by Akim Reinhardt
In the Age of Trump, the banality of evil can perhaps best be defined as unfettered self-interest. Banal because everyone has self-interest, and because American culture expects and even celebrates its most gratuitous pursuits and expressions. Evil because, when unchecked, self-interest leads not only to intolerable disparities in wealth and power, but eventually the erosion of democratic norms.
American culture has historically found ways to limit individual self-interest. Particularly during times of calamity and instability, it has created expectations of sacrifice for the common good that pressure political leaders to limit their excesses.
For example, during and after the American Revolution, the concept of republican virtue advanced the notion of self-sacrifice to safeguard and develop the fragile new nation and its untested, grandiose, halting experiment in democratic self-rule. Military service in local and state militias was the core of national defense and a standard obligation of male citizens. Elites eligible for political service (most commoners initially could not vote, much less hold office) were expected to sacrifice their personal self interest, forgoing their business and commercial pursuits to temporarily serve the public interest before returning to private life.
The point is not that everyone lived up to these expectation. Many did not. Rather, it’s that the expectations existed, and they helped temper runaway self-interest. Overt selfishness at the expense of a then narrowly-defined polity was hardly eliminated, but it was discouraged, criticized, and sometimes even censured.
A longer cultural shift towards limited self-interest occurred from the 1830s – 1910s when a conservative set of mores and values we now call Victorian culture emerged among the nation’s new urban middle classes (with a similar phenomenon/time line in Europe). Victorianism emphasized restraint, modesty, and hard work while condemning excess, vulgarity, and laziness. These eventually became metrics of acceptable social norms as cities expanded, the middle classes grew, and their influence spread.
American Victorianism was always moralistic. It could be patronizing and repressive, especially for women and non-Protestants (particularly immigrants). The point here is not to celebrate Victorianism, but rather to note how it worked to temper runaway self-interest. That propensity was sharpened was sharpened by the carnage of the Civil War (1861 – 65) when approximately 1% of the nation’s population died.
This collective trauma produced a strong sense of moral purpose for the greater good as both Northerners and Southerners, each in their own way, defined the bloodbath as a noble sacrifice. Many Northerners believed that death and suffering were necessary to produce a divine moral victory, ending the abomination of slavery and preserving a providential union. And while secession ultimately failed, many Southerners soon insisted that they had fought valiantly and sacrificed deeply to protect and maintain their distinctive culture and way of life. For decades, the long shadow of the Civil War fired Victorian cultural norms of limited self-interest.
If new cities were the original seed bed of Victorian conservativism, mature cities eventually became the spawning ground of liberated resistance. Urban immigrants and their children, particularly Jews, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, had long clashed with Victorian Protestant rigidity and condescension. During the Roaring Twenties, even white, Protestant, native-born women joined the revolt.
Young, single, urban, working women of various backgrounds (though usually only white women had sufficient economic opportunity) openly defied Victorianism’s repressive, patriarchal norms simply by holding paid jobs and supporting themselves in households not overseen by men. Popular fashions adopted by so-called flappers also expressed this new female independence: short hair, flashy jewelry, relatively scanty dresses, and even pants on women all flaunted Victorian norms, as did behaviors such as women smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol (which was not only a taboo but also illegal), and publicly socializing with men unchaperoned.
Challenges to restrictive Victorian culture didn’t come just from women. Premarital sex became more common among men and women alike. The divorce rate rose. Popular child rearing practices eased up. Gay sexuality found a narrow, but unprecedented level of openness. New mass entertainment from the scandal-plagued industries of Hollywood and professional sports titillated viewers. And alcohol consumption increased despite prohibition.
As marginalized populations pursued their self-interest through cultural liberation from Victorian repression, even Victorians themselves found new ways to embrace the zeitgeist, joining the 1920s’ runaway pursuit of material self-interest. Perhaps unsurprising since they were often part of the more prosperous classes, Victorians had typically displayed their wealth as a sign of status and prestige. Separating themselves from the lower classes while remaining true to values such as the cult of domesticity, they elaborately furnished and decorated homes and staffed them with servants. This allowed them to express wealth as the fruit of their hard work, and to assert their dominance over black and immigrant employees, all through the cherished, sanctified domestic sphere.
However, in the 1920s many Victorians used their expendable income to join modestly paid blue collar workers (who accessed easy credit) in the new orgy of consumption. Millions purchased radios, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers. The well to do also acquired a status symbol: the automobile.
As the Roaring Twenties’ frenzy of profit, credit, speculation, and consumption engulfed America, Victorians increasingly began to resemble a more successful version of the national culture instead of a fundamentally different, moralistic sub-culture. Even the taciturn icon of 1920s Victorianism, President Calvin Coolidge (1923 – 29), openly celebrations of profit and consumption.
