Donald Trump and the Very American Myth of the Self-Made Man

There are no self-made men, any more than there are self-made kings.

Politics Features Donald Trump
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Donald Trump and the Very American Myth of the Self-Made Man

I read the news today, oh boy. About a lucky man who made the grade. And though the news was rather sad … well, I just had to laugh. On Tuesday, the New York Times humiliated the President by publishing a thorough investigation of his family finances:

The president has long sold himself as a self-made billionaire, but a Times investigation found that he received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s. ... “I built what I built myself,” Mr. Trump has said, a narrative that was long amplified by often-credulous coverage from news organizations, including The Times.

As the Times points out, “The reporting makes clear that in every era of Mr. Trump’s life, his finances were deeply intertwined with, and dependent on, his father’s wealth.”

The story goes on to explain, in excruciating detail, the Trump family’s long history of shady tax-dodging. All of Trump’s painful, labored breathing about his fabulous wealth, and this is what it comes to. He’s a spoiled heir who had the skill to get born … and nothing else. Trump claimed he was a success. But the math smiled, and said “I think I disagree.”

Up top, I borrowed a line from the Beatles as easily as Trump borrowed from his father. I did it to make this point:

There are no self-made men, any more than there are self-made kings. There never have been. Never will be. Everything we are, everything we have, is supported by others. Next time you meet someone who says they got there alone, make sure your good silver is locked up. The myth of the self-made man is one of the all-time crackpot notions.

Tell me: How much food did you grow when you were one month old? How many factory shifts do you reckon you clocked by your fifth birthday? Your great-grandparents might’ve had something to do with where you were born. Did you pay them back for their travels? Have you personally reimbursed every veteran of both World Wars? The roads I drove on today were built by the taxpayers; I’ve never laid down a yard of asphalt. Neither has Donald Trump, for that matter.

Human beings are social creatures. Nothing in this world stands separated from context, connection, or place. Nothing exists as itself, by itself, without a tie to something else. Hell, the sentences I’m typing right now are from a language I didn’t invent. I borrowed these words from a tiny island on the other side of Atlantic. Civilization is a joint-stock company, and we each own a share.

In fact, all of us are hand-me-downs, right to the atoms in our bones, which are borrowed from all the other matter in the planet—and originally came from the bellies of stars.

Generally, we accept the self-made myth as false. We accept the hand-me-down truth in our physics, our recipes, and in our Eminems. But when it comes to politics and economics, our society pretends otherwise.

There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with power. If a single person can claim to be the source of money, that automatically makes him more valuable than other people.

Back to Trump for a moment. Suppose he hadn’t had a rich dad. Suppose, by some lucky break, he’d climbed the ladder in his own lifetime, without an inheritance. That’s the difference between him and his father, right? Fred made his living, Trump took it.

But Fred Trump wasn’t self-made either. He became rich because of federal housing loans. Who made the Trump family wealthy? The public, whose money supported Trump. The state, who protected Trump. The society, who funded the infrastructure that make Trump possible. The media, who believed Trump. And, of course, the workers, who are underpaid by Trump.

Sure, the one percent love the self-made myth. But why do non-billionaires believe it?

Simple. For the right, the self-made myth is a foundational neurosis. Right-wing politics exists to defend unjust hierarchies. Empathy is the enemy of hierarchy. Anger cuts off empathy. Therefore, constant anger is necessary if conservatism is to live.

The self-made myth assures a reliable supply of anger. If we are all self-made, then anyone who criticizes me, or questions the status quo, is a parasite. I made this alone. They’re taking away everything I built. How dare they.

This explains why prominent right-wingers, such as Trump, spend most of their waking hours being aggrieved. The targets change: their neighbors, their liberal families, immigrants, insufficiently respectful teens. But the lurking grudge is never far away.

Without anger, they might engage in dangerous thoughts: My God, what if society isn’t a struggle, but a system of mutual aid and brotherhood?

The direct opposite of the self-made-myth is the Real World. The Real World is built on mutual aid. In the Real World, nothing happens without a lot of helping hands. Individually, we are as incapable of building a pyramid as I am of playing jazz flute with a shark. The only way any human project gets achieved is when we band together. It’s the same reason why mitochondria teamed up with cells. It’s why domesticated wolves and humans forged a long-running alliance. Cooperation works.

That’s the Real World.

The Real World demolishes the imperial self. The Real World of shared achievement debunks claims of supremacy. And I mean all supremacies: white supremacy, male supremacy, American supremacy. Think about it. If we are truly dependent on each other, then no ethnicity or nationality can claim to be self-supporting or self-made. The Real World reminds us how idiotic it is to section off the human race by gender, race, or nation.

You know what experts say about survivalism? Forget your missile silo and your closet full of sawed-off shotguns. In a crisis, your best plan is to be friends with your neighbors. Eighty percent of rescues during disaster situations are done by untrained people in proximity to the crisis. All lean upon all.

No wonder the Real World panics Trump. No surprise the Kochs and their coven of warlocks spend money to sell libertarianism and break up unions and make us fear each other. Every progressive idea rests on collective action, and that genuinely terrifies the rich and powerful.

There is an irony at the heart of the self-made myth. All falsehoods require two people: one to speak the lie, the other to believe it. That’s right: even the self-made myth depends on the cooperation of many people. That’s an important fact to keep in mind. Even when we’re being lied to, the truth is, we’re all in this together.

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