I was a young, bright-eyed undergraduate student when I was first assigned to read Marx’s “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society” from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the series of notes penned by young Karl Marx in Paris first published nearly a century after their composition. In it, Marx contended that in a capitalist society, since money has “the property of buying everything,” it is thus “the object of eminent possession… the pimp between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life.” Money has the ability to buy not simply goods and services, but to ascribe its possessor individual characteristics and virtues that he would not otherwise have. Quoting Goethe in his manuscript, “Six stallions, say, I can afford, is not their strength my property?” Marx outlines this power of money- that “that which [one] is unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all [his] individual essential powers are incapable, [he is] able to do by means of money” making money the “truly creative power” in Bourgeois society.
My professor, a self-fashioned libertarian quite far from a Classical Marxist himself, illustrated this message through the celebrity image of Donald Trump, at that time nothing more than a joke and caricature of a rich man who nobody dreamed would become or even run for the presidency. Few accuse Donald Trump, for instance, of being an incredibly handsome man, yet all of his wives have been attractive women. For a student of Marx, he may be “ugly, but [he] can buy for [himself] the most beautiful of women. Therefore [he] is not ugly, for the effect of ugliness-its deterrent power-is nullified by money,” to use Marx’s words. The idea was not to slander the then business magnate or to objectify women as Marx does casually in this passage, but simply to illustrate how money allowed this man to live life as though he were a much more physically attractive man. In a society without money, “you can exchange only love for love, trust for trust” and Donald Trump would probably not be dating supermodels.
I enjoyed the image of Donald Trump to explain the creative and transformative power of money and it stuck with me in the following years. I even used it to teach the same text to my own students, passing along the tradition from generation to generation. Donald Trump continued his cartoonish antics and I continued to take advantage of him to the benefit and amusement of my students. They were eventually too young to have the original run of The Apprentice as a cultural touchstone, but they knew the “orange man with golden hair” all the same. I did not think that it would evolve beyond an easy example and a cheap shot at a well-known cultural figure until the summer of 2016.
By that time, he had secured the Republican Party’s nomination and was notorious for a completely different set of reasons, related mostly to his campaign statements. I, however, still considered him to be a joke: a clown that ate up a lot of attention but had won his party’s nomination largely thanks to a set of rules that skewed the contest in his favor and would never be taken seriously enough to have a realistic shot at winning the general election. He was inarticulate, crude, presented no coherent ideas or plans, and had no experience in government. His opponent, on the other hand, was highly articulate, polished, and a policy wonk with decades of relevant experience. Based on their individual experience and qualifications, there was no comparison and there should have been absolutely no contest. Living in a world governed by human interactions alone, the candidate that was obviously a fraud would have been rejected soundly in favor of the candidate who, though flawed, had the appropriate experience and characteristics. It seemed that his ill-advised presidential run would significantly expand the amount of material I had to use in my lesson but nothing much more profound than that.
However, when I taught “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society” that summer I began to realize that far from simply being a pithy example of a wealthy man who enjoyed advantages in many areas over other stronger, smarter or better qualified people due to his wealth, the very phenomenon of Trumpism and his administration’s rise had come to symbolize the power of money in a much more profound way. In fact, the ideas of money being the creative power and ultimate good of bourgeois society were the overriding, if not explicit, themes of his campaign and subsequent governing style. The ability for Trump and his campaign to succeed depended almost entirely upon the virtues granted to him by his wealth, and the concerns of personal wealth continue to determine much of the young administration’s actions.
One has only to look at the language and rise of Trump’s campaign to see the power of money in action. Of course, Trump’s original and perhaps most consistently emphasized pitch was that he was a highly successful businessman which is generally code for an extremely wealthy person. He also more directly talked about how rich he was, as if personal wealth alone made him worthy and that wealth could stand in the place of individual qualifications which he lacked. To him and his supporters, his wealth was his virtue. Trump claimed directly that “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it” implicitly suggesting that relevant knowledge of the system of government could best be gained through his brand of participation which to that point consisted of large political donations, fraud and defamation suits and his seeming manipulation of the tax code. All of these activities are available almost exclusively to the massively wealthy, implying that Trump had essentially bought knowledge of the system that normally can be gained only through years of dedicated public service. This seeming use of personal wealth as a stand-in for knowledge and experience coupled with his claim that he would be uniquely able to assemble “the best people” for his administration calls to mind Marx’s words again:
I am stupid [or rather inexperienced], but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid? Besides, he can buy talented people for himself, and is he who has power over the talented not more talented than the talented?
