Columns > Published on March 3rd, 2016

‘The Manchurian Candidate’ and the 2016 Presidential Election

Richard Condon’s Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, is a great read. No, I take that back. It’s a superb read. It’s got everything I want in a political novel: a dirtbag politician, his manipulative bitch of a wife, a sinister threat to Our Way of Life (which Condon paints as rotten to the core), brainwashing, and, as a kind of running gag, a fairly unsympathetic protagonist who eventually fucks his mother. The thriller’s climax occurs literally on the last page of the book,  a seeming twist that’s in fact the most logical possible outcome. No wonder Hollywood snapped it up not once but twice: John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film starring Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, and Laurence Harvey, and Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake with Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, and Denzel Washington. Now, having mentioned the two film adaptations, I’m dropping them altogether. This column is strictly about Condon’s novel and its relationship with today’s political scene.

Condon isn’t a literary star any more, but in his heyday – 1958 to 1994 – his edgy distrust of power and deft touches of humor made his novels bestsellers more often than not. And he had a readily identifiable literary style. The playwright and screenwriter George Axelrod, reviewing one of Condon’s novels in the International Herald-Tribune, described that style gleefully:

The arrival of a new novel by Richard Condon is like an invitation to a party.... The sheer gusto of the prose, the madness of his similes, the lunacy of his metaphors, his infectious, almost child-like joy in composing complex sentences that go bang at the end in the manner of exploding cigars is both exhilarating and as exhausting as any good party ought to be.

Here’s Condon’s description of the lead Russian brainwasher in The Manchurian Candidate:

Gomel glared and sweated a form of chicken fat…. Gomel, who established himself as being hircine before anything else, was as stocky as an opera hat, with a bullet head and stainless steel false teeth…. The teeth had made him carnivorously unphotogenic and therefore unknown to the newspaper readers of the West. He dressed in the chic moujik style affected by his leader, loose silk everythings rushing downward into the tops of soft black boots. His smell tended to worry his personal staff lest their expression make it seem as though they were personally disloyal to him. He was a specialist in heavy industrial management.

After an amusing and baroque description of the character, Condon ends the paragraph with a practiced thud. As for the definition of hircine: Of or pertaining to a goat, particularly the odor. Great stuff, right?

Before I get too caught up in The Manchurian Candidate’s exceedingly entertaining style, I’d better move on to the topic at hand: the book’s view of politics and this year’s endless and disheartening campaigns for the presidency.


The American political system has produced a series of candidates more frightening than any in memory: a billionaire know-nothing who used to keep a copy of Hitler’s speeches by his bed for inspirational nighttime reading; a pretty-boy Senator with a history of credit problems and family criminality; an astoundingly pompous son of a Latino immigrant who detests Latino immigrants and is notoriously reviled by his own party's colleagues in Congress; a 74-year-old socialist who has captivated young people’s imaginations by promising them free college degrees and free health care without concerning himself with the details of how much these budget-busting freebies will cost and how they could possibly become law; and one of the most loathed women in the nation, a career politician with more baggage than a gaggle of nouveau-riche Chinese after a Singapore shopping spree.

As Raymond’s mother knows all too well, thinking makes Americans’ heads hurt and therefore is to be avoided.

Condon’s candidate is merely a dupe.


The central conceit in The Manchurian Candidate is that its protagonist, Raymond Shaw, has been thoroughly and successfully brainwashed during the Korean War. He and several other members of his Army unit are captured, spirited away to remote Manchuria, and subjected to intense and totally successful Pavlovian mind control over the course of only a few days. Yeah, the time frame is a bit of a stretch. But it’s easy to accept this unlikely premise because Condon describes it so confidently. The brainwashing occurs as a flashback; Raymond begins the novel having returned from Korea and preparing to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery during a particularly tough battle.

Only it turns out that the battle never happened. The two soldiers who supposedly gave their lives for their country during the imaginary combat were in fact murdered – by Raymond! – during a brainwashing session. The devious Communists planted the battle and Raymond’s heroic role in it in the surviving soldiers’ minds and made sure they forgot what really happened – insofar as they are able.

The Commies’ main aim is to turn Raymond into a killing machine. His willpower disappears whenever someone says, “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a game of solitaire?” A deck of cards always materializes. And Raymond eventually turns up the Queen of Hearts, which triggers his stealthy, uncontrollable impulse to kill. After the slaughter, Raymond wakes up from his Manchurian trance with no idea of what he’s done.

