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The Brilliant 1993 Essay That Helped Me Understand the Trump Phenomenon of 2016

For decades, Donald Trump has embodied Americans’ ideas and ideals of the wealthy and powerful. But he’s also able to inhabit our archetype of the Regular Guy.

Donald Trump waits for protesters to be escorted out at his rally at the Synergy Flight Center in Bloomington on Sunday, March 13, 2016.   Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

Like a lot of people in my profession, I’ve spent an unfortunate amount of time trying to understand why people support Donald Trump. There are endless theories based in polling, focus groups, interviews, and first-person accounts, but they contradict each other or unsatisfyingly hover far from the mystery. Authoritarianism? Maybe it’s “The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter,” or maybe “Trump’s Voters Aren’t Authoritarians.” Maybe “Growth In White Poverty Fuels Trumps Run” or maybe it’s “Desperate Middle-Class Voters Who Made Trump the Republican Nominee.”

Which is fine, of course. We figure out these things by testing our ideas on each other. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong but ways that point us toward what’s true.

And it’s not like I’m any better at it. When I broke down Trump’s primary victory in Illinois, I found that, well, he did okay in some economically hard-hit places—but not as well as Ted Cruz, generally speaking. He did well in some rich places—but not as well as Kasich. “[H]e won with votes from across diverse areas of the state—while struggling in areas that might challenge assumptions about what socioeconomic phenomena have driven his surprising success,” I concluded. “In one of the strangest presidential races in the country’s history, there’s still much to learn about its most unpredictable figure.” You’re welcome!

A lot of these things can be true at once. Conor Friedersdorf last year did what amounts to an online focus group of 30 different supporters, capturing various perceptions of Trump: that he’s a moderate compromiser, or a successful businessman, or an “Alpha Male,” or an egoist and an egomaniac (in a good way). It’s a substantial effort and broadly representative of the reasoning and rhetoric that have become familiar lo these many months.

Pondering all this over what has turned out to be a very long year, I keep coming back to something very different, a brilliant essay by my late friend Lee Sandlin that ran in the Chicago Reader in 1993: “The American Scheme.”

Sandlin’s father was an Okie from a small town south of Tulsa who was a fighter pilot in the Korean War. After coming back he was an underwriter for the network of small airlines in the Midwest in the early days of postwar air travel. His time in flight over the region gave him a sense of how the country was expanding, and he went into real estate development with the goal of becoming a millionaire by the age of 40, which he did—at least on paper—following the can’t-lose deals that the GI Bill and the FHA pumped into the growing suburbs.

Then he got taken, went bust, and died young, three years after the deadline he’d set. All the while he was obsessively reading pulp fiction about what Sandlin calls the Regular Guy—the no-nonsense protagonist of cheap paperbacks. Sandlin weaves these Regular Guy stories around that of his father, creating a portrait of a man and a country that’s oddly resonant right now.

Sandlin on the Regular Guy myth:

The core of the Regular Guy myth is this: he can’t be conned. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade doesn’t even understand half of what the villains are up to—he’s just so cocky and cool he tricks them into catching themselves in their own traps. The bad guys turn out to be the romantics, the dreamers, seduced by a fool’s-gold vision: the Falcon is the Grail, a relic of European folklore that means nothing to a sharp-eyed American like Spade. Spade has no use for this or any other myth: he’s a clear-headed opportunist who keeps his eye always on the main chance.

Trump’s appeal, via one of Friedersdorf’s subjects:

Worst of all, [Obama] appears weak. Like an intellectual. Intellectuals make simple things complicated, and FAIL in real life. Because while real life may be complicated, you create progress by making it simple. By getting things done. Stop thinking, start doing. Stop considering, make a decision.

The Regular Guy’s charisma:

There was a kind of innocence in the way he saw through everything. He was so determined not to be taken in he became a byword for American philistinism. The Guy’s constant stream of cynical wisecracks, his contempt for the glamour and sophistication of the villains, the way his solutions reduced everything to the most banal and animalistic motives—it all came to suggest that the Guy never understood much about the world he had conquered. Instead, he was explaining it to the readers back home in a way that flattered their ignorance: that there wasn’t anything to these city slickers, their culture was a sham, their snobbery was a joke, their money unearned or stolen—and if you followed me into the city, you’d have it all in the palm of your hand.

Trump’s appeal:

He says foreign policy is dealmaking, and he will force Putin, Iran etc. into submission, and they will be happy about it (because it will be a good deal). Umm … yes he is right. Of course, the pundits and academic elites are piling on how he has no idea about economics and foreign policy, and how he is a fraud that dumb people fall for.

Guess what? They just called me dumb.

The Regular Guy’s relationship to the world:

And there was something wrong back home. Wherever the veterans looked in America after World War II and Korea—whether in small-town schools or children’s comic books, Hollywood movies or the State Department—they could sense it: the stench of the foreign. Nothing was American enough for them, once they got back; nothing could be trusted; nothing was the same.

Trump’s appeal:

Think about the greatness of the American 20th Century. Think about Fred Astaire or Michael Jackson enchanting the world with dance. Think about John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan inspiring the world with leadership. Think of Babe Ruth, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Rogers. The American 20th Century was a great one. Now think about the American headlines of today. What do you think of? War? Poverty? Political division? What are celebrities like today? Do we see greatness in America still on a daily basis or even in the movies? The Trump Family is the picture of the American Dream, and I believe Donald Trump is an honest man.

