By Tom Robotham
Donald Trump has made many revealing comments since that fateful day when he descended on the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his campaign. But his recent remark that terrorists are “losers” may be the most revealing of all.
In Trump’s mind, there is nothing worse than being a “loser.”
Of course, he is hardly alone in this regard. As Paul Krugman pointed out in a New York Times column in 2014, a tool called Google Ngrams indicates that use of the word “loser” began to rise dramatically in the mid-60s and peaked in the early 2000s. The frequency has dropped off a bit since then, but not significantly.
Why is this important?
Because popular slang tells us a lot about the prevailing zeitgeist, or spirit of the times.
Krugman’s take on this usage is that it reflects “growing contempt for the little people.”
I agree. But it clearly goes beyond economics. Typically, in fact, when someone says of another person, “What a loser,” he or she is not referring to financial status but to something more general. It may imply that the person is socially inept or is a misfit in some other way. Most of us, in fact, probably first heard the word uttered disparagingly in high school, in reference to some kid who was a “nerd,” or just “weird.”
With that in mind, it makes sense that Trump—who behaves like a high school douche-bag strutting his stuff to mask his insecurities—would love the word so much. But as I’ve noted in other essays, we are leading ourselves astray if we regard Trump as some freaky aberration on the national scene. In so many ways, he is the personification of what we have become as a nation—a society that values hyper-competitiveness, obsesses over status, and demands conformity.
Hyper-competitiveness is a product of capitalism run amok—a phenomenon that took root in the late 20th century. In the mid-20th century, there was a widespread notion that hard work was all that was necessary to achieve the American dream—and that was largely true for a lot of people, since the Dream itself was modest: a steady job, a modest house surrounded by the proverbial picket fence, and plenty of time to enjoy the company of family and friends. And since job security was far more reliable, life wasn’t a constant scramble of competition for work.
Beginning in the 1980s, hard work was no longer enough. Oh sure, a lot of politicians still like to trot out the notion that if you work hard you can still have your slice of the American Dream. But they know that’s not really the case. Back in 1991, Harvard economist Juliet B. Schor pointed out in her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure that the average number of hours Americans spend at work had increased one month a year over the preceding 20 years. And yet many studies have shown that in spite of this most people are not getting richer. They’re working longer hours just to get by. The exception is the billionaire class, which grew 6.4 percent in 2015, according to The Wall Street Journal. But it’s beyond naïve to think that the rich are getting richer because they work harder than everyone else. Sure, there are some. Bill Gates got where he did through a combination of hard work, genius and great timing. But I would argue that Trump is more representative of the billionaire class: people who know how to game the system by manipulating debt, selling smoke, and reneging on deals. To them, anyone who relies on hard work alone is a chump.
In the 1990s, we began to see this attitude reflected in professional sports as well. We pretended to be shocked—shocked—when one athlete after another was found to be taking performance-enhancing drugs. But that was pure denial on our part. Those athletes were simply adopting the new American philosophy: Only losers rely on hard work alone. In the post-modern world, you need to get a leg up any way you can. The only thing that matters is winning—by any means necessary.
Meanwhile, our entertainment media, beginning with shows like Jerry Springer, fueled the notion that it’s fun to laugh at losers. More such shows followed, culminating in Survivor—the ultimate metaphor for contemporary American capitalism—and American Idol, which people watched more for the perverse pleasure of seeing a contestant embarrass him or herself, and get ridiculed by Simon Cowell, than they did for the joy of catching the first glimpse of some great talent on the threshold of stardom.
Our mass entertainment, in short, took on an air of viciousness.
The hyper-competitiveness is somewhat understandable, nevertheless, given that competition was always seen as a virtue in capitalism.
What’s harder to understand are the growing obsessions with status and conformity.
For one thing, they’re at odds with virtues that we still cling to as part of our national fantasy: egalitarianism and individualism. But those virtues are trumped, no pun intended, by our love of status and conformity. We say we value individualism, but we don’t. A case in point: Some years ago when I was working for a corporation, the company’s president would periodically encourage all employees to “think outside the box.” In my observation, though, if anyone dared to try, he or she was accused of “not being a team player.” There was no real team spirit, however—just a bunch of people who were expected to help maximize profits for shareholders and upper management, or risk losing their jobs.
The other problem with our worship of status and conformity is that they are at odds with each other. By definition, after all, status makes a person stand out. But we value people who stand out only so long as they please us. For evidence of this fact, look no further than the plethora of web sites that scream, “You won’t believe how fat [celebrity x] has gotten—or something to that effect.
All of this puts us in a pretty bad place as a nation, circa 2017. Increasingly, in so many ways, we’re dehumanizing one another in extremes: worshipping some people as demi-gods, on the one hand and denigrating “losers” on the other.
Donald Trump, as I noted earlier, simply personifies this widespread mentality. But as I said recently in a talk at Tidewater Community College—paraphrasing Shakespeare—the fault, my friends, lies not in our reality-television stars but in ourselves.