Not Just a Con Artist, Trump Is Also a Genius

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport, in Avoca, Pennsylvania, November 2, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport, in Avoca, Pennsylvania, November 2, 2020.Credit: Evan Vucci,AP

In 2017, the late author Philip Roth, a liberal Jewish icon in American culture, wrote to the New Yorker about the commonly made comparison between the fictional presidency of the nationalist and isolationist pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh in his 2004 book “The Plot Against America” and Donald Trump’s actual presidency.

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist.”

This is the standard dismissive and condescending attitude toward Trump in the kind of circles in which Roth himself was (rightly) viewed as someone who displayed “genius” in his writing career. Even if he is not reelected to a second term this week, Trump is not just a con artist. He, too, is a genius.

The presidency of someone like Trump isn’t something that someone like Roth could have conceived of really happening. It is a political event that surpasses what he thought possible. Philip Roth, waking up in his final years to an America in which Donald Trump is president – is like the Jew who is so sure of his German identity until that conception is suddenly shaken on Kristallnacht. He is faced with a fact he thought was impossible. And doing the impossible is a trademark of genius.

“I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English,” Roth wrote. All of this is true. But yet, even after a frightening, blundering and mean-spirited presidency, Trump is still a relevant candidate. And that is only because he is a genius. Not just a con artist. A genius con artist.

For some reason, Roth and the American social milieu he represents, failed to see this simple truth. Like Lindbergh and Henry Ford in their time, Trump was also, before he became president, one of the most famous Americans in the world. A global brand. With a genius for television, marketing and media. As a real estate developer, reality television star and presidential candidate, Trump showed consistent genius in these areas. And Trump is to the new and developing literary genre of tweeting what Roth was to American prose: a giant.

He was not elected president because of a fluke, but because of his genius, and the loathing for people like Roth – intellectuals, liberals, New Yorkers – that Roth personified. He is the greatest enemy that the Western democratic tradition has ever seen: bigger than Hitler, Stalin and Mao, who never threatened American society’s adherence to its values.

This is what makes Trump historic. His daring to be revolutionary cannot be denied – it is what has made him so dangerous, and that will not change even if he loses the election and challenges the result. Trump happened. He has already accomplished something that surpasses all imagination, just like Lindbergh when he made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. With 77 words, he did more than anyone else before him.

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