One of the most memorable scenes in movie history is from The Wizard of Oz. The wearied travelers have finally made it to the Emerald City. They find themselves in the Inner Sanctum before Oz himself.
There, a gaseous phantasm is erupting before them, thundering, “I am Oz, the Great and Powerful!” The travelers are terrified, and cowed, and rightly so. It is little Toto who proves the hero of the day, scampering across the floor and pulling back the curtain.
There, frantically working the machinery of his illusion, is “Oz,” not great and powerful but small and pitiful. He manages to make the machine bellow one last time, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” But the scam is blown. The travelers cannot unsee what they’ve seen. Nor, are they stupid.
The scene—in fact, the whole movie—is a cinematic adaptation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, one of the most important lessons in the history of philosophy.
In the Allegory, people sit chained in a cave, facing a wall. On the wall dance shadows, created by motion and light somewhere behind the people but which they cannot see. Not knowing the source of the shadows, they imagine them to be reality.
Plato’s message is that “reality” is not what you imagine it to be, but something far more profound that you cannot see, something creating illusions that you mistake for reality. Look beyond sensations to understand what is actually bringing your illusions into being. THAT is reality.
In the past two weeks, we have witnessed the Wizard of Oz moment of the 2020 presidential election.
In his first debate performance, Donald Trump revealed himself to be a modern-day Wizard of Oz. His whole presidency, his entire public persona, is a fraud, built on his furiously working the machinery of media to create the illusion of prowess, of success. But the debate pulled back the curtain and, just as the travelers in the movie, we cannot unsee what we have seen. We’re not that stupid.
In the debate, Trump revealed himself to be the bully, the fraud, and the repellent human being he actually is. A second-term election is rightly a referendum on the incumbent but Trump couldn’t debate his accomplishments for they are so devastatingly, unambiguously negative.
The worst pandemic in a century (200,000+ dead with almost 8 million infected) when other countries made it a routine matter of public health management. The worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, with the greatest collapse in GDP (32% annualized in Q2), the highest number of people unemployed (56 million), the greatest runup in public debt ($6.3 trillion), an explosion in the trade deficit.
The negative superlatives (negerlatives?) go on ad nauseum. Should we go on?
The desecration of fundamental pillars of the state and society including the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, the media as a mechanism for informing the people. Pre-delegitimizing the sanctity of elections, indeed of democracy itself, as predicate for denouncing his imminent, humiliating defeat. Sabotaging the Post Office in a transparent attempt to impede the counting of mail-in ballots, heavily favored by Democratic voters. Should we go on?
The worst race relations in half a century. Basic civility in public discourse defiled. Rampant, unchecked lying about almost everything. Nakedly succoring white supremacists and right-wing terrorists. The denigration of relations with other countries and alliances (think NATO). America’s reputation as a reliable leader of the international community debauched. Think the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. We could go on.
Trump was desperate to not have these “accomplishments” a matter of public debate. So, he literally trashed the event itself, making himself so obnoxious that that became the walkaway. But pull back the curtain of Trump being an asshole and we have the reality staring us in the face of Trump being a failure. A colossally destructive failure. That is the reality he desperately needed to prevent us from seeing.
He was equally desperate to not have exposed his ideas for a second term because, just like his past, his intended future is so anathema to the public will.
He was desperate to not have on the record that he is doing all he possibly can—including litigating it at the Supreme Court right now—to destroy the Affordable Care Act with its protections of pre-existing conditions. If he is successful, 20 million people will lose their insurance. In the middle of a pandemic, with almost 8 million people already infected, that is almost suicidal. Yet, that is Trump’s position.
He was equally desperate to not have Amy Coney Barrett’s opposition to Roe v. Wade made explicit as it so violates most Americans’—certainly, women’s—preferences that the government not control a woman’s body. Hemorrhaging support from women, as he now is, that, too would be catastrophic to his chances for re-election.
Underwater with seniors (a remarkable reversal from 2016), he couldn’t survive a discussion of his stated plans to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare. His suspension of the payroll withholding tax does exactly that and Trump has stated publicly that if re-elected he would make the suspension permanent. Not how you win back seniors.
Since the first debate, two more events have helped pull back the curtain, exposing the “wizard” for the fraud that he is.
The New York Times revealed that in 10 of the past 15 years, Trump paid no federal income tax. He is either not the successful business mogul that he’s long pretended to be or he’s a massive tax cheat. Those are the only possible interpretations, although both could be true.
The whole of Trump’s public persona is built—wizard-like—on the illusion that he is a billionaire, a successful real estate developer, a savvy businessman, a cunning deal maker. To be sure, he played a billionaire on TV but the Times’ revelations show him to be a massive loser, a catastrophically failed businessman, deeply in debt, a serial tax cheat. Everything the persona is not.
And who, by the way, does Trump owe those hundreds of millions of dollars to, and what favors are they receiving in return for not foreclosing on him? Those are legitimate questions that the public has a right to know answers to. Given his perplexing subservience to the likes of Putin and Erdogan, the suspected answers are disquieting. You would think he would want to dispel doubts. If he could. Wouldn’t he?
The second post-first-debate revelation that proves Trump to be the fraud that he is, is the fact of his contracting coronavirus. The whole of his shtick on the virus was that it was a hoax, that it was no worse than the flu, that it would go away when the weather got warm, and disappear, “like a miracle,” that masks were for pansies and wimps.
All of that is blown to smithereens. Trump has the greatest protective resources in the world at his disposal but he still could not protect his own family—his own wife—from the virus. How can he possibly protect the American people? What can he say?
Of course, this detonation was actually begun by the Woodward tapes showing Trump knew in January exactly how deadly and transmissible the virus was, yet repeatedly, relentlessly lied about it. A more sinister, homicidal betrayal of the American people and the public trust could not be contrived.
Indeed, since we now know that Trump knew in great detail how deadly the virus was, yet lied repeatedly about it, preventing a successful public response, it is plausible to conjecture whether he might not be the most successful bio-terrorist in history. Who else could possibly challenge him?
These are the real reasons Trump fled a second debate. If his track record was good, he would have no problem defending it. If his plans were inspiring, he would jump at the chance of extolling them. If his personal situation was exemplary, he would be the first to have it bared to the public. Wouldn’t he?
But he stands exposed before the American people like the little fraud from the movie, bellowing pathetically, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain? It’s all fake news!” But, just like the “wizard” in the movie, that little man behind the curtain is the real Donald Trump. A fraud and a failure.
The saving grace in The Wizard of Oz is that the travelers finally discovered the truth. Until the curtain was pulled back, they were destined to live, bewildered, in a world of fantasy. It’s the same with the denizens in Plato’s cave. Until they can see and understand the source of the shadows dancing on the wall of the cave they are destined to live in illusion, which in Plato’s world, as in our own, is suffering.
It is the same with this election.
We’ve now seen the curtain pulled back on Trump, exposing his deceit, his venality, his corruption, his phoniness, his vacuity, his pettiness, and his immaturity. He desperately needs to avoid another withering exposure that another debate would cement. That is why, true to the coward that he is, he’s hiding from it.
For Dorothy, her escape from fantasy came with the intonation, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” For us, the intonation is “There’s no escape but voting. There’s no escape but voting.” And it’s just as true. Fortunately, for us there are no ruby slippers required.
Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series which includes World War I, The InterWar Years, The Cold War, and other titles. He is the founder of The Global Uplift Project which builds small-scale infrastructure projects in the developing world to improve humanity’s capacity for self-development.