Barry’s Blog # 298: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Seven of Seven

The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually an emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered. – Paul Shepard

Then our possessions will turn to beasts and devour us whole. – Zuni prophesy

When school or mosque, tower or minaret gets torn down, then Dervishes can begin their community. Not until faithfulness turns into betrayal and betrayal into trust can any human being become part of the truth. – Rumi

In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet. – Winston Churchill

In trying to understand why a third of Americans continue to buy Trumpus’ con – and that another third hate him so completely that they are willing to consume a different con (the heroic CIA riding into town to save us!), and that, as usual, half of us will not vote at all in 2020, we have to acknowledge that rational analysis gets us only so far. At some point we have to open ourselves to the deeper truths that we can only find in mythological thinking.

Ancient myth provides many parables, warnings and teaching stories about the limits of human greed and arrogance. Chapter Four of my book discusses the broad pattern of “the return of the repressed.” It focusses on the House of Atreus and the stories of Dionysus, whose last words in The Bacchae imply that if uninitiated boy-kings were to awaken, they might “have an ally…in the son of Zeus.” Chapter Nine speaks of the necessary death of the Hero and “wake up calls from the Dark Feminine” (Kali in India, Baba Yaga in Russia and Coatlique in Mexico), as well as Medea, La Llorona, Pele and the Tower of Babel: Bruegel-Tower-of-Babel

Yahweh’s response to it was to punish its builders by “confounding their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.” He “scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11: 8-9). James Hillman suggests that this isn’t a bad thing: it prevents mankind from speaking with the single voice of monotheistic literalism. Unity (contrasted with com-unity) leads to inflation and arrogance; the correction to “vertical ascensionism” is diversity. When humans scatter horizontally across the earth they learn to speak in many languages.

Greek myth acknowledged the damage that uninitiated men could do and told cautionary tales of King Midas and golden youths such as Icharus, who flew too close to the sun and perished. Phaethon, child of the sun, borrowed his father’s fiery chariot. Unable to control it, he set the world on fire and died. Perhaps the most relevant story in our time of climate grief is of the grandiose King Erysichthon erysichthon-matera who cut down a sacred oak. Demeter cursed him with insatiable hunger, throwing him into a frenzy of consumption. He ate everything and everyone in his kingdom. Ultimately, he consumed himself. The king who couldn’t bless ended up destroying the realm.

These are images of what Robert Moore called “boy psychology.” The hero may vanquish the beast. But if he doesn’t enact the necessary third part of the initiation story, returning with a boon for his community, or if that community is limited to a small minority of rich people, then his heroism becomes pathological. Either he turns his violence against others, especially the women and gays who remind him of his own vulnerability, or he condones such violence by others, or he turns it upon himself in depression or suicide. He must serve a transpersonal cause, or his own image, like that of Narcissus, will become that cause. His great towers will become targets, unconsciously provoking the Stranger who will puncture his grandiosity.

020118-101-Classics-Sisyphus-Art-History-LiteratureSisyphus was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, repeating this action for eternity. For his crimes, Tantalus was made to stand forever in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. He is the source of the word “tantalize.” Similarly, Buddhism speaks of those souls stuck in the realm of the Hungry Ghosts, constantly hungry yet unable to fit food through their pinhole mouths. buddhist-hungry-ghosts1

These are mostly traditional, cautionary, moral tales, told from the point of view of the initiated, wise elders who are so lacking in our society. They say, in effect: Watch out! Grow up! Don’t be such a jerk! We translate them into simple if necessary political truths (Have compassion for the poor, care for the Earth, be a good citizen) or psychological insight (interrogate your motives and the early traumas that may have led to them). They tell us plenty about Trumpus, but so what? If we as a nation refuse to turn our lights upon ourselves, other Trumpuses (Trump uses!) will certainly arise in the future. And they will continue to arise until we face what we need to face.

But we Trumpuses, almost by definition, never heed the cautions of our elders, most of whom we have cast into prisons, otherwise known as nursing homes. The moral tales end, almost by definition, in the destruction of those who were too busy conning themselves or consuming the Earth to listen. Perhaps the only hope for the con man (and his marks) is to be conned into self-awareness by the Trickster. The following material comes from my blog on the con man:

Trickster figures appear in the myths of most indigenous cultures: Coyote, Raven, Iktomi, Elegba, Papa Legba, Hermes, Mercury, Eshu, Loki, Wakdjunga, the Signifying Monkey, Brer Rabbit, Huehuecóyotl, Puck, Maui, Kokopelli, Hanuman, Leprechaun, Nasruddin, Tanuki, Baubo, Sheela-na-gig.

The trickster breaks the rules of the gods or nature, often maliciously but usually with positive effects. He (most but not all trickster figures are male) can be thieving, lying, cunning, amoral, meddling, deceitful, disruptive, prophetic, shameless (“impudent” is related to “pudenda”), humorous and/or foolish, and he often changes physical form or gender. He is associated with luck (bad or good) and change. He is there when we sneeze or make slips of the tongue.

The trickster crosses both physical and social boundaries, breaking or blurring connections and distinctions between all of our familiar polarities of right/wrong, sacred/profane, clean/dirty, male/female, pure/impure, young/old and living/dead.

His territory is doorways, portals, thresholds, tunnels, bridges, elevators, canals (including the birth canal), roads and especially the crossroads: places of heightened uncertainty. So he is the patron deity of travelers (and travel agents), immigrants, translators, traders, midwives, matchmakers, furniture movers, remodelers, magicians, psychotherapists (and “borderline personalities”), priests, wedding officiants, (“masters of ceremonies”), lawyers, merchants and bankers, but also of undertakers, smugglers and thieves – all those who work at the boundaries between social worlds, regardless of society’s moral judgment of them.

For much more, see Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World or Helen Lock’s essay, Transformations of the Trickster.

Trickster invites us to a necessarily deeper understanding of soul, culture and the soul of a culture. As Hyde writes, he is “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.”

In his role as messenger of the gods Hermes is the figure who connects the archetypes to each other. Only Hermes (whose grandson is that other great liar, Odysseus) moves between regions of divine experience or human potential that are so perfect and normally distinct from each other. Similarly, Elegba translates among the spheres of the Fon gods of West Africa.

Hermes travels between these worlds and ours, from which he leads the dead into the underworld. He is psychopomp, or guide of souls, who delivers them, writes Hyde, “into whatever world or mental state lies across the line…the underworld of sleep, dream, story, myth.” But he is also the “disenchanter or awakening angel” who can lead Persephone out of the darkness. Had Orpheus followed his instructions and not turned around, Hermes would have brought Eurydice out of that world, back to life.

Without Hermes and his tricks, such as farting in Apollo’s face, there is no communication (“to make common”). There are only individuals, deities or nations so separate from each other, and from themselves, that they can only project their own unconscious darkness upon each other.

