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‘Being There’ Is the Trump Era’s Bible

Two men who get all their news from TV. Two men who owe their success to TV. One is a fictional character in a satiric fable. The other is president of the United States.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Two men who are almost purely the creatures of television. Two men who both glean what they know of the world from what we once so quaintly called the idiot box. One man reads very little, and the other cannot read or write at all. TV frames their views of life. You might even say that for them, TV is life. Simultaneously, TV has made both men celebrities. But it’s not merely that TV allows this pair to find fame and flourish. More than that, this medium that deals almost exclusively in images and surfaces is the only venue through which either man could ever have ascended so meteorically to celebrity.

So, is Donald Trump our Chauncey Gardiner?

You know, the ultimate empty suit protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel, Being There, and the subsequent film made from the novel by Hal Ashby in 1979 starring Peter Sellers?

It’s a fair question, since both Trump and Chauncey are, in their respective ways, almost purely creatures of television. It is their shared window on the world, and not only that: Each man also owes his success to television. Trump, a reality TV star, is completely at ease in a milieu where image crafting and soundbites are the lingua franca. Nothing he says is meant to be read, only seen and heard. Perhaps that is unfair. No one has ever forged a literary style out of one-liners before, not even Groucho Marx. Give Trump credit for that.

Chauncey, too, is purely a product of television. When he stumbles into fame early in both novel and movie, television takes up his cause in an instant, because he is in every sense camera ready. He knows all the tropes of TV (it’s all he knows, except gardening), so he goes on the news or the talk shows and succeeds magnificently by being agreeable, slightly enigmatic, and saying little or nothing.

Of course, there is no there there in Being There, any more than there is in Trump’s pronouncements, either as a candidate or a chief executive. Chance the gardener becomes Chauncey Gardiner because he has no past that can be checked or held against him. Trump owes at least some of his political success to the fact that he has no record. You can’t hold him to anything because he’s never done anything, politically speaking. Watching Trump on the stump was like watching some weird savant who seemed to be saying something of substance, until you examined what he’d just said or, god forbid, asked for more detail. But there were no details, only slogans and soundbites that revved his followers and then exploded like soap bubbles. Scratch one thin veneer, and you come upon another thin veneer, because deep down, he’s shallow.

Ultimately, though, the comparison of Chauncey and Donald falls apart because with Chauncey there really is nobody home. Not so with Trump. No one will ever accuse him of being an intellectual, but no one ever said he wasn’t quick and clever and opportunistic.

What does not collapse, on the other hand, is a comparison of the story in Being There and our current national narrative. In fact, that comparison holds up frighteningly well.

Both novel and movie chart Chance the gardener’s progress and transformation from nobody to somebody and not just any somebody but a media star embraced almost universally for his wisdom and particularly his uncanny grasp of economics. Chance is a default innocent (the novel resolutely refers to him throughout as Chance, even when others, misapprehending his name, start calling him Chauncey—thus on nearly every page we are reminded of the dichotomy of a man whose very name signifies indeterminacy being mistaken for what he is not). He is nothing like Trump for he truly has no command of his destiny, or for that matter, any interest in it. He has no more idea of the future than the family dog. The story, in this respect, is not about Chance but about the effect he has on others and the events he sets in motion.

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.

Now, no one will ever say that Donald Trump is all things to all people, but clearly his wild assertions made without much evidence struck home with millions who watched him campaign. And sometimes it wasn’t even his conservative base who bought his bloviating. On election night, a CBS exit poll said 27 percent of those who wanted the next president to be more liberal voted for Trump. Evidence be damned, they saw what they wanted in him, a Being There moment if ever there was one.

But the best line in the movie (and not in the book at all), certainly the most timely, comes from Louise, the African American cook and housekeeper in the house where Chance has lived all his life as the gardener. Louise and Chance are the first characters we meet at the beginning of the story. Then the old man they work for dies, and Chance and Louise are let go. We run into Louise briefly near the end of the movie, by which time she is living in a retirement home and the man known to her as Chance is appearing on her TV screen as Chauncey Gardiner, a venerated wise man of Washington. Louise sees right through that. Turning to the other people watching TV with her, she scoffs, “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America,” then goes on to say, based on her personal experience, what an illiterate mushwit Chance is. “All you got to be is white in America to get whatever you want,” she concludes. But no one pays Louise any attention.