The Selling of Rich Delusions

In the wake of billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins saying that he thinks the richest Americans are on the verge of being rounded up into Nazi-style concentration camps, Josh Marshall tries to understand the psychology and sociology of that utterly deluded belief.

Let me state the phenomenon as clearly as possible: The extremely wealthy are objectively far wealthier, far more politically powerful and find a far more indulgent political class than at any time in almost a century – at least. And yet at the same time they palpably feel more isolated, abused and powerless than at any time over the same period and sense some genuine peril to the whole mix of privileges, power and wealth they hold.

There is a disconnect there that is so massive and glaring that it demands some sociocultural explanation. I’ve written about this before. But I confess not terribly well because I’ve found it a difficult issue to get my arms fully around and to reorient my focus on day to day events to the longer horizon. But I do think it’s one of the core political and economic issues of our time and deserves real explanation.

I first started noticing this when I saw several years ago that many of the wealthiest people in the country, especially people in financial services, not only didn’t support Obama (not terribly surprising) but had a real and palpable sense that he was out to get them. This was hard to reconcile with the fact that Obama, along with President Bush, had pushed through a series of very unpopular laws and programs and fixes that had not only stabilized global capitalism, saved Wall Street but saved the personal fortunes (and perhaps even the personal liberty) of the people who were turning so acidly against him. Indeed, through the critical years of 2009, 10 and 11 he was serving as what amounted to Wall Street’s personal heat shield, absorbing as political damage the public revulsion at the bailout policies that had kept Wall Street whole.

Honestly, I think he’s giving them far too much credit. Do the mega-rich really think that they’re living in mortal peril? Not very likely. They’re selling a narrative and the target audience for that marketing pitch are those who aren’t rich but have largely fallen for the ridiculous idea that setting the top income tax rate back to where it was in the 1990s is “class warfare.” That rhetoric serves as a cloak over or distraction from the real class warfare, which includes cuts in public assistance and laws that weaken labor unions. They don’t really believe this crap, they’re engaged in a marketing campaign.

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  • But wouldn’t it be absolutely super if they were in imminent danger of up-rounding and concentration-camping!

  • cottonnero

    Oh, I don’t know about that. One of the defining features of the Tea Party revolution is that the inmates are now running the asylum. The leaders aren’t all con men anymore, some of them are true believers.

  • cottonnero, noticed the name, are you a fan of Sir Gawain or Lindisfarne?

  • Artor

    I wonder who would be building these gulags? Who has the contract for the buses & trains that run all the persecuted rich to the camps? Who is going to be paying the guards and executioners? Somehow, I don’t think poor people have the cash to pull off something like that. How did Hitler do it before? Oh, right. He enlisted the aid of Germany’s 1%. Not to mention a few of our own at the time, like Henry Ford & Prescott Bush.

  • frog

    Artor@4: Yah, seriously. When the proles want to get rid of the 1%, they don’t put them in camps. They round them up and take them straight to the guillotine. Or they invade the palace and just start shooting everyone they see. When you don’t have an infrastructure to do things in organized fashion, you just make do with what you got.

    It’s a wonder more of the 1% aren’t in favor of gun control.

  • voidhawk

    I think it’s the same paranoia everyone with power feels when there are a large number of poor, individually weak people pissed off because of them. It’s the reason they hire private security and live in gated communities. Deep down, they know that this inequality is wrong and they think they have enemies of their own making.

    All I can say to that is: You’re right. You do. Start to placate those enemies or all the electric fences and private thugs in the world won’t stop the wave of disaffection.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Yeah, they have the good education that certainly includes what happened to the French and Russian aristocracies. They learned not to call themselves kings and emperors but that’s what they are. Certainly they know not to push too many of us to the brink of starvation. If the answer to the statement, “the people have no bread…” had been “well give them a little” we’d still have them around. Same with the American Colonies, if King George had eased up some on them, our Revolution would never have got the support it did.

  • 4ozofreason

    Fry: Take that, poor people!