Trickster offers us the possibility of seeing the world from a new perspective, challenging our rigidities and privileged perceptions. This boundary-crosser can also create new boundaries and borders, bringing to our awareness new distinctions that were previously unknown, even as he undercuts the fictions by which we have agreed to define ourselves. Among his favorite targets are the academic, religious, media and political gatekeepers whose business is to limit our view of the possible.

Trickster is, in the deepest sense, provocative. The word comes from the Latin root vocare (to call), and it implies a sense of choice. In ritual terms, one can in-voke the gods. Through passive aggression, however, one may pro-voke anger in others. Trickster’s capacity for provocation is directly related to our own inability to e-voke the qualities we’d like to see in ourselves or in others. Understanding him better, we better understand ourselves. By disrupting society’s rules and boundaries, he enlarges the sphere of human possibility. However, writes Lock, Trickster is not playing.

Not just any rogue or anti-hero can properly be termed a trickster. The true trickster…calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organized, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends)…his interest in entering the societal game is not to provide the safety-valve that makes it tolerable, but to question, manipulate, and disrupt its rules…the trickster pushes the limits of the unorthodox in order to transform reality – and as such is distinct from, in many respects the opposite of, the fool.

Black America evoked African trickster figures to help negotiate its passages between the worlds, including the Middle Passage and the later transitions to freedom and equality. White America, creation of a demythologized world, could only imagine a quasi-Trickster figure with all of the cunning, greed, self-deception and entertainment value as the archetype itself, but with little potential to embody its transformative wisdom. He is there to prevent real change. Native America has Coyote; America has the Con Man.

So what do we do once our grandiosity is punctured and we finally realize that the con has not served us? Disillusion releases anger first, because we have invested much energy in maintaining the illusion of innocence. And then we find ourselves, appropriately, at a crossroads. We are dis-enchanted. Literally, the song we have been singing is over. Or: the spell that had been cast upon us has been broken. Hyde writes:

There is no way to suppress change, the story says, not even in Heaven; there is only a choice between a way of living that allows constant, if gradual alterations and a way of living that combines great control and cataclysmic upheavals. Those who panic and bind the trickster choose the latter path.

This is the dual mystery of soul-making and culture-making. Tragedies occur that puncture our inflation. Then, whether we know it or not, we encounter Hermes at the crossroads. One road leads toward reconstituting our grandiosity: repression, projection and scapegoating the Other.

A second road – the lucky road, the road Odysseus takes – involves the willingness to remain in grief for as long as it takes to move through self-interrogation and ultimately to forgiveness. It is a process of “re-membering” our purpose. Trickster pulls us into this state of liminality. He or she who accepts his invitation willingly may proliferate new structures, symbols, metaphors and forms of community. In another, only slightly different context, Antonio Machado asked, “What was your word, Jesus? Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were one word: Wakeup.”

This is how sustainable cultures with working mythologies endure: not through rigidly reproducing the same forms every generation, but by imagining mythological figures whose function is to reveal and disrupt what worked in the past so that new growth may begin. Old stories – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – must fall apart so that new ones may arise from the fragments. But we exist in liminality until we have imagined new stories.

After disillusionment comes the possibility of deliberate, conscious choice, to reframe disaster (“against the stars”) into opportunity (entrance or passage, related to port, harbor, place of refuge). Then we can consider (“with the stars”) a new future. The transgressions of the Trickster deflate our rigid polarities and ideologies. This – potentially – allows an incursion of the chaos from which real creativity and a higher order may emerge.

Perhaps the only way we can understand the gilded age of Trumpus is as an invitation to step out of the myths that no longer serve us, to retrieve and eat our collective shadow, to withdraw the projections and finally face the suppressed grief in the bag that has been trailing behind us. However, writes mythologist Martin Shaw, “We can’t be naïve in times like this, because we are in the presence of underworld forces that will do one of two things: they will either educate us, or annihilate us…”

Is Trumpus channeling the Trickster archetype? Hell, no. The con man is merely its toxic mimic. But we simply have to be open to the possibility that his presence in our lives has meaning. In myth, and perhaps in reality, the motivation of the main characters is irrelevant. Perhaps at some deeper level, all the con men of our American imagination really are provoking us into a new story that is more humorous, tragic, creative, proactive and collaborative than we have been willing to embark upon so far. Watch this: if, after three years of this tragicomedy, prominent evangelicals can still keep a straight face when they proclaim that God sent Trumpus “to uncover the veil of the current political leadership and culture in America,” then so can we.

In Spanish, “con” means “with.” What an irony: the con man, this greedy manipulator, the one who hates communal values, may actually be calling us to community. But being in community – staying in the room when conflict arises, as Michael Meade insists – means doing a lot less watching and a lot more listening. Shaw writes:

The real horn being blown at this moment is one some of us simply cannot hear. Oh, we see — the endless television clips of crashing icebergs, emaciated polar bears…but I don’t think we necessarily hear. Climate change isn’t a case to be made, it’s a sound to be heard.

It’s really hearing something that brings the consequence with it — “I hear you.” We know that sensation; when it happens, the whole world deepens. If we really heard what is happening around us, it’s possible some of it may stop. From a mythic perspective, seeing is often a form of identifying, but hearing is the locating of a much more personal message. Hearing creates growing, uncomfortable discernment.

I worry I have been looking but not hearing. When I hear, I detect what is being disclosed specifically to me at this moment of shudderation and loss. What is being called forth? Whatever it is, I won’t likely appreciate it…We remember that the greatest seers, the great storytellers, the greatest visionaries are so often blind. Listening is the thing.

In ancient Greece, if you needed wisdom greater than human you went to the market square of Pharae in Achaea and created libation for Hermes, god of communication, messages, storytelling. There stood a statue of the bearded god. After burning incense, lighting the oil lamp, and leaving coin on the right of the deity, you whispered your question in its ear. Once complete, you swiftly turned and left the sacred area with your hands over your ears. Once out, you removed your hands, and the very first words you heard were Hermes speaking back to you. You curated these insights into your heart, pondered and then acted on them.

You didn’t see Hermes, you heard Hermes. You listened.

It’s said that in ancient Greece the deaf were shunned through their supposed lack of capacity to hear the gods. That was considered dangerous…Isn’t it interesting that the enquirer to Hermes kept their ears blocked till they were out of the market square, so as not to be assailed by idle, above-world chatter and think it divine? I wonder if we may be asking the question to Hermes but removing our hands too early…As a storyteller I have noticed when an audience is profoundly absorbing the import of a story, they close their eyes to do so. It deepens the encounter.

…Staggering spiritual repair is called for. It is not just those bad white men in power that did this. We all did…I’m not even asking for hope or despair, I’m suggesting responsiveness to wonder. To entertain possibility. And to deepen.

