I have always identified with rats.
When I saw Charlotte's Web for the first time as a kindergartner, I felt an immediate affinity with Templeton, the barnyard rat who helped mastermind Charlotte and Wilbur's plan so he could gorge on garbage at the fair. "A fair is a veritable schmorgasbord-orgasbord-orbasbord… Oh, what a ratly feast!" Paul Lynde sang.
In elementary school, when I read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which described the society built by a group of lab rats gifted with human intelligence, I loved the greediness I saw in its characters: not for the "moldy goodies" Templeton lusted after, but for all the knowledge and power that wasn't supposed to be their birthright, but which they had scavenged and put to use anyway.
Rats, to me, became a symbol of greed and all its uses, and proof that my own life didn't have to be about finding ways to control my own greediness.
But can greed actually be good? It's hard to contemplate this question without thinking of Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street, and it's hard to think about Wall Street without thinking about the 2016 presidential election. Stone's Wall Street tells the story of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a Sun-Tzu-quoting corporate raider, and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), his wary protégé. The movie — which inspired a generation of speculators and stockbrokers, despite the fact that Stone had envisioned it as an indictment of Wall Street culture — is perhaps most famous for Gordon Gekko's speech on the subject of greed. It's a monologue that seems eerily similar to the speeches Donald Trump has been making throughout his campaign, and to the bringing-corporate-values-to-the-presidency rhetoric he unleashed at last week's debate — except that Gordon Gekko's version actually make sense, at least on the level of sentence structure.
"Greed is right," Gekko says. "Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save [this company], but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA."
Donald Trump has often boasted of his unabashed greed. Many wonder why this doesn't repel voters. Perhaps this has always been the wrong question, and the one we should be asking is why it attracts them.
To those who plan to vote for him next month, Trump's naked greed may seem like proof that he will be indomitable in his quest to get what he wants — which will also apparently be what America wants, and needs. Taking this view of him means making him not just a surrogate of our desires, but someone who can be ruthlessly acquisitive enough to let us reap the rewards of his avarice without coming to terms with our own.
Of course, this plan only works if you can count on Templeton to share his moldy goodies with the rest of the barnyard. Trump has given no indication that he will use whatever power he acquires to serve anyone but himself. The fact that his supporters seem convinced that he will speaks less to any actual promises he has made than to the strange brand of comfort his presence provides. When we don't want to accept that we are greedy and self-serving, we can outsource these base desires to an external figure. The greedier Donald Trump is, the more vulgar and malicious and wrathful he is, the less we have to be.
What I find most fascinating about the concept of greed is how often we assume following our greed must result in the accrual of fame, power, and wealth. Greed, in Gordon Gekko's estimation, "clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit." This notion of the "evolutionary spirit" — the soft science of corporate Darwinism that reduces the kind of unethical practices that torched the economy in 2008 to an unavoidable expression of human nature — was, and is, a profoundly dangerous one. It positions Donald Trump as an übermensch; it suggests, by implicitly referencing "the survival of the fittest," not just that nobody wins unless somebody loses, but that nobody is safe unless somebody dies. It's a philosophy that bleeds through Trump's economic policies — to the extent that he as any — and into his stances on race, immigration, and women's rights. It may be the only unifying position he really has.
Unavoidably present in this conception of greed is that our greed must hurt others — that we must want what other people want, take what they have, or control them with whatever power our greed has helped us to accumulate. But when I think about my own greed, I see that the things I'm greedy for have little in common with the things Gordon Gekko or Donald Trump seem to crave.
This summer, I made the decision to take time off from a PhD program and move to Philadelphia, a city I've never lived in, to concentrate on writing. I was greedy for time, so it made sense to live in a place where I hardly knew anyone. I was greedy for space, so I leapt at the chance for the cheapest rent I could ever hope to find, because the only thing I needed was a desk, a chair, and a room with a door that closed. This felt both spartan and greedy all at once.
Accepting our greediness means accepting our cravings for the things no one tells us to want: cookie crumbs and rotten cotton candy; turning your phone off, ignoring your inbox, and writing something that may be of value to no one but you. Understanding our greed means understanding what we truly want, rather than what society tells us to want, and being unabashed in our pursuit of it. It means looking at what everyone else might see as a dump, rubbing our bellies, and thinking "That's where a rat can glut, glut, glut!"
And if we don't want to adopt Donald Trump as a symbol of the greed we must come to terms with, that's okay, too. There's a whole pantheon of rat heroes and heroines to take his place in our imaginations, even if they can't take his place on the podium.