Thackeray Knew Trump

He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way—and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world? 

—William Makepeace Thackerary, Vanity Fair (1848)

2 thoughts on “Thackeray Knew Trump”

  1. Donald Trump, Viking King

    Those appalled at the behavior of candidate and then president Donald Trump may want to consult the history books. They (we) have, for over four years, been repeatedly disappointed when the latest outrageous act or pronouncement fails to cause his base, and the now spineless and terrorized Republican stalwarts, to repudiate the act or words. How to explain this?

    An answer can be found in Nordic history.

    At a very basic level, there are only two options by which to increase one’s station in life: one can make, grow, and/or harvest something, or one can take from others. As takers go, Vikings were Olympic champions.
    Yes, they developed spectacular sea-going vessels. The addition in the late eight century CE of the solid keel and sail to overlapping lapstrake hull construction created a vessel far more capable and versatile than anything available at the time. They then proceeded to use such ships to pillage at a level not seen before (or perhaps since). And yes, Nordic societies transformed over time, producing traders, farmers, and, eventually achieved the pinnacle of societal success, net exportation of supermodels. I tease my Norwegian mother that modern Scandinavians’ near pathologic need to be seen as civilized so many years on speaks to the degree of bloodletting mayhem involved. World War II and the sting of being on the receiving end only solidified Nordic countries’ promotion of civilized norms.

    What were the characteristics of a worthy king, back in the heyday of Viking plundering? The ability to bring back loot to his clan was the essential task. Anyone who hadn’t shown pillage proficiency wasn’t going to lead the clan on the next rapacious adventure. Lying, cheating, stealing, killing: those were the qualifications for leadership in the ancient world – so long as done on a big enough scale and applied to those outside the tribe. Indeed, the ancient Greeks admired their hero Odysseus for just such traits. As for sexual assault, I’m guessing such allegations over a millennia prior to the #MeToo era only buttressed one’s candidacy. The more fearsome the leader, the better. Once established, a ferocious reputation might be the means to get what you wanted without additional risk: “Give me what I want, and maybe I won’t kill you like I did to your neighbors up the coast.” At a political level Donald Trump understands all this, ergo his claim that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and not lose any voters.

    Perhaps it takes the violating of all the norms to realize why they came about, and why we need to protect them. Trump touts himself and his policies as job creating. The Republican establishment tolerated the Trump takeover of the party because he agreed with them on the centrality of tax cuts to stimulate job growth. And to be fair, job creation has remained steady to date, in part because business executives see lower taxes as a signal of a business-friendly environment. But are they, necessarily? That depends on the type of business and the type of job. The maintenance of quality of life in the modern era depends on more than mere job numbers; quality jobs rely primarily on the ability to innovate rather than steal. And innovation is dependent – in so many ways – on trust and tolerance, qualities not prized by the Trump administration, nor foremost in the Viking era. Back then, as now within the Trump organization, loyalty to the leader was valued over everything.

    Innovation is the seeking of new ways for individuals to work more efficiently, not simply harder. A new approach to a given problem may fail. Mocking the idea of change itself doesn’t help. Innovation cannot be mandated. It cannot be ordered up. It cannot be legislated. Funding basic research helps; a transactional view of such funding does not.

    And then, who are the innovators? The ability to see a different angle is a needed first step. Innovators are thus often outsiders, who may look or act differently than convention. It should not surprise that immigrants are far more likely to start high tech companies than native-born individuals, or that a metropolitan region’s tolerance of homosexuality correlates with the region’s long term relationship with innovation and success, as Richard Florida has discovered. Trust involves the honoring of contracts and patents. In short, disruption – the goal of innovation – is not the same as chaos.

    At some level, the age of Trump represents the public’s skepticism in innovation as the central driver of quality of life. That faith is faltering across the spectrum, not just on the right. Data do show that productivity gains across the developed world have been decreasing since the sixties and seventies, in part because the innovation low hanging fruit has already been picked – an argument for increased, not less, spending on basic research. Remove innovation, and the strategies left are: (1) trying to maintain privilege and/or (2) wealth redistribution – fending off marauding bands or marauding oneself (redistributing to me). Fear of the brown-skinned coming to take your jobs, or marry your daughters (though trust me, sometimes that works out just fine); fear of pitch-forked communists coming to take your land; provoking fear in others so that they fork over their goods to avoid a fight. Fear can help you do something you already know how to do faster, but it isn’t a good motivator for invention.

    From the political left punitive taxation proposals on successful companies and individuals (notwithstanding the business risks taken) are a strategy straight out of the Viking playbook too. Why build up your own production when you can sail in and take what you want home? It’s true that without the taxes to support libraries, public education, robust basic research, and a legal system that truly provides justice for all, new invention cannot happen. One can make a good argument that universal – and affordable – basic health care is among the public goods encouraging invention, allowing potential entrepreneurs to leave comfortable but uninspiring jobs to seek their dreams without worry that unexpected illness will crush them. But we also need to allow for the wealth creation that underpins such public goods.

    With the political parties veering ever further off the road on their respective sides, no one is left to protect the middle ground, the sweet spot where tinkerers and business opportunities thrive. The ideal landscape for innovation – and, one can argue, politics too – is one with a mingling of new ideas and information, understood rules and norms, barriers to entry that are surmountable, and where incumbency can be attained yet does not provide indefinite and unlimited privilege. It’s a Goldilocks thing, and we’re blowing it by offering voters only hot and cold.

    A return to Vikings ways will not help.
    (written in 2021)

    1. Hello-o-o-o, Carolyn! Great to hear from you! It is heartening to know that some of my former students are thinking and writing at such a high level of intellect and feeling. Thank you! Stay well!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.