To begin to understand ‘how did we get a Trump,” historians should start with the DeVos and Van Andel MLM brainchild
Historians will be pondering for years, how did the phenomenon of Donald Trump happen in the United States. Many will look to the end of the actual years of Trump, and at the most extreme elements of his following, and say it was all based on racism. Others will look at the incongruity of the support evangelicals gave to a man who openly bragged about physically dominating women he wanted to be intimate with — whether they wanted it or not.
Trying to understand Trump cannot rely solely on the Trump years; rather, we need to understand what happened over the course of decades preceding Trump that so traumatized a nation that had formerly been the world’s moral policeman, albeit a flawed one.
A seismic shift cracked the American foundation and replaced a “love thy neighbor” ethos with “suspect-thy-neighbor” one; middle-class values were replaced with a national aspiration that we all had to become millionaires. Words replaced deeds and the core stability that had kept America going from generation was whittled out and sold off to the highest bidder.
I think historians would be well served to look at Amway, the most famous and successful multi-level marketer from Ada, Michigan. Of course, Amway can’t solely be blamed for the eventual onset of Trumpism, but there is something about the whole Amway ethos that just so perfectly captures the wackiness of Trump’s movement. Let it be said, though, while Amway united people around a sense of hope, Trump united his followers on grievance.
The Amway Meeting
I went to my first, and only, Amway meeting in a very typical ballroom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The room was the standard over-air-conditioned affair only we in the US love so much. Filled with a lot of seemingly nice, very-caffeinated-people, the collective excitement had a lot of people already dabbing foreheads seeking to preempt the certain-to-come sweat droplets.
The uniform for those not earning a lot, like me, was a pair of jeans or baggy khaki’s with pleated-fronts, pulled just below the belly-overhang, white shirts with tie. The rest of the men, the mid-career ones, like my father, wore suits. The women were dressed in the way we now expect female Fox News anchors to dress. A lot of heavy beads, really colorful dresses and legs revealed from about five-fingers above the knee.
Rows of American flags lined both sides of the stage and were also interspersed throughout the room. Having served already four years in the army, the setting made me feel like I was at one of those military affairs, like when a training-cycle is being graduated. From all walks of life, few people actually knew much about each other except what the Amway pin — an army ranking, of sorts — told others; and, like in the army, the sense of duty to a never-seen but often-heard-about leader bound everyone together. It was not to some old parchment filled with archaic rules and procedures the members swore allegiance, however, but it was an oath of loyalty sworn to Amway— the way of consumption.
Consume and you earn. Consume, consume, consume and you are a great patriot. You know some people don’t have anything, because they don’t want anything. If you want it, you got to earn it. If you earn it, then in Amway, you earn more.
This was the opening salvo. The crowd of about 500, after have just settled back into their seats at the final notes of “The Star Spangled Banner,” went wild when the words of the first speaker descended upon the room — “Consume.” The explosion of applause and cheers easily reached the tenth floor of the hotel; and, they had heard these words before as quite a few were mouthing them with the speaker. They knew and loved them — they needed — these words. Justifying the sacrifices they were making to part of Amway, the words reassured them that all was going to be okay.
By the third consume, I was able to follow the words without the distractions of the hoots and hollers. As a favor to my father, I said I would come and listen. Endowed with a gift of seeing an outline of another person’s most inner-most feelings — my mother called it intuition — I could feel in that desperation was a common trait; much of it was emanating from people who still hadn’t come to terms with how desperate, perhaps even lost, they really were.
I loved my father so much, God rest his soul, but it saddened me to see him putting all of his amazing talents into this basket of bullshit; but then again, the economy had recalibrated itself and left him and many in that room left stranded by the side of the road as the car raced off down the road.
Heading into my first semester at Rutgers after the army, now though, I was glad I had come. The evening was going to be a learning experience for me, I was going to study humans and see if I could find some clues to our existential plight. A smile crept across my face and looking over at my father, he leaned toward me, powerful isn’t it? I agreed with him because it was.
A voice boomed out over the very high-quality sound system but I saw no one speaking — must be a recording I thought. Looking up a the stage, the American flags were glowing in that kind of light that emanates from backyard pools on nice, balmy August nights. It was kind of relaxing. I grabbed for my $3 bottle of bad beer and took a swig.
