The morning of the presidential election, the New York Daily News ran a story speculating on the decor of the White House in Trump’s America. Naturally, it projected a White House more stylistically appropriate to the Las Vegas Strip: Think fountains, hot tubs, statues of Eros. Elaine Griffin, a designer in the city, forecasted the destruction of the Obamas' elegant interior decorating. “Buy gold leaf shares now," she said. "Invest in marble. Somewhere Jackie Kennedy is turning over in her grave.” Later in the story, another designer delivered the maxim used for decades to temper the aspirations of anyone foolish enough to believe they could join the elite: Money doesn’t buy good taste.
The lens of taste, that time-honored boundary between social castes, is one thing when it’s applied to a xenophobic idiot king with Dorito-hued hair. It’s another when it’s directed toward the nebulous class of “Trump supporters,” who have been mocked steadily for their inability to discern the cheap from the expensive.
In a recent review of Trump’s restaurant, a Vanity Fair writer invoked bands of fanny pack-wearing outsiders waddling into Trump Tower, impressed by menus with words like “julienned” and knockoff “French-ish” paintings from the discount store. Never mind that we know a large number of wealthy white people voted for Trump, or that it might be more useful to attack people for their ideas—say, on race—than their inability to tell a Picasso from a Renoir (a distinction one can only assume Richard Spencer would recognize). But then again, these are terrifying times, and it can be tempting to take solace in the most lazy stereotypes. There’s a long history of consolidating power and dodging questions of class by invoking the metrics of taste.
The Trump family’s unwillingness to engage in the customary tact of New York’s moneyed circles was well-tread territory, even before Donald’s taste required comparison to the dictatorial excesses of figures like Saddam Hussein. As was expertly chronicled by Maureen Dowd in her story about the long, mutually conniving relationship between the Clintons and the Trumps earlier this year, for all his riches Trump never managed to blend in to New York’s establishment of art patrons and well-connected charity events. “Donald is a bridge-and-tunnel person,” an unnamed media executive told Dowd. “He’s always been a poseur in New York.”
Such a divide is even more stark in the aftermath of the Obama years, when the first black president by necessity embodied the very picture of cosmopolitan cool. But if you’re interested in pointing to Trump’s “tackiness,” as many do, there’s a wealth of material. The orange combover’s illogical stiffness is reminiscent of a televangelist’s dense, hair-sprayed mess. It’s a certain kind of man who buys $10,000 Brioni suits and neither tailors nor irons them. The gilded seatbelt buckles on his private jet and the cherubs in his properties are, to many, grotesque, his branded products—Trump Wine, Trump Water, Trump Steak—unsubtle.
Which isn’t even to mention the gauche developments he has erected, like the Trump Taj Mahal, the country’s first casino-slash-strip club. Not long ago, the conservative National Review deemed it “an aesthetic crime against humanity that is tacky even by the standards of Atlantic City.” Atlantic City, of course, is the poor man’s Vegas, the vacation spot cobbed together in the late 19th century to give the working class a place to feel rich.
Recently, at Vanity Fair’s San Francisco thought-leader conference, “The New Establishment Summit,” Fran Lebowitz offered an analysis of Trump’s wealth that crystallized a particular kind of media’s position on the Trump Style. “He’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” she said. “They see him. They think, ‘If I were rich, I’d have a fabulous tie like that. Why are my ties not made of 400 acres of polyester?’” One could assume the same poor person would simply lack the imagination to think to bring bulldozers to an old-growth forest for their elaborate, Lord of the Rings-style wedding, as one of the conference’s other speakers, Sean Parker, did.
Before Trump won the election, his old-money family’s tendency to act like new money was a tabloid sideshow, a piece of the long and noble tradition of shaming the rich using whatever weapon presents itself (New York magazine marveled almost a decade ago that Ivanka hadn’t yet been photographed wearing white leather at a NASCAR event). Donald Trump Jr. was slammed for proposing to his girlfriend in the mall.
It’s a distinction that's been applied to everyone from the children of Gilded Age business tycoons and the Wall Street greed-is-good guys, to rappers and reality TV stars—even, once, to the tech industry, though over time their extreme political power and ability to frame their work as a social good has come to overshadow their ill-advised displays of their elite status. According to the ideology, the Trumps, like other people who aren’t comfortable enough being wealthy to take privilege for granted (or worse, who simply aren’t well-bred or smart enough not to be showboats) make easy targets.
But now that Trump is president, such weaponized ideas of good taste are being extended to his supporters: working-class people in the mode of Deliverance and discount stores, too uninformed to recognize how poorly a Trump-branded Christmas ornament is made, people who think eating a well-done steak makes you classy. Which might be the kind of thing you would think if you hadn’t been instructed in the joys of fusion food or the significance of avocado toast. Policing the aspirations of an entire swath of the country is an odd position to be taking while the New York Times is trying to hire more reporters to be sensitive to Trump’s Middle American base.
But there’s a whole history of shaming “poorly bred” people who happen to strike it rich if you’re looking for an easy place to channel your rage. Nancy Isenberg’s well-timed and exhaustively researched history, White Trash, came out earlier this year. She told me she thinks Tammy Faye Bakker, of all people, is relevant to the way we talk about Donald Trump’s wealth—and his supporters’—lack of “class” in the press.
Tammy Faye, the disgraced televangelist, is best known for her rapturous, mascara-streaked face—and the drug- and sex-fueled scandals that catalyzed her fall from grace. One could argue Trump and Bakker actually have quite a bit in common: pancake makeup, tawdry and overblown style, inconsistent application of Christian Right values, extreme hypocrisy. Isenberg believes the rise and fall of Bakker and her husband in the tabloids may have been one of the first blueprints for reality TV, a direct ancestor of Honey Boo Boo and, one might assume, The Apprentice.
Bakker appealed to working-class Americans precisely because, once she became wealthy, she didn’t kowtow to the buttoned-up culture of the middle class. She had money, but she didn’t use proper diction; she had money, but she didn’t show restraint. In short, to people who had no access to the taste of the elite, she provided a path to the good life. For much of America, though, she was impossible to stomach. In part it was her lack of refinement. But importantly, writes Isenberg, it was because she didn’t embody the rustic and old-fashioned version of the white working poor romanticized at the time.
All of which is to say, it’s more comfortable to believe social stratification is a choice, or that people who don’t have what the extremely wealthy have couldn’t handle it. At the very least, calling out Trump supporters for their style rather than their beliefs is misguided, a policing of the boundaries around the powerful that helped, in part, to land us in the very awful situation we’re in.