“A certain kind of rich man afflicted with the symptoms of moral dandyism sooner or later comes to the conclusion that it isn’t enough merely to make money. He feels obliged to hold views, to espouse causes and elect Presidents, to explain to a trembling world how and why the world went wrong.”
-Lewis H. Lapham, editor and writer (b. 8 Jan 1935)
Our friend John Whittier posted this quote today, and I’m pretty sure he was thinking of Donald Trump when he posted it.
That quote brought to mind something Trump said many years ago when he wanted to buy the only parcel of open/green space left in Manhattan. Someone asked him why, when he was already so wealthy and already owned so many properties, would he want to buy the only open space left along the river. He replied that he didn’t need the money and didn’t really have any plans for what to do with the property. He said it was all about the competition and winning when others wanted something. He said something to the effect that it was the thrill of victory that motivated him.
I suppose, in a way, people whose goal is to make as much money as possible or to own as much property as possible share the same kind of human desire to win as do athletes, politicians or chess masters. Men have gone to extremes to be the “first” at things like climbing the tallest mountain in the world.
It’s part of our nature to strive, to compete, to enjoy victory. Many times it’s about the money (e.g., the gold rush.) Sometimes it’s about breaking a glass ceiling. To my dismay, sometimes it’s women wanting to show they can maim and kill other human beings just as effectively as men can.
Many times when my husband is watching a college or professional football game, I can’t help wondering why supposedly sane men would stand out in the cold, bare chests painted the colors of their team, theater props on their heads, screaming like howler monkeys.
Or why hundreds of thousands of sports fans would spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing, blankets, and doo dads to publicly display their support for a certain team. This is especially puzzling when students who really can’t afford all that stuff feel they have to do it to “belong.”
Of course we Americans have always enjoyed competition. And I’m proud of the one tennis trophy I earned years ago. But it seems to me that the exaggerated attention given these days to sports and, especially, the way the public is being manipulated by team owners, can’t be just about the thrill of winning a game.
Let me go off the deep end here and toss out some ideas that may or may not help explain what’s going on in America today.
First, I think everyone has by now heard that the vast majority of Americans are not “winning” economically any more. In fact, incomes are not only stagnant, a lot of people took a direct hit during the “Great Recession.” (Who came up with that label?)
In a recent column in the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria mulled over why middle-aged Caucasian Americans are killing themselves at higher rates than previously. Why are so many people turning to alcohol, drugs and eventual suicide who probably wouldn’t have reached such a level of despair in the past?
True, globalization and technological change have made it more difficult for workers to advance financially. But there is more to it, according to Princeton anthropologist Carolyn Rouse whom Zakaria contacted for comments on this phenomenon.
It may be about expectations as much as actual events in the lives of our white working-class neighbors. Although they have never seen themselves as “elites,” they have always had an edge in terms of reaching their goals. They have always been a “superior” class because there was always someone they could point to as poorer than they were. I think it was Kris Kristofferson decades ago who sang, “Everybody needs somebody to look down on. Help yourself to me.”
People who have never expected much aren’t as affected by the changes in our economic situation. They may be hurting financially along with their white co-workers, but they may not feel they’ve lost a “leg up” in the competition because they never had one.
A personal note here. I grew up in a working class family. Neither parent finished high school. My father was a factory worker; my mother worked in retail. My father put cardboard in the bottom of his shoes that had worn through the soles. My mother sewed our clothes and exchanged hand-me-downs with our cousins. But we never thought of ourselves as poor because our church was always collecting something “for the poor” and because there were really poor migrant workers who came to town to buy supplies during the summer and fall harvest seasons. This was post World War II when the U.S. had no real global competition, and there were no limits on what we could accomplish with more schooling and a determination to succeed. My sisters and I all attained a professional level of education because it was expected of us.
I know I was a beneficiary of “white privilege” because my grandfather emigrated from England and walked right into a good factory job where blacks need not apply.
The Princeton anthropologist quoted in Zakaria’s column suggests that part of the reason African-Americans, Hispanics and others who were never part of the “privileged” group are not killing themselves at the same rate as whites is because they never felt the kind of superior status that whites did in the past.
Now we circle back to sports mania and Donald Trump. I think it’s obvious that middle-aged whites are the ones making the worst fools of themselves at sporting events. And there may be something going on with them about this whole Rams stadium fiasco. (How old are Governor Nixon and Mayor Slay???)
But the seriously disturbing phenomenon is the support for Donald Trump among middle-aged whites. I try to avoid watching anything about Trump on TV, but it’s getting more and more difficult because our media outlets seem to be obsessed with him. I wrote a few months ago that the American media will get Trump elected president just by pushing him in our faces constantly. Admit it… Americans love to jump on a bandwagon. Why else would they stand in line in the rain for hours to be the first to see a certain movie? Why are normally solidly sane people running out to buy powerball tickets?
Trump is not only in our face constantly, he is saying, according to one of his supporters in New Hampshire “what the rest of us are thinking but afraid to say out loud.”
Another supporter, who also happened to be a middle-aged white resident of New Hampshire, said something to the effect that “we” have lost so many of our freedoms and Trump is going to give them back to us. While any rational person knows that ‘s nonsense, maybe we should look more closely at what that woman meant.
My husband, like most other level-headed voters, said he doesn’t understand why Trump groupies don’t realize he can’t do all the things he is promising. My only explanation is that they really don’t want to know that. They feel they’ve been cheated and don’t know what to do about it. Along comes someone with a strong personality and a dash of charisma who promises to return us to the glory days of empire. Let’s not examine this savior too carefully. Cognitive dissonance? What’s that?
Another personal story: When I was finishing up my doctorate at Illinois State University in 1990, I told a neighbor I was moving to New Hampshire to take a job. She said I’d love New Hampshire because there weren’t any Mexicans there. I thought that was an odd thing to say, but now I think I know what she meant.
So what we may have in this presidential primary season is a combination of Trump’s need for self-aggrandizement and victory over competitors along with the need for middle-aged white working class folks for some kind of champion. Their fears are real, but they are looking for a miracle cure just as Dorothy, the lion, the tin man and the scarecrow were in the land of OZ. The man behind the curtain is a charlatan, but how do we get folks who think he has a miracle cure to realize this?
Obviously facts don’t matter. They didn’t matter when Hitler told despairing Germans that Jews were the source of all their troubles. Or maybe it was their Slavic neighbors. Or gypsies. Or homosexuals. When people want to believe someone is their savior, don’t get in the way because you’ll be run over by their contempt for your rational arguments.
When I was doing voter registration at a sliding-scale health clinic in rural Missouri, a woman with missing teeth, terrible skin problems and greasy hair came up and told me proudly that she was voting for Trump because “he’s made himself rich and can fix our country.” After she complained about her food stamps being cut, I told her that it is Republicans who are cutting food stamps. She glared at me indignantly and told me that “Trump won’t let them do that.” I rest my case.
Those of us who want to save our democratic republic from total ruin will have to figure out how to keep the man who would be king from seizing power. But how?