Here are some other relevant essays of mine:

Reality Show Initiations

The Secret of their Appeal

The Dionysian Moment. Trump Lets the Dogs Out

The Hero Must Die

The Mythic Sources of White Rage


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Barry’s Blog # 297: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Six of Seven

When people wrong you, go after those people, because it is a good feeling and because other people will see you doing it. I always get even…Sorry, losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest — and you all know it!…Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich. – Trumpus

We’re building a wall in Colorado! – Trumpus

In an age when politics has long been nearly indistinguishable from entertainment, his people know very well that Trumpus has been conning them for years, and they love it. Is he a genius or an idiot? We speculate about that question, but they don’t.

But I really wonder if their crazy wisdom goes a step further. Perhaps they love him – especially the men – because he is a loser and because, deep down, they know that they are losing as well. They know far better than we that the economy is collapsing, and along with it, the myth of American Innocence. They know that, along with their jobs, they are losing their precious world of male privilege and authority, indeed, of heroic masculine identity itself. They know deep down that both our mythology and our winner-takes-all economy offer only one alternative to the Hero, and that is the Loser, whom we also picture as the Victim. They know, or at least they have been conditioned to believe, that they have been victimized by the women and people of color who now compete for their jobs and the people of non-conforming gender whose freedom mocks that masculine identity.

Crazy wisdom. They (and we) know even deeper down, way, way down, that they have an indigenous soul, and for it to be revived, the Hero must die. They know that they must first endure what their ancestors did: symbolic, initiatory death. Perhaps this is why idiot Trumpus – the Loser – has engaged for so long in such manipulative but ultimately provocative and self-sabotaging behavior. Perhaps this is where idiot Trumpus and Con man Trumpus finally come together.

Like so many adolescents, perhaps he wants to get caught. Why else would he make obviously self-incriminating phone calls when he knows (and admits that he knows!) that intelligence agents are listening in?  Yes, any publicity is good publicity, but why else would he provoke us all to make him, as Solnit writes, “the most mocked man in the world”?

The Book of Lies

I’d like to have a word
with you. Could we be alone
for a minute? I have been lying
until now. Do you believe

I believe myself? Do you believe
Yourself when you believe me? Lying
is natural. Forgive me. Could we be alone
forever? Forgive us all. The word

is my enemy. I have never been alone;
bribes, betrayals. I am lying
even now. Can you believe
that? I give you my word.

– James Tate

Ah, but we get only so far psychoanalyzing one person. Indeed, an entire industry is engaged in such pursuits. Of course the guy is a deeply traumatized, wounded, lonely, unlovable, narcissist and sociopath. So freaking what? Is he really that different from every single American President since the military coup of November 22nd, 1963? Is he any different (except in his style) from Hillary Clinton’s favorite war criminal, Henry Kissinger? RT_hillary_clinton_and_henry_kissinger_3a_ml_160518_4x3_992

I respectfully suggest that our willingness to answer yes is a measure of our own innocent willingness to project our “best intentions” upon our leaders, and that we’d get a bracingly different response from a resident of, say, Fallujah, Ben Tre, Santiago Atitlan, Dili, El Mozote or Gaza.

But let’s consider his style again. Caitlin Johnson suggests that

…Trump is the most honest US president of all time. By that I don’t mean that he’s an honest person; he of course lies constantly. I simply mean that while his predecessors have always made sure to dress their imperialist military campaigns up as benevolent humanitarian intercessions, Trump just stands there out in the open like “Yeah we grabbed their oil and it’s ours now, blow me.” There was once a time when claiming a war was really about oil got you branded a conspiracy theorist. Now the US president just outright says it.

And this is really the only reason establishment power structures dislike Trump. They don’t feel directly threatened by him, they just dislike the way he’s always saying the quiet part out loud. Status quo power has a vested interest in keeping a smiling mask on things and preventing people from thinking too hard about what’s really going on in the world, and Trump keeps ripping off that mask by telling everyone what he’s doing in plain English.

But it’s so much easier to focus on Trumpus – we like to watch – than to do the difficult work of interrogating ourselves and asking why our culture has vomited him up to present him as a mirror for our fantasies. TrumpTVTV It’s critical to acknowledge that in this Gilded Age his image embodies the intolerance, greed and hatred that America prefers to project upon others – and to question whether the hatred we project outward is hatred that ultimately, we feel toward our own imperfect, traumatized selves.

They and we know (the wisdom has never completely left us) that such difficult and sacred work requires the ritual container of real community. This is why, in my thirty years of men’s retreats and grief rituals, the most common statement by far has been something like this: I haven’t cried in decades, and I will not allow myself to start, because if I do, it will never stop.

The demythologized world has stolen from us our innate ability to think mythologically or symbolically. The mind that cannot see past the con man to the Holy Fools who would mirror our indigenous souls or the Trickster figures who would trip us up so as to heal us cannot perceive that the desire to end it all is the toxic mimic of this need to die and so to be reborn. This is particularly ironic, since for two thousand years the sacrifice of the son has been so central to the Christian myth, even if the son dies only to glorify his father. But the willingness of the father to participate in that murder goes back a further thousand years to our foundational myth of Abraham and Isaac, which describes the cruel literalization of initiation ritual into the literal killing of the children.

In falling for the con of the politics of racial resentment, Trumpus’ base supporters are quite literally dying of whiteness.  Still, although they may be unwilling to make the leap into their own darkness, they are not stupid. Any child can see that Trumpus has never known love that he hasn’t paid for, that he is an uninitiated boy-man who is desperately insecure (or at least that he plays one on TV), that he lacks any ability to relate to other human beings except as they might feed his infinite narcissistic needs. In other words, they see themselves, but unlike the characters in Being There, they know it.

However, identifying with him remains preferable to the only currently available, if literal, alternatives: ending it all through opioids, alcohol or “suicide by cop.” Better to watch the con man. After all, as Salena Zito writes, “…the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”  And as long as the media continue to normalize him, we’ll continue to watch.

We respond to images, metaphors and narratives more than to logic. And what we fight against may well get stronger. George Lakoff recalls Reagan being interviewed by that same Leslie Stahl:

The next day, she got a call from Reagan’s chief of staff, saying, thank you for this wonderful interview. And she said, but I was attacking Reagan. He said, it didn’t matter, if you turned off the sound he looked wonderful…And this is the same thing with Trump. So if you have a station where people are constantly sitting around analyzing Trump, some attacking him, some defending him, etc., that’s normalization. When you negate something, you’re activating it.

Trumpus learned well from Cohn, Reagan and Bush, as well as from American mythology, which prioritizes identity in terms of the racialized Other. Although he couldn’t claim to be a traditional outsider from a western state, he converted the mainstream media in the eyes of a third of the country into the hated insiders that his followers perceived as the source of their misery.

