by Victoria Martínez
Nearly 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, many of them because they didn’t want an “establishment” politician as president of the United States. As concepts go, it’s not a bad one. Many Americans cast their vote for Bernie Sanders in the primaries for the exact same reason. But instead of a president who truly represents the average American because he is an average American, what America now has is in many respects worse than an establishment politician.
Trump is what we might call a “pecuniary barbarian”: a member of the financial and social elite who, in the theory of Progressive Era economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, “is of a parasitic character, and [whose] interest is to divert what substance they may to their own use, and to retain whatever is under their hand.”
Not unlike ancient “barbarians,” characterized as those who achieved victories and obtained power through violence and destruction, Veblen theorized that the modern “pecuniary man” retains the barbarian temperament, but replaces violence and destruction with tactics like fraud and deceit. His “freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty and regard for life, may, within fairly wide limits, be said to further [his] success.”
Very little distinguishes the pecuniary barbarian from what Veblen called “the shiftless ne’er-do-well and the lower-class delinquent.” The two types are alike in their unapologetic manipulation of people and resources for their own benefit. The difference is that the pecuniary barbarian has a deeper sense of status and a more focused ambition to reach the top of the social and economic ladder.
Boss Tweed embodied a decidedly materialistic and covetous interpretation of the American Dream that lives on today in a new “boss.”
While his lower-class counterpart is reviled, the pecuniary barbarian owes his social acceptability to invidious pecuniary comparison, which Veblen defined as “a process of valuation of persons in respect of worth.” In other words, it is only the successful accumulation of wealth that makes a luminary of a person who might otherwise be considered a disreputable pleb.
In Veblen’s lifetime, there was no shortage of men who embodied this archetype, including industrialists, robber barons, and—of course—corrupt political bosses like William M. Tweed, leader of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine. Boss Tweed was a brash and ostentatious bully who retaliated against unflattering “fake news.” He gained and maintained his power through cronyism and by feigning a populist platform that roused a “silent majority” who were, in fact, his dupes. With his massive personal wealth signified by a gaudy, ever-present stickpin featuring a 10.5-carat diamond, Boss Tweed embodied a decidedly materialistic and covetous interpretation of the American Dream that lives on today in a new “boss.”
Widely condemned as the least qualified and most inexperienced individual to become an American president, Donald Trump is an uneducated and uncultured man, despite his Wharton degree and his own vehement assertions to the contrary. He is inarticulate, as evidenced by his incoherent speaking and writing. He is a man who is not only abrasive, rude, and offensive, but also devoid of charm, charisma, or a sense of humor that might offset his insensitive and impetuous manner. He is even superficially lacking, with no redeeming physical characteristics or prowess. By rights, these characteristics should make Trump repugnant to the average American.
The fact that his wealth and privilege have confined him to living in a literal and figurative golden tower, from which he demeans women, minorities, and the disabled, just to name a few, should make him an odious character open to widespread scorn and ridicule. The knowledge that he has never been anything other than rich and privileged, and likely has no concept of, or desire to understand, the challenges of those who work hard or even struggle to survive, should make it obvious to anyone that he not only will not fight for the common man, but would gladly step on him to elevate himself.
Despite these glaring defects, he has garnered enough support from the American populace to put him in the Oval Office. Why? How? According to Veblen, because of the mistaken belief shared among all classes that extraordinary wealth is “intrinsically honourable and confers honour on its possessor.”
Although published in 1899, Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class has profound resonance today. Terms like “conspicuous consumption” and “pecuniary emulation” are more than just nifty, academic-sounding phrases to toss around at dinner parties. They are theories that effectively explain modern phenomena like the otherwise inexplicable adulation of the Kardashian family. They give rationale to why people of limited means go into debt to buy goods resembling those owned by wealthy celebrities. And they go a long way toward explaining how millions of Americans did and continue to turn a blind eye to the fundamentally egotistical and mercenary nature of Donald Trump.
Undeserving of merit in any other way, Donald Trump’s overweening emphasis on his financial success is an effective way to establish social dominance and gain power from individuals who consider wealth the ultimate “accomplishment.”
Veblen’s concept of the possession of wealth as “a customary basis of repute and esteem,” answers how a man of so few redeeming qualities can command such blind admiration, even as he does so much to warrant the opposite. Regardless of the way a pecuniary barbarian has amassed his fortune, it becomes “a meritorious act” just to be wealthy. Within this pecuniary culture, the ostentatious display of one’s wealth at the upper end is answered at the lower end with association through imitation.
