Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Normalizing Greed In the Age of Trump

The New York Times has a piece up on private equity mogul Steve Schwarzman's latest hedonistic birthday party. Andrew Ross Sorkin, scribe to the leisure class, marvels that ever since Donald Trump stampeded into the public sphere and began sucking up all the media oxygen, there hasn't been the usual outpouring of public disgust at conspicuous displays of consumption. Sorkin credits the alleged ennui to that master of excess himself, our newly elected president. 

Donald J. Trump has suddenly made the world of performance greed safe for the rest of the plutocracy. Or, so the plutocrats and their media sycophants are aiming to convince both themselves and us, the newly-awakened protesting rabble.

As I've written before, Trump is both a blessing and a curse to the neoliberal order, which has turbocharged wealth inequality and more than doubled the number of billionaires since the 2008 financial collapse. The economic "recovery," such as it is, has allowed the new oligarchy to suck up more than 90% of the gains, while condemning the bottom 90% of the population to an ever more precarious existence in what has become hideously known as "the sharing economy."

At the same time that Trump makes the ruling class's hair curl with his serial truth-telling about how corrupt the system is, and how the corrupt system has made him and them what they are today, his antics conveniently deflect attention from the pathologies of such heretofore loathed financial villains as Steve Schwarzman. 

The man just can't contain his excessiveness. This flaw might have mattered back in 2009, when progressive (cough) hero Barack Obama arrived in the White House to vanquish the greedsters by protecting their bonuses and extending their Bush-era tax cuts while imposing austerity on the rest of us and helping to foment the rise of the Tea Party and later, Trump himself.

So according to the latest neoliberal narrative, run-of-the-mill conspicuous consumption shouldn't matter as much to us, now that we have Donald Trump and his gene pool to kick around. Who really cares anymore that Schwarzman once spent $3,000 for a dinner of imported stone crabs with an old crab like The Donald presented to the masses for their sneering pleasure?

The fact that Schwarzman damaged his horrible image even further by hilariously casting himself as a victim of Nazi-style atrocities because of the toothless Dodd-Frank legislation also pales in comparison to the spectacle of President Trump charging admission to attend his Florida White House weekend bashes with heads of state.

So it's all the more awesome, enthuses Sorkin from his perch at the Times's wealth-serving DealBook section, that protests against Trump, the whole Trump and nothing but the Trump might also signal that other rich people are safe, that the public just doesn't care about generalized wealth inequality any more:
Mr. Trump’s election and the nominations of his cabinet of billionaires may draw ire from his critics, but the people who elected him — who draw largely from the middle and lower classes — appear nonplused by his, and other people’s, showy displays of wealth. Indeed, judging by various polls, much of the country aspires to live like Mr. Schwarzman and Mr. Trump.
While Mr. Trump himself did not attend the party, his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, did. So did others from the administration, including Elaine L. Chao, the transportation secretary; Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Wilbur Ross, the nominee for commerce secretary. Other guests included everyone from the prominent financier Henry R. Kravis of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and the fashion designer Donatella Versace to Susan George, executive director of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund in New York.
But let's not give too much credit to Donald Trump for improving Schwarzman's reputation enough to make his greed and excess more palatable to the consuming public -- who according to Sorkin's polls, aspire to luxury as greedily as Trump, rather than, say, modestly aspiring to a job with a living wage, a secure retirement and a safe roof over one's head. Knowing how the polls commissioned by the ruling class work, I would hazard a guess that the only choice given to people was who'd they rather be: Ivanka, or a bag lady?

  In any event, the public relations campaign to normalize and even celebrate the greed of the oligarch class had already reached something of a milestone a little over a year ago. The anti-Melania, First Lady Michelle Obama herself, appeared at a gala Washington event for the express purpose of heaping outlandish praise upon Schwarzman and a whole cabal of blood-sucking private equity rentiers. All that these tax-avoiding tycoons had to do in return was to make a meaningless pledge to hire more veterans of the endless wars which have brought them such endless profits.

"Kill and make a killing" trumped (sorry) the tired old Gordon Gekko motto "Greed is Good" way back when Donald Trump was still considered nothing but a media clown candidate.

Michelle Obama did her friendly fascism part of normalizing war profiteers and wealth extractors simply by lending her carefully manufactured "Mom in Chief" brand to their plunder. According to the press release put out by Schwarzman's Blackstone Group, the actual hiring of veterans was never an integral part of the public relations package. The initiative was pure, platitudinous "camo-washing."
The Veterans Initiative Summit is designed to support the recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion of American veterans across private equity portfolio companies, and will bring together private equity firms and their portfolio companies to promote the sharing of best practices, to identify gaps and opportunities in veteran hiring processes, and to energize leaders as they continue to focus on these important issues. The two-day summit will be held on October 7thand 8th at the Grand Hyatt Washington, located at 1000 H Street NW.
Camo-washing doesn't, of course, mean giving the camels at Steve Schwarzman's latest Asia-themed birthday bash a spa treatment. Rather, it is a term coined by journalist Dave Dayen to describe the gifting of public money via either tax credits or direct grants or sweetheart prosecutorial deals to any too big to fail private corporation willing to give lip service to "the troops" and thereby drumming up both commercial and public support for all the tycoons in the Military-Industrial Complex Family.

