Detail from Jasper Johns 'White Flag.'

Lewis Lapham: Of America and the Rise of the Stupefied Plutocrat

"The record will show the game securely rigged in favor of the rich."

By  Lewis Lapham

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals.
–Edith Wharton

The populace may hiss me, but when I go home and think of my money, I applaud myself.
Horace

At the higher elevations of informed American opinion in the spring of 2018 the voices of reason stand united in their fear and loathing of Donald J. Trump, real estate mogul, reality TV star, 45th president of the United States. Their viewing with alarm is bipartisan and heartfelt, but the dumbfounded question, “How can such things be?” is well behind the times. Trump is undoubtedly a menace, but he isn’t a surprise. His smug and self-satisfied face is the face of the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter of a century.

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Trump staked his claim to the White House on the proposition that he was “really rich,” embodiment of the divine right of money and therefore free to say and do whatever it takes to make America great again. A deus ex machina descending an escalator into the atrium of his eponymous tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in June 2015, Trump was there to say, and say it plainly, that money is power, and power, ladies and gentlemen, is not self-sacrificing or democratic. The big money cares for nothing other than itself, always has and always will. Name of the game, nature of the beast.

Not the exact words in Trump’s loud and thoughtless mouth, but the gist of the message that over the next 17 months he shouted to fairground crowd and camera in states red, white and blue. A fair enough share of his fellow citizens screamed, stamped and voted in agreement because what he was saying they knew to be true, knew it not as precept borrowed from the collected works of V.I. Lenin or Ralph Lauren but from their own downwardly mobile experience on the losing side of a class war waged over the past 40 years by America’s increasingly frightened and selfish rich against its increasingly angry and debtbound poor.

Trump didn’t need briefing papers to refine the message. He presented it live and in person, an unscripted and overweight canary flown from its gilded cage, telling it like it is when seen from the perch of the haves looking down on the birdseed of the have-nots. Had he time or patience for looking into books instead of mirrors, he could have sourced his wisdom to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1933 presented the case for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Not that it would have occurred to Trump to want both, but he might have been glad to know the Supreme Court had excused him from further study under the heading of politics. In the world according to Trump—as it was in the worlds according to Ronald Reagan, George Bush pere et fils, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—the concentration of wealth is the good, the true and the beautiful. Democracy is for losers.

“What in 1988 was a weakened but still operational democracy has become a dysfunctional, stupefied plutocracy.”

Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 with an attitude and agenda similar to Trump’s—to restore America to its rightful place where “someone can always get rich.” His administration arrived in Washington firm in its resolve to uproot the democratic style of feeling and thought that underwrote FDR’s New Deal. What was billed as the Reagan Revolution and the dawn of a New Morning in America recruited various parties of the dissatisfied right (conservative, neoconservative, libertarian, reactionary and evangelical) under one flag of abiding and transcendent truth—money ennobles rich people, making them healthy, wealthy and wise; money corrupts poor people, making them ignorant, lazy and sick.

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Re-branded as neoliberalism in the 1990s the doctrine of enlightened selfishness has served as the wisdom in political and cultural office ever since Reagan stepped onto the White House stage promising a happy return to an imaginary American past—to the home on the range made safe from Apaches by John Wayne, an America once again cowboy-hatted and standing tall, risen from the ashes of defeat in Vietnam, cleansed of its Watergate impurities, outspending the Russians on weapons of mass destruction, releasing the free market from the prison of government regulation, going long on the private good, selling short the public good.

For 40 years under administrations Republican and Democrat, the concentrations of wealth and power have systematically shuffled public land and light and air into a private purse, extended the reach of corporate monopoly, shifted the bulk of the nation’s income to its top-tier fatted calves, let fall into disrepair nearly all the infrastructure—roads, water systems, schools, bridges, hospitals and power plants—that provides a democratic commonwealth with the means of production for its mutual enterprise. The subdivision of America the Beautiful into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor has outfitted a tenth of the population with three-quarters of the nation’s wealth. The work in progress has been accompanied by the construction of a national security and surveillance state backed by the guarantee of never-ending foreign war and equipped with increasingly repressive police powers to quiet the voices of domestic discontent. In the 1950s the word public indicated a common good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); private was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs). The connotations traded places in the 1980s; private to be associated with all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), public a synonym for all things ugly, incompetent and unclean (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).

Reagan left office in 1989, the same year Donald J. Trump emerged as poster child for what the news media were touting as the second coming of an American Gilded Age more gloriously frivolous than the one known to Commodore Vanderbilt and Big Jim Fisk. Money was the hero with a thousand faces, greed the creative frenzy from which all blessings conspicuously flow. Time magazine in 1989 posed Trump on its cover fondling the ace of diamonds; Trump’s photograph was decorating college dormitory walls once reserved for posters of Dylan and Che; Trump’s 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, was up there in lights with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.

