Donald Trump's continued popularity among Republicans is something of a mystery. Republicans are supposed to be immersed in the Protestant Work Ethic -- best personified by the Horatio Alger narrative, where honesty and hard work are rewarded. Horatio Alger is a time honoured American archetype.
But Neal Gabler argues that there is another American archetype -- the flim flam man -- personified by characters like the two fraudsters Huck Finn and Jim encounter on their journey down the Mississippi, or by Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry or Meredith Willson's Harold Hill -- who is finally redeemed by the love a good woman. Gabler writes:
If the first set of values might be called “Algeresque,” after Horatio Alger, the popular 19th-century American author who wrote stories about poor ragamuffins rising to great wealth through hard work, this second set might be called “Barnumesque,” after P. T. Barnum, the 19th-century promoter, hoaxster and circus impresario, who played on his countrymen’s gullibility.
Of course, no one wants to come right out and say that America is a land of hustlers, least of all politicians and pundits. It is a kind of sacrilege. Everyone prefers the Alger scenario of social mobility, which historian Henry Steele Commager described as one in which “opportunities lie all about you; success is material and is the reward of virtue and work.” This is one of the bulwarks of America. To say otherwise is to engage in class warfare, and class warfare, we are often told by conservatives, is a betrayal of American exceptionalism.
But as much a bulwark as this is, just about everyone also knows it isn’t exactly true — even, it turns out, Horatio Alger himself. “He constantly preached that success was to be won through virtue and hard work,” writes his most perspicacious biographer, John Tebbel, “but his stories tell us just as constantly that success is actually the result of fortuitous circumstance.” Or luck, so long as you aren’t lucky enough to be born rich. Those idlers — the Trumps of the world — are Alger’s villains.
The problem with the American Dream is that it's based on a lie. Just as the claim that "all men are created equal" overlooked the original sin of slavery, the claim that hard work and virtue are always rewarded is equally untrue.
So, instead of beating them, a significant number of Americans think it's better to join them. And, therefore, they have hitched their future to Donald Trump's medicine show.