The wellspring of limitless wealth and power have long since dried up, but the ideals of the American Dream and the American Revolution still linger. This all means that the vilification of billionaires is bound to backfire, because we equate wealth with success and believe that both are earned. The United States is implicitly founded on the idea that our individual liberties decay, not just because rich people are in charge, but because the wrong rich people are in charge.
The Wealth Gap
There’s a huge disparity when it comes to the distribution of assets in the United States. This wealth inequality is starkly visualized by the graph below, in which a tiny sliver of red represents the assets of the bottom half of households combined; the top 50% of households in the U.S. own 98% of the country’s wealth.
To frame this disparity in a different way, there are three men — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett — who own as much wealth as 160 million Americans combined. And this inequality is only getting worse. As a Forbes headline phrased it in May of 2019: “America’s Humongous Wealth Gap Is Widening Further.”
While this inequality worsens, politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been effectively leveraging the immense wealth of billionaires to draw attention to themselves and their causes. For example, Bernie Sanders has practically made the word “billionaires” his catchphrase, while Elizabeth Warren sells mugs with the imprint “Billionaire Tears” (as a response to the ultra-wealthy criticizing her plans and as an unsubtle reference to this sad billionaire).
It is a potent political strategy to amplify the differential wealth of Americans, because billionaires make up 0.0002% of the population in the U.S. So they’re a pretty safe group to villainize if you want the majority of people to be on your side. But there are two problems with this approach: 1) it hasn’t worked in the past, and 2) it won’t work in the future. Let’s focus on the past.
The Ruling Class
Best and Worst Presidents
You’d have to be living under a rock to avoid the populist rise of the self-proclaimed billionaire, Donald Trump. As I’ve written before, his persona is an all-pervading memetic virus that infects anyone with a television or a connection to the internet. Make no mistake, I’m not a Trump supporter by any stretch of the imagination. Having said that, the narrative of Donald Trump’s rise is unnervingly similar to that of President George Washington.
Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking. The two men couldn’t be more different from each other. Surely, George Washington was a true patriot, a brave veteran, the original Commander-in-Chief, and a humble leader. Even though he could have ruled as the President of the United States for his entire life, George Washington was capable of ceding his power when the time was right — a concept that seems completely foreign to Trump. Indeed, this may be the starkest difference between the two presidents. The historian Gordon S. Wood said of Washington, “The greatest act of his life, the one that gave him his greatest fame, was his resignation as commander-in-chief of the American forces.” Even the defeated King of England, George III, expressed a similar opinion after the Revolutionary War. He reportedly said of George Washington: “[If] he would retire to a private situation… He would be the greatest man in the world.”
Today we remember George Washington for his military prowess, servant-leadership, and humility. These qualities certainly distinguish him from Donald Trump. But, no matter what we think of him now, the original Commander-in-Chief shared quite a few personality traits with the current president of the United States. John Ferling, a historian who specializes in the American Revolution, describes a young George Washington as surprisingly Trumpian:
He seemed in the grip of a disturbing and unattractive obsession with his own advancement. No amount of protestation that he soldiered only for patriotic reasons — and he made that claim regularly — is quite convincing. He cannot be blamed for having carefully weighed all the alternatives, then for having opted for his career as the one that offered the most promise. Once in command, however, he seemed unable to harness his ambition, and his lusts led him to excessive absences, to petulant outbursts, to deceitful and irresponsible conduct, to an unsavory manner that vacillated between obsequiousness and a menacing heavy-handedness, and that, at times, verged even on the treacherous.
Yes, that is quote about the George Washington, the first president of the United States of America.
In addition to these shared characteristics, Trump and Washington both held vast and inherited fortunes. In fact, they are the two wealthiest presidents that the U.S. has ever elected. On a deeper level, their political strategies also bear similarities. George Washington paved the way for the inauguration of outsider wealth (namely, himself) by inciting a rebellion against the aristocratic ruling class of the time. While Trump’s ‘rebellion’ has been relatively non-violent (so far), it is framed in precisely this same way: as “draining the swamp” to overthrow the political elite, and as “making America great again” to revive the possibility of the American dream. Unfortunately, Trump knew what many Americans wanted when he said, “I’m rich… that’s the kind of thinking you need for this country.” Like Washington before him, Trump embodies the outsider wealth that many people strive to acquire in their own lives.
