Playing the “Bigly” Game: On Poverty and Shame in America
“It’s Not Whether you Win or Lose, it’s Whether You Win”
It’s funny to me that I can remember Donald Trump so clearly in the 1980s. I was just a kid, but I can. He was like a Swatch watch; he had a big cultural moment. Donald Trump, AIDS, Bernie Goetz, Cabbage Patch Kids: they are all connected in my mind. They are all totems of the Reagan years. “The Donald”—the youngish tycoon championed for his business acumen, and his disco lifestyle, his platinum blonde wife with the exotic name, Ivana, at his side. He was a camp interest, but one with an underlying message attached: Greed is good. Robin Leach will interview you in your gold-plated hot tub.
Trump and the AIDS crisis are forever linked in my mind, and now the conflation seems prescient, almost psychic. My greatest fear for his presidency, besides a more impulsive version of the end of days scenario laid out in the Genesis “Land of Confusion” video, is how the already vulnerable in this country will be treated.
When I first became aware of the existence of Donald Trump, I was 12. My friend Gwen had moved to the area with her family the year before. She lived in a big, modern house with huge picture windows, and a fake deer out in the yard. The rumor was that her mom had modeled the house’s design on the home of another girl in our grade; that one day she had dropped Gwen off there, and went back to Gwen’s dad, and said, I want that house. It was probably true; the houses were almost mirror images. As the contestants chant as they spin the wheel on the game show, “Wheel of Fortune”—Big money! Big money! As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “The rich are different from you and me.” There is a bias that leans towards them being better.
Nobody knew what Gwen’s father did for a living. Something that involved a leather swivel chair in a private office inside the house that we weren’t supposed to go into, (though we did, giddy to use his fancy phone with its multiple lines), and constantly changing business partners. Something that involved her family moving a lot, and her dad buying up real estate, and setting up bank accounts for his use in Gwen and her siblings’ names.
My family was poor: my father was an immigrant, a house painter when he worked, and my mother was a secretary. One night, while I was spending the night at Gwen’s house, her father said to me, “I hope you enjoy all the food that I pay for,” as I took a bite out of some take-out he’d brought back to the house. My family wasn’t that poor. I wasn’t there because I was starving.
My mother, who had no private office, or swivel chair, never said anything like that to Gwen when she ate at our house. I remember her father’s mouth as he spoke, the chewed food still visible inside it. I remember wanting to disappear, wanting to hide, but what I wanted the most was to pull out a wallet full of hundred dollar bills, and have my father materialize carrying a briefcase, and wearing a suit and tie. At 12, how do you respond to a comment like that? How do you refute the sting of it?
“One night, while I was spending the night at Gwen’s house, her father said to me, ‘I hope you enjoy all the food that I pay for.'”
For her birthday that year, Gwen really wanted the Donald Trump board game. It was expensive for a board game, and came in a box the size of a phone book, with “The Donald’s” face on the top, the same picture that was on the cover of his bestselling book The Art of the Deal which was written by someone else, not “The Donald,” because as I would learn once I got older, success means you can outsource the story of your success. I was going to get the game for her. She wanted it badly, and it’s fun to get something for someone you like, especially when you know how much they want it. This is something people without a lot of money know about acutely.
I had to wait until after Christmas, which was fine, because her birthday was right after Christmas. I bought it for her at a local gift shop, with the money I got from my grandparents for the holiday. My grandparents owned the house that my family lived in, had given my mother the car that she drove. Unlike sibling hand-me-downs, an ugly sweater, these were survival hand-me-downs. (I used to think that the reason families gave their kids names that began with the same letter was to save money on the L.L. Bean monogrammed sweaters that were popular at the time.) My father drove a Ford Pinto. When he worked, he kept his paint supplies in the back.
If you are a poor person, what kind of poor person would you identify as?
If you are not a poor person, how do you think the poor should feel?
My mother wasn’t supposed to be so needy. She’d gone to Catholic high school, she’d gone to college. But she dropped out a semester before graduation. She dropped out because she’d believed in something, and wanted to dedicate her life to it. Perhaps it was easier for her not to resist that passion because of the safety net of her parents, but my grandparents were not rich. My grandfather never graduated high school; after serving in World War II, he became an insurance agent, thanks to a local man who helped the children of Italian immigrants find careers. (The altruism of this local man aided three generations of my family.) My grandfather did well at his job, and my mother grew up middle class, but this only increased the sting of her dropping out. She would have been the first person in her family to graduate.