This wasn’t difficult. Southern whites, his primary supporters (imagine Southerners voting for a New Yorker!), have a very long memory that stretches back to the days of Reconstruction when Yankee carpetbaggers, newly enfranchised Blacks and radical reformers had turned their world upside down for a time. In the past twenty years they had laid the groundwork, through voter suppression and gerrymandering, for that to never happen again. For more on this, read my essays, Did the South Win the Civil War?  and Madness, Machines, Migrations and Mythology. 

For the present, this means fully accepting the nauseating truth that Trump is us – Trumpus – that he embodies the dark side of a toxic, national mythology that inhabits the psyche of every American, just as the Teutonic darkness dwelt in every German in 1933.

Here’s the third item I took notice of, another indication of the New Gilded Age: 190503104406-01-maurizio-cattelan-america-super-teasePolice were trying to recover a toilet made entirely from 18-carat-gold that was stolen Saturday from Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England, the stately home where former prime minister Winston Churchill was born. No commentators pointed this out, but I will: at some level we see this image and make the inevitable equivalence of gold and shit.

Item # 4 is about my own innocence. It was hard to believe that shortly after that obscene real estate deal, and while I was watching Being There, Trumpus arrived in San Francisco (in my liberal Bay Area!) for a secret fundraiser among Silicon Valley billionaires. Tickets ran from $1,000 to $100,000 for photo ops with Trumpus (Trump is us!), who left with an estimated $15 million. To be fair, another con man, Joe Biden, swept in two weeks later for another – private – fundraiser. Neither would risk appearing in public.

Bly’s book on the shadow insists that healing – personal or social – must involve the lifelong process of retrieving those parts of ourselves still in that bag that trails behind us, or as he put it, eating the shadow:

One of the things we can do as Americans is to work hard individually at eating our shadows, and so make sure that we are not releasing energy which can then be picked up by the politicians…

Ultimately, we have to confront the innocence of good-hearted liberals, who since 2016 have been so obsessed with Trumpus the evil con man – they like to watch the Russiagate and now the impeachment narratives – that they have been willing to ally themselves with the “intelligence community,” simply because it has appeared to be against Trumpus.

I’m talking about those same spooks and thugs who have been overthrowing popular governments and assassinating American leaders for seventy years. Yes, I know that’s a provocative and contentious statement. That’s what I do, unlike those good-hearted types (Item # 5) who innocently praised the fact that liberal Ellen DeGeneres (yes, they watched) and warmonger George W. Bush could sit together as friends at a football game.

Where else but in America, only eighteen years after the “intelligence community” lied repeatedly to manipulate the nation into invading Afghanistan and Iraq, only fifteen years after the revelations of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, would good-hearted liberals, in their hatred of the projection screen known as Trumpus, in their denial of the corruption of their own politicians, indicate a higher trust in the CIA than Republicans? 

Or this item, from January of 2019: Anderson Cooper, millionaire scion of that same Vanderbilt family that still owns the mega-mansion at which Being There had been filmed, telling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that her Green New Deal “…would require, though, raising taxes.”

Where else in America would we find Item # 6? An anonymous CIA agent reveals that Trumpus has asked the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, and the media dub this person a “whistleblower.” However, as the wheels of liberal innocence crank into gear, let’s remember that CIA agents are not “whistleblowers” unless they are actually whistleblowing on the CIA itself. Otherwise, unlike Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, Reality Winner, John Kirikaou and Chelsea Manning (all of whom the media have either ignored or demonized), he’s working for the CIA, which is choosing to influence the public narrative.

And here’s the item: those good-hearted, Trumpus-hating liberals have started a GoFundMe campaign for the CIA agent, and they’ve raised over $220,000. Only in America. Perhaps this guy’s name is “Chance.”

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Barry’s Blog # 296: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Five of Seven

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. Trump-GOld-apartment-with-random-racist-table-decos-via-screengrab 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. bts_trump-cohn_2 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. unnamed 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.”

maxresdefaultEventually, 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.


Pastor Joel Osteen’s house

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.

Drew Pendergrass writes:

…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.”


Trump and wife Ivana with Norman Vincent Peale and his wife Ruth Peale, Phyllis George and Gov. John Brown, 1988.

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.

trump-prayingThe 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.

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Barry’s Blog # 295: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Four of Seven

No, Sir, his manners are such that he would not know how to ask a woman to accept his service, although his looks are of Love’s color. ― Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival

If I survive this life without dying, I’ll be surprised. ― Mulla Nazruddin

What links Being There with the New Gilded Age? The Tycoon and his wife live in a huge mansion, 2011-05-16-nc-asheville-biltmore-15-00-49 so almost indescribably, laughably large, with dozens of servants and vast fleets of limousines, that we have to wonder what the director was conveying. Well, it turns out that principal filming occurred at the Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America, located in Asheville, North Carolina.

Indeed, this building, mentioned above in Part One, was by far the grandest – or if you prefer, the most ostentatious – of all the original Gilded Age “homes.” Viewers were familiar with the images of Hearst’s castles in Citizen Kane, but few were prepared for this. Some may have been sickened by such a display; others were enthralled. banquet_hall_aerialCMYK

Was Hal Ashby speaking of the second Gilded Age ten years before anyone else? Was he also describing our new political age (the film was made after Watergate), when most actors on the national stage would be “practiced,” as the Rolling Stones wrote, “at the art of deception,” performing their shtick for the cameras? Did he know that by the end of the century the Republican Party would have its own TV network? Or that it would drop the old pretense of appealing to moderate, undecided voters and focus exclusively on fearmongering (well, not exclusively – they would also discover voter suppression and computer fraud)? Or that by the second decade of the new century both parties would be preaching mainly to their own choirs? Or that by 2016 there would no longer be any appreciable difference in what we would all like to watch – politics or entertainment?

The plot of Being There has a long and somewhat tarnished history. It is based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel of the same name, published in 1970 and written presumably during the Nixon years. However, wrote historian Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, “…most Polish critics immediately recognized [the book] as a version of…a very popular novel from 1932.”  This was not the only time that people accused Kosiński himself of being a con man,  or in mythological terms, as a Trickster.

It’s oddly appropriate that a writer of deliberately shifting identity should give us this story of a man who has no identity at all other than what people attribute to him. fool1 But I suggest that the basic theme is much older, so old that it is archetypal: the Holy Fool,  best known in Christian literature as Parzival, in the Muslim world as Nazruddin, and among Jews as an entire community, the wise men of Chelm. 

The Tricksters of myth deliberately enter our world to fool humans into wisdom, while the Holy Fools (pictured repeatedly in fairy tales as the youngest and simplest of three brothers) seem to succeed mainly because of their own trusting, naïve natures when more worldly, experienced men fail. All of these characters survive because, like Chance/Chauncey, they have no ego identities – no self, in Buddhist terms. There is no wizard behind the screen that we watch.

