Politics & Media
May 22, 2024, 06:27AM

American Oligarch

Ethically is trickier than bigly.

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To someone like Melania from Eastern Europe, her husband Donald Trump’s current legal battles probably aren’t a surprise. Constant clashes with government—and a bit of corruption in the name of “getting things done”—goes with the territory for charismatic business oligarchs in the post-Soviet world. There, just like here, it can be ugly, but it beats socialism. Call that a low standard, but you can blame the socialists of all nations, especially the ones misleadingly using the label “liberals,” for dragging us to this point.

Just as the kleptocrats governing the developing world have caused the rural poor the world over to celebrate nomadic “bandit kings” with few virtues besides pissing off the authorities, the developed world’s delighted to see someone tell the media, regulators, and judges to go fuck themselves even if that someone isn’t always in the right. (Like many in the New York area, I’ve met people who know firsthand Trump doesn’t always come through with that last check he promised, so I’m not calling him a principled capitalist—and I hope he doesn’t get away with pretending to be one when he addresses the Libertarian Party convention this coming Saturday. I’m just saying there is always something worse.)

The new movie The Apprentice, a fictionalized account of villainous right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn mentoring the young Trump—who’s reportedly depicted raping his own wife, Ivana—will only add to the legend. Since Sebastian Stan, who played mesmerized Russian sleeper agent Bucky in Marvel movies, plays Trump while Martin Donovan, who played a manipulative Hydra agent in the Marvel movies (one presumably still at large a decade after the first Ant-Man movie), plays Trump’s racist real estate developer dad Fred, maybe The Apprentice should at some point show Fred activating Donald with the ominous string of Bucky activation codewords—“longing, rusted, seventeen, daybreak, furnace, nine, benign, homecoming, one, freightcar”—after which Donald could be shown lumbering off to kill rival industrialists on behalf of Mother Russia.

It’d be offensively inaccurate but, again, likely nothing surprising to Melania, who presumably knows that Dallas was popular in the waning days of European Communism. The Ewing family was corrupt and scheming, but they were impressive and for poor Eastern Europeans a tantalizing glimpse of possibilities in the capitalist world. The communist authorities thought the show made U.S. business look evil enough that there wasn’t much harm in it being seen in the Old World. How subversive could a villain like J.R. really be?

The authorities made a similar miscalculation when they allowed Soviet audiences to watch the John Steinbeck adaptation The Grapes of Wrath, says Ayn Rand, the Soviet émigré turned American novelist. She writes that the Soviet censors knew Steinbeck was basically, as one of the characters in his novel would put it, “a red,” so they figured showing the fictional plight of the Joad family fleeing the Oklahoma dustbowl during the Depression would be effective anti-U.S. propaganda. Instead, as Rand put it, lowly communist audience members were as amazed by the fact that the Joad family could afford a car—and use it to travel in search of new opportunities—as if the film had revealed that in the capitalist world every bum has his own zeppelin. America!

Our culture keeps trying to shame the capitalists, though. The actor who played one of the real heroes in one of those aforementioned Marvel movies, Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man a.k.a. “billionaire philanthropist playboy” Tony Stark), will shortly make his Broadway debut in McNeal, a play about a writer with a troubled family life becoming obsessed with artificial intelligence (hopefully not Ultron). I take it as a warning sign that the play is by Ayad Akhtar—one of my 1990s Brown University contemporaries and thus inevitably steeped in limousine-socialist thinking—arguably now something of a cultural oligarch himself yet, judging by reviews of his prior works, worried he has been victimized by capitalism along with the rest of his Pakistani immigrant family since they came to the U.S.

For nearly half a century, I, by contrast, lived in fear that the public would never see through the anti-capitalist narratives spun by the socialists and socialist-sympathizers who dominate the upper echelons of media and academia—in recent years, even the corporate boardroom. But for all the elite’s efforts to consolidate their control and through art celebrate their own megalomaniacal schemes, the stubborn public keeps finding ways to slip through their fingers, even when the public must use awkward, imperfect escape tools like J.R., Stark, and Trump.

If, legally speaking, things go really badly for the last of those three men, I’m sure Melania could still arrange a private jet for herself back to Slovenia, and I hope she’d tell her relatives not that she learned the capitalist West is more insane than Europe but that government and corruption are everywhere, skewing everything. The tricky solution may require some weird, volatile blend of the rule of law and the occasional audacious bigshot unfazed by law.

Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on X at @ToddSeavey


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