I’m an inveterate watcher of ABC’s popular “Shark Tank.” The sharks are a panel of billionaire investors who sit in judgment of mostly young entrepreneurs offering new products to the market. The products range widely from food to sports to technology. Each entrepreneur makes his or her pitch with theatrical flair. The sharks ask probing questions about the originality of the product, its competitiveness with comparable products, whether it has been tested, its cost, the number of sales and its profitability. They size up entrepreneurial character: likeability, commitment to the enterprise, ability to communicate and make the sale. The questioning is aggressive as is the competitiveness among the sharks for the desirable entrepreneur; unlike Mack the Knife’s teeth, these sharks’ teeth are visible. The bottom line for whether they will invest is profitability and scale. The aspiration for each entrepreneur is to become a multi-millionaire and for each shark is to add millions to his or her billions. “The Sharks [we are told] will once again give people from all walks of life the chance to chase the American dream and potentially secure business deals that could make them millionaires.”
This is very much in the spirit of other widely watched TV shows. “Do You Want to Be a Millionaire?” is of course a rhetorical question. Who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? “The Wheel of Fortune” ignores its fatal meanings for its promise of wealth. And then there is the fantasy against all odds of winning many millions in a spin of the Lottery wheel. I never dreamt the Dream, yet I find the spectacle of its pursuit fascinating. It has suspense, conflict, risk—all elements of theater. It is also instructive, giving insight into the American psyche, the distressing knowledge that the passion for riches, not the desire for equality, or more modestly, reducing gross inequality, is too ingrained in American culture to be overcome. Americans are told again and again that they can be and have all that they want to be and have, despite the reality that the being and the having are confined to the few. Occasionally, the entrepreneur will promise to set aside a fraction of his profits to a charity or a social cause, but it’s the accumulation of wealth that is the main theme of the show. The central character of the panel, literally and figuratively, is Kevin O’Leary, half ironically referred to as Mr. Wonderful, for whom adding to his billions is his sole passion. The entrepreneurs, who fail to impress him, are called “cockroaches” and those who turn down his offers are “dead to him.” The other members of the panel are amused, if slightly embarrassed, and the entrepreneurs take it in stride, perhaps prepared for O’Leary’s insulting behavior by the producers of the show.
The case to be made for the show is its valuing of risk-taking entrepreneurs. For the most part they are an attractive and smart lot, mostly young, inventive, some of whom have overcome formidable obstacles such as poverty and homelessness. They represent what has been the genius of America: its frontier spirit and capacity for inventing and reinventing itself. Liberals and progressives in their attention to the sufferings of the poor and the decline of the middle class give little thought and credit to the achievements of the entrepreneurial spirit. Without Goggle, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, we would not have whatever prosperity we enjoy. It is a spirit, however, with casualties. And very little in the Shark Tank is sensitive to the casualties—in particular, the ever-increasing inequality of our growing economy. When an entrepreneur says that he is not only interested in his profit and wishes to share some of his acquired wealth with those in need, the panelists nod in perfunctory sympathy, but we are not allowed to forget that they are sharks and what the bottom line is. While the panelists are well spoken, articulate and very smart, unlike Trump, they share with the president a consuming passion to be on the winning side and a narcissistic belief in the virtue of the enormous financial success they have achieved.
We have been told again and again that Trump is the voice of populist grievance against the elites, but we are not given a clear idea of who these elites are. His alt-right advisors speak vaguely and ominously of the administrative state and the political establishment. What is clear is that Trumpian populism has little to do with economics. His economic agenda is in fact the elitist corporate Republican agenda. If clever enough, Trump could have a place on the panel of sharks. Trump’s populism is cultural, appealing as it does to the grievances and resentments of mostly white working and lower middle class voters, who, he tells them, have been looked down upon by the coastal elites. He speaks a language of the streets that they speak. But the policies he promotes are what might be called shark policies. Like the creed of the shark tank, Trump’s creed is that Americans from all walks of life can become millionaires through individual effort. To reach the goal, they need to compete and win the battle with others. Economic populism assumes collective struggle to achieve benefits for the collective, completely absent from Trump’s appeal and that of the shark tank. We may be incredulous that a person so ignorant, callous and vulgar as Trump could have been elected president, but we should not be surprised by what he stands for, the Social Darwinist ethos that has deeper roots in American culture than the Welfare State that has tried to counteract it. The shark is a congenial image for Trump, who was told by his father that in business he had to be a killer.
In the Trump era, politics has become indistinguishable from entertainment, and the entertainment tends to induce high anxiety about the prospects for our country and the world. Imagine a different kind of entertainment: a television program featuring a panel of billionaires, including, for example, Bill Gates, who rewarded entrepreneurs not only for the profitability of their inventiveness, but also for their social imagination. Each entrepreneur would have to propose a social cause that would have a share in their profits to justify an investment. It would no longer be a shark tank. It would not have the excitement of the violent video games and action dramas that saturate the media, but it might have a tonic effect on our current cultural and political life