You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself. – Ivan Boesky
Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war. – Lyndon Johnson
Don’t you get the idea I’m one of those goddamn radicals. Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system. – Al Capone
Near-universal outrage at the Robber Barons and their extravagant lifestyles led to the Progressive Era, during which Theodore Roosevelt broke up the trusts and increased taxes on the wealthy. This was followed by further income tax increases under Woodrow Wilson and then by women’s suffrage.
Most of the mega-rich may have lacked the most basic moral values, but they weren’t stupid. In these times of class warfare, they could see where the wind was blowing. With the glaring exception of Hearst, who would inspire the 1941 film Citizen Kane, they tended to rein in their worst public excesses and retreat to remote country estates and urban townhouses. For the most part, they watched (and collected dividends) as the nation suffered through periodic race riots, prohibition, the Great Depression, World War Two, Korea, the Cold War, Civil Rights, feminism and Viet Nam. For forty years, they even tolerated government regulation and high taxation, or at least as long as the economy continued to grow. That period ended in the 1970s. More on that later.
Throughout the century, however, the movies kept the rich and their toys in the public mind, even as post-war affluence and television convinced most white Americans that they had entered the middle class. But both extreme wealth and lower-class behavior patterns paraded across their imaginations as they sat back and watched.
Movies, writes Michael Ventura, “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas indigenous people and earlier generations of Americans had participated in their entertainment, people of the new century became, in just a few years, passive consumers of culture, except for dancing. The Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.” Americans liked to watch.
The end of World War Two marked the transition to consumer culture. The bulk of industrial activity became the manufacture of “goods.” Rather suddenly, youth became society’s ideal. Advertising suggested that things people bought would keep them young. Americans defined themselves less by what they did and more by what they had, even if it looked exactly like what their neighbors had. Entertainment “stars” brought back the display of wealth, with the implied message that you might become like them some day – especially if you bought the same things they had. Once it became clear that simply associating consumer products with celebrities was profitable, many of them used their status to sell stuff, none more convincingly than Ronald Reagan, who turned out to be a more successful TV salesman than film actor.
Journalist Sam Smith was “…blessed to come of age before the average American was seeing so many advertisements each a day…”
What I didn’t realize at the time was that television would…change how Americans saw things in striking ways that still aren’t given enough credit for their part in the decline of our culture…circus barkers became not a once a year curiosity in your town but part of the nightly visual experience. We called them TV commercials, but they had much the same effect. The constant sound of hyperbole and misrepresentation became a common part of our lives. Sure, radio had them, but radio being only a sound, stayed somewhat removed from our true being. When a guy is not only yakking but enhanced by an attractive blonde coming on to you…it inevitably becomes more than a sound.
Who can comprehend how 120 years of movies and seventy years of television have changed us? In the first five years (1969-73) of his role in Marcus Welby MD, the actor Robert Young received more than 250,000 letters from viewers, mostly asking for medical advice. These people were engaging in the one-sided relationships with celebrities or fictional characters that psychologists call “parasocial.”
Consider that prior to the twentieth century, for thousands of years nearly everyone, everywhere listened to storytellers at night. Sounds went directly into the ear and became pictures in the imagination. Eventually, when people enacted their myths, they created ritual drama, which later devolved into conventional theatre, where professional actors entertained passive spectators. For four centuries, educated people read those tales, privately. Later, they heard literalized versions of the myths on the radio, or consumed pre-formed images of beauty, courage and evil projected onto movie screens. In turn, millions returned the projection (their own inner gods and demons) onto celebrities. TV and computers further diluted our imaginative capacity. Now, such images (including the commercials) enter the brain directly, without even the mediation of a projector and screen.
“To go from a job you don’t like,” writes Ventura, “to watching a screen on which others live more intensely than you…is American life…” Well before the Internet and smart phone technology, electronic media became our immediate environment – not the land, not people, but images of the land and people.
By the 21st century, writes Christina Kotchemidova, media fostered an experience of emotion that is controlled, predictable, and undemanding without impinging on our rational lifestyles. Thus, “We can engage in mass-mediated emotions to the full while retaining control over our emotion experience and avoiding the risks of personal communication.” By 2010, anyone could text or tweet without needing to actually interact with others or back up their claims. Even presidents would not have to stop watching while they tweeted..
