Mark Dancey
From The Archive
Kathleen Geier
No. 29  October 2015

The Family Plot

 On the rule of the perpetual snot-nose 

Mark Dancey
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This August, a crew of crackpot Republican presidential hopefuls dutifully trudged to an elite donor conference hosted by the powerful patrons of the American right, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The candidates outdid one another in obsequiousness. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina gushed that the Kochs and their cronies are “people who care deeply about our nation, and who are willing to put their time and their energy and their resources and their minds to the challenge of making a better nation.” And Wisconsin governor Scott Walker chirped hopefully, from the dregs of his campaign, “So many of you here aren’t here because of any interest on behalf of your personal finances or your industries, you’re here because you love America.” But there was one GOP contender who was having none of it: real estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump. The short-fingered vulgarian tweeted, “I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?”

Yes, the only candidate to call bullshit on this sycophantic exercise was the richest man in the race. But Trump’s utterance only underscores the new normal of the post–Citizens United environment. It’s no longer enough to argue that moneyed interests are controlling our politics—now we must heed the moneyed dynasties scrambling to lord over the erstwhile American common good. Among the mega-donor class, much of the funding is actually coming from a small subset of America’s great family fortunes. A New York Times analysis found that fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half of the contributions to the 2016 presidential election.

Domination of family clans is something few predicted during the midcentury heyday of the middle class. In his 1960 book, The End of Ideology, sociologist Daniel Bell heralded “the breakup of family capitalism.” In early-stage capitalism, the political economy was ruled by an elite group of families, Bell pointed out, and inheritance was a key determinant of how wealth was allocated across the generations. Bell argued that by the early twentieth century, the old order was giving way to a new system in which property was becoming separated from family control. Dynastic marriages had been key to keeping the old system in place, but with the rise of the individualized ethos of romantic love, affective marriage became the norm, and cross-class alliances of the heart were on the rise. Meanwhile, on the more strictly managerial front, a series of crises erupted that led to the financial industry’s gradual takeover of many of the country’s largest and most powerful enterprises. The bankers removed the family owners and replaced them with professional managers, who in turn eventually won independent control of the firms.

Thus, by the middle of the twentieth century, technical and management skills, rather than property and inheritance, were seen as the key sources of wealth and power. As Bell wrote:

The “young men from the provinces,” passing through the classrooms of the Harvard Business School, now had an avenue by which to ascend to high social as well as economic positions. Thus family capitalism gave way to social mobility.

Looking back at Bell’s essay more than half a century later, it’s hard to hail it as an unerring work of prophecy. Indeed, it’s remarkable how little our present economy has in common with the brave new world of midcentury managerial capitalism, and how strongly it resembles the old regime. Contrary to Bell’s predictions, many of America’s most powerful corporations are still owned and operated by wealthy families. Inheritance-based family capitalism—or as Thomas Piketty has dubbed it, “patrimonial capitalism”—is stronger than ever.

Here Comes Junior

Truth be told, family capitalism never really went away. Family-controlled businesses are still overwhelmingly the norm; some 80 to 90 percent of businesses in the United States are family-owned. Family-controlled firms make up about 35 percent of the Fortune 500 and a third of the S&P 500, and account for 62 percent of U.S. jobs. Household names such as Walmart, Ford, Campbell’s Soup, The Gap, Comcast, and Purdue Pharma (the maker of OxyContin) are family-run enterprises. Media empires seem to be especially fond of family control: witness the New York Times Company (the Sulzbergers), News Corp (the Murdochs), Viacom (the Redstones), Condé Nast (the Newhouses), and Rolling Stone (the Wenners). Forbes’s list of the richest Americans is studded with gazillionaires—the Kochs, the Waltons, the Pritzkers, Donald Trump himself—who made their money the old-fashioned way: they inherited the family business. Family owners of the world’s most lucrative businesses are often strikingly reluctant to yield control, no matter how much they might marry for love or delegate day-to-day managerial tasks to a credentialed business elite. A recent study of the world’s five hundred largest family-run businesses found that 44 percent of them were owned by members of the fourth generation or later.

The domination of politics by family clans is something few predicted during the midcentury heyday of the middle class.

