Americans are raving with praise for a show about a billionaire family being tormented and killed by a saucy little demon and Democrats are shying away from an Eat The Rich ethos. That millions of Americans are titillated by the suffering of the wealthy on their TV screens apparently means nothing to progressive lawmakers and those shaping fiscal policy.
The Biden administration, backed by most congressional Democrats, this year proposed $80 billion in new funding for the woefully underfunded IRS – a plan critiqued in bad faith by the American right as a coordinated taxation attack on working families. The IRS funding boost would have allowed the agency to do something novel: Collect taxes from wealthy folks hiding their money illegally, helping to fund a federal government starved of resources thanks to the financial sophistication of our lovely oligarchy.
Because Republicans are good at politics and will stop at nothing to achieve their policy goals – most importantly the protection of wealth by any means necessary – porn-loving Speaker of the House Mike Johnson made the cutting of this new IRS funding contingent in sending cash for Israel’s war in Gaza. The fate of the IRS funding now depends on what the Senate does with the House-passed war bill. My guess, after decades of watching Democrats – who are quite bad at politics – cave to any and all Republican demands, is that the IRS money will be slashed and the agency will remain defenseless against tax cheats refusing to pay their fair share. We’ll see, I suppose.
I wonder, at times like these, whether anyone on Capitol Hill watches TV, whether anyone is in touch with popular culture. The historic wealth gap and the growing, horrifying power of the billionaire class – which can now purchase state legislative majorities and online town squares and everything in between – and the increasing desperation of working class Americans hanging on to the economic cliff by their fingernails has created a culture that is at once obsessed and endlessly hateful of celebrities and the rich.
We love to watch the rich in their insulated worlds of obscene luxury and comfort because we want that for ourselves, though we know we can never have it. So we develop a hateful fascination with the wealthy and their shoes that cost more than our car and their purses that we’d have to finance for ten years and the designer drugs and the plastic surgeries and hair replacements and rich folks’ proximity to the fountain of youth, however mutilated and half-human they end up looking. We watch because we love and hate it in equal measure. We are detached, for none of it seems real. And our envy and resentment could power the Las Vegas strip for a hundred years.
Then comes a show like Fall Of The House Of Usher and we realize how we really feel about this vile billionaire class that has vacuumed up our nation’s resources, privatized the commons, and made representative democracy nearly unworkable (what follows is a spoiler alert for those who have not watched the limited Netflix series).
In eight sprawling, possibly too-long episodes of Usher, we watch as a billionaire pharmaceutical industry family – a stand in for the opioid-dealing Sackler clan – falls apart, member by miserable member. Their undoing is not at the hands of the legal system and a bound-and-determined good faith prosecutor who has spent most of his life trying to put the Ushers in prison. Yes, they are on trial for their many and varied crimes in sickening and killing untold millions of Americans with their legalized poison. The Ushers, down to a person, scoff at these legal threats much like we see Donald Trump and his wild-eyed attorneys scoff at the former president’s legal bind. The system was not made to prosecute people with such power, such clout, such influence. The Ushers understand full well that money protects one from the law, and that in the US, this is inviolable.
What brings down the House of Usher is instead a sinister spirit – a demon, maybe – who made a deal with the founding Usher siblings way back in 1980. Posing as a bartender in New York City on New Year’s Eve, this demon offers the Ushers endless riches in exchange for the end of the Usher bloodline. Driven by the kind of greed and animalistic desire that destroys empires, the Ushers accept the deal. We tune in to watch the demon collect on said deal. The Usher children, all of them corrupted and soulless after utterly loveless lifetimes of infinite wealth and opportunity, die in horrific fashion, one by one, until there are none left. And the viewer watches with great anticipation for the next unspeakably bloody death. We wait to see what great suffering the next Usher will endure before they are dispatched. Please make it good, we think. Make it bloody.
Anyone being honest with themselves – even if you cover your eyes for the gross parts – understands why we watch this. Because, in short, it is cathartic. It is a release valve for our pent-up fury and gnawing hopelessness in our late capitalism dystopia. We can’t get slightly higher tax rates for the ultra-rich after generations of dangerous tax slashing by GOP congressional majorities, but we can watch a show about their breathtaking agony and death. Maybe that’s good enough.
“When it comes to watching TV shows and movies about wealth, the modes can sort of go between a vicarious escapism or it can be morbid fascination,” TV critic Caroline Framke recently told NPR. “I think we’re more in the latter moment right now.”
Americans’ anger isn’t necessarily directed toward anyone with money to spare. Our vitriol isn’t (usually) directed toward the successful small business owner with a beach house and a wave runner. We (usually) reserve our anger for the families who build empires that cannot be checked by the justice system or lawmakers or anything else in a representative democracy. We hate our dynasties, which we know should not exist in a free society.
“This is the kind of wealth that is the subject of films and of television shows that are popular,” Brooke Harrington, an economic sociologist at Dartmouth, told NPR. “It’s the dynastic wealth, meaning it’s inherited by subsequent generations and they don’t compete in the marketplace like the rest of us.”
Fall Of The House of Usher is hardly the first 21st century show to allow working folks to bask in the misery of the uber wealthy. The Obama era was full of shows with emerging class consciousness and hatred of the rich and powerful (I think this was due in part to Obama’s campaign being backed by the wealthy and the realization that there can never be a president who is not beholden to Wall Street American psychos).
Mr. Robot came out in 2015 and gave voice to the tear-it-down ethos that would define the 2016 presidential election. The show’s thesis – that a society this corrupt and unjust did not deserve to survive – animated the 2016 Trump campaign and parts of the Bernie Sanders electorate (of which I count myself, without the tear-it-down part). Mr. Robot, at its core, was a vicious Marxist critique of capitalism, and it resonated with millions of everyday Americans.
The Purge, which first emerged during Obama’s second term, was rife with eat-the-rich elements: Americans, for one night a year, were allowed to do any crime, including hunting down the nation’s most affluent families. Wolf of Wall Street also came out around this time. The Martin Scorsese film was three glorious hours of watching the excesses of the rich curdle into all-consuming misery, both legal and financial.
If you somehow needed more examples, Netflix is releasing a movie titled Eat The Rich, about the nerds who fucked around with GameStop stock during the pandemic and beat Wall Street gangsters at their own fucked-up game – sort of.
I would implore congressional Democrats and their staff members to turn on a streaming service now and again to place their fingers on the pulse of an increasingly angry electorate. That anger is pushing some (many?) doomer zoomers away from the left and toward either apathy or the far right, which is all too eager to embrace young folks sick and fucking tired of capitalism and all its horrors. The right, of course, will do fuck-all to ameliorate the suffering of working folks, but that doesn’t matter. They’ll rope you in, infect you with their red-pilled nihilism, and off you go down the fascist rabbit hole, never to be seen again. This is the future of our politics if Democrats don’t get more serious about the class war.
So push for more IRS funding and couch the funding boost in terms House of Usher viewers might appreciate: We’re going after the rich. They can’t hide anymore. They’re going to pay their fair share, whether they like it or not. We won’t stop until their many crimes and misdeeds are exposed and made right. Talk a populist game – Republicans do it all the time in bad faith.
With class dealignment, the question lingers: Do Democrats want to lift so much as a finger for working people in that class war?
Follow Denny Carter on BlueSky at @cdcarter13.bsky.social and on X at @CDCarter13.