I was recently reminded of a universal religious tenet. In life we are to place ourselves third. First, God – then others – then ourselves. This adage is applicable when we accept thanks for doing something for others. In Dr. Diana Butler Bass’s opinion editorial “Thank Trump, or You’ll Be Sorry” in the New York Times we are reminded of Trump’s incessant need to be continually thanked. Thanked by the people, leaders of other nations, our military, corporations, congress, manufacturers, when the stock market goes up and the ridiculous notion we can say “Merry Christmas” again. When he is not thanked he ridicules the apparent beneficiaries of his gracious power.
Dr. Butler Bass’s comparison between the social political structure established in ancient Rome and Trump is striking. In that social order the Emperor was to be continually thanked for everything Rome’s citizens had, including life itself.
In her enlightened article Mrs. Butler Bass states: “Western societies inherited Roman ideas of gratitude. Medieval rulers tried (and failed) to Christianize political gratitude, but Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith rejected quid pro quo. They argued that reciprocal gratitude was bad for politics, but also believed that benevolent gratitude was necessary for moral democracy. It was a nuanced and difficult position to achieve. The temptations of corrupted gratitude kept creeping back into Western politics.”
She defines this temptation: “Understanding this helps explain Donald Trump. He has always depicted himself as a benefactor: “I alone can fix it.” During the primaries, he boasted that he received no outside gifts or contributions, thus debts of gratitude would never control him. He criticized conventional forms of payback, promising to distribute social largess to the “right” people, rid the system of undeserving beneficiaries and restore upward mobility in a social pyramid. No more corporations, no more politicians. He would be the ultimate benefactor. He would make America great again from the top.”
Easily recalled are media-recorded accounts of cabinet members reading prepared accolades and pledges of fidelity to their president, Trump deriding Democrats when they refused to applaud him, Republicans creating a chorus line on the steps of the Capital building to welcome him, His incessant need to be warmed by the glow of his base at rallies.
“There is, however,” Dr. Butler Bass states, “an alternative to the pyramid of gratitude: a table. One of the enduring images of American self-understanding is that of a Thanksgiving table, where people celebrate abundance, serve one another and make sure all are fed. People give with no expectation of return, and joy replaces obligation.”
“This vision of gratitude is truly virtuous, sustains the common good, ensures a circle of equality, and strengthens community. Instead of Mr. Trump’s gratitude-as-duty politics, what our country needs is a new vision of an American table of thanks.”
“Gratitude-as-duty politics” is threatened by a free press which does not cower to a self-aggrandizing leader who lacks a moral compass. It challenges that leader to be part of an “American table of thanks.”
-Rev. Dr. Ira S Williams Jr. Gravois Mills