When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal. – Richard Nixon
I won. I am the winner. I am not the loser. – Donald Trump
“What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model. “They’re people just like me,” said Trump, “…only they’re poor.” – “Fire and Fury”
This is America. If you’re not a winner, it’s your own fault. – Jerry Falwell
I will be the hero! These morons—when this is over, I will be the hero…. Anything I did should be praised! – Rudi Giuliani
As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. – H.L. Mencken
Of course, Being There didn’t predict Reagan, and it certainly didn’t predict Trump. Things don’t happen that way in the real world. But they can happen that way in art. As Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly taught, time in stories is flexible. One day in a story could equal a century in our time. An Australian Aborigine elder says, “The Dreaming does not end; it is not like the white man’s way. What happened once happens again and again.” Perhaps the only way to make sense of our current predicament is with mythological thinking.
Enter Trump, long well-known (and – and in this American mystery play – apparently loved) for his vulgar, over-the-top displays of wealth. For decades he has been apparently unaware, or unaffected by criticism of his lack of “taste,” whatever that means. Or is it possible that, like a true con man, he has always merely played the part of an idiot? Perhaps it doesn’t matter if he’s a fool or a genius or both. Deliberately or not, he has always offered himself as a projection screen for America’s cravings and repulsions. Trump, like Chauncey Gardiner, is us.
So I’m coining the word “Trumpus” to remind the reader of the fundamental psychic unity we share through our projective mechanisms. (Some may recall Krampus, of Middle-European folk literature, the mirror-opposite of St. Nicholas.)
Even though others have made even tackier gestures of wealth display, no one exemplifies the New Gilded Age more clearly than Trumpus. The man has prepped for this role since his 1970s apprenticeship with Roy Cohn and New York gangsters, who, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, “cut him slack as long as he was useful.” The con can work in both directions:
This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not, but the people he bullied pretended that it did. Or perhaps it was that he was a salesman, throwing out one pitch after another, abandoning each one as soon as it left his mouth. A hungry ghost always wants the next thing, not the last thing.
Is Solnit speaking here about Cohn or Trumpus? Does it matter? We’ll return to the subject of “hungry ghosts” later. Naomi Fry writes:
Cohn serves as a precursor of more than simply Trump, the man. The President, like a fungus growing on a bed of decay, came to power amid an ethos of complacent and rabid self-interest that was already well established. The roots of this ethos reach at least as far back as America’s late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age, but re-emerged with new vigor in the sink-or-swim Reagan eighties, with Wall Street’s boom and the Administration’s reduction or elimination of social programs – a trend that has yet to be meaningfully reversed, and which continues to contribute to the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, “winners” and “losers.”
This is not about Trumpus but about us. It’s about how and what we project upon celebrities and how myth helps us live with ambiguity and contradiction. How many of us regularly watch Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Rachel Maddow or Trevor Noah to enjoy Trumpus’s latest idiotic statements? How many of us turn to our partners with the latest version of I can’t believe that those people still love him? It’s so obvious that he’s manipulating them! Or: What a fucking idiot!
How can he play both roles? Is Trumpus an idiot or a genius? Does he play one (or the other) on TV? Can he be both? I’m reminded of this 1960 statement by General Thomas Power, supreme commander of the Strategic Air Command: “At the end of the (nuclear) war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” Was it the joke of a psychopath or cynical hyperbole deliberately intended to maximize anxiety? Or would only the former do the latter? Troy Patterson writes:
…one of the core functions of television is to stimulate shameless desire…(Trump) intuits and responds to the stimuli of electronic media with the dark brilliance of an idiot savant, in the sure belief that only suckers care about objective truth…(He has) the salesman’s intuition that the cartoon of a thing was more powerful to people than the thing itself.
Social commentators from the middle and upper-middle classes will never understand the appeal of Trumpus, or of any of the lesser demagogues who preceded him, unless they understand American myth. Of course, we are sickened by his actual policies – most of which, we ought to admit, differ little from those of any of his recent predecessors. And we are deeply saddened to be reminded of the hate and violence he has unleashed. That’s understood. But what we really respond to are images. We hate what we see. But we like to watch.
I’m suggesting that what revolts us most is his style, every last bit of it, because we believe that it represents everything that we are not. We watch his bragging, boorish behavior and especially his image: the dyed hair and greasy combover, the orange face, the long ties, the constant lying, the clowning violence at professional wrestling matches, the patently insincere flag-hugging, the sleazy adulteries, the gold furniture (we wonder if he has a solid gold toilet seat), the trophy wives and hookers, the narcissistic, late-night tweets, etc, and we see tacky, greasy, fake-macho, poor taste, untrustworthy, etc. The man – the President! – has no class!
