Reading Richard Condon In the Reign of Donald Trump
In most of his 26 novels churned out over a long, lucrative career, Condon (1915-1996) cast a gimlet eye on the United States and its ruling classes--in his vision, an intoxicating cabal of bankers, politicians, Mafia dons, clergy, corporate moguls, CIA agents and lots of scheming, forever frat boys licensed to sell out the country while hypocritically espousing good clean living and praising what Gore Vidal liked to describe as our Sky God.
In his best novels (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “An Infinity of Mirrors,” “Mile High,” “Winter Kills,” “Prizzi’s Honor”), Condon managed to pull off a dandy daily double by displaying the page-turning gift of the best thriller writer while broadly satirizing the twisted, often iconic idiocy of American society. Those talents are perhaps most on parade in “The Manchurian Candidate,” a brilliant amalgam of conspiracy and dark humor. Cold-war conservatives could take comfort that the novel describes a Communist plot to install a sleeper agent in the White House (remember the candidate in question is not the brainwashed assassin Raymond Shaw but his moronic stepfather and Joe McCarthy doppelganger, Senator John Yerkes Iselin. Sound familiar?). Liberals could find some ironic satisfaction that McCarthy/Yerkes was really a Red who had infiltrated the likes of the John Birch Society. As Condon once said: “Every book I’ve ever written has been about the abuse of power.”
Condon clearly had fun writing. He loved strained-yet-memorable similes, witness this opening line from 1974’s “Winter Kills”: “Nick Thirkield once told Keifetz that being in the same family with his father and brother Tim was like living in the back leg of an all-glass piano.”
Even his weaker novels had their moments. Given the right’s canonization of Ronald Reagan, I’m struck by Condon’s savaging of the Gipper in 1990’s “Emperor of America,” in which a character offers this estimate: ''Ronald Reagan was the greatest President this country has ever produced. He gave us the F.B.I. race wars, the Qaddafi bombings, the 'Star Wars' flapdoodle, the Grenada farce, the Bitburg shaming, the endless bank failures, the Lebanon disasters, the crumbling national airlines, the rape of HUD, the oligarchy of Big Oil, insured inflation and the shoring up of sinister Israeli politicians - all to keep our people diverted and entertained until the Royalty Party could consolidate its position.''
So what would Condon say, not just about the gross and unstable Trump but the whole contemporary, crazy caravan journeying across our media-saturated, febrile brains on a daily basis? What would he say if exposed to Fox News and Sean Hannity? Or Rush Limbaugh? Or Alex Jones, who claimed that Obama and Hillary Clinton were demons who smelled of sulphur? Or the predictable punditocracy of Sunday morning TV, analyzing American politics as if it were an endless football game refereed by the more congenial we’re-all-in-this-together characters from “Advise and Consent”? What would Condon make of Steve Bannon or Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or the Koch brothers or the gun lobby or whatever other nut jobs you can think of who are given a spotlight to perform their particular danse macabre?
I think Richard Condon would smile and say, “I told you so.”
Full disclosure: this is a revised and slightly edited update of a piece I posted here in 2011. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.