Every year, I watch innumerable versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
But, as we see more and more inequality the likes of which have not been seen since the Gilded Age when Robber Barons reigned, the era of sweatshops and blacklists, child labor and dangerous working conditions, of toxins spewed freely into the air and dumped in the water, contaminated meat and unsafe airplanes foisted upon the marketplace with a giant “caveat emptor” stamped on the packaging, this era’s Robber Barons derive the wrong lesson from Scrooge: it doesn’t matter how you cheat, steal, or who you crush to make your fortune, you can buy redemption through using vast wealth for charity, cementing it by putting your name on things like hospital wings or museum collections, and buying politicians who will rescind regulations meant to keep you honest.
Frank Capra’s “A Wonderful Life,” which year after year makes me cry at the same places, offers the opposite moral: be content in your life not to cheat and steal and abuse like Potter, who uses his wealth and power to call out the authorities when he has in fact committed the crime (for which he is never held accountable), as long as you live as good a life as you can. (“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings!”)
I can’t wait for the “Christmas Carol” of our own times about a con man, a tax cheat who runs his business like a Mafioso and brags about paying off politicians and regulators in order to win at any cost, installed into the presidency by a foreign country, who proceeds to dismantle the social safety net – taking away food stamps from 700,000 impoverished people as he writes checks for $24 billion to Big Agribusiness to buy votes lost because of his tariff wars that crash the economies of allies; deprives millions of health care; who locks up homeless people and takes funding away from cities who harbor refugees; who steers disaster relief to places that vote for him and away from those who don’t, who takes children away from their families and locks asylum seekers in conditions so horrible, dozens die. Who couldn’t even go through the motions of handing out a turkey to soldiers in Afghanistan without turning it into a political rally and boasting how he alone is responsible for economic prosperity because of all the regulations he has overturned that have had such results as a chemical explosion in Texas, rising asthma rates, lowered life expectancy.
This is a character who destroys the careers and livelihood anyone who criticizes him or fails to take a loyalty oath; who invites police to beat protesters, border patrol to shoot asylum seekers; who reshapes the judiciary with judges deemed “unqualified” but who see the country as he does, as a white Christian patriarchy; leads rallies that incite violence, inspire massacres and stir death threats against lawmakers and journalists; installs his family in government where they promptly cash in, and on orders of his benefactor, destroys alliances that provoke new wars and religious crusades; and because of policies that exacerbate climate disasters, bankrupts whatever the treasury has left after he gets a kick-back from whatever foreign aid is paid. To cap off this dystopia (which he envisioned in his inaugural speech), ends free and fair elections, citing as his all-encompassing authority, “Then I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” And who will stop him?
Here’s a bit of actual dialogue, as told to Michael D’Antonio, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, from his talk, “Democracy in Crisis: Personality and Power in the Trump Era,” at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck:
“For the most part you can’t respect people because most people are not worthy of respect.”
That scene where you see the main character as a boy, he says, “I like all kinds of fights, any kind of fights, I love it.”
Then later, as a “billionaire” real estate developer, he says, “The whole thing about building buildings is not about building buildings, it’s about fixing things with politicians.”
But it wouldn’t have a happy ending, where the reprobate sees the light and becomes a noble figure. And it wouldn’t be believable. Who could imagine a pompous, self-absorbed, self-serving ignoramus becoming the most powerful person in the world and undoing a 250-year old democracy in a few short years?
The moral of this story would not be to show a man who sees the error of his ways and is chastened and reformed, but in fact is emboldened. It would be how one person can pervade such destruction of the moral underpinnings of society, the institutions that shore up equality and justice, and call it “disruption.”
Instead, the moral of this story would be how important government – good government led and manned by intelligent, hard-working, dedicated individuals who espouse the values of the Republic – is in everyday lives, how important regulations are to level the playing field, how vital is the rule of law is to equal justice, fairness and opportunity for all.
That cinematic shot where they pan away to the wider world, would be a stirring reminder of the importance of alliances, trade and diplomacy to solve global problems instead of rekindling an arms race with a new Space Force. “I alone can fix it,” this character said, but no one man is a savior and unlike 250 years ago, when messages were carried by horseback, no nation can be insulated from the rest of the world. We rise or sink together. In this version, we regress back to the society depicted in Charles Dickens’ other iconic work, “Oliver Twist.”