The Triumph of Tackiness: The Materiality of Trump
It has become commonplace to ridicule Donald Trump as “tacky” and dismiss his material style as clumsy excess, a crass display of wealth, or a complete absence of “good taste.” For instance, in 2015 the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the newly declared Presidential candidate a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.” Williamson illustrated Trump’s taste with pictures of his densely gilded Manhattan penthouse replete with simulated classical aesthetics, Louis XIV furnishings, and a motorized toy Mercedes 10-year-old son Barron has outgrown. In 2012 refinery29 interviewed Trump’s wife Melania and somewhat more kindly indicated that the penthouse had “over-the-top surroundings that might make Liberace blush.” A host of anxious observers fret that the new President will gut the White House with a similar ocean of gilding, marble, and haphazardly assembled historical themes. In the wake of Trump’s unlikely victory, The Mirror predicted a White House festooned with “gold cherubs, reproduction Renoirs—or a print of Melania naked on a rug from her GQ lads mag shoot”; in a similar vein, the New York Daily News predicted “gaudy gold décor and tacky touches.”
It is easy to caricature Trump’s style, and Trump’s grandiose materiality and unfiltered public behavior make for fascinating if unsettling media theater. However, dismissing that style risks ignoring the appeal of his distinctive tackiness. The President-Elect appears to have long fancied vulgar displays of affluence as he has migrated from one opulent mansion to the next, indulged an affection for grandiose hotels and golf courses, and hawked expensive steaks, ties, wine, mineral water, and fragrance. That style is tacky in the sense that it is a blatant transgression of the aesthetic, social, and material standards that constitute “good taste.” “Good taste” certainly is dispensed by stylistic ideologues and marketers for self-interested reasons, but tacky is heartfelt: rather than view his penthouse as a transgression of stylistic restraint or good taste, Trump once told The Apprentice contestants visiting the penthouse that “Some people consider it to be the greatest apartment in the world. I would never, ever say that myself—but it’s certainly a nice apartment.” Trump’s style is absolutely populist in its visual and material accessibility: his massive opulently decorated homes signal wealth without any uneasiness over (or possibly awareness of) his privilege, implicitly establishing that wealth is a just confirmation of achievement.
Like all kitsch, Trump’s Manhattan penthouse is a formulaic repackaging of the familiar, amplifying existing cultural traditions and historical styles. For instance, the classically themed paintings covering the ceilings of the Manhattan penthouse invoke familiar Classical aesthetics; a massive statue of Cupid and Psyche invokes a Classical tale retold for millennia; and the reproduction of a Renoir in Melania Trump’s office displays the well-known impressionist tradition in a room alongside an ornate Louis XIV style desk (in 1996 Playboy writer Mark Bowden also was surprised to find a Renoir on Trump’s gilded airplane). These familiar motifs are ideologically rooted in Western artistic and cultural traditions, and their display in the densely decorated penthouse perhaps validates those traditions. Nevertheless, those things are not simply symbols representing Classical artistic traditions or overdone displays of wealth: Trump’s apartment may instead be a soliloquy confirming the consequence of his own idiosyncratic individual taste.
Most critical analysis of Trump and material style has focused on the objects and architectural spaces with which he has surrounded himself, but of course his body and the bodies of his family cannot be separated from the President-Elect’s materiality. No element of that corporeality is better known than his astounding hair, and the President-Elect seems determined to unite a nation of people with bad hair by embracing his color job and unruly comb-over as yet another symbol of his individuality: “My hair may not be perfect, but it’s mine.” His wife Melania often looms as an accessory, apparently evoking his appreciation of beautiful and thoughtful women (in a clumsy celebration of beauty, he told Fox News in an hour-long post-election interview that “beauty is a nice thing but after the first hour you need to talk to them”). Melania sold a reasonably priced jewelry line on QVC that borrowed the signature Trump bling, but it appears to have been removed from sale this summer. In contrast, Trump’s daughter Ivanka has long been among the most prominent family members, and when the President-Elect had his first post-election interview on 60 Minutes, Ivanka appeared wearing a $10,800 bracelet from her jewelry line.