When the characters in Being There – most of them high-functioning professionals – encounter Chauncey, they are entranced in the same way we all respond to babies, kittens, clowns and, occasionally, some of the “neurally diverse” among us. We see what we think is the innocence in their eyes. We rush to meet that trust, that assumption of the best in us, with our own innocent gaze. We do this because our indigenous souls have never lost the old memory of who we were (and might still be), before the world draped its experience and plans and roles and griefs and identities and mythologies over us,

This part of us has always been waiting to see images that reflect who we really are in what Yeats called “the Deep Heart’s Core,” and it has nothing to do with the cult of celebrity. His longing to see and be seen in this way is palpable:

If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made. (1933)

 Henry Miller wrote about Holy Fools in 1959:

At no time in the history of man has the world been so full of pain and anguish. Here and there, however, we meet with individuals who are untouched, unsullied by the common grief. They are not heartless individuals, far from it! They are emancipated beings. For them the world is not what it seems to us. They see with other eyes. We say of them that they have died to the world. They live in the moment, fully, and the radiance which emanates from them is a perpetual song of joy.

Critic Matthew Lucas writes:

…by the end of the film, Ashby has turned Chance into a kind of Christ-like figure, as he literally walks on water in the film’s final shot. In that regard, Chance’s rise to prominence is not necessarily meant to be a bad thing. He opens people up, and connects them with a simpler, less complicated view of life…”Life is a state of mind,” goes the final line of the film…Therein lies the real beauty of the film – Chance’s rise is both positive and negative, bringing out the best and the worst of human nature. Whether or not his influence is good or bad is never really explored, and ultimately left up to the audience…It’s both a critique of a world that allows such a man to achieve such a prominent role in American leadership…and a celebration of his good-natured, completely non-cynical outlook, standing apart from the high-speed neurosis of modern American life. Being There is, like Chance, whatever we want it to be…a film that closed out the 1970’s with a knowing smile, mourning that which was to come, and celebrating an unassuming antidote to the decade’s increasing sense of materialism and political polarization. And it feels more essential now than ever.

Then there are others in our demythologized age who arise among us seemingly as far as possible from such holy fools. Persons with massive, if highly fragile, egos who lust for power and seem to embody the desperate narcissism of a culture – us – that has been soaked in electronic images for several generations. And some of these persons have learned that the art of the con sometimes involves playing the fool. Chance/Chauncey (innocently) and Donald Trump (quite deliberately) are projection screens for us all.

Before continuing to Part Five, you might want to read my series, The Con Man: An American Archetype.


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Barry’s Blog # 294: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Three of Seven

Why a four-year-old child could understand this report! Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it. – Groucho Marx

You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test. – George W. Bush

 At the beginning of this essay I mentioned that I was pondering several oddly related items that had come to my attention in a short period of time. The first was a real estate transaction. Here is the second: forty years after seeing the original 1979 release of Hal Ashby’s film Being There, I happened to watch it again.

Being There A childlike, naïve, utterly innocent, illiterate, perhaps mentally retarded man named Chance (he has no apparent surname), has never left his wealthy guardian’s home. He has lived a peaceful, nearly solitary existence, cared for by servants, tending the walled garden and watching television. His only mode of connecting with the world outside that he’s never actually seen is the TV remote that he constantly wields to change channels. But he is forced out into that world when his guardian dies. hero_EB19970525REVIEWS08401010303AR

Chance the gardener has a “chance” encounter with a tycoon’s young wife who mis-hears his name and mistakes him for a cultured businessman with a mysterious, untraceable background named “Chauncey Gardiner.” Chance has learned genteel manners from his guardian; and watching television constantly has given him a superficial idea of social interaction and appropriate gestures. In conversation, he repeats his companion’s key phrases, maintains eye contact, nods thoughtfully, and remarks, “I understand,” and “I know what you’re saying” with apparent empathy. Everyone he meets interprets his simple answers and childish observations as profound wisdom. They take his confused questions as jokes or as pithy folk wisdom, even when he expresses almost no preference other than “I like to watch.”

The Tycoon, his wife, his associates, the national media and eventually even the Nixon look-alike President mistake his horticultural mumblings for sagacious metaphors about life, politics and economics. Chance unwittingly becomes a major celebrity overnight, entrancing the same TV culture that had nurtured him.


Chauncey and the President

The film forces us to address how much Chance’s situation relates to real life. His accidental success, due to little more than the right clothing and the ability to ape televised mannerisms, begins to bear a strange resemblance to the success of actual public figures, and to our readiness to hear what we want to hear. Critic Matthew Lucas writes:

…America becomes willing to give the keys to the kingdom to a man who is wholly unqualified and without the proper understanding of how the government, or the world in general, works. Sound familiar? In that regard, Being There feels eerily prescient (at the time it was interpreted as a comment on the rise of Ronald Reagan…oh how far we’ve come).

In our de-mythologized culture, this is a supreme example of the cult of celebrity. 27-maclaine-beingthere Chauncey quickly becomes the object of desire (for wisdom, companionship and even sex) – the blank projection screen – of nearly everyone in the film. Mark Harris writes:

We invest people with unspeakable power by reinventing them as reflections of our hopes and our vanities, and it is thus terrifyingly possible for us to endow a complete imbecile who watches TV all day with qualities he has never possessed. This idea will never go out of style; as a cautionary tale, Being There is elastic enough to feel as if it is perpetually about our moment…

But the film is asking us to look much deeper, to consider how once, as William Wordsworth wrote, we came “trailing clouds of glory,” and how much of our original brilliance we have given away. Late in the Reagan years (1988), Robert Bly avoided psychological jargon with his A Little Book on the Human Shadow:

When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality…but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like (it)…Behind us we (developed) an invisible bag, and the parts of us our parents didn’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school, our bag is quite large…we take our anger and put it in the bag…sexuality goes in the bag…we spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again…Our parents rejected who we were before we could talk, so the pain of the rejection is probably stored in some pre-verbal place…we often have as a result little energy…every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us…

We will eventually need to see the contents of the bag. We do it by first seeing them in other people. This is how individuals and nations retain their sense of innocence. The process of projection is the foundation of the cult of celebrity:

The bigger the bag, the less the energy…we can only see the contents of our own bag by throwing them innocently, as we say, out into the world…

Only a few characters in Being There see through Chance’s innocent charade. One is a lawyer, but even he projects his own ambition on Chance, thinking that Chance has been deliberately conning everyone. A second is the tycoon’s doctor, who, understanding that the tycoon is dying happily, declines to disenchant him. Another is Louise, an elderly African American woman who had served Chance’s old benefactor. She is the voice of the Other. Watching Chauncey on TV from a retirement home, she knows who he actually is, and what white privilege is all about:

It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I’ll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between the ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.