So what happened, exactly? One key development is that the older model of family-controlled capitalism has merged with the financialized variety rather than ceding control to it. Today’s family firms are far more likely than their predecessors to have access to the capital markets they need in order to expand. Perhaps even more important, regulators have been extraordinarily accommodating of families’ desires to maintain control of their businesses even as they sell off large quantities of company shares to outside investors. The innovation that enables this valuable bit of legerdemain is called the dual-class share. Such stocks enable the nameplate family at the helm of a large conglomerate to retain most of the voting power even while owning a minority of shares. The advantages to the family are obvious: dual shares maximize control but minimize financial risk. Dual-class shares are becoming increasingly popular, especially in the tech sector, but they have a serious downside. Numerous studies have found that dual-class firms perform worse than those that confer equal voting rights to outside stock purchasers.

An old problem also plagues family firms: what do you do if your heir apparent turns out to be a wastrel, a dullard, or worse? In Thomas Mann’s great novel of family capitalism, Buddenbrooks, each successive generation displays less business sense and weaker attachment to bourgeois virtues than the one preceding it. The once-thriving family firm slowly declines until finally, in the novel’s closing pages, it is liquidated. Contemporary research supports the intuition that putting the heirs in positions of power tends to be bad for business. One study found that family members who serve as board leaders and CEOs are more likely to erode shareholder value. Investors in corporate giants such as Comcast, Bechtel, Marriott, and Fidelity Investments, as well as countless others, should take heed. In each of those companies, the CEO inherited the job from dear old dad.

Unlike the class of executive heirs Warren Buffett dubs “the lucky sperm club,” managers do not inherit their positions. But today’s managerial elites have little in common with the socially mobile “young men from the provinces” whom Bell saw embodying the brave new spirit of technocratic capitalism. Particularly in the United States, spiraling economic inequality has largely been driven by a new class of “supermanagers”: executives who have helped themselves to lavish, historically unprecedented compensation packages—chiefly stock options designed to spur the lucky CEO clutching them to push for ever greater upward spirals of short-term profitability. These pay packages convert such traditional longer-term managerial perks as performance-based salaries and pensions into wealth and future income from wealth. Defenders often claim that “merit” is the reason the executive elite is rewarded so exorbitantly: the competition for truly gifted Maximum Leader CEOs is so intense that the firms retaining their talent have to produce top-dollar paydays to keep them generating value. Yet there is not a shred of evidence that firms that reward their executives with spectacular compensation packages perform any better than those that remunerate them more moderately.

The Apple Tree

What’s more, the system by which aspiring professionals gain entry into the executive elite is itself anything but meritocratic. This trend, ironically enough, recapitulates the original idea of meritocracy—a term coined by socialist British scholar Michael Young to describe the stubborn retention of wealth by a mobbed-up power elite operating under the beguiling cover of professional expertise. Young foresaw that such a meritocracy would expedite the rise of an uncredentialed, permanently disenfranchised service class, which, he predicted, would eventually rise up to overthrow their social betters. And it takes but a glance at the vertiginous inequalities of the American Information Age to see that something very much like Young’s dystopian prophecy has come to pass—except, so far, for the rising-up part. “Meritocracy” smacks of nothing so much as old-fashioned class privilege.

Family firms often face an old problem: what do you do if your heir apparent turns out to be a wastrel, a dullard, or worse?

Take the supermanager class. Overwhelmingly, supermanager jobs are doled out to the lucky few who possess all the advantages from birth: the kind of social, cultural, and, yes, economic capital that is transmitted through the family. In her sharp-eyed recent study, Pedigree, sociologist Lauren A. Rivera analyzes how it is that “elite students get elite jobs”—prestigious, highly paid positions in tony law, investment banking, and consulting firms. The book, which The Economist’s review rather hilariously blurbed as “a guide on how to join the global elite,” shows that access to these jobs is hardly determined by ostensibly impartial and meritocratic criteria such as grades or specific skills. In the first place, a degree from an elite college is de rigueur. And the goods that win the day—more than grades or experience—are extracurricular activities, a sunny autobiographical narrative suffused with overclass values such as individualism and personal achievement, a “polished” self-presentation, and social compatibility with the interviewer. These intangibles are quintessential class markers—the tastes, styles, and behaviors that are powerfully linked to status and mediated through the family.