The house that I grew up in, the house that my grandparents owned, was the same house that my mother had grown up in, only it was in a state of decay. There was a gas station next door, and the street it was on had become a major thoroughfare. The fence around the property was falling down, and drunken patrons from the bar across the street would sometimes pass out in my dad’s car. They’d come to the next day with splotches of regret on their clothes from the cans of paint he kept on the backseat.
My grandparents were pissed at my mother. They were pissed at her for thinking with her heart, and not with her head, meaning, her purse, not thinking of her financial future. My grandmother’s side of the family was Irish, and my mother had dropped out of college because she wanted to help liberate Ireland from English rule. When people talk about the activism of the 1960s and the 70s, they don’t talk much about the Irish Freedom movement, but that was where my mother threw her heart, and lost her wallet, and that is how she met my father, an Irish immigrant from Dublin. The children born of their union, myself and my siblings, led my grandparents to reconcile with my mother, and save us from abject poverty, but they did not save us in any way that satisfied my 12-year-old self.
My grandparent’s gifts allowed us to pass as lower middle class in a well-to-do area. Look at the language: “to pass.” The true color of my economic skin, the birth sex of my economic gender: poor. Their generosity granted us protection from the elements, and the possibility of travel in a car that was not a Ford Pinto, but I wasn’t in a place where I could feel gratitude for these gifts. They lacked flash, socio-economic glow. I felt shame about my family’s economic circumstances, and the signifiers that I knew betrayed them. To compensate, I fantasized, and lied.
Donald Trump subscribes to the idea that if you repeat a lie enough, it will become the truth, but my family’s economic circumstances didn’t change. This mendacious alchemy didn’t work for us.
What Gwen’s father probably meant with his comment about the food was that he was sick of paying for me when Gwen wanted me to come along when they did bigger-budget things, like went skiing, or maybe what he really wanted was to hear me say thank you while genuflecting. I know I said it while standing, every time, because I was raised to have good manners, to always say please and thank you. Please is a strange word when you spend too much time thinking about it. Inherent to its utility is the idea that there is a sweetening that occurs when a person is willing to acknowledge their lesser place in the power dynamic. You must tread lightly though, the mechanics are so delicate, that even giving lip service to the revelation could get you labelled an ingrate. Please is the sadism of gratitude. Thank you the masochism.
“Why do bigly men, who have access to so much, still feel a need to degrade those who don’t, to humiliate them, to remind them when they are being given something?”
Often, I’d be at Gwen’s house when her family would spontaneously come up with the idea of doing something—one of the perks of having money is the ability to be spontaneous, to play with it, and because of my presence, I’d end up absorbed into their plans. At my house, all of our spontaneous activities took planning. My friendship with his daughter was real. It wasn’t about take-out. It wasn’t about skiing. I still have no idea what it costs to ski. The only time I ever went was with their family.
It’s strange to think about the insecurities that must plague men like Gwen’s father, men who present themselves bigly. They like that word, too, bigly (“big league”); they also have a weakness for the expression “big time.” Why do bigly men, who have access to so much, still feel a need to degrade those who don’t, to humiliate them, to remind them when they are being given something, or twist it around, claiming that something has been taken from them? It might not be worth much, but I remember what the take-out was, that night at Gwen’s. The straw that broke her bigly father’s back was chicken from KFC.
If you don’t have better coping skills, in a primitive bid to rid yourself of what you’ve been made to feel, you might try to pass it on to someone else. I remember me, and another girl like me, another girl with a run down house, seeking each other out, and taunting each other. Saying, You’re poor. No, you’re poor. Which is really saying, you’re the degraded one. Not me. Chasing each other around the schoolyard. No, your life is of lesser value. You say “please” more. Something existed in our lives that we knew we should be ashamed of, that we knew made us vulnerable. Growing up, I dreaded four words, and my mother said them all the time. We can’t afford it. I feared that she might say them around someone else, that someone might hear her.
