Donald Trump versus Adam Smith

I am sitting at home following a cataract operation, and my surgeon has forbidden me from doing anything more vigorous than going for a slow walk, so I have lots of time to think, and I have been thinking about Adam Smith, strangely enough.

Most people have heard the name Adam Smith. He was an 18th Century Scottish thinker, philosopher and perhaps the world’s first economist. People who know the name Adam Smith associate him with the book The Wealth of Nations published in 1776 during the American Revolution. Adam Smith believed that private business creates wealth, not governments, a sentiment that is so often misused by today’s self-proclaimed conservatives to justify dog-eat-dog capitalism, sometimes also labeled Social Darwinism. Adam Smith was a firm believer in private business, as am I, but he was not a believer in uncontrolled capitalism.

In reality, Adam Smith did not use the word capitalism at all, and he was vehemently opposed to the brand of capitalism that many self-styled conservatives worship today. He opposed the East India Company, which dominated much of British Trade with the rest of the world including the trade in tea in the 1700s. American colonists boarded three ships belonging to the East India Company in Boston Harbor in 1773 and tossed the tea overboard, an event which is known today as the Boston Tea Party. Thus, those who believe that unfettered capitalism is a fundamental American value have not paid attention to history. A protest against unfettered capitalism was one of the iconic actions of the American revolution.

Adam Smith certainly would have been no admirer of Donald Trump. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments he wrote that the “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful is…the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” Adam Smith would consider those who admire Donald Trump to be willing victims of this moral corruption.

Adam Smith despised men who claimed great power and believed that this imagined power enabled them to bend others to their will. A modern example of this attitude is the presumptions statement that Donald Trump will build a wall with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it. How in the world can Donald Trump be so egotistical as to believe that he has the power to make something so momentous happen simply by ordering it? Worse yet, how can some people be so dumb, ignorant, and ill-informed as to believe Donald Trump when he says it? Yet at Trump rallies you hear the call and response between Trump and his sycophants:

“What are we gonna do?”

“Build a wall!”

“And who’s gonna pay for it?”

“Mexico!”

Some have theorized that by insulting other powerful figures (“lying Ted Cruz,” “At least I don’t have a face like Carly Fiorina.”) and groups of people such as Mexicans, Muslims, and even women, Donald Trump makes those with low self-esteem feel better about themselves, just as Hitler made poorly-educated Germans feel better about themselves by persecuting the Jews. I don’t know if that theory has any truth or not. It is difficult to understand why in the supposedly egalitarian United States some people would feel good about themselves when others are made the objects of racism, chauvinism, and xenophobia, but how can one explain the popularity of Donald Trump? I don’t have the answer to that question.

I was born during World War II, and I spent some time in Germany in the 1960s when the war was still fresh in German memory. One of my German friends told me that when he was a kid, his mother would listen to Hitler’s speeches and expect impending wealth, even during the latter stages of the war when she did not have enough food to feed her family. Hitler would promise that Germans would have bread, and his mother would go home looking for it. “Didn’t someone come by distributing bread? Hitler promised bread. Why is there no food?” Five years from now will some Americans dumbfoundedly ask why Mexico has not built a wall on the border at Trump’s command?

I cannot explain the idolization of populist demagogues. How is it possible that Hitler came to power by democratic means? How did Hugo Chavez get elected virtual dictator of Venezuela, and how did Nicolas Maduro win the popular vote to succeed him? Together they have run Venezuela into the ground and turned a formerly prosperous country into a poorhouse. How does Putin continue to enjoy immense popularity in Russia as the country sinks further into poverty? These questions puzzle me.

I am an optimist when it comes to the American people. It is true that a sizable minority of Americans venerate Donald Trump, believe his outrageous promises, and gloat when he hurls insults at both foreigners and their fellow American citizens, but I believe—I desperately want to believe—that the United States is not like prewar Germany, not like the Russians who have never had a true democracy, and not like Venezuela. I want to believe that most Americans will never accept Donald Trump as president and that he will be overwhelmingly defeated.

Changing subjects, if you like my writing, you may consider looking at one of my books. You can do so by clicking on one of the book covers in the left sidebar of this blog.