The desire for a wealthy ruling class has deep roots in America — the United States is implicitly founded on the idea that our individual liberties decay, not just because rich people are in charge, but because the wrong rich people are in charge. As a corollary to that, Americans have long believed that our lost liberty can be reinstated if we replace the current ruling class with a new and improved version. But, no matter who is in charge, it seems to be imprinted in our national culture that wealth and power belong together. This all means that the vilification of billionaires is bound to backfire, because we equate wealth with success and believe that both are earned — a pervasive mindset that Anand Giridharadas, author and outspoken critic of the obscenely rich, calls “the billionaire savior delusion.”
The Billionaire-Savior Delusion
It was only about 100 years ago that the first American billionaire came into existence. Since then, we’ve been grappling with a tension between economic materialism, the American Dream, the American Revolution. These three ideas go something like this:
- Economic materialism: material goods are the key to happiness — success is how much stuff you have
- The American Dream: you reap what you sow — anyone can strike it rich
- The American Revolution: power is earned—leaders are made, not divinely ordained
The combination of these three ideals succinctly describes the current political polarization and the cult of Trump. In other words, the main goal of life is to acquire wealth, rich people got where they are because they deserve it, and people who deserve wealth must also deserve power. But there’s a big problem with the conservation of these values from the founding of the country into the present day: when the United States was created, resources weren’t limited — there was a whole new country just waiting to be plundered. In the early days of the United States, land, slaves, and wealth were abundant and ripe for the taking. A journalist for The Atlantic, Alana Semuels, describes the time like this:
…economic inequality was barely a problem then. In fact, the colonies were among the most egalitarian places on earth at the time they declared independence… Early on, the colonies provided a level of economic equality that simply wasn’t possible in Europe… This equality left the founders focused on one thing: freedom from aristocratic England and its laws, which allowed for rampant inequality. Hobble the aristocrats and the people keeping others down, the thinking went, and anyone, no matter how humble their birth, could succeed.
The ideals of the American Dream and the American Revolution still linger, but the wellspring of limitless wealth and power have long since dried up — the spacious skies, waves of grain, purple mountains, and fruited plains have all been claimed. Yet, we still think that wealth and power are earned and available to all. This metaphorical evaporation creates a dangerous environment polluted by outdated values (a visual that reminds me of the story of The Salton Sea).
Now that there aren’t enough resources to go around, we’re left with what Anand Giridharadas calls the billionaire savior delusion — a belief that ultra-wealthy Americans are intrinsically different (and better) than any of the previous aristocratic ruling classes. The billionaire savior delusion represents a deep-seated hypocrisy embedded within the values of the United States, and it has paved the way for people like Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump to do what they please with the country (and the world). As Anand describes it,
…in America, we allowed this savior halo to develop around [Mark Zuckerberg]. He didn’t put that savior halo on himself. That halo is a product of our beliefs, our media, the way journalists cover people like that, the way our president invites people like that into the White House to become sages and opiners on the future… if America was working for more people, and there was less of a sense of scarcity, and more of a sense of fairness, and more of a sense of the game being open and reasonable, I do think someone like Donald Trump would have way less oxygen.
According to Anand, the billionaire savior delusion arises from a vicious cycle of creation through destruction. More specifically, he claims that a vast majority of the wealth in modern society was produced using morally objectionable and extractive business practices. As just a few examples, the tobacco industry has a long history of slavery and predatory advertising; the oil industry not only pollutes the environment, but lies about its knowledge of climate change denial; the opioid industry is now known for its addictive and deadly practices; etc, etc, etc. The process of capitalist creation has always simultaneously wreaked destruction.
Anand argues that even though ultra-wealthy individuals may not have personally participated in these destructive practices, they are morally complicit if they continue to hoard the spoils of these practices and uphold the system that created the tainted wealth in the first place. All the while, the ruinous corporate attitude of the United States has created a society with a slew of problems that need fixing. So in swoop the philanthropists — the very people who created the problems in the first place — to help solve the issues.
The billionaire savior delusion is the culmination of this whole cycle filtered through the distortion of public perception. To reiterate,
- A person, company, or people make a lot of money through exploitation.
- The wealth produced — and the power afforded by it — gets hoarded.
