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The Big Con


In the climactic scene of the 1972 film “The Sting”, Paul Newman takes his gun and fires at Robert Redford. Redford drops to the floor, blood spurting from his mouth. Immediately after, the object of their con (played by Robert Shaw) is whisked out of the gambling den fuming, “My money’s in there!”, having lost half a million dollars. Cut back to Redford, lying still in the floor. A second later, he wipes the fake blood from his mouth, sits up, and laughs in celebration of the big con.

With trickery that is only evident in hindsight, not only has the mark been fooled and swindled out of his money, but we the audience fell for the ruse as well.

In another movie, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, we enjoy watching Steve Martin and Michael Caine pull off an elaborate swindle to separate a rich heiress from her money. Their antics are only topped by our astonishment and delight when the heiress (played by the late Glenne Headley) turns out to have been playing our heroes all along.

Since the dark day over a year ago, when the presidential election was decided, and over the past 12 months, I have struggled to explain why so many voters—a minority of the country to be sure, but a substantial majority of both the Republican Party and rural America—chose Trump and continue to stick by him. It was evident to me years ago, as a New Yorker with a close-up view of his antics, that this was a scam artist and a hustler. When the presidential campaign revealed that he hadn’t changed, I thought that his con would be exposed. But to this day, millions of people are still buying what he’s selling.

But just like Newman and Redford couldn’t do it alone and had to enlist a whole troupe of partners, so Trump is aided and abetted in his con by much of the Republican establishment and by Republican politicians from both houses of Congress. This is a big con.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Trump pledged to defend “the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals.”

But who are Trump and his congressional allies speaking for now? Certainly not the forgotten men and women of our country, who would not only be losing many deductions and see our tax bills go up in the later years of the plan, but who would also be saddled with a projected $2 trillion additional debt. We “forgotten” are paying for this so that business taxes can be slashed, along with tax breaks that corporations have long lobbied for, and so that estate taxes can be eliminated. And of course, the lower pass-through rate in this bill would ultimately benefit passive investors, who don’t generate wealth for the country—best exemplified by a certain Donald J. Trump and his heirs.

We the middle class are Robert Shaw in this swindle. And the con artists are thriving at our expense.

But here’s the thing—and here is where I misread the audience. I used to think that those millions of Trump supporters were being fooled, and they didn’t know the true measure of this man and his cronies. But in fact, they know about the con, and they like the con. Just like we rooted for the scam artists played by Newman, Redford, Caine, and Martin, they are rooting for it too and enjoying watching Trump and his partners pull a fast one on us, even on them. This is Trump as reality show star, as carnival barker, and the viewers are part of his game.

In Roman times, emperors kept the populace happy by giving them games and other spectacles. That may have worked in ancient times, but it is different in a democracy. Voters who give up their basic responsibility to learn the issues, fact-check politicians, and hold representatives accountable open the door for misguided policy-making and give the president and Congress and opportunity to laugh at us all the way to the bank. And it is a giant insult to the rest of us who are trying to take this political thing somewhat seriously.

My fellow Americans: I get it. You like to be entertained. So, go to Amazon or You Tube and rent “The Sting”. Watch “Breaking Bad” again. Binge on “How I Met Your Mother.” But please carve out at least a small portion of your day to read the news like you used to do. Think carefully about the issues. Vote Republican if you must, but then make sure these politicians know they are answerable to you for their actions.

Remember, it’s your money in there.

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