The idea that Trump’s gaudy excess is what poor people imagine of wealth is dangerously classist.
“Donald Trump is a poor man’s idea of a rich man.” The phrase has become popular enough to be a cliche, circulating through much of the vast stores of critical media surrounding our 45th president. It pops up everywhere, from this 2015 Economist article, to an interview with Fran Leibowitz, to a Michelle Goldberg column on Slate, to this recent viral tweet by James F. Hanning II; clearly it’s an aphorism with legs. In the phrase of one stand-up comedian, Trump is specifically “what a hobo imagines a rich man to be.” Sometimes the idea is expressed in something more than nugget-of-wisdom form and explodes into an entire article, as it did in this scathing review of the Trump Grill in Vanity Fair, which tries to find Trump’s entire political philosophy in his gaudy aesthetic.
Yet each time this phrase rode past on the telegraph wires of my Twitter feed, I felt something wrong about it, marrow-deep.
This notion, supposedly a response to Trump’s vulgar displays of wealth, is extraordinarily dangerous. Whatever value it may have as a way to needle the staggeringly vainglorious billionaire, it loses in its extreme classism. Really think about it for more than a moment before you hit retweet: What are you saying about the poor when you take that sentiment at face value? What are you ignoring about Trump himself?
Trump isn’t a poor person’s idea of a rich man. He’s a rich man’s idea of a rich man. Specifically, his own.
So much of this “poor man’s idea of a rich man” sentiment trades on the idea that there’s something especially classless about Trump’s demeanour and lifestyle, which is undeniably true. But phrased this way, it leaves another idea unspoken: that the problem is less his wealth than how he displays it, and that there is an unproblematically noble way to be rich that is only spoiled by stupidly gauche poor people with their foolish notions of how to use money. In her interview on the subject, Fran Leibowitz said, “All that stuff he shows you in his house — the gold faucets — if you won the lottery, that’s what you’d buy.”
Trump isn’t a poor person’s idea of a rich man. He’s a rich man’s idea of a rich man. Specifically, his own.
Presumably Mitt Romney is the “right” kind of rich person, one who doesn’t buy gold faucets but adroitly robs people of their pensions instead?
Trump was born into and sustained by extreme privilege that gilded his life with one expensive unearned second chance after another. The idea of wealth he represents is unapologetically his own. There can be no doubt that he has associated his very name with a gold-plated concept of wealth. Amidst the smouldering wreckage of his many failed businesses and deals, one success stands out above them all: branding. Trumpian wealth is garish in its excess; even the gold is gold-plated. It’s offensive in its superfluousness and self-aggrandizement. Every unneeded flourish is a dictatorial tribute to his own vanity. But again, that is Trump’s own vision of his own privilege, inspired by nothing but his ego.
To give into the “poor man’s idea of a rich one” jibe is to participate in the pathetic internecine battles of the super-elite. It’s an insult from aristocratic “old money” meant to lacerate the self-esteem of “new money” and little else. When we repeat it, we’re merely waving foam fingers for Team Romney in the great dressage battle of billionaires. We say nothing meaningful, certainly nothing that could rise to the level of resistance. But we do advance a notion about the poor and working class of this country as uncultured and stupid, or as a people whose culture is only worth mockery and derision for being declasse. For many liberals and quite a few conservatives, too easily entranced by the polite exercise of power, style can matter more than substance.
Trumpian wealth is garish in its excess; even the gold is gold-plated.
This was always the problem with so much early opposition to Trump, especially on the political center and right: They objected to Trump’s boorishness rather than his politics per se. It was easy to fixate on all of the ways in which he was gauche and vulgar rather than how his cruelty stemmed from an honest expression of fascistic politics. Instead of scoffing at how Trump is a “poor man’s idea of a rich one,” these people should be asking “would a rich man’s idea of a rich man really be an improvement?” For those who truly are wealthy, or at least upper middle class, such a searching question might be unsettling for how it implicates them.
After all, one need only look at the Rococo period or the Palace of Versailles to know that extravagance to the point of obscenity has long been an aesthetic parlour game of the already wealthy, including those aristocrats who pooh-pooh the nouveau riche so much. Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan belong to the same hideous world.
But what actually is a poor person’s idea of a rich one? At least part of the currency of this anti-Trump jibe rests on the idea that it correctly recognizes Trump’s garishness as part of his appeal to underprivileged people. They’re impressed by the gold faucets and fancy-sounding Trump Grill(e) food, and it must make them like and trust him more as a successful man who knows what he’s about, yes?
Let me give my own, admittedly anecdotal, perspective on the matter.
I grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of a garbage man and a stay-at-home mom from a large Puerto Rican family where “success” meant landing a civil service job with benefits; there are a lot of postal workers in my extended family, and they’re the lucky ones.