    Leela: But Fry, you’re not rich.

    Fry: No, but I will be someday, and then people like me better watch out!

  • Chiroptera

    I have to agree with Ed. I think that the majority of the have no doubt that there is no political movement to send them to the gallows. What they are afraid of is that the hoi polloi may actually demand an real influence on the laws and regulations that govern their lives (and allow the rich and powerful to get away with their shennanigans) and use “democracy” to strip the powerful of at least some of their power.

    It could be that the their political flacks do beiieve in the imminent Terror, and it is possible that the narrative of FEMA camps is to keep the flunkies in line and doing their bidding.

  • minxatlarge

    I suspect they fear that they don’t really deserve their fortunes and that if anyone found them out, their free ride on the taxpayers would be over. For the classic Wall Street psychopaths, there’s also contempt for the marks who are too stupid (or too needed for patronage) to see the con. It’s mundane projection that feeds their fear and loathing. Same as every other time the masses get irritable.

  • eric

    IMO some part of paranoia can be narcissism. If someone is out to get you, that means they care about you. They’re thinking about you. You’re important to them. To some mind sets, that’s much better than not being thought about at all. Paranoia can be a person telling themselves “I matter.” And the bigger the percieved enemy, the bigger the nacissistic rush. Being paranoid that your neighbor is out to get you doesn’t make you that important in the grand scheme of things, but if the POTUS or US government is out to get you, that must mean you really matter on a global scale.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Honestly, I think he’s giving them far too much credit. Do the mega-rich really think that they’re living in mortal peril? Not very likely.

    Then again, some of the escapees from that bubble seem to back up the “terminal paranoia” model:

  • It’s a wonder more of the 1% aren’t in favor of gun control.

    They take very good care of the military, because the military will take care of them. What about that isn’t obvious?

  • Al Dente

    Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. -John Steinbeck

  • Synfandel

    Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. -John Steinbeck

    For most Americans, the embarrassment is now permanent.

  • MyPetSlug

    I think there’s a simpler explanation. The answer is that rich people are just people like the rest of us. There are good people and some that are assholes (and everything in between). Rich assholes just happen to get a lot more attention than poor one, and have more power as well.

    And in this case, we’ve had Fox News basically kissing the ass of the rich for the past 15 years at least. Telling them how they are mistreated and under threat by Democrats, that their taxes are too high, and poor shouldn’t be pitied because they are lazy and are living off the bloated federal government. It’s not a surprise that some people believe it. In some ways he needs to believe it because it’s not like he came to this conclusions and said, I’m going to support the Republicans (or Tea Party or whatever). Just like a lot of other people, he’s on the Red team, and simply needs to believe the Blue team is evil. I’m sure a lot of poor people share his views as well. They just don’t get op-eds in the Wall Street Journal like he does.

    I don’t think he’s trying to sell a delusion. I think the delusion was sold to him.

  • Lofty

    Shorter 1%ers:

    “The peasants are revolting!”

    /King of Id

  • John Horstman

    Given the number of articles I’ve seen from the super-rich complaining they can barely make ends meet (because walled private schools for all their kids are expensive, as are property taxes on mansions, and the upkeep on that yacht is killer; I’m not exaggerating – taking the lifestyle down even one notch doesn’t occur to them), I have no problem believing that plenty of them really do believe they’re an unfairly-persecuted group.

  • rapiddominance

    If you guys saw “The Dark Knight Rises” then you know very well that rich folk might be rounded up for the slaughter. You don’t even need to read history books.

  • colnago80

    Re #19

    The Dark Knight Rises is a fictional Batman movie and has no relationship to reality.

  • If you guys saw “The Dark Knight Rises” then you know very well that rich folk might be rounded up for the slaughter. You don’t even need to read history books.

    That was an absolutely horrible movie and you appear to have mistaken it for a documentary?!

