In 1993, on the first Labor Day weekend of his presidency, Bill Clinton’s radio address spoke of the “idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children.” This idea, according to Clinton, had been instilled in generations of Americans by their parents.
I’m not entirely sure if this was the first formulation of the phrase “work hard and play by the rules,” but it will suffice for our purposes here. Clinton was invoking the type of Americans who get by on sweat, who pay taxes, and who basically live their lives in the middle of the road.
Even in 1993, the idea may have had the whiff of nostalgia that comes at the very beginning of putrefaction. America was about to usher in our modern age where hard work was for suckers and playing by the rules meant don’t get caught (or, if you do, pay a hefty fine and go your merry way).
In any event, the phrase evokes — intentionally, I think — the conventional people who live by conventional morality. These are the “just folks” of the American heartland, suburbs, and small towns. The payoff for working hard and playing by the rules could be different for different people. For some, maybe a college degree rather than a high-school diploma; for others a small house rather than a rental apartment.
Contrast that conventional morality with Trump. It’s not worth arguing about whether deal-making, reality show television, and golfing constitute “hard work,” so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt on that prong. But when the issue is “playing by the rules,” there’s no question of our president doing that. If you asked him, he’d probably proudly claim the title of rule-breaker.
And why not? For Trump, taxes are for the little people, as his spiritual godmother, Leona Helmsley famously said. A contract won’t get you paid by Trump, only stiffed (or sued).
In the campaign’s most famous revelation that still didn’t hurt him — which will always be remembered as the grab-them-by-pussy tape — Trump said something more horrific (albeit less profane). Those were his largely ignored statements that book-ended the sentence that drove everyone nuts: “when you’re a star they let you do it” and “you can do anything.” In other words, no conventional morality for Trump.
The philosophical concept of the man who doesn’t play by the rules was embodied in Nietzsche’s “blond beasts” from his Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche famously outlined two versions of morality. First was the standard (conventional) Judeo-Christian morality which he called “slave morality” (and which was basically for losers, although it oddly triumphed in the end).
Against that was what Nietzsche called “noble morality.” For starters, know that the English translation doesn’t mean “noble” in the sense of high-minded principles, but instead the more old-fashioned usage of belonging to the hereditary class (i.e., the “nobility”).
Nietzsche describes those practicing noble morality as “uncaged blond beasts” who “revel in their freedom from social constraint” and revert to what he calls the “innocence of wild animals” in which — guilt-free, of course — they engage in orgies of “murder, arson, rape, and torture, jubilant and at peace with themselves as though they had committed a fraternity prank.” Their actions are “bent on spoil and conquest” in a life which is “violent, rapacious, exploitative, and destructive.”
Life’s purpose, for the blond beasts, is to create ever greater constellations of power. “These men,” in Nietzsche’s words, “know nothing of guilt or responsibility,” but are “actuated by the terrible egotism of the artist.” They hold to the slogan that “nothing is true and everything is permitted.”
Nietzsche’s blond beasts perfectly foretold the young Nazi functionaries or at least that role in every American and British World War II film from 1945 to the present.
Remind you of anyone?