Hamlet: Then and Now

by Rhodri Lewis

Why study Shakespeare? In answer to this question, we commonly hear variations on two basic themes. First, Shakespeare’s particularity. No other author gives us such a clear picture of the historical moment in which he or she lived; no other author writes as well or as skillfully; no other author depicts in such detail so many facets of the human condition; no other author has been read, performed, or discussed so widely; no other author is more responsible for what, in one of the more breathless expressions of New Haven transcendentalism, has been described as the invention of the human. Second, Shakespeare’s universality. He is, we are told, for and of all time: the culmination of what went before him; a prefiguration of what came, and continues to come, after him. His writings can therefore be mined for gems that will help to illuminate present-day discourses including those of politics, religion, gender, race, disability, law, colonialism, cognitive psychology, human-animal relations, economics, and – at the quack end of the market – leadership for corporate executives.

Some of these approaches do a brilliant job of helping us to understand what Shakespeare wrote and why he wrote it. Others less so. In my new book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, I wanted to try something different. Rather than using Shakespeare as a medium through which to discuss history, philosophy, politics, the nature of genius, or some other subject, I wanted give Shakespeare’s words priority over the uses to which they can be put. Not by studying him in isolation (only to read Shakespeare isn’t even to read Shakespeare), but by seeing what happens when different forms of historical, intellectual, artistic, literary-poetic, theoretical, theatrical, social, cultural, and political discourse are put to work in examining how a particular Shakespearean play functions. As my title suggests, I chose Hamlet. In part, this was because Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s richest and most demanding dramatic creation. But I was also drawn to it because of its critical history. Hamlet criticism has for a long time taken the form of a literary Rorschach test, in which the play is an inkblot onto which scholars, critics, actors, and directors (not unlike Polonius seeing different shapes in the clouds) project their favorite theories, methodologies, or ideologies. There need be nothing wrong with this provided the critic remains aware of what he or she doing. Too often, however, students of Hamlet have sought to remake the play in the image of the parts of it that most cohere with their own preoccupations. In Stephen Booth’s aptly irreverant phrase, there has been a tendency “to indulge a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something.”

In seeking to make sense of a famous play whose famous author was neither frustrated nor inarticulate, and in trying to treat Shakespeare as neither unique nor somehow universal, I was surprised to find myself coming up with an answer to a version of the question I with which I begin above. Why study Shakespeare in in the mid- to late-2010s? Because he offers us an unflinchingly brilliant guide to the predicaments in which we find ourselves in Trumpland and on Brexit Island. Not by prophesying the likes of Farage, Bannon, and Donald J. Trump (it’s true: reality is stranger than fiction), but by enabling us to experience a world in which the prevalent senses of moral order (political, ethical, personal) bear only the most superficial relation to lived experience.

To anyone glancing at my book, this claim might seem counter-intuitive. Its staple is Shakespeare’s engagement with, and ultimate repudiation of, the body of learning and civic-educational doctrine that we think of as renaissance humanism. Historical scholarship doesn’t get much more historically-minded than this. And yet it is Shakespeare’s determination to explore the limitations of the humanistic worldview that draws Hamlet into the nearest dialog with our own age.

In the figures of Claudius and Polonius, Shakespeare makes plain his conviction that humanistic ideals are hollowed out, bankrupt: the usurper and his consigliere mouth the platitudes of personal, familial, and political conviction, but do so only in order advance their own interests. So it is that Hamlet sets himself against the culture of “seeming” in all its particulars. He has, he claims, no more interest in performing so the roles that the court offers him than in affirming normative “truths” about the nature of human existence. He fights against the insidious conventionality of his uncle’s regime, and although he is therefore constrained to die within the action of the play, he lives on outside it as an avatar of personal and philosophical integrity.

And yet, when we read the play in the light of humanist tradition, a very different picture emerges; one in which the comfortingly familiar account of Hamlet is comprehensively upended. Viewed from here, Hamlet appears no less superficial – no less bound to “seeming” and self-interest – than Claudius, Polonius, and their cohort of hangers-on. Even his most soaringly eloquent speeches emerge as a patchwork of quotations and misquotations that twist and appropriate the techniques of humanist rhetoric; their purpose is not to search for the truth, but to present Hamlet with a series of self-images that conform with his elevated sense of self-regard. Likewise, his masquerades as a poet, a historian, a philosopher, a stage director, a lover, and a theologian have few claims to coherence, but Hamlet doesn’t care. Through them, he gets at once to distract his attention from the dynamics of his inner life – specifically, from his inability to feel committed to the act of revenge urged by his father’s ghost – and to enjoy a safe vantage from which to judge the behavior of others in and around Elsinore. The irony is that the harder he tries to separate himself from the culture in which he has been educated and through which he thinks, the more it becomes clear that his fate is bound up with those on stage around him. His failures of communication and understanding themselves inadvertently express the cultural assumptions he disdains; more importantly, they ensure the obliteration both of his family and of the politically autonomous Danish state that his family had sought to protect.

