Chance the gardener knows just two things: gardening and TV. He’s an avid television junky. He reduces everything in life to simple statements about gardening. As told in Jerzy Kosinski’s book and the famous Peter Sellers movie “Being There,” a series of random events introduces Chance to top Washington society. Now renamed Chauncey Gardiner, his simplistic aphorisms are perceived inside the Beltway and American public opinion as genius. He becomes the toast of the town, adviser to the president and popular hero.
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Asked about economic incentives to stimulate the economy, for example, Gardiner says: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.” Then he babbles something about the changing seasons, promising “there will be growth in the spring”. To which President “Bobby” responds enthusiastically: “I admire your good, solid sense. That's precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.” Along with the president, the American public also goes nuts for Gardiner’s “simple brand of wisdom.”
Donald Trump isn’t Gardiner, of course: He didn’t live a cloistered life like Kosinski’s hero, he’s certainly more interested in sex than Gardiner, and, unlike the unassuming Kosinski protagonist, his ego is the center of his being. He’s way more abrasive, and often seems like a raging bull in a china shop, needlessly antagonizing allies and stirring up fights. But when you read the transcript of Trump’s interview with the Sunday Times, you can’t escape the comparison. Both Trump and Gardiner know the world only by what they see on television and through the limited prism of what the one thing they’ve done all their lives. Gardiner views life as one big garden; Trump sees the world as one big real estate deal. Geostrategic issues, in his eyes, are but another chapter in his book “The Art of the Deal.” Just as the gardener maintains the garden, the deal maker will manage the world.
Syrian refugees in Europe? Build safe zones financed by the Gulf States. Make the U.S. military win? Bring down the prices of the F-35 and F-18. NATO? Get the countries to pay up. Russia? “Let’s see if we can get some good deals with Russia.” What’s the problem with the “worst deal in history” with Iran? That Obama gave Tehran $1.7 billion in cash. What’s the issue with Security Council Resolution 2334 on settlements? “That it makes it harder for me to get a deal with the Palestinians.” And why is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a religious Jew who supports settlements in the West Bank, the best person to be Trump’s envoy for Middle East peace? Because he’s a “natural deal maker.”
And then – contrary to Gardiner – there’s Trump’s infatuation with himself. What’s the greatest thing about Brexit? That Trump predicted it. What’s the core problem of the European Union? That it took too long for Trump to get the necessary permits for his golf resort in Ireland. Does he have any heroes? Not really, but wasn’t it something how he won the elections? Is he a conservative? Who cares? The only thing people want is for someone to get them good deals.
On that last point, Trump may be right. People voted for him for a variety of reasons, including his foul language, his anti-establishment pose, his nativism and populism and the fact that he was the anti-Obama and anti-Clinton. But much of Trump’s appeal came from his reputation, which many experts claim is unwarranted, of being a cunning businessman and expert negotiator who will “cut the bullshit,” as an Israeli culture minister once said in a different context, and get the best deal possible for America.
The question, of course, is whether there is any resemblance between the business world and running America. Is it a coincidence that no CEO of a big business has ever been elected president or that when thinking of successful businessman-leaders abroad the first person that comes to mind is the degenerate and corrupt Silvio Berlusconi? Can the U.S. really be run by a president who’s only seen the world through balance sheets and television shows?
CEOs, especially those who run one-man shows like Trump, have only one goal in mind: making profits. Political leaders, ostensibly at least, are supposed to have multiple and sometimes contradictory targets, as well as a guiding philosophy and set of values. CEOs tell people what to do, and if they don’t, they tell them “you’re fired,” like Trump on “The Apprentice.” Politicians have to factor in myriad sources of influence and power, including Congress and public opinion. They have to know how to compromise. CEOs can be single-minded and experts on the one issue that makes their business run; presidents are expected to be knowledgeable about myriad aspects of their world around them and to trust their advisers for guidance on the information that they lack. Trump may have bamboozled American voters to elect him president, but, to put it delicately, he does not seem to meet the minimum requirements for the job.
In “Being There,” Chauncey Gardiner appears on the Gary Burns talk show on television and enthralls his host and the viewing audience. Watching the spectacle, Louise, the black maid who brought him up and was the only person he knew before he was set loose on the world, says of Gardiner that he is "Stuffed with rice pudding between the ears. Short-changed by the Lord and dumb as a jackass!" Yet as critic Paul Haspel wrote: “Louise takes no subsequent action to inform anyone of the realities regarding Chance's mental condition. It is as if she feels that any society that is foolish enough to treat Chance as a person of importance deserves for Chance to rise as high as possible.”
On the other hand, and just to maintain the slightest sliver of optimism before Trump actually becomes president on Friday, one must recall the famous ending of Hal Ashby’s film version of "Being There." Just after the pall bearers in the final funeral sequence discuss the possibility of getting Gardiner to run for president – his ratings on the Burns show are the clincher – Ashby had him walk on water on a nearby lake against the backdrop of President Bobby quoting the deceased Ben in his eulogy, saying “life is a state of mind.”
This final scene, which deviated from Kosinki’s screenplay, is one of the most controversial in movie history. Many critics chose the obvious path by questioning Ashby’s analogy of Gardiner to Christ, though that apparently wasn’t his intention. Rather, he wanted to show that Gardiner walked on water because he had no idea that he couldn’t.
So, if life isn’t at all what we think, maybe Trump will confound us all and broker the best, most amazing deals ever. Then we’ll all live happily ever after, watching the pigs fly by.