Paging Melville's Ghost: The Top Swindle of 2015

Herman Melville's Confidence-Man is a classic novel about serial swindles by sundry charlatans on a Mississippi riverboat (complete with scenes that take place in Rush Limbaugh's hometown of Cape Girardeau).

Now's the time to reread Melville.  This was the Year of the Swindle.  Melville's Confidence-Man depicts all the chicanery of cultural and political discourse in the U.S. today.  Consider the money quotes from Melville's book alongside the biggest con games played this year.  (Spoiler – it's not Trump.)

Show Us Your Good Side So We Can Screw You Over

'who in thunder are you?' 'A cosmopolitan, a catholic man; who, being such, ties himself to no narrow tailor or teacher, but federates, in heart as in costumes, something of the various gallantries of men under various suns.' (pg. 177)

Think of the middle-American everyman, someone with strong moral values but struggling.  Let's call him John. He wants his country to be moral and God-fearing, but he also might need a helping hand from the government despite all his efforts to take care of his family without asking for handouts.  He's the one person nobody cares about in politics.  Democrats think he's a homophobic bigot, and Republicans don't consider him a "job creator."

Think of how much John got screwed this year.  On New Year's Day, the suicide of Leelah Alcorn roused Dan Savage out of his slimy lair and energized a movement to help youths with gender identity issues.  John doesn't want teenage boys who want to be girls to throw themselves under trucks, so John supported trans politics in theory.  Then by the end of the year, John saw Bruce Jenner in a Betty Grable dancing suit on Vanity Fair, invading every corner of the media world until nobody had a choice but to applaud "Caitlyn" or be publicly admonished and shamed.

Then came a rash of legal actions like Houston's HERO bill, forcing cities to allow transgender people into the bathrooms of the opposite sex, and even threatening to fine school districts that would not allow male adolescents unfettered access to naked girls in changing rooms.

It's not just trans issues.  Whether it was immigration, Islamophobia, gay marriage, campus rape, racial diversity, or the environment, a similar pattern played out ad nauseam in 2015.  John reacts with compassion and concern when he sees suffering.  He trusted authorities who told him:

[1] If he stands behind amnesty for immigrants, he won't see any negative consequences, and instead, he'll be helping needy refugees like a good Christian.

[2] If he looks past alarming stories about Islamic terrorism and shows tolerance to Muslims, no harm will come to society.

[3] If he salutes gay marriage, the tumult gay debates caused will subside, and gay people will find happiness on their own without making personal demands on John.

[4] If he rallies behind efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses, he can trust the authorities to use expanded investigative powers and streamlined due process without abusing their position and persecuting innocent people.

[5] If he acknowledges that black lives matter and racism is wrong, he will contribute to good-faith efforts to heal his country from past injustices and will see an increase in harmony and goodwill among races rather than strife and turmoil.

[6] If he cares about good stewardship of the natural world God has given man, he can trust authorities to pursue anti-pollution policies.

John trusts people.  And it's exactly people like John whom con men target, as happened in 2015.

'whether I flatter myself that I can in any way dupe you, or impose upon you, or pass myself off upon you for what I am not, I, as an honest man, answer that I have neither the inclination nor the power to do aught of the kind.' (pg. 148)

John saw lawless drifters and traffickers stream across the border and feed a burgeoning under-the-table employment system.

John watched as Muslim communities responded to goodwill from their neighbors by fostering hateful rhetoric and sheltering cold-blooded killers who wrought terror on Texas, California, and other states.

John discovered that gays had no intention of quietly withdrawing from debates after winning "marriage equality," and in fact gays have gone wild filing complaints against John's friends, suing the cities and schools in John's area, and overwhelming all of John's favorite TV stations and cinemas with filth that becomes ever more pornographic yet ever more boring.

John sees that the colleges around him are charging higher tuitions.  Colleges are concentrating less on studies and more on controlling young people's sexuality and erecting a shadow police state with gender equality investigators who restrict free speech and due process.

The more John supports racial equality, the more aggressive the people of color around him become and the more stressful the stories about mass protests in inner cities and on campuses turn.

Lastly, John finds that those who combat pollution waste much of their funding on global projects with questionable evidence and vague, unquantifiable goals.

'The pick-pocket, too, loves to have his fellow-creatures round him.' (pg. 183)

John got swindled.  If he decides to say to Hell with everyone and vote for Trump, I can't blame him.  (I wish he'd vote for Cruz, but by now John probably won't trust anyone in government on anything.)

The rise of Trump has intrigued many people not so much because he reveals anything about the left, but rather because of what he reveals about the sense of betrayal people like John feel about the promises made by the Republican Party.

