When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.
Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen and out and out thieves who drive wagons through dead-end protestant towns promising the gullible a cure for what ails them. Their clientele are the people H L Mencken described as oblivious to facts and uninterested in detail–
No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.
The mistake that is made always runs [this way]:. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.
In the case of Harold Hill, he promises the people a band of festooned drummers and trombone players marching proudly through the flat streets of River City for the Fourth of July. The problem is, the professor can’t read music, play an instrument, direct a band or deliver on any of the promises he’s made. It’s all flim flam–as he confesses when confronted with his crooked dealing:
Oh this is a refined operation son, and I’ve got it timed down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand on the last train outta town.
The hypocrisy of the Music Man is that it finds redemption in the idea that even if you’re hoodwinked by a total fraud and no-gooder–shucks–people deserve to dream and the fake professor at least delivers on that: The musical’s big production number turns his lie into a reality and encourages the belief that flim flam is as good as the truth, and that if you are dull-witted and gullible you still have the right to your illusions. Maybe (we are encouraged to think, as Dickens encourages us to think Scrooge will be improved by his nightmares) Harold Hill will end up on the straight and narrow, or at least not be tarred and feathered, which is the fate of Mark Twain’s characters. In anti-intellectual America everybody deserves a shot; education and training get in the way of “common sense” decision- making, and there’s not much difference between someone who talks a good game and someone who knows how to play one.
The travelling salesman and medicine man era is over. Now we have shopping channels and internet marketing in their place. But the plain people are still pretty bloody plain and the temptation to flim-flam them out of their money or loyalty is just as great as it was in Twain’s and Mencken’s day.
Along comes a blast from the past: the true heir of every fraudster who had ever decorated the pages of a frontier humour magazine. Like Professor Harold Hill, he sings his successes and promises his audiences a fantastic future where everything will be Fabulous. Wars will be fought and won, not in the namby pamby, cautious, inconclusive way that American leaders have for the last eight or twenty …or who’s counting…or who knows where? Veterans will be taken care of. Women who have abortions will maybe be punished. We’ll see (what do you want to hear–I’ll say it). You want a big band? I’ll get you a big band. What kind of band do you want. It will be fabulous. You want a wall to keep illegals out, I’ll build you the biggest damn wall you will ever see and it won’t cost you a nickel Do you want gold T’s on it? Fabulous.
Donald Trump belongs to a species of American humour that many people considered defunct until he reignited our passion to be hornswoggled, lied to, and persuaded that the world is reducible to the sum total of our competing prejudices and desires.
Curbside the nation is greedy for his snake oil, or seems to be. Large sections of the country have become his Gary, Indiana or River City, Iowa. He talks to the folks that politicians like to call folks even though many people hate the implicit dumbness of the word (I do)–the ones Mencken called the plain peoople. The ones who, because they can read and write and vote, we assume have ideas in their head, and don’t.
It is those empty heads that Trump is now cramming with his inconsistent and unworkable solutions to real time problems: the card shark who the plain folk imagine has the real story about global warming; the Las Vegas riverboat mogul who, it’s assumed, can handle foreign policy in the Middle East and strut with real leaders on the world stage. An insult comedian who knows plain people think diplomacy is bunk, that America is Number One and by God needs to stay that way.
How can an atavism like the flim flam man survive the glare of the media, of the searching eye of investigative journalism and public opinion? Easy. The nabob media of the United States, whether conservative or liberal, is grossly ignorant because they have to sell their wares to the same people. No one can look to them for the truth because the media have never been interested in the truth. Mencken knew in the 1920’s that it was all about selling newspapers, and thus about stories. Donald Trump, as a flim flam man, knows that. The American media was made for him, not for real reporting about complex problems. Every day he strives to be a good story. And he is.
In most stories about flim flam men, the huckster gets his just deserts. He has to because of a totally fallacious Lincolnesaque notion that a liar will lose if he tries to fool all of the people all of the time. Put on a train, driven out of town on a rail, sent to jail, or ridiculed in the public square by the same people who, a day before, regarded him as their hero, their saviour from the grim sameness of life in River City.
But here’s the reality in Main Street America: The citizens of this trembling democracy have elected average men, dishonest men, stupid men, cruel men and unworthy men to the office of president. The Jeffersons and Lincolns, Roosevelts and JFKs have been few and far between. But that in iself is no surprise. Most nations of the world can count their greats on the fingers of one hand.
The horrible thing about this event in American political history is that if this cardboard clown of a politician wins the election, it will be the first time that a known liar and fraud will be rewarded for lying his lies in such an open and consequential way and getting away with it. It is the public saying to the snake oil salesman, We know your potions are worthless, to the card shark, we know you’re cheating, to the used car salesman, we know the car you sold us was junk–but we don’t care. If he is elected, Donald Trump will reign as the pre-forgiven leader whose lies and callous indifference to truth have been wiped away by gullible and forgiving Christian yokels just as surely as Jesus wiped away their sins.
Flim Flam Donald doesn’t believe anything he is saying. Like his literary ancestors, his feat has been to sell a bill of goods–a Brooklyn bridge, prime waterfront real estate in Florida, a $5.99 cure for angina, arthritis and obesity–to people who are ready to accept lies because the truth of politics and American democracy eludes them. Plain people like simple answers even if they are the wrong answers, and Trump’s answers are very, very simple.