Undeserving of merit in any other way, Donald Trump’s overweening emphasis on his financial success is an effective way to establish social dominance and gain power from individuals who consider wealth the ultimate “accomplishment.” For these individuals, particularly those who also share his attitudes and beliefs, it enforces the idea that they don’t need to change who they are to be socially reputable. They only need to be rich or, short of that, emulate him as far as possible.
This emulation extends beyond the material and into the ideological. Veblen’s notion that conservatism is perpetuated from the wealthy to the aspiring lower classes as “a prescriptive canon of conduct” illustrates how a surprisingly large percentage of Americans who are far from wealthy can support a conservative ideology that is designed to keep them impoverished and politically subservient.
For instance, how does Trump keep his base happy when analysis of his proposed tax plan bears out the financial part of this equation? The Tax Policy Center’s report states that “the largest benefits [of Trump’s plan], in dollar and percentage terms, would go to the highest-income households.” Speaking with NPR, Lily Batchelder of the Tax Policy Center said, “millions of middle-class working families will see their tax bills rise under Trump’s plan—especially single-parent families.” Forbes and Money concur with these findings.
Political subservience can be more difficult to perceive, particularly when a misguided sense of patriotism rejects constructive critical analysis of American democracy. But, as G. William Domhoff notes in “The Class-Domination Theory of Power,” political subservience at the hands of a wealthy elite is possible when the lower classes fail to unite politically for their own collective benefit.
Anyone who wants to appear respectable in the eyes of society must choose the side of his social superiors—who also happen to be the ruling elite.
Why they would abandon their own causes in favor of those of the wealthy elite is again answered by Veblen, who theorizes that invidious pecuniary comparison ascribes respectability to the conservative causes of the upper classes and, conversely, vulgarity to those of the lower classes. As a result, anyone who wants to appear respectable in the eyes of society must choose the side of his social superiors—who also happen to be the ruling elite.
What follows, Veblen explained, is “a retarding influence upon social development” that “acts to greatly stiffen the resistance of all other classes against any innovation, and to fix men’s affections upon the good institutions handed down from an earlier generation.” In the case of conservative ideology in general and Trump’s policies specifically, this would explain why some Trump supporters continue to defend him even as he threatens their economic livelihood and political influence.
Social development and innovation have always been the enemy of systems of power based on wealth and class. This was certainly true when Veblen was writing his theory during the waning years of America’s Gilded Age, a period when robber barons like Jay Gould and political bosses like Boss Tweed were the ruling elite who maintained their wealth and power at the expense of the 98 percent. Harkening back to feudal times (and dangerously close to the present), the status quo was maintained through a Machiavellian combination of keeping the masses both impoverished and in awe of the financial and social elite.
A modern social psychological theory intersects with Veblen’s theory and helps to explain not only how an era like the Gilded Age can thrive in a country based on egalitarian principles, but also how Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Articulated in 1999 by Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, Social Dominance Theory (SDT) “argues that intergroup oppression, discrimination, and prejudice are the means by which human societies organize themselves as group-based hierarchies.” Within this framework is the belief that higher-status groups and sub-groups deserve more power and better access to things like good housing and healthcare, while those in lower-status groups and sub-groups deserve less. The measure of an individual’s preference for social hierarchy and domination over lower-status groups is called Social Dominance Orientation (SDO).
A recent commentary published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology cited SDO as one of the five social psychological factors responsible for the successful election of Donald Trump. According to the commentary, several recent studies have shown that supporters of Donald Trump score high on the SDO scale. Such individuals “place great value in power and submission, while devaluing equality.” People with high SDO rankings “believe themselves to be part of an established authority.” Connected to but distinguished from Right Wing Authoritarianism, SDO “represents a predisposition toward anti-egalitarianism within and between groups.”
A plutocratic system can flourish in the guise of a democracy when a significant portion of society accepts wealth as the litmus test of social superiority.
This echoes a key underpinning of Veblen’s overall theory—that a plutocratic system can flourish in the guise of a democracy when a significant portion of society accepts wealth as the litmus test of social superiority, and ultimately surrenders authority on this basis. To a portion of the population fearful of losing their traditional place in the social hierarchy, Donald Trump—with his conspicuous wealth, displays of alpha male social dominance, and traditionalist yet anti-establishment rhetoric—appeared as someone who would revive and preserve that hierarchy (“Make America Great Again”). His willingness to wield power also rendered him deserving of their submission.
