There are plenty of reasons to bristle at President Trump’s tweets on Puerto Rico, which is suffering horribly from Hurricane Maria, not least of which is the racist suggestion that Hispanics there don’t deserve the same treatment as mainland white Americans. But in all his fuming, Trump did make another point, and it is worth examining: The poor people of Puerto Rico, he said, should stop complaining and begin helping themselves rather than rely on government assistance, intimating that their misery was their own fault. He added for good measure, but with no comprehensible logic, that the island was wallowing in financial disaster, as if Maria were some divine retribution for profligacy. In short, they were losers.
(And Trump didn’t even think they were the winners of the biggest losers contest, calling Katrina a “real catastrophe” by comparison.)
Why is this worth examining? Because of all the divisions that cleave America today, the single most important one may be not racial, religious, political or economic. It may be cultural. America is deeply divided between those who are considered (and consider themselves) winners, and those who, like the Puerto Ricans, are considered by the winners to be losers. Losers are cultural pariahs—the American equivalent of India’s untouchables. Not insignificantly, of all the many epithets Trump hurls, the most cutting is “loser.”
In this as in most things, Trump is the divider-in-chief. He is not only the most prominent proponent of a society rent between winners and losers; he is its personification: the guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple, while sneering at those who struggle and always strike out.
But unlike so much of what Trump says, this terrible taxonomy isn’t just bloviating. It cuts across all the other divisions. It eats at the fiber of America. It undermines us psychologically and even physically. It creates a gulf so wide that it is unbridgeable. And it does so while justifying the damage it inflicts, allowing the so-called winners and their fellow travelers to deny assistance to the needy, as Trump is questioning assistance to Puerto Rico. After all, never forget that losers deserve what they get.
Of course, Trump didn’t invent the winner/loser dichotomy. He simply exploited it. This country long had a self-promoting, get-ahead-at-all-costs, dog-eat-dog mentality. It was practically bred into us as a new society with un-European, egalitarian pretensions where everyone was supposed to rise as high as his (and it was only his, not her) efforts would take him. The growth of a commercial culture only intensified these impulses. To a larger extent than Europe, where social boundaries were higher and ordinary folk had to find other sources of status than wealth, Americans imputed less status to intellectual or artistic achievements than to mercantile ones. We celebrate wealth.
But there used to be, even in Jay Gatsby, the quintessential conspicuous consumer, a countervailing subtext. Money couldn’t buy happiness. The best things in life are free. One of our most iconic movies is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, that Christmas perennial, whose hero, George Bailey, lives a wonderful life not because of material success but because of his spiritual success. He loses money only to discover the riches of the love of his friends.
This Capraesque idea of success has survived, but it has been increasingly embattled. In the high-flying, greed-is-good ’80s, Ronald Reagan managed to sell the country a toxic blend of “personal responsibility” and materialism that made the latter the measure of success and the former its source, which meant that those who didn’t succeed had only themselves to blame. In many ways, Reagan made this hostility to “losers” the very basis of modern conservatism, however one might dress it up with fancy, philosophical mumbo jumbo, so the cruelty isn’t quite as evident. Republicans opt to further enrich the rich and further empower the powerful because, as I have written in an earlier post, the rich and powerful are prima facie deserving while the poor and powerless are not. Just look at them!
A recent Pew survey shows the stark contrast between the attitudes of rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats toward the causes of wealth and poverty in America. Predictably, Republicans attribute financial success to working harder (66 percent) rather than to advantages one might have (21 percent). Democrats broke 29 percent for hard work, 60 percent for advantages. As for poverty, Republicans blamed a lack of effort (56 percent) while Democrats blamed circumstances generally beyond one’s control (71 percent). The gap between the parties’ attitudes, by the way, is widening.
But Democrats may be fighting a losing battle. Capraesque values seem antiquated now in a hypercompetitive, hypermaterialistic society where the emphasis on financial success seems to envelop us. Even in popular culture, it is not homespun movies like Capra’s that inspire us, but the Hollywood penumbra around the movies—the seeming availability of stardom and the illusion of the illusion that we can find celebrity in our own lives if we exert the energy to do so. There is a vast new literature of success, but unlike the self-improvement primers of earlier decades, Dale Carnegie et al., the lesson isn’t to cultivate our social skills, but our anti-social ones: to be alpha dogs or masters of the universe. Either that or be, god forbid, losers. Those Capraesque compensations aren’t enough anymore. You have to be a winner to have any respect, including self-respect.
This is Trump’s message, but it is also increasingly America’s, and a case can be made that his ragged populism may have played a smaller role in his election than his image as a winner—someone whose billions make him immune from his transgressions. In that sense, he was aspirational—an economic superstar who luxuriated in his wealth not only personally for his benefit but also culturally for ours. We are, as economist Robert Frank argued in his book of that title, a “winner-take-all” society where even the psychic rewards go to a relatively small segment and the rest are disdained. That is Trump’s society.
But there is a problem with this beyond the obvious one that a society that measures its value in monetary terms is a stunted one. The bigger problem is that the winner/loser typology has taken hold at the very time when social immobility has never been higher in America, where the chances of escaping one’s social stratum is terribly small. By Trump’s reckoning, most of us are destined to be losers. More, we are literally born losers.
And the bigger problem still is that this seems to have contributed to a massive sense of national misery that, I believe, is a factor in everything from the opioid crisis to mental health issues to the decline in physical health among a large segment of Americans. A Harris Poll finds that less than a third of Americans call themselves happy, in some measure, reports an analyst, because they feel impotent: Losers.
And a recent UN survey on national happiness ranks the United States 19th, down from third among OCED countries in 2007. One might conclude that Americans are increasingly unhappy not in spite of our relative material abundance, but because of it and of the divisions that flow from it. As the report states: “America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.” And the report makes clear, money won’t fix it. Only repairing America’s crumbling social structure will. We need to stop thinking in terms of a society of winners and losers and start thinking in terms of a community based on other social factors like trust and greater equality. How likely is that?
Whether they are cognizant of it or not, Americans pay a steep cost for placing a winner/loser frame on success. It is not that “winners” like Trump blame “losers” for their predicament, bad as that may be. And it is not that some “losers” harbor deep, bitter resentments against those whom they charge with undermining them, usually minorities and immigrants in the same leaky boat. It is that the “losers,” in a nifty bit of brainwashing, have learned to blame themselves. We can only guess how this saps the national will. Unfortunately, we don’t have to guess how it affects political power.
But Donald Trump, who helped create the divide, has a remedy for it. In another remarkable act of tone-deaf symbolism, our president last Sunday dedicated a golf trophy, the President’s Cup, to the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, including the unfortunates in Puerto Rico. It was exactly what they needed in their despair: a winner’s trophy for a misbegotten bunch of losers.
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.