Tag: The Rockford Files

Mugs and Suckers

Last year, much to my surprise, Donald Trump, in all his appalling ignorance, taught me what may be the most important lesson I could’ve learned in 2016. You see, throughout that campaign, I took it as read that Trump could never be elected President because he was such an obvious con artist. No way, I thought, could a guy who’s basically a gold plated Angel Martin from The Rockford Files ever get to 50%+1. There just aren’t enough stupid people in the United States to make that happen. After the November 8th horror, I had to rethink this, and I remembered something crucial.

The success of a scam depends not on the skill of the grifter but on the greed and fear of the marks.

This is what con artists will tell you about their victims, that there’s no way they could have stung them if they weren’t consumed with some combination of avarice and paranoia. Greed and fear are extraordinary motivators, and the person who can manipulate them, however crudely, can take power others. He can get them to invest in fake companies. He can get them to buy worthless information. He can get them to vote for him for President.

Now I and 65 million others weren’t taken in by Trump’s con, and I while I think that’s to our credit, I don’t think it’s because we’re significantly smarter than Trump voters. Instead, I think it’s because our fears and desires don’t match up with Trump’s pitch at all. I don’t fear or hate immigrants, refugees, liberals, or racial minorities. I’m not afraid of women. I’m not worried about someone shipping my job overseas. I’m not aching for an upper-class tax cut or the deregulation of my business. I don’t worry that my health insurance premiums are too high. I don’t worry about someone taking my guns. I don’t see myself as a temporarily embarrassed rich person who’d get my villa and Maserati if only Washington bureaucrats would get out of my way. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian who can’t handle gays getting married or women getting their contraception paid for by their health insurance. Trump could pitch at me all day and get nothing back but my hostility.

But Trump’s voters are afflicted by at least some, if not all, of those fears and desires. They feel them in different combinations and different levels of intensity, but as long as Trump hit on each of these in turn, any given Trump voters could rationalize supporting him. Hey, I may not like the racism, but he sounds like he’s really going to stick it to those Washington bureaucrats and get me my Maserati. Or You know, the whole immigrant thing bothers me, but I don’t think he’ll really hurt them, and I really want a Supreme Court justice who’ll make women carry babies to term. Or Maybe I don’t need that upper class tax cut, but I love how he puts blacks in their place and drives the liberals crazy.

Sadly, the people with the most reasonable fears, those afraid of losing their jobs to automation or overseas competition and those sweating their health insurance premiums, are the ones Trump’ll sting the hardest. Even if he cared about helping them–and since he was hoping to sign a bill that would strip them of their health care entirely, it’s obvious he doesn’t–he has no clue what to do for them. Trump’s a thief, not an economist or public policy expert. They’d have better odds of getting their share of a Nigerian Prince’s fortune. The people driven by pure greed or fear, greed for upper class tax cuts, fear of women or minorities, will probably get something to make them happy. Trump’s a con man, but he’s a genuine bigot and misogynist, and he’ll endorse any scheme that inflicts pain on those that he hates or that makes them pay his taxes for him.

The depressing part of this is that it’ll be nigh impossible to argue Trump supporters out of their choice. Since most people find nothing more embarrassing than admitting they’ve been had, they’ll instead concoct elaborate rationalizations to explain away Trump’s behavior. They’ll try to shift responsibility by saying they wouldn’t have voted for Trump if coastal elites weren’t always calling them bigots. (So you voted for a bigot just to prove you’re not a bigot? I guess you showed me.) The more time they’ve put in to supporting Trump, the harder they’ll be to talk out of it. And the smarter Trump supporters will be hardest of all because smart people build better rationalizations. However much he hurts them, most of them will stick with him. This doesn’t owe to any special talent on Trump’s part, but rather his supporters terrible willingness to suspend their disbelief.

For a bit more context on this, here’s Laurence Rees on Hitler, describing a similar dynamic between Hitler and his followers.

Influences: To Know Kommissar Rolf Wundt, Check Out Tibbs, Burakov, and Rockford

The protagonist of Summer of Long Knives doesn’t have a historical counterpart. He’s a product of imagination inspired by three different detectives from film and television.