No direct parallel links The Manchurian Candidate’s brainwashing and our upcoming election – at least not to my knowledge. There is no truth to the theory that every time Donald Trump says the word “unbelievable!” he gains a thousand zombie-like followers. That he gathers the zombies by some means, however, is demonstrated by every poll. And his hair is undoubtedly nefarious. But The Donald doesn’t use brainwashing or hypnosis or subliminal messages – as far as I know. Then again, the public in The Manchurian Candidate has no idea that Raymond goes around assassinating people. 


It’s sad but true: Condon plagiarized parts of The Manchurian Candidate from Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius. He certainly didn’t need to do it; he was as creative a wordsmith as they come. But a software engineer named C. J. Silverio made the irrefutable connection between Condon’s sentence - “Johnny knew in his superstitious heart of hearts that his marriage to Raymond's mother was an impious thing and this knowledge, it seems, affected him nervously, putting an inner restraint upon his flesh” - and Graves’s -  “He knew that the marriage was impious: this knowledge, it seems, affected him nervously, putting an inner restraint on his flesh.” She and other sleuths went on to find many more passages dug directly from the Graves.

The presidential campaign has featured proven acts of plagiarism along with many other categories of questionable behavior. Senator Rand Paul, one of the 346 original contenders for the Republican nomination, turned out to have stolen material for parts of his speeches and a portion of his book, Government Bullies. Specifically, he swiped Wikipedia’s description of the movie Gattaca word for word, and he did the same with Wikipedia’s entry for Stand and Deliver. And finally, Paul lifted about 1300 words from a Heritage Foundation study for uncredited use in his book.

When confronted with these facts, Paul played preposterously dumb, responding that he didn’t realize that he had to footnote his speeches. But his strategic stupidity turned out to be a brilliant political tactic. The whole thing quickly blew over, apparently because the American people assume that all politicians are liars and thieves and saw Paul’s plagiarism simply as more of what they already expected.


Of Raymond’s mother and her brother, Condon writes: “Then he had beaten her with a hockey stick because he had objected to her nailing the paw of a beige cocker spaniel to the floor because the dog was stubborn and refused to understand the most elemental instructions to remain still when she had called out the command to do so.” So casually, lethally described.

None of the presidential candidates this year stands accused of cruelty to an animal. That was the last election, when Mitt Romney boasted of strapping his Irish Setter, Seamus, to the roof of the family car for a 12-hour road trip.

Cruelty to human beings is another matter. When a nurse returned from West Africa, where she’d been on a selfless humanitarian mission treating people with Ebola, the New Jersey governor and failed presidential candidate Chris Christie ordered her into a makeshift quarantine tent outside a Newark hospital despite the fact that she showed no symptoms of the illness and was therefore unable to transmit the disease to a single soul. Then, when she complained about being uselessly incarcerated, Christie bragged that she had nothing to complain about because, after all, she’d been given take-out meals “from the best restaurants in Newark.” She’d have been better off with Ebola.

For his part, Donald Trump’s cruelty extends – with terrifying popular support – to proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the country, including even those desperate refugees who have gone through the State Department’s years-long vetting process and have been cleared for legal immigration. Trump’s proposal to build an impenetrable, 1,954-mile wall along the entire US border with Mexico – and somehow forcing Mexico to pay for it - can’t be considered cruel because it’s too ludicrous. Pandering similarly to the largest voting bloc in the United States – the brainless - Ted Cruz has vowed to negate the marriages of all same-sex couples that were legitimized on the federal level by the Supreme Court. Writing as one whose marriage would be so destroyed, I must say that I find Cruz’s promise to be, like Trump's wall, not so much cruel as hilarious - in a Hitler-joke kind of way.

Speaking of Brainless…

Raymond’s viperish mother engineers the political rise of her second husband, Johnny Iselin, largely on the basis of his fierce defense of American liberty by way of accusing the Department of Defense of harboring ever-shifting numbers of Communists. It’s a sick irony, but I won’t tell you why because doing so would be a spoiler of epic proportions.

Condon writes:

If the scorecard of working Communists in the Defense Department seems either tricky or confusing, it is because Raymond’s mother chose to make the numbers difficult to follow day to day, week to week, and month to month,  during that launching period when his sensational allegations were winning Johnny headlines throughout the world for two reasons. First, it was consistent with one of Raymond’s mother’s basic verities, that thinking made Americans’ heads hurt and therefore was to be avoided.

Raymond’s mother nails it. As Donald Trump would say, thinking is for losers. Trump’s thoroughgoing lack of details on both foreign and domestic policy issues is precisely what attracts voters to him. He is devoid of ideas, those petty distractions. As Raymond’s mother knows all too well, thinking makes Americans’ heads hurt and therefore is to be avoided. Trump is thriving because most Americans are idiots.

Call me elitist. It’s a trait of which I am increasingly proud.  

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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