Some say that in America there are no poor people, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
Many people here still seem to believe or hope that if they work hard enough, for long enough, they will somehow find themselves living on easy street too.
That belief soon calcifies into accepted wisdom in interesting ways. Rich people, we are told, deserve the trappings of their success whilst poor people are poor because they have been shiftless or lazy.
The darker side of this off-kilter meritocratic thinking can soon come to see being poor as an obvious character flaw, almost proof of their immorality. How dare they be poor, the thinking goes, they must have wanted to remain so. It's clearly their fault.
Ideas like this can be remarkably seductive, not just in America, but globally. They reassure those with means that they deserve all their good fortune, they reassure them that those without their means have had the same opportunities but lacked the drive, or the persistence, to succeed.
In the Catholic faith, they might call that a form of absolution, a handy way of releasing yourself from guilt, obligation, or punishment. You forgive yourself for all of your advantages because you have worked hard for them, and you overlook the many misfortunes of others because they were given similar opportunities but failed to thrive. But is that really true?
People don't like to look at the obvious holes in these "I deserved to succeed and you deserved to fail" meritocratic theories because they are challenging and uncomfortable, because they soon break down along every predictable social line: class, race, access, orientation, inheritance and so on.
We don't all begin our climb from the same starting line, we don't all inherit the same advantages, we are not all judged equally regardless of creed, color or class.
I bring all this up because 50 million Americans have found themselves out of work due to the worst economic decline in American history thanks to the ongoing pandemic. If ever there were a time when you can say their job losses were through no fault of their own it's now.
But that hasn't stopped some Republican Senators like Ted Cruz from blaming them for their misfortunes, because old habits die hard. Cruz objects to any federal aid to boost unemployment payments at this unprecedented time because he says 68 percent of people receiving them would be paid more on unemployment than they made in their job.
Waiters, bar staff and busboys won't risk their health and come back to their jobs if they make more not working than working in a pandemic, he argues.
That sounds reasonable on its face until you factor in the “working in a pandemic” part of the sentence. What exactly has his party done to tackle that pandemic?
The answer is the Trump administration has dismissed it, downplayed it, misled us, and then went golfing as the number of the American dead surpassed all the Americans killed in World War I, or the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War combined.
What kind of message does it send when you insist that waiters, bar staff and busboys must return to work from the tailored lawn of your $250,000 a year private golf club?
What kind of message does it send when you call for other people's children to return to school whilst you keep your own pampered son from doing likewise?
Part of Trump's appeal is that plays to the myth of meritocracy. He allows paupers to pretend they understand plutocrats. He's rich, but the rich despise him, he is populist but he personally despises the poor. He's a poor person's idea of what being a rich person is like, with his gold signs and tacky red ties.
He doesn't belong to the rich, he doesn't belong to the poor, he belongs only to himself they all tell themselves, failing to see that is exactly why the country is now in the state it's in.
After four years of his disastrous presidency, we have seen what lies beneath the gilded surface. Cruelty, contempt, racism, authoritarianism, paranoia, and suspicion. Our streets are burning where they are not boarded up. Children are being separated from their parents and kept in cages. A biblical pandemic is raging. The cruelty of our times reflects the cruelty of his leadership.
Trump didn't mean to, but he ended up telling the truth about modern America. He started with a gold spoon in his mouth and he ended up in the Oval Office. His own abilities had nothing to do with it. No one can even say with certainty yet what his abilities even are. There is always less to him than meets the eye.
But now, with remarkable dramatic timing, the coronavirus exposed every enduring weakness in our system, including how unequal access to health care leading to unequal survival outcomes, or unequal access to unemployment benefits can leave some protected and many others totally exposed.
So the terror of our times is not just the pandemic but that America's mask has finally slipped. In Trump's America where you start determines where you finish now. Trump himself is walking proof of the fact.
He hires and fires his underlings with the indifference of a monarch, a monarch who was born to rule. What does that say about the state of our democracy? The dumbest thing conservatives have ever done to their own cause was to stand back and let Trump prove it.