Paul Fussell’s “classic” book Class showed us that, despite our egalitarian myths, America clearly has quite rigid social class divisions, and that how much money one possesses tells us little: “We’re pretty well stuck for life in the class we’re raised in…taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are indispensable criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation.” One look at Trumpus’ style reveals him to be what Fussell would call “Low-Prole,” unlike his restrained and tasteful “Upper-Middle” predecessor. But then, is there anyone on Earth who is so unaware of this guy as to take a first look? And, were he still alive, Fussell would immediately point out that such a life-long effort to convince the world of one’s high class status immediately disqualifies him. That’s idiot Trumpus.
We of the middle class need our King-figures to look presidential; he proudly rejects that projection in favor of one that his base prefers. That’s con man Trumpus. But in either case, we are revolted, and we can’t stop watching the funny guys trash him.
The media gatekeepers – both the late-night comedians and the mainstream “news” – know very well that we can’t take our eyes away. (See my essay, Normalizing Trump) Indeed, it is their job to keep us watching. Can you even imagine a Colbert monologue that doesn’t spend most of its time on him? What will any of these people do if Trump isn’t re-elected? Do you remember then-CEO of CBS Les Moonves’ 2016 comment: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS!” As always, we say Cui Bono? Follow the money.
In other words, we like to look at the son of a bitch, and when we do, we see a product of television and consumer culture. I suggest that we see three images popular among his high-prole fans. We recall the first image when we see videos of him in front of a crowd of his people: the Las Vegas lounge lizard master-of-ceremonies, telling the same old tired jokes, alternately belittling himself, telling the audience to “don’t go changing” and flashing his diamond rings. If we can tolerate the sleezy jokes, he might introduce the headline acts. Try the prime rib!
The second and third images are the late-night used car salesman who will “sit on your face to give you a better deal” and the Sunday morning evangelist, praising Jesus with one hand in your pocket and the other in the pants of his female sidekick. These two images are not even opposite sides of some coin; they are both selling you something, whether it’s Viagra, a Ginsu knife or VIP tickets to your salvation. They have been with us since well before the birth of the American Republic. As I write in Chapter Seven of my book, 18th and 19th century American culture was
…a paradoxical mix of extreme religious and modern Enlightenment values. Man was fallen and sinful, yet he could become whatever he wanted. Indeed, in 1776 – for the first time in history – a nation proclaimed the pursuit of happiness as its prime value. Soon, Toqueville observed of American preachers, “…it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.”
Eventually, religion and business merged as they did nowhere else. Without the support of a state religion or centralized Catholicism, and with Protestant churches constantly splitting in schisms, each individual preacher was forced to become an entrepreneur of souls, a salesman, in order to distinguish his church from other churches…Consequently, a business-growth mentality grew within American Protestantism, and its philosophy of optimistic self-improvement merged with the capitalist ideology of greed and perpetual growth.
The religious justification of wealth runs all the way through American history, from the original Puritans to the New Thought Movement (which arose during the first Gilded Age), to the healing revivals of the 1950s to the current televangelists and New Age teachers of our second Gilded Age. Adherents of the Prosperity Gospel are convinced that faith, positive speech and – especially – cash donations will increase one’s own material wealth. From Jim and Tamie Baker to The Secret, it’s all about positive thinking. Except for when it isn’t so positive. Jacob Bacharach writes:
We all know that there is no one meaner and more unforgiving than someone who believes they’ve been forgiven for their trespasses and redeemed for their sins, including the ones they haven’t gotten around to committing just yet.
This thinking goes back well past Protestantism to the Middle Ages, when a series of Popes absolved hundreds of thousands of crusaders in advance of any sins they might commit while liberating the Holy Land.
We bi-coastal sophisticates can joke about this stuff. But it is immensely popular among both consumers of the multi-billion dollar New Age literature as well as fundamentalists, many of whom believe that the more extravagant the lifestyles led by their preachers (including fleets of jet planes), the more likely they too will be blessed by Fortune. Joel Osteen, for example, is a perfect preacher for the New Gilded Age.
…the prosperity gospel explains away luck. Good things happen because of the capitalist might of God, and bad things come to those who fail to live up to his commands. The prosperity gospel…“is a language of guarantees and formulas.”…In such a framework, evil cannot exist and personal responsibility reigns supreme – your faith is responsible for everything that happens to you. It’s a natural fit for any late capitalist society, marked by calcified inequality and austerity, because it explains away the deep societal problems that individuals are powerless to change.
It turns out that the Trump family attended the Marble Collegiate Church when he was young. Its pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, a major proponent of the Prosperity Gospel, whose The Power of Positive Thinking has sold 5 million copies. Indeed, Trumpus has cited Peale (who officiated his first wedding) as a critical influence, and (typically) claims that Peale thought of him as “his greatest student of all time.”
He might not be lying this time. This is the exact confluence of American religion, American business, entertainment and the great American con, where privilege, entitlement and self-image intersect.
