Imagine a scenario in which Karl Marx, Ronald Reagan, and an American journalist are in the room. There's also an elephant, which is owned by Ronald Reagan. Karl Marx points out that there is an elephant in the room. Ronald Reagan, who has his reasons, says there is no elephant. He then looks at the journalist and says, "Karl Marx says there's an elephant in the room. Anybody who agrees with Karl Marx is a Communist. What are you going to report to the American people about what's in the room?"
The journalist looks at the threadbare Marx, who appears rather sullen and resentful. He looks at the elegant and affable Reagan, and thinks to himself: "Talking about elephants doesn't look like a very good career move. Who really cares anyway? It won't be a lie if I just avoid saying anything about it. And there's so much else to talk about that Americans are really interested in."
There is an elephant in the room, and nobody in the mainstream is talking about it, and this elephant is not hard to see if you choose to look. It's the connection between wealth and power and how that connection is destroying (has destroyed?) our politcal system. It's standing there in the middle of the room, and we all know it's there, but we walk around it and pretend it isn't because to talk about it makes you sound like a Marxist. The Ronald Reagans of the world will start to say that you're promoting class warfare. You'll be branded as un-American, leftist flake.
Because America is all about people having the freedom to pursue their dream, and if someone's dream is to become fabulously wealthy, and if he has the brains and the ambition to achieve it, who are the rest of us to stop him?
In this mythology, Donald Trump has come to symbolize what it means to be a great American. He has come to represent what is finest in the American spirit. Every week on his TV show we can watch obsequious young Americans striving to be what they think he wants them to be. And in this American mythology, the rambling logic goes like this: These are the people who make our country great. Would it be better if they did nothing and collected food stamps? So sure, what if there is an elephant in the room? He's an American elephant, and we will arm ourselves to the teeth to make sure no one does it any harm. These people and their God-given right to get rich is what our soldiers in Iraq are fighting to protect. If you don't like it, move to Cuba. Because each of us can own a piece of that elephant, if we want to. OK, I may not own a piece now, but maybe my kids will. That elephant is what the American Dream is all about--the idea that anyone of us could someday be famous, rich, and powerful like Donald Trump.
The idea that "only in America" do the humble have the possibility to realize such ambitions is absurd, but it's a myth that serves the interests of the already rich. People with talent and drive rise in every culture, but like all the Trump wannabes, they do so by ingratiating themselves to those who already have wealth and power. And their doing so insures that the basic pyramid stays intact.
Having a Donald Trump here or there isn't a threat to republican ideals so long as he's happy to have supermodel wife and his ego massaged by Nielsen ratings. The problem lies in his reinforcing a myth that allows the crony capitalist class in our country to tighten its grip on the levers of power at the top of the pyramid.
So what's the matter with the pyramid? Isn't a pyramid inevitable? Well, you could say that pyramids are natural; they always develop where the strong dominate the weak, and pyramids define how most societies stratify when the strong are allowed to dominate the weak: wide base of very poor, middle group of retainers and courtiers performing services at the direction of those on the top.
But America was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be a society in which the the bulge was in the center, it was supposed to be a society in which not too many people would be poor and not too many people would be rich, and a society in which the power would be in the hands of the self-reliant, educated people in the middle: small businessmen, farmers, teachers, professionals--not in the hands of those sitting in corporate boardrooms. There will be elites, for sure, but they serve the interests of those in the middle because those in the middle have the power.
America was not ever supposed to be a society dominated by a super-wealthy overclass. That was the European model that we revolted against. The American experiment was about creating a society that was not stratified in that way. Such societies, even if they have elections, are democracies in name only. In an ideal democracy, power lies with a well-informed, economically self-reliant middle. The goal is to get those at the bottom into the middle, and to protect against those at the top aggregating too much power to themselves. That's what the New Deal represented, and that Reagan/Bush GOP has come to stand for its dismantling. It has come to stand for completely opposite goals--which is to turn the country into just another stratified pyramid.
In other words the American experiment has failed to the degree that we allow it to become like every other stratified society that has existed. Maybe it's inevitable. Maybe that's what Franklin meant when he came out of the constitutional convention and in responding to someone who asked what they had made said, "A republic, if you can keep it." I don't know if it's lost yet, but we're losing it.
That's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to look at. We want to believe we have a republic, but it's becoming one in name only. Maybe we want to believe the elephant stands for the republic, but it is rapidly becoming something altogether different, and we all stand around shrug our shoulders as if nothing important is happening. We're OK with it so long as we have our bread and circuses, our beer and our reality shows.