Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hey you up in the rigging, here comes the con!

What's the use of a vocabulary if you don't use it? And why are there so many words? Shades of meaning. I wrote about this back in August in connection with the word "rigging": it is revelatory to go back to the root meaning of the word in order to understand its application to politics. It is not a stand-in for "fraud" or for "dirty tricks" or for "political shenanigans." The rigging happens in naitonal and state capitols and is carried out by elected officials in the form of gerrymandering and voter ID laws; it happens when political parties establish their rules. Anybody who thinks that words matter will appreciate this distinction.

(As for vote fraud, can a corps of volunteer "observers" do anything to counter voting-machine tampering, which is where actual fraud is most likely to swing an election? Planet 3799 Novgorod is laughing at you, America.)

The best word to consider in connection with this campaign, however, is "con." It is another word that has taken on a generic sense that careful users of language will want to root out. A "con" is synonymous with "swindle," and the "con" man carrying it out is just a bad, thieving person.

What this leaves out, however, is to me the fascinating detail that the root word of "con" provides. I wonder how many people not knowing the root might guess that--given the generic "bad guy" flavor of "con man"--the root word is "connive" or "contemptible"? Those seem in some ways closer to the heart of a con than anything you find in the actual root, which is of course "confidence."

Confidence. To take someone into confidence, to have confidence in someone, because they inspire confidence: such positive attributes at the root!

Donald Trump has from the very beginning of his campaign a confidence man. He is without political experience or public service of any kind, yet he is asking the electorate to have confidence in him as the leader of the world's most powerful nation. There is not much more to his campaign than his slogan: give me your confidence (your vote) and I will make America great again. How? Don't ask. Hey, he builds golf courses.

That's the beauty of the confidence man. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The devil? In fact the devil of the Bible was the first recorded confidence "man" in that nothing in the way of convincing Eve or tempting Jesus could even have begun unless he first established confidence.

(Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is the consummate political operative appealing to policy rather than personality. We know everything about her political and public service because it is, well, public and subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which Wikileaks used to expose the State Dept. emails that continue to bedevil her despite their lack of personally culpable information. Is there some inverse relationship between how much we know about someone's political life and how much confidence we have in them? There appears to be something of that dynamic at work in this election.)

And here, by chance, is the word in a campaign-related story by Ben Fountain in The Guardian: The Big Con: what is really at stake on election day. When I say "by chance," I don't mean only that I've been mulling the meaning of "confidence man" ever since Trump started his campaign, but I've also been reading Kenneth S. Davis's book FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937, glorying in the totally forgotten history of this critical time with which much of Fountain's article concerns itself, mostly by saying, well, it's been totally forgotten.

What is the Big Con to which Fountain refers? It is anti-government ideology, faith in the miracle of unimpeded markets:
40 years of well-funded, highly organized laissez-faire proselytizing and government-bashing have done a number on the American mind. The country got conned by a profound ideological shift, starting in the early 1970s as hardcore free-market, anti-government advocates launched a concerted effort to change the political landscape. 
"Got conned." To be fair--in the way that my argumentation has gone--these free-market, anti-government advocates were not con men in the empty-minded way that Donald Trump is. They were and are, after all, advocates who believe in something. Why they believe that, and why history shows the belief to be ill-founded, are other questions that Fountain addresses very well in his article--which seems to be essentially a book review of American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The book's subtitle pretty much sums things up: "How the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper."

Or, shall we say, "great"? The "conning" really comes into play when Everyman/woman, increasingly stressed by macroeconomic changes over which he/she has no control, turns in desperation to an empty suit like Donald Trump for an answer.  He is himself--with his celebrity status and his self-proclaimed great temperament--the answer, despite his absolute lack of public experience compounded by total ignorance of history and current affairs.

Such free-market advocates as Paul Ryan distrust him, as well they should, but at the same time they expect to be able to manage him. If he is elected, and if he is managed, here is how Fountain describes a continuing decline from a national prosperity established in part with a vigorous Federal government:
The New Deal goal of broadly shared prosperity has taken a beating the past 40 years, and the damage shows. By virtually every measure relative to other rich nations, the US has lost ground since the 1970s. We’re shorter (height is an excellent indicator of social conditions), we don’t live as long, more of our babies die before their first birthdays, wages and educational achievement have stagnated, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity are higher than at any time since the late 19th century. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have actually risen the past 15 years, especially for non-college-educated whites. Maternal mortality rose 27% nationwide between 2000 and 2014. In Texas, the maternal mortality rate doubled between 2010 and 2014.
The very rich, of course, can buy what they need – healthcare, clean water, political clout. They have their walled compounds and private islands to retreat to. As for the rest of us – for instance, all the good citizens out there in rural Texas, Tea Party Texas, the hard country that was transformed by the New Deal – one tries to imagine how it might look in 70 or 80 years if current trends continue. Crumbling roads, jerry-rigged bridges, worn-out farms. A grudging, “market-based” energy grid. Clean water a rarity, and healthcare that’s hit and miss. Perineal tears, perhaps, are once again commonplace. A far-fetched scenario, surely, but no harder for us to imagine in 2016 than the lived reality of rural Texas 80 years ago.
What was it The Who sang? Won't get fooled again? Maybe not, but with Trump you're just getting conned. And what'll you do? Probably blame it on Eve.

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