Trump: The Musical

America has a long history of indulging con artists with a heart. That’s where Trump falls short.

If TCM had intentionally counter-programmed Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man against the Trump rally broadcast on Saturday night, they couldn’t have made a more amusing and instructive choice than the 1962 blockbuster musical starring the great Robert Preston. I watched with relish the charismatic entertainer weasel and charm and connive his way into the minds and pocketbooks of small-town citizens — Harold Hill in Iowa, not Donald Trump in Florida. It’s hard to resist the enduring appeal of the American huckster.

P.T. Barnum is the oft-cited original mold for the kind of relentless hyperbole embodied by the prototypically slick salesman (now discredited in favor of subtler variations), but Barnum also invented the core elements of what we now know as mass media — stardom, celebrity, and virtually everything associated with commercial advertising and promotion. Without P.T. Barnum there would be no Harold Hill. And no Donald Trump.

This uniquely American variety of showmanship has always had an aspect of what was once called humbug, a spirit of pretense often intended more to amuse and delight than to deceive outright. As long as the risk is low and the trick is revealed we all like to be fooled. Which is why the difference between a show and a con is more outcome than intent.

Pool Tables and Mexicans

Harold Hill and Donald Trump both set their respective persuasion stages in precisely the same way: a timeworn and reliable frame called threat. The fact that one is set to music and concocted out of a pool table makes it no less fearful in the words of a great persuader:

Friend, either you’re closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a pool table in your community.
Well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.

Trump’s immigrant threat was an ignominious frame, obviously darker, but no less exaggerated. Even largely fictional. Doesn’t matter. All a threat frame has to do is be credible enough in its possibility to create sufficient uncertainty, so that the resulting discomfort begs a solution. A solution only the framer can provide.

At the end of the day, people don’t buy anything but Hope. But even when Hope is effectively characterized, which is to say in emotional terms, it is helpful and sometimes necessary to counterpoint it with threat. Hope by Contrast is more desirable than Hope alone. Consider the last several presidential campaigns.

Obama’s threat frame was so obvious he barely had to define it. The country was war weary and on the brink of financial collapse with an historically unpopular president. But his real persuasive achievement was a campaign holy grail: the candidate himself personified as Hope.

Trump, running at a time when explicit threats were relatively low, is a vulgarian whose chances of personifying Hope were on a spectrum of slim and none. Trump needed threats. Big, scary, emotional threats. Hillary Clinton offered no Hope. Neither definition nor personification. And her only threat frame was the one that never persuades: the threat posed by the competition.

Are You a Big Fat Liar?

America loves its con artists as long as entertainment is part of the bargain. Professional wrestling and “reality” television, for example, are known cons with huge audiences willing to suspend disbelief in return for louche amusement. But there is another, critically important factor in the American con bargain: redemption. Dishonesty will be endured, even indulged, as long as heart is eventually revealed. If not, comeuppance or karma better be on the menu.

As someone whose stock in trade is the dynamics of persuasion, I am well aware of its potential for good or ill. Like any powerful tool or technique, its purpose lies in the hands of those who learn it’s secrets and practice its applications. What is especially satisfying about the story arc in The Music Man is that the Harold Hill character evolves from abject self interest to benevolent sacrifice. It may not have been his intent. But it was the outcome. And it’s the redemption bargain that justifies indulgence of the American con.

I’m not at all sure that the story on the other channel will find a similarly satisfying resolution. Can you imagine Donald Trump responding like this to decidedly relevant questions like these?

Shirley Jones, Ron Howard, and Robert Preston in “The Music Man.”

I’ll stay with the singing and dancing con man while the leader-of-the-free-world one gets cheered on the other channel.