Friday, July 14, 2017

Brooks Looks at Li'l Don

Doesn't always take a conspiracy theory to connect the dots. Via openclipart.
Heredity or environment? Where does sociopathy come from? David Brooks ("Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump") lays out the case from Friedrich Drumpf the Rheinland draft-dodger and British Columbia brothelkeeper to Donald Trump, Jr., enthusing over an illegal in-kind campaign contribution from foreign nationals connected to an iffy government the way you might about a trip to the mountains—"I love it especially later in the summer"—and pictures it as a kind of evolutionary development in the moral tone:

I repeat this history because I don’t think moral obliviousness is built in a day. It takes generations to hammer ethical considerations out of a person’s mind and to replace them entirely with the ruthless logic of winning and losing; to take the normal human yearning to be good and replace it with a single-minded desire for material conquest; to take the normal human instinct for kindness and replace it with a law-of-the-jungle mentality.
It took a few generations of the House of Trump, in other words, to produce Donald Jr.
That's ridiculous, really. You'll never convince me that Li'l Donnie is in some sense more evil than old Fred, Woody Guthrie's "Old Man Trump" sucking up government money and profiteering off the blood and sacrifice of World War II veterans to create exploitative housing, whites only, in Queens:
I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project
The difference among the four generations, it seems to me, is all about the differences in the obstacles each man faced in life—Friedrich, Fred, Big Donald and Li'l Don—from Friedrich, a horrible piece of work but one who had to work his ass off for everything he attained in life to Big Donald at the apogee, once he made it home from the military school exile, facing no resistance at all, walking away unscathed from failure and bankruptcy while his creditors and employees and clients struggled and vanished (Li'l Grand Duke Donald Donaldovich doesn't have to struggle against anything outside the family, but the dominance of his all-owning all-demanding father has clearly overwhelmed him all his life, and he's comparatively pathetic, a frightened rodent gesticulating with his eyes darting nervously around the room). It's Big Donald's vast ownership and privilege, his legions of lawyers and flatterers, his imperviousness that allow him to express this wickedness without disguise. "When you're a star they let you do it, you can do anything."

It's really capitalism, in effect, in the unbraked, unhindered form of our new Gilded Age as it began on or about 1980, the kind of all-you-can-eat "liberty" in which nothing is forbidden to him who can pay. It's the freedom of one of those vicious Roman emperors we keep comparing Trump to.

That to me is the central takeaway of this week’s revelations. It’s not that the Russia scandal may bring down the administration. It’s that over the past few generations the Trump family has built an enveloping culture that is beyond good and evil.
We didn't learn anything special about the Trump family culture this week, unless we were really singularly blind over the last year and a half or so (for instance, remember in December when Don and Eric were trying to profit off the inauguration by selling access to their father at $1 million a pop?).

If there's a central takeaway, it's not the horserace insight that the Russia scandal "may" bring down the administration. It's the legal and moral realization that it must. We've been looking for months now at a scattershot picture of Russians working to elect Trump on the one side, and Republicans working to free Russian from onerous diplomatic and economic sanctions on the other, and seemingly endless meetings between Russian officials and Trump campaign figures, which the Trump campaign figures keep denying, often to the point of perjury, until they can't do it any more. They keep telling us it's all coincidence, there isn't any proof, nothing to see here please move on. We now have documentary evidence in front of us that the Trump campaign, at the highest level, really did eagerly seek Russian help in the presidential campaign, and all the circumstantial evidence starts to fall into place. There's no need for a conspiracy theory when the conspiracy starts to display itself.

Brooks's function seems to be to hide the patterns by cranking out this story of personal family awfulness, but their awfulness seems to me to be more of a medical than a moral question, honestly. The moral question is about the society that has been enabling them since Friedrich arrived in North America in 1885, down to the Republican party that has embraced Big Donald, distasteful though he may be, in the hope of maintaining their coalition of high-class thieves and low-class racists for another few years.

There's a bit of a David Brooks Plagiarism Watch situation in today's column, not serious but worth pointing out. He identifies the author of his main source as "family historian Gwenda Blair", but doesn't name or link her book, The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President (originally published in 2000 but revised more than once as Big Donald's career has come to its improbable climax). But he makes you think he discovered this bit on Fred on his own—

“He didn’t like wimps,” his nephew told Philip Weiss of The Times. “He thought competition made you sharper.”
He cared deeply about appearances. “Freddy was always very neat, a Beau Brummell,” Sam LeFrak told Weiss. “He had a mustache, and that mustache was always right, perfect.”
—when he actually lifted it from Blair's book (it's on p. 320 of the current paperback edition). And then—

He was also remorseless. In an interview with Michael D’Antonio, Donald Trump described his father as “very tough” and “very difficult” and someone who “would never let anything go.”
Biographies describe a man intent on making his fortune and not afraid of skating near the edge to do so. At one point, according to Politico, federal investigators found that Frederick used various accounting measures to collect an extra $15 million in rent (in today’s dollars) from a government housing program, on top of paying himself a large “architect’s fee.”
Those two links, the interview with D'Antonio and the Politico article, are the same source. The eighth-grader again, doubling his bibliography by subterfuge. As David Brooks might put it,

He seems to be simply oblivious to the idea that ethical concerns could possibly play a role in everyday life.
Only his life is a lot more everyday than poor Li'l Don's.

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