It starts with education. Parental economic resources are quite blatantly the prime determinant of the quality of a child’s education. Not only do affluent parents have the option of sending their kids to private schools, but they are far more likely to live in neighborhoods with high-quality public schools. Unlike most countries, the United States funds public schools through property taxes, so most well-heeled school districts cluster disproportionately in neighborhoods with high property values and high incomes. Thus, geography becomes destiny, as schools in affluent neighborhoods are significantly more likely to offer academically enriching curricula, including the kinds of Advanced Placement courses and athletics, music, art, and drama programs that are prized so highly by the admissions committees of elite colleges. The college counseling offices at these schools are also, not surprisingly, likely to be top flight—high-achieving, high-income college kids being, as they are, the main export of this particular hothouse industry. And should the ample public resources at their disposal still not suffice to secure the bulging Ivy League admission envelope so hotly coveted in this educational nirvana, wealthier families can also lay out for tutors, test-prep programs, and high-cost extracurricular activities.

But economic resources aren’t the only reason why high-income kids have such a powerful advantage in the college admissions game. By virtue of generalized access to the higher levels of what social scientists have dubbed “social capital”—defined by Rivera as “the size, status, and reach of people’s social networks”—affluent parents can leverage contacts and insider knowledge to help their children gain internships, admission to schools and academic programs, and other critical advantages. For the kids, too, the sheer suffocating monoculture of a peer group single-mindedly organized around their miniature social-capital networks of maximum achievement is a powerful point of entry into the Ivied good life.

The Nepotism Trust

Cultural resources tend to be less visible than the traditional material markers of social and economic class and status. But as Rivera argues, they are “powerful drivers of stratification, especially when it comes to gaining access to society’s upper echelons.” The cultural ethos of achievement-for-advancement’s-sake supplies “the frames of knowledge, perception, interpretation, and behavior we use to navigate the social world.” Most especially, the overclass family hearth incubates all the intangible yet invaluable assets that make up the plutocrat-in-training’s zone of comfort: “class-specific tastes, values . . . modes of self-presentation . . . and behaviors.”

You can get some sense of the powers conferred by this sort of cultural advantage by reviewing the numbers. Beginning in the early 1980s, just as entrance into elite colleges became significantly more competitive, parental income was becoming an increasingly strong predictor of admission into these schools. And not surprisingly, the rich-kid advantage in the admissions game is most overwhelming at the nation’s most prestigious colleges. At Harvard, only 4 percent of undergrads come from families in the lowest 20 percent of incomes, but about half of the undergrads come from families in the top 4 percent. Small wonder that just opposite Harvard Yard, a bank billboard offers something you won’t see at your typical community colleges or ag-and-tech campuses: a counseling program specializing in wealth management.

“Meritocracy” smacks of nothing so much as old-fashioned class privilege.

Of course, Harvard, for all its mythic import in the sustenance of venerable family capitalist rule, is just one campus. Still, the same basic dynamic is now replicated at most upper-echelon colleges across the nation—beginning with who does and doesn’t matriculate at any college campus, anywhere. Among members of the highest-income quartile of American families, about 80 percent earn college degrees; among the lowest-earning quartile, only about 10 percent do so. The educational advantages of the elite extend even to its least intellectually distinguished members. One study has shown that the lowest-scoring rich kids are about as likely to graduate from college as the highest-scoring students from low-income families. And even a fourth-generation legacy admission C-student could grow up to be the forty-third president of these United States. Isn’t America wonderful?

In college admissions, in other words, merit turns out to be a highly malleable construct. Before the 1920s, Ivy League schools largely based their admissions decisions on intellectual merit—subject tests and the like. But, as sociologist Jerome Karabel has shown, when Jews started to gain entry to the Ivies in large numbers, the formula shifted in significant ways. Admissions standards began to emphasize “character” rather than academic achievement. And what was character, exactly? Well, it had a lot to do with being “well-rounded,” and taking exuberant part in sports and extracurricular activities—things, in other words, that were difficult to pursue in credibly privileged fashion in the Jewish enclaves of major American cities. As Jews became more assimilated, they were better able to demonstrate exactly the kind of “character” the admissions offices demanded. To this day, the overclass notion of “character” remains an invaluable filtering device to screen out the proles. And naturally enough, the project of acquiring what the Ivies call “character” costs a whole lot of money. Bankrolling Madison’s tennis lessons or Finn’s summer building houses in Costa Rica does not come cheap—particularly when you consider the not-so-small fortunes anxious parents are spending on tutors, test-prep services, private school tuition, and even application coaches and admissions consultants.

