Kosinski Foresaw Our Television President

Peter Sellers in “Being There”

Monday

America is gradually coming to the realization that it has elected Chance the Gardener as president. If we want to understand Donald Trump’s unexpected success, we can find some answers in the  protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novella.

Being There is about a retarded man who suddenly finds himself adrift in the world after spending his entire life cared for by a wealthy man. Gardening and television are Chance’s only two activities, yet somehow they take him as far as the White House.

The book’s satiric joke is that Chance functions as a mirror in which everyone sees what he or she wants to see. We are such a narcissistic society, Kosinski indicates, that a person can go far by simply parroting back to others what they desire. For instance, when Chance spouts gardening truisms, people in high places see him delivering metaphors that validate their policy positions. The President asks Chance what he thinks about “the bad season in The Street” and approves of his response:

“In a garden,” he said, “growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” He raised his eyes. Rand [his host] was looking at him, nodding. The President seemed quite pleased.

“I must admit, Mr. Gardiner,” the President said, “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.”

The president goes on to quote Chance in a speech, which draws the attention of Washington insiders. When Chance makes another horticultural observation, people are impressed:

“Hear, hear!” the woman sitting on Chance’s right cried out. “He’s marvelous!” she whispered to the companion on her right in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. To the others, she said: “Mr. Gardiner has the uncanny ability of reducing complex matters to the simplest of human terms. But by bringing this down to earth, to our own home,” the woman continued, “I can see the priority and urgency which Mr. Gardiner and the influential men like him, including our President, who quotes him so often, give to this matter.” Several of the others smiled.

Recall that many people thought Trump was being metaphorical when he promised to deport millions of immigrants and build a wall.

The idea that voters project is nothing new. It is how our leaders manage to stitch together diverse constituencies. Where Chance and Trump are unusual, however, is that confusing television and reality is the very key to their success.

Let’s look first at television’s effect on each man. Here’s Chance venturing out into the world for the first time:

He was surprised: the street, the cars, the buildings, the people, the faint sounds were images already burned into his memory. So far, everything outside the gate resembled what he had seen on TV; if anything, objects and people were bigger, yet slower, simpler and more cumbersome. He had the feeling that he had seen it all.

And here’s Trump, as described by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine:

“Trump is an avid television viewer. He’s a product of television. He loves television. It’s his first source of interest,” former CNN host Larry King, a longtime Trump friend, recently told BuzzFeed. During the campaign, Trump once claimed in complete earnestness that he would not require policy advisers because he could get his information from “the shows.” He has reportedly selected his Cabinet officials in part based on whether they “look the part” for television — which sounds implausible until you remember that Trump’s candidacy was launched in large degree by turning the character he played on a reality show into a viable political persona. 

Indeed, Trump appears to have reversed his previous opposition to intervening in Syria based on televised images of children gassed by Bashar al-Assad:

“That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.” Trump saw something on television that upset him, so he cast aside his position and formulated a new one, which neither Trump nor his advisers could articulate, driven by his newfound, apparently sincere, but diffuse outrage at the brutality of the dictator he had once touted as a potential partner against ISIS. The televised images of suffering overrode everything he had said about the issue for years.

Because of their familiarity with television’s conventions, both Chance and Trump are able to manipulate people. For instance, when a woman starts conversing with Chance, he appears to understand her:

Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encouraged her to continue and elaborate. Each time Chance repeated EE’s words, she brightened and looked more confident. In fact, she became so at ease that she began to punctuate her speech by touching, now his shoulder, now his arm. Her words seemed to float inside his head; he observed her as if she were on television.

Chance performs just as well in a televised interview, even though it is on a subject he knows nothing about:

Upstairs, Chance was met by Rand’s secretary: “That was a truly remarkable performance, sir,” the woman said. “I have never seen anyone more at ease, or truer to himself. Thank goodness, we still have people like you in this country.”

A fair number of people see Trump this way as well. Even though he lies with virtually every breath he takes, they regard him as more trustworthy than those who carefully parse their words. He knows how to perform confidence and sincerity.

Nor could anyone accuse either man of hiding who he is. Chance never pretends to be anything but a gardener, and Trump during the election forthrightly invited the Russians to hack the Clinton campaign. We perhaps think that Trump cannot have colluded with the Russians because he has so obviously refrained from criticizing Vladimir Putin while, at the same time, doing things that the Russian head wants (attacking NATO, changing the GOP platform on Ukraine). Wouldn’t he try to hide these things if he were guilty?

By the end of Being There, Chance appears to be Vice-President or maybe even President. We’re so apt to project that we overlook what stares us in the face. Until it’s too late.

Further thought: Although I’ve been comparing Donald Trump to Chance, in some ways Vice-President Mike Pence seems an even better candidate. He shows a face of granite resolve to the cameras yet it’s not clear that there is much behind the look. I remember the election debate when he only shook his head sadly when Tim Kaine detailed Trump’s many lies and contradictions, as though he was disappointed that his opponent had stooped so low. It worked for a while when he was Governor of Indiana, but then people caught on and his approval ratings were plummeting by the time he was chosen by Trump.

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