People got along for the most part. I think the police were a big part of that.

You write very candidly about your financial situation. About having to move into your in-law’s basement. It’s a sad reality that a lot of displaced writers are dealing with.

In a lot of ways, this [ebook] has been a really wonderful experience. I thought the cover by Danny Hellman was amazing. There’s a big piece in Salon, in the Utne Reader. I believe at this point, 7 Days in Ohio has made $367. [laughs] I know that because I’m my own self-publisher now.

I’m super proud of the product. I’m proud of the way the public’s responding to it. I wish it made more money, but I understand how incredibly difficult it is to sell books in this environment. I’m giving myself the advice that I give other people, which is write for the sake of writing, write because you have an amazing story to tell, write because you can’t not write. Don’t write for the awards that come with writing. Don’t write for the money, because the money might never come.

I definitely try to be honest about everything in my life, particularly mental illness and money, because those are the two of the things we need to start talking about. I write about being in debt because there’s a lot of shame associated with it. I want to remove some of that shame. There’s no shame in making poor decisions. We’re all in this together.

What do you think is going to happen on November 9th?

God willing, I hope Hillary Clinton is elected president of the United States in a massive landslide. My fear is that Donald Trump, no matter what happens, will say massive voter fraud occurred. My fear is that there will be this outpouring of violence after Clinton is elected president. The bar has been set so low for Trump. He’s self-destructive, and something really, really awful would have to happen for him to get elected. I hope that Trump supporters will accept it (the results) with some grace and dignity, and not destroy society. [laughs]