Posted Thursday, January 12, 2017.
We love stories about lovable scoundrels and rogues, but they're not supposed to be in it only for themselves
Many Americans---close to all of us, I’d wager in a cynical and reckless mood---think we shouldn’t be bound by any rules. Rules are for other people. Not exactly the premise of our Revolution but the effect on our national psyche has been to instill a sense that we’re entitled to do what we want to do when we want to do it. “Don’t tread on me!” has a follow up. “Don’t tell me where I can tread or not tread!”
But we see how rules aren’t for other people. Some other people. Certain privileged people. We see people who are rich and well-connected get away with breaking the rules and fume, knowing that the same people getting away with breaking the rules along with their friends and cronies helping them get away with it would clobber us if we broke the same rules to their inconvenience or cost. We would die in the stampede of their attorneys, and the last one to step on our chest as the life when out of us would pause to leave the bill in our pocket for our survivors to pay or face their own trampling.
I think that sense that Hillary Clinton was getting away with something that a “regular” person couldn’t was behind the email obsession as much as anything. It didn’t matter whether she’d done anything wrong. It’s just that it wouldn’t have mattered if she had. Clinton was guilty of having recourse to protection none of us would have if were in the same boat, guilty or not. We’d face disaster and ruin, not to mention jail. She would be protected. Protected by her friends and cronies in Washington and on Wall Street. Protected by her money. Protected by being a Clinton. That’s crime enough, being a Clinton. There’s a sense the Clintons openly count on this more than they actually take advantage of it. Makes them reckless and arrogant. People who are protected by their own wealth and privilege resent the Clintons because they themselves aren’t protected to the same degree by their name and celebrity.
The system is rigged. It’s rigged by people who write the rules and write them in their own favor. Make them so complicated that the rest of us can’t figure them out. It’s rigged in favor of people who can figure out the rules and so can follow them. It’s rigged in favor of people who can afford to hire lawyers. It’s rigged in favor of people who have money.
All of it looks like high-class cheating to many people. A game of Mao except there aren’t really any rules to figure out as you play along. The rich and well-connected who run the game are secretly making it up as it goes. They rake in all the “winnings” and ordinary folk, the not rich and unconnected, the honest suckers, aren’t just left with their pockets emptied. They’re left with the gnawing suspicion they never had a chance.
It is rigged. It is corrupt. The good get punished and the bad get away with it. All decided by who knows whom. Who owes whom. Who can afford to pay for what.
Except when it is actually honest. When merit and talent and education and skill are rewarded, when the good---as in decent and as good at what they do, that is competent---do get what they deserve. What they’ve earned.
But because this happens within a system that is corrupt, that is rigged, and because those who’ve done well and earned their rewards are rewarded by becoming part of the system, because they go on to success within a system that seems designed to make us fail, because their success is often a matter of our failing---they win because we lose. We lose in order for them to win.---their achievements are tainted and suspect and even despised in many eyes.
They don’t understand that kind of success. They don’t understand how it’s an achievement or how it’s achieved. They don’t understand because they don’t understand how things work except that they work in ways that they don’t like. They don’t understand how success can be honestly earned. They don’t understand the talents and skills necessary to that success. They don’t even recognize them as talents and skills. Intelligence and education and expertise are part of the rigging. Nobody’s that smart, education is a sham, expertise a trick. All of it adds up to a way of making ordinary people feel dumb and ignorant and incompetent. You’re meant to walk away from a humiliation in a classroom, in a courtroom, in an office, in a bank, in an argument in a bar or online, in any encounter with someone in an expensive suit with nice manners and an air of authority, feeling you brought it on yourself. You deserved it. You weren’t simply outsmarted. You were shown up as the fool you are.
This is why we like stories about scoundrels and rogues, stories about trickster gods and honest thieves. Stories about pirates.