Shakespeare’s drama in general – and his Hamlet in particular – do an extraordinary job of holding up the mirror to a world characterized by illusion, pretense, and self-delusion.  They show us that as we try to detach ourselves from the cultures within which we are obliged to exist, we seek to obscure the ways in which we have helped bring these cultures into being – to say nothing of the ways in which our attempts at self-detachment serve to make things worse. This lesson is no more comfortable in 2017 than it was at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

LewisRhodri Lewis is professor of English literature and a fellow of St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Language, Mind and Nature: Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to LockeWilliam Petty on the Order of Nature and Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness.

Jim Campbell: A new analysis in Polarized dispels election controversy

Overlooked “Unfavorability” Trends Raise Doubts that Comey Cost Clinton the Election

In her newly released What Happened and in interviews accompanying the book’s release, Hillary Clinton claims that former FBI Director James Comey’s late October re-opening of the investigation into the mishandling of national security emails was “the determining factor” in her 2016 presidential election loss. In the new afterword of the paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America, I report evidence indicating that Comey’s letter did not cause Clinton’s loss.The suspected Comey-effect is tested by examining changes in Gallup’s unfavorability ratings of Clinton and Trump. The data shows that the decline in Clinton’s poll lead over Trump in the last weeks of the campaign was not the result of voters becoming more negative about Clinton (as would be the case if they were moved by the Comey letter). It was the result of voters becoming less negative about Trump (a development with no plausible link to the Comey letter). Comey didn’t drive voters away from Clinton. Rather, “Never Trump” Republicans were grudgingly becoming “Reluctant Trump” voters.

This finding is consistent with the earlier finding of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s (AAPOR) Ad Hoc Committee on 2016 Election Polling. The Committee found evidence that “Clinton’s support started to drop on October 24th or 25th,” perhaps even earlier. This was at least three or four days before Comey’s letter was released.

Read on for the relevant excerpt and details from the afterword of my forthcoming paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America:

In the closing weeks of the campaign, with what they saw as a Clinton victory looming darkly over the horizon, many disgruntled conservative hold-outs came back to the Republican column. As they rationalized or reconsidered their choice, unfavorable opinions about Trump among Republicans declined (about 7 points). Even so, about a fifth of Trump’s voters admitted that they still held an unfavorable view of him. More than a quarter of Trump’s voters said their candidate lacked the temperament to be president. For many, “Never Trump” had become “Reluctantly Trump.” They held their noses and cast their votes. Between Trump and Clinton, about 85% of conservative votes went to Trump. Along with sour views of national conditions, polarization had offset or overridden the grave reservations many conservatives had about a Trump vote.

Widespread and intense polarized views, across the public and between the parties, shaped the 2016 election. On one side of the spectrum, polarization compelled liberals to overlook Clinton’s scandals and deficiencies as a candidate as well as a sputtering economy and unstable international conditions. On the other side, dissatisfaction with national conditions and polarization compelled conservatives to vote for a candidate many thought lacked the rudimentary leadership qualities needed in a president. Non-ideological centrists again were caught in the middle–by ideology, by the candidates’ considerable shortcomings, and by generally dreary views of national conditions. Their vote split favored Clinton over Trump (52% to 40%, with 8% going to minor party candidates), close to its two-party division in 2012. The three components of the vote (polarization, the candidates, and national conditions) left voters closely enough divided to make an electoral vote majority for Trump possible.

Although the above explanation of the election is supported by the evidence and fits established theory, two other controversial explanations have gained some currency. They trace Trump’s surprising victory to Russia’s meddling in the election (by hacking Democratic emails and releasing them through Wikileaks) and FBI Director Comey’s late October letter, re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of confidential national security emails. Some, including Clinton herself, contend Wikileaks and Comey’s letter caused the collapse of Clinton’s lead over Trump in the closing weeks of the campaign.

