Honest Abe was well acquainted with the hucksters of his day, but I don't think he ran into anyone quite like Donald Trump. The Donald is determined to "fool all the people all the time" or at least as many as it takes to win the Presidency. And he may very well succeed in his quest.
The pundits within the Beltway have never seen anything like it. They are used to the garden-variety con man, a species as endemic to the DC area as ragweed in August. Their kind of con man is in hock to the donor class and is forced to parse his words to appease this class while attempting to appeal to just enough voters to win the election. Of course this kind of con man misrepresents the truth, but sparingly so as to provide plausible deniability if caught in the act. He may attack select groups of people (e.g., women seeking abortions, undocumented workers, people on welfare, transgender people), but only to the extent needed to satisfy his particular base.
But now the pundits have to deal with the über con man ... descending on their benighted political paradise from that "great" Gotham to the north ... a con man by the name of Donald J. Trump. And their reaction has been spectacularly over the top. The Huffington Post, for instance, ends every article with the following editor's note: "Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant homophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims - 1.6 billion members of an entire religion - from entering the U.S." Whew ...
Trump has honed his skills through numerous shady business deals in New York, America, and overseas. A number of these went bust, but Trump was able to weather the storm through the generosity of American corporate bankruptcy laws (unlike young people who are not allowed to discharge student loans because, after all, they are people).
One eponymous con after another ... Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump University, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Vodka, Trump Bubba Gump (I made the last one up). He has left a trail of broken investor hearts in his many development deals including a golf course deal left unconsummated in Scotland, a failed luxury condominium-hotel in Baja Mexico, boarded-up casinos in Atlantic City, and the list goes on. His pride and joy, Trump Tower, was constructed on the former site of the Bonwith Teller flagship store, an architecturally renowned building demolished by Trump in 1980. In the process Trump destroyed numerous invaluable sculptures that had been promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art ... citing a possible 10-day construction delay.
Trump is so impressed by his business acumen that he decided to document his exploits in a screed entitled The Art of the Deal. He has famously proclaimed this to be the second most important book ever written; he reluctantly reserves first place for the Bible. I would suggest that his book has been mistitled. It really should be The Art of the Con.
"Con" is short for "confidence trick." Wikipedia defines confidence trick as "an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence used in the classical sense of trust. Confidence tricks exploit characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty, honesty, vanity, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, naïveté, and greed." These words should be inscribed on the book jacket of The Art of the Deal.
A successful con requires excellent communication skills. Trump has been able to perfect these skills through the medium of television. As the host of "The Apprentice," he ruled over teams assigned various projects. At the end of each episode he eliminated one of the contestants with the words, "You're fired!" He would intone these words with obvious relish.
After a few years of preparation Trump was ready to embark on his greatest confidence trick of all, convincing the American people to make him President. He started with a well-designed tagline, "Make America Great Again." (Note the underlying suggestion that America is in decline, but that he will revive the country to its former glory.) In recent months he has mastered the fine skill of demagoguery through intensive on-the-job-training ... in front of massive adoring crowds, mostly composed of angry white men. He has also absorbed the essential skills needed in televised debates. Trump has relied on his complete skill set for these debates including scathing insults, misstating facts for optimal effect, and constructing convenient conspiracy theories. All this was done in the brashest of manners, enough to make even fellow New Yorkers blush.
But I think Trump's greatest achievement was his brilliant use of branding to take down opponents. He labelled Jeb Bush as "low energy," a perceptive take on Bush's character. The crowd was then left to confirm Bush's "low energy" every time they saw his slouched posture and slow speech pattern (psychologists refer to this as confirmation bias). Other Trump monikers include Lyin' Ted, Crooked Hillary, and Crazy Bernie. Meanwhile, no one has come up with effective branding for Trump (although the Democrats have been trying, albeit with the lame moniker of Dangerous Donald).
I respectfully submit The Great American Con Man as the most effective branding for Trump. It could be simply shortened to Con Man Trump or Donald the Con Man, but there is some beauty in the full name. The Great American ... this concedes the greatness of Trump, which is one characteristic that this most narcissistic of men insists on. It also acknowledges that he is an American, through and through, in keeping with the best con men our country has ever produced. Think of the celebrated P.T. Barnum or Charles Ponzi of Ponzi scheme fame or Bernie Madoff, the most recent Ponzi scheme practitioner. What about the lovable American rogues portrayed on the big screen by Clark Gable or Cary Grant or even Bugs Bunny? Or how about the iconic used car salesman, an American institution if ever there was one?
Trump is simply the latest in a long line of American con men, and he is one of the best. His followers actually recognize this and admire him for it; some of his most rabid followers privately admit that Trump can't get Mexico to pay for a wall, but they respect him for taking a stand, albeit a ridiculous one. When the DC pundits trash Trump for these kinds of statements, it further motivates his followers to stand behind their man.
And that goes for his statements about immigrants and Muslims. He is disparaged by the Beltway elite, which further strengthens the resolve of his followers, who recognize the elite as the real enemy. Is the Huffington Post correct when it labels Trump as a "rampant homophobe, racist, misogynist," and so on? Not really. Trump actually shows equal opportunity disdain for anyone who isn't a member of his immediate family. But most importantly, he is simply trying to make the deal ... or the con if you will. He is employing all the persuasion tools at his disposal. We shouldn't be surprised if truth or good manners are casualties in the process. He is simply trumping all the other pols who also resort to deception, but in a more half-hearted fashion.
The bottom line is that I believe that Trump is a gifted individual who stands an good chance of winning the Presidency. He has many strengths that would be useful as President. He is a deal maker (con man) par excellence deploying truth, lies, artifice, whatever is needed to make the con. He speaks the language of the common man, a no BS presentation that people can identify with. He projects power and strength with an imposing presence. And most of all, he is supremely confident in his abilities, and it shows.
Of course Trump has numerous weaknesses and character flaws, which have been beaten into our collective consciousness by the frightened mainstream media and his equally frightened opponents. One is that he is likely to get us into serious diplomatic difficulties with his candid, in-your-face speaking style, possibly leading to warfare. Second, he has a weak regard for truth and science, using these as fungible assets to be manipulated at will; this rears its head when he speaks about climate change or California's drought situation, or other science-based topics. Third, he speaks and thinks in hyperbolic terms; he invariably characterizes relatively mundane things as the greatest or the best or the worst. Of course, egotist that he is, Trump reserves the highest superlatives for himself. Fourth, he seems to be incapable of delegating important tasks to others. We now know that he has acted as his own spokesman in the past, secretly assuming names such as John Miller and John Barron. It is hard to imagine how such a control freak could run the world's biggest bureaucracy. Fifth, he has poor analytical skills, instead relying on personal intuition to solve problems. This is compounded by his obvious lack of interest in details.
Anyway, this is my take on Donald Trump. Unlike the Beltway punditry, I refuse to brand him as a stupid dolt who has mysteriously stumbled into position as Republican nominee for President. He is enormously talented in many respects. The primary downside I see is that a President Trump may very well destroy the country and get us all killed. Kind of a high price to pay for falling for a simple con.