Coolidge had New England roots dating to the 1630s. He was raised in a well to do, politically active farm family. He was a deeply religious Protestant whose father had named him after the Swiss reformation leader John Calvin. He grew up to be a quiet, serious, modest, frugal, sober, church-going husband, father, lawyer, and politician. To many, he was the very personification of Victorian virtue, a respected bulwark against excess, corruption, immorality, and general unseemliness. Yet even he came to champion runaway economic self-interest.
“The chief business of America is business,” Coolidge proclaimed in 1925. Not doing God’s work, defending the nation, or sacrificing for the greater good, but commercial activity. After all, he continued, Americans “are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world.”
And during the 1924 election campaign, one of Coolidge’s campaign managers attributed to him the following quote: “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”
Coolidge may or may not have said these exact words. But even if he did not, they were issued in his name, by one of his employees, as part of his official campaign, and he never refuted them. And perhaps more importantly, the comments were well received.
It is difficult to imagine 19th century Victorians, living in the Civil War’s shadow, celebrating capitalist profiteering as equal to Christian devotion. Of equating dying to save God’s chosen nation with building, owning, or profiting from a factory. Yet now even the most stalwart of Victorians could consider economic gain akin to worshiping Jesus Christ, illustrating the degree to which all Americans celebrated self-interest during the Roaring ‘20s.
The Great Depression soon changed everything.
During the 1930s, the shared misery of economic calamity thwarted self-interest as opportunities for individual advancement dried up like never before. For many, mere economic survival was the pressing concern. And the depression transitioned almost seamlessly into the shared sacrifices required for victory in World War II.
After sixteen years of profound struggle and ultimate success, the Great Depression/WWII generations emerged deeply patriotic and with a strong sense of limited self-interest. Paramount was protecting the nation and government that had aided them in times of misery and beaten back fascism.
Following WWII, unprecedented U.S. economic success enabled the professional and commercial pursuit of self-interest like never before. In many ways, the Long 1950s (ca. 1947 – 63), resembled the consumerist excesses of the 1920s. However, once again the legacy of war mitigated self-interest. Furthermore, the new Cold War narrative imposed upon the culture a rigid sense of right/wrong, good/evil, us/them. Thus, while the pursuit of economic self-interest was openly encouraged, and even deemed a patriotic besmirching of communism, post-war patriotism and Cold War fears demanded conformity and effectively limited the crassest expressions of political, social, and cultural self-interest.
Framing the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War as a segmented but connected epoch that lasted over 60 years allows us to understand one of the defining political elements of mid-20th century America: consensus politics.
Certainly the beginning of that era, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, represented a tumultuous forging born of hope amid the misery. And the end of it, marred by Vietnam, Watergate, and economic decline, represented a chaotic ending that fed cynicism and disillusion. Together they form messy bookmarks. However, for most of the period, a popular consensus reigned on certain issues, regardless of which political party controlled the federal government (often the Democrats or mixed party rule):
• Use Keynesian fiscal policies to moderate capitalism and avoid the disastrous boom/bust cycle that had culminated in the Great Depression.
• Defend U.S. allies abroad, whether they be fellow superpowers or new postcolonial nations drawn into Cold War competition (this latter brand of “support” often took the form of U.S. imperial domination).
• Elect “serious” national leaders who had substantial political or military experience, apparent qualifications to safeguard the nation and its people, and a message of unity.
Again, these were ideals, not a reality that every politician lived up to or every voter prized. But this approach was popular enough to dominate the national political climate for about half a century, and to set cultural expectations that looked warily upon unlimited self-interest.
That began to change with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan’s advanced age and patriotic message rang true with older voters, while his bold (and ultimately false) promise of a quick yet fiscally responsible cure to stagflation attracted worried and struggling Americans. His electoral hammering of incumbent Jimmy Carter signaled the return of ideals that had not held sway since the 1920s: an unregulated free market economy, and the exaltation of individualism tempered by nothing except the demands of Cold War patriotism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and of course America’s endless racialism.
The Regan Revolution resuscitated pre-Depression American conservativism. The rest of the world often calls it liberalism, and American commentators have used the terms libertarianism, neo-conservativism, and neo-liberalism to refer to various ideological streams running through it. Under Reagan’s leadership it emerged as a right wing coalition of low tax free marketeers; small government individualists; white racists (North, West, and South) resentful about civil rights; Cold War hawks; and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals.
The Reagan Revolution deeply affected American politics, economics, and culture. Americans are still living in the world it remade. Newly committed to free market economics, fetishizing individualism while demonizing government, and slowly absorbing the disaffected whites in the aftermath of civil rights, the Republican Party immediately began winnowing its moderate wing and completely eliminating its liberal wing, eventually transforming itself from a center-right party to an increasingly far-right party.
