Donald Trump and the Cult of the American Con-Man

It’s easy (and not inaccurate) to call Donald Trump a fascist; ghod only knows he’s done his damnedest to earn the title, between his plans for a Mexican wall and his suggestion that we monitor or even close down mosques (not to mention, most laughably, his claim that he’ll get Bill Gates to help him shut down parts of the Internet). Anyone who denies he’s, at the very least, a xenophobic bigot, is only deluding themselves: His own words damn him, and to pretend otherwise is simple disingenuousness.

So what’s his appeal? It’s unquestionably true that Trump taps into a vein of inchoate rage and resentment that Republicans have been stoking for years. He’s had his own hand in that — anyone remember when he claimed to have sent investigators to Hawaii who were supposedly finding all sorts of dirt about Barack Obama’s birth — that is, until Obama pimp-slapped the Birther movement with his long-form birth certificate? I have yet to see anyone hold The Donald accountable for his part in that nonsense.

But I think that all that may miss an important aspect of Trump’s charisma, something that makes him stand out from a snivelly weasel like Ted Cruz (who wasn’t that much less frightening a candidate for President, on examination). What often gets lost in the discussion is this: Trump is a consummate, inveterate bullshitter, and there’s little that Americans historically love more than a con man.

I mean, let’s face it:  seen with any measure of scrutiny, the man is every bit the “loser” he loves calling other people. His airline, his hotel, his university — his marriage(s)? FAIL after FAIL after FAIL. How many times has he declared bankruptcy to get out of paying his debts? It’s been demonstrated that he’d be some 3-4 times as wealthy if he’d just invested his money, rather than pursue the business enterprises he has. I’ve already brought up his flirtation with the Birther movement, but the question remains: What, in fact, has he done successfully, except play the role of business mogul on reality TV?

And yet, he swaggers as if none of that could stick to him — which is why America has largely given him a pass. Because there’s nothing we Americans like more than the self-made man — except maybe the self-made celebrity. We love swagger, even when it’s un-earned. One could point to any number of reality TV “stars” as examples of this phenomenon, but they’re newcomers to the scene compared to Donald Trump, who’s been doing this since at least the Reagan years. And Trump doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Trump’s heritage as a purveyor of bullshit goes back further — at the very least, to Anton LaVey (author of the Satanic Bible) and L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology), if not all the way back to P.T. Barnum himself.

I don’t bring up Anton LaVey lightly; The Satanic Bible is a hodge-podge of previous occultisms, mashed-up with a little of Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” and other elitisms, with a pinch of 60s anti-authorianism thrown in to make it digestible. All of which is given a frame story — that LaVey was a carny organist who saw the saints of Sunday mornings as they were out sinning on Saturday nights, who once carried on a relationship with Jayne Mansfield, etc. — which is pure American iconoclast, and, once subjected to any measure of scrutiny, absolute bullshit. Which still doesn’t stop people from voluntarily identifying themselves as Satanists.

And LaVey’s a minor leaguer compared to L. Ron Hubbard when it comes to building a religion on bovine scatologies. A second-rate SF writer, at best, Hubbard built up a religion (Scientology) as a sort of get-rich-quick scheme. Have I really got to debunk “e-meters” or “engrams” (when the word is not used as actual neuroscientists use it)? Does it matter, when there are plenty of celebrities willing to claim and defend (and shell out monies upon) such obvious nonsense?

Is the frame story of “The Donald” any less redolent of bullshit? No. It isn’t. But some of us apparently love him no less for it. If anything, we love him because of it: because he has the clanging brass cajones, if not of the convictions he intones at his rallies — he shut the hell up real quick about wanting to punch a protester once he had the chance to face one at the Dayton, OH rally — then of the conviction of his own worthiness.

Of/to what? Ghod only knows. But it doesn’t stop him from carrying on, building up a cult based on nothing but his own cultish appeal. If there’s any meaningful difference between David Miscavage (current head of Scientology, who once accused all Scientology critics of being criminals) and Donald Trump followers (who accuse all black folk at their rallies of being protesters, and all protesters of being Soros mercenaries), I’ll be damned if I can put a finger on it. The whole idea of Soros mercenaries bears repeating in particular: has everyone forgotten how Trump had to pay people to fill seats at his early rallies? In this, Trump and his followers are true-blue conservatives: they accuse their enemies of doing the things of which they themselves are doubly guilty.

It may bear noting, however: there may be no level of denial more powerful than the denial of a con man’s victim; one need only look at the stories of those taken in by the various Nigerian scams for evidence of this. Will Trump’s popularity take a hit now that one of his campaign managers has spilled the beans: that Trump’s campaign was never supposed to go this far in the first place? Will anyone notice that Trump has a hissy fit whenever he’s asked a hard question? Will anyone care that, when he does actually articulate a policy more specific than “making America great again,” he contradicts himself, spinning a web of total incoherency? Probably not; if Trump’s history is any indication, his book may have been called The Art of the Deal, but The Art of the Sell would have been a (marginally) better account of his skill-set.

Trump is no different from most of the con-men that have captivated us in the past: Like Ponzi himself, he promises easy boons with no consequences and no strings attached — the fascisms that he spouts as part of his “making America great again” are nothing more than such piffle, stuff that would make any sensible person dubious about him and his platform. What makes Trump particularly notable among American con-men, then, is that nobody was considering Anton LaVey or L. Ron Hubbard for president. If that sounds troubling, it should be: the moral equivalent of Charles Ponzi is presently the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States. The difference is that, where Ponzi only victimized those who fell for his con, Trump stands to victimize numerous others, and not even just those within the borders of the United States.

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