America laughed to keep from crying, because Reagan was already manipulating our fear of losing our white privilege. Bly commented:

People who are passive toward their projected material contribute to the danger of nuclear war, because every bit of energy that we don’t actively engage with language or art is floating somewhere in the air above the United States, and Reagan can use it…

Reagan the politician (or his handlers) took great advantage of this condition. But Reagan the man, like Chance, liked to watch. Like Chance, he increasingly mistook what he saw on screens for reality, or what he did on the screen for what he had actually done. This was the former actor (as I write in Memory, Myth and The National Mall),

…who had remained in Hollywood during World War II (and) insisted that he’d personally photographed the liberation of Nazi death camps. It was a unique form of memory, composed of scenes from movies Reagan had watched, movies of black-and- white morality in which Americans (white Americans) were clearly the good guys.

Towards the end of the 1985 Beirut hostage crisis, Reagan allegedly told the press: “Boy, after seeing Rambo [First Blood II] last night, I know what to do next time this happens.” He liked to watch.

In our demythologized age history can replicate the fictions that comment on that same history. As Reagan began to show evidence of advancing Alzheimer’s disease well before leaving office, the resemblance to Chance got a bit spooky. CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl described a 1986 meeting:

Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly…Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought. (Then, as Reagan regained his alertness) I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile.

By the end, even though the adulation of his “base” had not flagged, the Great Communicator appeared to be something of a Holy Fool himself. And the public was getting used to seeing nothing other than Holy Fools – or Con Men – in the White House.


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Barry’s Blog # 293: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Two of Seven

You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself. – Ivan Boesky

Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war. – Lyndon Johnson

Don’t you get the idea I’m one of those goddamn radicals. Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system.  – Al Capone

Near-universal outrage at the Robber Barons and their extravagant lifestyles led to the Progressive Era, during which Theodore Roosevelt broke up the trusts and increased taxes on the wealthy. This was followed by further income tax increases under Woodrow Wilson and then by women’s suffrage.

Most of the mega-rich may have lacked the most basic moral values, but they weren’t stupid. In these times of class warfare, they could see where the wind was blowing. With the glaring exception of Hearst, who would inspire the 1941 film Citizen Kane, they tended to rein in their worst public excesses and retreat to remote country estates and urban townhouses. For the most part, they watched (and collected dividends) as the nation suffered through periodic race riots, prohibition, the Great Depression, World War Two, Korea, the Cold War, Civil Rights, feminism and Viet Nam. For forty years, they even tolerated government regulation and high taxation, or at least as long as the economy continued to grow. That period ended in the 1970s. More on that later.

Throughout the century, however, the movies kept the rich and their toys in the public mind, even as post-war affluence and television convinced most white Americans that they had entered the middle class. But both extreme wealth and lower-class behavior patterns paraded across their imaginations as they sat back and watched.

Movies, writes Michael Ventura, “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas indigenous people and earlier generations of Americans had participated in their entertainment, people of the new century became, in just a few years, passive consumers of culture, except for dancing. The Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.” Americans liked to watch.

The end of World War Two marked the transition to consumer culture. The bulk of industrial activity became the manufacture of “goods.” Rather suddenly, youth became society’s ideal. Advertising suggested that things people bought would keep them young. Americans defined themselves less by what they did and more by what they had, even if it looked exactly like what their neighbors had. Entertainment “stars” brought back the display of wealth, with the implied message that you might become like them some day – especially if you bought the same things they had. Once it became clear that simply associating consumer products with celebrities was profitable, many of them used their status to sell stuff, none more convincingly than Ronald Reagan, who turned out to be a more successful TV salesman than film actor.

Journalist Sam Smith was “…blessed to come of age before the average American was seeing so many advertisements each a day…”

What I didn’t realize at the time was that television would…change how Americans saw things in striking ways that still aren’t given enough credit for their part in the decline of our culture…circus barkers became not a once a year curiosity in your town but part of the nightly visual experience. We called them TV commercials, but they had much the same effect. The constant sound of hyperbole and misrepresentation became a common part of our lives. Sure, radio had them, but radio being only a sound, stayed somewhat removed from our true being. When a guy is not only yakking but enhanced by an attractive blonde coming on to you…it inevitably becomes more than a sound.

Who can comprehend how 120 years of movies and seventy years of television have changed us? In the first five years (1969-73) of his role in Marcus Welby MD, the actor Robert Young received more than 250,000 letters from viewers, mostly asking for medical advice. These people were engaging in the one-sided relationships with celebrities or fictional characters that psychologists call “parasocial.”

Consider that prior to the twentieth century, for thousands of years nearly everyone, everywhere listened to storytellers at night. Sounds went directly into the ear and became pictures in the imagination. Eventually, when people enacted their myths, they created ritual drama, which later devolved into conventional theatre, where professional actors entertained passive spectators. For four centuries, educated people read those tales, privately. Later, they heard literalized versions of the myths on the radio, or consumed pre-formed images of beauty, courage and evil projected onto movie screens. In turn, millions returned the projection (their own inner gods and demons) onto celebrities. TV and computers further diluted our imaginative capacity. Now, such images (including the commercials) enter the brain directly, without even the mediation of a projector and screen.

“To go from a job you don’t like,” writes Ventura, “to watching a screen on which others live more intensely than you…is American life…” Well before the Internet and smart phone technology, electronic media became our immediate environment – not the land, not people, but images of the land and people.

By the 21st century, writes Christina Kotchemidova, media fostered an experience of emotion that is controlled, predictable, and undemanding without impinging on our rational lifestyles. Thus, “We can engage in mass-mediated emotions to the full while retaining control over our emotion experience and avoiding the risks of personal communication.”  By 2010, anyone could text or tweet without needing to actually interact with others or back up their claims. Even presidents would not have to stop watching while they tweeted..

Between World War Two and Viet Nam the old conflict between the American values of “freedom vs equality” that I describe in Chapter Seven of my book had shifted in favor of equality, at least in terms of opportunity, and at least for white people. As it turned out, however, the dream of a middle-class America lasted for only a couple of generations, propelled in large part by the astonishingly high (to us, now) tax rates that the New Deal coalition had imposed on the rich well into the 1960s,  and then ruined by Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to extend those rates to pay for his war.

By the end of the 1960s middle Americans were exhausted with the pace of change. They saw the violence and social excesses that they watched on TV as affronts to their conflicting ideals of suburban independence and religious conformism, and they revolted against the welfare state once it became clear that it was intended to help minorities. Conservatives who had accepted most New Deal values (see this 1956 Republican Platform) took the opportunity – we may never know why – to assault those assumptions by turning to the old American hatred of The Other. By the mid-1970s the backlash was creating the Reagan “revolution.”

Evoking both ends of the mythic spectrum, Reagan told Americans they could have it both ways. They could get rich and have their traditional values. They could be both Puritans and Opportunists. ronald-reagan-make-america-great-again He resolved white men of all responsibility when he called unemployment insurance “vacation for freeloaders” and claimed that people were homeless “by choice.”

