The big lie should be so evident by now; but to millions of Americans, Trump still seems to resonate as their savior. This nationalist insanity is making America a growingly dangerous place.

In fact, Donald Trump is part of the peculiar breed Herman Melville described in his novel “The Confidence-Man,” in which the main character uses protean personas, flattery and lies to gain the confidence of his fellow passengers - to fleece them on a Mississippi River steamboat.

“Confidence men,” as Melville understood, are an inevitable product of the amorality of an increasingly corrupted capitalism and the insatiable lust for wealth, power and grandiosity that now seems to infect a seemingly desperate American society.

Trump’s pathological narcissism, his celebration of ignorance - which he, like all confidence men, confuses with cult-like gullibility - his megalomania and his lack of empathy - and of course, his white nationalism - are cultural pathologies nurtured by the greed and fear now infecting the modern American landscape.

American sociopaths like Trump embody the American belief, one that F. Scott Fitzgerald excoriated in “The Great Gatsby” - and one William Faulkner portrayed in the depraved Snopes clan, that it does not matter in the crass commercialism of American society how you obtain wealth and power. They are their own inherent justifications.

Although most Americans will deny it, we founded the nation on the Manifest Destiny genocide of the American Indian and the evils of slavery capitalism, now the endless wars and the theft of invaded resources, enriched an oligarchic elite at the expense of the citizenry, enabled local police to trample on the Constitutional rights of unarmed citizens without legal consequences, and have in the U.S. locked up the equivalent of a quarter of the world’s prison population.

And today we are again dealing with the resurgence of a new version of the moral corruption and violence of American white supremacy.

The more debased the nation becomes at the helm of a corrupt elite political economy, the more it seeks the reassurance of oily con artists to mask truth with lies. Add in celebrity obsession as the mainstay of American media culture, and we have the menace of Donald Trump. 

Trump is, in reality, highly skilled at manufacturing self-serving news and a fictional persona that feeds the magical cult aura of his disingenuous business celebrity. Barnum was the high priest of the polytheistic, secular religion of Americans and the creator of kitsch as an aesthetic, the same characteristics that defines Donald Trump.

In reality, Trump built his own temples to celebrity himself, among them the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City and Trump Towers in various cities. Trump, like Barnum, understood that celebrities and their relics function in American culture as totems and symbols of immortality. He, as did Barnum, caters to the vulgarity of the mob, elevating the salacious and the sleazy, while claiming it to be success and culture.

Confidence men like Trump are adept at peddling fictions designed solely to attract publicity and belittle opponents.

Trump’s demand for Barack Obama’s birth certificate or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test was not designed to uncover fact, but to belittle and entertain. And the release of Obama’s birth certificate and Warren’s DNA finding did not puncture the lies. Old lies were simply replaced by new ones that again catered to the emotional yearnings of his dysfunctional mob.

Donald Trump clearly understands how to evoke images and emotional responses to overwhelm reality and replace truth. Such lies and fake events, because they are so entertaining, are largely immune to reality.

Madison Avenue advertisers and publicists use the same tactics to saturate the landscape with skillfully manufactured illusions and false promises. The unmasking of the deceptions only adds to their allure and power.

In an autobiography written by PT Barnum, “Struggles and Triumphs,” which was published in 1869, he wrote that “the public appears disposed to be amused even while they are conscious of being deceived.” This understanding underlies the popularity of Donald Trump, as well as entertainments such as professional wrestling and reality television shows, along with Fox News, all of which are premised on cons.

Con artists like Trump ( and PT Barnum, Trump’s “soul” mentor) exploit everyone and everything around them.

In our now Barnumesque American political culture, those who create the most convincing fantasies in the cycles of nonstop entertainment are idolized. Those who puncture these fantasies with the prosaic truth are condemned for spoiling the fun. These pseudo-events and fabrications lift people up out of their peasant-like daily lives into an Oz-like world of fantasy. They destroy a civil discourse rooted in verifiable fact, obliterating any hope of holding back the magical thinking that lies at the core of all totalitarian societies.

The Trump University Con

Trump, in a 2005 promotional video for a scam that made him about $40 million, employs the familiar hyperbole of the con artist in declaring: “At Trump University, we teach success. That’s what it’s all about—success. It’s going to happen to you. We’re going to have professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific—terrific people, terrific brains, successful. We are going to have the best of the best. These are people that are handpicked by me.”

Only there was no university.

Trump’s fake university did not have professors, not even part-time adjunct professors, and the ‘faculty’ (as they were called) were certainly not ‘the best of the best. In fact, they were commissioned sales people, many with no experience in real estate. One managed a fast food joint … two other instructors were in personal bankruptcy while collecting fees from would-be Trump university graduates eager to learn how to get rich.”

Among an investigator’s findings was that students who attended a “next level” seminar we’re taught to prey upon homeowners in financial turmoil and to target foreclosure properties. They were also instructed, on the first morning of the three-day course, to call their credit card companies, banks, and mortgage companies and ask for an increase or extension of credit so that they may finance the “Gold Elite” package purchase.

Defendant Trump U would even ask attendees to call their bank during these one-on-one sessions while the [Trump] representative waits. The primary goal of the 3-day seminar was even more high-pressure sales tactics in an attempt to induce them into purchasing Defendant Trump U’s “Gold Elite” package for $35,000.

Trump’s get-rich-quick schemes and seminars, including his books, were all a con. His casinos were a con. His paid speeches on behalf of self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins were a con. His building projects were a con. Trump even had “imaginary employees.” Trump and his criminal grifters are today triumphant, and neither democratic norms or simply human decency seems to inhibit their pathological lust for more.

And not surprisingly, tales of Trump’s sexual prowess, spread by himself masquerading over the phone as a Trump spokesperson, were clearly a con.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the poison of a Donald Trump would come to dominate our culture and our politics. It is the triumph of both celebrity idolatry and fear. We live in an age when the fake, the fraudulent, the fabricated and the theatrical supplant sanity and reality.

When Trump’s manufactured persona was ultimately advertised on a reality television show, he sold this manufactured persona, his ratings declined, he was in danger of being taken off the air, so he decided to run for president of the United States.

Behind Trump’s Presidential campaign we’re legions of agents, publicists, consultants, scriptwriters, celebrities, television and movie producers, wardrobe consultants, pollsters and television personalities dedicated to creating the myriad illusions that saturated the airwaves with PT Barnum-like lies.

Leading up to the 2016 elections, Americans could no longer tell the difference between illusion and reality; apparently when a version of reality is not verified on our electronic screens - and by our reality manipulators - it does not exist.

The skillful creation of illusion and the manipulation of our desperate emotions, actions that profit the elites to the detriment of our middle class financial and political health, have seeped into our religion, education, journalism, politics and culture.

Trump’s crass vulgarity, greed, unchecked hedonism and amorality, his blatant racism, along with his worship of himself, are intrinsic to America, but his ascendancy, and the ascendancy of the character traits he personifies, is taking us closer and closer to our national spiritual death.

Chris Hedges, Truthdig (www.truthdig.com) December, 2018