Tag Archives: Donald Trump

The Art of the Con – Great American Narrative Redux

Sarah Sanders is leaving us. Turning in her tin star to ride off into the sunset. A snake oil saleswoman raised by a snake oil salesman fronting for one of the greatest American con men. It’s the great American story. From PT Barnum and Buffalo Bill to Bernie Madoff and the TV evangelists (and TV Generals too) America’s history is littered with “heroes” whose only great talents were for fooling us for a quick buck.

There is a reason that Hollywood is known as the “Dream Factory.” A primary exercise in movies and television is the production of contrived experiences. The TV product is specifically tailored to be interspersed with fantasy images designed to sell us things we probably don’t need. A by-product of this simulation is the creation of the celebrity. A person who, as Daniel Boorstin points out, is well-known for no good reason other than for his/her well-known ness. The existence of public relations and marketing, one of the most profitable of American businesses (fantasy image makers that have actually made themselves into a fantasy image–Madison Avenue and Mad Men), is dependent on hoodwinking the masses into buying things simply for status. In fact capitalism probably can’t stand on its own if people only buy what they need to survive.

In this age of media saturation we live in a country that has defined itself through its deceptions. We the people are delusional about who we are and who we’ve been. We have constructed our self-image based on received stories consumed through mass communication. We are never satisfied because our extravagant expectations rarely match up with reality and so we are forever searching for the next big thing, or hitting it big, or making the big time. Much of our national story is set on these shaky grounds of designed misconception. The art of the con itself is based on creating illusions, and the best artists are the most deceptive ones.

Within this communal hallucination one space where the real continues to transfix us is in the realm of true crime reporting. We are fascinated with the spontaneity of crime, it’s one of the rare experiences that is not totally contrived, that’s why its influence is outsized proportionally in the news cycle.* We love to make fun of the incompetents, we secretly admire the masterminds, but we are always afraid of being a victim, thus we are easy targets for the personal security rackets. Even so, that spontaneity soon evaporates since everything is fed to us through the filtering medium of the lens and the slanting pens of editorial offices. Kennedy won the election because Nixon didn’t have a close enough shave, but Nixon really won because Kennedy cheated in Texas and Chicago. Kennedy was a good guy killed by a lone outlaw (really?) and Nixon was an outlaw killed by a two good guys, a deep throat and a tape recorder. Kennedy goes down as hero, Nixon as villain. As unseemly as it all sounds it has all become national folklore. The real has become laborious, its minutiae too difficult to comprehend and its details too boring to memorize. The condensed, filtered, repackaged fantastic interpretation becomes more appealing, more exciting, easier. It’s almost as if we like to be duped. As if, like Barnum told us, being suckered is part of the experience of being American. We’re all on reality TV.

These threads converge in the Trump scenario. The ascendance of Donald and Sarah, both celebrities, both only recognizable for being recognized in the media, neither with any appreciable “real” talent, is the predictable reappearance of two of the foundational forms in the American drama- the con man and his trusted sidekick. But here the Donald takes it to a new level by representing the merger of several archetypal character types found in the American mythological narrative. Depending on who you ask Trump assumes the role of con man, outlaw or tough lawman. Sometimes all three at once, and that is somehow ok for many of his supporters. The fact that he seems to stand out above the sordid crowd alerts us to what is most sinister about him. He and Sarah spin up a show that is patently outrageous, they are the attention getters. Yet the true crime, the ongoing stagecoach robbery and swindling of the passengers, continues relatively hidden behind the scenes. The equivalent of throwing a smoke bomb in the other direction– I’ll create a diversion while you rob the bank.

American history is a mythical history. From the frontier days to the modern world the outlaw, the con man and the lawman have been, and continue to be, central characters in that myth. The overarching theme is the struggle for the acquisition of wealth, property and security between the powerful and the powerless, haves and have nots, whites and non-whites, bosses and workers etc. Depending on the time and circumstances the fortunes of the groups have changed in relation to each other. But the long term trend, albeit not entirely linear, has been the consolidation of victory for the few. Historically a reliable brake against the greed of the powerful, many of them legalized outlaws, con men and law men, has been their fear of the masses. That is, the fear of democracy. Now the stage in the theatre of democracy, upon which our national mythology has been acted out, is in danger of being condemned for its rotting foundations. Historian Eric Hobsbawn put it succinctly– “One of the worst things about the politics of the past 30 years is that the rich have forgotten to be afraid of the poor.” Not only do they no longer fear us they have actually convinced many of us that the outlaw con man is the best lawman. And every good sheriff needs a loyal deputy–adios senora Sarah…