The President-Elect’s ostentatious material culture might seem to separate him from the working-class voters he courted. When Fox News interviewed the Presidential candidate in September, they hoped to narrate his story with “treasured objects he’s chosen to keep” in his Manhattan penthouse. It was a clever idea to use some prosaic things to humanize Trump (albeit in the midst of his gilded penthouse), but the choice of a military school yearbook, a childhood photograph, and Barron’s Mercedes were not especially rich springboards establishing Trump’s common humanity with the electorate. Nevertheless, the President-Elect’s tacky self-confidence seems to endear him to many Americans. Trump’s materiality and his unfiltered public behavior ignore mainstream style, and rather than recoil from this some people seem mesmerized by his highly individual expressions of taste: for instance, while he could follow conventional styles and behaviors, Trump apparently decorated his penthouse the way he desired with no concern for dominant styles (though the penthouse was designed in 1985 by New York’s “glitziest interior designer” Angelo Donghia); and while he could probably secure a more creative hair stylist the President-Elect has brazenly embraced his golden mane without betraying any irony.
In contrast, much of the President-Elect’s political circle is populated by non-descript White men whose material culture betrays no especially clear signs of their ideological bent or wealth. The prototype may be Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, who is touted as a “small town” Midwesterner and has nearly no distinguishing material style except for his motionless white hair. Pence’s unremarkable plain-ness leaves him somewhat unexamined as a material thing; while Trump exploits his own distinctive materiality to paint himself as a political outsider, Pence instead seamlessly blends into the crowd of Washington Republicans and champions conservative religious legislation while viewing climate change science very skeptically.
The most unsettling Trump supporters gather under the banner “alt-right.” The alt-right lingers on the edges of far right Republican politics, framing a White nationalist political agenda, railing on immigration, and championing anti-Semitism, sweeping deportation programs, and eugenic solutions. Their startling agenda conceals itself within rather prosaic dress and materiality. The ideologues on the alt-right aspire to use fashion in particular to distinguish them from the material caricature of hate groups like the Klan, Nazis, or eugenicists, despite their genuine social, historical, and intellectual debt to those very groups. In August 2016 the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok described the prominent alt-right National Policy Institute as “suit-and-tie racists.” In 2013 the National Policy Institute’s Richard B. Spencer told Salon’s Lauren M. Fox that “`We have to look good.” Spencer argued that the alt-right’s cause would be undermined if they appeared to be “`part of something that is crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid, no one is going to want to be a part of it.’ Those stereotypes of `redneck, tattooed, illiterate, no-teeth’ people, Spencer said, are blocking his progress.” Clad in commonplace business dress, Spencer and the National Policy Institute advocate for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” that would include sterilization, with a fundamental goal “to elevate the consciousness of whites, ensure our biological and cultural continuity, and protect our civil rights.” In the wake of the election the National Policy Institute met in Washington and Spencer quoted Nazi propaganda in German while celebrating that Trump’s victory signaled that White people are “awakening to their own identity.”
It is not essential to pin down precisely what constitutes tacky; the more important point is to acknowledge that an ambiguous notion of tastefulness and style is constantly wielded to pass judgment on people who depart from mainstream style. Ironically, some of Trump’s appeal may rest on his image as a “tacky” individual who owns up to and brazenly displays his taste and thoughts; while that tackiness may be repulsive to left-leaning Americans, it is conversely compelling to many of their neighbors who feel judged and excluded themselves. There is of course a profoundly complicated class, color, and social analysis of how Trump ascended to the highest office in the land, and Trump’s construction in the media and popular discourse deserves a sustained analysis. Yet there is also an archaeological dimension to understanding Trump as a material thing, Trump’s material style has successfully fashioned an appearance of defying dominant stylistic standards, ignoring conventional political practices, and remaining true to himself that harbors enormous appeal to many Americans.
Trump Penthouse Image from Wikimedia – MailOnline