And yet it’s worth it: for professional-class elites, college is a ticket to the good life. But for the rest of America, it’s a different story. In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s study of a group of female students at a large state university, the authors found that after five years, fully half the students were on a path of downward economic mobility and that their fates sorted out almost perfectly according to their class backgrounds. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler has noted, rather than reducing inequality, our system of higher education reinforces it. Less privileged students frequently attend inferior schools (many of them of the for-profit variety), earn worthless degrees (if they even graduate at all), and end up mired in debt.

The educational adventures of our hero, The Donald, aptly illustrate the dichotomy in higher education. As you might expect, Trump, a product of upper-crust private schools, is an Ivy League alum. He graduated from the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In 2004 he founded Trump University, an unaccredited institution that began by offering online courses and soon branched out to pricey workshops in real estate investing. Former students of the school claim it was a stone hustle. One of them wrote, “For my $35,000+ all I got was books that I could have gotten from the library that could guide me better then [sic] Trump’s class did.” New York state regulators forced the school to stop calling itself a university (it became the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative in 2010), and now two class action suits and a civil suit filed by New York’s attorney general are pending.

Michael Young would gaze at this spectacle—his vision of grinding class oppression masquerading as fair play returning robustly to life in the elite precincts of Yankee higher learning—with equal parts chagrin and glee. The pseudo-equitable system that we mistakenly call a meritocracy is a meritocracy only in Young’s pejorative sense: an increasingly closed system for elite reproduction, in which the preexisting possessors of privilege define what counts as merit in terms most pleasing to them.

Married to the Mob

We should not be quite so astonished, then, to see that in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, the hardiest specimens of economic recovery are also the most mobbed-up ones. For all the symbolic attention we lavish on the myths of self-made American success, the dominant mode of achievement remains the privileged, networked, debt-indifferent Trump one.

So is America becoming Thomas Piketty’s nightmare, a society doomed to be ruled in perpetuity by a handful of plutocratic family dynasties? It may well be—as long as we continue to sanction all-out war on the American public sphere. The one sure countervailing force against the dead hand of birth-and-family oligarchy is a battery of reasonably funded and accountable public institutions. Propelled by strong health, education, and welfare policies, social democracies like Denmark, Norway, and Finland enjoy some of the highest rates of economic equality and social mobility in the world.

Inheritance-based family capitalism—or as Thomas Piketty has dubbed it, “patrimonial capitalism”—is stronger than ever.

But faced with an underfunded and threadbare simulacrum of social democracy, enterprising Americans are left with just two (narrow) paths to upward mobility. One is higher education, which, as we’ve noted, remains a sweet deal for the well born but a decidedly more dodgy proposition for everyone else. The other is an even more surefire, time-tested step forward: marriage. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty has observed that nineteenth-century novelists such as Austen and Balzac were preoccupied with marriage—and no wonder. For both men and women, marriage was a powerful determinant of wealth and social status, and as he says, “marrying a large fortune could procure a level of comfort not obtainable through work or study.” But as with college, the practice of marrying money is increasingly limited to the American elite. The cross-class marriages that used to be common in the United States are becoming relatively rare. Social scientists have espied a trend: something they call “assortative mating.” This unlovely term of art refers to the tendency of people to marry those with similar incomes and education levels. Over the past five decades, though there’s been an upsurge in assortative mating across all groups, the tendency is strongest among college graduates. Marriage, you might say, is becoming another much worried-over extracurricular pursuit for the members of our overclass.

What’s more, like our other social goods, it’s passing into something like cartel-style control, from the top down. Compared to their social inferiors, the economically privileged are more likely to be married in the first place, and less likely to divorce. This is hardly a boon for our flagging statistics of social mobility, since children benefit from the greater stability and more plentiful economic, social, and educational resources a family headed by two high-earning people is likely to provide. Thus, intra-class marriages are literally a means of elite reproduction. They contribute powerfully to elite closure.