When Money and Class in America was published in 1988, Trump showed up for the welcoming dinner party given by Ann Getty, billionaire patron of the arts and proud new owner of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the book’s publisher. She didn’t expect Trump to read the book; his simple acknowledgement of its existence could be construed in 1988 as baptism in the temple of Mammon. Although the joke was unintended, his presence in Getty’s Fifth Avenue apartment seconded the motion of the book, which was to draw a satirical portrait of a society captivated by the story of Midas, mighty king in Greek and Roman legend, who wished that everything he touched be turned to gold. So too in 1988 the consummation devoutly wished in all quarters of the American body politic, on every tabloid forehead, breast and buttock angling to become commodity or brand, minted into the immortal coin of divine celebrity.

Midas’s wish was granted by Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy, and for one bright new morning in antiquity the king rejoiced in changing sticks and stones and sunflowers into precious heavy metal. But then so did his food and drink turn to gold when he touched it with his wonder-working hands, and he would have died of thirst before he died of hunger had not Dionysus released him from the prison of his golden wish.

The ancient king at least had the wit to know something had gone wrong with the IPO. Unable to lift or taste les poissons d’or he begged the god of wine and ecstasy for deliverance, and in 1988 I expected America’s propertied classes to experience a similar awakening. To mark the Midas touch to market—not a glad tiding of comfort and joy, the kiss of peace and death bestowed by the mobster god in the machine of creatively destructive capitalism. The writing of Money and Class in America followed from the assumption that the country’s befuddled overlords would soon regain their wits. At Ann Getty’s dinner table listening to Trump talk—lovingly about himself, loudly about stray topics running around loose in his Rush Limbaugh ditto-head—I took solace in the thought that any trend or spirit of the times shaped in the image of his willful ignorance and grotesque vanity was on final approach to its sell-by date.

“At no moment in its history has the country not been nailed to a cross of gold.”

I was mistaken. Thirty years later Trump is president of the United States, and what in 1988 was a weakened but still operational democracy has become a dysfunctional, stupefied plutocracy. No matter who occupies the White House, or what the issue immediately to hand in Congress (environment or debt, military spending, immigration, health care, education, the wars on poverty, drugs and terror), the concentrations of wealth and power impose more laws restraining the liberty of persons, fewer laws restricting the license of property; open an ever-widening spread of income inequality, reserve an ever-larger share of the nation’s wealth to an ever-smaller fraction of its people.

The nation’s political discourse meanwhile has dwindled into the staging of election campaigns with candidates prized for the gift of saying nothing. Forbidden the use of words apt to disturb a Gallup poll or offend a bagman, they stand and serve as product placements for concentrated wealth, their quality to be inferred from the cost of their manufacture. Machine-made tools so well-contrived they can be played for jokes and presented as game show contestants until on election night they come to judgment before the throne of cameras by which and for which they are produced.

*

The dream of riches has been the hallmark of the American experience ever since the first settlements in the 17th-century wilderness were set up as joint ventures backed by Divine Providence and British gold. Among the gentlemen adventurers offloading Dutch cannon and Geneva bibles on the shores of Massachusetts Bay, there were those who had come in search of El Dorado, betting their lives and fortunes if not their sacred honor on rumors of precious metal and grade-A beaver pelt. Others arriving with blueprints for a new Jerusalem were content to lay up stores of virtue awaiting heavenly reward after the long, New England winter in the grave. No congregation was at a loss for a sermon, a real estate deal, or a discussion about the nature of their newfound wealth—wages of sin or sign of grace, proof of the good Lord’s infinite wisdom or the result of a sharp bargain with a drunken Pequot Indian.

The framers of the Constitution, prosperous and well-educated gentlemen assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, shared with John Adams the suspicion that “democracy will infallibly destroy all civilization,” agreed with James Madison that the turbulent passions of the common man lead to “reckless agitation” for the abolition of debts and “other wicked projects.” With Plato the framers shared the assumption that the best government incorporates the means by which a privileged few arrange the distribution of property and law for the less fortunate many. They envisioned an enlightened oligarchy to which they gave the name of a republic. Adams thought “the great functions of state” should be reserved for “the rich, the well-born, and the able,” the new republic to be managed by men to whom Madison attributed “most wisdom to discern and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society.”

