Much ink has been spilled this election season over the once-inconceivable rise of Donald J. Trump, who is now poised to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. Voices on both the left and right have attacked the billionaire’s tenuous grasp on policy, his protean record on issues like abortion, and the endless stream of lies and contradictions that drip from his mouth with incredible rapidity.
These critiques did little to dent his popularity, however, because Trump is a personalist leader who thrives on the ability to sell an image – rather than a set of policies – to the American public. (If you doubt the importance of appearance in personalist politics, do a quick Google search for “Vladimir Putin shirtless.”)
To be sure, the aesthetics of Trump are not pretty. One could speak, for example, of the Donald’s daily uniform: a dark, ill-fitting suit with a tie that extends much too far past his belt buckle. Occasionally, Trump will double-down on this fashion faux-pas by donning that iconic red trucker hat we’ve come to know and love.
The problems with Trump’s wardrobe, however, are nothing compared to the tacky extravagance of his hotels and resorts. Consider the Trump Taj Mahal, which in 2013 opened our nation’s first casino strip club. Though no longer owned by Trump, the hotel stands as a testament to all things gaudy (even by casino standards). No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee had this to say about it: “The worst punishment God can devise for this sinner is to make her spirit resident eternally at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.”
Trump owns an array of private residences, but it’s his Fifth Avenue penthouse that could well be considered the Platonic Form of tasteless opulence. Nearly every inch of the place is covered in gold or marble, including the short Corinthian columns apparently erected to remind visitors of the limitations of modernist high-rise architecture. It’s not that crystal chandeliers and classical sculptures aren’t beautiful by themselves – they are. But there’s no sense of balance or proportion or harmony to the place. The end result is a home that looks very much like Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin and very unlike, well, a home.
“Aesthetic interest,” says British philosopher Roger Scruton, “reveals what we are and what we value. Taste, like style, is the man himself.” Trump’s tastes suggest he values two things above all else: wealth and power. That’s the reason for the gold and the marble and the TRUMP-emblazoned private jet. It’s all exceedingly ostentatious but nonetheless quite appealing to a significant portion of the electorate.
On the one hand, this is perplexing: Could there be a worse candidate for a populist leader than a Manhattan billionaire? Trump literally washes his tiny hands in solid gold sinks. The situation becomes clearer if you consider his supporters, though, who are disproportionately white, middle-aged, non-college-educated men. Globalization, technology, and demographic changes have left this group economically disadvantaged and with a deep sense of voicelessness. Perhaps Trump’s aesthetics of vulgar luxury carry appeal because this population feels robbed of the very wealth and power the man represents.
Moreover, Trump has managed to keep his image remarkably consistent. He doesn’t wear flannel or roll up his sleeves or travel by bus. He’s still “Art of the Deal” Trump — still “The Apprentice” Trump. And so he continues to be seen as a successful businessman who tells it like it is, rather than an economic ignoramus with a startling aversion to facts and rational argument.
In hindsight, the political ascendancy of someone like Donald Trump was inevitable. We fell in love with “reality” television and celebrity for celebrity’s sake, even as ratings-hungry media outlets blurred the line between news and entertainment. There was an opening for gilded vulgarity this election cycle, and Trump took it. We’re left to reckon with a politics that oft was ugly, but ne’er so tacky.