I was in my old stomping grounds of Los Angeles this week, and went down to Skid Row to talk to some people who live on the street about how things had changed for them over the past four years.
L.A.’s homeless problem is truly a disgrace. One lawyer who works in the community told me there are more people living on the street in Los Angeles County than in any other state in the country. Blocks and blocks of the downtown core are choked with people – not just men and women, but children, too – sitting next to their possessions with nowhere to go.
The area has been rebranded “Hope Row,” but that’s just a sad effort to perfume a pig. No one calls it “Hope Row,” not least the man I talked to in the wonderfully named 5 Breads and 2 Fish soup kitchen (“Meals on Jesus!”) This gentleman, who didn’t want to give his name, had a very complicated conspiracy theory about how the bureaucracy that deals with the street population is getting rich – “buying all those fancy cars” – by exploiting people like him. An entire wealth pyramid, he claimed, had been built on the backs of the very poorest. He’d clearly thought about it long and hard and, though his theories were quite batty, I could see that, in his head, they made perfect sense.
Of course they did: How else could he explain a world that had abandoned him, and where he was powerless even to open his own door? Conspiracy theories have always been the realm of those who have no other way to shape reality.
Donald Trump doesn’t have that excuse. Mr. Trump, for those of you who missed it because you have better things to do (like excavating ear wax), has ridden his crazy train into publicity central. In his latest look-at-me outing, the P.T. Barnum of the celebrity TV age has offered $5-million to a charity of Barack Obama’s choosing if the President will reveal his college and passport records. Mr. Trump won’t say why, exactly, he wants to see the President’s college records (maybe Mr. Obama got a D in economics, and Mr. Trump is jealous), but it’s surely part of the continuing unhinged bid to prove the President isn’t an American citizen.
In some ways, we should probably ignore Mr. Trump, as one ignores a toddler who paints on the wall using his own excrement. Attention is what they seek. But the world isn’t ignoring his blather: Unlike the guy on Skid Row who had no megaphone, Mr. Trump has launched his toxic balloons all over the airwaves. He was on the David Letterman show (where he didn’t seem to notice he was being mocked), and on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News program, where he tried to tell the former lawyer that it was, in fact, possible to retroactively plant a birth certificate in a newspaper, as Mr. Obama’s family – or should I say “mullah moles”? – must have done in Hawaii. “We know nothing about the President,” he said, and how could you argue? There are only two memoirs, hundreds of speeches, years of legislative voting records. It’s not like the President has stuck his name in giant sparkly letters on the side of a condo tower. Ergo, he must be ashamed of it.
I’m not sure the mega-wealthy should be allowed to have conspiracy theories; it’s one of the last things the wretched of the Earth can claim as their very own. Earlier this month, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch suggested that the U.S. unemployment figures, which dropped 0.3 per cent in September, were being fiddled to boost Mr. Obama’s campaign. “Unbelievable jobs numbers … these Chicago guys will do anything … can’t debate so change numbers,” he tweeted. These “Chicago guys” referred to Mr. Obama’s advisers. The non-partisan number crunchers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, responsible for compiling the figures, weren’t happy to be maligned in such a way. I wouldn’t blame them if they ripped out their pocket protectors and stomped on them. In a subsequent article in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Welch was hardly repentant: “I know I’m not the only person hearing these numbers and saying, ‘Really? If all that’s true, why are so many people I know still having such a hard time finding work?’ ”
That’s classic conspiracy theory talk. The world isn’t turning the way I think it should, so the world is actually a painted prop being manipulated by some guy behind a curtain pulling levers. Maybe the real problem is that the men who are used to pulling the levers can’t bear to see someone else doing the job.