The words for their enterprise the framers borrowed from the British philosopher John Locke, who had declared his 17th-century willingness “to join in society with others who are already united or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name property.” Locke could not conceive of freedom established on anything other than property. Neither could the 18th-century framers of America’s Constitution. By the word liberty, they meant liberty for property, not liberty for persons.

But unlike our present-day makers of money and law, the founders were not stupefied plutocrats. They knew how to read and write (in Latin or French if not also in Greek) and they weren’t preoccupied with the love and fear of money. From their reading of history they understood that oligarchy was well-advised to furnish democracy with some measure of political power because the failure to do so was apt to lead to their being roasted on pitchforks. Accepting of the fact that whereas democracy puts a premium on equality, a capitalist economy does not, the founders looked to balance the divergent ways and means, to accommodate both motions of the heart and the movement of a market. They conceived the Constitution as both organism and mechanism and offered as warranty for its worth the character of men presumably relieved of the necessity to cheat and steal and lie.

The presumption in 1787 could be taken at fair and face value. The framers were endowed with the intellectual energy of the 18th-century Enlightenment, armed with the moral force of the Christian religion. Their idea of law they held to be sacred, a marriage of faith and reason. But good intentions are a perishable commodity, and even the best of oligarchies bear comparison to cheese. Sooner or later they turn rancid in the sun. Wealth accumulates, men decay; a band of brothers that once aspired to form a wise and just government acquires the character of what Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool,” a class of men insatiable in their appetite for more—more banquets, more laurel wreaths and naval victories, more temples, dancing girls and portrait busts—so intoxicated by the love of money “they therefore imagine there is nothing it cannot buy.”

Aristotle derived his understanding of politics from his study of Greek history in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, which encompassed the rise and fall of the Periclean aristocracy, the democratic experiments (most of them failures) spawned by the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War, and the petty tyrannies that preceded the conquest of Greece by the barbarians descending from the mountains of Macedon. In every instance an oligarchy, its lifespan dependent on the character of the men charged with the management of its economic, political and moral enterprise. Recurrent outbreaks of the appetite for more—a sickness the Greeks diagnosed as pleonexia—divided Athens into a city of the poor and a city of the rich, the one at war with the other and neither of them inclined to temper its bitterness in the interest of a common good. Aristotle mentions a faction of especially reactionary oligarchs who swore an oath of noble purpose: “I will be an adversary of the people, and in the council I will do it all the evil that I can.” So also the 272 members of America’s 112th Congress, all but three of them Republican, who in 1986 signed a solemn pledge to oppose any and all efforts to increase marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses, resist net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates. The pledge was still in force in 2001 when its author, the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, explained he didn’t want to abolish government, he simply wanted to reduce it to a size “where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in a bathtub.”

*

The making and re-making of America’s politics over the last 231 years can be said to consist of the attempt to ward off, or at least postpone, the feasting of prosperous fools. Some historians note that what the framers of the Constitution hoped to establish in 1787 didn’t survive the War of 1812; others suggest the republic was gutted by the spoils system introduced by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. None of the informed sources doubt that it perished during the prolonged heyday of the late 19th century Gilded Age. Mark Twain coined the phrase to represent his further observation that a society consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a state of war. In the event that anybody missed Twain’s meaning, President Grover Cleveland in 1887 set forth the rules of engagement with his veto of a bill passed by Congress offering financial aid to the poor—“the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” Twenty-one years later, Arthur T. Hadley, the president of Yale, certified the policy as morally sound and politically correct: “The fundamental division of powers in the Constitution of the United States is between voters on the one hand and property owners on the other. The forces of democracy on the one side . . . and the forces of property on the other side.”

At no moment in its history has the country not been nailed to a cross of gold. Mark Hanna, the Ohio coal merchant managing William McKinley’s presidential campaign against William Jennings Bryan in 1896, reduced the proposition to an axiom: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 deregulated the market in political office and ratified the opinion of John Jay (coauthor of the Federalist Papers, appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1789) that “those who own the country ought to govern it.”

The Constitution doesn’t contemplate the sharing of the commons inherent in a bountiful wilderness. Drafted by men of property setting up a government hospitable to the acquisition of more property, the Constitution provides the means of making manifest an unequal division of the spoils. Thomas Jefferson didn’t confuse the theory (“All men are created equal”) with the practice (“Money, and not morality, is the principle of commerce and commercial nations”).

