As noted in my last, I’d like to say a little more about a specific thread of Trumpism that seems to have gained traction among people who might not otherwise choose to identify publicly with a bigot. This is the idea that as a super–rich bigot, Trump is exempt from the kinds of corruption that infect politicians who, to borrow Eric Trump’s framing of the question at the RNC, “need the job.” Someone who doesn’t need money has no price, is not for sale, can’t be bought. Whereas Hillary Clinton has been bought over and over.
Others (several of whom are linked in the last post) have not been slow to recognize the weaknesses of this argument, at least as an argument for actually voting Trump into office. For one thing, it says nothing whatever about his own personal interests, which would presumably reign unchecked by countervailing influences — at least as far as the country’s governing institutions, themselves corruptible, allow. A candidate not beholden to wealthy donors is not for that reason alone beholden to ordinary people instead. In a similar vein, it gives no positive indication of the kind of policy Trump would pursue with his unsurpassed freedom of maneuver — unless the border wall, the immigration ban, and the broader promise of a return to white supremacy are it; that is, unless the argument is no more than a fig-leaf for bigotry after all. Finally, there is the disturbing implication that only the wealthy are really fit for public office because only they are sufficiently independent to exercise power incorruptibly, without fear or favour. In a sense it doesn’t matter how offensive or implausible this is, because it seems likely that the whole argument is being deployed cynically and disingenuously. But even cynical and disingenuous arguments have real origins, and real effects.
Both arguments and arrangements bearing a family resemblance to this one are nothing new. On one hand, a significant degree of property has often been a condition for wielding a share of political power in “the West”, whether the political class thus defined has been a slave-owning citizen body, a landed aristocracy, a mercantile elite, or some other propertied and/or moneyed concoction. The “Army debates” at Putney in 1647 in the wake of the first English Civil War — which generated the much-quoted observation that “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he” — turned in part on whether the franchise could safely be extended to servants and beggars dependant for their livelihood on, and thus subject to the decisive influence of, wealthier people; most speakers in that revolutionary assemblage ultimately agreed that it could not. Long before and long afterward, the parliamentary franchise for county seats was restricted to “forty-shilling freeholders”; and even the local offices on which day-to-day government depended required men of sufficient substance to bear their costs. Property qualifications for voting were only abolished in the last US states, meanwhile, long after independence.
On the other hand, the links between property, power, and virtue to which Trump now lays claim are among the oldest topics in political thought. Concern has more often centred, however, on wealth’s corrupting rather than its purifying or its liberating effects — its creation of an interest opposed to that of the community or the polity as a whole. Aristotle and many after him, have regarded leisure — and hence the wealth necessary to support it — as essential to the pursuit of virtue; this in turn might foster the self-restraint needed to prevent the wealthy from ruling purely in their own interests. Yet Aristotle was no fan of endless money-making, or indeed of the pursuit of profit for its own sake. The excessive appetites it fed were inimical to the virtue he described. It seems unlikely that the man with the golden toilet would have been his pick. (Thomas More might demur, but then golden toilets meant something different to him.) The ill effects of poverty and dependence have likewise been a staple, at least since Machiavelli; but the corrupting dependence in question has often, as at Putney, been dependence precisely on those ambitious, factious, and rich enough to purchase political allegiance. And the solution suggested by republican thinkers such as James Harrington — that is, legislating against excessive concentrations of property — runs directly counter to the grotesquely unequal distribution of wealth that produced Trump and his candidacy in the first place.
It might seem odd to fabricate arguments ostensibly aimed at a blue-collar audience from a set of conceptual linkages that denigrates the capacity of the economically dependent for independent thought and action, and that is in that sense deeply anti-democratic even in some of its republican forms. But perhaps it’s no stranger than looking to dictators for guidance on restoring “American greatness”. There is an undeniably creative perversity in using the detrimental moral consequences of inequality to argue not for a reduction in inequality but for handing the reins of power to a would-be strongman who exemplifies its worst effects — and in arguing in effect that the “independence” required to exercise political office can be guaranteed only by an estate measured in billions of dollars. But in the end that, too, seems more like an amplification ad absurdum than a reversal of the many longstanding policies and positions that punish the poor for being poor, and for which Trump himself is hardly responsible. Certainly, the widespread embrace of the idea that only the super-rich can preserve democracy from corruption — if this is part of what Trump’s run signifies — is a testament to how far a distorted economic order can reshape the political perception even of its victims.
But that’s it on this for now. The Trump phenomenon is scary, but it is also increasingly suffocating — even as the candidate himself may be running out of steam — and its worst aspects have roots far deeper and older than Trump’s campaign. Summer is ending, other things are happening in the world, and other subjects deserve more space and time.
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