The evidence says otherwise. Contrary to the speculation, neither Wikileaks nor Comey’s letter had anything to do with the shriveling of Clinton’s lead. If either had been responsible, they would also have caused more voters to view Clinton negatively–but opinions about her did not grow more negative. Unfavorable opinions of Clinton were remarkably steady. From August to late September, Hillary Clinton’s unfavorables in Gallup polls averaged 55%. Her unfavorables in the Gallup poll completed on the day Comey released his letter (October 28) stood at 55%. In the exit polls, after Wikileaks and after Comey’s letter, her unfavorables were unchanged at 55%. Opinions about Hillary Clinton, a figure in the political spotlight for a quarter century, had long been highly and solidly polarized. Nothing Wikileaks revealed or Comey said was going to change minds about her at that late stage of the game.

The race tightened in the last weeks of the campaign because Trump’s unfavorables declined (by about 5 points). They declined as some conservatives and moderates with qualms about Trump came to the unpleasant realization that voting for Trump was the only possible way they could help prevent Clinton’s election. Some dealt with the dissonance of voting for a candidate they disliked by rationalizing, reassessing, or otherwise softening their views of Trump, trying to convince themselves that maybe “the lesser to two evils” was not really so awful after all. In voting, as in everything else, people tend to postpone unpleasant decisions as long as they can and make them as painless to themselves as they can.

The decay of Clinton’s October poll lead was not about Russian and Wikileaks meddling in the election and not about Comey’s letter. It was about polarization, in conjunction with dissatisfaction about national conditions, belatedly overriding the serious concerns many voters had about Donald Trump as a potential president. Trump’s candidacy put polarization to the test. His election testified to how powerful polarization has become. The highly polarized views of Americans and the highly polarized positions of the parties were critical to how voters perceived and responded to the candidates’ shortcomings and the nation’s problems.

James E. Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. His books include The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National VoteThe Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections, and Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.

Jason Brennan: How Kneeling Athletes Reveal the True Nature of Politics

BrennanMuch of Puerto Rico may be without power for six months. North Korea is increasingly belligerent. The world’s reaction to coming climate change ranges between empty symbolic gestures and nothing. A just shy of fascist party won 13% of the seats in the German federal election. The U.S. has been at war—and troops have been dying for frivolous reasons—for sixteen years. But what are Americans most outraged about? Whether football players kneeling during the National Anthem, in protest of police brutality toward blacks, is somehow wrongly disrespectful of a flag, “the troops!”, or America.

Both sides accuse the other side of hypocrisy and bad faith. And both sides are mostly right. Hypocrisy and bad faith are the self-driving cars of politics. They get us where we want, without our having to drive.

What Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (in the 2016 Princeton University Press book Democracy for Realists) call the folk theory of democracy goes roughly as follows: People know their interests. They then form preferences about what the government should do to promote these goals. They vote for parties and politicians who will best realize these goals. Then the government implements the goals of the majority. But the problem, Achen and Bartels argue, is that each part of that “folk theory” is false.

Instead, as economist Robin Hanson likes to say, politics is not about policy. The hidden, unconscious reason we form political beliefs is to help us form coalitions with other people. Most of us choose our particular political affiliations because people like us vote that way. We then join together with other supposedly like-minded people, creating an us versus a them. We are good and noble and can be trusted. They are stupid and evil and at fault for everything. We loudly denounce the other side in order to prove, in public, that we are especially good and pure, and so our fellow coalition members should reward us with praise and high status.

Our political tribalism spills over and corrupts our behavior outside of politics. Consider research by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood. Iyenger and Westwood wanted to determine how much, if at all, political bias affects how people evaluate job candidates. They conducted an experiment in which they asked over 1,000 subjects to evaluate what the subjects were told were the résumés of graduating high school students. Iyenger and Westwood carefully crafted two basic résumés, one of which was clearly more impressive than the other. They randomly labeled the job candidates as Republican or Democrat, and randomly made the candidates stronger or weaker. At that same time, they also determined whether the subjects—the people evaluating the candidates—were strong or weak Republicans, independents, or strong or weak Democrats.

