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Useful Idiots and Trumpist Billionaires

Summary:
Whoever came up with the phrase “useful idiots” — it’s often credited to Lenin, but there’s no evidence he ever said it — was on to something. There are times when dangerous political movements derive important support from people who will, if these movements achieve and hold power, be among their biggest victims.Certainly I found myself thinking of the phrase when I read about the Trump fund-raiser held at the Hamptons home of Stephen Ross, chairman of a company that holds controlling stakes in Equinox and SoulCycle.Most reporting on the Ross event has focused on the possible adverse effects on his business empire: The young, educated, urban fitness fanatics who go to his gyms don’t like the idea that their money is supporting Donald Trump. But the foolishness of Ross’s Trump support goes

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Whoever came up with the phrase “useful idiots” — it’s often credited to Lenin, but there’s no evidence he ever said it — was on to something. There are times when dangerous political movements derive important support from people who will, if these movements achieve and hold power, be among their biggest victims.

Certainly I found myself thinking of the phrase when I read about the Trump fund-raiser held at the Hamptons home of Stephen Ross, chairman of a company that holds controlling stakes in Equinox and SoulCycle.

Most reporting on the Ross event has focused on the possible adverse effects on his business empire: The young, educated, urban fitness fanatics who go to his gyms don’t like the idea that their money is supporting Donald Trump. But the foolishness of Ross’s Trump support goes well beyond the potential damage to his bottom line.

I mean, if you’re a billionaire who also happens to be a racist, supporting Trump makes perfect sense: You know what you’re buying. But if you’re supporting Trump not because of his racism but despite it, because you expect him to keep your taxes low, you’re being, well, an idiot.

It’s true that Trump (breaking all his campaign promises) has indeed cut taxes on the wealthy, and will surely cut them further if re-elected. By contrast, whoever the Democrats nominate is likely to raise those taxes if she or he wins the general election, perhaps substantially.

But let’s get real. If you’re a billionaire, you don’t need the extra money. At that level, purchasing power has nothing to do with the quality of life; having a 45,000-square-foot house instead of just 40,000, or flying to one of your multiple other residences in a bigger private jet, won’t make you significantly happier.

People who’ve studied the extremely rich argue that money, for them, is largely not about being able to buy things but is instead a way of keeping score; their satisfaction comes not from more consumption but from overtaking their perceived peers.

And tax cuts don’t help on that dimension, since your peers get the same tax breaks you do.

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More to the point, Trumpism is about much more than tax cuts: It’s an attempt to end the rule of law and impose an authoritarian, white nationalist regime. And even billionaires should be terrified about what their lives will be like if that attempt succeeds.

This is especially true if you’re a member of a minority, even if your skin happens to be white. Ross is Jewish — and anyone Jewish has to be completely ignorant of history not to know that when bigotry runs free, we’re always next in line for persecution.

ImageUseful Idiots and Trumpist Billionaires
CreditRobyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In fact, the ingredients for an American pogrom are already in place. The El Paso shooting suspect, like many right-wing terrorists, is a believer in “replacement theory” — the claim that immigration is part of a vast conspiracy to replace whites with people of color. And who’s behind that conspiracy? You know who: “Jews will not replace us,” declared the torch-carrying marchers in Charlottesville.

Is Trump a replacement theory guy? The replacement theorists think so.

In any case, billionaires who imagine that their wealth will insulate them from the purges and insecurity of an authoritarian regime are deluding themselves. Look at Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a place Trump surely sees as a role model. Putin certainly coddles an inner circle of oligarchs. But he has shown no hesitation about using a politicized legal system to persecute and ruin his critics, no matter how wealthy.

Oh, and don’t say it can’t happen here. The man who prompts chants of “lock her up,” who has declared the independent media “enemies of the people,” has made it abundantly clear that he’d love to engage in politicized prosecutions of anyone who gets in his way.

Again, there are surely some wealthy Americans who want to live in that kind of country. But most Trump-supporting billionaires would probably be horrified at the prospect. So what are they thinking raising money for a would-be authoritarian?

The answer, of course, is that they aren’t thinking. Instead of considering what a consolidation of Trumpist power would mean, they’re reacting mindlessly out of a combination of greed and ego.

By the way, the greed part is obvious. But it has also been clear since the Obama years that a fair number of the superrich aren’t satisfied with being immensely wealthy; they also want adulation. They expect to be praised as heroic job creators and are enraged at any suggestion that some of their number may have behaved badly, let alone that they may have benefited from a rigged system.

Hence the hatred for even reasonable, pro-market progressives like, say, Elizabeth Warren. It’s not just that these progressives might make billionaires a bit poorer, but that they make them feel small.

But this is no time for such pettiness. Vast wealth brings many privileges, and it will continue to do so even if progressive Democrats win big next year. What wealth doesn’t bring is the right to let self-indulgence turn you into a useful idiot, lending aid and comfort to a movement that’s trying to destroy America as we know it.

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Paul Krugman
Paul Robin Krugman (born February 28, 1953) is an American economist, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. In 2008, Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.

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