I consider it to be one of my principal functions as a blogger to educate young readers and overseas readers about American politics. Today, I will explain the meaning of "clown car" for those who fund the term somewhat puzzling.
Way back on my youth, long before there was a Cirque du Soleil, circuses toured the country by train, setting up their tents in an empty field and offering the folks in rural and small town America a glimpse of spangles and tights and high wire acts and certified wild animals. There were a number of small tents for side shows, girly shows, houses of mirrors and really scary horror shows, but the main acts were displayed in the big tent. In the middle of the tent was a wooden ring, inside which the performers would strut their stuff. Barnum and Bailey's circus was so packed with acts that their big tent featured three rings, with acts going on in all three simultaneously, making it a real challenge for the spectators to decide where to look. Hence the phrase "three ring circus."
Every circus had a complement of clowns -- men and women dressed up in funny costumes with big floppy shoes, red fright wigs, and padded bellies, who would warm up the crowd by clowning around [as the phrase came to be used]. One of their popular shticks was to hit one another with sticks that made a loud splat when used -- hence the term slapstick for that sort of humor. There were even a very few clowns -- Emmett Kelly was the most famous -- who were so popular that they became featured acts. Whenever disaster struck -- an aerialist falling from the high wire, a lion tamer getting mauled -- the clowns would come rushing into the center of the tent maniacally distracting the audience until the mess could be cleaned up [hence the title of Stephen Sondheim's song "Send in the Clowns."]
One of the most popular bits was the arrival of the troupe of clowns at the beginning of the show. A very small car would chug into the middle of the center ring. The door would pop open and a clown would roll out onto the sawdust, hop up, and wave to the audience. Then another clown would get out of the car. Then another. And another. And another. A seemingly impossible number of clowns of all sizes, shapes, and costumes would somehow get out of that little car, which would then chug noisily off stage.
This is the image that has now morphed into a cliche for the horde of men and women who have announced, or have flirted with announcing, or have threatened to announce their candidacy for the Republican Party's nomination of President of the United states.