We like to hear how it’s possible to get away it. We like the characters who aren’t bound by the rules, who thumb their noses at authority, who cheat the cheaters at their own game, make the “smart” guys look dumb, show the snobs up as hypocrites and fools, who re-rig the the game in their (that is in our) favor, and who walk away from situations that would crush and humiliate us rewarded, rich, admired, and cheered. Heroes.
Here’s the thing though.
They’re not supposed to be in it just for themselves. However selfish and self-serving they appear at the start, by the end they’ve shown that they have the interests of others---the weak, downtrodden, poor, cheated, victimized and abused---at heart. Ideally, they forgo their own rewards, or at least a goodly share of them, If they come out of it rich or having won whatever selfish fight they were waging, the people they help come out of it rich and the winners of their battle too. Often their reward is to be welcomed into the community of regular and honest folk, in fact, to become a sort of king or queen among them.
She lost by very little. A few votes here and there cost her the election. She didn’t win over enough working class whites. She didn’t win over enough Millennials. Too many Democrats stayed home. Too many voted for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein and, I’m sure, Evan McMullin. Too few Independents and undecideds broke her way. Too few Republicans crossed over. The emails, the relentless negative press, the Russian hackers, the Comey letter---there wasn’t any one big thing and no one small thing needed to have had much of an effect to have had a profound effect. But the major factor in Trump’s win was that sixty-two million people voted for him despite his being obviously unfit for the presidency, temperamentally, intellectually, psychologically, and morally. Sixty-two million people looked at one of the worst human beings to have run for the job and decided they were fine with having him in the White House.
Except I don’t think they saw him. Most of them saw what they wanted to see. Since the vast majority were Republicans who just wanted to vote Republican the way they’ve always voted Republican for the reasons they’ve always voted Republican---to cut their own taxes, punish those others trying to take what they’ve made, and scare all enemies foreign and domestic---they saw just another Republican, just one taller, broader, louder, meaner than the other Republicans who vied for the nomination. And why wouldn’t they? He wasn’t really saying anything those squeakpips and notmuchers were saying. He was simply saying it with more style and wit and having more fun saying it. If they saw anything more, it wasn’t Donald Trump, the cheat and fraud and conman and bankrupt. It was “Donald Trump”, the character he played on his TV show. the tough but fair boss who knew how to get things done, the super-successful businessman who’d made gobs of money, a billionaire (so he says), and money to Republicans is the measure of all worth.
I’ve made this point before. A big part of what made Trump the nominee and then got him elected was his celebrity and the job of celebrities is to give us idealized versions of ourselves to love and admire. People looked at him and saw what they wanted to be. Rich, famous, worshiped, and fawned over.
Some of them saw what the media kept telling them to see. The economic populist who took their problems seriously even if he didn’t have a real plan to solve them. Some of them just saw Not Hillary and that was enough for them. Some of them saw him for what he was, a racist, Right Wing, authoritarian demagogue and liked him for it. But some of them saw the cheat and the fraud and the conman and they liked him for that. They saw a rogue and a scoundrel. They saw a pirate. They saw their own would-be pirate self.
They didn’t see that he’s not that kind of rogue. That he is only in it for himself. That he has nobody’s interests at heart but his own. That he doesn’t in fact have a heart. That he doesn’t just cheat the cheaters. He cheats everybody foolish enough to do business with him. That he preys on the weak and the downtrodden and the abused and oppressed as often as he does on the rich and powerful, the difference is that the rich and powerful are rich and powerful, they can afford to hire lawyers and smart accountants and their own politicians. They didn’t see that he’s been successful in a rigged system not by being wilier and smarter than the other cheaters but by being more reckless, irresponsible, selfish, and mean.
They didn’t see that if they’d had to do business with him, they’d wind up just as cheated as everyone else he’s cheated.
They didn’t see that his whole campaign was a plot to cheat them.
They didn’t see that he really is a pirate and they didn’t see what pirates really are.
Image at top: The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard 1718 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, circa 1920, via Wikipedia.