Christopher Buckley wrote Thank You for Smoking in 1994 – an eon ago in cultural and political terms – as an attempt to understand what made professional debaters tick. He watched a tobacco apologist on television, insisting in the face of all evidence that cigarettes weren’t harmful, and marveled at how someone could, in his terms “sell death for a living.” Eleven years later, Jason Reitman made a very successful movie out of it, which kept the basic premise and satirical thrust intact. Who can stare naked evidence right in the eye and claim – with all feeling and certainty – that black is, in fact, white?
And now here we sit – twenty-three years after the book, twelve years after the movie – and see what hideous oaks have grown from the acorns they so pointedly mocked. Thank You for Smoking wasn’t intended as a broad-based indictment of our refusal to accept reality. It was specifically about lobbyists and similar figures: ostensibly nice, upstanding people who cheerfully lie about awful things in order to pay the rent. But what was once the realm of paid professionals has now engulfed not only the White House and its ruling political party, but a disturbing percentage of the voting public. The cancer has metastasized and currently consumes the very fabric of public debate. Buckley, and Reitman, likely had little idea how terrifyingly prescient their efforts were.
At the heart of book and movie alike sits Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart at his most amiable), who works as the chief defender of Big Tobacco and delights in his ability to debate the undebatable. The ethical failings of his employer don’t seem to bother him. Indeed, he doesn’t really believe in what he argues for so vociferously. He simply loves arguing, and because he’s so good at it, why shouldn’t he make a living at it?
That’s his version anyway, which a number of people can see right through. But he himself remains oblivious to the implications of what he does, despite a shattered marriage and obviously compromised duties like convincing a smug movie agent (Rob Lowe, exhibiting Maximum Smarm) to get cigarettes placed in his studio’s newest space opera, or literally paying off the Marlboro Man to keep quiet about the cancer destroying him.
The irony – and the source of the film’s humor – stems from the fact that Naylor never grapples with the moral implications of what he does. In his mind, victory through rhetoric is all that matters, and some of the most disturbing parts of the film come when he demonstrates the value of his skills to his young son (Cameron Bright), who gobbles it up. “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong,” he explains, which sums up his fallacy in a single sentence. He’s wrong, of course. If you argue correctly, you can still be wrong; you just never have to admit it… which is another way of saying you don’t have to face the consequences of your actions.
Naylor can eel out of any situation thanks to his silver tongue, which leads him to believe his gift of rhetoric is an absolute good in and of itself. He defends tobacco not because he believes in it, but because it’s basically the Mt. Everest of indefensible positions. If he can convince people that cigarettes aren’t bad for you, there are no more worlds to conquer. The impact of his actions never enters into his thinking and as long as he never has to face the music, all other considerations fail to matter.
And he gets away with it: largely because his opponents are sufficiently inept to fight back (witness William H. Macy’s sputtering U.S. Senator), and because the media constantly champions razzle-dazzle over cold, hard facts. It’s no secret how pervasive that equation has become: allowing a craven, not-especially astute con artist to claim the White House in the face of all sanity and logic. Trump applied the same techniques that Naylor uses to get there, and continues to do so day after Twitter-blasted day. His flying monkey corps in Washington has resolutely followed his example – no matter his distasteful some of them clearly behind it – as does and the hard-core supporters insisting that he’s doing a great job no matter how high the wreckage piles up.
Thank You for Smoking soars as a movie in part because it doesn’t let Naylor off the hook no matter how sympathetic he sometimes seems: a pointed comment on the banality of evil and how nice guys aren’t any less sinister just because they think they’ve done nothing wrong. The irony depends on an overt “happy ending,” however, which lets people run with the stated message instead of the inferred message beneath it.
That, too, is becoming a sadly common tactic, which even eliminates the notion of verbal skill from the equation. Naylor, at least, knows his way around Robert’s Rules of Order. Trump and his supporters see no need to craft elegant arguments to prop up their untenable positions. Instead, they mindlessly insist that the sun rises in the west, using cries of “fake news” and media bias to avoid confronting the facts that fly straight in the face of what they expect the rest of us to swallow at their behest. The tactic works, at least temporarily. You need only ignore the basics of self-reflection and shame, and the longer you stick to it, the easier it becomes. (“Thank God there’s nothing to this Russia thing,” one online wag told me with placid assurance… two hours before it was revealed that Trump himself is now a focus of the investigation.)
And here is where the social satire of Thank You for Smoking connects to more sinister issues. Because if you can successfully argue that cigarettes are harmless, you can defend anything… up to and including 2+2 = 5. Buckley’s father was William F. Buckley, founder of modern conservatism and a man whose reputation hinged on ferocious debating skills. His son clearly saw the limits of that weapon, but what started out as a poke in the ribs has become prescient commentary on the central crisis facing our country. Facts can’t be confronted if the other side insists that they don’t exist, and as Trump’s disapproval ratings rise to historic highs, the remainder of his support base stubbornly insists absolutely nothing is wrong save for a “witch hunt” against their leader that needs to be stopped at all costs.
Every day they persist, they lend comfort and support to a monster. They know it, we know it, and the rest of the world surely knows it too. And yet, they see only an argument to be won, not a crisis to confront and address. “Victory” exists solely within the realm of public opinion, no matter how much wreckage it causes in the world itself. Within that context, the wholesale damage to our institutions becomes just another debate point to dismiss. Nick Naylor is a fool at the end of the day, and that makes him funny. But millions of people now follow his example – at the behest of septuagenarian man-child with his finger on the nuclear button – and that isn’t funny at all.