    History books tend to be more detailed and nuanced and don’t rely on absurd deus ex machina plot devices like, ummmm, psychoactives that make everyone revolt (without affecting any of their other faculties at all!). Compare that with a history of the French Revolution and you might learn what percentage of the population was dirt poor and dispossessed before they adopted violence, what percentages of property in France was owned by the monarch, the church, the nobles, and the peasants – and you might learn that the consequences of rebellion are almost always dictatorships* and why. Dictatorships, not Batman saves the day.

    (* the US, also)

  • machintelligence

    frog @ 5

    They round them up and take them straight to the guillotine. Or they invade the palace and just start shooting everyone they see.

    Leave us not forget the joys of defenestration.

  • mikeyb

    Since reading Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, I sometimes think the libertarian vision of America is identical with Scientology. A few rich celebrities who own everything and all the rest of us as peons working for Sea Org under the delusion that we are serving the greater good, when in fact we are serving an ever shrinking class of multibillionaires housed in gargantuan mostly vacant megastructures. Maybe they can come up with an equivalent secret myth of Xenu that we can all aspire to find out about someday if we’re rich enough.

  • abusedbypenguins

    1792 Paris had a hard time getting rid of the bodies as did the nazis. Round up the rich, quick-freeze them in 18 wheel freezer trucks and drive many, many of these trucks to the desert south-west. Towing a combination wood chipper and paper shredder slowly across the landscape as it comes alive due to the fine pink mist feeding all sorts of critters. The desert settles down in about a week after feeding. The trash has been taken out.

  • colnago80

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #21

    I have not seen the subject flic as I avoid Batman and Superman movies like the plague but the folks over at IMDB gave it an 8.6 and the folks over at Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 88%/90% for critics/audience rating. Apparently, your opinion about this flic, like my opinion about Night of the Hunte is a distinctly minority opinion.

  • @24:

    Sample post-apocalyptical joke;

    “What, you’re not going to eat your Soylent Green?”

    “Nah, it’s too RICH!”.

  • lpetrich

    So Tom Perkins is a member of the salty-beer club. What a big baby.

  • felidae

    Jamie Dimon of JPMorganChase just got a 74% raise this week to about $20 million/yr–nice work if you can get it

    Maybe there is something to the fear that the tens of millions of folks that got screwed out of their homes, jobs ,pensions and savings by the 1% might lose their sense of humor about it

  • It must be time to print up a new batch of EAT THE RICH bumperstickers.

  • dingojack

    “You poor take courage

    You rich take care

    This earth was made a common treasury

    For everyone to share

    All things in common

    All people one… ” 😉

    or perhaps (more authentically, but some 150 years later)….

    “Entendez-vous dans les campagnes

    Mugir ces féroces soldats ?

    Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras

    Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes !”


  • Jordan Genso

    @25 colnago80

    I think this is all you need to know about that movie:

    The movie is entertaining, but very flawed.

  • lofgren

    I’m a Batman superfan and even I have to admit that everything in the video linked above is accurate.

    My advice to anybody who hasn’t seen the Nolan films is: watch them for the terrific performances by the villains and the awesome gadgets in all three movies. Do your absolute best to ignore everything else. Especially the plot, the dialogue, and the characters.

    Back to the topic, I think that Ed is actually giving these guys too much credit. Just because they are rich doesn’t mean that they’re criminal masterminds who can manipulate the masses with their evil plans. There’s too much message discipline for this to be a conspiracy. I think they really are that fearful.

  • lorn

    Wealth, like everything else, has its limitations.

    If you start noticing that the servants are having to fake their smiles, that the yes men lack a certain enthusiasm in their laughter at your jokes, that the car you paid $400,000 for might not be all of ten times as good as the plain vanilla $40,000 make and model it starts to nag at you. Then one day you notice that you really have no close friends. Sure, the guys at the club are nice enough but they mostly come to you when they want something.

