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From Emerson to Trump

Capitalism, Meritocracy, and the Virtue of Money

Olga Thierbach-McLean

Pages 29 - 43


Donald Trump’s political victory has taken many by surprise on both sides of the Atlantic. Months after his election, the world is still trying to find explanations for his mass endorsement by U.S. voters. In all of this, one aspect has received little attention so far: namely, the culturally ingrained U.S. American assumption that free markets are ruled by a metaphysical mechanism that rewards moral behavior. More than merely venues for economic competition and exchange, they tend to be perceived as a societal filter that helps single out the most talented and worthy individuals. This tenet has entered the United States’ collective bloodstream as a latent aspect of the individualist intellectual tradition whose main architect is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Against this background, Trump’s public appeal may be interpreted not as an isolated lapse in political judgement or a sudden outburst of blatant racism, but rather as a logical consequence of a firmly established cultural code.


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