The first is Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night. Summer owes a particular debt to In the Heat of the Night because it showed me how a crime story can illuminate the social, economic, and racial fault lines of a community. But there was also a bit of dialog that mattered a lot to Rolf’s character:

Chief Gillespie: Just once in my life, I’m gonna own my temper. I’m telling you that you’re gonna stay here. You’re gonna stay here if I have to go inside and call your chief of police and have him remind you of what he told you to do. But I don’t think I have to do that, you see? No, because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don’t think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.

Much as Gillespie senses Tibbs’s interest in showing up this collection of southern rubes, Rolf’s boss, Kriminaldirektor Bruening, knows Rolf can’t stand the thought of leaving a murder case to a bunch of dimwitted Nazis:

“…you’re staying.”

“Who says?”

“Leaving aside that I could stop you from leaving Germany in any number of ways — my connections are deeper and scarier than your wife’s — I have a better reason to think you’re staying. I know you. You can’t let go of this, any more than you could let go of the Vampire of Dresden, and that case damn near finished you and Klara, didn’t it?”

“She’s a very understanding woman,” Rolf said.

“I’m sure she is. But that’s not what drives you.”

“Tell me what drives me, Kriminaldirektor.”

Brüning grinned. “You’re a vain man with an order fixation, Rolf. This case gives you another chance to prove how much smarter you are than the rest of us, and to impose order where you see chaos.”

“That’s what you think?”

“That’s what I know, and that’s why I won’t have to stop your visa applications or send your picture to all the border gates, or kidnap Klara and hold her in a cell to keep you here. You’ll solve this case, because you just can’t stand to leave it with incompetents like us. Could you really sit peacefully in some Parisian cafe knowing just how badly we were fucking up the Hofstengl girl’s murder, knowing that Strassmann was wasting hundreds of man-hours sticking heads in calipers while the bodies piled up?” Helmut paused. In the distance a wolf howled. “I’ll take your silence as tacit acknowledgment that I’m right.”

The second antecedent for Kommissar Wundt is Lt. Viktor Burakov, played by Stephen Rea in the HBO film Citizen X. Burakov is based upon the real Lt. Burakov who headed the investigation that (eventually) captured Andrei Chikatilo, The Rostov Ripper, but I drew my inspiration from the film and Rea’s performance, particularly from his doggedness and from his relationship with his superior, Mikail Festiov:

Fetisov: …You have a telephone appointment, tonight at midnight, to speak with the head of the FBI’s Serial Murder Task Force, Special Agent Beckford…He calls you the one man in the world that he would least like to have after him. An intelligent, methodical, painstaking, passionate detective who would rather die than give up. Again…I concur.

I added this characteristic to Rolf, who continues his case long after he’s outstayed his welcome in Germany, even as the risks to him and his wife Klara pile up:

“I’m afraid for you.”

“Then quit, and we’ll leave. All you have to do is give this case up, which should be an easy thing to do. The Reich has already tried and executed people for this crime. You’re the only one in Germany who gives a damn who the guilty party is, so all you have to do is stop giving a damn. Can you do that?”

Rolf stammered, “I—”

“Even if saying no means that you’ll risk your life and mine, can you say that you don’t give a damn? Answer.”

Rolf choked on his answer, then said, “Why do you need to stay? Why are you necessary? We can correspond. There are telephones. It’s not as if you couldn’t advise me. It’s pointless for you to share the risks.”

“No. There’s a point. If I leave it becomes easy for you to stay. And you’ll take stupid chances thinking it only affects you.”

“I know it affects you too.”

Klara pointed at Rolf. “But you won’t feel that way. And you won’t act that way. I’ve seen this with you, Rolf! It’ll be the Vampire case all over again. You’ll drive yourself straight into the abyss secure in the knowledge that I’m safe in France. You’ll put yourself in a Dachau cell, and you won’t think of me, frantic and powerless, trying to get you out. The only way you’ll think of me, of my interest in your having a whole skin, is if I’m here. Knowing that just might keep you from doing anything too stupid. It might even make you able to finally say that you don’t give a damn.”

“I can’t say that.”

“Then I can’t leave you here.”