- Hoarded wealth highlights the problems that resulted from its creation.
- At the same time, the concentration of power reinforces the original system.
- The general population gets restless and demands the problems be solved.
- The wealthy throw money at the problems, often while continuing the destructive practices that caused the issues in the first place.
- The general population laud the philanthropists as saviors.
- Everyone feels good, no problems get solved, and the cycle continues.
From his analysis, Anand concludes that we need to stop making billionaires into saviors, and I agree. He also derives a conclusion about the need for democratic political change, which I also agree with. But I think there’s a deeper truth lurking in this argument that can help us sort through our mindsets about wealth, power, and societal conflict. And this brings me to my expanded version of the billionaire savior delusion: super self-deception.
Batman, The Billionaire Savior
Don’t be mistaken, this section is not about Batman being a bad guy. The whole point of this article is to avoid vilifying billionaires. Plus, the Watchmen graphic novel (please don’t watch the movie) extensively explores the idea that comic book superheroes have an inherent element of villainy to them. Alan Moore, the creator of Watchmen, has also written about how Bruce Wayne’s heroism as The Batman is a reflection of The Joker’s villainy and an indication of a deep insanity. I don’t want to dig too deep into this topic, but I do think that Bruce Wayne represents a perfect example of the billionaire savior delusion in action. So, using the Batman, I’d like to explain why we need to stop making billionaires (or anyone for that matter) the bad guys.
Bruce Wayne is the perfect fictional example of everything that Anand Giridharadas critiques about the ultra-wealthy.
- He’s a billionaire philanthropist who hoards his inherited wealth.
- He runs Wayne Enterprises, a vast business conglomerate that has historical roots in the Revolutionary War and quite literally developed the crime-riddled city of Gotham.
- He devotes his time, money, and power both to charitable causes and to dressing up as The Batman to fix a broken city that his business empire helped to create.
- The city gets a hero, Bruce feels good about beating up villains, and nothing systemic changes in the city of Gotham.
It’s almost like Anand designed Batman as ideal example of his complaints. So now that we’ve established Bruce Wayne as a classic instance of the billionaire savior delusion, you might be asking “who cares? He’s a fictional character.” As self-proclaimed Batmanologist Chris Sims writes:
One of the snarky criticisms that you see floating around about Batman is that he spends his money on Batarangs, supercomputers, and other vaguely bat-shaped toys rather than using it all to help the real problems, but that’s a criticism that ignores one very simple fact: it’s all made up… if you want Batman to spend more of his money on fighting poverty, then all you have to do is imagine the amount he spends on Batmobiles, quintuple it, and slide that into the ledger under “charity.” There’s no finite amount of money being divvied up to support all these pursuits.
Obviously, Chris is right: Batman is fictional. But this criticism completely denies the role that mythological characters play in the evolution of society. For example, the Golden Age of Comic Books was a period in American history that gave birth to the idea of modern superheroes. It’s no coincidence that this veritable Cambrian explosion of patriotic red, white, and blue superheroes occurred smack dab in the middle of World War II, from 1939–1941. These characters may be fictional, but the cultural narrative that they represent is very real.
Batman can help us reflect on our current cultural narrative, just like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America represented a tangible product of strong patriotism during World War II. One clear example of this is the way that Bruce Wayne perfectly fits the mold of the billionaire savior delusion. Like many real-life figures, the fictional Bruce Wayne inherited his vast fortune from the creation of a sprawling city riddled with organized crime. His philanthropy and superhero alter-ego can only exist as a result of that very crime that his ancestors helped to create. But I don’t want to rag too hard on Bruce Wayne. Like many real-life philanthropists, he does an immense amount of work trying to improve his city and the lives of the people who live in it. Instead, I want to home in on the part of society that allows Batman (and philanthropy) to exist at all: villainy.
Villains Are Just Leaders That Don’t Share Your Ideals
Note how villainy is different than crime. For example, Darth Vader consistently ranks as one of the most popular villains of all time. But in the reality of the Star Wars epics, he’s actually the law-abiding citizen and the next in line to the position of Emperor. It is the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, who is the law-breaking rebel. I’m not defending the Galactic Empire (the major governmental entity in the Star Wars universe), which is exaggeratedly fascist. But it is clear that villainy is not straightforwardly criminal. In addition, Star Wars is another example of how much people love the narrative of overthrowing the current aristocratic ruling class.
