When Donald Trump remarked that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s bid to consolidate power and become “president for life” was a move that he should perhaps emulate, it didn’t take more than half a news cycle for the agitation to come and go amid the current insanity of American politics.
During the brief half-life of concern, the commentariat stated the obvious: CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote that it might have been the scariest thing Trump has said as president. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said that Republicans are “fools” if they think the president was joking. This type of punditry follows past reporting of Trump’s recurrent praise of dictators and human-rights violators.
Although it received perfunctory mention, a notable feature of the incident went unanalyzed—the audience Trump was addressing when he made the comment. The event was a fundraiser (at Mar-a-Lago, of course) with tickets starting at $2700, so we can assume the attendees were a different species of “deplorables” than the ones wearing MAGA hats at campaign rallies.
If you listen to the recording of Trump’s comment about Xi that was obtained by CNN, you can hear that it was followed by fairly prolonged applause and appreciative laughter. In the wake of all that the president has said and done in the last year to express his contempt for the Constitution and democratic norms, the remark suggested that he wasn’t really kidding. You would think that might have caused at least some agitation in the crowd.
But no. These are the rich, who, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “are different from you and me.” In their presence, incumbents and aspirants to high office seem to change their personalities. It is the habit of politicians, whatever their public man-of-the-people posturing, to sound distinctly different when speaking to wealthy donors in ostensibly private surroundings.
George W. Bush addressed the rich as “my base,” while Mitt Romney confided to his fundraiser attendees that 47 percent of the American people were essentially parasites. Even Barack Obama in 2012 informed a group of wealthy donors, including Microsoft moguls Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, that “you now have the potential of two hundred people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time.” Whether that was a simple acknowledgment of fact in the age of Citizens United or oblique flattery to his crowd is unclear, but it was certainly not the way elected officials talk to the general public.
Trump, as is his reflex, naturally unburdened himself to his audience in a much less restrained way by confessing his admiration for autocrats. Curiously enough, he also told his well-heeled group that “the system is rigged,” as if he were Eugene Debs haranguing a crowd of Wobblies. How the wealthy can regard the system as rigged in any way other than in their benefit, is something of a mystery. Perhaps until the minimum wage is unconstitutional, and every last workplace health and safety regulation gutted they will always nurse a sense of grievance that life is unfair to them.
As I’ve written, many in our acquisitive class have seceded from America, not in the sense of physically leaving the country, but by becoming psychologically disconnected from it and indifferent to its fate other than as a source of loot. Like the British in India, they were in the country but not of it, and administering it through their hired subordinates. Our plutocracy’s detachment from civic life (other than by controlling politicians with money) cannot help but feed apathy, or even contempt, for democracy.
Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and one of Trump’s most prominent funders, is one such mogul. In a 2009 treatise, he denigrated the intellectual and ethical unfitness of his fellow Americans relative to a Nietzschean Übermensch like himself:
I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible… Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.
When in 2010 Obama suggested eliminating the “carried interest” loophole so that hedge fund managers would have to pay the same income tax rates that ordinary Americans pay, Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone CEO and a major Trump supporter, said, “It’s war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins continued with the Nazi trope, writing a letter to the Wall Street Journal to “call attention to the parallels to fascist Nazi Germany in its war on its ‘one percent,’” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’”
All their talk about Blitzkrieg and Kristallnacht might lead one to think that when they faced the real thing, America’s super-rich were universally eager to pitch in building the arsenal of democracy as a bulwark against Nazism. But that wasn’t the case—plutocrats have always prioritized shameless opportunism over the shared project of democracy. Take Henry Ford, one of the richest Americans in the 1930s, who controlled a vast industrial empire. The recipient of Germany’s highest decoration for foreigners, Ford’s appetite for taking on the Nazis was somewhat lacking. In 1940, plans for Ford Motor Company to manufacture British aircraft engines went awry when Ford personally vetoed the project.
George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, ran a bank that was seized in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act, and he served as a partner at Brown Brothers Harriman, which fronted for German corporate interests.
Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money recounts how Fred Koch, patriarch of the Koch empire, helped build one of the largest oil refineries in Nazi Germany. Texaco supplied fuel in violation of the Neutrality Act to help fascists win the Spanish Civil War, and then smuggled oil through the British blockade to Germany well after war broke out in September 1939. Texaco’s CEO, Torkild Rieber, even went to President Roosevelt to try to broker a crack-brained peace proposal from Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second in command.
So, while Trump’s has spent his presidency willfully tearing apart democratic norms and cozying up to strongmen, he’s far from the only plutocrat subverting our democracy. Political fundraisers, like the one Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago, are where the politicians supposedly representing the common man say what’s really on their minds. They also throw a revealing light on the people who pay to attend them.