Between World War Two and Viet Nam the old conflict between the American values of “freedom vs equality” that I describe in Chapter Seven of my book had shifted in favor of equality, at least in terms of opportunity, and at least for white people. As it turned out, however, the dream of a middle-class America lasted for only a couple of generations, propelled in large part by the astonishingly high (to us, now) tax rates that the New Deal coalition had imposed on the rich well into the 1960s, and then ruined by Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to extend those rates to pay for his war.
By the end of the 1960s middle Americans were exhausted with the pace of change. They saw the violence and social excesses that they watched on TV as affronts to their conflicting ideals of suburban independence and religious conformism, and they revolted against the welfare state once it became clear that it was intended to help minorities. Conservatives who had accepted most New Deal values (see this 1956 Republican Platform) took the opportunity – we may never know why – to assault those assumptions by turning to the old American hatred of The Other. By the mid-1970s the backlash was creating the Reagan “revolution.”
Evoking both ends of the mythic spectrum, Reagan told Americans they could have it both ways. They could get rich and have their traditional values. They could be both Puritans and Opportunists. He resolved white men of all responsibility when he called unemployment insurance “vacation for freeloaders” and claimed that people were homeless “by choice.”
Sociologists have shown that Americans tend to be very compassionate toward the poor – but only when two conditions are met: when the economy is growing, as in the early 1960s, and when the poor are perceived primarily as white, as they were in the 1930s. Neither of these conditions applied after 1975, and despite unrelenting government propaganda, they never have since. And when they do not apply, the old Puritan prejudices always rise up like zombies in a cheap horror movie: You are poor because of your bad character; and we are wealthy because we worked hard and deserve to keep every penny we earned.
In 1985 a member of Reagan’s Education Department unashamedly articulated his new contempt for the poor: “Unfair as it may seem, a person’s external circumstances do fit his level of inner spiritual development.” Those of us who are familiar with American religion and mythology, however, can recognize the extremely old thinking that was resurfacing as a rebranded Social Darwinism. But this time, she was making a new connection – to New Age philosophy.
Reagan was also resolving the entire post-Viet Nam “Me Generation” of the responsibility to engage in politics. People who in their teens and twenties had moved from social protest to meditation were hearing the message that in their thirties it was more important to take care of Number one. The ancient Athenians had a term for those who ignored the general welfare: idiote. Reagan gave Americans permission to be idiots.
Reagan had influence far beyond the office of President because he was a celebrity. Of course, he had been an actor, but we are talking about his second career as a commercial spokesman that led to his third as a shill for big business. By the time he entered politics, the public had been conditioned by several decades of celebrity worship, and the transition to equating celebrities with actual, qualified leaders was nearly complete. Ever since then, the distinction between politics and entertainment has grown thinner. For a sharp overview of where the cult of celebrity has taken us in the 21st century, read here.
Celebrities are famous simply for being famous; we often have no idea how they entered our awareness. We admire them for being who they are, not for what they have done. Garry Wills writes:
…no one has undergone a more thorough initiation into every aspect of the American legend than Reagan has, and no one has found so many conduits…for bringing that legend to us in the freshest way. He is the perfect carrier: the ancient messages travel through him without friction.
Reagan, writes Joel Kovel, was so persuasive precisely because he could barely distinguish his life from his role. As President, he “played Ronald Reagan.” Reagan himself, with rare candor, once admitted, “The camera doesn’t lie. Eventually you are what you are.” We can assume that a young Donald Trump was taking copious notes.
For more of my thoughts on the Cult of Celebrity, read The Royal Wedding and John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession With Innocence.
By now, we – including plenty of Trump supporters – are well aware that every Republican president since Nixon has facilitated the shift of the national wealth from the working class to the rich. But by turning the world’s greatest creditor nation into its greatest debtor nation in a mere eight years, Reagan manifested the greatest con of all, long before Trump. “How skillful,” wrote Howard Zinn, “to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!”
Along with the innocent trust with which we bless our celebrity politicians comes its dark underside, corruption. Those who stand in the bright spotlight of our projections inevitably lose all humility (etymologically, their connection to the ground), come to believe their own rhetoric about deservingness, and feel entitled to take what they want. This, we must remember, is only a very mild distortion of the most basic American Puritan impulse.
While the middle-class ideology of the American Dream reinforces the belief that people can “rise” through hard work and self-denial, our mythology of radical individualism also encourages an underworld of those who would achieve their aims by not playing according to the rules of polite society.