The Causes of the Anti-Taxers

Family clans are hoarding a vast array of resources, from material goods like businesses and high-paying jobs to social benefits like high-quality education and even marriage. Having gained possession of these treasures, their next goal is obvious—to keep as much of the loot as possible. Enter one of the greatest social movements this country has ever known: the decades-long campaign on the part of the wealthiest Americans to “untax the one percent.” As sociologist Isaac William Martin observes in his insightful chronicle of anti-tax activism, Rich People’s Movements, rich people not named Trump generally have preferred not to call attention to themselves. It was far more seemly and, well, sanitary, you might say, to do their politicking behind the scenes and at arm’s length, by hiring lobbyists or donating to political campaigns. Yet curiously, in the past half-century, we’ve seen a series of highly visible grassroots social movements in which activists used the tactics of the poor and dispossessed to agitate for tax cuts for the rich. Even curiouser, unlike virtually every social movement in history, the people involved (call them the rich) were explicitly protesting on behalf of others who were even more wealthy than they were—the stinking rich, as it were.

Martin persuasively argues that grassroots anti-tax activism began when credible policy threats arose to thwart the usual prerogatives of the stinking rich—which meant, in turn, that the usual insider tactics that the rich preferred weren’t yielding results. The merely rich were galvanized when they worried that a tax aimed at their economic betters might affect them too. The policy entrepreneurs who spearheaded these movements borrowed heavily from the organizing methods and tactical repertoire of earlier social movements, especially populism and women’s suffrage. They deployed the media-friendly, populist stylings of the earlier movements to great effect. They also made extraordinary claims as to the moral worthiness of the stinking rich, hailing them as virtuous, hard-working entrepreneurs and job creators. And when these anti-tax zealots felt the political system wasn’t acquiescing readily to their demands, they proceeded to take over the institutional armature of the GOP and remake it in their own image.

They certainly succeeded. For Republicans, especially Republican presidential candidates, any talk of raising taxes has become the political third rail. That’s why it’s been so diverting to watch unlikely populist crusader Donald Trump loudly calling for more taxes on the rich (even though his actual tax plan is bedecked with regressive giveaways for the rich). His championing of this cause has confounded his presidential rivals and horrified the GOP establishment. The most powerful of the anti-tax groups, the Club for Growth, launched a $1 million ad campaign that accused Trump of “playing us for chumps.” Club for Growth president David McIntosh charged that Trump had the worst economic record of any candidate, “with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders.”

The Trump anomaly aside, for decades now, the anti-tax movement has been part and parcel of the GOP’s political identity. And sadly, the GOP’s tax-phobic demagoguery has goaded Democratic Party elites into rampant mimicry. As a result, the past half-century of tax policy has been a nearly unrelieved march toward upward distribution. Between the end of World War II and 1964, the top tax bracket hovered around 90 percent; it has plunged to about 40 percent today. Another major triumph of the rich people’s movement was its success in slashing the capital gains tax. For no particularly compelling rationale other than reverse Robin Hoodism, income from capital gains is now taxed at about half the rate as income from labor.

But the crowning glory of the anti-taxers has been their radical reform of the estate tax. There’s something downright un-American about inherited wealth and the rule of perpetuities. Following the American Revolution, every state in the union abolished primogeniture. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to propose that the material circumstances of one generation should not bind the next, declaring that “the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead.” Estate taxes in the United States go as far back as the eighteenth century; they were motivated, in part, by fears of America coming to resemble old Europe. The estate tax as we know it was established by Congress in 1916, a few years after the federal income tax. Initially, the estate tax was low, but through the 1930s the top rate climbed sharply, all the way to 70 percent. Though not originally intended as such, the estate tax had evolved into the “confiscatory” sort—that is, a tax explicitly designed to discourage the accumulation of great fortunes. As Piketty has duly noted, the United States all but invented confiscatory taxes, which remained politically popular at least until the 1970s.

We are now seeing the results of the decades-long campaign on the part of the wealthiest Americans to “untax the one percent.”

But by 2001, it was another story. Only a smattering of organizations mobilized against estate tax “reform,” and the voters were indifferent to it, perhaps because advocates had successfully hidden its costs. So that year, Congress not only cut the estate tax, but dramatically increased the number of estates that were exempt from paying any tax at all. The tax itself now applies only to estates worth at least $5.43 million (the previous cut-off had been $643,000). Currently, the maximum tax rate on estates is 40 percent, but the average rate paid by taxable estates is much lower, around 17 percent. That’s because Congress has helpfully supplied heirs with a panoply of tax-busting deductions and loopholes. And only the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans (that’s two out of every one thousand who die) even owe any estate taxes in the first place.