Yesterday I was at Subway. I go there often, and know the staff, all Spanish-speaking immigrants, who make what I call degradation wages, as opposed to minimum wages, or the laughingly dishonest, honest wages. It was a Friday night, and I watched as a blonde woman with a newscaster haircut and three young girls in her charge all placed their complicated orders, as if ordering at some kind of specialty delicatessen, when not laughing about some joke on their cell phones, ignoring the employees’ questions of cheese qualification.
She wanted a foot long, on two different kinds of bread, which demands that the rules of Subway sandwich making be bended—with provolone cheese, no, with pepper jack cheese; she was indecisive on every ingredient, as she encouraged the young girls to be. The line grew longer behind them; the woman carried on, almost obliviously, but it wasn’t that she was truly oblivious, it was that she was comfortable. She was comfortable making others uncomfortable on the long march towards getting whatever it was she wanted. The employees kept their heads down. I knew that they were simmering with rage, I was simmering with rage watching, but in order to get your degradation wages, you must keep your mouth closed. What I wanted most in that moment was to free them from what held them there, heads down, unable to tell this ridiculous woman what she deserved to hear: Today ma’am, you can eat shit.
After paying, studying her receipt to make sure she hadn’t been overcharged, the woman put no tip in the plastic box by the register, not that a tip would have disinfected the exchange, but she paid with cash and certainly could have. I looked out in the parking lot, and watched her get into her big SUV with its Make America Great Again bumper sticker. Nothing taken from me today, she probably thought. I mention this woman for one reason: One of the employees and I had talked about the election in the weeks before November 8th. One of the men who had made her sandwiches had told me he wanted Donald Trump to win.
Why? I’d asked him. Why?
He’d said something about Hillary Clinton wanting to make college affordable for everyone—the kind of lofty ideal that comes up during a campaign, and then often never goes anywhere once the candidate is elected—and how would the country pay for that? I’d wondered to myself, how come this man wouldn’t want affordable college, if not for himself, then for his friends, or family? I couldn’t imagine his taxes would be that much affected; he seemed to me to be the kind of person affordable tuition would most benefit. And anyway, this far off dream of egalitarian education was enough to get him to throw his support behind Donald Trump? The man was Spanish-speaking; he was an immigrant. Wouldn’t the normal rules of the universe say he’d find Trump and all his campaign postures abhorrent? Two white men were standing in line next to me as we had the exchange; they’d actually started it. They made little whooping sounds indicating that they agreed with what the employee was saying.
You may never be bigly, but you can take measures to negate the shame that you are made to feel because of it. For the sake of your ego, you can keep your head down; never look the entitled person in the eye. You can turn away from those most like you, because your affiliation with them might give you away. You can try to blend amongst those who might point you out and put you down: adopt what they wear, how they speak. Who they despise.
It wasn’t just the employee. It was the owner of the liquor store, who says he’s faced housing discrimination because he’s Muslim. The woman from AA with diabetes, who suffers from mental illness and has experienced sexual assault. I noticed a phenomenon during this election. Vulnerable, marginalized people supporting Donald Trump—or at least claiming publicly to support Donald Trump. Groups of people he had maligned, or implied wouldn’t be so welcome in the America he would be making great again. I think some of those people supported him because they didn’t want to think of themselves as part of the population he was actively denigrating; they didn’t want to think of themselves as marginalized, as the people he was calling “losers,” or “rapists,” or “Miss Piggy,” or threatening to deport. It was as if by supporting him they were saying, “That’s not me—that’s another group of people, and here’s the ultimate proof it’s not me, I’m saying fuck them, too.” I think they supported him out of shame. I also think some of them projected onto Trump as a realization of the bigly dream: all the gold-plated goodies great wealth can buy, the attractive spouse, really a revisiting of all the elements that had bought Trump to fame in the 80s.
Supporting Trump was about the things they wanted for themselves, and things they wanted to believe about themselves. It was also about the things they didn’t want to believe about themselves: one being that he and his supporters were talking about them. Perhaps it wasn’t shame so much, as it was fear. What is shame anyway, but the internalized fear of being found out?
