Ethan Couch, meet Donald Trump, fellow “affluenza” sufferer.
Couch is the Texas teenager whose drunken driving killed four people in 2013 when he lost control of his — or, should I say, his mommy and daddy’s — speeding pickup. Couch was 16. Three hours after the grisly crash, his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit for an adult.
His lawyer and his expert witness psychologist — or, should I say, the lawyer and the expert witness psychologist hired by his mommy and daddy — argued that Couch should be spared imprisonment because his overprivileged upbringing had failed to teach him the difference between right and wrong. Mommy and Daddy had never set limits or imposed consequences on young Ethan.
Couch’s infuriating defense — It’s not fair to punish me because I’ve never been punished before — won him probation instead of the 20 years sought by prosecutors. Of course, Couch is back in the news because complying with the no-alcohol terms of probation was apparently too much for him; Mommy fled with him to Mexico rather than allow him to face punishment.
“He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” testified the psychologist, G. Dick Miller. “The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone,” Miller said. “If you hurt someone, you sent him money.”
From his parents, “Ethan learned that you should be able to do what you want to do when you want to do it,” said attorneys in a civil lawsuit brought by one of the victims. “I think that was the message,” Miller agreed. Ethan, Miller said, was taught, “We have the gold, we make the rules.”
In one telling interchange in a videotaped deposition from the civil lawsuit, Ethan’s father, Fred, was asked about his own stop for drunken driving: “Did you tell the arresting officer, ‘I make more in a day than you make in a year?’ ”
Fred Couch, smirking: “Probably.”
When the head of Ethan’s private school confronted Fred Couch about allowing the boy to drive himself to school at the age of 13, he laughed her off and said he would buy the place.
“He was adamant that Ethan was going to drive to school,” LeVonna Anderson told D Magazine. “He believed his son was better. His son was more talented. He was the golden boy.”
Hmmm. Sound familiar?
If Couch is the affluenza teen, Trump is the affluenza candidate. The symptoms he exhibits are multiple, and florid: The overweening sense of entitlement. The conflation of money and intelligence, and the belief that wealth is a virtue in itself. The obsessive flaunting thereof.
These qualities are not incidental to Trump’s presidential campaign. They are integral to it. The campaign is predicated on the notion that with great wealth comes great entitlement. His trumpeted billions constitute the primary evidence of his qualification for the presidency.
“I’m really rich,” Trump said in announcing his campaign. “I’m proud of my net worth. I’ve done an amazing job.”
U.S. politics has featured its share of rich candidates, but never before, and certainly not to this degree, has a candidate’s fortune been his raison d’etre. After all, the tradition is much the opposite — to emphasize humble, log-cabin beginnings. Candidates burdened with wealthy parents endeavor to display the semblance of ordinariness.
Not Trump. He doesn’t play down. He flaunts the Trump name for all to see. His consumption could not be more conspicuous. Mitt Romney was dinged for building car elevators and having his wife drive “a couple of Cadillacs.” Trump invites reporters aboard his private jet, complete with its 24-karat gold-plated seat belts.
The candidate’s wealth is both evidence of his merit and a benefit in itself, proof that Trump is immune to the pressures faced by less-affluent politicians. “I don’t need anybody’s money,” Trump proclaimed in his announcement speech. “It’s nice.”
The flip side of this attitude, for those afflicted with affluenza, is that the ordinary rules of personal conduct and human decency do not apply to the sufferer. Trump calls people names. He says things that are untrue. He never backs down. Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.
In the case of Ethan Couch, his parents were the enablers of this conduct. In the case of Trump, at least so far, it’s the voters. According to the polls at the center of Trump’s universe, his offensiveness reaps no consequences. Voters seem to reward his outrageousness; they impose no limits on his bad behavior.
A candidate with affluenza is bad enough. Imagine a president with this malady.