“Dr.” John Brinkley was a huckster who became one of the richest men in America around the 1920s and 1930s by convincing people that he could—I am not making any of this up—restore sexual potency by surgically inserting goat testicles into your body. (This does not work.)
Along the way—again, not making any of this up—he changed the landscape of mass media, popularized country music as a genre in this country, built the most powerful radio antenna on earth, almost became the governor of Kansas, and, oh yeah, killed a bunch of people.
I loved this book. It’s wild.
My introduction to it was an an episode of Reply All that came out surely not by coincidence just before the inauguration of Donald Trump.
The episode was a fantastic introduction to the story of John Brinkley, and a conversation between host PJ Vogt and Pope Brock towards the end ties the whole yarn to the present day:
PJ: When you look at his story, what do you feel like? Why are we vulnerable to this? Like why is American as a country — what is it about a liar like him that we have a hard time dealing with?
POPE: Don’t you want to be rescued? I know I do. You know? When somebody stands up and says, “You know what? Bring me your anguish, bring me your problems, and I will fix them. I will make it alright.” You know, that puts Brinkley in a line of demagogues going back to the dawn of time, right up through today.
In a recent essay, Wallace Shawn (yes, that one) eloquently expands on the idea that people were looking to be rescued:
Trump has liberated a lot of people from the last vestiges of the Sermon on the Mount. A lot of people turn out to have been sick and tired of pretending to be good. The fact that the leader of one of our two parties—the party, in fact, that has for many decades represented what was normal, acceptable, and respectable—was not ashamed to reveal his own selfishness, was not ashamed to reveal his own indifference to the suffering of others, was not even ashamed to reveal his own cheerful enjoyment of cruelty…all of this helped people to feel that they no longer needed to be ashamed of those qualities in themselves either. They didn’t need to feel bad because they didn’t care about other people. Maybe they didn’t want to be forbearing toward enemies. Maybe they didn’t want to be gentle or kind.
In a world in which the rich want permission to take as much as they can get without feeling any shame, and many of the not-rich are so worried about their own sinking fortunes that they find it hard to worry about the misery of anyone else, Trump is the priest who grants absolution. In a way, he seems to be telling his followers that perhaps compassion is just one more value of the elite culture that he and they hate, like speaking in long sentences and listening to classical music.
Tomorrow, the third of November, is election day in America.
Whatever happens tomorrow and over the coming days, I want to make this particular American’s feelings crystal clear.
Donald Trump is a massive sack of shit, a damaged, small man who stumbled into becoming the most powerful person on Earth and used the opportunity to enrich himself, divide our nation, and watch a ton of television mostly because he’s now able to make it all about him. Easily the worst president of my lifetime, almost certainly among the worst presidents in this country’s history, and definitely one of the worst human beings I’ve ever witnessed.
As The Atlantic stated in its October 2016 endorsement of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, Trump “traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself … He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”
What we have learned since we published that editorial is that we understated our case. Donald Trump is the worst president this country has seen since Andrew Johnson, or perhaps James Buchanan, or perhaps ever. Trump has brought our country low; he has divided our people; he has pitted race against race; he has corrupted our democracy; he has shown contempt for American ideals; he has made cruelty a sacrament; he has provided comfort to propagators of hate; he has abandoned America’s allies; he has aligned himself with dictators; he has encouraged terrorism and mob violence; he has undermined the agencies and departments of government; he has despoiled the environment; he has opposed free speech; he has lied frenetically and evangelized for conspiracism; he has stolen children from their parents; he has made himself an advocate of a hostile foreign power; and he has failed to protect America from a ravaging virus. Trump is not responsible for all of the 220,000 COVID-19-related deaths in America. But through his avarice and ignorance and negligence and titanic incompetence, he has allowed tens of thousands of Americans to suffer and die, many alone, all needlessly. With each passing day, his presidency reaps more death.
Everyone should read it. All of it. As a taste, here’s what was #944 when I published this:
October 21, 2020 – The parents of 545 children who were separated at the Mexican border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy cannot be found. Of those children, a report said, roughly 60 were under age 5 when they were taken away from their parents, who were likely deported. These children are now essentially orphaned, and most live in privately run detention centers in the United States.
I do not expect that any of those things will change anyone’s mind at this point. For any number of reasons, there are a lot of people that look at Trump and the things that his family and cronies and co-conspirators and enablers have done with a sense of accomplishment or pride or camaraderie or, well, I don’t know because I really can’t relate and I don’t particularly care to try very hard to relate.
I voted (by mail, legally, weeks ago) for Joe Biden. Obviously. If you haven’t yet voted and you are able, I urge you to do the same.
I am an imperfect person who lives in an imperfect nation. I am the beneficiary of enormous privilege, much of it unearned. I have a selfish streak in me. I’ve thought and done things that were mean or cruel and I expect that I’ll do more in the future, but I’m trying real hard not to.
Donald Trump does not represent me.
I hope that his disastrous turn at representing this country is, mercifully, about to end.
I—as much as anyone who is still reading this, probably—would love to just not think about Donald Trump ever again. But that can’t be the end.
In that Reply All episode, the conversion between PJ Vogt and Pope Brock continued:
PJ: But what I don’t understand is why we don’t get better at it, like why. There’s almost a playbook, you know? You tell big lies, you never admit defeat, and you try not to have too many statements that are fact-checkable — like, why aren’t we better at stopping this?
POPE: Well, it — there is no “we” to learn. It’s not as though the people that Brinkley scammed were all alive today and say, “OK, god, I remember now back in the ‘30s I fell for that thing. I’m not going for Trump now, ‘cause I learned,” you know? It’s a whole new bunch of people. People are scammed, and they die. New people come in with those - those needs, those fears, and it starts all over again. And once it’s learned, it’s too late.
And it closes with one final anecdote that haunts me to this day:
PJ: Thomas told me one last story about Brinkley. He met a guy who grew up in Kansas in the '60s. And late one night, his dad came into his bedroom with a question. He wanted to know, have they taught you about Dr. Brinkley yet, in history class. The kid said no, I don’t know who that is. And he asked his dad, “who was he?” His father just said “nobody,” and walked out of the room.
Just as I told everyone in earshot about Charlatan, I intend to tell anyone who will listen as long as I’m able just how big a sack of shit Donald Trump was and is.
I hope we all learn something from this, and I hope we make sure future generations learn about it too. I hope that you’ll join me.