The results are depressing: 80.4% of Democratic subjects picked the Democratic job candidate, while 69.2% of Republican subjects picked the Republican job candidate. Even when the Republican job candidate was clearly stronger, Democrats still chose the Democratic candidate 70% of the time. In contrast, they found that “candidate qualification had no significant effect on winner selection.” In other words, the evaluators didn’t care about how qualified the candidates were; they just cared about what the job candidates’ politics were.

Legal theorist Cass Sunstein notes that in 1960, only about 4-5% of Republicans and Democrats said they would “displeased” if their children married members of the opposite party. Now about 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats admit they would be displeased. The truth is probably higher than that—some people would be upset but won’t admit it on a survey. Explicit “partyism”—prejudice against people from a different political party—is now more common than explicit racism.

At least some people have honest, good faith disputes about how to realize shared moral values, or about just what morality and justice require. We should be able to maintain such disputes without seeing each other as enemies. Sure, some moral disagreements are beyond the pale. If someone advocates the genocidal slaughter of Jews, fine, they’re not a good person. But disagreements on whether the minimum wage does more harm than good are not grounds for mutual diffidence. But, as ample empirical research shows (you can read my Against Democracy for a review), we are biased to see political disputants as stupid and evil, rather than just having a reasonable disagreement. Indeed, as Diana Mutz (in her Hearing the Other Side) shows, people who are successfully able to articulate the other sides’ point of view hardly participate in politics, but the nasty true-believers vote early and often.

It’s not a surprise people are so irrational and nasty about politics. The logic behind it is simple. Your individual vote counts for almost nothing. Even on the more optimistic models, you are as likely to change an election as you are to win Powerball. Accordingly, it doesn’t matter if your political beliefs are true or false, reasonable or utterly absurd. When you cross the street, you form rational beliefs about traffic patterns—or you die. When you vote, though, you can afford to indulge your deepest prejudices with no cost. How we vote matters, but how any one of us does not.

Imagine a professor told her 1000-student class that in fifteen weeks, she would hold a final exam, worth 100% of their grade. Suppose she told them that in the name of equality, she would average all final exam grades together and give every student the same grade. Students wouldn’t study and the average grade would be an F. In effect, this scenario is how democracy works, except that we have a 210-million person class in the United States. The downside is not merely that we remain ignorant. Rather, the downside is that it liberates us to use our political beliefs for other purposes.

Politics makes us civic enemies. When we make something a political matter, we turn it into a zero-sum game where someone has to win and someone has to lose. Political decisions involve a constrained set of options. In politics, there are usually only a handful of viable choices. Political decisions are monopolistic: everyone has to accept the same decision. Political decisions are imposed involuntarily: you don’t really consent to the outcome of a democratic decision.

Now back to football players kneeling. My friends on the Right refuse to take the players at their word. The players say they’re protesting police brutality and other ways the U.S. mistreats its black populace. My friends on the Right scoff and say, no, really they just hate America and hate the troops. This reaction is wrong, but not surprising. Imputing evil motives to the other side is essential to politics. The Left does it all the time too. If, for example, some economists on the Right says they favor school vouchers as a means of improving school quality, the Left will just accuse them of hating the poor.

It’s worth noting that since 2009, the Pentagon has paid the NFL over $6 million to stage patriotic displays before games to help drive recruiting.[i] The pre-game flag shows are literally propaganda in the narrowest sense of the word. Personally, I think participating in government-funded propaganda exercises is profoundly anti-American, while taking a knee and refusing to dance on command shows real respect for what the country supposedly stands for.

Jason Brennan is the Flanagan Family Chair of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), and Against Democracy. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

Jeremi Suri: Is Trump blustering toward Armageddon?

Jeremi Suri, the editor for our America in the World series, has penned a powerful longform piece in The American Prospect, detailing how he thinks Trump could stumble into war:

“Trump will quickly and irretrievably lose control of his threats and commitments, and he will find himself pressured to pursue unwanted wars to preserve the very image of toughness that will get him into trouble in the first place. His belligerent deterrence will induce global war-fighting, as happened repeatedly during the Cold War. This time, the damage will be much greater and perhaps existential. We are witnessing the rapid demise of the American-led world order that for 70 years averted war among the largest states. The next few years, perhaps just the first year of the Trump presidency, will bring us to a dangerous new precipice in multiple parts of the globe. America doesn’t face the risk of war in just one theater of conflict. Under President Trump, the United States faces that risk in at least four separate theaters.”