The last influence was Jim Rockford, one of the many roles for which James Garner will be long and well remembered. I tried to give Wundt Rockford’s humor and tongue-in-cheek cynicism in dealing with overbearing authority figures:

Rolf has a penchant for needling authority figures as well, especially Captain Weissengel of the Gestapo, who’s taken over his investigation:

By the door, Helmut sat at the head of the table. “I’m sure you’re sorry to have kept everyone waiting, Kommissar.”

“It doesn’t look like anyone waited for me, Kriminaldirektor.” Rolf took his seat next to Hans-Josef. “What extraordinary revelations have I missed?”

“Inspector  Strassmann and I have been reviewing photographs of known offenders and deviants.” Weissengel said, “And Strassmann’s techniques have yielded some startling insights.”

“What a treat. I’m always up for a good startle first thing in the morning. I shall prepare my flabber for a profound gasting.” Sipping his coffee, Rolf thought that, if there weren’t innocent people dying and about to die, this would be kind of fun, a bit like being the class clown in gymnasium. Hans-Josef’s face had broken out in full grin, before he corrected himself.

“The boy here,” Strassmann said, “has been identified by several witnesses as having a deviant interest in young girls.”

“Name for me please the teenaged boy who doesn’t have a deviant interest in young girls,” Rolf said.

Weissengel looked to Helmut for relief. Helmut shook his head at Rolf. “Will you let us continue, Kommissar? I’m sure you’ll find this compelling.”

“Oh, I’m already compelled. Let’s shoot this kid now.”

Were there other influences? Sure. But you’ll have to read the book to find out who they are. In the meantime, check out In the Heat of the Night, Citizen X, and The Rockford Files if you haven’t already. They’re well worth your time.


Are You Pondering What I’m Pondering?

James Garner and George Loros in “Only Rock and Roll Will Never Die” Part 1.

–Take a look at Andrew O’Hehir’s article about David Chase’s new film, Not Fade AwayIn the article, O’Hehir says, “As any ‘Sopranos’ buff will tell you, Chase’s episode-closing musical selections bespoke a long and obsessive relationship with pop and rock from multiple and not overly compatible eras…”, which is true. But Chase’s use of pop and rock music, and the industry that produces it, as motifs in his writing goes back at least as far as his teleplays for The Rockford Files, which often featured musicians, music producers, and singers as central characters. (I just caught one of them on Netflix: the season six two-part episode “Only Rock and Roll Will Never Die”.) The musician characters on The Rockford Files were usually either drug addled or alienated, but Chase almost always found a way to slip the teenaged dreams that got them into music in the first place, if only to counterpoint teenaged fantasy with adult reality.

Yep. One of my rainy day pastimes is tracing the thematic elements in writers’ works. It’s what makes me so fun at parties. You can check out another example of Chase’s early work incorporating the music industry into The Rockford Files in the episode below, “The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit”, Chase’s first credited script for the series. (The script also has a delightful go at crime-solving psychics, which were all the rage in the 1970s, and which may have served as Chase’s tongue-in-cheek goodbye to the paranormal series, Kolchak, which gave him his start in television.)

–My peace lilly plant has getting yellow leaves at the base lately (picture below). Anyone who has gardening advice is encouraged to proffer advice. I will mention that it doesn’t sit outside or in direct sunlight. I have watered the soil only when I’ve pressed a finger into it and found it dry, but I’m afraid I did let the pot rest in some standing water for a period. I’ve fed the plant only once, but it is possible that the fertilizer concentration was off. I’m just hoping it’s not root rot or a parasite.

One of the leaves in question.
One of the leaves in question.

–Word is that Tim Tebow’s next stop is Jacksonville, which demonstrates the commitment of Jaguars team management to do everything in their power to get worse at every position. But where will the Jets find someone else to block for their punter?

Wayne LaPierre tells us that we should crack down on violent movies like American Psycho and video games like Grand Theft Auto, I guess on the principle that commercial products known to inspire violent thoughts in a certain segment of the population need to be regulated so that they don’t pose a threat to public safety. I guess I missed the part when he explained how guns never inspire violent thoughts and aren’t a commercial product.

–And if you were worried about an asteroid hitting us in 2040, you can stop.