A few years ago in New York, Al Pacino starred in a revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and the casting was poignant: In 1992, a much younger and more vigorous Pacino had played the role of hotshot salesman Ricky Roma in the film adaptation of the play; in the Broadway revival, a 72-year-old Pacino played the broken-down has-been Shelley Levene.
Glengarry Glen Ross is the Macbeth of real estate, full of great, blistering lines and soliloquies so liberally peppered with profanity that the original cast had nicknamed the show “Death of a F***ing Salesman.” But a few of those attending the New York revival left disappointed. For a certain type of young man, the star of Glengarry Glen Ross is a character called Blake, played in the film by Alec Baldwin. We know that his name is “Blake” only from the credits; asked his name by one of the other salesmen, he answers: “What’s my name? F*** you. That’s my name.” In the film, Blake sets things in motion by delivering a motivational speech and announcing a sales competition: “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize? A set of steak knives. Third prize is, you’re fired. Get the picture?” He berates the salesmen in terms both financial — “My watch cost more than your car!” — and sexual. Their problem, in Blake’s telling, isn’t that they’ve had a run of bad luck or bad sales leads — or that the real estate they’re trying to sell is crap — it is that they aren’t real men.
The leads are weak? You’re weak. . . . Your name is “you’re wanting,” and you can’t play the man’s game. You can’t close them? Then tell your wife your troubles, because only one thing counts in this world: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. Got that, you f***ing f*****s?
A few young men waiting to see the show had been quoting Blake’s speech to one another. For them, and for a number of men who imagine themselves to be hard-hitting competitors (I’ve never met a woman of whom this is true), Blake’s speech is practically a creed. It’s one of those things that some guys memorize. But Blake does not appear in the play, the scene having been written specifically for the film and specifically for Alec Baldwin, a sop to investors who feared that the film would not be profitable and wanted an additional jolt of star power to enliven it.
That’s some fine irony: Blake’s paean to salesmanship was written to satisfy salesmen who did not quite buy David Mamet’s original pitch. The play is if anything darker and more terrifying without Blake, leaving the poor feckless salesmen at the mercy of a faceless malevolence offstage rather than some regular jerk in a BMW. But a few finance bros went home disappointed that they did not get the chance to sing along, as it were, with their favorite hymn.
These guys don’t want to see Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. What they want is to be Blake. They want to swagger, to curse, to insult, and to exercise power over men, exercising power over men being the classical means to the end of exercising power over women, which is of course what this, and nine-tenths of everything else in human affairs, is about. Blake is a specimen of that famous creature, the “alpha male,” and establishing and advertising one’s alpha creds is an obsession for some sexually unhappy contemporary men. There is a whole weird little ecosystem of websites (some of them very amusing) and pickup-artist manuals offering men tips on how to be more alpha, more dominant, more commanding, a literature that performs roughly the same function in the lives of these men that Cosmopolitan sex tips play in the lives of insecure women. Of course this advice ends up producing cartoonish, ridiculous behavior. If you’re wondering where Anthony Scaramucci learned to talk and behave like such a Scaramuccia, ask him how many times he’s seen Glengarry Glen Ross.
What’s notable about the advice offered to young men aspiring to be “alpha males” is that it is consistent with the classic salesmanship advice offered by the real-world versions of Blake in a hundred thousand business-inspiration books (Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World is the classic of the genre) and self-help tomes, summarized in an old Alcoholics Anonymous slogan: “Fake it ’til you make it.” For the pick-up artists, the idea is that simply acting in social situations as though one were confident, successful, and naturally masterful is a pretty good substitute for being those things. Never mind the advice of Cicero (esse quam videri, be rather than seem) or Rush — just go around acting like Blake and people will treat you like Blake.
If that sounds preposterous, remind yourself who the president of the United States of America is.
Trump is the political version of a pickup artist, and Republicans — and America — went to bed with him convinced that he was something other than what he is. Trump inherited his fortune but describes himself as though he were a self-made man.
We did not elect Donald Trump; we elected the character he plays on television.
He has had a middling career in real estate and a poor one as a hotelier and casino operator but convinced people he is a titan of industry. He has never managed a large, complex corporate enterprise, but he did play an executive on a reality show. He presents himself as a confident ladies’ man but is so insecure that he invented an imaginary friend to lie to the New York press about his love life and is now married to a woman who is open and blasé about the fact that she married him for his money. He fixates on certain words (“negotiator”) and certain classes of words (mainly adjectives and adverbs, “bigly,” “major,” “world-class,” “top,” and superlatives), but he isn’t much of a negotiator, manager, or leader. He cannot negotiate a health-care deal among members of a party desperate for one, can’t manage his own factionalized and leak-ridden White House, and cannot lead a political movement that aspires to anything greater than the service of his own pathetic vanity.
He wants to be John Wayne, but what he is is “Woody Allen without the humor.” Peggy Noonan, to whom we owe that observation, has his number: He is soft, weak, whimpering, and petulant. He isn’t smart enough to do the job and isn’t man enough to own up to the fact. For all his gold-plated toilets, he is at heart that middling junior salesman watching Glengarry Glen Ross and thinking to himself: “That’s the man I want to be.” How many times do you imagine he has stood in front of a mirror trying to project like Alec Baldwin? Unfortunately for the president, it’s Baldwin who does the good imitation of Trump, not the other way around.
Hence the cartoon tough-guy act. Scaramucci’s star didn’t fade when he gave that batty and profane interview in which he reimagined Steve Bannon as a kind of autoerotic yogi. That’s Scaramucci’s best impersonation of the sort of man the president of these United States, God help us, aspires to be.
But he isn’t that guy. He isn’t Blake. He’s poor sad old Shelley Levene, who cannot close the deal, who spends his nights whining about the unfairness of it all.
So, listen up, Team Trump: “Put that coffee down. Coffee is for closers only.”
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.