Donald Trump has become the Frank Abagnale Jr. of the 2016 election.
Abagnale gained noteriety in the sixties as a con artist who successfully impersonated a Pan Am pilot, a physician, and an attorney — all by the age of nineteen. Similarly, Trump is impersonating a presidential candidate.
Abagnale lived the high life in his faux careers, donning a pilot’s uniform and spouting aviation verbiage or wearing a doctor’s coat and issuing orders somewhat medical-ish. Trump dons an Armani suit and stands onstage in front of a dozen flags, voicing platitudes he hopes sound commander-in-chief-ish.
Abagnale’s biography, Catch Me If You Can, is an interesting read and the film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio is highly entertaining. As you are drawn into Abagnale’ grand deception, you are amazed at his sheer audacity. Though you know he is scamming banks out of millions of dollars via fraudulent checks and betraying many associates and lovers along the way, Abagnale still comes across as a likable sort and part of you is actually cheering him on.
A similar trend has occurred in Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. He has allegedly scammed people with his Trump University, left contractors unpaid via bankruptcy, left scores of jilted women and wives in his wake, made lewd references in public speeches, and yet remains likable enough that he is being cheered on in his antics.
What explains the ability of Abagnale and Trump to maintain their respective facades?
Distraction – When Abagnale went into a bank to cash a counterfeit check, he would find a young and impressionable teller and then strike up a conversation about how beautiful her eyes were. When she looked up, distracted by the flattery, he had effectively steered her away from examining the fake check.
Similarly, Trump has often used gimmicks to distract attention from his campaign stumbles. When he’s had a poor debate performance or other misstep, he has held press conferences, or trotted out endorsements from Chris Christie, Sara Palin, or Ben Carson. When an embarrassing meeting with the Washington Post editorial board revealed Trump’s Grand Canyon sized gaps in knowledge and he had a devastating loss to Ted Cruz in Utah, Trump launched an utterly juvenile and cruel twitter tirade against Heidi Cruz that effectively steered away serious scrutiny of Trump’s failures.
The Optics of a Winner – Abagnale understood how important it was to his con to look like a winner. When he went through the airport, he strolled arm in arm with beautiful flight attendants on each side. Surely this isn’t the man wanted by the FBI? He looks so successful! Yet he’s a high school drop-out.
Trump has made his ‘winner persona’ the very basis for his candidacy — the wealth, the women, the opulence. Surely he can translate his success to the White House; he’ll intimidate our foreign enemies and make America great again! Yet he can’t define the nuclear triad.
This raises an important distinction between Abagnale and Trump. Abagnale knew he didn’t know anything but he was disciplined enough to study. Posing as a teen writing for a school newspaper, Abagnale interviewed an airline official about life as a pilot. He learned the terminology and procedures within the airline industry and committed it to memory. When Abagnale decided to try his hand at law, he created a fake, framed diploma and watched Perry Mason episodes. Although he never attended law school, he studied well enough to pass the bar exam. When pretending to be a doctor, Abagnale watched episodes of Dr. Kildare.
By contrast, I don’t think Trump has even bothered to watch reruns of The West Wing. His understanding of the role of the presidency is at best, shallow, and at worst, dictatorial, such as his assertion that the military would commit war crimes at his command. Donald Trump’s doesn’t even seem to grasp basic civics and how the three branches of government work. He claimed on a debate stage that Supreme Court justices “sign bills”. Along with The West Wing, perhaps Trump should check out the Schoolhouse Rock classic, Only A Bill.
At times the media seems almost complicit in the Trumpian ruse. He’s rarely placed in the hotseat in interviews because he is ‘saved’ by the sympathetic interviewer who spoon-feeds him the answers. He is given the diagnosis and allowed to give a satisfied nod in agreement, similar to the fake physician Abagnale who solicits the proper diagnosis from interns and then feigns medical expertise.
Bill O’Reilly recently asked Trump’s opinion about several past presidents – Roosevelt, Kennedy,Reagan, Lincoln, etc. Trump was unable to list accomplishments or offer any analysis regarding these men whose office he hopes to occupy. Only vague generalities on the level of, “Lincoln? Yes, good man. Tremendous man!” Trump doesn’t have to be another David McCullough historian but I’m starting to wonder how Trump would fare on a Jimmy Kimmel man-on- the-street segment.
When asked who he consults for foreign policy, he responded that he “talks to himself”, relying on his, “very big brain”. He has been unable or unwilling to learn the nomination process in each state. Upon realization that he has not ‘closed the deal’ with grassroots voters who are nominating delegates to the convention, Trump explodes that the system is ‘rigged’ and ‘dirty’. However, when the exact same system works to his favor in a given state, the system is presumed fully functional.
But a campaign for POTUS is not the place for the long con. You have to withstand the pressure of scrutiny and con men don’t withstand scrutiny very well. That’s why Abagnale kept switching careers. At some point he would no longer be allowed to ‘play pilot’. He would be asked to get out of the jump-seat and land the 747. He couldn’t fake his physician creds indefinitely. At some point, he would have to actually insert the scalpel into the patient.
It’s the same with Trump. He can’t indefinitely play the ‘winner card’ without serious examination as to his fitness for the Oval Office. Cruz has challenged Trump to a one-on- one policy debate but Trump has declined, playing his own game of ‘Catch Me If You Can’. Despite Trump’s bravado regarding his New York win, he understands when he is out of his league. When you can’t land the 747, you can’t land the 747.
So Donald Trump is now officially on the run. Running from Cruz, running from conservative voices who demand something resembling substantive discourse on policy. Trump is at the point now where Abagnale was when he fled the U.S. for the French village where he hid away, churning out counterfeit checks on a giant printing press. Trump has fled the intellectual rigor of debating ideas and is now hiding away in plain sight at pep rallies where he is churning out counterfeit nationalistic promises.
Frank Abagnale’s undoing eventually came about because of the relentless pursuit of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (played in the film by Tom Hanks). Abagnale had evaded capture for years, giving Hanratty the slip time after time in the most dramatic fashion. The turning point came when Hanratty figured out who Abagnale really was. Forget the suave, jetsetter image. Forget the charm. Working through the case, Hanratty finally concluded, “He’s just a kid.”
Those of us who have observed Trump’s exploits and audacity these many months and tried to sound the warning, stand somewhat in Hanratty’s shoes. We have to ask the question, “Who is Donald Trump?” Forget the billionaire mogul status. Forget the reality T.V. entertainer. We must look at him and conclude, “He’s just a bully. And not a particularly bright one.”
Our nation is desperate for leadership and strength. We want someone tough but we don’t need a bully. We need someone strong, smart, and with integrity. Like Agent Hanratty, we need to remain relentless in our pursuit of exposing the truth about Donald Trump. Eventually, the jig will be up. Better that happen now than in November.