In 1959, Terry Southern wrote The Magic Christian in which the billionaire protagonist Guy Grand enjoys finding how far people will go for a buck (or usually thousands of bucks). Peter Carlson, writing for the Washington Post in 2004, spotted the similarities between Grand and Trump way before the billionaire became president. After seeing the president hoist a Bible in front of St. John’s Church last week, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump has The Magic Christian as an unholy playbook in his breast pocket.
The whole book is a series of practical jokes in which Grand sinks absurd amounts of money into making fools of people. It works because Grand is light-hearted and generous in his foolmaking, and reading it in 2020 for levity unfortunately makes Trump much darker.
Here’s an excerpt. Grand has purchased a newspaper in Boston and begins randomly inserting foreign words and misspellings into the war reports. The frustrated readership begins to plummet, and this is where the excerpt picks up.
At this point a major policy change was announced. Henceforth the newspaper would not carry comics, editorials, feature stories, reviews, or advertising, and would present only the factual news in a straightforward manner. It was called The Facts, and Grand spent the ransom of a dozen queens in getting at the facts of the news, or at least a great many of them, which he had printed then in simple sentences. The issues of the first two days or so enjoyed a fair sale, but the contents on the whole appeared to be so incredible or so irrelevant that by the end of the week demand was lower than at any previous phase of the paper’s existence. During the third week the paper had no sale at all to speak of, and was imply given away; or, refused by the distributors, it was left in stacks on the street corners each morning, about two million copies a day. In the beginning people were amused by the sight of so many newspapers lying around unread; but when it continued, they became annoyed. Something funny was going on– Communist? Atheist? Homosexual? Catholic? Monopoly? Corruption? Protestant? Insane? Negro? Jewish? Puerto Rican? POETRY? The city was filthy. It was easy for people to talk about The Facts in terms of litter and debris. Speeches were made, letters written, yet the issue was vague. The editor of The Facts received insulting letters by the bagful. Grand sat tight for a week, then he gave the paper over exclusively to printing these letters; and its name was changed again–Opinions.
These printed letters reflected such angry divergence of thought and belief that what resulted was sharp dissension throughout the city. Group antagonism ran high. The paper was widely read and there were incidents of violence. Movements began.The Magic Christian. Terry Southern, 1959.
The whole “joke”– as Grand thinks of these wild projects– ends in a riot that begins on June 7 and lasts 36 hours.