Fantasy: GOP Tax Plan in a People’s Court

Plutocrats sample oil found under Paris in “Madwoman of Chaillot”


MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell didn’t mince words about the recently passed GOP tax bills, calling it, “the ugliest display of pigs at the trough that I have ever seen.” Not far behind, Bernie Sanders said that “what we are seeing today, in an unprecedented way, is the looting of the federal Treasury.” How else explain giving tax breaks worth billions to billionaires while allowing the the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire and throwing 13 million people off of their healthcare? It’s as though Republicans were auditioning for the role of Mr. Monopoly.

The event has me thinking of a play by Jean Giraudoux that I read when a 13-year-old attending school in Paris. The Madwoman of Chaillot is about a group of street people who learn about millionaires plotting to dig up Paris to access its oil reserves. I loved the play at the time but wondered about it later when I saw the dreadful 1969 Catherine Hepburn version. Being a tame Hollywood production, the film pulled its punches—the villains were too cartoonish to be taken seriously—but my 18-year-old self wondered whether part of the problem lay in the play itself. How interesting is a drama where the good are only good and the bad only bad?

The fact that it accurately captures the current GOP Congress shows just how much Republicans have bought into Donald Trump’s “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get, I’m so greedy.” To truly conform to the stereotype, they would have to sell our National Parks for natural resources. And get rid of the Consumer Protection Bureau while rewarding Wells Fargo. And gut the public school system to give tuition tax breaks to wealthy parents sending their children to private schools. Oh wait, they really are doing all those things.

Toward the end of the play, the street people hold a mock trial of the plutocrats. Ragpicker plays the defendants:

The trial began. Josephine presided as Judge, with the Countess beside her.

“Just how rich am I?” the Ragpicker wanted to know. “Millions? Billions? And how did I get that way? By murder, theft, embezzlement, what?” He assumed a position as though he stood in the dock. “I am ready. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth–no, I swear to lie, conceal, distort everything and slander everybody.

“May it please this honorable court, my life is an open book, I am a pillar of the church. I support all organized charities that are tax deductible.”

The Countess stepped in as Prosecutor. “You are charged with a total lack of feeling for others. Disgusting grossness. The abuse of power. And worship of money.”

“Worship money? Me?” The Ragpicker was piously indignant. “I plead not guilty! I don’t worship money. It’s the other way around. Money worships me. It won’t let me alone. The first time money came to me, I was a mere boy. Untouched. Untainted. It came quite suddenly when I innocently picked a bar of gold bullion out of a garbage can while playing. As you can imagine I was horrified. I tried swapping it for a little, rundown one-track railroad. To my childish amazement this immediately sold itself for a hundred times its value. I made desperate efforts to get rid of this unwanted wealth.”

The gathering stared at him in undisguised fascination as he continued.

“I bought refineries, department stores, every munitions factory I could lay hands on. The rest is history. They stuck to me. They multiplied. And now I am powerless. Everyone knows the poor have no one but themselves to blame for their poverty. But how is it the fault of the rich if they’re rich? Oh, I don’t ask for your pity. All I ask for is a little human understanding.”

An instant chorus of accusations burst from the ranks of his listeners.

“You think you should have your money for nothing”….”You never part with a franc”…

“Slanders!” cried the Ragpicker indignantly! “I spend in order that you may live. If I have tan shoes, I buy black ones. Who benefits? If I have a Fiat, I buy a Mercedes. If I have a wife, I pay alimony. But no matter what I do, I rid myself of my money. I bet a hundred-to-one shot, the horse comes in by twenty lengths. I cannot help myself, ladies and gentlemen. That money sticks like glue, although I buy twelve chateaux, twenty villas, endow the opera and keep fourteen ballerinas.”

He was really getting his back into the speech by now. They were spellbound.

“Yes, ballerinas. How can women deny me anything? I mix morals with sable. I drip pearls into protest. I adorn resistance with rubies. I can have all women. Ah, without money nobody likes or trusts you. But to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty. To have none is to be ugly and boring and stupid and useless.

The Countess confronted him. “One last question. Suppose you find this oil you’re looking for? What will you do with it?”

“I’ll make war! I’ll destroy what remains of the world!”

“You’ve heard the Defense.” Now she faced the jury. “I demand a verdict of guilty!”

“Guilty!” they shouted, all together. “Guilty as charged!”

It takes America’s exploding wealth gap, which is about to get much worse, to make Giraudoux’s caricature of rich people seem so relevant. I particularly like the point that “to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty.” Wealth corrodes everything.

Note also that the defendant is arguing a version of trickle down economics.

The play has a fantasy ending in which the wealthy are lured into a dark stairwell with the promise of oil, at which point the madwoman locks the door behind them. The GOP has descended the staircase, and the rest of us must make sure that the 2018 and 2020 elections turn the key.

Update: Two recent Trump quotes succinctly make Giraudoux’s point:

“You all just got a lot richer,” Trump told his billionaire friends celebrating at Mar-a-Lago, hours after signing tax overhaul into law….

Regarding the repeal of the individual mandate, which will throw 13 million off of health care and spike premiums: “Obamacare has been repealed…I told people specifically to be quiet about it.”

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