Through the lens of history, it is possible to see reflections of the Gilded Age in our current time. Likewise, through Veblen’s theory and the introduction of more modern theories, we can fathom how millions of Americans elected a president who has appointed the most self-serving, financially elite cabinet in U.S. history, which is systematically working to destroy departments, policies, and expenditures that serve, benefit, and protect most Americans. How they can continue to support a pecuniary barbarian even to their own detriment is grim testimony to the insights of Veblen.
Veblen didn’t predict men like Donald Trump. He defined and classified both them and the society that embraces them. As a diagnostic of society’s tolerance of individuals like Trump, and its willingness to put them at the apex of a consumer culture that values wealth above all, The Theory of the Leisure Class warns of the divisive effects of invidious pecuniary comparison. However much this was a contributing factor in the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency, the culture itself is one that thrives with the assent of more than just his supporters.
Understanding to what extent each of us gauges success on superficialities like wealth, possessions, job titles, and social media followers, as opposed to more meaningful measures like compassion, generosity, reliability, and diligence, can help to reframe what is meritorious, both for ourselves and our political leaders.
Victoria Martínez is a writer and historical researcher who has recently returned to her work after several years of full-time parenting. Responsibility for small humans altered both her perspective and her goals as a writer, turning her mind to the importance of history in relation to modern social issues and challenges. Although still the primary caregiver to her young children, Victoria researches and writes primarily about late 18th to mid-20th century social and political issues with a link to current events, including on her History Writers Resist Trump (https://historywritersresisttrump.wordpress.com/) and A Bit of History (https://abitofhistoryblog.wordpress.com/) blogs . More on Victoria and her writing can be found at her website (https://www.victoriamartinezwriter.com/).
 In his final campaign ad of the presidential election, Trump gave his base their mandate: “The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you the American people.” (https://youtu.be/vST61W4bGm8)
 Sanders himself has remarked on the common disaffection felt by both his and Trump’s supporters (https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/sanders-statement-on-trump).
 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, originally published by MacMillan, 1899 (New York: Dover, 1994) 129.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 146.
 Ibid., 22.
 Statements of this nature have been made from politicians and private citizens on both sides of the political spectrum, including statements like that signed by 50 Republican former national security officials in August 2016 (https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3007589/Nationalsecurityletter.pdf).
 Numerous psychological and sociological studies exist on the correlation between factors like education level, charisma, and physical appearance on leadership choices, including how they influence voter decisions. For instance: “Presidential Style: Personality, Biography, and Performance,” Simonton, 1988 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232477088_Presidential_Style_Personality_Biography_and_Performance); “Presidential IQ, Openness, Intellectual Brilliance, and Leadership,” Simonton, 2006 (https://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jcampbel/documents/SimontonPresIQ2006.pdf); “Facial appearance affects voting decisions,” Little, Roberts, et al, 2007 (http://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/831#.WZa0numKmh8).
 Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class, 19.
 Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class, 124.
 Ganesh Sitaraman, author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution (2017), discussed this in a recent interview in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/03/middle-class-constitution/519909/): “There’s a feeling among people during the Gilded Age that the robber barons and plutocrats are now running the government for themselves instead of running it for the people, and that this is a threat to the republic, a threat to the constitutional system.”
 As stated, this is a fundamental part of Veblen’s theory: “…that the institution of a leisure class acts to make the lower classes conservative by withdrawing them as much as it may of the means of sustenance, and so reducing their consumption, and consequently their available energy, to such a point as to make them incapable of the effort required for the learning and adoption of new habits of thought.” (Veblen, 126)
 Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
 Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, “Social Dominance Theory,” in Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Collection: Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Paul A.M. Van Lange, Arie W. Kruglanski, and E. Tory Higgins (Los Angeles: Sage Publications: 2012), 418.
 Thomas F. Pettigrew, “Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters,” Journal of Social and Political Psychology (March, 2017): 107-116. Accessed at https://jspp.psychopen.eu/index.php/jspp/article/view/750/html.
 Jamie Seidel “America, what’s gotten into you?” News Corp Australia Network/The Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2016: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/special-features/in-depth/america-whats-gotten-in-to-you/news-story/849edc6146c5e6aff74576d07c6e919d.
 Pettigrew, “Social Psychological Perspectives.”
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.