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'Jackie' The Scammer

Kellyanne, Camelot, and presidential mythmaking in the age of Trump

“Who doesn’t want to scam a bitch?” In a March interview with The Fader, Branden Miller, the man behind social media sensation Joanne the Scammer, explained why “scamming” has become so popular in 2016. “Everyone is getting scammed! Look at who the president can be! The fact that Donald Trump could win? The world is such a fucking messy place.”

This was, of course, before Trump went on to lose the popular vote by at least 2.8 million votes and still win the role of president-elect. Pejoratives like scammer, fraud, and con artist have been lobbed his way ever since, and they're not wrong — but America has always loved a con artist. It's why Joanne the Scammer has nearly 2 million followers on Instagram. It's why the town of Ariel, Washington, annually celebrates the day D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane and disappeared with $200,000 in ransom money. It’s why in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we allowed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to create the myth that her husband’s short-lived presidency was akin to Camelot. Because who wouldn’t scam a bitch when an American legacy is in your grasp?

Director Pablo Larraín explores the creation of that myth in his new biopic Jackie, which depicts Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during three spectacularly public moments in her life: her 1962 tour of the White House, her raw grief in the hours after her husband’s assassination, and, finally, her interview a week after JFK's death with Life magazine's Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). The biopic, a serious awards contender, as of today has garnered Portman a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. Jackie portrays the first widow as supernaturally self-aware. Portman may lack any type of social media presence, but her Jackie would have an Instagram as finely curated as Beyoncé’s — professionally photographed images filtered and Photoshopped to perfection to give the appearance of commonality while keeping the mundane aspects of pointing and clicking with your phone in the wild at arm's length.

Jackie shows a woman with an astute sense of how she's perceived by the world and who carefully doles out an immaculate image to the American public. Jackie boasts to White of her husband's devotion to the arts, the preserved room where Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, and the heirlooms of presidents past that have been bought and bartered for their triumphant return to the White House.

The strain of Jackie's Stepford-esque demeanor only shows its cracks in moments of solitude or during quiet interactions with her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard). Portman's performance is a bit of a Ghost Sonata, a methodical dance with inscrutable motivations. Larraín chooses not to focus on Jackie's origins — why she married Kennedy, why she chose her affected voice. But con artists are most mythic when we don't know their motivations. D.B. Cooper is part of the American tapestry because he disappeared, never to be seen again, whereas the man behind Joanne the Scammer just wanted to be famous on the internet and Trump just wanted to be the most powerful man in America. Knowing their motivations strips away the myth — it makes them human; it keeps them from being larger than life.

But the student who has clearly analyzed Jackie the most carefully in this cycle isn't Larraín or his leading actress — it's Kellyanne Conway, Trump's tenacious, truth-bending campaign manager. Her poise and rigid attention to how she and Trump are perceived are strikingly similar to Portman's Jackie. Jackie's machinations end up most successful when the messiness of life gets in the way, when it spirals out of control due to a sniper's bullet and a piece of your husband’s brain matter in your pink Chanel lap. Her outmaneuvering of government officials to have the grand funeral she's envisioned and her selection of Kennedy's final resting place in Arlington while wandering in a rain-drenched cemetery are stirringly rendered by Larraín. Similarly, disasters like Trump's showing in the first presidential debate and his leaked audio describing sexual assault and grabbing women by their pussy — not to mention his countless Twitter meltdowns — were all inciting incidents to spring Conway into action.

Jackie begins her conversations with White by announcing that she will be editing his piece for him “in case I don't say exactly what I mean.” Conway had no such luxury. Tapped as a replacement for Paul Manafort, Trump's previous campaign manager, in the middle of August, she quickly went to work building her own Camelot for her new candidate. Watching as Portman's Jackie blows cigarette smoke into White's face while simultaneously telling him, “I don't smoke,” called to mind the times Conway said of Trump, “he doesn't hurl personal insults” (a lie) and “nothing has changed as far as the [immigration] policies” (another lie, after Trump claimed he “softened” on deporting millions). In fact, his campaign was found to be 78 percent full of lies and falsehoods in July by PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking outlet.

If it weren't for Portman's unsettling, real portrayal of Jackie's real-life grief, her interviews with White would make her seem like Moriarty taunting Sherlock Holmes when she wryly says things like, “People like to believe in fairy tales.” Much has been said about how Trump is gaslighting the American people by feeding them lies and misinformation, but victims of gaslighting have no idea someone is out to get them. Ingrid Bergman, Ashley Judd, and Ben Affleck are gaslighting victims in their respective films Gaslight, Double Jeopardy, and Gone Girl. But how can you gaslight someone who knows they're being lied to and willingly goes along with the lie anyway? That's not gaslighting; that's, as Jackie says, people believing in fairy tales. Racism fostered Trump's lies about Obama's birth certificate. Misogyny fostered right-wing conspiracies about Hillary Clinton's failing health being kept a secret from the American public. And undying support for a billionaire who might offer the ever-elusive American Dream, if it ever existed to begin with, allows people to know a thing is true, but listen to a man say on television, “No it isn’t,” and believe it.

Growing up, the only political figures I saw in black homes were civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Angela Davis. But on some rare occasions, I saw photographs of a white man: John F. Kennedy. Even Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's Fences has an image of Kennedy hanging in the Maxson family's home. That's because until Barack Obama, the president most associated with civil rights had been Kennedy. Not Lincoln, who signed the 13th Amendment ostensibly freeing black people from bondage, and not Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's successor who signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those were both men who had political reasons for supporting the rights of black people. Kennedy, on the other hand? In the myth that Jackie helped create, he was gunned down because he was a hero to civil rights. He was King Arthur. He instinctively knew that black people deserved equal rights.

This was Jackie's master plan, of course. A pivotal scene in the movie shows Jackie asking her driver if he remembers the name of any assassinated presidents. He can only recall Lincoln because he “freed the slaves.” This prompts Jackie to model her husband's funeral after Lincoln's and to craft a myth that would be their centuries-spanning legacy. During her interview with White, Jackie discusses how she and JFK used to listen to the Broadway cast recording of Camelot every night and how he was particularly moved by the concluding couplet, “Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.” White knew this was untrue, but it was something he wanted to believe.

It's much easier to be kind to a dead man. During JFK's life, news reports dogged him about his mishandling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and his alleged extramarital affairs. If Jackie had attempted to spin her Camelot yarn as a response to these disasters, she'd have rightfully been drawn and quartered by the media. But to lose a president, the first president who invited us into his home on television and the only president whose death would be captured live on that same medium, gave Jackie permission to take part in building that legacy. As Wayne Koestenbaum described her in Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, Jackie “was likable because she seemed a knockoff aristocrat, palpably ungenuine, and always in danger of being found out.” The very things that comprise Jackie's construction of her husband's myth are what make Trump's lies so untenable. There's no mystery when it comes to Trump. And unlike Jackie, who filters into our minds like a yuletide memory, Trump lingers, snarling and tweeting his vitriol, allowing his anger to echo in your skull. We love Jackie's fiction because, after all, who doesn't want to scam a bitch? But we hate Trump's because, in this case, we are the bitch.