The Trump candidacy for president has turned into a raging dumpster fire. It’s tempting to place the majority of the blame on Trump himself for the disastrous floundering to the November finish line; or upon his ardent supporters, unable to amass beyond 40 percent of the electorate because of weak support from women and practically no support from the increasing population of American minorities. I’ll argue here, to the contrary, that all of us have a hand in enabling this episode of combustible disgrace, because of the over-importance and overemphasis we place upon wealth.
Wealth, unquestionably, is good. Its right utilization benefits many and advances common good. Wealth is a blessing, especially when amply distributed throughout a society.
America has done a pretty good job of creating and sharing wealth over the generations through ingenuity, innovation, generosity, and good ol’ hard work. That said, our history (including our labor history) is marred by the memories and realities of slavery, extermination of native peoples, racial and gender prejudice, child labor, and overdependence on cheap foreign labor. Yet, we still move forward in the struggle to attain “liberty and justice for all.” As we continue forward on a shared journey, we seem to be making more progress than not. We value family and friendships, perseverance and persistence, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.
But here’s where it gets even more complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value took Donald Trump to the top of the polls during the Republican primary season. Yes, he talked tough and hit a nerve with a small segment of society (very white) that wants to fix our immigration issues with deportations and walls. But because he is rich – fabulously so, just listen to him tell you – he and a number of surrogates claim that this characteristic ipso facto christens him to assume the presidency. He claims that he’s “the most successful person to ever run for president.” Mitt Romney’s nomination four years ago, in part, can be attributed to the same evaluation.
For better and for worse, Americans equate wealth with success. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other Gilded Age partisans, accumulating historic quantities of wealth during the boom of the Second Industrial era, unwittingly gave a new permission to the American experience: Unimagined and never before seen differences between the richest and poorest were deemed permissible. To Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s credit, they responded to the new reality forged by their accumulated largesse by becoming two of the greatest philanthropists in history. Since that time, Americans have exhibited great reverence for their very richest and “most successful” citizens. Rockefeller and (especially) Carnegie have their detractors, but each has left an enduring legacy of benefit to the common good. Donald Trump comes in their wake, at best, as a shabby imposter; his weak showing as a philanthropist and braggadocio about not paying federal income tax reveal his contempt for greater society. Some of his followers are as overly taken with Trump’s sense of importance as is the nominee himself. But his self-indulgence – crystalized by accusations of sexual assault – has caught up with him. His own sense of entitlement drags his candidacy down into a dumpster.
Trump will leave a convoluted legacy when this election cycle is all said and done. His no-holds-barred approach during the primary season invigorated a zealous following (something Hillary Clinton lacked as a candidate and nominee). But Trump’s reach for the highest office as nominee will be forever characterized by a throng of exaggerations (he’ll get GDP “higher than 4 percent”), untruths (birtherism), and thin-skinned reactions to adversity (“the election is rigged”) deployed to defend his enormous (yet fragile) ego more so than to win over voters. After he convincingly loses the election, will the Trump candidacy will morph into Trump TV? If so, the successful rich guy and his surrogates will continue to enlighten a small, but loyal following on the merits of Trumpian alternative reality. Strip away Trump’s wealth from what he says and how he acts – would anyone pay attention to him?
When a society elevates the attainment and accumulation of wealth as its leading societal value, success becomes monopolized. Dr. Elizabeth Anderson (no relation), a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, says “I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single religion.”* Anderson says that a successful society is one that is diversified in its understanding of good and doesn’t allow wealth to siphon upward. Anderson calls inheritance taxes the most just in the world, because they mitigate against the establishment of a permanent upper-class.
The social value that we as a society place on wealth helped cover up and diminish Trump’s well-known shortcomings, making his candidacy a possibility. The creed of wealth=success has some merit, but when it dominates all other possibilities of success (compassion, service, philanthropy, cooperation) it creates two specific problems: those who are not wealthy are deemed failures, and the extraction of value – whether from the environment or from other people – is seen as a mean justified by the end.
Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him had a lot to say about money and wealth – mostly about the responsibilities to community and society of those who had wealth. According to these biblical voices, those who responsibly use wealth to uplift and support common good are deemed successful. This unforgettable and historic presidential election cycle will serve our society well if it can help create a cultural shift where wealth accumulation is not understood as the greatest marker of success, but as the emissary of responsibility. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and many others have and do understand wealth in this light. Mr. Trump hasn’t gotten there yet.
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016. ¡Que bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más – saldrá este Octubre de 2016!