Snake Pit

The Fortune Cookie is a desperately funny Billy Wilder film about an equally desperate con man by the name of “whiplash” Willy, a lawyer (brilliantly played by Walter Matthau), and his schnook brother-in-law, (the equally brilliant Jack Lemmon).

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Lemmon is a TV cameraman who is accidentally sidelined by a football player while covering a game. After Gingrich learns from his wife that hospital-bound Lemmon had a spinal injury from a previous fall when he was a youngster, “Whiplash” goes into action. He has a “doctor” secretly inject Lemmon with enough drugs to enable him to pass any series of tests ordered by the insurance doctors, thus, insuring them of a small fortune from the settlement.

After passing every medical test known to man, one doctor remains skeptical.

“All these newfangled machines,” the old-timer says. “Fake! It proves nothing. In the old days, we used to do these things better. If the man says he’s paralyzed, we simply throw him in the snake pit. If he climbs out, then we know he’s lying.”

“And if he doesn’t climb out?” a colleague wonders.

“Then we have lost the patient, but we have found an honest man.”

In the current political context, the Con-man-in-Chief is Donald Trump and the equivalent snake pit is a Trump rally.

Here’s what seventy-eight-year-old Trump supporter John McGraw said immediately after punching a protester in the face at a North Carolina rally: “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”

The verbal and gesticulating dexterity that Trump employs in interview after interview denying and rationalizing this kind of behavior is beyond breathtaking. Trump is not simply an arrogant bully whose rhetoric is connecting with an angry constituency; he is clearly inciting followers to take action.

During a CNN interview with Jake Tapper on Sunday (Mar. 13), an anti-Trump political ad offers a quick litany of provocative Trump bombast:

“I would like to punch him in the face… knock the crap out of him… They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks. I promise you… I will pay for the legal fees.”

That last one was a direct offer to anyone who came to the aid of Trump in dealing with any protester.

“Do you ever consider,” Tapper asks, “whether you should be trying to lower the temperature when these protests erupt?”

Trump, in total denial, tells Tapper, “I think, in many cases, I do lower the temperature.” Then abruptly switches to rationalization mode. “When I say things like “I would like to punch him,” frankly, this was a person that was absolutely violent and was like a crazed individual.”

Trump then proceeds to filibuster for the next several minutes about how unfairly he has been treated by the media, in general and CNN, in particular. During his diatribe, Tapper can be seen on a split screen, clearly frustrated that he can’t get a word in edgewise. When he finally gets an opportunity, he politely asks, “This morning, sir, you tweeted: ‘Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disrupters aren’t told to go to my events. Be careful, Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours.’

“That sounds like a threat,” Tapper points out. “It doesn’t sound like lowering the temperature. It sounds like making things perhaps even worse.”

Trump’s response: more denials.

“No, it’s not a threat. It’s not a threat. It’s not a threat at all,” …followed by another interminable Trump talkathon, finally ending with yet another denial. “How many people have been injured at my rallies… zero, zero… There’s been nobody injured.”

Tapper politely corrects, “I — I don’t think that it’s zero. It’s — it’s…

Amped-up on defiance, Trump smothers Tapper again with more denials.

Tapper pleads for civility. “I would just ask…”

But Donald Trump isn’t listening. He just continues to ramble on. “Our country is in trouble.”

“I hear you, sir,” Tapper acknowledges. “I hear you, sir, about the causes of the anger.”

Tapper appeals to reason, “I would just ask, as a fellow American, if you could consider whether or not dialing down the temperature, trying to bring down the temperature, might be a healthier thing, both for your campaign and for the nation at large.”

Trump triples down.

“Well, if you would report it right — well, you should report it right, because we have had no injuries at my — at my events with thousands of people. You just don’t report it that way.”

Earlier, at CBS News’ Face the Nation with John Dickerson, Trump contradicts himself.

“You haven’t seen one person even injured at one of our rallies. And the cases you’re talking about, the one guy was a bad dude. He was swinging. He was hitting people. He was a very bad guy. And the police came in and they really were very effective. And, frankly, some of the audience members had no choice but to be effective.”

In stark contrast to the Trump violence was the dignified funeral service of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. In observing the Reagan era, former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan said that it was “a time of gravity, glamour and American success,” then observed, “and [Republicans are] not sure they will ever get one quite like it again.”

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said, “They had style, they had grace and they had class.”

With Republican candidates like Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, the Reagan era has been replaced by a shameful display of four-letter words, extremism and angry riots.

At his first inaugural address, a time when tensions between the North and South were at their peak and war inevitable, Lincoln pleaded for all to act by way of “the better angels of our nature.”

Sadly, Trump and his supporters have taken a hard right into the darker agents of our character.

Yet, in spite of the inflamed rhetoric and out of control violence, I stand with the eternal optimism of Mr. Lincoln, and look forward to the time when the country will rise above the darkness of hatred and and violence and into the light of reason and unanimity.

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