Enter Scaramouche, Stage Right

Photo by FolsomNatural | CC BY 2.0

Back in the good old days, six months ago, the general view of New York City outside the Acela corridor and a few neighborhoods in LA was that “it’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”

The exceptions to the rule were self-declared rednecks who, like Merle Haggard, would rather be left “somewhere in the middle of Montana.”  Or so they say.  Most Americans – even the ones who would prefer to live, say, in Irkutsk, Siberia — are fine with New York.

To the extent that they do have a problem with the city, it has little to do with the crowds or the pace of life there or with how expensive everything is.  It is, or was, that sleaze balls like Donald Trump set an abrasive, ill-mannered, arrogant tone that they identify with the city itself.

This view is most evident in solidly Republican states in the South and mountain West, and in rural areas all over the country.

Remnants of anti-Semitism and similarly faded historical animosities directed at other “legacy” immigrant groups, Italians especially, help fuel the sentiment.  More recent targets of nativist ire — Hispanics, Muslims, “persons of color” generally – though plentiful in the city and its environs, are not particularly associated with the New York region in the public mind.

In those same good old days, Trump, self-promoter extraordinaire, managed to make himself a fixture in the tabloid press and in the world of reality TV.  What he was really good at, though, was using political juice to enrich himself.  He was also good at deluding himself into thinking that his riches were the result of his business savvy and deal-making “artistry.”

Those deals resulted in the construction of architectural mediocrities in New York and elsewhere, casinos in Atlantic City (all since gone bankrupt), golf resorts in the four corners of the world, and the kinds of over-the-top consumer goods that appeal to people with more money than taste.

It is far from clear that anything socially useful came from any of it.

To be sure, as he boasts, he did create some jobs along the way.  He also shafted a lot of workers, contractors, and investors.

The people he conned into voting for him, many of whom support him still, thought that, because he “succeeded” in business, he was just the one to “make America great again.”  They still think that, but with this caveat: he can only do what they thought he would if Democrats, recalcitrant Republicans, and purveyors of “fake news” would get out of the way – if they would all just let Trump be Trump.

The reason so many think that isn’t just that there is a sucker born every minute.  It is also that, like many Americans, people drawn to Trump suffer from two debilitating moral and intellectual afflictions: they worship success in business, and they wallow in ignorance.

They are fools — and, as the roughly two-thirds of the public that loathes the Donald intensely has come to realize, they are not easily disabused of their folly.  Their numbers are slowly diminishing, however; those of us who are tempted to despair of the human race can take some comfort in that.

There is comfort too in the realization that what drew people to Trump in the first place, and what keeps so many of those people on board, is hardly admiration for his character or support for the nefarious, mean spirited policies he and his minions want to foist upon four-fifths or more of the population.

Trump voters liked, or at least tolerated, Trump because he told the kinds of people who thought that Hillary Clinton was God’s gift to the world to go to hell.  Some of them still like him because, like Hillary, the people he rails against think that they are “deplorable.”

Even so, it is hard to imagine that even they would keep on standing by their man if they took notice of how his money was made or reflected on how the policies he backs would harm them and benefit the “elites” they despise.

An alarming number of them have, so far, neither taken note nor reflected.  It was worse six months ago, but not much.  Whatever we make of the people who form Trump’s hardcore base, the fact that there are so many of them truly is deplorable.

Something else hasn’t changed much either: New York is still one of the last places on earth – or at least in the United States — that people in the demographic Trump targets want to live.  The reasons are the same as before. The problem is not Trump himself; it is everything he epitomizes and represents.

How could this sensibility not dampen peoples’ susceptibility to Trump’s allurements?  Could Hillary have pissed them off that much?

Meanwhile, the consequences of living in a perpetual war regime are increasingly falling due, and disabling inequalities are everywhere on the rise.  All but the very rich are becoming worse off, Trump voters most of all.

In these circumstances, at least some of what is going on does make sense.

It was almost predictable, for example, that, at some point, there would be a rightwing “populist” revolt against the neoliberal consensus.  In the absence of a politically significant, counter-systemic (indeed, socialist) alternative, this is what happens.

That rightwing populists would have nothing more to offer than meretricious “free market” nostrums that make existing problems worse, and that only the hyper-rich would benefit from what they propose, is not surprising either.  That is what rightwing populism is about.

That a personality cult would form around a rightwing populist Leader is unsurprising too; it is almost a cliché.

The stars were therefore rightly aligned for a Second Coming of someone like the Kingfish, Huey P. Long Jr.; a charismatic rabble-rouser who would rant about spreading the wealth and making “every man a king.”  The savior would be a man (surely not a woman) of the people, born and bred in the heartland, who would stand up against Trump-style, New York City sleaze.

How then did it happen that it fell to Donald Trump, of all people, to become the tribune of white, rural America, and of working class victims of the neoliberal turn?  There is no way to make sense of this aspect of Trump era absurdity that credits Trump voters with rationally defensible beliefs.