    You tried to talk to your one of your less wealthy golf buddies but it was stilted and weird and it was like there was no connection. Sure, he isn’t a billionaire but he is a neurosurgeon and has to be making good money. He was worried about his daughter going off to college and being safe. When you told him to just send her to the top private girl’s school he blanched. Sure its about $1,000,000 to bypass admissions and $250,000 a year, plus extras, but certainly he can afford that pittance. It is almost like he just doesn’t get it. Money is what you use to get your way.

    You might think that you have something to be sorry for. Almost like you did something wrong not bringing people along with you. No … that couldn’t be it. Concentration of wealth is the capitalist ideal. Well then why do you feel alienated, alone, like your being watched. Like … maybe there are people out to get you.

  • I feel bad for them. Perhaps they could have some rallies to protest their persecution. I’m sure that they can send some of their non-essential employees to do the actual sign waving and fist shaking–if the yokelsl still like getting a paycheck, that is.

    Maybe it was here but I saw, somewhere, a poster with a photo from the industrial revolution era, which depicted a child standing, alone, in the midst of a huge “spinning” line in a factory. The legend on the poster ran something like, “Have you considered Libertarianism?”. Anyone else see it?

  • =8)-DX

    If I were snarky conservative (oxymoron) or a shitless rich-guy, I’d not the large amounts of nasty ow-ow things being said about the 1% here! See, Tom Perkins was right!

    Seriously, just return to progressive taxing and comprehensive government regulation of big business – I don’t want or need a guillotine, I want fair and proper wages, a social safety net, programs for equality and a stable global economy.

    It’s not too much to ask..

  • Perhaps they could have some rallies to protest their persecution.

    They did a big one in 2012 called “the republican national convention” it was a star studded affair by all accounts…

  • dogmeat

    That unequal distribution of property, and efforts by those with the most to suppress those with the least, is an ageless conflict. We see it in virtually every society, and it seems to play a major role in the collapse of those societies when they meet their end.

    Dictatorships, not Batman saves the day.


    I would argue that dictatorships become the reality because folks like Perkins here ignore the realities of their greed and corruption, leading to generally moderate revolutions that fall to more radical purges because it is often too late to fix what ails the society. In both France and Russia you see a more moderate revolution preceding the bloody turmoil that results in dictatorship. In both cases a moderate reform movement came too late to make a difference. I still have a glimmer of hope that our country’s course can be corrected, but it is a tiny glimmer and it is beginning to fade.

  • Vall

    I’d like to see a new public works project that would make a difference. How about tracking down every private airport, helipad, and dock. Then install TSA checkpoints there, complete with scanners and dogs so we can sort though their things.

    Either we’d have many, many new jobs, or they would order their staff congressman to de-fund the TSA. Either way is a win-win.

  • bmiller

    I guess my biggest issue with these complaints is that FIRE is not “industry” These folks are not business owners creating jobs or wealth, they are gamblers skimming a percentage off the top. And I understand that there needs to be mechanisms to allocate capital for new investment, but the ever more convoluted products invented by the industry are NOT in themselves creating wealth

  • freehand

    b,iller: …the ever more convoluted products invented by the industry are NOT in themselves creating wealth

    No, their efforts are largely to obfuscate the process and to increase the number of financial transactions. Every purchase and sale gives a portion of the money to some rich manipulator. The simplest examples include a real estate investor. “Oh”, he says, “People are buying houses again.” So he buys several with leveraged loans, then sells them at a profit. Because he is wealthy, he makes money. He contributed nothing; he drove up the price of houses; the original sellers made no more money, and the purchasers paid more, but the rich investor pocketed the change. That’s the way the Romneys of the world “make wealth”, only a thousand times over.

    I would be satisfied with universal health care, a regulated and transparent Wall Street, and good public schools. But I can make do, I suppose, with guillotines.

  • Oh, Freehand, you’re such a kidder.

    Guillotines are NOT the answer. A KKKristian KKKapitalist (like other KKKristianists and ReiKKKwingers) has a head that is like a ganglion. Cut it off, they’ll grow a new one (or just move their ass atop their shoulders). Nope, slice’n’dice just won’t do. The purifying flame is what is required.