The Regular Guy’s relationship to other Americans:

The stories they told were so murky and exhausted, so vague in their particulars and so shaken by gusts of unexplained rage, that it was like listening to a drunk in a bar rant about a lifelong string of raw deals. The Guy hated his depraved aristocratic clients, he was contemptuous of middle-class conformists, he mocked the new generation of college-punk commies, he was afraid of blacks, he was bewildered and tempted by amoral hippie chicks – and his solutions to the mysteries were as numinous as the explanations in dreams.

Trump’s appeal:

Trump hasn’t elaborated much on any practical policy endeavors he would pursue. However, I think the bulk of his appeal comes through his defiance of the prevailing culture of political correctness among the media and academia. Although a seemingly minor issue relative to the economy or foreign policy, political correctness ignites conservative blogs and social media more than anything else. Beyond speech codes, ‘trigger warnings,’ or Twitter outrage mobs, the preeminence of political correctness among the culture class indicates a momentous shift away from formerly prominent middle-class cultural values and towards something entirely different. Even if Donald Trump were to accomplish little in his presidency, I think there is a hope that were he president, he could in some way alter that prevailing Washington/media culture and set a new cultural tone.

The Regular Guy’s ethics:

I can hear the voice speaking those monologues. Garner smilingly dismissing some traditional, polite way of doing things as an irrelevant waste of money and time; McGee explaining land grabs and stock manipulations, and laying down the law about the best Mexican beer, the best arrangement for stereo speakers, the best way to drive in a traffic jam; and, eventually, Nixon in the White House tapes, muttering his ruminative hatred of the Washington insiders, and only rousing himself to expound his hardheaded assessment of what the real story was with this or that liberal conspiracy. It’s my father’s voice: the Oklahoma twang softened by his years in the Air Force, the provincialism partially covered over by an accretion of expertise; he’s reeling off one more interminable tale of a legal scam, a sharp deal, a guy who’s really got it made.

Trump’s appeal:

Trump tells us it is because our leaders are stupid. We know the truth, it is because our leaders are CROOKED! Trump gets a bye here and the reason is this - from Trump’s perspective, the politicians he purchases like candy do seem extremely stupid. He watches them selling out their own kind for a few bucks and think how truly silly they look to him.

We invest a lot in the stories we tell of our leaders’ archetypes. Whom do you want to have a beer with? Who’s going to take the 3 a.m. phone call? What’s been so strange about this election season is watching a politician with the relatively anodyne temperament of Hillary Clinton struggle with “likability” while an unapologetically boorish figure like Trump cruised through the Republican primaries and has (until, perhaps, recently) maintained a surprisingly good chance of winning versus the Clinton juggernaut. Even though FiveThirtyEight’s current forecast has Clinton winning 358 electoral votes and the Princeton Election Consortium comes in with a 2012-like 335, Trump is likely to get 40 percent of the vote, and Clinton less than 50 percent.

It’s not scientific, but Sandlin’s essay helped me knit the tangled threads of Trump’s support together, and understand why so many attacks on him have fallen flat. He rails against outsourcing, yet manufactures his goods overseas? Well, he’s not a sucker. He gives to crooked politicians for his personal gain? Well, do you want to vote for the master or the mark? If it’s a crooked game, don’t you want someone who can play it? This is literally what a CPA wrote to Friedersdorf:

I have done tax returns for many, many years. For the “rich” and the poor, the successful and those whose businesses have failed. I have heard many promises from politicians about fixing our tax system, but none of them understand the reality of the pain or the stupidity of our tax laws like I believe Trump does. He uses the current system to pay minimal taxes, just like all my clients do. Good for him.

But there’s a flipside to the Regular Guy, as Sandlin’s father discovered. He was a Regular Guy, and he got taken for everything by a Regular Guy. So did all the others he grew up with, at the epicenter of the oil bust:

And the Regular Guys—they were long gone. By the time the crash came, they had already dived headfirst into Sunbelt time-share condo sales or penny stocks or the savings and loan industry. The leading edge of American money had moved on, and they were riding it toward the horizon. As for the partners and associates and investors they left behind: what could the Guys say about them? They were rubes. They trusted something—their own cleverness, the system, the Guys themselves: no matter what, they trusted and they were fools.

Wasn’t that just what had happened with my father, ten years before? People had warned him—he heard it for years, and he never listened. Everybody could see it coming, and everybody said so to his face. In the end, he got what everybody thought he’d get, though nobody thought he deserved. He’d set himself up in the construction business with the most cunning hustler he’d ever met, and he had never once suspected that he’d get hustled, too.

It was as though he had somehow missed the most important thing about the Regular Guy. He’d been seduced by the mystique; a real Guy was in it for the money. So if his partner came off as an unscrupulous manipulator of regulations, finances, and people—my father thought it was how a Guy was supposed to act. It never occurred to him that the Guy’s greed, his duplicity, his relentless drive to screw people over for the slightest advantage—they were the whole point. The mystique was just part of the con: the easiest way of hooking true believers like my father.

Sam Spade wouldn’t have been so naive. Wasn’t that the real meaning of The Maltese Falcon? Honor and integrity were tactics; there were no higher loyalties; Spade wasn’t heroic at all, just a Guy who couldn’t be hustled. That was the Guy’s only idea of metaphysics. My father had never been cut out to compete with people like that.

He’d been cheated and gulled from the start, all along, wherever he’d gone. The more he’d posed as a sharp operator, the more he came off as a gullible hick, and the easier he’d been to take.

Maybe the hard part isn’t figuring out the con; it’s admitting you might be the mark before the game’s up.


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