“Hard Work, Creativity, Vision?” Useless compared to Inherited Wealth and Knowing the Right People.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a spectacular piece of engineering. It was opened in 1964. It features prominently in Saturday Night Fever. And, according to Donald Trump, interviewed in 1980, it had a profound effect on the Republican presidential candidate’s own character formation. Here’s the pretty bridge.
The bridge was built by a Swedish born engineer called Othmar Ammann. An 18 year old Trump noted that this man whose genius and perseverance had created this thing of wonder was ignored while politicians and big shots posed for photographs.
“Just standing there in the rain, is this man, this 85-year-old engineer who came from Sweden and designed this bridge, who poured his heart into it, and nobody even mentioned his name… I realized then and there… that if you let people treat you how they want, you’ll be made a fool. I realized then and there something I would never forget: I don’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.”
Trump’s anecdote is constructed superficially as a statement of sympathy for Ammann with Trump as narrator siding with him rather than with the big shots. But the logic and the conclusion of the tale has the teenage Trump blaming Ammann for his own marginalisation. Anybody who allows themselves to be railroaded by big shots deserves to be. Even as a teenager, of course, Trump was a well connected big shot. Even at 18, he’d spent many years as a school bully, despising and persecuting those “suckers” who had exited the wrong birth canal and were therefore essentially worthless human beings.
What Trump took from the Verrazano-Narrows bridge opening ceremony was the confirmation of a fundamental contempt for hard work and creativity. Trump understood that if you start with nothing – but you have unstoppable drive and energy and creativity and truly believe in yourself – then someone born richer than you will kick you to the curb and steal all your stuff. Trump’s coarseness and shamelessness is the purest expression of hereditary privilege, of course. He has never had to work a day in his life and has only “put in the hours” insofar as it has amused him to spend his days striding down corridors wearing a shiny suit shouting at people.
His bankruptcies, his massive misjudgements, his reckless behaviour that has left many victims in his wake – have not affected his private wealth, because his background has enabled him to insure himself against personal liability. His one great “achievement” – the licensing of his own name as a brand – offers the laziest path to capital accumulation imaginable – and the most risk free. And did he create this “brand”? He did not. He paid “Tony Schwartz” to invent “Donald Trump” as a fictional character in Art of the Deal. Schwartz now wanders from town to town to atone for his creation.
What Trump’s political success illustrates of course, is a widespread public inability to face up to how capital works or to recognise what surplus value means. Trump’s support suggests that a lot of people think that it takes some kind of special talent, or extraordinary hard work, to turn 100 million into 200 million. It does not. If you have millions to start with (as Trump had), then others do the work for you. The labour of others profits you. Turning 1 dollar into 1 million dollars is another matter, perhaps (though it very rarely happens). But 100 million will turn itself into 200 million pretty much a matter of course, given the number of people 100 million pays to make that happen.
As a landed aristocrat, Trump is casually adept at dehumanising those who have enriched him. If he pays them, he owns them. “Suckers” who work hard, who dream big, who labour to construct majestic bridges are deservedly the playthings of inherited wealth.
The automatic equation of financial privilege with abstract worth – the equation that Trump constantly asserts – requires of course, a complete demolition of the primary tenets of the Abrahamic religions – a smashing of the stone tablets – a spitting in the face of the low energy Nazarene. Fortunately, (for Trump) for the “Christians” cheering Trump – “Christianity” is nothing more than a brand logo – a badge of cultural privilege.
Rather than accept the reality that we live in a world where someone as worthless and disgusting as Trump can enjoy immense wealth, a myth of meritocracy is forged whereby anyone with that much money must somehow “deserve” it. Nations like the USA and the UK are increasingly socially immobile – born poor die poor nations where life chances depend not on hard work and imagination but on which family you are born into. Of course, the more empirically implausible the notion of meritocracy becomes, the louder it becomes. Nothing illustrates the absurdity of Meritocracy’s claims better than Donald Trump – which is why he has to be louder and coarser than anyone else.