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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Running on Greed

When Donald Trump boasts about his fortune, he drives up his popularity.

Donald Trump alienated millions of voters with his ugly attacks on Mexican immigrants and John McCain’s war record. But he rocketed to the top of GOP presidential polls anyway.

Is Trump’s racism driving this surge? Maybe. But I’d argue it’s something else: his relentless, self-aggrandizing celebration of his own wealth.

Recently, Trump estimated his net worth at over $10 billion. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index pegs this fortune way lower, at $2.9 billion, while other estimates clock in at only $1.5 billion. In any case, Trump is “really rich” — as he bragged when he launched his presidential bid.

I’d put Trump’s obsession with money at the root of all the ugly traits he personifies. His base desire to accumulate — and to publicly display — obscene wealth divides his world into what he sees as worthy winners and unworthy losers.

According to Trump’s guiding philosophy, winners like him deserve everything they have. Only losers, as he sees John McCain, get captured. Americans are winners. Mexicans and Chinese are losers — who, Trump says, must be kept away with border walls and stiff tariffs to make them “behave.”

Trump’s over-the-top boasting reflects a long-trending change in how those at the very top see their own wealth. It also echoes an evolution in how the rest of us view people whose fortunes, as the playwright Edward Moore put it, run “beyond the dreams of avarice.”

When Forbes first published its list of the 400 wealthiest Americans in 1982, many of the rich people who made the list were embarrassed at having their extreme wealth exposed. Heirs to the Dow Jones publishing empire reportedly hung up on the Forbesreporter who called them. Ken Davis, heir to a Texas oil fortune, actually sued — albeit unsuccessfully — alleging an invasion of privacy.

Attitudes have changed. While many super-wealthy Americans still suppress the urge to flaunt their wealth, very few of them feel the need to keep it a secret. Many take great pride in their immense fortunes.

And many of us admire them for it.

I’ve seen this change firsthand. In innumerable conversations, my friends and acquaintances who mix with the very wealthy have approvingly relayed stories of huge parties, yachts, private jets, car collections, and glittering mansions. The tone, typically, is one of respect and admiration.

The transformation doesn’t end with the mega-rich. With displays of extreme wealth all around them, those with more modest wealth — even some in the top 1 percent — now consider themselves middle-class.

It’s a matter of perception. In the 1970s, when the ultra-wealthy concealed their wealth and lived more modestly, a person who drove a BMW, dined out often, and took European vacations could consider himself rich.

No longer. With the wealth of the Forbes 400 tracked daily online and countless stories about Donald Trump and other wealth-flaunting celebs in the news, even a physician who takes home $500,000 a year might not feel rich.

The more the modestly rich see themselves as simply middle-class, the more they succumb to their base instinct to chase wealth far beyond their rational needs. That breeds resentment at paying taxes to fund programs for the less fortunate.

And those anti-immigrant remarks? Yes, they appeal to a dark strain of nativism. But doesn’t nativism stem from a base desire not to share with those less fortunate?

Trump may eventually say something so outrageous that he’s forced off the national stage. But unless we as a people re-learn that extreme wealth is better off shared than showed, there will be more Donald Trumps.

OtherWords columnist Bob Lord is a veteran tax lawyer who practices and blogs in Phoenix, Arizona. He’s an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.