President Trump recently tweeted, “The United States, under my administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our ‘Thank you, America?’ ”
President Trump has often criticized Americans for not being grateful enough. Now he has chastised the whole world as a thankless lot of humanity — a globe of ingrates.
Mr. Trump’s obsession with gratitude is a regular feature of his unscripted remarks and speeches. When people thank him, he likes them. But when slighted, he is quick to criticize unappreciative offenders. He has attacked Puerto Rican leaders as “politically motivated ingrates”; demanded public thanks from his cabinet and members of Congress; wants people to thank him for stock market gains; and excoriated a corporation as failing to thank him when he approved a project to its benefit.
Last December, a pro-Trump “super PAC” expressed its gratitude with a commercial, “Thank you, President Trump,” that expressed appreciation to him for, among other things, “letting us say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
Gratitude is central to Mr. Trump’s politics. He demands it of his followers, his cabinet and, indeed, of all citizens. He deploys gratitude against his enemies and critics to embarrass and shame. Being grateful is not an option. It is a requirement.
Donald Trump has made “thank you” divisive.
Yet gratitude has always been political. Sometimes it is used toward good political ends (such as public celebrations of thanksgiving). More often, however, authoritarian leaders have used gratitude to control critics and consolidate power.
The misuse of gratitude in politics goes back a long way — ancient Rome mastered it. In that empire, structured as an economic and political pyramid, a few people at the top held most of the wealth and power. At the bottom, where most people barely survived, there was very little. What held this inherently unjust system together? There was, of course, a feared army. But there was also something else: a social structure based on a particular form of gratitude.
The emperor Caesar — the head of the Roman empire — was believed to be “lord and savior.” He owned everything, the benefactor who distributed his gifts and favors (“gratia” in Latin) at will. Even if you were a slave with a single piece of bread to eat, that bread was considered a gift of the emperor’s.
Caesar’s gifts, however, were not free. They were transactional. When you received from Caesar, you were expected to return gratitude, your “gratia,” through tributes, tithes, taxes, loyalty and military service. Until you returned appropriate thanks, you were in Caesar’s debt. If you failed to fulfill your obligation, you were an “ingrate,” which was a political crime punishable by the seizure of your property, prison, exile or execution.
Rome’s power was built on benefactors and beneficiaries bound by reciprocal obligations of gratitude. It worked, but it was easily corrupted. Lower classes incurred huge debts of gratitude that could never be repaid, functionally enslaving them. Ancient philosophers urged benefactors to eschew corrupted gratia and instead give freely from a desire for the common good. Benevolent gratitude, they insisted, was a virtue. Sadly, it was also rare.
Western societies inherited Roman ideas of gratitude. Medieval rulers tried (and failed) to Christianize political gratitude, but Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith rejected quid pro quo. They argued that reciprocal gratitude was bad for politics, but also believed that benevolent gratitude was necessary for moral democracy. It was a nuanced and difficult position to achieve. The temptations of corrupted gratitude kept creeping back into Western politics.
Understanding this helps explain Donald Trump. He has always depicted himself as a benefactor: “I alone can fix it.” During the primaries, he boasted that he received no outside gifts or contributions, thus debts of gratitude would never control him. He criticized conventional forms of payback, promising to distribute social largess to the “right” people, rid the system of undeserving beneficiaries and restore upward mobility in a social pyramid. No more corporations, no more politicians. He would be the ultimate benefactor. He would make America great again from the top.
This helps explain why the Russia inquiry makes Mr. Trump angry. The suggestion that he benefited from anyone, much less a foreign government, undermines his self-image as unassailable benefactor. He never receives. He gives as he wills, and to whom he chooses. “Receivers,” like the poor, immigrants, women and persons of color, are considered weaker beings, consigned to the lower ranks of his social pyramid, and who, failing to reciprocate his paternalistic generosity, are chided for a lack of thanks.
There is, however, an alternative to the pyramid of gratitude: a table. One of the enduring images of American self-understanding is that of a Thanksgiving table, where people celebrate abundance, serve one another and make sure all are fed. People give with no expectation of return, and joy replaces obligation.
This vision of gratitude is truly virtuous, sustains the common good, ensures a circle of equality, and strengthens community. Instead of Mr. Trump’s gratitude-as-duty politics, what our country needs is a new vision of an American table of thanks.
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