Written by Robert Chianese, Ph. D., Emeritus Professor of English, CSU Northridge
How come Americans cannot see through scammers like Donald Trump? Some of us want to credit his wacky self-infatuation as the very source of his wisdom and wealth—“I make great deals.” “I’ll repeal and replace Obamacare my first day in office.” Others believe great wealth itself is testimony to having smarts and virtue. But we need to take clues from our writers, who have been at the task of unmasking frauds for sometime now—which is maybe why Trump wants to shut down federal support of the NEH and the NEA as well as PBS. Now that Trump has blown his first major test and revealed himself as anything but a shrewd dealmaker, let’s let American writers lift the veil from this kind of American flim-flam.
We need to re-read Huckleberry Finn and watch W. C. Fields’ movies—we Americans used to know how to sniff out sketchy operators: it’s in our cultural DNA. Our country was founded on skewering corrupt strutting monarchs and debunking phony dandies. Our artists are showing us all the time how to “read” an imposter, but we’ve gotten stuffed up in nosing out BS. It used to be our strongest and noblest trait.
Our natural earnestness makes us vulnerable to scoundrels. We are a society of believers, when we need to become healthy skeptics, and that does not mean giving up on goodness. We are most vulnerable to religious, moral and now economic saviors, as if the hard work of fixing things can be done by a simple matter of faith in one who promises miraculous results. The Bible salesman, the Temperance crusader, the Fat-fighting Pill Hawker and now the Billionaire Dealmaker all pitch their hooey to those who want instant rescue, but feel incapable of mounting practical and long-term reforms to get it. That’s the lie they preach the most. Calling out phonies with facts is fun and bringing them down is a social obligation.
Twain’s Huckleberry gets it, since, like many a wised up child, he’s had to learn to read his drunk and abusive father. Sobered up Pap opens his degraded soul to the preacher, exposes his hand as the hand of a hog–until he’s gets powerful thirsty and gets a jug of forty-rod, climbs the roof and falls off and breaks his arm. That’s the pattern of satiric deflation—elevate, elevate and then plop back to the ground. Sound familiar? Huck immediately sees the Duke and Dauphin scalawags for the shams they are and then plays them for his advantage. That’s a nasty, essential skill in a world of dangerous schemers.
W. C. Fields’ film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man contains bitter wisdom just in the title—we get snookered because we ourselves try to elbow in on some scam, want something for nothing, and the scammer, usually played by Fields himself, has us in his clutches from the outset. We are the betrayer betrayed, from medieval tales.
J. D. Salinger ‘s novel The Catcher in the Rye gives big clues about the American character—idealistic, emotional, loving, and protective, but vulnerable to the cruelties of cynical adults. Holden Caulfield can spot a “phony” but he can’t defend himself against their designs on him. Salinger suggests Americans need to grow out of adolescent innocence if they are to protect themselves and others.
Kurt Vonnegut, in God bless you, Mr. Rosewater, excoriates the rich as boorish jerks bent on demanding noblesse oblige at every turn. The satire here is both raucous and painful. The poor are scorned and persecuted, but still look up to their betters. The protagonist Eliot Rosewater inherits a huge fortune; he wants to be kind and generous, but the money drives him crazy. We need to remember this core American suspicion of wealth itself, usually ill-begotten, which is hard for us to do since we’ve become fans of extravagance, as if accumulating riches, usually by ripping people off, is a sign of virtue and worthy of celebrity. Eliot’s wife as a tender child had to thank a wealthy lady for the sunset.
Flannery O’Connor portrays how easily we Americans fall for vile and she would claim evil characters, out of our need to be loved. In “Good Country People,” the seemingly sophisticated and disabled philosophy professor Huelga finally gives in to the backwoods Bible salesman’s coaxing for a kiss. She’s educated, homely and unloved, and has an artificial leg and tells him, the poor boy, she’s learned to believe in nothing as she kisses him. Salesman Manley Pointer steals her leg and tells her he’s believed in nothing all his life. Yes, O’Connor is a brutal satirist and American writers go right for the jugular when it comes to our lack of worldly wisdom.
The TV series Mad Men shows us an advanced American skill–spinning, lying, dissembling to sell something, a product or oneself, through advertising. We nearly invented modern advertising and now politicians are masters of it. Have we forgotten that ads are lies? Can we reflect on that? The fine print at the bottom only begins to expose the big font falsehoods. And political ads are thirty-second, slogan-driven hypes about complex issues, without small type clarifications.
Trump had almost endless free ad time because he was so mesmerizing, simple, outrageous, and funny, but he never explained in any detail how he was to accomplish all he promised. And he attacked anyone who failed to praise him. Like lascivious characters in Mad Men his personal life mirrors his scandalous business practices. When he crashed over Obamacare, and folks now say they were taken in by him, remember we have a rich tradition of writers who can educate us about these masters of deception. In Trump’s case, it looks like he deceived himself, the betrayer betrayed.
© Robert Louis Chianese