Meanwhile, the Democratic electoral coalition that had propelled the party to victory for most of the 20th century was in disarray after three successive, disastrous national political defeats in less than a decade (1980, 1984, 1988). Organized labor was losing members, loyal white urbanites fled to the suburbs and became swing voters, and farmers abandoned the Democrats altogether.
As the GOP pandered to its increasingly conservative base, national Democrats began taking their liberal base for granted. In 1992, the Democratic Party lurched to the right under the leadership of Bill Clinton. Himself part of a dying breed of Southern white Democrats, Clinton found ultimate electoral success and more limited legislative success by undermining his party’s liberal wing except on a small number of steadfast social issues (primarily abortion rights and gun control).
Nearly every other progressive issue, from civil rights to economic reform, was carved up and fed into Clinton’s traingulation calculations. The goal was to move the party rightward the precise amount required to undercut Republican support without overly alienating the Democratic base. This helped Democrats lure white, centrist, suburban swing voters by co-opting select right wing issues that disproportionately hurt minorities and blue collar workers, including:
• A partial dismantling of the New Deal/Great Society welfare state
• Lower marginal tax rates on the well to do.
• Free trade at the expense of organized labor
• Nixonian law and order programs such as expanded urban policing of minority populations, the escalating drug war, and mass incarceration.
Generally profiting from the Reagan/Bush I/Clinton rightward shift were white, suburban Baby Boomers (b. 1946 – 64) who, by the 1990s, were at or nearing middle age. They were now the nation’s most important consumers, culture producers, and increasingly politicians and social commentators. Boomers also had no memory of depression or WWII, having grown up in a time of unprecedented prosperity. As they came of age, Vietnam and Watergate taught many of them to mistrust government. And the most influential Boomers, usually white and hailing from middle class or wealthier families, rarely suffered racism or serious economic hardship.
The old boom/bust cycle once more became a prominent part of the U.S. economy. The go-go eighties led to the tech-boom nineties, followed by the Bush II tax cuts and a second tech boom during the aughts, and the Obama long recovery of the teens. Amid these booms were half-a-dozen busts, mostly caused by financial speculation.
As the American economy became unstable, memories of WWII faded, and the Cold War ended, displays of individualism and self-interest became increasingly common, acceptable, and even celebrated. The fracturing of America was everywhere: The decline of public spaces; delayed marriages and dropping birthrates; the rise of single-person households; the branding of individual celebrities; the elevation of person-branding itself as path to wealth and fame; the degradation of laborers into uncollectivized, contract, and eventually gig workers; the decline of small, family-owned businesses in the face of rising corporate behemoths such as WalMart, Home Depot, and Amazon; and by the turn of the 21st century, atomization through individual engagement with the internet.
During the 2010s, the rise of smart phones and tablets exacerbated human detachment and isolation, while digital social media promoted a pervasive Look At Me culture. And as social fragmentation worsened, cultural norms that once shamed people for inappropriately selfish behavior all but evaporated before the parade of emcees and practitioners of shamelessness, from Jerry Springer to Donald Trump.
American society has always celebrated individualism, arguably more so than any other nation. But that vaunted individualism was usually tempered by grand historical epochs that limited untrammeled self-interest through means both good and bad.
That is no longer the case.
Victorian culture’s dubious emphasis on personal restraint has long since withered. The generation of adults who survived the Great Depression and WWII are almost entirely gone. The Cold War ended nearly 30 years ago, its coercive demands for unity and conformity now a distant memory. Today’s senior political leadership is drawn from a cohort that, even as far back as the 1970s, was derided as the Me Generation.
Healthy democratic institutions and shared governance need citizens and politicians to maintain at least a modest concern for and deference to the greater good. Unfettered self-interest has the potential to spawn no-holds-barred competitions that supplant the public interest with a single-minded focus on acquiring power and wealth. And the delicate balance between collective and personal self-interests, with its sloshing equilibrium, had tilted to one end long before Donald Trump took power.
Now the Vice Lord rages from his gilded bully pulpit as his crooked, broken regime reaches a lurid nadir of unfettered self-interest. He and his have willfully ignored, discredited, attacked, and destroyed longstanding norms of common interest. Through blase cronyism and nepotism, naked corruption, and the profound incompetence that inevitably accompanies such crimes, they have widened the cracks in an imperfect and vulnerable political cultural that was already struggling to bind us together.
Donald Trump is not a shocking aberration. Rather, he is the banal culmination of four decades of runaway self-interest, the ultimate triumph of neo liberalism. Forty years in the making, his corrupt presidency symbolizes the heights of unchecked self-interest and shamelessness, made acute by his own mental deficiencies and psychiatric disorders. Trump needed a perfect storm to get elected, and then unleashed a storm of runaway self-interest on the White House. He is the extreme, and hopefully also a turning point. The final, loudest wailing of American immaturity selfishness.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com