Real-life villainy is often not as obvious as the Galactic Empire and Darth Vader. The idea of evil takes many disembodied forms in our society: disease, pollution, pestilence, etc. But, no matter what societal ill we focus on, there will always be people to foist the blame upon. Just like comic book super-heroism is predicated on the existence of super-villains, real-life heroism (like philanthropy) also requires the existence of real-life villainy. The super-villains of reality might be oil barons destroying the planet, self-aggrandizing politicians eschewing the truth for power, or social media executives who seek wealth at the expense of democracy. But vilifying these people isn’t at all helpful.
I don’t mean to argue that climate change, fascism, or crony-capitalism are good things, but it is the very act of maligning billionaires that allows other billionaires to fill the role of saviors. This is precisely what happened in the American Revolution: the villainization of the wealthy elite of the time (King George III) created a vacuum of heroic leadership to be filled by a new wealthy elite (President George Washington). It is exactly this same pattern that allowed Trump to snatch a clean victory away from the American majority. To most people, Trump’s candidacy was a contradiction of terms. How could he rally crowds behind the idea of “draining the swamp,” while simultaneously claiming that his sleazy brand of richness was “the kind of thinking you need for this country”?
We can see through the paradox of Trump when we realize that his supporters aren’t really motivated by ending corruption or building a wall. Instead, they’re just sick of the current wealthy ruling class. Trump is well aware of this, and he plays up his outsider status as much as possible. Out with the old, in with the new! And Trump supporters weren’t shy about leveraging the parallels between his outsider narrative and the epic myths of our time, like Star Wars.
As the beginning of this article discussed, the other side of the political isle leverages this narrative too. But, just like the American Revolution created a new iteration of the same cycle, outsider political rebellion doesn’t really work the way it claims to. As the Professor of Political Science Barbara Trish says it,
There’s nothing new about this outsider cache and insider disdain… Yet today, after well over a century of outsiders crusading, the system remains largely the same. Parties, though diminished in power, have not succumbed. Money is consistently the key factor that fuels politics… Ironically, the lack of change simply creates more opportunities for candidates to claim the outsider mantle.
Campaigning to oust the current ruling class from power sounds attractive, but it’s a cheap trick that widens already gaping political divisions. Because, when an outsider gains power they’ve suddenly become an insider. Even if an outsider managed to completely change the system they would still be an insider; at that point they’re just an insider of a different system. Trump successfully won on this platform, and future politicians will win on it again in the future. It may be an effective short-term strategy to amplify divisions based on wealth (or any other factor for that matter), but it’s not an effective way to solve actual problems. There will always be some degree of wealth inequality and unfairness in the world, but the ever-present nature of imperfection is no reason to dehumanize each other — people do bad things, but there are no irredeemably bad people.
What Is A Story, But A Hero And A Villain?
Labeling any group as “the bad guys” will only perpetuate the cycle of the billionaire savior delusion. Like a super self-deception, a villain necessarily implies a hero and vice versa. This seems to be a never-ending cycle, because we derive great satisfaction from it at some level — it represents the heart of every narrative and the struggle at the center of every story. At the end of 2019, nine of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time were Star Wars and superhero movies. It may be good entertainment, but when we focus on a fight between heroes and villains we lose sight of actual problems.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to stay on the hamster wheel of satisfaction through repetitive drama. But if you do have a desire to be a part of something greater and to transcend the polarization that brings about so much strife, then I suggest we stop making billionaires the bad guys. Instead of finding purpose through conflict it is possible to derive meaning from connection and shared progress. As Pete Buttigieg says it,
Yearning for belonging can be the thing that divides us, because we find belonging in whatever tribe we align with and then just get belonging out of fighting others… or we tap into something deeper… a source of community, a source of identity, and a source of purpose. If you don’t have some source of those things, something ugly will fill the void.
It may be convenient to have an enemy that we can fight together, but what happens after we win? We are stuck in “a perennial search to find a villain to slay [without] a plan of what to do with the body.” People will always disagree and conflict will never go away completely. Therefore, a truly sustainable model of productive society will need to be based on the collaborative search for harmony and balance, not a constant fight between heroes and villains.