'As for Intelligence Offices, I've lived in the East, and know 'em. Swindling concerns kept by low-born cynics, under a fawning exterior wreaking their cynic malice upon mankind.' (pg. 153)

How many times have we been told to trust the "fiscally conservative but socially liberal" crowd?  The story goes like this: the future of the movement lies in the natural constituents of Reason magazine, the mythical hordes of young people who admire Mary Cheney and want free-market economic policies without church ladies telling them what to do.

A few conservatives in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Washington control the right-wing media.  It seems that every week this cadre unveils another aerobically cross-trained, elite-educated, and telegenic spokesperson, describing the optimistic future that ostensibly awaits us if only we could stop caring about traditional family structures, chastity, and the sanctity of life.

If it isn't S.E. Cupp nagging us to support gay adoption, it's another well-groomed editor spryly coming out as gay.  Soon stories that sound too churchy get spiked all over town.

'To the devil with your principles! Bad sign when a man begins to talk of his principles.' (pg. 152)

We're supposed to trust the direction they want to take conservatism, because they are, to quote Taylor Swift, "livin' in a big ol' city," and all we'll ever be is "mean."  The message is the same: If you fake it, victory will come.  Just pretend you are okay with sodomy and abortion, and this time it will work; all those fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal people who've been holding out will rush into the arms of the conservative movement, and singing angels will descend from the heavens.

Perhaps nobody embodied this call for trust, and won our trust, more than Paul Ryan.  And we all saw how that budget bill turned out – the biggest "achievement" in his early months as the supposed "Tea Party favorite" speaker of the House.  It turns out that conservatives who will cut family activists loose on an issue like gay adoption find it easy and natural to betray fiscal and social conservatives in one swoop.  The swindlers who sell us libertarianism by vowing we can get ahead by not offending feminists or gays…end up not wanting to offend poor people, social justice warriors, or anybody who likes government benefits.  Which means the fiscal right ends up under the same bus that ran over the social right.  Even if those libertarians are "livin' in a big ol' city," all they'll ever be is mean, too.

'I have confidence in nature? I? I say again there is nothing I am more suspicious of.' (pg. 142).

Young people who cry out for gay marriage also want free cell phones.  They want to buy iPods instead of making payments to Fannie Mae.  Pro-choice and pro-gay marriage positions win purveyors social approval with no sacrifice.  People who want a quick fix of political chic by jumping on such bandwagons are rarely going to switch gears when it comes to "small government" to endorse a classical Republican model of low taxes and reduced entitlements.

They want high taxes on other people and heightened entitlements for themselves.  This deflection of concern and sacrifice coupled with a need for easy social standing is largely why they don't care about the unborn, God's commandments against sin, or the right of children to a mother and father.

'That's your Confession of Faith is it? Confidence in man, eh? Pray, which do you think are most, knaves or fools?' (pg. 142)

Conservatives who want to lose big should keep channeling Paul Ryan and follow advice from pretty faces like Stacey Dash.

During my years as a pro-family activist, the vastness of the socially conservative, and especially Christian, population really surprised me.  Many of them, though, are poor and distrust corporate elites.  This "fiscally liberal but socially conservative" set composes the bulk of the Republican constituency but constantly gets sacrificed.

When my travails at Cal State Northridge blew up, for instance, four different petitions were started by other people who supported me: the liberal, and the conservative ActRight, CitizenGo, and LifeSiteNews.  A total of 12,738 signatures were collected from people calling on Cal State University to drop its charges of anti-gay "retaliation" against me over a conference I organized at the Reagan Library.

My case at Northridge gave me a glimpse into what was really going on.  I was on blacklists by both GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign.  A clique of activists including New York City professor Claire Potter had sought for years to make trouble for me at my job.  Yet despite their influence with elites, their constituents never materialized.  No groundswell of petitioners came forward supporting the Title IX investigator against me, and even liberal outlets like Huffington Post and Daily Sundial ended up implicitly favoring me.

Con games depend on illusions and bluffs.  It is an illusion that free-market social liberals have a mass of people who agree with them.  The election of 2016 will be, I think, a time of falling masks and bluffs being called.  When alerted to the ruses and deceits to which they've been subjected, people like John may feel exhilarated and empowered, or consumed with blind, destructive rage.  Trump is not the problem or even a symptom.  He's just the whistleblower on a sinking steamboat.  I wish Melville could rise from the grave and advise us what we should do next.

Robert Oscar Lopez authored a book based loosely on Melville adaptations, called Melville Affair (warning: contains vulgarity).  He can be followed on Twitter at @baptist4freedom, at English Manif, or on Soundcloud.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man. 1857. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.