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Monday, December 05, 2016

The Trump Conning Tower

         Trump is a consummate con man. But is that so bad?     
            We were amazed that so many American voters couldn’t see through Donald Trump’s bluster. We likened him to the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Emperor’s New Clothes. He was called P.T.Barnum. Some even went so far as to compare his ranting tweets to hysterical speeches by Musolini or even Hitler.
            These analogies were apt. He was and is an authoritarian populist. He is megalomaniacal, egotistical. He is a carnival barker who plays the media to hype his celebrity image as brilliant deal-making billionaire entrepreneur and builder. Exposure of the truth of the myth behind the hype, which was belatedly dragged out by the media that created him, did little to change the minds of those who had already bought the product.
            They bought his pitch—he was a breath of fresh air in politics, who would shake things up by being a strong leader, who says what he believes. No amount of proof that the emperor was naked, or that his products were bogus, would cause the customers to spurn this product.
            We were shocked each time he made a claim against his opponent that actually applied to him. They were lying, picking on him; they had short fuses, had poor temperament; they were unqualified; they were criminals, sexists, racists. He had gall to accuse others of his own defects. Like Hitler claiming the Jews were the threat to world peace.
            His claimed prowess in business was contradicted by his bankruptcies, and the lawsuits by contractors. His claim to create American jobs was disproved by his outsourcing of products that bear his name. His refusal to show his tax returns undermined his claim to be charitable, a good citizen, even his claim of great wealth. (Need I mention his chutzpah in claiming to respect women?)

            None of that mattered to the voters who were anxious to swallow his bluster whole. Maybe the reason was that the other candidate / salespeople offered even more unattractive products, but the fact is that his advertising campaign hit the gullible customers in their angry, frightened hearts, if not their minds. He pandered to the worst in us, and his gamble paid off.

            Yes, he was a brilliant confidence man, who carried off the greatest swindle in American history. He took power, trampling the founding fathers’ claim of a democracy guided by an informed and educated electorate. He laughed all the way to the White House and to immortality.

            Those of us who were standing on the edges of the parade shouting vainly that the emperor was naked are terrified about what the inevitable comeuppance will do to the future of the nation. We are sure that if he carries through with the wrongheaded ideas he espoused in his ranting campaign, it will result in eventual ruin. 

            He cannot bring high paying manufacturing jobs back to the rust belt states that gave him his win: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We are certain that his policy against Mexican and Muslim immigrants will be ruinous. We dread the changes his party will make to the Supreme Court and reverse progress in individual rights, including the right to health care and education.  We think we are right and he is wrong. We think given enough time, the American public will come to its senses and through the rascal out, along with the others in his party who kowtowed to him in to further their own ambitions.  

            But what if we are wrong? 

There have been other swindlers who sweet talked their way to power. We have three huge examples in my lifetime. In 1933, FDR was elected in the depths of the Great Depression, when the country was on the verge of revolution because of bank failures, 30%+ unemployment. 

There were calls for a military coup, dictatorship, a communist uprising. So, FDR, the crippled son of privilege, who was considered a second rate intellect and superficial glad-hander by professors and columnists, made his first speech on the Capitol steps. What is remembered from the speech is the phrase, “We have nothing to fear . . . but fear itself.” Huh?

            At the same time in Germany, things were even worse. The nation had been crushed twenty years earlier, losing millions of lives in a disastrous war, and then humiliated into signing a treaty that stripped its resources, put it into debt, placed all the blame for the world war on their shoulders. The Great Depression struck Germany even more harshly than here. Inflation was rampant, unemployment unstoppable.
            And Adolph Hitler is chosen to lead, by claiming that he—and only he—could bring his country back to its previous greatness. He presented himself as a savior, a powerful leader whose vision and faith was strong enough to carry the nation’s burdens. There was nothing in his past to support this except in his words, and the power of his rhetoric and self-belief. These had gathered an army of sycophants to adore him. 

Now the rest of the nation would yield to him. Opponents pointed out that he was a failed artist, architect; a rabble rousing race baiting lunatic, who wasn’t even German. None of that meant anything to those who were willing and anxious to believe his promises, even though to a rational mind, they seemed far fetched.

            By the summer of 1940, Hitler’s army had conquered Poland and France, and threatened to invade England. The smart money bet on victory within a few months. American public opinion bet that way, as did the American ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, and America’s hero flyer, Charles Lindbergh.
            So, England turned to a failed politician, whose ego and bluster had been rejected long before. Winston Churchill had been thrown out of the cabinet in 1915 after the Gallipoli fiasco. Since then, he had been an outsider who cared about preserving Empire and Crown, opposing communism and fascism. He wrote books, made speeches; he was an entertaining speaker and writer, and was ignored in parliament.
            By that summer, they gave him the reins of a government that most people expected to be forced to surrender; many thought Hitler would offer generous peace terms. (He had allowed a French government to govern over the southern half of that country, keeping his military forces in the occupied north.)
            Churchill would have none of this. His broadcast speech included eloquent words of defiance:

“. . .Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old

                        Many saw this intransigence as foolhardy as well as illogical. “The Empire beyond the seas” he referred to consisted of colonies such as India that would have welcomed the defeat of their Imperial masters. As for the “New World,” meaning the USA and Canada, his hope was more a pipe dream than a real likelihood.

            It is true that great leaders in times of crisis often show the traits of swindlers: resolve in the face of reason, an aura of self-assurance that calms shaking nerves. They are master bullshit artists, salesmen of exceptional skill and courage. The 20th Century was a high point in the production of such figures. The advent of mass media allowed for The Big Lie to be pervasive. A power could control all major sources of information: news and opinion for the use of propaganda leading to a new concept: “totalitarian rule.”
            The tools of advertising and marketing that sold commodities translated well to politics. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to manipulation of the marketplace by clever minds. Polling, surveys, focus groups, testing, psychological profiling, all are useful in persuading large numbers of people to buy something they don’t need. 

They can go further—creating images that make bad people seem good, and dumb ideas seem brilliant. People can be made to buy things that aren’t good for them. They can be led to enthusiastically support policies that are, in fact, contrary to their own best interests.

            Celebrities have always existed in every culture: royalty, religious prophets, warriors, athletes, beautiful women, talented artists of all kinds. With the invention of pervasive media, promoters have been able to create the illusion of celebrity that makes it really happen. Barnum did it with his attractions; Ziegfeld did it with his discoveries just as the century began. For instance, he posed the singer, Anna Held, in a bath filled with milk and called in the photographers, scandalizing society but intriguing the public, who had to pay to see her perform.

            In the 21st Century, we have come further, first creating celebrities who are famous merely for being famous, and making millionaires out of them. With the worldwide scope of social media, international celebrities emerge overnight from obscurity to marketability for no greater talent than performing a stunt on a bicycle or getting hit in the face with a bag of feces.

            With all of this background, we should not have been surprised by Trump’s election as president of the United States, following in the footsteps of Washington (whose mythmakers had tossing coins over the Potomac, admitting to his father that he cut down a cherry tree), Lincoln (the simple frontier woodsman who was actually a wealthy corporate lawyer), FDR (who convinced the press to never mention the fact that he was physically helpless), JFK (who winked at the press so they wouldn’t reveal his many mistresses), or Bill Clinton (who swore that he never had “sexual relations with that woman,” because her mouth on his prick was didn’t fit his idea of “relations.”)

            Linclon supposedly said, “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” To which another wit might add, But if you work it right, fooling some all the time and all some of the time can make you a hero, a star, wealthy, . . . and / or a president.