Suri goes on to outline what he perceives as risks in several complicated strategic spaces: The Middle East, Europe, North Korea, and the South China Sea. Suri sets his warning in historical context, asking whether past precedent can offer a warning to current policy-makers. Read the full piece here.

Explore our America in the World series here.

 

David Runciman on the new year’s challenges to democracy

In a video interview now featured on the London Review of Books homepage, David Runciman, author of The Confidence Trap, talks about Trump, Brexit and threats to democracy. Threats to democracy are nothing new; the US has survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis. Runciman shows that in fact, democracies are very good at recovering from emergencies, leading to the false belief that they are indestructible. In The Confidence Trap, Runciman argues that such complacency may lead to a crisis that is just too big to escape.

Read Runciman’s articles for the LRB from the past year:

Is this how democracy ends? · 1 December 2016

Untouchable? The Tory State · 8 September 2016

Where are we now? Responses to the Referendum · 14 July 2016

Short Cuts: the Coalition · 5 May 2016

Deliverology: Blair Hawks His Wares · 31 March 2016

 

 

Adam Seth Levine: Does Populist Rhetoric Undermine Itself?

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by Adam Seth Levine

The 2016 presidential race features no shortage of populist rhetoric. While scholars and commentators disagree about the extent to which candidates such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders are truly populists, there is no doubt that they have frequently employed rhetoric that contains two essential features: first, a critique of contemporary political and economic life and, second, a call for broader participation by the people that will set things right in response to an elite held responsible for these problems.

At first blush, these two features would seem to be perfectly compatible with one another. However, a growing body of research shows that they often are not. In fact, the sharper the critique of contemporary life—and, in particular, the more it is phrased in terms that are personally relevant—the more likely it is to undermine people’s desire to heed the call to action. In short, populist rhetoric is often self-undermining.

This line of research uses experiments to randomly assign people to receive populist rhetoric (or not) and then measures their level of political engagement. The general conclusion that emerges is that, when rhetoric reminds people about critiques of economic and political life that relate directly to their personal financial concerns and/or ways in which our democracy fails to be responsive the wishes of the citizenry, then such rhetoric often reduces rather than increases their willingness to spend scarce resources on activism. At the same time, however, it does increase people’s concern about the issues and willingness to express support for remedies. So, it satisfies one goal while at the same time undermining another. This pattern is important because, while public opinion can impact the shape of the political agenda and the likelihood of policy change, that link is not automatic. Such change is more likely to arise when there is also organized activism pushing for it.

For instance, in my 2015 book, American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction, I conducted a series of experiments in which some participants were randomly assigned to receive general information about a civic organization along with populist appeals related to its work to address health care costs or education costs, while others just received the general information. I found that when the populist rhetoric reminded people about financial constraints they were personally facing (e.g. students with education loans, or people without health insurance facing large health care costs), then it reduced their willingness to donate money to the organization. If they were in the labor force, it also reduced their willingness to spend time by joining the organization. Yet, in all cases, people become more concerned about the issue at hand and were more likely to consider it a political priority. In short, reminding people about their financial constraints often does not motivate them to want to spend money or time on politics, even if it heightens concern about the problem.

What about critiques of contemporary political life? During the 2016 race, both Trump and Sanders have repeatedly warned that citizens’ voices are not being heard and that the election is rigged. Robyn Stiles and I recently tested the effect of this kind of rhetoric on people’s willingness to be electorally engaged. We found that in each case messages about elections being rigged or the wealthy buying elections reduced electoral engagement, even though they increased the degree to which people expressed increasing concern about the problem. In short, telling people that their voice may not matter does not make them want to spend scarce resources exercising it, even if it makes them more likely to support policies that would reduce political inequality.

While these two experiments by no means cover the full range of populist rhetoric, they do highlight the central point: there is often a critical and unrecognized tension within the two main goals of populist rhetoric. What to do? One answer is that sparking activism in response to people’s concerns about contemporary economic and political life will often require tapping into motivations other than the issues themselves. After all, people get involved in politics for many reasons that are not solely about the personal grievances and policy goals they hold, such as motivations tied to social influence and other social goals (e.g. the desire to respond affirmatively to a friend). Invoking these motivations is not always easy, but at the same time holds greater promise for sparking activism in situations where the rhetoric itself is self-undermining.