The divisions of race and class were present at the American creation. The planting of colonies in 17th-century America conformed to medieval Europe’s feudal arrangements of privilege and subordination. The aristocratic promoters of the project received land as a gift from the English king; the improvement of the property required immigrants (God-fearing or fortune-seeking) skilled as fishermen, farmers, saltmakers and mechanics. Their numbers were unequal to the tasks at hand, and in both the plantation south and merchant north the developers imported enslaved Africans as well as what were known as “waste people” dredged from the slums of Jacobean England—vagrants, convicts, thieves, bankrupts, strumpets, vagabonds, lunatics and bawds obliged to pay their passage across the Atlantic with terms of indentured labor on its western shore. The prosperous gentry already settled on that shore regarded the shipments of “human filth” as night soil drained from Old World sewers to fertilize New World fields and forests. By the time the colonies declared their independence from the British crown, the newborn American body politic had been sectioned, like the carcass of a butchered cow, into pounds and pence of prime and sub-prime flesh.

All men were maybe equal in the eye of God, but not in the pews in Boston’s Old North Church, in the streets of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, in the fields at Jefferson’s Monticello. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination divided the Massachusetts flock of Christian sheep into damned and saved; Cotton Mather in 1696 reminded the servants in his midst, “You are the animate, separate passive instruments of other men . . . your tongues, your hands, your feet, are your masters’s and they should move according to the will of your masters.” Franklin, enlightened businessman and founder of libraries, looked upon the Philadelphia rabble as coarse material that maybe could be brushed and combed into an acceptable grade of bourgeois broadcloth. His Poor Richard’s Almanac offered a program for turning sow’s ears if not into silk purses, then into useful tradesmen furnished with a “happy mediocrity.” For poor white children in Virginia, Jefferson proposed a scheme he described as “raking from the rubbish” the scraps of intellect and talent worth the trouble of further cultivation. A few young illiterates who showed promise as students were allowed to proceed beyond the elementary grades; the majority were released into a wilderness of ignorance and poverty, dispersed over time into the westward moving breeds of an American underclass variously denominated as “mudsill,” “hillbilly,” “cracker,” “Okie,” “redneck,” Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.”

Nor at any moment in its history has America declared a lasting peace between the haves and have-nots. Temporary cessations of hostilities, but no permanent closing of the moral and social frontier between debtor and creditor. The notion of a classless society derives its credibility from the relatively few periods in the life of the nation during which circumstances encouraged social readjustment and experiment—in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, again in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s—but for the most part the record will show the game securely rigged in favor of the rich, no matter how selfish or stupid, at the expense of the poor, no matter how innovative or entrepreneurial. During the last 30 years of the 19th century and the first 30 years of the 20th, class conflict furnished the newspaper mills with their best-selling headlines—railroad company thugs quelling labor unrest in the industrial East, the Ku Klux Klan lynching Negroes in the rural South, the U.S. army exterminating Sioux Indians on the Western plains.

Around the turn of the 20th century the forces of democracy pushed forward an era of progressive reform sponsored by both the Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson. During the middle years of the 20th century America at times showed some semblance of the republic envisioned by its 18th-century founders—Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a citizen army fighting World War II, the Great Depression replaced with a fully employed economy in which all present shared in the profits.

The civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s were expressions of democratic objection and dissent intended to reform the country’s political thought and practice, not to overthrow its government. Nobody was threatening to reset the game clock in the Rose Bowl, tear down Grand Central Terminal or remove the Lincoln Memorial. The men, women and children confronting racist tyranny in the South—sitting at a lunch counter in Alabama, riding a bus into Mississippi, going to school in Arkansas—risked their lives and sacred honor on behalf of a principle, not a lifestyle; for a government of laws, not men. The unarmed rebellion led to the enactment in the mid-1960s of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, eventually to the shutting down of the Vietnam War.

Faith in democracy survived the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963; it didn’t survive the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968. The 1960s and 1970s gave rise to a sequence of ferocious and destabilizing change—social, cultural, technological, sexual, economic and demographic—that tore up the roots of family, community and church from which a democratic society draws meaning and strength. The news media promoted the multiple wounds to the body politic (the murders of King and Kennedy, big-city race riots, the killing of college students at Kent State and Jackson State, crime in the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago and Newark) as revolution along the line of Robespierre’s reign of terror. The fantasy of armed revolt sold papers, boosted ratings, stimulated the demand for heavy surveillance and repressive law enforcement that over the last 50 years has blossomed into the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries.

Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham
Lewis H. Lapham is the founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and the Editor Emeritus of Harper’s. His columns received the National Magazine Award in 1995 for exhibiting “an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity,” and, in 2002, the Thomas Paine Journalism Award. He was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame in 2007. His books include Money and Class in America, Fortune’s Child, Imperial Masquerade, The Wish for Kings, Hotel America, Waiting for the Barbarians, Theater of War, The Agony of Mammon, Gag Rule, Pretensions to Empire, and Age of Folly.





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