Friday, March 23, 2018

Accepted Dishonesty, Donald Trump and "The Way We Live Now"

by Nomad


My Escape

Like a lot of you, I often feel overstressed and despondent witnessing the daily tribulations in Washington. It's impossible to remain cheerful and glib in times like this.
No matter how much I tell myself that these grim hours will pass, that the nation in time will recover from all of the things Trump is doing and that we as a nation will be stronger as a result of this national calamity, it is nevertheless a depressing time.
From time to time, for the sake of our emotional well-being, we all need some kind of escapism. I am no different.

Lately, I have retreated to the costume dramas of the mid- to late- Victorian age. You know what I mean. BBC and PBS stuff. I've done all of the Jane Austen stuff and waded through all of the adaptions of Elizabeth Gaskell novels.

The British do these things very well, with impressive sets and sumptuous costuming and splendid acting. In a dreamlike way, these dramas excel at taking me to another place and time. 
Oh yes, sometimes the plots are a bit on the silly side and you find yourself thinking "If only he would just come out and say that he loves her.." or "If only she had read the letter before throwing into the fire."
In these period pieces, there are always a few overly-polite people saying and doing preposterous things and making themselves miserable. Somehow things turn out okay in the end. I need that kind of reassurance at the moment. 

At least, it kept me from thinking about whether Trump will kill all of the elephants or launch a first-strike on country X based on a Fox and Friends' tip.
This escapist remedy seemed to be working..right up until the other day.

"The Way We Live Now"

After tackling about four of these dramas, I found an adaption of a novel I hadn't heard of before. In 2001, the BBC produced a costume drama based on a book by Anthony Trollope entitled "The Way We Live Now." 
The original novel was published in London in 1875 and appeared in serialized form. It was, Wikipedia notes, "one of the last significant Victorian novels to have been published in monthly parts."

The plot is fairly straightforward. It's the story of a mysterious and decidedly shifty financier named Augustus Melmotte, played by David Suchet. (If he looks a bit familiar it's because Suchet is also famous for playing Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot.) 

Melmotte and his daughter, Marie, blow into London from places unknown like a whirlwind. There are just enough rumors about the man to make him socially enticing and fashionable yet there's not enough accurate information about them to make the wise conservative types wary of him.
"Wasn't there a scandal of some kind in Vienna years back?"

The Way We Live NowMelmotte is a master at offering the world a respectable appearance. A major part of that is having the right address and filling his home full of shiny things.

Another factor is who you know or rather, who wants to know you. He surrounds himself with decadent aristocrats.a collection of scheming nouveau riche businessmen and loyal staff who know more than they can say. All of them are quite willing to accept Melmotte at face value with blank-check credit.

In fact, we soon realize that Melmotte is actually a fraudster extraordinaire. A Victorian Robert Maxwell. His investment company's only function is to sell shares in an American railroad venture which will make its inventors as wealthy as Melmotte.
Of course, the whole project is a fantasy.
Only a handful of people are aware of that, of course. And, as the song says, the money keeps rolling in from all directions. Today it would be today called a Ponzi scheme. And as long as enough people are fooled into jumping onboard, Melmotte is untouchable and unstoppable.

And that's where the fun begins. As the thoughtful skeptics and the advocates of caution are ignored, Melmotte climbs higher and higher in society. It seems as though everybody has a personal reason not to ask the critical questions to the fabulous Melmotte. 

Eventually, he buys his way into the upper crust with ostentatious exhibitions of his wealth and lavish parties. Palatial and stately homes are not meant to be lived in. They are meant to create such a favorable impression that nobody questions the discrepancies in Melmotte's pitch.

By this time, he has also become Member of Parliament, a position he is clearly unfit for. It was something he had to do to further his swindling. His plan was basically an attempt to twist the laws to his advantage. Melmotte ends up making a fool of himself but Melmotte is unruffled and resolute.

By this point in the series, I admit I was beginning to feel a bit queasy. Despite my nausea, I hit the button for the final episode.

Inevitable Collapse

Plot complications move swiftly and it is clear that the fraudster Melmotte has hit his peak. His magnificent paper mache facade begins to collapse. The smallest crack, the falsehood that cannot be believed, becomes a chasm that no amount of fast talking or smooth deflection can paper over. 

And things collapse seemingly overnight.  
For his investors, it becomes a mad scramble to save what can be saved. This is followed by the predictable rebukes and recriminations. 
From his former admirers comes the cry: how could we have trusted this man who -belatedly- seems like such an obvious charlatan? What will we do next? How much will we lose? Surely not everything. 

Family fortunes are forever lost and not-so-innocent lives are ruined. Romances are crushed and, yet, somehow there are just enough pieces to put together to make a plausible happy ending.

Don't worry. This bare-bones synopsis is not really a spoiler. There are many side stories and twists that I have not covered. The performances and the script writing make the series worth your time. 
As an escape, though, it definitely fell short. When I reached the climactic conclusion, I was feeling like I was watching a twisted version of the Trump story. 

Really, apart from strong narcotics and a sensory deprivation tank, there's no real way to escape the Trump mess. I suppose some things, like scoundrels, their enablers, and fools who discard common sense and follow them off cliffs, are a permanent fixture of civilized society.

There will be no end to their mischief. They will forever be laughing at the law and forever making fools of the gullible people they have exploited. They will always be a frustration to the people who warn what will happen and who are subsequently ignored.

When Dishonesty is not a Disgrace

In terms of skulduggery and chicanery, Trump isn't really much of an innovator. In fact, he is a stock character, a depressingly familiar stereotype. In some respects, he is a cartoon version of Melmotte.

What is astounding is the sheer scale; the vast numbers of people involved in Trump's scams.
Think of all of the people over the years who chose to participate in his frauds and in his rise to power.
Think of all of the people who chose hate over common sense and decided to vote for this clearly unfit candidate.
Think of the ungrateful people who, after benefiting from the advantages of the American system- however flawed it might have been- set out to dismantle the Republic or murder it with a thousand tiny cuts.

It suggests that the Trump story is not merely a story of the rise and fall of a Melmotte but a pervasive atmosphere of dishonesty within the system itself.

Somewhere along the way, the nation silently reached a tipping point where the people who had faith in the American system matched the people who wanted to see it brought down to its knees. The moment when the number of people who wanted the system to work for everybody was canceled out by the number of people who wanted it only to work for their own benefit.
And all this we accepted (without rejection or even comment) as a fact of life.

A rebuke against this atmosphere of corruption and deceit was something that Trollop cited as a motive for his novel. How could, Trollope asked, such greed and dishonesty permeate the commercial, political, moral, and intellectual life of his time?

In his autobiography, he wrote:
[A] certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.
If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.
Somehow, Trollope suggested, by worshipping the material pleasures- the gorgeous palaces, the gems, the marble and ivory, dishonesty becomes normalized. We blind ourselves to common sense and skepticism. 
The moment when dishonesty was no longer a disgrace, Trump - or somebody very much like him- was bound to happen. 
In that way, Trump was not something we allowed to happen. It was moral catastrophe we as a nation embraced. 

But perhaps it is still too early to talk like that. We still have to wait for the final episode in this production.