Levine

Adam Seth Levine is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. He has published in a variety of outlets such as the Journal of Politics, Political Analysis, Review of Behavioral Economics, and Political Communication. His work has won numerous awards, including the 2011 E. E. Schattschneider Prize. This prize is the highest dissertation award in the field of American government and is given annually by the American Political Science Association. He is the author of American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.

Luke Mayville: Is money-making an art or a mania?

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by Luke Mayville

“I don’t do it for the money,” reads the opening line of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. “I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully…or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals.”

Contrary to the efforts of Elizabeth Warren and others to castigate Trump as a money-grubber—someone monomaniacally obsessed with accumulating wealth—the Trump campaign has sought to present him less as a money-maker than as an artisan and a master-builder whose greatness lies not in his wealth but in the structures he has built.

“In our business,” proclaimed Ivanka Trump in her speech at the RNC, “you’re not a builder unless you’ve got a building to show for it, or in my father’s case, city skylines.” Donald Trump’s ruling desire, the story goes, is not merely to accumulate but to build and create—jobs, skylines, deals.

This persona is in keeping with a story that Americans have long told about private ambition and the desire to get rich. Consider Ayn Rand, a writer who is idolized by Fortune 500 CEOs and who may be peerless in her influence on American culture. The heroes of Rand’s novels are not maniacal money-grubbers but rather inventors and architects. Howard Roark, the heroic protagonist of The Fountainhead (and a character whom, by the way, Donald Trump strives to emulate), is described by Rand not as a greedy egoist but as a man who “struggles for the integrity of his creative work against every form of social opposition.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke for an American tradition when he insisted that the pursuit of wealth was driven by something much nobler than greed, ostentation, or a lust for power. “Men of sense,” wrote Emerson, “esteem wealth to be the assimilation of nature to themselves, the converting of the sap and juices of the planet to the incarnation and nutriment of their design.”

Emerson’s suggestion is that the Donald Trumps of the world should be recognized as master craftsman who repurpose the raw stuff of nature into ingenious works of art.

But as we learned in July, Trump’s Art of the Deal was ghostwritten. The real Trump, according to ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, is motivated not by the passion of the craftsman but by an insatiable desire for “money, praise, and celebrity.” What Schwartz revealed is that the career of Donald Trump does not fit the mold of America’s romantic ideal of money-making. Instead, Trump’s character and motives are better explained by an alternative strain of American commentary.

John Adams, who was the second President of the United States and also a shrewd critic of America’s emerging commercial culture, believed that the pursuit of wealth was driven by a raging passion for social distinction. The desire for riches was akin to political ambition, which Adams described as a motive that “strengthens at every advance, and at last takes possession of the whole soul so absolutely, that a man seeks nothing in the world of importance to others or himself, but in his object.” The desire for riches, which was merely one variety of the desire for praise and distinction, was maniacal because it was ultimately insatiable. “The love of gold,” wrote Adams, “grows faster than the heap of acquisition; the love of praise increases by every gratification, till it stings like an adder, and bites like a serpent; till the man is miserable every moment when he does not snuff the incense.”

Martin Luther King Jr. echoed Adams when he described Americans’ love of money as a variety of the “drum-major instinct,” a desire “to be out front … to lead the parade … to be first.” The desire to stand out was not a bad thing in itself. In fact, King believed that the instinct should be harnessed to motivate service to humanity. But much more common was the case of the avaricious man who, moved by the drum major instinct, buys a fancier car and builds a bigger house than the next man, all in an effort to out-do the Joneses.

Among the revelations of Trump’s ghostwriter was that the depiction of Trump as a passionate artisan—someone who crafts real estate deals in the same way that a poet writes poetry—was merely a cover-up used to hide his true ruling passion: to get rich and, beyond that, to prove “I’m richer than you”—to be distinguished and celebrated for his wealth.

Surely, not all money-making is driven by such self-absorption. Riches have often been the reward of the bourgeois virtues of thrift, saving, timeliness, and industriousness. Much of America’s wealth can in fact be traced to extraordinary feats of invention and ingenuity. But the phenomenon of Donald Trump reminds us that the idea of money-making as craftsmanship—even if it contains a substantial part of the truth—is also readily deployable as a self-serving myth. And the problem is not just that the myth excuses the greed of those billionaire politicians who wish to govern us. It also flatters the pervasive yearning for riches among the broader public, the same yearning that motivated droves of Americans to buy The Art of the Deal.

MayvilleLuke Mayville is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. He is a contributor to Commonweal and the author of John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

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By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).