Yesterday I read what is probably the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever heard from the mouth of someone running for office. No prizes for guessing who was speaking. Yes, of course it’s Donald Trump.
“My whole life has been money. I want money, I want money. Greed. I was greedy, I want more money, more money… Now, I’m going to be greedy for the United States. I’m going to take and take and take. (Then, over chants of ‘USA! USA!) We’re going to take, take, take, take. We’re going to become rich again and then we’re going to be great again … We can’t be great unless we’re going to make ourselves rich again.”
Like much of Trump’s rhetoric, this is meaningless. The US is the biggest economy in the world, it’s GDP per capita higher than it’s ever been (see below). It’s a rich country and to say otherwise is nonsense, but then we know who we’re dealing with here.
What’s remarkable about the quote is its breathtaking shamelessness. But if you think about it, Donald Trump’s conflation of wealth and greatness isn’t so very different from what every other politician says. He just says it more bluntly.
David Cameron talks about the “growth that will make our country a success in the Global Race“, which is scarcely different from claiming we need to be rich to be great. His government’s energy bill that makes it a legal obligation to ‘maximise economic recovery’ from the North Sea is just bureaucratic jargon for ‘take, take, take’.
When flotillas of fishing vessels from the EU visit African waters and leave nothing for local fishermen, that’s the take. Or all the oil from Nigeria or Myanmar, extracted with so few benefits to the community. Or corrupt land grabs in poor but fertile countries, to grow crops for richer dry ones. It’s the slow growth hardwoods from Indonesia or Madagascar, bought for a pittance and made into extravagant furniture for the world’s elite. When the treasures of ancient Syria and Iraq turn up in private collections, or when a country upstream drains a major river for irrigation and leaves nothing for those downstream. That’s the take at its most literal.
It doesn’t have to be so far away. The supermarkets that drive the price of milk below the cost of production and expect farmers to live with it, that’s the take, take, take that Trump lives by. It’s the sweatshop clothing on every high street. It’s the rare metals in our smartphones and batteries, dragged from the mud by desperate people in open mines run by warlords in the DRC. The food on our tables is produced in industrial scale agricultural systems that deplete topsoil and pollute waterways, taking from the earth with little thought to the future. The lights from our houses, the warmth from our heating, the exhaust from our cars, all take from the atmosphere without asking who owns it, and who will pay for what we use.
Donald Trump is a lightning rod for righteous indignation, and he thrives on that attention. His supporters love it, either not noticing or not caring that he has nothing else to offer beyond the egomaniacal bluster. But I’m not sure which is more dangerous – the demagogue that openly declares that they’re out to grab all they can, or those that disguise it in the language of national interest and economic growth? When we’re all so implicated in the take, do we have any right to feel morally superior to Donald Trump?
I don’t believe that our economy needs to based on empty promises of more, endless more. I don’t believe that our politics needs to be about securing our place at the top of the pile. It can be cooperative rather than competitive. There is such a thing as enough, and there are definitions of wealth beyond the financial. Rich countries can be generous. A restorative economy could replace our extractive one. All of this is possible.
A fairer and more sustainable world is possible, and it is also necessary. Donald Trump doesn’t want that world – but at least he’s told us in advance, so that nobody needs to vote for him and be disappointed.