Sociologists have shown that Americans tend to be very compassionate toward the poor – but only when two conditions are met: when the economy is growing, as in the early 1960s, and when the poor are perceived primarily as white, as they were in the 1930s. Neither of these conditions applied after 1975, and despite unrelenting government propaganda, they never have since. And when they do not apply, the old Puritan prejudices always rise up like zombies in a cheap horror movie: You are poor because of your bad character; and we are wealthy because we worked hard and deserve to keep every penny we earned.

In 1985 a member of Reagan’s Education Department unashamedly articulated his new contempt for the poor: “Unfair as it may seem, a person’s external circumstances do fit his level of inner spiritual development.”  Those of us who are familiar with American religion and mythology, however, can recognize the extremely old thinking that was resurfacing as a rebranded Social Darwinism. But this time, she was making a new connection – to New Age philosophy.

Reagan was also resolving the entire post-Viet Nam “Me Generation” of the responsibility to engage in politics. People who in their teens and twenties had moved from social protest to meditation were hearing the message that in their thirties it was more important to take care of Number one. The ancient Athenians had a term for those who ignored the general welfare: idiote. Reagan gave Americans permission to be idiots.

Reagan had influence far beyond the office of President because he was a celebrity. Of course, he had been an actor, but we are talking about his second career as a commercial spokesman that led to his third as a shill for big business. By the time he entered politics, the public had been conditioned by several decades of celebrity worship, and the transition to equating celebrities with actual, qualified leaders was nearly complete. Ever since then, the distinction between politics and entertainment has grown thinner. For a sharp overview of where the cult of celebrity has taken us in the 21st century, read here.

Celebrities are famous simply for being famous; we often have no idea how they entered our awareness. We admire them for being who they are, not for what they have done. Garry Wills writes:

…no one has undergone a more thorough initiation into every aspect of the American legend than Reagan has, and no one has found so many conduits…for bringing that legend to us in the freshest way. He is the perfect carrier: the ancient messages travel through him without friction.

Reagan, writes Joel Kovel, was so persuasive precisely because he could barely distinguish his life from his role. As President, he “played Ronald Reagan.” Reagan himself, with rare candor, once admitted, “The camera doesn’t lie. Eventually you are what you are.”  We can assume that a young Donald Trump was taking copious notes.

For more of my thoughts on the Cult of Celebrity, read The Royal Wedding and John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession With Innocence.

By now, we – including plenty of Trump supporters – are well aware that every Republican president since Nixon has facilitated the shift of the national wealth from the working class to the rich. But by turning the world’s greatest creditor nation into its greatest debtor nation in a mere eight years, Reagan manifested the greatest con of all, long before Trump. “How skillful,” wrote Howard Zinn, “to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!”

Along with the innocent trust with which we bless our celebrity politicians comes its dark underside, corruption. Those who stand in the bright spotlight of our projections inevitably lose all humility (etymologically, their connection to the ground), come to believe their own rhetoric about deservingness, and feel entitled to take what they want. This, we must remember, is only a very mild distortion of the most basic American Puritan impulse. 

While the middle-class ideology of the American Dream reinforces the belief that people can “rise” through hard work and self-denial, our mythology of radical individualism also encourages an underworld of those who would achieve their aims by not playing according to the rules of polite society.

We can think of crime in America in terms of getting rich through alternative means, whether through the shadow opposite of corporate capitalism known as “organized crime,” or through the anti-heroic exploits of a stock character of our mythology, the outlaw or villain. Because he takes whatever he wants, has no responsibilities and transgresses all moral codes, he is exciting and frankly attractive. Americans have always admired outlaws. Robert Warshow writes that the gangster is “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” The culture of celebrity celebrates con men. We can’t help but admire them because they exemplify our deepest values.

To repeat: one aspect of our demythologized world, especially in America, is that the distinctions between religion, politics and entertainment have collapsed. This is perhaps because all three of these areas of public life share the con man’s main interest: making money and aggrandizing the self. If in the Age of Trump you haven’t noticed this, you haven’t been paying attention. Have you have been watching something else?

The fix, as they used to say, was in, once more. During Reagan’s eight years some 140 administration officials were investigated, indicted, or convicted. Studies indicated that many corporate CEOs have the personality characteristics of psychopaths. Such men, writes Alan Deutschman,

…have a profound lack of empathy…use other people callously and remorselessly for their own ends…pathological liars, master con artists, and heartless manipulators. Easily bored, they crave constant stimulation, so they seek thrills from real-life “games” they can win – and take pleasure from their power over other people.

By 1990, after a generation of New Age-ish justifications for getting rich, many observers were describing a “new Gilded Age” defined by the stunning rise of what we would all eventually come to know as the “one percent,” and many people were unashamedly envious.

Popular culture responded. Running from Reagan’s first term into the mid-1990s, the TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous highlighted the extravagant lives of entertainers, athletes and business moguls. black-and-gold-sports-cars-5-free-wallpaper The show inspired two spinoff series, a board game and even a video slot machine. In an apparent benediction for an American future we all could share once “government” was out of the way, host Robin Leach ended each episode with “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

During the original Gilded Age, as noted above, the uber-rich received around a fifth of total income. By 1950, due to New Deal regulation, that share had been reduced considerably. But after 1980 it surged to levels equivalent to those of 1890. We’ve all seen the statistics by now, and we’re getting numb to the consequences. Thirty years after Reagan, income inequality is at the highest level since 1970. this-could-be-one-worlds-largest-superyachts-02 The highest personal and corporate tax rates are a fraction of what they once were. Four hundred persons control more wealth than the bottom 50% of households, who have lost $900 billion since 1989. During this time, the 1%, who now pay lower tax rates than the bottom 50%, have gained $21 trillion. And these people literally think very differently. Studies now show that wealth actually reduces compassion. 

There are clear differences between the two Gilded Ages. Workers’ real wages were rising then and stagnant now. Unions and their influence have declined, as many blue-collar whites have long deserted the Democratic Party for the short-lived satisfactions of race hatred, immigrant-bashing or substance abuse. Then, there was no social services safety net and now we have a vestigial one, even if Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” and his successors followed his example.

Then, workers read socialist newspapers. Now, the right-wing is supported by its own TV network and over 1,600 Christian radio and TV stations.  Then, the slogan was “Solidarity Forever!” Now, Trump supporters proudly proclaim: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”  Then, images of conspicuous consumption were regarded with suspicion or contempt. Now, it seems that the message is: Be like me!

Throughout my city of Oakland, I observe three trends. There are over two dozen large apartment complexes being constructed for the thousands of tech workers driven out of San Francisco by the highest housing rates in the country, caused to a great extent by large private companies like Uber going public. There are an estimated 200 homeless encampments, composed 80% by people of color, caused to a great extent by this gentrification. And – most curiously, considering all the money coming into this city – I also see dozens of empty storefronts resulting from our new patterns of Internet shopping, an economy that employs most of those same tech workers.

