First published in Tikkun magazine — a Jewish and interfaith and secular humanist-and-atheist welcoming prophetic voice.
This election is about what we will make of ourselves
I’d never meet an entitled, rich kid until third grade when my family moved from the West Coast to Boston. We didn’t know we were poor, a family of four kids in a rundown Revere Beach apartment. Like Fisher Kings, we ate lobster from the nearby fish factory because we couldn’t afford hamburgers. Our playmates were the Puerto Rican kids whose patriarch was a professional wrestler—WWE, the original reality show. Sometimes we skipped school to ride a rollicking subway into the big city,
It was on one of those egalitarian trains that a boy in private school uniform shoved me aside like a rag doll to claim my pole.
“Outta my way!” he shouted.
I was no stranger to bullies and pushed him right back. I surrendered the pole because my parents had taught me that rudeness, like boredom, was a sign of a small mind.
But what the boy said next was not only small-minded, it was shocking. “You’re nothing,” he sneered.
Nothing? I suddenly saw myself through his eyes: white anklets slipping down over my worn Keds, cheap cotton peddle-pushers with a patch or two, fingernails chipped from beachcombing, and curly hair with the family cut — a bowl over my head as my father snipped away with kitchen scissors. I didn’t yet fully understand the limits of caste or class system, but I knew enough to recognize that I was, as my favorite Dickens novel Oliver Twist had taught me, a commoner, maybe even a peasant. Could I ever ask for more?
“Just because that bully has money,” my Southern-bred mother reassured me, “doesn’t mean he’s got any manners — or real talent. He’ll have to make his way, like anybody else. It’s all about what you make of yourself — and do for others.”.
But it’s also about what is given to us, I would realize years later when I was a twenty-something staffer at The New Yorker magazine. In those quirky, classy halls, I met more rich kids, some financed by trust funds. They were not arrogant — especially if old money had mentored them to care about those less fortunate. Some of them were remarkably generous and “woke,” as kids say now. Their ancestors had founded hospitals, research institutes, libraries, and international wildlife sanctuaries. We were the very few young, devoted servants of our elderly superiors — editors who saw everyone under thirty as apprentices. Our wait to rise in the literary stratosphere would be long.
Once when an editor complimented me on a new silk blouse, I gushed, “I saved for six weeks and bought it on sale at Lord and Taylor.”
Stunned, the editor held her manicured hand to her bosom. “You don’t mean to say that you . . . live off your salary!”
Who didn’t live off their salaries? Who didn’t have to work for a living? To fathom this class system, I always turned to my best friend, a benevolent heiress, whose father would later lose his family’s fortune when he fell prey to Alzheimer’s-induced bad investments.
After explaining to me that some people were so privileged they never had to work, to budget, to lower their expectations, she mused, “But I envy you . . . whenever I wanted anything, a toy or a trip, it was just given to me. I never had to wait or wonder about it.” She paused and admitted, “It crippled my imagination.”
Another of my thoughtful magazine co-workers continued my education in privilege. “When you’re born into wealth,” she taught me, “you don’t recognize the same limits or rules as others. You don’t have to be too curious or listen. Wealth gives the illusion that we are insulated, so we can deny — or disbelieve — what other people suffer.”
These days of such drastic income inequality, I’m reminded of those wealthy and, yes, sometimes wise friends. They first schooled me in the real lives of the 1 percent. Even though Americans criticize rigid caste systems and privilege in other countries, America has its own royal families. For the first time since the forefathers drew our roadmap to democracy, some of our ruling class is not even pretending to subscribe to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Greed in this century is not a deadly sin — it’s a business plan.
We have a Congress and a president driven as much by self-centered avarice as power. The majority of us are now enduring the politics and pathology of privilege. Many of us feel shoved out of the way by a bullying, self-absorbed president who inherited millions as a child, whose imagination, creativity, and curiosity are crippled by instant gratification and zero impulse control. Only a rich kid — the very model of pathological privilege — could cynically exult that he doesn’t have to pay hardly any taxes or live off a hard-earned salary, while enthralling millions of followers who do; and who would unknowingly make him monarch. Only a rich kid without conscience or real class, could sneer at poor people as less than nothing — or believe that poorer kids, without a country, belong in cages.
When Trump taunts that he could get away with killing someone on Fifth Avenue, is there some part of his better Self asking to be caught? Finally, a limit? After all, recognizing limits is how we first learn healthy boundaries. According to Mary Trump’s memoir, her uncle was never given love — or limits. But does he ever unconsciously seek to be found out, brought to justice? As a novelist, I long for any corrupt character’s comeuppance. The moral compass set right. Trump’s shadow may yet illumine us. In Goethe’s Faust, when Mephistopheles is asked who he is, the Devil replies: “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
Sometimes good comes from bad. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with leukemia, a potentially lethal and certainly limiting disease. With life-saving health insurance and the harrowing miracle of a successful stem cell transplant, I am healing — profoundly grateful to be given, not wealth, but more time. Every clinic visit, I see the great leveler of illness: Men in hand-made Italian shoes shuffle along with canes instead of lugging laptops; women reduced to what I call “The Cancer Diet” — at last, too thin. In the clinic, we are all classes, all colors. We are poor in health, but privileged to be alive. I’ve met the most compassionate and courageous of medical staff.
Wealth is not health. It is a great illusion. Wealth, like power and fame, is transitory. It is a momentary buffer against the ultimate limit — mortality. Every day our country is recognizing this as the tragic pandemic death toll rises — and we discover that our president has long publicly denied this “plague” was upon us, even as he caught the virus. Because of his denial and disbelief, we are a privileged nation that leads the world in pandemic deaths.
