A theory of the leisure class

The release by the White House of the financial worth of President Trump’s top advisors, in a Friday night dump timed for underplaying bad news (an April Fool’s joke on us?), was a face punch that we needed. While we were all staggering to understand Trump and his election – baffled, as Steve Bannon told us we were – this knocks us upright, a clarifying blow. These guys, Steve Bannon, son-in-law Jered Kushner, Gary Cohn, Kellyanne Conway and all, are worth hundreds of millions. Added to the billionaires on the cabinet, the West Wing cocktail party guests are worth a total of $12 billion, according to Bloomberg.images

The investigation of ties with Russia, now underway by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, might turn out to be less about meddling in the election and more about Trump associates investing in Russian deals. Corruption in Russia’s crony capitalism is at carnival scale now, and you can follow the trail of it by looking at the dead Russians, the ones dying mysteriously all over the world because of what they know.

This is not just Watergate redux. It’s the Gilded Age. It’s Robber Barons and politicos on a Trump Tower scale, a gigantic gilt-edged flimflam. Dear Trump voters, brothers and sisters in Perry County, in Fannin County, in Pontiac: We have heard your message. Now look at the mess you’ve made.

The lucre these slick-haired salesmen make (a lot of it as “consultants” to dark-money right-wingers like Robert Mercer) is way beyond the comfortable salaries of the professionals and bureaucrats Trump voters thought were the enemy – the government bureaucrats, lawyers, media workers, professors, New York Times reporters, scientists, liberal bishops. Those are people I look up to, the ones who set standards I try to honor and meet, as a former news reporter and university professor.

This more modest “elite” is a class of folk that may have lost touch with the pain of the laid-off coal miner or autoworker, but they aren’t the enemy. They are the educated members of modern guilds that follow the rules from the 18th century Enlightenment: checks and balances, codes of ethics, cycles of reform (as alternative to Revolution), rules of evidence, skeptical thinking, education, service to the common good.

trevithicklocomotiveIn George Eliot’s Middlemarch, you see the rise of this new class of do-gooders just before the Reform Act of 1832, as the steam-engine shakes up the old order controlled by the holders of vast wealth and the “resolute submission” of well-bred ladies. Tertius Lydgate makes no money as a newly arrived young doctor in Middlemarch, with a passion for making medicine a science and making health “public.” Going into the law or the church is respectable, but considered risky because of the low income. The young Fred Vincy, his upper-class status undone by gambling debts, considers going into the church for mere respectability, but realizes he needs to find a true calling, to learn the modern facts and to work for his bread. He does this by learning land-management from the father of the woman he loves, and thus finds his happiness in the new order of progress.

Less respectable is the romantic figure Will Ladislaw, a talented young freedom-lover who dabbles – in art, in music, in writing for the local paper, and writing a reform platform for “the worst landlord in the county,” the carefree Arthur Brooke of Tipton. Brooke decides to stand for Parliament but doesn’t stand for anything else except his own well-being.

These two are Bannon and Trump, characters trying to find their place in the new order (or now, a long-established order) organized and civilized by professionals.

Call it the elite. Call it the Deep State. These professionals are the people who submit to a faith in the Enlightenment idea on which liberal democracy was founded. Now the older regime of money is back in power. The tribal underclass thought it was supporting a Revolution. What they got was just the old money class back in power.

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About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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