This confession is my way of establishing bona fides for what I am about to tell you:
What Mr. Trump said about certain African countries and about immigrants from Haiti is exactly what you might hear at any country club: in the locker room, or at the 19th-hole bar, or around a big family table with friends and their kids having the Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet.
Clearly, not every club member will think the same way as the president, but in those circumstances, among clubbable people of a similar social caste following the unwritten rule — that you can say what you like and it will not be repeated outside the four walls of the clubhouse — men and women who do share the president’s view can vent their opinions on matters of politics and foreign affairs and race and immigration.
The language used will be similar to that used by Mr. Trump.
The solutions for political, economic and international problems will be as simplistic, although perhaps not as crudely expressed, and asserted with the absolute certainty of people who have money. At the country club, money is the final proof of all opinions. The motto of the United States is “E pluribus unum” — “Out of many, one” — but really it should be, “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”
This country club mind-set is not unique to the United States. All over the world there are clubs with people whose wealth (it doesn’t have to be extreme wealth) buys them extra access to government. Indeed, their businesses require that access to make sure they get government contracts to build office buildings and hospitals or simply pave a local road.
When the country-club class gets directly involved in politics, a country is on a shortcut to disaster.
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When my youngest brother finished his M.B.A., I went to his graduation. At a brunch I got into a political conversation with the father of one of his classmates, a fellow from Colombia. The Colombian was a very successful entrepreneur, in the wine business, and he would certainly have belonged to a country club in Bogotá.
It was the 1970s, and our conversation heated up over comments he made about the best way to deal with political dissent. Colombia was struggling with a left-wing insurgency, and he was in favor of using violence against Marxists as the dictator Augusto Pinochet was doing in Chile. He dismissed all my criticisms of mass incarceration, murder and torture as a way of dealing with political dissent. I was naïve, he informed me. People didn’t want economic justice; they wanted a little bread and security.
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“You know what you do with these Marxist rebels?” he said. “You strip a few of them naked and bury them on an anthill. That will be the end of their rebellion.”
There was no shouting, no macho posturing; the calmness and utter certainty with which he spoke was chilling. He was the first authentic fascist I ever met, not because of political allegiance — he would have been offended if I had used the term — but because calling for extreme state violence to suppress dissent and maintain the social order can only be called fascistic. The businessman had no problem expressing these ideas because he was in a room where he thought, not unreasonably, that no one would disagree. The certainty of the clubhouse. In Colombia, the clubhouse was in control.
That conversation took place in 1979. The Colombian government finally reached a deal with the FARC, the main Marxist rebel group, in 2016. In the ensuing decades many rebel bodies were put to worse tortures than an anthill, and so were government supporters and those caught in between. So the man was wrong. There was no simple solution.
But it’s useful to have an escape plan if you do advocate those kinds of policies. My memory is that this fellow had applied to emigrate to the United States. He wanted to move his wine business to California. I wonder if he got citizenship?
The last time I visited a country club was for my twin nephews’ bar mitzvah a couple of years ago. At the party, as the disco was cranked up past jet-engine decibel levels, I retreated from the ballroom to the bar — quieter — and ordered a drink. At the far end was a club member drinking alone on a Saturday night. The television over the bar had a news channel on, and there was an item about the Iran nuclear deal, which was then being negotiated. The well-oiled guy offered up a pretty blunt commentary on why there shouldn’t be a deal, on how Barack “Hussein” Obama was a Muslim and a bunch of other unpleasant opinions that, unlike the conversation with Colombian businessman, I quickly forgot.
Until Mr. Trump became president. His words on the Iran deal and President Obama’s culpability for signing it dredged up that memory. The words the drunk used and Mr. Trump used were pretty similar.
When the president disparages Haitians and describes African countries in vulgar terms, when he speaks of pushing the button on his desk to incinerate North Korea or talks of building a wall between the United States and Mexico or deporting 200,000 Salvadorans without a thought about how a government would round them up and transport them, I don’t hear the voice of a madman. I hear the loudest voice at the country club: at Mar-a-Lago, or in Bedminster, N.J., or any other club where the nouveau riche gather, many of whom — thanks to the uninterrupted bounty of economic policies in America going back to Ronald Reagan — are now plutocrats.
And I think of that Colombian man, so certain and so wrong and so protected from his errors by his wealth.
As Year 2 of the Trump regime begins, it would probably be a good idea for everyone to stop looking for grand psychiatric theories about what makes Mr. Trump tick — it is insulting to people who suffer from real mental illness.
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Those who want to resist Mr. Trump should accept that America is being governed by a country-club boor, backed up by other members of the club — a class that doesn’t worry that it will suffer if he makes a mistake.