Okay, so what are the semiotics of the President’s instantly controversial remark that he doesn’t want any poor people in the money slots of his Cabinet?
In case you missed it, it was last night in that rambling appearance in Iowa, where Trump said: “Somebody said, ‘Why'd you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy? I said, ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want’… They're representing the country. They don't want the money. They're representing the country. They had to give up a lot to take these jobs. They gave up a lot.” And finally: “I love all people, rich or poor. But in those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person. Does that make sense? If you insist, I'll do it—but I like it better this way.”
Well, it’s everything we’ve come to expect, right? The casual demagoguery, the ignorant superficiality—and, of course, the protestation that he, Trump, is the most empathetic of humans, much more than the haters and losers and fake-newsers. He loves poor people, just like he loves the Hispanics, and just like some Mexicans, he assumes, are good people. It’s a crucial part of Trump’s rhetorical approach; the way he flatters and lies to himself. I’m like the least racist person you could know. I’m humble in ways that would surprise you. I don’t know who believes this anymore.
I’d say that the kind of people who went to that rally still do, but on further reflection I’d bet that even half of them don’t believe that Donald Trump loves poor people. That even though they know it’s not true, they love that he says it, because they know that in saying it, he’s driving his critics up a wall.
This is an important thing to understand about the relationship between Trump and his supporters, from rank-and-file people to big shots like Sean Hannity. They want him to lie. In some ways, the bigger and more easily refutable the better. His lies are a vital weapon in the attack they see him waging on their behalf against convention and normalcy.
So that’s the first element, the obviously false protest of empathy. Second is the ignorant superficiality. Because this is the kind of thinking we want, he said. Sure, sounds right on the surface. Of course we want billionaires shuffling around billions and trillions of dollars.
Or do we? Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, was never a wealthy man. He married into wealth (one of Schuyler sisters made famous by the play), but the family riches were not readily accessible to him, and he eventually resigned from George Washington’s cabinet because he couldn’t support his family on the meager salary.
I think most people would say Hamilton was nevertheless a pretty good man at Treasury. He set up the first national bank. He consolidated the country’s debts and paid them pretty fairly. He established the mint.
Of course, there were a lot of people who didn’t think much of Hamilton at all, and they were Jeffersonians, the yeoman farmers; who, interestingly enough, were the predecessors of today’s Trump loyalists (more or less). They didn’t like Hamilton because he wasn’t rich enough, though. They didn’t like him because he was (by the standards of the day) a big-government liberal.
In any case, the idea that a non-wealthy person can’t be trusted to handle the country’s money can be refuted by the example of the very first head of the Treasury. It’s true that most Treasury chiefs, even under Democrats, are people who’ve made plenty of money either in industry or finance. But the idea that we need someone like Steven Mnuchin, a hedge-fund guy worth billions whose reverse mortgage business was at one point foreclosing at twice the rate of its competitors, is ridiculous. Again, though, it draws applause from the cheap seats. Sounds right.
And finally, the casual demagoguery. This shows up in the “if you insist.” I am your servant, your most humble servant. As such, my people, if you insist, I will set aside even my own superior judgment to do your bidding!
Trump has said, and will say, many worse things. But this one was revealing all the same about how he uses false humility and misdirection to build a relationship with audience, which eats it up even as they know on some level exactly what he’s doing. They know he’s conning them, but as long as he’s conning the liberal media even more, it’s okay.
But it’s not worth getting too agitated over. He’s at 36 percent, which probably means that about 25 percent are diehards and the other 11 or so are still willing to give him a chance. But the country is onto him. He’s not fooling anyone, even his fans.