Our Complicity in the Trump Phenomenon, Part 1

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.

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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.

*Check out this brief, yet insightful interview by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

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.

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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!

Donald Trump and the Value We Attribute to Wealth

The Donald is on a roll – a white roll, that is. Mexicans and other Latinos are saying “ya basta” – that’s enough.

I pastor a dual-language congregation in Texas. The Donald has given me, for a number of Sundays now, a comical entry into my Spanish sermón. Don’t get me wrong – we don’t focus or even dawdle on partisan politics in Spanish worship at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, but we do talk about what’s happening in society. And The Donald is happening . . .

America is the land of opportunity. And part of that opportunity has been achieved, up to the current day, on the backs of cheap (or enslaved) labor. African slaves and immigrants, Chinese and other Asians, Irish, Italians, Swedes, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Mexicans, Iranians, and many others have put in long days and nights working the land, the factories, the shipyards, the foundries, the slaughterhouses, the ports, the warehouses, the kitchens, the taxis and shuttle buses. America is the land of slaves who came against their own will. America is the land of indigenous natives who were pushed aside – many of these exterminated. America is the land of immigrants, many who came possessing not much more than sheer will. And still, America is the land of opportunity for many – it’s more than a cliché; it’s a vital reality.

America, a great country and society, is far from perfect. We’ve yet to attain “liberty and justice for all.” But as we continue forward on our societal journey, we seem to be making more progress than not.* We value family and friendships, hard work, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.

But here’s where it starts to get complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value has taken Donald Trump to the top of the polls. Yes, he talks tough and is hitting a nerve with a small segment of our 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 has POTUS potential. 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.

Americans equate wealth with success. According to University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, this evaluation can be very narrow and limiting – essentially, anti-freedom. I call it un-egalitarian. Check out this brief, yet insightful interview (linked here) by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson (no relation) on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

Talking about societal values, Anderson 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” (italics mine).

According to Anderson, the primary problem with this single definition of success is that those who are not wealthy are seen to be failures. Secondary problems include overconsumption (by the rich and poor alike, trying to keep up and measure up) and wealth accumulation by questionable means. Value extraction that is harmful to people and communities, and the environment, is permitted because the higher goal of wealth accumulation is served. That’s a problem.

A society that worships wealth accumulation is one in need of a recalibration of its values. Wealth is good, unquestionably; but its unfettered pursuit portends societal decline. 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.

Teachers, soldiers, nurses, mechanics, child care workers, cops, community organizers, construction workers, kitchen workers, and caretakers will never be paid extravagant salaries. But their work is vital to the flourishing of societal common good. And their work doesn’t extract, but adds value to communities and societies. Our society would not be successful without them, and the many others who serve the common good in their work.

Candidate Trump can harangue Mexican and other Latino immigrants all he wants. It’s unconvincing, however. Most all of the Mexican and Latino immigrants (and their sons and daughters) that I know in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio – and in other places in this country – are adding value to their communities and to this society.

And, in the end, despite all his wealth, the haranguing will not win Mr. Trump a national election in twenty-first century America.

 

*Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Taylor Branch’s Trilogy on the King Years, among other distinguished works of history, help to tell a fuller representative story of American history.

 

 

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. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!