Preparing to enter the Presidential race in 2015 Trumpus surrounded himself with leading prosperity preachers such as Paula White (“…a tremendous person, tremendous woman”). Pendergrass continues:
Although his lapses in Christian ethics are well-known, Trump appeals to the same human desires as the prosperity preachers he follows. His tacky displays of wealth and many bankruptcies are selling points in the prosperity framework, rather than liabilities. They show that he was chosen, that when challenged he persevered, and that in the end he was victorious.
The urban sophisticates laugh. Looking deeper, however, we should acknowledge that this particularly ugly form of celebrity worship has its roots in the mythology of Kingship. Most ancient cultures personified a grand, transcendent cause as the King, whose image embodied fertility, stability, order and a prosperous cosmos. The indigenous mind originally created such archetypal images as models for all members of society to understand as their own innate possibilities, even if now we are left with what Caroline Casey has called the “toxic mimic” of the real thing.
Still, it helps explain many things, from our fascination with the British Royal Family to our religiously founded willingness to be conned, to the legions of secular conspirators who follow “Q-Anon” and insist against all evidence that Trumpus has actually been working to subvert the Deep State. How’s this for a con? Many Q-Anon people consider themselves leftists. I suggest that they have projected their hopes and ideals on the blank canvas known as Trumpus in exactly the way so many of the powerful characters in Being There did so upon “Chauncey Gardiner.”
For a deeper look at King mythology — including what Robert Moore called the “Shadow King,” look here.
Unlike in the fictional world of Being There, however, now the con works in both directions. “Useful tool” is a current euphemism for “useful idiot,” a term first allegedly coined by Lenin, who said in a very different context that capitalist dupes “will sell us the rope with which to hang them.” Such luminaries as Madeleine Albright, former CIA Directors Michael Morell and Michael Hayden and Steve Bannon have all applied the term to Trumpus. But, to repeat, the first Reality TV President has served all their agendas well.
But we can’t begin to understand him (or American politics) without understanding that a third of Americans want to be like him. They like to watch him. Yes, they are certainly driven by racial anxiety, but they see possibilities in him, even if those possibilities have been corrupted. Let’s be very clear about this. They love him not despite his faults but because of them.
He’s been a celebrity for so long that for many of them his TV-mediated image is all they’ve ever known. Not despite his blatant racism or his contempt for science or his attacks on the environment or his flaunting of Christian morality, or even his evidently profound disconnection from reality itself, but because of them. American myth reveres sly villains nearly as much as upright heroes. They love him, quite simply, for having gotten away with being such an unashamed con man, even if they know that he’s been conning them. Frank Palmeri writes:
…his supporters love him for having gotten away with being such a dishonest character and operating in the shadows of illegality his whole career…They do not support Trump despite his venality, immaturity, and obvious intellectual incapacity, but because of his failings of character.
The lying and the corruption are part of the show, writes Charles Blow:
They have personal relationships and work relationships like the rest of us, and those relationships depend on honesty and virtue. They, like my mother did, are allowing in him something that they would not allow in themselves.
Joan C. Williams writes that the white working class resents the professional class but admires the rich. For blue-collar workers, the dream hasn’t been to join the upper middle class, “with its different food, family and friendship patterns,” but for the family to stay as it was, “just with more money.” They have, after all, little direct contact with the rich, except on TV, and tend to ignore their white privilege in the belief that their relative affluence is a result of hard work alone. Professionals, on the other hand, order them about every day. Hillary Clinton, in particular, exemplified the “smugness of the professional elite.” It follows, then, that salaried professionals – managers, lawyers, professors, judges – have replaced the super-rich in the popular imagination as “enemies of the people.” In the New Gilded Age, a rich man who might once have been the cause of public hatred has now become its political consequence.
Chris Hedges reminds us that
“Confidence men,” as Melville understood, are an inevitable product of the amorality of capitalism and the insatiable lust for wealth, power and empire that infects American society. Trump’s narcissism, his celebration of ignorance—which he like all confidence men confuses with innocence – his megalomania and his lack of empathy are pathologies nurtured by the American landscape…
P.T. Barnum, the greatest con man of the original Gilded Age, wrote in his autobiography that “the public appears disposed to be amused even while they are conscious of being deceived.” It’s all about that bag that trails behind us. The larger it is, as Bly writes, the more corrupted our sense of reality, both for the con man and for his subjects:
In child abuse the rule is: every act of cruelty, conscious or unconscious, that our parents take, we interpret as an act of love. So the moral intelligence redefines gross human abuse as an act of love.
And the fundamentalists? A separate case, perhaps, but recall that searches for gay porn are highest in the most religious states. (No, we don’t judge their fantasy lives, only their hypocrisy.)
Some even claim to believe that God sent Trumpus, but I don’t think that most of them do. They may be crazy, misogynist, racist, anti-intellectual homophobic, Islamophobic and/or very angry. But, as football player Terry Bradshaw said, I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.
In an age when politics has long been nearly indistinguishable from entertainment, they know that Trumpus has been conning them for years, and they love it. Is he a genius or an idiot? We wonder about that question, but they don’t.