We can think of crime in America in terms of getting rich through alternative means, whether through the shadow opposite of corporate capitalism known as “organized crime,” or through the anti-heroic exploits of a stock character of our mythology, the outlaw or villain. Because he takes whatever he wants, has no responsibilities and transgresses all moral codes, he is exciting and frankly attractive. Americans have always admired outlaws. Robert Warshow writes that the gangster is “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” The culture of celebrity celebrates con men. We can’t help but admire them because they exemplify our deepest values.
To repeat: one aspect of our demythologized world, especially in America, is that the distinctions between religion, politics and entertainment have collapsed. This is perhaps because all three of these areas of public life share the con man’s main interest: making money and aggrandizing the self. If in the Age of Trump you haven’t noticed this, you haven’t been paying attention. Have you have been watching something else?
The fix, as they used to say, was in, once more. During Reagan’s eight years some 140 administration officials were investigated, indicted, or convicted. Studies indicated that many corporate CEOs have the personality characteristics of psychopaths. Such men, writes Alan Deutschman,
…have a profound lack of empathy…use other people callously and remorselessly for their own ends…pathological liars, master con artists, and heartless manipulators. Easily bored, they crave constant stimulation, so they seek thrills from real-life “games” they can win – and take pleasure from their power over other people.
By 1990, after a generation of New Age-ish justifications for getting rich, many observers were describing a “new Gilded Age” defined by the stunning rise of what we would all eventually come to know as the “one percent,” and many people were unashamedly envious.
Popular culture responded. Running from Reagan’s first term into the mid-1990s, the TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous highlighted the extravagant lives of entertainers, athletes and business moguls. The show inspired two spinoff series, a board game and even a video slot machine. In an apparent benediction for an American future we all could share once “government” was out of the way, host Robin Leach ended each episode with “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”
During the original Gilded Age, as noted above, the uber-rich received around a fifth of total income. By 1950, due to New Deal regulation, that share had been reduced considerably. But after 1980 it surged to levels equivalent to those of 1890. We’ve all seen the statistics by now, and we’re getting numb to the consequences. Thirty years after Reagan, income inequality is at the highest level since 1970. The highest personal and corporate tax rates are a fraction of what they once were. Four hundred persons control more wealth than the bottom 50% of households, who have lost $900 billion since 1989. During this time, the 1%, who now pay lower tax rates than the bottom 50%, have gained $21 trillion. And these people literally think very differently. Studies now show that wealth actually reduces compassion.
There are clear differences between the two Gilded Ages. Workers’ real wages were rising then and stagnant now. Unions and their influence have declined, as many blue-collar whites have long deserted the Democratic Party for the short-lived satisfactions of race hatred, immigrant-bashing or substance abuse. Then, there was no social services safety net and now we have a vestigial one, even if Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” and his successors followed his example.
Then, workers read socialist newspapers. Now, the right-wing is supported by its own TV network and over 1,600 Christian radio and TV stations. Then, the slogan was “Solidarity Forever!” Now, Trump supporters proudly proclaim: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Then, images of conspicuous consumption were regarded with suspicion or contempt. Now, it seems that the message is: Be like me!
Throughout my city of Oakland, I observe three trends. There are over two dozen large apartment complexes being constructed for the thousands of tech workers driven out of San Francisco by the highest housing rates in the country, caused to a great extent by large private companies like Uber going public. There are an estimated 200 homeless encampments, composed 80% by people of color, caused to a great extent by this gentrification. And – most curiously, considering all the money coming into this city – I also see dozens of empty storefronts resulting from our new patterns of Internet shopping, an economy that employs most of those same tech workers.
In Part One of this essay, I mentioned Item # 1, the almost-new mansion near San Francisco that will be demolished for a much larger one. It’s hardly the only example. In Southern California, Bel Air boasts the 38,000 square foot pile known as “The Billionaire,” originally priced at $250 million. And you know someone had to top that. In the New Gilded Age, the satisfaction seems to be less about the possession and more about the impression that one can literally “top” one’s rival for attention in the public eye.
We naturally wonder about the early traumas that might have produced such a brittle sense of entitlement, or more grossly, “the larger the wheels, the smaller the dick.” But that’s our psychological perspective. If such displays didn’t produce the desired effect among the masses, if only temporarily (like all addictions), we wouldn’t hear about “The One,” a 105,000 square foot house being built, also in Bel Air. Its PR proudly proclaims that with a price tag of $500 million, it will be “America’s largest and most expensive private residence.”
Had enough? Watch your moral indignation! Depth Psychology insists that attraction and repulsion, condemnation and envy, are closer than we think. Admit it – for one reason or another – we love this crap. We like to watch.