“You can turn away from those most like you, because your affiliation with them might give you away.”
The first time I was on government assistance, I was 19. I had blue hair, and was part of a punk rock subculture. Receiving it felt defiant in the face of my childhood, and the shame I’d felt then. But there’s a fetishization of poverty that occurs in young, white artistic subcultures, and it happens because most of them fully expect to someday transcend their circumstances. Governmental assistance is treated like a novelty, an accessory, something cosmetic, like blue hair. When I received it in my thirties, my hair it’s natural color, no longer a part of any subculture but that of a single, working-poor parent, those old feelings of shame could have easily returned. Gwen’s father’s voice and words belonged to the every big man, and he loved talking about me: on the television, in newspaper editorials, on the campaign trail, in conversations I overheard, and in comments said to my face when they didn’t realize they were talking about me: I hope you enjoy all that I pay for. It’s a testament to the very real need of the poor, the constant abuse they are made to suffer. How they are constantly made to have to prove that need for critique. For the poor, it’s a constant economy of degradation.
I’ve written about very personal things, but it feels like a different kind of revelation to write about money, because it’s the measure in so many minds—even better ones—of success, and failure. In the arts, where monetary rewards are slim, success is gauged then not by actual dollars, but by proximity to actual dollars. Are you a paid writer? Do you have an agent—which is just asking does some bigly person think they can sell you? Your price might be pennies, but there’s prestige in just having a price.
My child is 11, and reminds me of myself at 12. I have been unable to shield him. He watches the home renovation channel on TV, and I know what he’s doing: he’s dreaming. At times, I’ve heard him lying to his friends. No one seems to consider what the big student loan debt confession sounds like to a lot of people: a humble-brag. Yes, I have this debt, but I’m moving on up.
It hurts me to write this. Before my father and my mother gave up their activism to raise kids, and work jobs for not much money that degraded their very real intelligence, they had both been very good at harnessing their passion: their want for Irish freedom. Free of intellectual stimulation in his work, my father floundered. He drank. He didn’t work for long stretches of time. My father died when I was 17, and my clearest memories of him are all from periods when he wasn’t working: whenever I’d stay home from school sick, we’d watch movies together, on the couch. A lot of his employers were wealthy, and their material success must have made him feel smaller, less than. Unemployed, he spent a lot of time at the library, because if there was anything my father would have wanted for himself, it would have been a college education. There one day, he met a reporter working on a story about the Irish in America. He interviewed my father for the piece, I imagine, based on the stories my father must have told him in their initial conversations—because in America, my father had started to tell tales. He’d said he’d been a professor in New York City, that he’d graduated from Trinity College. In the scheme of things, his lies weren’t superficial; they were humble. They were lies that said take me seriously, see me, here’s my phony credentials. It makes me so sad, that that shame can still get you, even when you know better, even when you’ve dedicated years of your life to revolution.
I bought Gwen the Trump game. The slogan that had sold it in commercials at the time was “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s whether you win.” Winning, was of course, amassing wealth and properties, the attributes that made Trump so famous in the 1980s. Considering that he has no political experience, I believe they’re the same attributes that have made him so popular now—his wealth, combined with the knack for cruelty that he has shown in the media, and out on the campaign trail. I think this is the real divide in this country: the social principles of empathy vs. the social principles of greed. The funny thing is, they need not be mutually exclusive. It’s clear what side of the divide House Speaker Paul Ryan is on when he says children of poor families don’t want free lunch at school as much as they want “dignity.” It’s capitalism writ cruel, and I fear that the upcoming cruelty is being anticipated as much as the guard change.
I can’t remember Gwen and I actually playing the Trump game. What I do remember, is my joy, my sense of pride, at being able to give it to her as a gift. A few years later, I spied the cover of the box in a corner of her large walk-in closet—I caught a glimpse of “The Donald’s” face. Though it was the early 1990s, what Donald Trump represented already seemed like a relic ideology from a distant era. I can’t believe she still has it, I thought to myself. Or that I bought it. The 80s. What an ugly time.
From Girls Gone Old. Used with permission of We Heard You Like Books. Copyright © 2017 by Fiona Helmsley.
Feature image via flickr/Kevin Dooley.