Donald Trump is an endlessly quotable guy: his straight-talking, no-nonsense, ill-informed speeches are analysed both by his critics and supporters for lines of dialogue to either ridicule or celebrate him, respectively. Unlike much of the internet, I don’t get much from learning each of the new stupid things the man has recently said, but in all honesty I must admit that one thing he said a few months ago (and then repeated it every time he had a microphone) on the US Presidential Nominee circuit really stuck with me, and it was one of the few things he said that did not spawn articles and outrage, and it probably should have. Back last year, in the middle of any speech he was making, he would proclaim with pride that he was personally funding his own campaign for the Republican Nomination for the 2016 US Presidential Election. In one of the televised debates last year, he boasted to his rivals that he was the only one among them who was paying his own way in the campaign.
We’ve all heard this fact, so it seems pretty innocuous to hear it again, but it is worth pointing out exactly what it means. By saying that he uses his own money to pay for his campaign, Trump is saying that he did not need to use the traditional (democratic) means of campaign funding, did not need to raise money from individuals and groups that liked what he had to say and would like to see him in office representing them, and did not need any support from the hierarchy of the political party whose nomination he wished to win. He would bypass all of this, because he was insanely wealthy and could pay his own way. And he was very, very proud of all of this. Trump was in effect boasting about being able to buy his way into consideration for the biggest job in the country, and considered this a point of honour: to him, his rivals for the Republican nomination were smaller people than him because they relied on donations while he was self-sufficient.
With his self-funded campaign, Donald Trump purchased for himself a platform with which to shout at us from, and ensured there would be no escaping the man for the foreseeable future. In the US, you don’t necessarily have to have something to say in order to be given a voice, you merely must be able to pay for the microphone. This of course ignores the fact that people in America always listen to Donald Trump, and not because he is loud and says funny things, but because he is a billionaire, and Americans worship billionaires.
When viewing a billionaire, or merely a millionaire, an American pair of eyes would not just see a very rich person, they would see a successful, great, powerful and wise person who could maybe have wisdom to impart to all of us about how to achieve similar success. This is the only way I can possibly rationalise the sudden sainthood achieved by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once his wealth passed a certain level and he claimed his place among the richest people in the world. Zuckerberg is obviously very good at what he does, and was very clever at building his product at a certain time and in a certain way that proved very successful. He engages in sizeable philanthropy, and strives towards a better American workplace in his own employment policies at Facebook. That’s all very good, but does it really make him worth listening to? Apparently so, as according to the World Economic Forum, he has some lessons to teach all of us through his choice of literature.
This type of post is so ubiquitous on the internet, we hardly even notice them anymore. A simple browse of LinkedIn will bring up posts about “7 things some rich guy says you should do before 7am”. Donald Trump himself originally achieved fame in the US by publishing his business strategy manual ‘The Art of the Deal’, which aimed to simultaneously teach the reader how to be better at business while also acting as printed evidence of how great Donald Trump is at business. Books like this, where a very successful person reveals their secrets always sell well. There is thus a direct link between the success of an individual and whether that individual is worth listening to.
The real issue here is the link between wealth and virtue in the US. While it is not explicit, in American culture it is highly apparent that success (measured by wealth) is considered a high virtue, and one to aspire to. If someone is rich, there is an unsaid understanding that that person works very hard and deserves everything he/she has achieved. The successful individual is seen as the sole author of his/her success, and therefore this person is an authority on success and can impart wisdom to others in and help them achieve similar success. The problem here is that there is no role given to luck or good fortune in the success story. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t benefit from being born into an intellectual family that encouraged education. He didn’t benefit from being born at the exact right time and right place to take advantage of technology and resources. Donald Trump didn’t benefit from being born into a rich family and honing his business acumen with massive private wealth as a safety net in the event of failure. Both these men are great successes, but it is difficult to argue that they both have not been incredibly lucky also.
Many reading will see aspects of this mentality in their own cultures, and indeed it is prevalent worldwide, but this is only a by-product of globalisation and the Americanisation of culture. The link between wealth and virtue is an almost uniquely American idea. Asking a Russian billionaire for tips on how to make money would involve merely a few sentences about being friends with Putin. Similarly, for the Chinese super-wealthy, all the tips would be about cultivating ties with the ruling political party. But even in ‘free’ democratic countries, there is an understanding that wealth and success are a mix between good fortune and hard work. The graph below shows how far the US is out in front of other countries with regard to individualism (The UK is in there too: that’s what Margaret Thatcher did to the country).
The stand-out statistic is the 26 percentage point gap between German and US opinions about the role of luck in success. Similarly, 73% of Americans see the sole act of working hard as the driving force of individual success, while other developed countries are far more cautious.
This idea that any American can achieve individual virtue through success (obscene wealth) by simply working hard is the American Dream in abstract, yet unromanticised terms. It is the reason brash billionaires are not only tolerated, but celebrated. The super-rich are the chosen few who have reached the highest level of American society. There are people who listen to Mark Zuckerburg and Donald Trump and dissect everything they say, in order to gain wisdom on how it is they became so successful, and then attempt to apply this to their own lives and achieve the same success. This is the same with the books written about success stories: Steve Jobs’ autobiography didn’t sell millions because people were interested in his life, it sold because people want to know his secret to success. This is why his profound quotes litter the internet, as people attempt to use the life of Jobs to sow the seeds to their own success. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t great, but he was rich, so there must be something he did right.
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.
The reason Donald Trump is tolerated, and admired, in the US is solely because he is obscenely wealthy. His admirers like him because they have dreamt of being in the same position themselves, and can imagine all the sort of crazy things they would do in this situation: be mean to people, say stupid things on TV without caring, attempt to buy the presidency of the country. It’s a fantasy, a uniquely American fantasy, and this is why I see this billionaire worship as just another form of pornography, playing out in the minds of millions all over the United States of America, and probably beyond.