Monday, February 1, 2016

Donald Trump in Iowa and Beyond: The Professional Wrestler, The Confidence Man, and The Magician

The political chattering classes are all aflutter today. The Iowa caucus is the first big dance of the presidential campaign season. They have prognosticated, analyzed, theorized, and found new ways to say the same things ten times. Ultimately, the political chattering classes are in it for the horse race. Alas, if an accident occurs at the track and a horse has to be shot then so be it. The whittling down of the field is the whole point of the contest.

The competition between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is one of idealism versus political pragmatism and realism. Both candidates are acceptable. Neither would truly bring ruinous destruction to the United States.

By comparison, the Republican presidential primary candidates are a human zoo. If the 2016 Republican primary season has been a nadir in modern politics, its stars are political brutes and freaks, one ever the worse than the other. They are a hydra that does not cooperate; instead the Republican Party's political monsters attack and bite each other while their public, the propagandized Fox News zombie, lets forth guttural noises that too many foolishly confuse with intelligent speech.

And of course, Donald Trump is sits at the center of the Republican spectacle; he is the master of ceremonies at the monsters ball.

Donald Trump has many faces. He is a political cult leader. Trump's performance also borrows from professional wrestling.

[As I wrote about some months ago, Donald Trump is a professional wrestling "heel", a world champion who has gone into business for himself, refusing to drop the belt to the designated "face" challenger.]

Trump's oeuvre has other inspirations as well.

He is a Mark Twain-like version of the 19th century American "confidence man".

In that role, has given Trump the dubious distinction of being "King of the Whoppers":
It’s been a banner year for political whoppers — and for one teller of tall tales in particular: Donald Trump. 
In the 12 years of’s existence, we’ve never seen his match. 
He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong...But Trump topped them all when he claimed to have seen nonexistent television coverage of “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 — and then topped himself by demanding that fact-checkers apologize for exposing his claim as fantasy. And that’s only one example. 
Here we’ve assembled, as we do every year at this time, a generous sampling of the most far-fetched, distorted or downright fallacious claims made during 2015. 
In past years, we’ve not singled out a single claim or a single person, and have left it to readers to judge which whoppers they consider most egregious. 
But this year the evidence is overwhelming and, in our judgment, conclusive. So, for the first time, we confer the title “King of Whoppers.”
Trump is also a professional con artist who greatly exaggerates his success as a businessman (inheriting and losing vast sums of money from one's father is an indicator of luck and entitlement not genius acumen). His lies about "knowing how to win" and his "greatness" are a version of the con artist tricks such as the "pigeon drop", "rain making", or the "fiddle game" for the Right-wing authoritarians who are attracted to such speech and imagery.

Con artists depend on human greed and gullibility to turn a successful trick; faux Right-wing populists like Donald Trump take advantage of the same weaknesses.

But as the Iowa caucus develops (to be followed by New Hampshire next week) it is Donald Trump's role as a type of political magician that we should pay the closest attention to if we are to understand his likely success.

Although Donald Trump is certainly not his equivalent in skill, in watching the rise of Trump and the power of his shtick--both over his followers and the American news media--I keep returning to Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, he who is considered by many to be the greatest magician of all time.

Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin's greatest trick was conducted in the service of French imperialism. During the middle of the 19th century, he was dispatched to Algeria to quell a rebellion.

The following events took place:
In 1856, the Marabouts, who controlled the will of the tribesmen by dazzling them with feats of magic, had all of Algeria on the brink of revolt. In a wise decision the colonial administration decided to try to beat the Marabouts at their own game and sent for Robert-Houdin, who had been entertaining the courts of Europe and had gained a reputation as the greatest magician in all the continent. Robert-Houdin was small in stature, but to the Arabs who had seen him perform, his magic was as powerful as any of the Marabouts. The diminutive Frenchman had gained his initial success almost immediately after arriving in Algeria. Disguised as an Arab, he and a native confederate stole into one of the magic-religious ceremonies.

His professional eyes quickly saw through the trickery of the Marabouts, and he was convinced that he could easily duplicate anything which they had done in the ceremony. The next day the colonial administration announced that a "French Marabout" would put the native variety to shame. Curious, nearly every Arab around Algiers turned up for the show.

Even though Robert-Houdin unmasked every Marabout trick which he had witnessed, the Arabs who had gathered to view his performance remained mostly unimpressed. Only when he produced a small box and called on a fiercely anti-French native to assist him did the little magician raise a murmur of curiosity and excitement from the crowd. "Lift this box," he asked the man.

The Marabout follower, who was broad through the shoulders with a thick, muscular torso, had no trouble raising the little metal box over his head. "Now," said Robert-Houdin, after taking the box from the man, "I will make you as weak as any of your wives," He then began an impromptu magic ritual, bringing his hands around the box several times, chanting incantations before placing the little box on the sand at his feet. "Now, see if you can lift it," the little magician said confidently. The Arab bent to the sand, grasped the box with both hands, and pulled. It would not budge. Surprised, he threw his strength into it, his strong back and torso straining against the magic box. But as much as he groaned and strained, the box would not budge. "By the beard of the prophet," the man exclaimed to those who had gathered, "I cannot lift it from the ground."

Then, as if he did not believe what he had said, he tried to lift it again. But when he touched it a howl of pain came from his mouth and his body writhed in agony, as he was unable to release his hold on the little iron box. The night before, Robert-Houdin had buried a strong electromagnet in the sand, and when the native bent to it the first time, Houdin threw the switch which held the iron box to the ground with enough force to prevent any man from lifting it. The second time Houdin allowed the current to pulse directly through the box, giving the native the first electric shock of his life. Mercifully the magician released the switch, and the dazed Arab straightened up slowly. When he had recovered the full use of his senses, the man fled in fear from the magic box which had caused him such pain...
Donald Trump will not use electromagnets or sleight of hand to win in Iowa or New Hampshire. A basis conceit of magic is that it is extremely difficult to fool someone who does not, on a basic level, want to be tricked. Donald Trump's "success" is preordained. How? If Trump loses the vote in Iowa, he will just say that he in fact "won" because his momentum is that great. If Trump wins in Iowa, he will trumpet his victory and claim that all the other candidates should just quit because the people have spoken. "Trumpania" is unstoppable.

The so-called liberal news media are Trump's confederates because he is the most exciting (and profitable) political entertainer in American politics today. Donald Trump's supporters are the marks. The rest of the American people watch the long con game, mocking and jeering as required. But they too are being hustled, usually unbeknownst, by other people, forces, and institutions that govern the trajectories of their lives. 

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