Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I don't think the new David Brooks column ("Why Trump Soars") is completely off base about Donald Trump's appeal to certain Americans -- I think people who don't hang out in fashionable circles really are more impressed with Trump than sophisticates are, as Brooks claims. However, Brooks feels the need to shoehorn this unremarkable observation into his Bobos in Paradise thesis, which is that most successful and striving sophisticates are anxious and self-denying.

So Brooks writes this:

It is obligatory these days in a polite society to have a complicated attitude toward success. If you attend a prestigious college or professional school, you are supposed to struggle tirelessly for success while denying that you have much interest in it. If you do achieve it, you are expected to shroud your wealth in locally grown produce, understated luxury cars and nubby fabrics.

Trump, on the other hand, is utterly oblivious to such conventions. When it comes to success, as in so many other things, he is the perpetual boy. He is the enthusiastic adventurer thrilled to have acquired a gleaming new bike, and doubly thrilled to be showing it off.

He labors under the belief -- unacceptable in polite society -- that two is better than one and that four is better than two. If he can afford a car, a flashy one is better than a boring one. In private jets, lavish is better than dull. In skyscrapers, brass is better than brick, and gold is better than brass.

The fallacy here is that other rich and nearly rich people -- the snooty ones who, as Brooks says, "regard Trump as a joke and his popularity a disgrace" -- don't actually like their "locally grown produce, understated luxury cars and nubby fabrics"; if they'd only stop being anxious Bobos and give vent to their ids like Trump, they'd flash the cash just the way he does.

I'm not rich. I'm not on a ladder to success. But I'm here in white-collar Manhattan, which means I get to observe the successful (and the wannabes) and work with them sometimes. And I'm comfortable enough to have sampled a bit of good stuff. And I just don't believe this. I think most successful people really like their choices. They like their Hamptons homes. They like their nubby fabrics. They look at all that flash on Trump's buildings and they see (as do I, and you too, no doubt) a set of choices that are to architectural aesthetics what Elvis's diet was to cuisine. Like Elvis's fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, the piss-elegance of what Trump surrounds himself with doesn't seem like what you'd choose if you felt free to do whatever you wanted -- it seems like what you'd choose if you felt free to do whatever you wanted and had no taste.

And maybe rich people who don't brag about their wealth (and strivers who don't brag about their ambition) refrain because they think it's tacky, not because they're ambivalent about what they have (or want). I don't see any evidence that the fast-trackers are ambivalent at all about success. Why accuse them of that? Because they don't labor and struggle to make a public display of what they have? Unlike Trump, they're too busy doing real work, or quietly savoring what they have.


Years ago, when Brooks was first writing for the Times, he had trouble deciding whether ordinary Americans admired the rich without qualification or merely admired rich people who weren't ostentatious. One day he'd tell us,

Americans read magazines for people more affluent than they are (W, Cigar Aficionado, The New Yorker, Robb Report, Town and Country) because they think that someday they could be that guy with the tastefully appointed horse farm....

Income resentment is not a strong emotion in much of America....

A few months later, he'd tell us that Americans like rich people only when they're "millionaires next door," Midwesterners with Protestant work ethics who buy their suits off a rack and have their shoes resoled. Either way, though, Brooks was setting up a dichotomy of good and evil: ordinary heartland Americans and whichever rich people they admire are good, while high-SAT coast-dwellers who are ambivalent about wealth and success (i.e., Wingnut America's stereotypical liberals) are evil.

In the Trump column we see the Brooks dichotomy with a few more tweaks. Trump has no angst about his wealth, therefore everyone who's wealthy (or ambitious) and not tacky does have angst, therefore they're evil liberals.

Trump, like his downmarket admirers, is the salt of the earth.

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