Depending on what day of the week it is, the bad corporate actors of America are getting either a pat on the back or a slap on the wrist.

And in October 2015, Michelle Obama was only too happy to give them all a big fat sloppy kiss on whatever cheek you might care to imagine. She thanked them for deflecting public attention away from the unemployed and very suicide-prone veterans of endless wars and from the Obama administration's own adamant refusal to push for an FDR-style government jobs program for them. Instead, Michelle Obama led the cloyingly-named and defense/private equity-funded "Joining Forces" camo-washing crusade.

She not only helped to normalize Trump-style greed, she put a patriotic sheen on it. And she made pathological violence in all its myriad forms so charmingly hilarious in the process:
I mean, private equity is one of the most competitive industries in this country; probably the closest thing you can come to hand-to-hand combat on a daily basis.  (Laughter.)  But Steve and Blackstone and all of you are doing this because you know that something bigger is at stake.  And you also know that while we’ve made important progress, we still have a lot of work to do on behalf of our veterans’ employment.
Now, it’s true that over the past four years, the unemployment rate for 9/11 veterans has dropped from the 12 percent in 2011 to 7.2 percent in 2014.  And since May of this year, it’s been around 5 percent.  That is a significant accomplishment, and it didn’t just happen by itself.  (Applause.)  It happened because folks like you stepped up, learned about what our vets and military spouses have to offer, and then you worked hard to set goals, and recruit and hire them.
I mention that Michelle's image was a very carefully manufactured brand only because her successors - Melania and Ivanka Trump - are coming under such outraged media fire for their own, not-dissimilar branding of their public positions. Establishment churnalists have no qualms about trashing their brand, even to the extent of one of their clique getting a mere slap on the wrist from bosses at New York Times for calling Melania a "hooker" at a public-private society event.

Michelle, you might remember, had her own branding problem in the early days of her husband's administration. It came in the person of her attention-addicted, social-climbing social secretary friend, one Desiree Rogers.

Rogers soon got the proverbial boot for acting too much like Ivanka Trump in public, preening for the cameras in her designer clothing and jewelry, and boastfully exposing the Obama mystique for what it truly was: nothing more than an advertising campaign. From the New York Times: 
Ms. Rogers had appeared in another glossy magazine, posing in a White House garden in a borrowed $3,495 silk pleated dress and $110,000 diamond earrings. But if the image was jarring in a time of recession, Mr. Axelrod was as bothered by the words and her discussion of “the Obama brand” and her role in promoting it, according to people informed about the conversation.
“The president is a person, not a product,” he was said to tell her. “We shouldn’t be referring to him as a brand.”
  The White House eventually clamped down on her public profile. She was ordered to stop attending splashy events and showing up in fancy clothes on magazine covers. When Michelle Obama learned one day that Ms. Rogers was on a train heading to New York to attend an MTV dinner, the first lady told her longtime friend to cancel, associates said.
In other words, there has been a precedent for White House branding, Trump-style. Desiree Rogers might have lasted much longer in the White House were it not for those Trumpian reality show party-crashers known as the Salahis.

When the Obamas did their own excessive thing in the People's House, they at least made the effort to commit it far, far away from the People's view. It was during the recession after all, and rich and powerful leaders were forced to inconspicuously consume for reasons of optics. News and photos of the Obamas' secret and opulent 2009 Tim Burton-produced hedonistic Halloween party didn't come to light until nearly two years after the fact.

The party, which also served as a private focus group screening of the still-unreleased movie Alice in Wonderland, featured the stars of the film, including Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. A smattering of military families invited for camo-washing purposes were served refreshments that included vials of fake blood. And they say the Trumps have no taste! 

In her book about "The Obamas," Jodi Kantor wrote that "White House officials were so nervous about how a splashy, Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans — or their representatives in Congress, who would soon vote on health care — that the event was not discussed publicly and Burton’s and Depp’s contributions went unacknowledged."

A Theory of the Ruling Class: Plus Ca Change, Plus C'Est La Meme Chose
"Nothing exceeds like excess" -- Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey.


paintedjaguar said...

“The president is a person, not a product,” he was said to tell her. “We shouldn’t be referring to him as a brand.”

Oh yeah? Then how come Obama needed a logo?

Kat said...

Is the problem really capitalism gone wild or just capitalism? Is it really due to some psychological defect of members of the ruling class or is it a systemic problem?

Kat said...

Is the problem really capitalism gone wild or is it just capitalism. Is the problem due to psychological defects present in the members of the ruling class, or is it a problem of the system?