But even if Trump is somehow able to fool so many people all of the time, how possibly can his new communications czar, Anthony Scaramucci, “the Mooch,” get away with it?

Trump emits a defiance vibe that stokes the flames of rightwing populist discontent.  Like J.J. Hunsecker  (Bert Lancaster) in “The Sweet Smell of Success,” he is a self-absorbed ltyrant who rules his roost capriciously and with the utmost cruelty.  That evidently appeal to authoritarian personalities in the general population.

The line on Scaramucci, coming from pundits in the “fake news” world, is that he and Trump are cut from the same cloth; that they are both capitalist high flyers who, before finding it expedient to join the GOP, knew how to get around on both sides of the road.

I don’t see it.  The pasts of the two of them are in some ways alike, but Scaramucci is more like the slimy, fast-talking, glad-handing sycophantic press agent Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis) than like Hunsecker.  Changing the point of reference to one more on point, he is  more like “Little Marco” Rubio than the bastard who gave him that name.

Like Rubio and other leading figures in the GOP, the Mooch is a featherweight who rose to the top of the heap because the competition was pathetic.  Trump did too, but his rise  required the skills of a mountebank as well.

Nevertheless, separately and together, the two of them epitomize the reasons why so many Americans want to live anywhere but New York.

Scaramucci, it seems, has ethics issues to clear up before he can do much more than appear on television in Trump’s behalf, and even the legality of that is questionable.  Perhaps this is why, for now, he took a job that seems like a step or two down for the high flyer he is said to be.  Perhaps he and Trump saw this as a way for him to get his foot through the door.

The Mooch didn’t inherit a lot of money the way Trump did, but, in an earlier life, it seems that he found a way into the kinds of corporate and media circles that, along with their Republican counterparts, the Clintons and Obama and other like-minded corporate Democrats cultivated.  Like so many other  “populist” heroes currently residing in Trumpland, he worked at Goldman Sachs and similar operations, founded and ran a hedge fund, and convened a yearly conference in Las Vegas where miscreants from throughout the power structure would get together to cultivate their (ruling) class-consciousness.

Nevertheless, he signed on to do yeoman service for Trump.  One has to suspect that, whatever he says, he is not just doing it for patriotic reasons or for the love of Donald Trump.

The man he succeeded, Sean Spicer, was ludicrous, but in the end, harmless.  Is Scaramucci harmless?   That isn’t likely.  The Sydney Falcos of the world seldom are.

Reportedly, Jared and Ivanka were Scaramucci supporters; Steve Bannon was not; and Reince Priebus surely was not.

No doubt, there is more to this than meets the eye.  It would be a mistake, however, to attribute comings and goings in Trumpland to garden variety palace intrigues.

Who is in and who is out depends, more than anything, on what happens to be flashing through the space between the Donald’s ears at any given moment.   And that, more than anything, is a function of what Trump just happened to see on Fox News or learn about from even less edifying sources.  As Aristotle made plain long ago, it is unwise to demand more intelligibility than some subject matters allow.

Nobody can impose order on the booming buzzing confusion inside Trump’s head – not Scaramucci, not anybody.

Did Jared and Ivanka think otherwise?  It is hard to believe that even those two pious entrepreneurial airheads could be that stupid.

Or, from a more erudite perspective, that inspired.

It would be fair to say, however, that somebody up there – way up beyond the penthouses in Trump Tower — has a flair for the bizarre.

Since at least the late sixteenth century, Scaramouche has been a stock clown character in one of Italy’s signal contributions to the modern theater, the commedia dell’arte.  In Italian, scaramuccia means “conniving little schemer.”

Dressed, hatted and coiffed in a way that parodies a Spanish don, Scaramouche served clowns who rank above him – often in ways that turned out badly, at least for him.  The poor clown would often be beaten up for being a braggart and a coward; in other words, for being Trump-like and true to his name.

Scaramouche’s fate is the fate of almost everyone who serves under Trump – unless, of course, they are part of the Trump family circle, and are therefore, in the Donald’s mind, extensions of himself.

With Spicer and the other hapless Trump explainers – the cartoonish Kellyanne Conway, comes immediately to mind, as does poor Sarah Huckabee Sanders – Trump’s communications team was onto something, even if they didn’t know it or get the joke themselves.

Intending no disrespect to genuine clowns or to the illustrious tradition of the commedia dell’arte, there is no other way to say it: they were a clown show reporting on a clown.   Now it will be the Mooch’s show to run.

Perhaps in the end, he will move on to where he can do more harm than in the White House Communications Office.  For now, though, Scaramouche’s namesake has found his niche.

After all, like Scaramouche, Trump is a laughing stock, a low life conniver, a coward and a braggart.  Who better than a ruling class flack, bearing the great clown’s name, to explain to the world what Trump’s inane and often contradictory tweets are trying to say.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).