Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Dishonest, But A Hustler

You may have heard that first-generation Nicaraguan-American Ana Navarro, a conservative Republican and Trump hater extraordinaire, and Matt Schlapp of  the American Conservative Union quarreled Tuesday morning on CNN's "New Day."

Schlapp defended  President Trump in the face of a new CNN poll which found that respondents asked whether the President is "honest and trustworthy" found 60% answering in the negative with only 36% answering in the positive.

This survey is nearly irrelevant becasue a) the next presidential election is more than three years out; b) impeachment proceedings will not begin until after the mid-term congressional elections; and c) host Chris Cuomo, as is the practice on cable news, did not mention the exact wording of the poll question, which invariably is critical.

There is a fourth reason. Schlapp asserted "I disagree with this whole premise that he's not truthful," which only proves that Schlapp as well as Trump is not truthful. He continued "We have a very polarized country and we're divided on almost every major issue." A great swath of the nation likes Trump, Schlapp argued, because (emphasis his) "he is authentic. He does tell them what he thinks."

Cuomo, a far better journalist than mathematician, asked "how do you square that with three out of four people thinking that he's lying?"

Not surprisingly, Schlapp (citing "coverage" of the President) blamed the media because that's what Republicans do when cornered, or not cornered.  But the "authenticity" angle is credible, if one understands authenticity to be starkly distinct from "honesty."   Inspired by "Freedom Just Around the Corner" by historian Walter McDougall, Neal Gabler compares Donald Trump to P.T. Barnum, who

sold an unsuspecting public on things like seeing George Washington’s 160-year-old nurse, or an “authentic” stuffed mermaid, and then made additional money by exposing his own frauds, realizing that people actually liked being fooled and being debriefed on the foolery. In this, he was merely a progenitor of what would be a long string of knaves, cheats, con artists and rascals who became an American type and who later turned the heist movie into an American staple. Virtuous heroes were dull. These rapscallions weren’t, and it wasn’t lost on most Americans that these con men were subverting those hallowed values David Brooks celebrates.

But as evident as the financial rewards were, it has taken a long time for anyone to see the political implications of the hustle, and now Trump has. He prides himself on not having earned his wealth, on his serial bankruptcies, on stiffing contractors and on gaming the tax system, the last three of which he regards as just clever business. Even his hint of having taped his conversations with former FBI director James Comey was a form of deceit.

Many of us, myself included, wondered why this didn’t bring him public scorn and create not just a credibility gap but a credibility canyon, but that’s because, as political observers, we were working from the traditional values manual and not the subversive one. I suspect, for all that platitudinous op-ed nonsense about the attraction of traditional values, this is a very real source of Trump’s appeal, as it is of the Republicans’.

Working within this other tradition, Trump makes no bones about being a hustler. He is shameless. Some people admire that. The Republicans, for their part, give lip service to virtue and are as self-righteous as they come, but everyone knows they are really about gaming the system, too. This is America the Deceitful. And many Americans like it, I presume because it seems to let them thumb their noses at their supposed social betters, just as Trump has done.

So, while people bemoan the end of moral certitude and a lost halcyon past, Trump the trickster and his Republican henchmen are creating a new America adrift in moral chaos. This, too, has a Barnum antecedent. 

Fittingly, Schlapp abruptly turned his dispute with Navarro towardglobal warming, maintaining "for people like me who are skeptics over the idea that man is putting the globe in a position where it's so warm that human life will not be able to be sustained, I'm a skeptic of that. I'm not a liar on that." (Cuomo pushed back.)

One might as well say "I'm a skeptic of the idea that the earth is round." When several Republicans a couple of years ago took up the banner of "I'm not a scientist" to explain their public skepticism about climate change, the effect- intended or not- was to exploit mistrust over the concept of fact.  If voters could doubt that human behavior, if unchecked, is precipitating a global crisis, alternative facts allow us to believe believe Donald Trump is not necessarily a liar.

Peiople understand that Donald Trump lies. But they understand also that he lies shamefully, which is part of his authenticity. The late author Michael Novak, champion of everything he identified as ethnic Catholic, once remarked that his people recognized "everyone has an angle."  Gabler similarly observes "Everyone knows they (Republicans) are really about gaming the system, too. This is America the Deceitful. And many Americans like it,.

Republicans "are creating a new America adrift in moral chaos" in which people recognize that DonaldTrump is gaming the system, and admire him for doing it as they wish they could. Trump is wealthy as they've always wished they'd be and, if he is thumbing his nose at those snooty teachers, professors, students, writers, and other people who dwell in the world of knowledge and information, all the better.

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