COLUMN: Three Card Monte: the political clamour goes on

Three card monte is only one of many con games whose aim is to part a sucker from his money. Although it relies on misdirection to accomplish its goal, it also depends upon the greed, gullibility, and overconfidence of the mark to succeed. It’s a simple game, as well, which lends unwarranted assurance to the dupe. Flipping a few cards — what could go wrong?

Contemporary society is rife with similar strategies, a horde of public relations and advertising gimmicks used to reassure the public at large and to make them feel capable and content, even while they’re being taken to the cleaners.

“Confidence” essentially means “with faith.” If I have confidence in you, I have faith in you. Previous experience of our dealings may provide evidence to support this judgment, but it’s oriented toward the future, as in, “I am confident that Mr. X will be the best political candidate.”

In three card monte, the mark’s greed and his cultivated confidence outweigh his fear of loss. Thus, when he gets taken for the third or fourth time (before the dealer packs up shop and skedaddles) he may begin to feel the sting, not only of his disappearing money but also of his melting self-assurance. Sometimes we get the same feeling from politicians.

Just as con men do, many candidates have the uncanny ability to exude an attitude of poise and self-assurance that we find appealing, but that may not be worthy of belief. Nonetheless, with a few confidence-building strategies such as rhetoric, they are able to hoodwink masses of voters.

Rhetoric is an assemblage of techniques designed to persuade by engendering our confidence. Classical rhetoric involved three main branches: ethos (character), pathos (feeling), logos (language), and kairos (opportunity).

To establish one’s character requires an appeal to the values held by the target. Dress, in particular, may contribute to one’s ethos. The standard costume of business suit and tie creates a sense of no-nonsense reliability, one easily marred. In Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, Willy’s contrastingly successful friend observed about selling, “Get a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.” Political candidates addressing a specific audience dress for the occasion (wearing a hard hat on an industrial site, or a cowboy hat and check shirt at the Calgary Stampede).

Appeal to feeling takes many forms. Popular these days is to amplify fear, such as unease about the threats putatively posed by foreigners and immigrants. Conservative Andrew Scheer has adopted Trump’s strategy of suggesting that our borders are out of control, as if the very nation is at risk of being overwhelmed by a few thousand ragged refugees.

To cultivate opportunity, to “strike while the iron is hot” can be critical. Naomi Klein’s study The Shock Doctrine clarifies how when things are going frighteningly askew in society, venal organizations and individuals can get away with all kinds of chicanery.

The rhetorical strategies of language are many, but perhaps the most potent is simple repetition. Repeated tropes like “lock her up” (Trump campaign) and “just not ready” (2015 Conservative campaign) appeal by suggesting that the opponent was either crooked or immaturely incompetent. Repeat “fake news” often enough, and it becomes another (alternative) fact.

The political clamour goes on. The candidates show us the ace, flip the cards around, and too often, proceed to disappoint.

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