What did “rich” mean to me as a kid? I think of what I saw in the media back then, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. “Rich” was the Home Alone kid’s family. They had a house with stairs in it! He had the Smithsonian chemistry set I always wanted for Christmas but dad said he couldn’t afford! They get to fly on airplanes and American Airlines sent a van to pick them up at their house! In truth, they were a comfortably middle class family, but they looked rich to my eyes.
“Rich” was having a chimney Santa Claus could come down. It was having a refrigerator that made its own ice cubes. It was having a car that didn’t have 20-year-old cigarette stains on the backseat. It meant not learning what “repossession” was when I was in fifth grade. It was eating at a restaurant that wasn’t McDonald’s. “Rich” was Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Dangerous Minds, or my white history teacher having a house in Rockland County. Frankly, “rich” often meant “white” in my neighborhood.
“Rich” meant not having to worry. Yes, it meant having a swimming pool and fancy crap, naturally. But to us all rich people looked frivolous with how they spent their money; middle class people did too. A second car? That came with power windows? Oh my stars. And why buy a Mercedes when a Toyota would do nicely? Everything looked like gravy, especially when all the benevolent rich guys on TV showed off — from Thomas Crown, who stole paintings because he was bored, to Richie Rich, who bought baseball fields for him and his friends to play in. Wealth looked like what it is under capitalism: unlimited excess, doing things because you can.
By pretending that only describes Trump, we let countless wealthy people off the hook — all of whom have, use, and buy plenty that is pure excess and frivolity. Just because it’s aesthetically pleasing in its minimalism, or brushed aluminium rather than gold-plated, doesn’t mean it’s a nobly ethical use of filthy lucre.
I freely admit my circumstances weren’t as dire as some. I belonged to what sociologist Loic Wacquant memorably called “the working class aristocracy.” My father’s job gave us health insurance, after all. For others in my family, being “rich” meant being able to go to the dentist. But really, this all makes the point: We didn’t dream of gold faucets, we dreamed of being free from want, something that was once thought of as a democratic right.
The sneering of some upper class liberals, therefore, misses the point entirely, and makes a real politics of resistance harder to realize. We cannot effectively organize if we fixate on Trump’s style in lieu of his policies, and contrary to the assertions of many a commentator, his tastelessness offers little insight into those politics.
This isn’t new, of course. In Canada we got a preview of Trump’s childish demagoguery in the person of the late Rob Ford, filthy-rich former mayor of Toronto. Local columnist Heather Mallick, a leftist who delights in her acerbic wit, turned it on, of all things, the suburban Ford family’s glassware.
In recounting a televized interview with Rob Ford’s mother and sister, Mallick asked her readers such probing questions as: “Why are there drink glasses sitting open on the sideboard next to the decanter? They get dusty unless they’re used daily. Are they? Why is the living room full of silvery spiky things that match Diane [Ford]’s jewelry?” She went on to observe, “It’s like one of those reality shows, I said to my viewing companion, and then realized that reality shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Hoarders are real and so are the Fords.” For those keeping score at home, what socio-economic class do the subjects of those reality shows belong to?
The entire column was devoid of any substance beyond sneering at the Fords’ bad taste; she even said that their wealth meant that they should’ve “bettered themselves morally and intellectually,” as though human history gives us the slightest reason to associate those things. As though the engines of capitalism can do anything other than deform morals with their perverse incentives and fell logics.
But therein lies the germ of the idea and all its horrors: the belief that more money should make you a good person. The entire, unbearable weight of our history, oozing as it does with the blood of crimes beyond counting, should put paid to this idea. It lies at the root of such inhumane drivel as Jason Chaffetz’ assertion that the poor should stop buying iPhones if they want health insurance — poverty is seen as a moral defect, wealth as a moral virtue.
Yet this idea persists, even left of center. If liberals are serious about resisting Trump, as I believe many are, then that means disabusing themselves of the comfortable received notions that enable and excuse men like him, even if they occasionally flatter our own meager successes. Trump has always been a despicable bigot and serial sexual harasser. If the “classy” rich people around him had done more than simply sneer, he might not be president today. The problem with Trump isn’t his overlong polyester neckties; it’s that he’s a fascist.
The problem with Trump isn’t his overlong polyester neckties; it’s that he’s a fascist.
What’s more, the flattering idea that only a poor yokel could be impressed by Trump is simply false. Trump’s heartland isn’t coal country, it’s in the middle class suburbs of Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Trump’s branding as a “self-made businessman who will be the CEO of America” didn’t just take in steelworkers, it took in plenty of accountants, lawyers, and executives as well, for reasons that have much more to do with his racist demagoguery than the impressiveness of his gold-plated whatevers.
Getting rid of Trump is a beginning, not an end. We will have to accept that capitalism’s production of Trump is a feature, not a bug. If we fail to acknowledge that, we are doomed to be ruled by all the other Trumps sprinkled throughout this monstrous socio-economic system. But hey, at least they might not leave their tumblers upturned by the decanter, right?