Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the new book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns."
New York (CNN) -- Silly season has begun again. The sideshow is threatening to move into the big tent, and distraction will seem like it's the main event.
We've begun that long stretch where political campaigns are viciously jockeying for position before the first primary vote is cast in January. But when Pat Robertson starts warning about the GOP primary voters getting too extreme for the party's good, and Michelle Malkin tweets "Birthers, flip-floppers, Beltway moldy-oldies, Kabuki reformers. Don't have stomach to look at GOP2012 field today," you know things are getting weird and dispiriting.
Here's one high-level symptom -- Rick Perry relaunched his campaign with an ambitious flat-tax plan this week but decided to step all over his story by stoking the fires of the thoroughly discredited birther conspiracy theories, after a long meal with birther-in-chief Donald Trump.
When asked by Parade Magazine whether he believed that President Obama was born in the United States, Perry said, "I don't have a definitive answer, because he's never seen my birth certificate," then adding "I had dinner with Donald Trump the other night. ... He doesn't think it's real." When pressed by CNBC the day of the flat tax unveiling, Perry doubled down on the dumb, saying, "It's (birtherism) a good issue to keep alive. It's fun to poke at him."
Yeah, it's hilarious to keep paranoid conspiracy theories alive, using a presidential campaign to suggest that the current president of the United States is illegitimate and un-American. Nothing but a bit of good ol' boy fun.
From the malevolent to the meltdown, Michele Bachmann continues to fight perceptions that her once highflying campaign is in free fall. The latest self-inflicted wound came from the mass resignation of her New Hampshire staff. The added bonus came from a press release her staffers decided to issue on their way out the door. Among the highlights was the criticism that Bachmann's national campaign team -- led by her former advance man, after the departure of Ed Rollins -- was "rude, unprofessional, dishonest, and at times cruel." Can't make this stuff up. But Bachmann herself was in denial mode the day her staff fired her, saying, "There's no truth to that story, so this is a rumor and I think it's highly reprehensible for the media to publish a story without calling us." Tone comes from the top in campaigns, and this is one wobbly would-be ship of state.
Even the good ideas come tainted with a whiff of the long con. Consider the otherwise admirable proposal that Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain conduct an extended Lincoln-Douglas style debate. Great -- the more serious conversation the better. It could be a move away from sound bites to substance (although The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza couldn't resist tweeting the dead-on suggestion that they debate "Resolved: Running for President is a Great Way to Make Money").
The surface strangeness of the debate being held in late-primary Texas as opposed to, say, Iowa, became clearer when it came out that the whole high-minded civic exercise would also be a fundraiser for the Texas Tea Party Patriot PAC, with tickets starting at $200.
Even the ads are getting stranger, with the still-soaring Herman Cain launching two conversation-starting viral online ads -- one showing Rick Perry and Mitt Romney as "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots," and the other showing his chief of staff defiantly taking a drag of a cigarette while looking squarely into the camera's eye after making his pro-Cain pitch. It was a Gonzo bit of campaign filmmaking with an anti-PC bite -- and it got people talking -- which makes it a winner in my book.
But take a step back and you'll see that the sheer tonnage of strangeness in this primary campaign isn't reflecting much better on the U.S.A. than the dysfunctional debt ceiling debate. Even Pat Robertson -- father of the religious right -- took to the airwaves to warn about the extremism that encourages candidates to pander to the outer reaches of politics, saying: "Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off of this stuff. They're forcing their leaders, the front-runners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election."
The sideshow is a time-honored part of American elections, but at a time when the party's fringe is blurring with the base, it can start to determine the whole tone and tenor of the debate. Wishing that it wasn't happening won't cure the problem. So there's some virtue in chronicling the political circus, as long as we separate it from the real substance, remembering that at the end of the day this isn't a game -- it's our country.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.