“Being There” was only half the challenge, the hard part was looking in the mirror afterward…

Vince Rizzo
6 min readJun 15, 2024

--

Donald Trump reminds me of Chance Gardiner, the satirical character in Being There, a 1971 novel by Polish-born writer Jerzy Kosinski. The story follows Chance, a simple reclusive gardener with intellectual disabilities who due to a series of events, ends up mistaken for a political genius. The novel was turned into a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers as Chance the clueless savant whose simple-minded observations are reinterpreted by the media as sagacity. Chance is rechristened “Chauncey,” a mistaken genius whose worldview is informed by garden references and his television habits. While the comparison may not be perfect given Trump’s outsized life as a wealthy real estate developer and TV star, recent events have suggested that there’s a lot of Chance in Donald- a reinvented media creation that some news outlets have monetized and introduced to their audience as an “alt guru” of politics. Not to be mistaken, the comparison is uncomplimentary to the slow but disabled Chance.

Like Gardiner, Trump has never been “a man of the world.” He has been sheltered by inherited wealth and smarmy bootlickers his entire life. His political rise has been manufactured, by his own self-promotion and a degenerate Republican Party that has adopted an “any port in a storm” approach to retaining relevance.

Let’s see, Trump has been demonstrating a significant loss of intellectual functioning every time he opens his mouth, but worse, the greater his cognitive decline the more rabid the support from his followers. In Chance Gardiner’s circumscribed world, television provides his only outlet, and the garden he tends for his employer serves as an analogy for a world he is sheltered from. He is naifishly innocent which only adds to the perception that he is wise. Kosinski’s media manipulates and reinterprets his nonsense into a reality that simply doesn’t exist:

“… 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 be well.”
- Jerzy Kosinski, as Chance in
Being There

This bit of garden-talk is elevated by the media as a metaphor for the vagaries of the economic cycle spring and summer the booms, fall and winter the busts.

Cue Donald J. Trump earlier in the week

“So I said, ‘Let me ask you a question,’” Trump told the crowd. “And he said, ‘Nobody ever asked this question.’ And it must be because of MIT. My relationship to MIT. Very smart. He goes. I say, “What would happen if the boat sank from its weight? And you’re in the boat and you have this tremendously powerful battery, and the battery is now underwater, and there’s a shark that’s approximately 10 yards over there.”

… “By the way, a lot of shark attacks lately. You notice that? A lot of shark. I watch some guys justifying it today. ‘Well, they weren’t really that angry. They bit off the young lady’s leg because of the fact that they were-they were not hungry, but they misunderstood what-who she was.’ These people are crazy.”

And back to the story.

“He said, ‘There’s no problem with sharks. They just didn’t really understand a young woman swimming. No really got decimated and other people too, a lot of shark attacks,’” Trump recalled, his voice pitching. “So I said, ‘So there’s a shark 10 yards away from the boat, 10 yards or here. Do I get electrocuted? If the boat is sinking, water goes over the battery, the boat is sinking. Do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted? Or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted?”

“Because I will tell you, he didn’t know the answer. He said, ‘You know, nobody’s ever asked me that question.’ I said, ‘I think it’s a good question. I think there’s a lot of electric current coming through that water.’ But you know what I’d do if there was a shark or you get electrocuted? I’ll take electrocution every single time. I’m not getting near the shark!” Trump said.

The New Republic, “Cognitive Decline? Trump Short-Circuits During Bonkers Rant,” by Ellie Quinlan Houghtaling

Chance Gardiner had a better scribe in Kosinski, so his meanderings could come off as philosophical and profound. Trump on the other hand is unscripted and simply sounds crazed. Yet, the media and his MAGA darlings somehow overlook — ignore — the signs of mental decline and piece together a barely decipherable tale about electric boats, shark attacks, and verbose nitwit’s preference for electrocution over a shark encounter. Ah, more idiot than savant.

The problem, as we all know, is not merely Trump but those who elevate his claptrap musings to political right-wing, GOP-related relevance. After the shark disaster, the party’s standard-bearer had the nerve to revisit Capitol Hill to accept the groveling support of Senate lickspittles.

Watch as Mitch McConnell reaches over to take his hand. He gives it a good shake and offers a smile that begs forgiveness for his past transgressions.

There stands Ted Cruz whose wife and father were mocked and pilloried because he had the nerve to oppose Trump’s 2016 run. See him clapping and nodding, wondering if Trump has seen his enthusiastic subservience — hoping against hope that the convicted felon with an Ozempic habit can’t read minds.

And golf buddy Lindsey Graham, all greasy-haired in an ill-fitting suit patting the bully’s back as if to pretend the horrible man he obsesses over didn’t just ignore him on his way out of the room.

During his time in the public eye the man who knows too little sees “good people on both sides” while watching antisemitic neo-Nazis; who promised to fight an “anti-whiteness feeling in the country”; who calls J6 convicted insurrectionists “hostages” and promises to pardon them if elected; who owns a solid 46% of the electorate and is currently leading in most battleground states- has managed to convince enough Americans that they now live in a vast wasteland he has imagined and helped create in his own mind. He’s selling and they’re buying his distorted vision.

With apologies to Kosinski and his literary innocent, Chance, the comparison fails beyond the satire. Satire is a literary form that uses humor, irony, and sometimes biting ridicule to expose the foolishness in others. In our real-world politics, Trump is beyond satire because so many have accepted his vices and normalized them. Joe Biden is the real protagonist in this election and his spirited attacks on Trump’s unfitness to serve have so far failed to derail the convicted and disgraced ex-president. His opponent’s superpowers lay in the lowest of expectations- a fact even his closest allies might admit were they not afraid of incurring his wrath.

Biden’s strength is his persistence and a sometimes unacknowledged quick wit. Talk of his acuity and agist arguments which belie numbing ignorance of Trump have dogged the president’s campaign. Debates should be helpful for obvious reasons- Trump is incapable of the discipline required to debate. He rants and bullies, sputters and fumes, but rarely are his arguments cogent. Biden has skills learned through experience and gifts earned from a life filled with challenges and disappointments. He has been tested. He has run life’s gauntlet. Unlike his opponent, he has learned the secret survivors share- the race for the presidency is a street fight and half the battle is showing up- being there. Scranton Joe is a street fighter. His opponent tries to avoid and bluster his way through, but by wit and by character he is weakened by his sheer ignorance. His efforts are supported by a cultish base who share his willingness to suspend reality:

Being There critiques the empty calories of fame, but its true target is our willingness, especially in the age of mass media in general and TV in particular, to hear and see what we want to hear and see. When Chance is taken in by a wealthy woman and her financier husband, they do so largely because he dresses like a wealthy businessman. The misunderstandings only multiply after that. But at every turn, no matter what he says, those around him and those who see him on TV take his words as confirmation for whatever world view they hold.

The New Republic, “Cognitive Decline? Trump Short-Circuits During Bonkers Rant,” by Ellie Quinlan Houghtaling

Being there takes on a whole new meaning when “there” represents the worldview Donald Trump has managed to conjure. Chance in this context plays an important role this year. There is a chance our democracy is slipping from us, that our best days as a nation are now behind us.

Then again, if Donald Trump is reelected we really have no chance at all.

Originally published at https://vincerizzo.substack.com.

--

--

Vince Rizzo

Former president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools (IALS) and a founder of a charter school based on MI theory.