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gerald caplan

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.

Yes, it's true, I'm afraid. The U.S. is having its election in exactly a year. Now that's a long campaign.

Be very afraid.

For years now, formidable The Nation columnist Eric Alterman has been describing big chunks of American life as "crazy." Literally. Yet our cherished U.S. neighbours have actually become even more unhinged in recent months, as we've all witnessed. I mean, of course, both the presidential nomination races and the most recent spate of mass murders and the reaction to them by gun-rights nutters, including most politicians.

So just when it seemed American politics couldn't get more meshuggah than Alterman has long described it, who emerges but Bernie Sanders, The Donald and Dr. Ben Carson?

Look, I love Bernie, he makes me stand up and cheer, but he's a 74-year-old Jewish Democrat who's too left wing for today's NDP let alone for the U.S. Obviously he's touched a nerve among young Americans and many Democrats, who embrace his idealism, his outspokenness, his refusal to play politics with every issue, the very fact that he's not politics as usual. It's the progressive equivalent of the Tea Party on the extreme right, but it has very distinct limits. I'll be president before Bernie.

As for the two Republican front-runners, Trump and Carson, you need to know that Carson is much less raucous than Trump but hardly less of a crackpot. Everyone knows about Trump. Wait until you learn about Carson.

Ben Carson is like a character from a Horatio Alger story, emerging from a deeply dysfunctional poor family to become a medical specialist. His rise is even more impressive than Barack Obama's, though of course the Doc has had God's personal guidance, as he earnestly reports.

An extreme conservative Christian, Carson is a genuine screwball. He compares Obama's America to Nazi Germany – "very much like Nazi Germany," he emphasizes. He believes the universe was created in six days and that the end of days is nigh. So who needs an election or a president anyway?

Here's more Ben Carson wit and wisdom:

He's a pro-gun fanatic who makes the National Rifle Association look like bleeding-heart liberals. He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that "the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed."

He would not support a Muslim for president.

He's convinced Obamacare was the "worst thing" to happen to the U.S. since slavery. Wait until he finds out about Canadian health care. He'll invade! He says being gay is a choice because "a lot of people … go into prison straight, and when they come out they're gay."

He calls progressives "racist" because "They don't believe that if you are black you have the ability to be an independent thinker."

Here's what's most alarming. It's well known that the Republican party has been captured by the inmates of the asylum. But some Trump and Carson beliefs are shared by tens of millions of seemingly normal Americans, and not just screwball Republicans.

Over the past few years, for example, various surveys have found that 47 per cent of Americans believe Obama resents America's heritage – presumably the Constitution and Declaration of Independence – and 45 per cent believe he's the enemy within.

The surveys also reveal 41 per cent think Obama wants to use an economic or terrorist event as an excuse to take dictatorial powers. One-third believe global warming is a hoax.

You can't make this stuff up.

American Republicans are even screwier and scarier than other Americans: Consider that 44 per cent of Republicans believe Muslims are working to implement harshly medieval sharia law in America.

A quarter of Republicans are sure the U.S. government is secretly staging mass shootings as an excuse to ban guns.

According to a Harris Poll, 38 per cent of Republicans believe Obama is following in the footsteps of Hitler, and 24 per cent believe he may actually be the Antichrist.

But we'd better understand what this means. Carson and Trump are not cockamamie outliers. They're like our own Rob Ford, much as we may hate to admit it. They represent a good portion of the American public, especially in their own party. That's what's so distressing.

Much of America has gone bonkers, and they're getting progressively more unreasonable, as each subsequent election demonstrates. Who'd have thought more reckless candidates than Sarah Palin even existed?

In fact, Dr. Ben Carson's bizarre droppings would actually be embraced as simple common sense by this cashew coalition.

But so does The Donald represent a large slice of the population, as a new biography makes clear. Michael D'Antonio's Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, reminds us that for many Americans Trump is not a nutcase at all but a fabulous success story. "In his wealth and fame," writes D'Antonio, "he is truly a man of our time, the ultimate expression of certain aspects of the American spirit."

Now, I bow to no one in my admiration for certain aspects of the American character. But what's made Ben Carson and Donald Trump the favorite presidential candidates of American Republicans are precisely what terrifies sane people: their outlandish excesses, their irrationality, their sheer ignorance, their bigotry.

Many Americans don't recognize their country anymore – a black president, too many visible minority immigrants, no longer the sole superpower, a country on the decline and taking many white Americans with them, or so they fear. So they turn to crazy policies, crazy ideas, crazy men.

For these people, Carson and Trump are both proof the American Dream still works. Indeed, they love the idea that Ben Carson is the kind of conservative black man – the anti-Obama – they can vote for.

But where does that leave the world? Would you want either man being the most powerful person in the world?

Don't bet it can't happen. Hillary Clinton remains the closest thing to a sane person who might become the next president. Yet she's extremely vulnerable – even to a Trump or Carson. It's going to be harrowingly close.

Be very afraid.