If there's one thing I admire about Herman Cain — and truth be told, there is only one thing I admire about Herman Cain — it's his chutzpah.
That, as the great Leo Rosten observed, is the kind of gall it takes to murder your parents and then throw yourself on the mercy of the court because you're an orphan. To borrow a phrase that others have used to demean President Barack Obama, Cain's is the audacity of hype.
It's what makes this previously little-known African-American businessman such a great political con man. He has used it to leap to the top of the Republican presidential heap for several weeks in a row, even though he has no previous electoral experience and few discernible qualifications. When you look beyond the smoke and mirrors of his campaign, it's simply a scam.
To start with, although Cain touts his reputation as a problem-solving businessman who turned around the Godfather's Pizza chain and claims to be a Washington outsider, the truth is anything but. In fact, he first attracted the attention of right-wing political activists during the late 1990s as a savvy lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, where he fought against such restrictions on American freedom as smoking bans in restaurants, tougher drunk-driving laws and increases in the minimum wage. He was so connected that former Secretary of State Colin Powell once actually stopped his car, jumped out and gave Cain a hug right there on the street. You can't be more of an insider than that.
Then there's the contrast between Cain's carefully cultivated image as a humble but highly effective manager and the chaos and egomania that reportedly characterize his campaign. According to the New York Times, Cain's staff was taken aback by an email with this admonishment for when they travel in a car with Cain: "Do not speak to him unless you are spoken to." How's that for being aloof? If Cain can't even run his campaign, how could he hope to manage the nation?
Even so, Cain's brand seems to be catching on, at least with his target audience of Tea Party members and other extreme conservatives. I think he's succeeding because, wittingly or unwittingly, he has tapped into two of America's greatest traditions of political deception, one black, one white. It's a great marketing strategy.
On the black side, Cain employs the age-old habit of telling white folks what they want to hear — especially about other blacks. Cain, like his token fellow black Tea Party favorites Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), recognized early on that white right-wing populists were eager to publicly embrace African-American candidates to prove that they weren't a pack of racists.
It works — so long as the black politician involved does not challenge any of the right-wingers' basic assumptions about Negroes. So Cain goes around declaring that "I don't believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way," and that blacks vote Democratic because they have been "brainwashed."
He's even willing to play the part of a dialect-spouting minstrel when necessary, as when he quotes his father, declaring, "I does not care." Not surprisingly, white folks applaud his shenanigans, while black folks cringe. Isn't that the essence of Tomming?
But Cain's real genius is his unprecedented mastery of one of the oldest and most effective political populist flimflams in the book: bamboozling white middle- and working-class people into voting against their own interests. Heretofore, reactionary white office seekers like George Wallace and several GOP presidential candidates used appeals to bigotry to prevent the formation of diverse coalitions that could press for progressive social change.
But Cain has stolen the white politicians' thunder by combining his Stepin Fetchit racial politics with a catchy tax idea, the 9-9-9 plan (pdf). Like the flat-tax proposal put forward the other day by Cain's rival for the GOP nomination Texas Gov. Rick Perry, it's a regressive levy that even conservative economists believe would fall most heavily on poor, working- and middle-class people while showering the rich with tax breaks. If it were ever enacted into law, Cain's plan would pick the pockets of the nincompoops who seem to find it most appealing.
As P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said and as Cain realizes deep down in his bones, there's a suckah born every minute.
Jack White writes about national politics, race and other topics for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.