With so many unfilled posts in his administration the next feature on the Donald double-bill: The Searchers

* A side note: This may be why sports are so popular? They are one of the few remaining forums for spontaneous non-contrived experiences. That’s not to say that the spectacle surrounding sports isn’t the equivalent of a PT Barnum event– a circus– but the game itself still maintains a sense and tension of the real. Anything can happen. The popularity of pro wrestling on the other hand informs us that the power of the contrived still remains immense in the American psyche, even in the domain of sports.

Related:

https://parallelnarratives.com/2016/07/11/the-century-of-the-self-bbc/

We know a lot less than we think about the world – which explains the allure of “simplism”

How We Fight

Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Sadly, the number of examples throughout history to support his claim fill entire libraries. The most recent, Iraq and Afghanistan (and associated mayhem), are still burning through the fabric of humanity like the Alien’s acid-like blood burnt through the decks of the spaceship Nostromo. Yet where is the outcry? Where are the forces in society with enough clout to expose and blunt the absurdities- the Press and protestors in the streets?

We are in the midst of another election season and absurdities abound in the rhetoric. The saber rattling, while always present in a militaristic society like ours, has begun to escalate. Recently two exiting Generals claimed in their goodbye speeches that Russia is the biggest threat facing America– Russia? Really? I guess there ain’t no money in ISIS and Al Qaeda folks. You don’t need strategic bombers, huge mechanized armies and aircraft carriers to fight them. Guess where those two guys are likely heading next for work?

The presidential candidates appear to cover the gamut with regard to the projection of US military strength internationally– Trump is called a loose cannon and supposedly dangerous because of his unpredictability, Clinton is called a hawk and supposedly dangerous because of her predicability and Sanders is called a dove and supposedly dangerous because his idealism ignores realism. We hear little about ending the war on terror though. We even had one extremely belligerent candidate, Ted Cruz (thankfully banished, a positive outcome of Trump’s success), who proposed carpet bombing an entire country into submission, even though we have empirical evidence going all the way back to Dresden that this never has and presumably never will work!. Was he challenged on this madness? Superficially at best. Again, where are our gatekeepers whose job it is to check the facts, challenge the claims and expose the absurdities? Why are we the people so silent?

Another famous French author once summed it up pretty well:

“A poor man in the world can be done to death in two main ways, by the absolute indifference of his fellows in peacetime or by their homicidal mania when there’s a war. When other people start thinking about you, it’s to figure out how to torture you. The bastards want to see you bleeding, otherwise they’re not interested! The patriots kept clamoring: Guns! Men! Ammunition! They never seemed to get tired. It was an obsession which prevented the best of our fellow citizens from breathing, eating, or copulating. But it didn’t seem to prevent them from swinging business deals. Morale was doing all right on the home front” — Louis-Ferdinand Celine Journey to The End Of The Night (1934)

If you know about Celine then you know that even he was taken in by an absurdity later in his life. Yet his quote remembering his experiences in WWI is as relevant today as it was back then.

There was one moment in our history when the barricades were stridently manned and the constitutional tools at our disposal were put to good use in the battle against the purveyors of absurdity. It was a short moment to be sure, from about 1960 -1973, but during that period we saw important social strides made through the Civil Rights, Free Speech and anti-Vietnam War movements. It was a time before the rise of today’s corporate dominated mass-news media that values the interests of its owners and sponsors above its critical responsibility as the peoples’ watch dog against corporate and governmental over-reach. In the sixties the advent of television news, with its immediate images beamed into living rooms before being sanitized for docile consumption, caught the elites completely by surprise. Suddenly they had lost control of the frame and it cost them. Of course it was good for society, we haven’t seen accelerated social change like that ever since, but it seriously damaged ruling class interests at the time. They learned the lesson– think about embedded reporters for example, now they can only report what their keepers let them see. No more Morley Safers or Malcolm Brownes. A tamed sycophantic news media eagerly goes along with it.

We the people would do well to study those lofty days when people took the law into their own hands and took to the streets to force change. Take heed of the tactics used by those regular folks who spoke up and put their hands on the gears of the machine and follow in their footsteps:

RIP Morley Safer…

Click here for more information and media on those who spoke up against the Vietnam War