Donald Trump and the O.J. Simpson playbook

Trump&OJ

Capping true stories with lies, a Trump mainstay, was central to the O.J. Simpson defense.

Donald Trump is coming to our Denver Lowry neighborhood today, to a rally at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Denver. A buddy of mine joked that we should maybe build a wall around the neighborhood. I said maybe we could get Stapleton (a neighborhood to the north) to pay for it.

I briefly considered signing up for tickets just to watch the show, the repressed reporter in me curious as to the scene and the people Trump attracts. But the novelist and shorts story writer George Saunders already did this, and his impressions and thoughts on the topic are gold-standard. My favorite line:

Above all, Trump supporters are “not politically correct,” which, as far as I can tell, means that they have a particular aversion to that psychological moment when, having thought something, you decide that it is not a good thought, and might pointlessly hurt someone’s feelings, and therefore decline to say it.

While Saunders does great reporting and is as insightful in this long-read nonfiction piece as he is in his short stories, neither he nor anyone else I’ve read seems to have pinpointed why some 50 million people are likely to actually vote for Donald Trump for president of the United States in November. So I’ll give it a shot here, with help benefactors to two killers — one fictional, one real-life — and the NRA.

Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher novels, puts us on the right track. In a recent, short piece having nothing to do with Donald Trump, he questioned whether the positives of our being such suckers for a good yarn outweighed the negatives (“Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape,” Child writes):

Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?

But the bad things would not be happening, either. Every bad thing depends on the same two components as every good thing: people prepared to lie, and other people prepared to believe them. The habit of credulity, bred into us, albeit inspiring and empowering and emboldening, has led to some very bad outcomes throughout what we know of our history. From small things, like a father believing a son, to much larger things, like a billion miserable and terrified dead.

Which brings me to two terrified dead and the incredible story surrounding them, chronicled in the ESPN series, “O.J.: Made in America.” This five-part documentary is full of great stuff, but the recounting of the O.J. Simpson murder trial itself was most relevant to our political moment.

Here you have both components leading to Child’s “bad things.” There were people being prepared to lie — the Simpson defense team, which managed to cast doubt on overwhelming evidence (from wife-beating motive all the way to convincing blood-based DNA evidence) and help the man who once rushed for 2,003 yards in a single, 14-game NFL season beat a double-murder rap.

And you had people prepared to believe them — not just the jury, but also the African American public, some 70 percent of whom were convinced Simpson was innocent (roughly the same percentage of whites believed he was guilty; time has narrowed this gap, but it still remains). The defense team famously appealed to the black-majority jury’s experience with the LAPD’s historically ill treatment of African Americans, which we now know (see Black Lives Matter) is not confined to greater Los Angeles.

Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Kim Kardashian’s dad and the rest of the defense team were people prepared to lie — not in the specifics, as the police did mishandle evidence, Mark Furman did perjure himself and so on. But in spinning a yarn of O.J. Simpson as a victim of a civil-rights-abusing police conspiracy, they lied to the jury and, thanks to gavel-to-gavel CNN coverage, vast numbers of people prepared to believe them due to prior LAPD misdeeds and Simpson’s public image as charismatic sports hero.

The essence of the defense team’s success was taking a true story — a long history of police abuses against black people in Los Angeles — and mixing it with a fiction, which was that convicting O.J. Simpson would perpetuate these abuses. This was Cochran’s main message in a closing argument in which he infamously compared the L.A. police detective who had happened to come across Simpson’s blood-soaked glove to Adolph Hitler, the most murderous storyteller of them all. Cochran capped a truth with the lie that O.J. Simpson’s exoneration would somehow be a solution.

Which brings us to Trump. Trump no double murderer, but all signs point to his actual occupation of the Oval Office as a potential catastrophe for American democracy and U.S. foreign relations. His inadequacies in a U.S. presidential context are epic, and probably best delineated by the man who actually wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which turns out to be a work of fiction.

To return to Child’s framework, Trump is prepared to lie — about the true nature of the threats to the United States and our already formidable capabilities to counter them, about Ted Cruz’s father being complicit in the Kennedy assassination, about the viability of his insane policies (the Mexican-financed wall, the barring-of-Muslims, the dismantling of a 70-year-old NATO framework whose benefits to the United States vastly outweigh the costs), about his own background as a charitable giver (poor), about his own finances (tax returns).

And people are prepared to believe him. As the Simpson defense team did with the Los Angeles police force’s history of abuses of power and African American bodies, Trump does with the hollowing out of U.S. manufacturing and inexorable demographic change. Huge numbers of people are hurting and have few prospects to advance on low-paying service jobs for which they sometimes compete with immigrants willing to do our dirty work, the rich are getting richer, and the body politic has ignored them in favor of those wealthy enough to hire lobbyists and threaten attack ads. Enter Trump, who builds upon this truth the lie that he’s somehow the solution. Millions of people are buying it.

Yet Trump is vulnerable to another narrative reality, one nicely put by a vendor the National Rifle Association’s annual conference in May. The writer Evan Osnos describes a conversation with Tim Schmidt, founder of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association:

For several years, Schmidt had a sideline in packaging his sales techniques. He calls the approach “tribal marketing.” It’s based on generating revenue by emphasizing the boundaries of a community. “We all have the need to belong,” he wrote in a presentation entitled “How to Turn One of Mankind’s Deepest Needs Into Cold, Hard cash.” In a section called “How Do You Create Belief & Belonging?,” he explained, “You can’t have a yin without a yang. Must have an enemy.”

Schmidt is telling stories — lies, too, probably, given the data correlating gun ownership with gun deaths. But there’s a deeper truth to this, in that all good stories need villains who need vanquishing. For the Simpson defense team, it was the LAPD. For Trump, it’s the Chinese, the Muslims, the Mexicans and other “others.”

Trump and other populist/nativist demagogues vilify as a matter of course, and Trump is gifted at stoking and steering the ire of his tribe. But what Trump seems not to recognize is that, in so doing, he has shaped himself into an enemy — a yang for many yins — at least in the eyes of those who happen to disagree with his ignorant, pessimistic, dictatorial, black-and-white worldview.

It would be hard to see Jeb Bush or John Kasich as a true enemy, someone whose very persona invites hatred. With the conventions behind us, Trump, who has risen to the Republican nomination on a raft of lies floating along on a true story, may now feel the wrath of the very power of narrative he has so deftly exploited.