The Gilded Age, Version 2019
Between 1870 and 1900 the country was severely divided between the haves and the have-nots. Today the division is veering toward the have-too-much and the have-much-less. The social benefits programs—social security and welfare—and the growing plenitude of minimum wage jobs stave off the extremely abject poverty of that first gilded age.
But this kind of division signals a decaying civilization as history reveals about ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, pre-revolutionary France, Victorian England, the German Weimar Republic and on and on. Perhaps this is an overly simplistic view, but the ever-expanding imbalance of economic distribution tends to foment a degenerating attitude at both ends.
The wealthy indulge outrageously excessive appetites for cuisine, couturier, vehicles, habitations, and sexual adventures. The poor grovel and give in and give up. The stable values of community become so eroded that alien invaders move in, either a foreign people like the goths who sacked Rome, or radical extremists like the Nazis who captured Germany internally.
“America was saved by the empowered visionaries who brought forth welfare, social security, child labor laws, and eventually Medicare. “
Trump surely represents the internal destroyer. His message, however mendacious and confused and uninformed, has not met with the congressional force of right and righteous resistance that one would surely have expected.
And now my question: Is this the fatal sign of imminent decay that every gilded age foreshadowed. US billionaires and multi-millionaires seem to be piling up not only wealth but lifestyles that exhibit the telltale signs of extreme sybaritism, of over-indulgence to the point of moral and political ruination. Tagging along is the disregard of democratic ideals and contempt for the increasingly disenfranchised, our poor and our “deplorables.”
Is our country facing a slide into the morass that previous once-glorious civilizations suffered? Is our end approaching?
Both my parents attained maturity in the nineteen thirties, the era of the Great Depression that followed the roaring twenties, another gilded age that saw wealth piling up in the stock portfolios of the few while millions went hungry, jobless, homeless, and without health care. My parents endured but the trauma—which it was for many if not most Americans—endured.
America was saved by the empowered visionaries who brought forth welfare, social security, child labor laws, and eventually Medicare. World War Two fired up the engines of productivity and fomented industries that survived long after the war.
Our country, with much of the world dragging after us, is faced with the crisis of a doomed gilded age without the parachute of a counteractive leadership. The social forces that backed Franklin Roosevelt seem today weak and themselves divided.
Is America going to crash and burn?
Will no one throw the bums out?
Will we sit among our ashes and weep?
When I was a boy in post-war Detroit I was frightened and mystified by a man, ragged and unkempt, parading up and down the downtown main street while wearing a sandwich board that proclaimed, in black hand-painted letters: “The End is Near.”