Wealth as virtue also appeared in Trump’s claim to be self-funding his campaign. “By self-funding my campaign, I am not controlled by my donors, special interests or lobbyists. I am only working for the people of the U.S.!” Trump claimed in a tweet. Of course, his claim of self-funding was always dubious and he did engage in traditional political fundraising in the general election. However, the essential idea behind this claim of independence is that the extremely wealthy are immune to corruption. Even after the election, this sentiment remained. As articulated by Larry Kudlow in an op-ed in National Review: “Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.” The absurdity of this statement, along with the irony of a self-described “supply-sider” questioning the ability of the wealthy to be motivated by monetary gains, has been better explained by others. For our purposes, here lies a straightforward endorsement of wealth as virtue. Once again, such association between honesty and wealth is outlined by Marx. “I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous… but money is honored and therefore so is its possessor… I am therefore presumed honest.” Reasons to think that Trump is individually dishonest and corrupt abound, but because he is wealthy, he must be virtuous. Unavoidably, a cornerstone of the Trump campaign was that he was both qualified for office and fundamentally more honest because of his wealth. He had bought his experience and his honesty and his supporters seemed to accept this wealth as virtue idea.
Beyond allowing Trump to win the presidency, his actions in his first months as president have demonstrated that the power of money will also inform his governing style. Evidence of this claim can clearly be seen in the people he chose to fill his cabinet. By all accounts, Trump’s cabinet is the wealthiest in history, having the greatest number of millionaires and billionaires. It also contains some of the least qualified nominees. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy nominee, apparently did not even know the mission of the department he was nominated to run. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development nominee, has no experience with housing policy. Former Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder had a history of active hostility towards the interests of labor. What united all of them, more than ideological similarities or personal loyalty to Trump, were their extreme levels of personal wealth.
The most egregious wealth-based nominee, however, was Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The senate confirmed her to lead the Department of Education despite having no relevant experience and an abysmal performance in the confirmation hearings where Senators Al Franken and Tim Kaine very publically exposed her ignorance of the fundamentals of educational policy. What was most striking about these hearings was how little the public humiliation seemed to affect her. After all, she did not care about winning the approval of those particular senators because her money guaranteed her confirmation. Although not every senator that received campaign donations from her family voted to confirm, it is difficult to imagine that the Senate Republicans would have spent so much political capital in support of such an obviously unqualified candidate if she and her family were not large and consistent political donors. The DeVos appointment is thus the clearest example of “money as virtue” and “the wealthy as virtuous” being the guiding principle behind Trump’s cabinet selections.
Ultimately, the election of Trump represents the endorsement of money and wealth as the supreme good in society. Trump lacked any relevant individual traits or experiences for the presidency. Exit polls reveal that a significant portion of even those that voted for him doubted he had the appropriate temperament to be president. He is the only president to have entered office with zero years of experience in any level of government or the military making Republican concerns about Obama’s lack of experience in 2008 or calls to make the requirements to become president more stringent quite quaint. The major difference is that Trump spent years building a brand that equated his name with money, luxury and personal wealth. His supporters were not voting for a real business man but rather the image Trump had crafted over his entire career. The candidacy of Donald Trump was not an exercise in using money to buy an election directly but rather to place capital on the ballot as directly as possible. For that reason, it did not even matter that the Clinton campaign had more money than his. The Trump brand is the physical manifestation of wealth and luxury and Trump the avatar of the divine dollar. The primacy of capital in the global economic base now has its idealized image heading the superstructure. Trump’s government seeks to perpetuate the political and economic domination of capitalists with him as their head to protect and reinforce their interests.