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Hullabaloo


Sunday, July 30, 2017

 

The Squire of Gotham

by Tom Sullivan

What with daily Twitter outbursts from the president's phone, it is hard to ignore the fact that the entity now leading this country is both malevolent, malformed, emotionally and morally stunted. People wanted a businessman running the country as a business. What they elected was a 70 year-old child who has never run anything but a closely held family business. He has no conception what accountability to others even means. Donald Trump couldn't manage a convenience store if the employees weren't relatives hanging on for their inheritance.

So it is with his White House.

Charles Mathewes, Professor of Religious Studies at the university of Virginia, along with PhD candidate Evan Sandsmark comment on the toxic effects of great wealth in the Washington Post. They do not mention the sitting president by name. They don't have to. But he is the occasion for their examination.

The pair cite studies, etc. on the corruptions of wealth, but you don't need a weatherman to know which way Trump's hair blows (or Anthony Scaramucci's, for that matter).

It was once accepted wisdom, the two write, that wealth had a corrosive effect on the soul:

The idea that wealth is morally perilous has an impressive philosophical and religious pedigree. Ancient Stoic philosophers railed against greed and luxury, and Roman historians such as Tacitus lay many of the empire’s struggles at the feet of imperial avarice. Confucius lived an austere life. The Buddha famously left his opulent palace behind. And Jesus didn’t exactly go easy on the rich, either — think camels and needles, for starters.
That folk belief still holds in many quarters. Pope Francis' quarters in an otherwise opulent Vatican are essentially "a small suite in what is effectively the Vatican’s hostel." But our contemporary view has shifted to something more akin to the NRA's view of firearms. Wealth doesn't corrupt, corrupt people misuse it. As with firearms, we had help reaching that conclusion:
Getting here wasn’t straightforward. Wealth has arguably been seen as less threatening to one’s moral health since the Reformation, after which material success was sometimes taken as evidence of divine election. But extreme wealth remained morally suspect, with the rich bearing particular scrutiny and stigmatization during periods like the Gilded Age. This stigma persisted until relatively recently; only in the 1970s did political shifts cause executive salaries skyrocket, and the current effectively unprecedented inequality in income (and wealth) begin to appear, without any significant public complaint or lament.

The story of how a stigma fades is always murky, but contributing factors are not hard to identify. For one, think tanks have become increasingly partisan over the past several decades, particularly on the right: Certain conservative institutions, enjoying the backing of billionaires such as the Koch brothers, have thrown a ton of money at pseudo-academics and “thought leaders” to normalize and legitimate obscene piles of lucre. They produced arguments that suggest that high salaries naturally flowed from extreme talent and merit, thus baptizing wealth as simply some excellent people’s wholly legitimate rewards. These arguments were happily regurgitated by conservative media figures and politicians, eventually seeping into the broader public and replacing the folk wisdom of yore. But it is hard to argue that a company’s top earners are literally hundreds of times more talented than the lowest-paid employees.
Perhaps the sitting president is simply an extreme case among extreme cases. In Trump's frequent invocation of savage imagery to paint entire populations as "animals" and in systematic public humiliation of his own attorney general, Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune finds not just cruelty, but sadism.

If we survive his tenure, perhaps this administration will provide an object lesson in the toxicity of great wealth. But don't bet on it.

After another tumultuous week under this president, the persistent image of Trump I am left with is the entity Trelane from the Star Trek episode, "The Squire of Gothos." A man with godlike powers but with the temperament of a spoiled child, Trelane fancies himself a 18th century Earth general. He torments the Enterprise crew until they are rescued by the disembodied voices of Trelane's parents who scold him as "disobedient and cruel."

"I didn't do anything wrong. I was just playing," Trelane whines. "Oh, but you saw. I was winning. I would have won. Honest."

"You must forgive our child," Trelane's mother tells Captain Kirk. "The fault is ours for indulging him too much. He will be punished."

Money may corrupt. But there's something worse in charge of the White House. And no one yet to call the spoiled child to stop and come inside.