An elder once told me, “People born with great wealth or great beauty don’t really do their soul’s work until those blessings are gone.” Sickness, poverty, great loss and debilitating limits — these are our most instructive life’s mentors. Because eventually, we all fall down.
Rulers rise, fall down, and pass into the history they’ve earned. Even Trump will fall down. For now, our country has been experimenting with a boy-king of inherited wealth who was not raised to care about others, unless they serve his needs. A pathologically privileged president who recognizes no laws or boundaries to his will or wants. A man who sees the presidency as a brand and government as a family franchise. It is truly ironic that at the time when a British prince and his American wife are rejecting royalty to choose freedom, our country is flirting with a kind of monarchy. Europe has endured its sociopaths and dictators — is it our turn?
Trump’s obsequious high court in the Senate — with its guaranteed two senators for every state, no matter the population, a Senate that represents land, not people — continues to co-enable the ruthless, rich-kid king. Many in Congress are millionaires themselves. They spawn royal families and even more privileged kids.
In his “Children of Crisis” series, The Privileged Ones: The Well-off and the Rich in America, Pulitzer-winning child psychiatrist and Harvard professor emeritus Dr. Robert Coles studied the impact of inherited wealth. If not raised with “the responsibilities of entitlement . . .The child has much but wants and expects more — only to feel no great gratitude, but a desire for yet more: an inheritance the world is expected to provide.” Coles calls this more pathological type of privilege, “narcissistic entitlement.”
Rulers rise and fall. Eventually, we all fall down.
Narcissistic Trump truly believes he is entitled to another term — not a peaceful transfer of power — but, in his own words, a “continuation” of his autocratic reign like his surrogate father, Putin. Privilege without compassion in politics puts the self before the collective good, the personal will over any egalitarian checks and balances. It explains why Trump shows no empathy or has not once led any national mourning over the staggering 230,000 Americans we’ve lost in the past six months, a majority of them elders and people of color. It explains why Trump unleashed tear gas on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Lafayette Square.
When veteran reporter Bob Woodward asked Trump, “Do you have any sense that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave . . . and I think lots of White privileged people in a cave have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain particularly Black people feel in this country?” Trump’s unhesitating response was, “No, you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you, wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.” Woodward later told “60 Minutes” that Trump “was ridiculing me for reflecting what the whole movement after George Floyd is.”
Ridicule, racism, denial, high-handed indifference to any suffering but one’s own — these are the now very visible scars of privilege. Trump’s inability to listen to any other voice was on full display during the first debate when he felt richly entitled to break all the rules, to drown out and demean any rival, as if Biden — with his authentic blue-collar upbringing is . . . nothing. How did this Park Avenue millionaire hoodwink so many working class voters into believing that he understood one minute of living within a limited salary, of paying his fair share of income taxes.
Another sad irony is that Trump’s core is the least educated and often most hopeless populations. But their grievances and fears are not his; their daily struggles are not his. The opioid crisis is most virulent in Trump’s deep Red states — where the virus rages now, where so many of his followers and rally-goers refuse to wear masks to protect themselves or others. Where unemployment savages those without Trump’s family money, private banks, or foreign autocrats to bail them out.
Income inequality = upper-class rule for generations. These wounds and class divisions will only deepen if Trump remains in power. Class is about division, the haves and the have-nots, the us and them. Trump’s privilege — and his power — depends on division, not sharing equally. Do we really want kings or queens or royal families? Do we want to become servants and subjects? Do we want to be slaves to this American ruling class? Have we forgotten the shadow of slavery that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, was the “moral catastrophe” that “made America?”
If we re-elect Trump, what more will this king demand? Will we take a litmus test for loyalty and fear Trump’s royal retribution? Or be subjected to the minority rule of Trump’s base? Trump’s cult-like appeal has called forth a fundamentalism that defies all other truths, except Trump’s. Evangelicals flock to him as “The Chosen One”. Yet there are no merciful Sermons on the Mount. In Trump’s dogma, the meek never inherit the earth.
This election is not really about who we will make our president. It’s all about what we will make of ourselves — and for our children. How will growing up in this amoral universe under Trumpism continue to shape them? This boy-man may never grow up or govern for us all, not just his loyalists. He may always rule by terror. But as Trump postures to continue his regal run, perhaps our television-addicted president might switch the channel from sycophantic FOX-Trump TV to apprentice himself to Mr. Rogers. Think of this television-tutorial as time-out for Trump’s bullying on the poliitical playground. A worthy model for our self-proclaimed monarch is King Friday XIII. He once humbly whistled with birds; Trump rage tweets. King Friday XIII rules over the Neighborhood of Make Believe; Trump governs with alternative facts. Both are puppets.
But Mr. Rogers’ enduring and beloved puppet king is smart enough to sometimes tune in to the sage counsel of all his subjects. In one contemplative moment, King Friday XIII muses, “I’ve lost my country and would like some suggestions of what my country might be.”
Listen up, King Trump and your Royal Court, because very soon you may lose this country. It will be our privilege to imagine what our country will be— without you. Until then, we can leave our children the greatest inheritance: The Golden Rule. It is not about ruling; and it is not about gold.
· Faust quote, First part: The Privileged Ones: Children of Crisis, Vol. 5, Robert Coles, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1977, pg. 363, 366.
.ABOUT BRENDA PETERSON
Brenda Peterson is the author of over 23 books for adults and children, including the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction” book by the Christian Science Monitor and an Indie Next “Great Read,” by Independent Booksellers. Her novel, Duck and Cover,was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her most recent books are Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves and the children’s books Wild Orca and Catastrophe by the Sea. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Tikkun, NPR and Oprahmagazine. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com