Marie Antoinette had a fake dairy — a laiterie d’agrément — on the grounds of Versailles. There, the queen and her ladies would dress as dairymaids and pretend to make butter and ice cream; the pleasure dairy had “fixtures of white marble set against walls painted with trompe l’oeil to resemble marble,” according to “Butter: A Rich History” by Elaine Khosrova. But the laiterie d’agrément was one of two dairies on the grounds of Versailles: Not wishing to eat their own mock-preparations, Marie and her confidantes ate the butter, milk and ice cream prepared by real dairy workers at a separate, and far less ornate, facility on the palace grounds.
Centuries after her summary execution at the age of 37, Marie Antoinette remains a symbol of profligacy and scorn of the common man. While she churned a little, possibly inedible, butter in her pleasure dairy, the last of the milk curdled in jugs across France, and women rioted over the price of bread. This week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi evoked her most famous — and apocryphal — quote, “Let them eat cake,” to describe the attitudes of the Trump administration towards federal workers furloughed during the longest government shutdown in American history.
Empathy (or at least the appearance of it) is a baseline political skill, and the sundry plutocrats of the Trump administration have proved astoundingly poor at it.
This week alone, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross — a man with a $150 million art collection and a penchant for customized, $600 “smoking slippers” customized with the Department of Commerce logo — said he “didn’t quite understand” why federal employees were lining up for free food at soup kitchens and suggesting they take out loans instead. (The average American is already saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt; the Washington Post reported that the Department of Commerce’s own credit union is charging 9 percent interest on emergency loans for employees who are missing their second paycheck today.)
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Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, called a month of no pay “a little bit of pain.” And Larry Kudlow, the administration’s top economic adviser, described federal employees working for no pay under pain of losing their jobs as “volunteers.” (Kudlow’s net worth is estimated at around $25 million.)
The president himself evinced even less understanding of the consequences of his own actions. In comments broadcast on Thursday, he suggested that grocery stores would “work along” with federal employees during their weeks of travail, presumably giving away food on the promise of future credit. Trump, notably, is 72 years old and, since leaving the opulence of his Trump Tower and Mar-A-Lago homes (except for the odd weekend), has had his food served to him by “chefs and servants” at the White House. It has, presumably, been quite some time since he visited a Safeway.
Plus, a man who received $413 million from his father can hardly be expected to know what it’s like to visit a grocery store with next-to-nothing in your bank account and your heart in your throat.
It says something about the sheer ineptitude of the various plutocrats that make up the Trump Cabinet that they’ve made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the consummate Washington insider, look like a salt-of-the-earth everywoman. Pelosi, to her credit, has kept her caucus firmly in hand, visited an impromptu food kitchen created by humanitarian chef Jose Andres, and called out the robber-baron coldheartedness of the administration. “He thinks they can just ask their father for money, but they can’t,” she said. (That’s indeed what Trump did when the Taj Mahal, his garish Atlantic City casino, was ailing prior to its 1991 bankruptcy; his father, Fred Trump, bought $3.5 million in chips and walked out without gambling at all.)
Across America, 800,000 federal workers — and thousands more government contractors — have been pinching pennies while Trump left them with no idea when the end to the government shutdown might come; today's announced deal is a temporary reprieve but not yet a permanent solution to the impasse. It thus cannot be reassuring that the leaders in the executive branch seem to be people who have no conception of the household realities of anyone who is not a multimillionaire.
Like much in the Trump era, the plight of workers struggling to cover health care, mortgages and groceries juxtaposed with Trump administration officials who own Modigliani paintings and whose callousness is compounded by cluelessness is a grotesque illustration of the income inequality that plagues our nation.
Across the aisle, this week Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed an ambitious wealth tax on those with more than $50 million in assets, a policy that could raise trillions for robust, population-wide health insurance coverage. For the hyper-rarified class of Americans who are unacquainted with grocery stores, it would mean a check on unfettered accumulation.
And Congress’s most charismatic newcomer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has a policy guru, Dan Riffle, whose Twitter display name is a bald salvo against income inequality: “Every billionaire is a policy failure.” This may scandalize Sean Hannity, but I’d bet Wilbur Ross’s $600 slippers it appeals to a broad segment of the population — specifically, the 59 percent of Americans who endorse a 70 percent marginal tax rate on incomes above $10 million.
It is perhaps not surprising that a new and bolder stance on income inequality from the Democratic Party coincides with a widely-detested presidential administration whose officials live cocooned in the worlds of their own substantial assets. The charade of Trump and his cronies attempting to project insight into the lives of those outside the comfortable aeries of the ultra-wealthy is as empty as Marie Antoinette’s pleasure dairy, but their fantasies aren’t even pretty or pleasing.
There’s no warm light on healthy, wealthy petticoated-milkmaids and no Versailles, just a big, echoing White House the president once reportedly called "a dump," full of workers furloughed or strong-armed into “volunteering” without pay. The president is trapped inside, in an edifice constructed of his own hubris, extracting pain from the common people who serve under him to service his own pride.
Perhaps, by the time he emerges, he will find a world in which those who daily suffer the indignities of poverty won’t be content to simply wait for a better world, but may wish to shape it — just as happened to Marie Antoinette.