It used to be that people who had great wealth, especially those who had inherited the money rather than making it themselves, would practice something called noblesse oblige. The French phrase literally means “nobility obliges”; these days we might say “Pay it forward.”
The idea was that the rich and/or powerful had a duty to do something for the less fortunate and the powerless.
Thus, they endowed universities and scholarships, became patrons of the arts, built hospitals and museums. The industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated enough money to build 2,509 libraries, many of them still in use. The Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts all had a sense of noblesse oblige, and if their generosity was somewhat tainted by condescension or, worse yet, bigotry and sexism, they still did a lot of good for people who might not otherwise have had the chance to go to school or a museum or a symphony.
We now have as president a self-described multi-billionaire who inherited some of that fortune from his father. Donald J. Trump, however, feels no need to help anyone except himself and his own family. Endow a library or a hospital? He’d much rather see his name writ large on a gaudy casino or a fraudulent university.
It is astounding to me that a man who grew up with money in New York City is so uncultured. One never hears of Trump going to the theater or the ballet, or even to a rock concert or ball game. Our president is a man of little knowledge of the world and total certitude that he is right.
And 45 isn’t the only one. Over the long Independence Day weekend, the world was treated to the spectacle of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, and his family luxuriating on a state-owned beach. Meanwhile, because of a budget impasse, the state-owned beach was closed to everyone else — including the families who own residences there and who were forced to leave under threat of arrest.
The mansion where Christie and family stayed in private splendor — unmolested until a photographer from The Star-Ledger, my alma mater, took aerial shots — is owned by the state and made available to governors as an official second residence. Christie defended himself beforehand by saying that anyone who wanted a beach house could run for governor, and then whined that he had wanted to spend the Fourth of July holiday with his family, as if someone were questioning his choice of companionship.
A real leader, someone with a sense of noblesse oblige, would have stayed away from the park in solidarity with those who were shut out. But Christie is a lame duck whose unpopularity is unprecedented, so he’s out of noblesse and feels obliged to no one.
He and 45 and the rest of the sorry lot that make up the GOP have a new slogan. It’s no longer “Nobility obliges.” Their new catchphrase is also two words, but instead of French, it’s good old Anglo-Saxon.
And it’s not “Happy birthday.”