In the United States, money is synonymous with merit. There is a presumption at the core of capitalism’s narrative that if you are wealthy, you earned it through virtue and “hard work,” not theft or nepotism. This mythology helped fuel the deregulation that led to the financial crisis, and it is also part of President Trump’s rise. Trump’s wealth earned him prestige in the eyes of millions, who in turn handed him the power of the presidency. And Trump’s wealth and power has now led Congress to declare him above the law, as the Republican-led Senate voted to acquit Trump of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Wealth doesn’t just bring power: it enables malfeasance. Wall Street crashed the economy and was welcomed back into the halls of power. Trump attacks whomever he pleases, holds taxpayer funds hostage to cheat in the election, and still basks in impunity. Trump is the living embodiment of the goal of every ambitious person on Wall Street: “f*** you” money.
“F*** you” money is an amount of money so vast one could pick up the phone and dial anyone in the world, say “f*** you” and hang up, and not face any consequences. It remains unclear if Trump inflated his wealth. But as a showman, it didn’t matter if he was rich; it only mattered if we believed he was. Trump worked hard to ensure we did, with his golden curtains and toilets, gaudy, overt hotel lobbies and giant Trump signs, Trump’s money is not the quiet money of post-crash Wall Street. It’s the gaudy, ostentatious and pleading money of 1980s Wall Street — “admire me,” it begs.
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Trump’s theatrical wealth was convincing enough for the producers at NBC, who believed it at least enough to sell it and broadcast the farce into millions of living rooms for more than a decade. This marketing was so effective that Trump came to symbolize wealth in multiple songs since the 1990s, and films like Home Alone 2. Trump’s successful performance of “f*** you” money is what garnered him “f*** you” power.
In her book Thick, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom describes Trump as a “reality TV show host who sometimes played a billionaire on shock radio.” She elaborated on Twitter that to defeat him, you have to “defeat his ability to present as a preacher.” What Donald Trump the preacher promises his flock is impunity. That’s why it likely won’t matter to them if it’s revealed Trump’s fortune was exaggerated. Trump was marketed as a bully on “The Apprentice,” one whose wealth allowed him to get away with it.
Since taking office, Trump has lionized those who are similarly devoted to oppression, those who, like him, acted as if they had “f*** you” power. He pardoned Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt for defying a court order to stop detaining Arizonans based on their immigration status. He restored the rank of Eddie Gallagher, accused by his fellow Navy SEALs of war crimes and convicted by a military jury of posing with the dead body of a teenage ISIS (also known as Daesh) captive. And he gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh precisely for his racism, sexism and overt brand of bullying incitement. As Adam Serwer wrote, the cruelty is the point.
Trump uses his “f*** you” power to attack anyone he wants. Trump delights in punching down: He has attacked and demonized the most marginalized — migrants, undocumented people, transgender people. But Trump also punches up: He’s insulted fellow world leaders, had a government official assassinated and threatened to annihilate entire nations. This delights his base, because they feel it enables their own impunity.
The implicit promise Trump offered was this: Elect me as I say racist, misogynist and Islamophobic things, and it will normalize it so you, too, can be openly bigoted. And when Trump was elected, incidents of bullying and hate crimes went up. The union for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol said their morale went up following Trump’s executive orders, which took “the shackles off” their agents. Trump’s own supporters acknowledge their disdain for “cancel culture,” which is how they categorize attempts to hold those with power accountable for harmful actions, and their delight in “triggering” the “libs,” a sort of weaponized schadenfreude.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to channel Trump when he berated, swore at and threatened NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly that “People will hear about this” while on the record, simply because she asked about Ukraine. And Arizona Sen. Martha McSally told CNN correspondent Manu Raju she wouldn’t answer his questions because she claimed he is “a liberal hack.” Trump’s base, his administration and the GOP itself all increasingly parrot his behavior because they crave his power.
The 2018 midterms put one check on Trump’s previously unchecked power when Democrats took back the House of Representatives. Democrats attempted to hold Trump accountable through impeachment and the Senate removal trial. But it was also a battle to conserve Congress’s own power, and the body’s ability to withstand attacks on its authority. Trump illegally held taxpayer money hostage — money that bipartisan majorities of Congress approved — and used it to extort an ally into helping him cheat in the next election. Republicans in Congress have voiced no protests over this dilution of their power. When every GOP senator apart from Mitt Romney voted against removing Trump, they voted to give impunity to the executive branch over Congress’s own will. When Congress decided to appropriate money to Ukraine for military defense, Trump told Congress to f— off. This week, Republicans in Congress said, “Yes, boss.”
We have precedent for what happens when we grant unchecked power to those we idolize for their ability to accumulate vast wealth: the 2008 financial crisis. The fact that Wall Street made so much money was the marker of success and proof of their genius. Congress saw checks on Wall Street’s power in the form of regulations as quaint and unneeded, and in doing so, ceded some of their power over to the financial sector. It came amid promises that we could trust the market to regulate itself. It didn’t. It all came crashing down. But bankers retained their impunity and their reputation, returning to Washington to lobby for deregulation once more. It was the taxpayers who ultimately paid for their malfeasance.
We are already paying for Trump — our tax dollars fund his and Stephen Miller’s obsession with harming migrants and banning Muslims. Republicans writ large explicitly granted impunity to the executive branch, perhaps betting it will remain in the hands of the GOP. But even Caesars fall sometimes. The Republican Party is drunk on the same kind of arrogance that preceded the financial crisis. The question is, should a political crash come, will the collaborators responsible for aiding and abetting Trump’s lawlessness face accountability, too? Republicans are hoping that Trump’s “f*** you” power has also been transferred to them. The country will have to decide if that’s true.