Our tax system is so grotesquely unprogressive that the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers face higher effective tax rates than do the four hundred richest people in America. And that’s not even accounting for the mind-blowing amounts of undeclared income the rich stash away in secret Swiss bank accounts and shell corporations in the Cayman Islands. In his groundbreaking new book The Hidden Wealth of Nations, economist Gabriel Zucman details money-laundering schemes by the mega-rich that would put your average drug lord to shame. He conservatively estimates that some $1.2 trillion of Americans’ personal wealth has been diverted into offshore tax havens, defrauding government coffers of at least $20 billion per year.

With our pathetically low top marginal tax rates on the one hand, and the one percent’s use of tax evasion scams on the other, the undertaxing of rich Americans has reached a level that threatens to destabilize the entire economy. When the states and the federal government are starved of revenue, they are more likely to cut vital services, which not only inflicts pain and suffering, but also decelerates economic growth. Moreover, the undertaxing of the rich is also a powerful driver of today’s soaring economic inequality. In the United States, both wealth inequality and income inequality are higher than they’ve been since the eve of the Great Depression. In the interwar era, progressive taxation was central to the development of an economy that enjoyed record levels of growth, social mobility, and economic equality. But research by Piketty and others has shown that the stupendous tax cuts of the past several decades are directly associated with higher rates of economic inequality. If Piketty is right, and the rate of return on capital will continue to exceed the rate of economic growth, the result will be a dystopic inegalitarian spiral. We are already well on our way to patrimonial capitalism—a society in which inherited wealth of generations past weighs far more heavily than talent and ability in the present. In Piketty’s words, “the past devours the future.”

Who’s Your Daddy?

If there is anything salutary about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it is his occasional refreshing honesty about our pay-to-play political system. In the first Republican debate, Trump said, “I will tell you that our system is broken. I give to many people. I give to everybody, when they call I give, and you know what? When I need something from them, two years, three years later, I call, they are there for me.” He added that after he donated to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, he invited her to his wedding, “and she came to my wedding, she had no choice, because I gave.”

Even a fourth-generation legacy admission C-student could grow up to be the forty-third president of these United States. Isn’t America wonderful?

It was little remarked upon at the time, but that particular bon mot summed up just about everything amiss with the new millennium’s reversion to family-based patronage. There was, of course, the casual endorsement of campaign checks as the premier currency of elite influence-peddling: “When I need something from them . . . they are there for me.” The equally matter-of-fact invocation of Trump’s own wedding as another occasion for pressing flesh and granting political favors served to highlight the rampant mingling of moneyed prerogative and romantic rites of passage among America’s family-based power elite.

Finally, the media-circus aftermath of that first debate once more underscored the gently deferential treatment that our moneyed aristocracy now elicits from one another as a matter of course. In the wake of his debate performance, Trump proceeded to grab more cable-tabloid attention when he hinted that one of the Fox News debate moderators, Megyn Kelly, was chiding him about his insulting treatment of women because she was probably menstruating. (Or as Trump boorishly put it, “she had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”) That contemptuous and sexualized sneer—which would hardly have been tolerated had it come from the mouth of a more down-market GOP candidate like Scott Walker or Chris Christie—then segued into an extended public feud between Trump and Roger Ailes, the caretaker of Rupert Murdoch’s family media fiefdom at Fox News. Thus the real-estate scion faced off against the media dynasty patriarch who had the power to deprive the Trump campaign of its principal life support—wall-to-wall media coverage from a network catering to the wingnut masses. Trump later declared he was through with Fox News, and yet the whole charade seemed to be designed to create maximum publicity for both parties.

It’s hard to miss the larger point here: given the unresponsiveness of our bought-and-paid-for elected officials to the political desires of we the people, our spectatorship of such dynastic clashes of the titans is what passes for political participation. Trump might gleefully mock the rest of the GOP field as “puppets” dancing attendance on the great American oligarchs such as the Kochs—but only because his own staggering wealth means he’s one of the masters of the universe holding the strings. Behold the brave new face of democracy in America. It may not provide much in the way of choice, but it sure delivers on the bread and circuses.

Kathleen Geier is a Chicago-based writer. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The Washington MonthlyBookforum, Salon, and other publications. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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