They get a shopping spree at Saks. He gets to feel like God.
SNL/Hotline Bling video
Last week The New York Times profiled two undocumented immigrants—Victorina Morales and Sandra Diaz—who worked as maids for Donald Trump’s exclusive New Jersey golf club.
As women in the unusual position of dusting the president’s television (no doubt while he’s on it) Ms. Morales and Ms. Diaz have borne witness to Trump’s public and private selves. In Trump’s public self, they experience a bullying racist. Behind the scenes, however, he revealed himself to be kind—generous with tips and praise—even going so far as to help the diminutive Ms. Morales clean the upper-reaches of a tall window. “I told myself, ‘God bless him.’” Ms. Morales recalled. “‘I thought, he’s a good person.’”
Reading this, it’s hard not to soften toward Trump. But it’s uncomfortable, too—like learning Augusto Pinochet was an unusually sensitive child, or Saddam Hussein, while imprisoned, saved crusts of bread to feed to birds. And while Trump is no Pinochet or Hussein (he is his own special brand of menace), the dissonance created by his competing selves is equally charged. Trump is a person who can privately praise Ms. Diaz for doing a, “really good job,” give her a much appreciated $50 tip, and in the same breath publicly denounce undocumented immigrants—people just like her—of “vicious and violent” character. What a strange combination!
Except, no. Not really.
In truth, his public and private selves are not different, but part and parcel of the same worldview. Giving poor immigrant employees hefty tips—in person, where he can bask in their gratitude—inflates his ego. He can play the role of the magnanimous King, reveling in feelings of goodness and relative power. For the bargain price of $50, he cheats people of their dignity and livelihood, and still gets to walk away feeling like a “good person.”
Trump didn’t invent this practice. It’s common on both sides of the political divide. Drake—as opposite to Trump as you can possibly get (well, excluding what looks like a mutual predilection for young girls)—is a good example. In his video for “God’s Plan,” we watch him give away nearly one million dollars—the entire budget for the video—to various strangers in need. The video, which documents numerous emotional reactions to Drake’s unexpected generosity, is moving. But mingled into that is an undeniable element of the grotesque. It’s clear whatever these people receive pales in comparison to how Drake himself benefits: They get a shopping spree at Saks. He gets to feel like God.
Does it feel small to criticize a man who lightened a burdened person’s load? Who brightened his or her day? Of course. It feels crumby. And that’s why (with rare exception) no one does it. It feels nicer to cut these guys some slack, to forgive them their hypocrisy, and focus on the good. But it’s exactly that aversion—to feeling like a wet blanket—that protects the Drakes and Trumps of this world—and enables their savior King fantasies. When Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg mused, “Isn’t it a little bit cheap [of Drake] to use those emotions of, ‘Look at this person in need of getting something good,’ and transfer those emotions onto yourself? I don’t know the last time I saw a four-minute montage of ‘Look at all the nice things I do,’” Drake didn’t reflect. He bristled. “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” he shot back. As if that’s reason enough to shield him—as if the video can’t simultaneously be the most important thing he’s ever done, and also—in the scheme of things—unimportant.
Of course, people who work hard, who contribute meaningfully to society, should be financially rewarded—this isn’t an argument for a perfectly egalitarian society. Equal distribution of wealth is unrealistic and, frankly, uninspiring. But we are living in a time where an increasing amount of people no longer make a living wage. The middle class is disappearing. 41 million Americans struggle with hunger. Sick Americans turn to GoFundMe—not health insurance—to fund cancer treatments. Mentally ill Americans are abandoned to our prison system. We do not live in a society that functions—providing its citizens fundamental needs, and its non-citizens basic human rights. Instead, we feed the wealthy, and smile through tears when, on occasion, they peel pittance from a bill fold, sharing with the poor what they earned on their backs.
When Trump gives a maid a $50 tip—she will spend it on basic necessities—food, shelter—or send to her family in Guatemala. When Drake buys a struggling family groceries, they still need to figure out how to eat next week.
The fact remains these men are mega-millionaires and billionaires in a country increasingly defined by a stark wealth-divide—donating money to a symptom while benefiting from the disease. And if you go so far as to point it out? They won’t hear it.