The words then in Amway, you earn more sent the crowd into near hysterics. Very large people, who just moments before had been scarfing down full-sized muffins — this was the big muffin era when everyone thought they were healthy — and tossing out handshakes like candies at a parade, were now howling and high-fiving each other like football players after a touchdown.
Suddenly the stage went full dark, and like it had been rehearsed a hundred times, silence invaded every orifice. A few muffled coughs and shhhhhhh’s could be heard scattered about. Then — a beam of light floods the center of the stage and standing in it is the key-note speaker — in Amway, you earn more!
Ecstasy. I think I heard one woman prattling on in tongues. And just as quickly as the audience has lost any semblance of self-respecting professionals, the hysteria was replaced by a disciplined and awe-struck urge to hang on every word. Some jotted everything down while others sat with hands folded neatly in laps. It almost seemed like they were at Sunday mass, quaintly listening to a priest interpreting the words of Jesus.
I’ll bet y’all don’t know how we got up here to you people.
This was the moment when the Amway stars openly bragged about their wealth to the have-nots. Telling them that if they worked it, they too could be flying up to New Jersey in their own jet. The crowd erupted again. Each person was imagining the shit they were going to buy. All they had to do was consume more, worked it, and the rewards would come.
You know, I have been somewhat of a cad, folks, the speaker said.
A woman’s voice with a southern accent as thick as a peach-colored wall-to-wall carpet chimed in from off-stage, well Jerry, I do believe you have.
Come out, love of my life. And out runs his wife, Cherry, with a big hairdo and a pearl necklace that could easily double as a pool noodle. Sparkling and shiny under the heavy lights, Jerry and Cherry spent the next hour going on about their boats, and houses and wealthy friends. They told the crowd to oos and ahs about how they had been invited up to Michigan to spend a weekend with the DeVos family.
As Cherry shared details for the sake of the ladies in the audience about the chandeliers and furniture, Jerry talked about how he raved to Richard (DeVos) about his special people in New Jersey. Applause broke out at that moment. It was as if Jerry had put in a special word with the Pope.
My interest, even stunned amazement like I watching my first porn, eventually turned to embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the speakers. They were just so obviously flaunting their wealth, greed even, and everyone there had to see it. My father was still listening intently, though. The laugh, that I knew so well from my childhood and always meant he was fully content, snapped out of my doubts about the speakers.
He was loving the shit. They all were loving it. So many of the people there were good people, I could see it. When they would catch me staring, poorly-masking my disbelief, they would shoot back the warmest smiles; or, send me air high-fives. They were reeling me in with the power of collective love and excitement.
Everything with Amway is about the family. The families work Amway. The most successful Amway members were almost always a husband and wife teams demonstrating good values — conservative values. Richard DeVos had become one of the largest contributors to the Republican Party and to conservative Christian causes shortly after acquiring his wealth in the late 1960’s. Ronald Reagan named him, a man openly against single-sex relationships, to the “President’s Commission to the HIV Epidemic.” His role in the battle against HIV/AIDS was like naming a crack dealer to run the DEA.
DeVos had also been an early supporter of Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America,” unveiled by the backbencher from Georgia, had many of the same tenets of Amway. Many historians say that bi-partisanship was destroyed by Gingrich. Prior to his arrival to the House, representatives disagreed but they were respectful. Gingrich attacked, name-called, lied and never, ever let go. When his teeth were sunk into his target, he was like a pitbull. He’d kill his enemy regardless if it killed him.
But whereas Gingrich was part of the insatiable federal government, DeVos was all about the American entrepreneur. He was the self-made frontiersman who put his money where his mouth was. Lobbying incessantly for smaller, less intrusive government, he pressed all the buttons of a Christian nationalism that insisted American would be stronger if everyone just “worked it” — worked the Amway. Living in the “Amway” would bring material success to those who deserved; and those too lazy to earn, would rot in poverty which was, seemingly, their God-given place on earth. Do-it-yourself, don’t tread on me were, was the way. Conformity was king and diversity was discouraged in Amway.
By the end of the evening, the air conditioner had lost most of its noticeable cooling power and the room became stuffy and took on the aura of a spice market with the many competing perfumes, powders and after-shaves. Now shinier than at the beginning of the evening as sweat was slowly covering the faces of many of the gathered, Jerry, whose Amway ranking was Triple Diamond, making him one of the highest in the Amway structure, was dipping his toes into the crowd a bit. Pressing up against him and Cherry at the stage in the way mafia soldiers frenzy to get facetime with the Boss, the crowd couldn’t get enough.
