You can learn a lot from a self-made woman. But even more from a princess born to riches she thinks she earned herself.
“I don’t think most Americans, in their heart, want to be given something,” first daughter Ivanka Trump said last week (on Fox News, natch). “I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around this country over the last four years. People want to work for what they get.”
Trump is so utterly bereft of self-awareness it’s mind-boggling. She has had to work for nothing in her entire life. Her whole career, including the exalted White House perch from which she now bestows her wisdom, was built entirely upon the fact that she was born a Trump.
But, like the father who handed her everything, Ivanka Trump is a symptom rather than a cause of a wider phenomenon: An alarming number of Americans equate wealth with superior talent, hard work, and virtue.
This notion of the deserving rich has quite a hold on us. In an October Pew Research Center survey, 43 percent of respondents said the rich got that way by working harder than most other people, and 42 percent said it was because they had more advantages in life than other people. But the results are starker among Republicans: A whopping 71 percent of them said rich people got that way by working harder. And 48 percent of Republicans said people are poor because they don’t work hard enough.
No wonder they fell so hard for Donald Trump, buying the fiction — goosed to profitable effect by “The Apprentice” — that this man, born into massive wealth and bailed out by his father after repeated business failures, was self-made, and supremely worthy of his riches, not to mention veneration.
That kind of mythology has been used for decades to justify cutting taxes for the rich and shredding the safety net for the poor. And it has deep roots, says Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution: America was built on an anti-aristocratic ideal, where those at the top of the hierarchy were portrayed as being there not by birth, but by having risen on their own merits.
If you’re rich, “you come to believe not only that you work for everything you get, but that everything you get, you deserve, because you worked for it,” says Reeves, who studies social mobility. “The winners think they’ve won fair and square, and those who are not flourishing have nobody to blame but themselves.”
Ronald Reagan doubled down on this distortion, Reeves says, touting the need to cut government and free up the market so that people could better compete on their merits, delivering tax cuts to motivate the winners, and pillorying the losers as welfare queens. But it wasn’t just Republicans: Bill Clinton did his own part to cement the narrative, especially with welfare reform, its work requirements enshrining the notion of the undeserving poor. Subsequent presidents have barely budged us.
A bunch of Democrats, including some running for president, are trying to pierce the fictions to which the Trumps and many others cling. They’re calling for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, pushing companies to pay their fair share, demanding a true living wage for workers, and proposing ways to make health care more affordable.
All of which existed, by the way, in the Great America for which Trumpists profess such longing. But the Democrats proposing them are being denounced as socialists, and just in case that doesn’t turn enough voters off, Republicans are using Venezuela as a cudgel. Fox News has been terrifying viewers with footage of unrest in the Latin American country whose economy is in freefall, and whose socialist president will not step aside.
“This is what socialism does to a country,” goes the pitch. “You’d better stick with us.”
They’re rich. They’ve earned it. And like Ivanka Trump, they know exactly what you want. So, listen carefully. There’s a lot to learn from them.
Or about them, anyway.