In an interview defending his Presidential candidate, Silicon Valley billionaire and undisguised self-interested Randian fanboy Peter Thiel assured the public that when Donald Trump asserted that he would build a mighty wall along the US Mexican border, what he really meant was that he would impose a ‘saner, more sensible immigration policy’ (1). His statement was contradicted not only by almost all of Trump’s supporters, but, in plain, very simple language, by Trump himself. In his typical locker room bully tone, Trump airily dismissed any claim that he was not man/crazy enough to actually go through with his plan in perfectly literal detail. It was an early example of how willing and able Trump’s supporters (and detractors) were to take a long, deep reading of the remarkably short and shallow text that is Trump’s political vision.
Thiel’s glib posturing puts me in mind of a scene from another short, though hardly shallow, text, ‘Being There’ by Jersy Kozinski, the story of which revolves around the titular Chance, an empty-headed non-person who speaks only in clichés and has no real presence or agency other than to reflect what he watches on TV. In one scene of the book the hollow simpleton Chance the Gardener, reinterpreted by his elite hosts as the astute, well-bred Chauncey Gardiner, is approached by a pompous, fast-talking publisher who offers him a book deal (he doesn’t care much what he writes about). ‘I can’t write’ Chance replies. The publisher simply says it doesn’t matter, a ghost-writer will do the work. ‘I can’t read’ Chance continues, with Trump-like tact. Who can? The publisher wonders, who has the time to read anymore? It is a remarkable exchange, in which simple truth gets swallowed whole by arrogant assumptions. Like the rest of the book, it pushes the definition of dialogue to it’s limits, as two people chat merrily, speaking in practically different languages.
Many comparisons have already been made between The Donald and The Gardener, taking apart mannerisms and personality to show how he reflects the character. Not many are far from the mark in this respect. Trump does indeed display many traits eerily reminiscent to that of Kosinski’s creation. His limited, cliché-ridden vocabulary, his undeserved reputation for being rich and successful. They even share a penchant for ill-fitting suits which, in Chance’s case, is literally borrowed from his father-figure, whereas Trump wears daddy’s clothes only metaphorically. Crucially, both men are addicted to television, and appear to let their entire personality be shaped by it.
What few such comparisons remember however, is that ‘Being There’ is considerably more than a parody of superficial public figures like Chance. The obscenity of the Gardener’s aimless ramble to power thoroughly mitigated by those around him. Stock characters of the cultural and political elite: politicians, economists, journalists and celebrities, all of them fall head over heels for Chance’s down-to-earth charm, which is to say that he has no charm at all, other than his ability to make them feel important and clever.
In is terser way, Donald Trump has fulfilled this same role for the so-called intellectual classes of today in much the same manner. It is well-documented how conservatives have been willing to debase and delude themselves in the hope of seeing in Trump some faint glimmer of power and influence, painting a draft-dodging casino magnate as a patriotic man of God. Liberals however, have been no less pathetic and grasping in their attempts to define Trump’s sins, and by extension their own saintliness. During the campaign and first months of his Presidency many outlets have discussed Trump with such cheap stock outrage that at times they might as well have not even come up with new things to be angry about, and simply published the same story about some crude remark of his day after day, expecting the same level of useful analysis. Liberal comedian/morality pundits like John Oliver and Samantha Bee both railed against and mocked Trump with the hubristic assurance of people who have never been challenged and don’t plan on inflicting such a trauma upon their audience. As has already been pointed out, this arrogant approach to polemic comment has only served to widen the political gap and display just how self-involved these communicators are (2).
In ‘Being There’ the crowning moment of hypocrisy and emptiness comes, appropriately enough, at a funeral. As the President waxes lyrical about the political conviction and popularity of the deceased, who is Chance’s recent benefactor, the pall-bearing politicians scheme among themselves how they can use this event to place Chance on the throne and secure their own positions. It is a remarkable portrait of callow duplicity. It is appropriate then that the event that should expose our so-called ‘liberal’ opposition to Trumpism for the empty opportunists they are, should be one of death.
With Chance-like simplicity, Trump explained that it was the images of dying Syrian children, killed in a chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun, seemingly carried out by the Syrian air force, that persuaded him to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian government airbase. Whereas Chance the Gardener may have simply opted to change the channel, Trump is concerned about how his audience perceives him, and thus opted to completely upend his entire foreign policy and intervene in a complex civil war, doing so with all the decisiveness and resolve of someone who only thinks in terms of TV ratings.
Almost as disgusting perhaps as Trump’s flighty action was the supposedly independent Press’s reaction. Like the audience swooning over Chance’s meaningless waffle, the New York Times produced a breathlessly folksy leader praising the supposedly irredeemable Trump for listening ‘to his heart’. It would seem that some on the established-liberal side fret only that this otherwise commendable action was carried out by someone as morally reprehensible and volatile as Trump, as if military adventurism were somehow the rightful preserve of a more statesmanlike leader. The wake of Trump’s foreign policy U-turn, in which neocons and liberals have come together in sudden embracement of this otherwise anathema individual, display just how empty their political consciences are, how self-regarding, suggestible and callow they are, and how little capacity they have for learning.
One thing Kozinski understood about elites who become enamored with empty idols is that almost always what they are really obsessing over is themselves. In many cases it has become clear that what Donald Trump does or says is utterly irrelevant to how people react to him because at the end of the day they are not even really interested in what he did. In a scene in ‘Being There’ Chance is taken up to a room by a man at a party, clearly with a sexual encounter in mind. When Chance tells him, quite openly and honestly ‘I like to watch’ this does not faze his would-be seducer. The man strips down and masturbates to orgasm whilst Chance sits there, passively vacant. In the film version this scenario is re-jigged somewhat, ending in Chance’s host, played by Shirley MacLaine, masturbating desperately on the floor in front of him while Chance robotically mimics the motions of people on the TV. What some critics saw as frivolously shocking is in fact pivotal to the plot. At its most basic form, every relationship anyone has with Chance is masturbation of one kind or another, whether emotional, intellectual or romantic. Like Trump, no one approaches Chance with any intention to be challenged, or surprised or questioned. They stare into him and talk through him like he does to the TV set (or rails into Twitter) expecting only to find what they knew was there, like a gardener tending domestic plants, beautifying the still and the lifeless, instead of exploring the woods beyond.
Anyone wondering how supposedly educated and partisan public figures could show such naivety and elasticity in their responses to Trump should really read Kosinski’s book, to get a better understanding of just how our self-proclaimed shining lights can be so dim. Trump, and others like him, have pulled the wool over their eyes because, in any case, their eyes were never actually open to him. Like Chance’s audience, it is only themselves they actually look at, and thus they easily mold any image they like out of whatever unformed clay is placed before them. The emptier the vessel, the more they can drink from it. Thus mumbler-Reagan could become ‘the great communicator’, ‘Predator Drone’ Obama could become ‘Nobel Peace Prize winner’. And Trump, the emptiest vessel of them all, can change moniker on a monthly basis.
Kosinski, like Trump and his establishment interlocutors, leave no room for ordinary people outside of the jet-set to give an opinion about the sheer inanity and insanity of their so-called social betters. In the book this plays well with the isolation of Chance’s life. In modern political discourse it is a gross sign of obsolescence. The 1979 film adaptation of ‘Being There’ did something to rectify this disparity, through the small part of Chance’s former housekeeper. Seeing him garbling on TV to critical acclaim, she speaks for many people today in her reaction to the whole affair: ‘Gobbledegook! All the time he talked gobbledegook!’