In Part One of this essay, I mentioned Item # 1, the almost-new mansion near San Francisco that will be demolished for a much larger one. It’s hardly the only example. In Southern California, Bel Air boasts the 38,000 square foot pile known as “The Billionaire,” originally priced at $250 million. And you know someone had to top that. In the New Gilded Age, the satisfaction seems to be less about the possession and more about the impression that one can literally “top” one’s rival for attention in the public eye.

We naturally wonder about the early traumas that might have produced such a brittle sense of entitlement, or more grossly, “the larger the wheels, the smaller the dick.” But that’s our psychological perspective. If such displays didn’t produce the desired effect among the masses, if only temporarily (like all addictions), we wouldn’t hear about “The One,” a 105,000 square foot house being built, also in Bel Air. Its PR proudly proclaims that with a price tag of $500 million, it will be “America’s largest and most expensive private residence.”


“The One”

Had enough? Watch your moral indignation! Depth Psychology insists that attraction and repulsion, condemnation and envy, are closer than we think. Admit it – for one reason or another – we love this crap. We like to watch.

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Barry’s Blog # 292: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part One of Seven

…the shameful corruption which lately crept into our politics, and in a handful of years has spread until the pollution has affected some portion of every State and every Territory in the Union. – Mark Twain, 1873

I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half. – Jay Gould

We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure. – Hernán Cortés

As summer of 2019 turns into autumn, several items come to my attention.

Item # 1: The San Francisco Chronicle announces that an investment banker and his wife have purchased a 6,400-square-foot, five-bedroom, 7.5-bath “modern Tuscan villa” in nearby Hillsborough for $15 million. Although it was completely renovated in 2013, the new owners “hope to demolish it as soon as possible” to build a mansion twice its size.

How do you react when you read this? With disgust or envy? To some extent, the answer may predict how you voted in 2016. More on that later. First, let’s consider the socio-economic atmosphere that generated it.

The San Francisco / Silicon Valley area is home to at least 75 billionaires, trailing only New York City (103) and Hong Kong (93). However, with a much smaller population, it has the highest density of billionaires in the world, most of them coming out of high tech. One out of every 11,600 people here is a billionaire. The house purchase above is a prime example of what many are calling the “New Gilded Age.”

The original Gilded Age lasted from about 1875 to 1900, when, for the first time in American history, the nation experienced extremely unequal distribution of wealth. A small number of men (some were known as “Robber Barons”) amassed inconceivable large fortunes. Two percent of households owned more than a third of the nation’s wealth, while the top 10% owned three quarters of it. The top one percent (sound familiar?) owned half of all property, while the bottom 40% had no wealth at all. Political corruption was rampant, as business leaders ensured that politicians would not regulate their activities.

Reconstruction in the South was replaced by legal segregation and white supremacist terrorism (sound familiar?) “Nativists” fretted over immigration by “undesirable” aliens. The passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law marked the first time in history that a country denied entrance to people based exclusively on their country of origin. The 1880s saw seven major white-on-black race riots. William Randolph Hearst introduced the sensationalistic news reporting that came to be called “yellow journalism,” telegraphing to his correspondent in Havana in 1898, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Wealth had always signified to Americans that its possessors were among God’s chosen, but for 200 years the nation’s democratic ideals and its emphasis on equality had dictated a certain restraint in public display, and its Puritan heritage had kept a lid on the most extreme expression of its predatory instincts. After the Civil War however, America shifted from an agricultural nation to an urban industrial giant. And, like now, it was a simple matter for the wealthy to motivate pundits to sing their praises. As I write in Chapter Eight of my book,

Twisting the idea of natural selection…intellectuals claimed that America’s wealth proved its virtue. Exploitation and elimination of the weak were natural processes, and competition produced the survival of the fittest. The next step was to infer that only the affluent were worthy of survival. They were, of course, merely restating the Calvinist view of poverty as a condition of the spirit…Deeply religious people passionately argued that the suffering of the poor was good because it provoked remorse and repentance…

Class anger was intense, especially among new immigrants who hadn’t yet internalized the mythology of American radical individualism. Millions of others were driven off the land and forced into urban slums, where they received little assistance from government. American industry had the highest rate of accidents in the world, but the U.S. was the only industrial power to have no workman’s compensation program. Between 1880 and 1900, American workers staged nearly 37,000 strikes, including the Great Uprising of 1877, when clashes with police, state militia and federal troops killed over a hundred workers. But in 1888 the Supreme Court affirmed that corporations have all the rights of people and redefined the “common good” as the unregulated manipulation of both humans and the Earth for maximum profit. Sound familiar? The next year, 20,000 railroad workers were injured and 2,000 were killed on the job. The Pullman Strike of 1894 also resulted in over a hundred fatalities.

But Americans had been consuming the mythology of radical individualism and racial privilege for several generations, and media gatekeepers succeeded in distracting many. Horatio Alger’s dime-novel melodramas affirmed the Protestant virtues of frugality, hard work and delayed gratification. Since his young (white, male) heroes “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” you could potentially do the same. His myth of personal success and upward mobility counteracted populist agitation. A decade after his 1899 death, his books were still selling a million copies per year. Library records in Muncie, Indiana showed that five percent of all the books checked out during this period were written by Alger.

A hundred and twenty years later, our assumptions about our likelihood to “get ahead” have taken quite a hit. But the myth of the self-made man is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism. As recently as the year 2000, 19% of us believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought they already were! Two-thirds expected to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent will). Three years later, 56% of those blue-collar men who knew that George W. Bush’s tax cuts favored the rich still supported them.

Americans have twisted in the opposing winds of our paranoid and predatory imaginations for our entire history. The first tells us to deny ourselves, work hard and never succumb to the temptations of the flesh, while the latter tempts us with images of the good life and the nagging suspicion that our acceptance among God’s elite is proven only by our material success. This was and is crazy-making. Historian Greil Marcus writes:

To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.

But today we remember the Gilded Age primarily for its images of conspicuous consumption, ostentation and excess. “Social Darwinism” gave the wealthy permission to flaunt their good fortune, or as they saw it, their superior spiritual character. They deserved their wealth, and now they were free to show it off.

Dinner on Horseback

In places like Newport, Rhode Island they built gigantic mansions – some with solid gold toilets – for the express purpose of showcasing the unprecedented fortunes accumulated during this new industrial age. One building, “The Breakers,” had 70 rooms. But the greatest of all was in North Carolina, where the Vanderbilts (who also owned The Breakers) created the Biltmore Estate, with over 135,000 square feet of living space.  More on that later. The Vanderbilt family would build another 15 mega-mansions to advertise their wealth.

In Part Two, we’ll consider the New Gilded Age.

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