Amway has a ranking system called the “pin rankings,” and so when anyone approached Jerry to shake his hand or just say hi (and God bless you, you are a great American — I heard a few of those), lower ranking Amway folks would subconsciously make way for the higher-ranking members. Ranking was received based on the number of “downline members in a leg.” The larger the leg, the team under you, the more they chipped up to you, the larger the earnings. Amway also made it clear. The more one earns in their community, the more respect and love shown. Wealth was not just to be envied, it was to be respected.
Prior to breaking the meeting up, Jerry asked for the group to bow their heads in prayer. Take the hand of the person next to you if want…go on, don’t be shy. We are all Amway-icans here, he informed us.
Now with my hand in the sweaty palm of the nice fellow next to me, we listened to how blessed we were all to be Americans. To have the freedom of choice, the freedom to earn what we wanted and when we wanted without a government dictating to us how much we can earn. In America, we can earn us much as we want, he added. God, it seems, had chosen us to be Americans. And as the special people, we need to show the world that capitalism was the truest path to freedom. True he never said the word “capitalism” but he said something like “our way,” and I interpreted that to be capitalism.
The Future of Trumpism
George ‘Poppa” Bush was in the White House when I attended this meeting. It was two years before the LA riots. Rush Limbaugh had already been on the path to poisoning the heart and soul of America since 1988. Rush, baby had already become a dog-whistle for racists and gay-bashers. Fox News would soon also be born of a jackal by the name of Roger Ailes — one of the main reasons the Fairness Doctrine had been rescinded.
I am willing to bet a lot that many of the people in that room, if still alive, became avid Fox watchers. My father, who died in 2003, became much more extreme in his views after 9/11. He loved listening to Rush although Fox News never took with him from what I recall. He drove a lot and so radio was better suited for providing him with information.
Like many in that room, he was a hard-worker and had been rather successful throughout the 1960’s and ‘70’s; and, like many in that room, as the economy started to go through massive systemic changes, with jobs being offshored and Big Finance and Big Defense becoming more and more the drivers of US wealth, he lost his place. Amway was a way for him to expend his pent-up energy; to temper the rising frustration he was feeling for a country that had forgotten him. He so defended and loved America. He gave six children to the nation and three sons served.
Those forgotten people, however, were people who would never look to government to solve their problems. And so, if government was forgetting about them then to hell with government.
Amway never panned out for my father, just like I am sure it didn’t so many others there that night. If he had been around to have gotten the full Fox-effect, twenty-four years, then the 2007–8 economic meltdown that punished working and middle-class Americans, he probably would have been ready for a Trump. Jerry and Cherry’ could have been Donald and Melania — defenders of the American way.
After leaving that meeting that night, I thought “where the hell had I been?” Who were those people? But now, I can easily see many of them becoming QAnon followers. They need answers to the question that surely burns in the hearts of so many Americans: If we are the chosen ones, then why am I so poor? Why am I not able to find a job with sustainable wages? Why?
The real answers to these questions go against everything that Jerry and Cherry said on that night: If you work it, you will be wealthy. Believing the truth, a very complicated one with lots of economic terms and formulas, then requires an admission that Jerry and Cherry, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the entire Republican Party were wrong and maybe — just maybe — it might be necessary to seek help from the government. But they resent the government.
My father would not listen to reason after 9/11. He had become hardcore in his views, that we were right, and everyone else wrong. Like many who went back to their lives that night in 1990, they would go on to raise kids, welcome Fox News into their homes, like a long-lost uncle returning from the war. They would praise Jesus and love America and take pity on the poor and teach all who heard them that we are the chosen people. Truth could never be an option.
They believed Trump and they believe that the economic suffering is because “they” are enslaving children and trying to destroy America. “They” are trying to destroy them for working hard. A Biden America holds no legitimacy for them — and so they will fight for the right to finally become again the “chosen people” that Jerry and Cherry said they were thirty-one years ago on that hot, August night in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Sadly, though, the “Amway,” just like like Trumpism and QAnon, is not the American way. It’s just one way in a sea of millions.