Donald Trump, American class act

What happened to dress for success?

Any social anthropologist can have a field day with the US president. And any non-American social anthropologist is likely to be perplexed.

An Englishman in particular would have a hard time squeezing Trump into the confines of a particular social class.

After all, the president grew up in a family with two generations of wealth behind him. He was educated privately and expensively, eventually getting his degree from Wharton, one of the world’s best business schools.

An Englishman of a similar background, one educated at, say, Eton and the LSE, may still be daft and uncultured. But he could be confidently expected to speak, write and dress in ways that would distinguish him from hoi-polloi.

He might say stupid things, but he’d say them in a refined accent (an Englishman of Trump’s age, that is – his son might talk differently and his grandson almost certainly would). He might write gibberish, but it would be grammatical and at times even elegant gibberish. He might dress down, but in a way that would suggest he’d be more comfortable dressed up.

By contrast, Trump talks like a man with a high school diploma at best (and not a good high school at that), writes illiterate tweets, dresses like a lout wearing his ‘will the defendant please rise’ suit accessorised with baseball caps and ties a foot too long – and in general acts in ways that belie his background.

An outsider may conclude that Trump simply puts that persona on for political gain, to come across as a man of the people. Yet no one is that good an actor.

It’s not that he cunningly pretends to be what he isn’t. It’s that he sees no reason to conceal what he is.

In that, the president acts as someone who absorbed with his mother’s milk a certain ethos peculiar to his country. He doesn’t pretend to be a transplanted Englishman. He’s a stereotypical American and proud of it.

As someone who rejects any kind of determinism, I don’t believe that national character is shared by everyone in the nation. Individual will remains free, and it can shed the shackles of any collective proclivity.

Hence, though many Frenchmen pretend to be more cultured than they are, I know some who don’t. Some Dutchmen don’t consume mountains of mediocre cheese. Some Germans have a sense of humour. Some Englishmen dislike milky tea. Some Spaniards find bull fights barbaric. Some Italians don’t pinch women’s bottoms on public transport.

However, that some people refuse to act out their national stereotypes doesn’t mean such stereotypes aren’t true to life. By and large they are, which is why they are stereotypes.

Most Americans too tend to act in ways specific to them, those they’ve been breathing in from ambient cultural air all their lives. One such has to do with class, something Americans will rarely discuss, and outlanders will often misunderstand.

Many Europeans believe that Americans are separated not dynastically and socially but only fiscally, and someone at the bottom of the social mountain can rise to the peak by getting rich. Well, yes and no.

Money by itself indeed determines an American’s social class – but only in the first generation. Once great-grandpa made his pile, each subsequent generation may acquire more of the same traits that characterise upper classes in Europe.

However, if European aristocracy typically traces its roots back to martial valour, American aristocracy does have strictly middle-class origins. And, just like a tree’s foliage that doesn’t look like its roots but is fed by them, the link between middle-class origins and upper-class status will never be severed in America.

Boston Brahmins, along with descendants of the Dutchmen who settled New Amsterdam or of the original passengers of the Mayflower may hide in their estates, speak some mid-Atlantic patois, order their wine from Bordeaux and their clothes from within 500 yards of Piccadilly.

But they’ll still function within the American ethos, if only in subtle, barely perceptible ways.

Most other Americans, including Trump, are affected by that ethos more directly, powerfully and visibly. Because of that they fall victim to a dialectical paradox springing from America’s founding ideology.

This was formed by the Protestant fundamentalism of the original settlers (coupled with hatred of apostolic confessions and the old continent where they were practised) and the Enlightenment humanism of their descendants.

The former explicitly called for the repudiation of any spiritual authority, along with any hierarchical cultural patterns deemed to be European. It promoted egalitarianism with a religious dimension.

When overlaid with the social egalitarianism of the Enlightenment, the religious dimension gradually fell off, to be relegated to the status of personal idiosyncrasy – so much is obvious. Some other developments are less so.

The newly blended egalitarianism, boosted by the Protestant work ethic, demanded an elevation of the common man to a status rarely attainable in Europe at the time. Naturally, any society seriously committed to such a goal (as opposed to merely proclaiming it) will end up governed by market transactions above all else.

As a result, vindicating the First Law of Thermodynamics, the traditional European hierarchy didn’t disappear. It merely transformed. Society remained as stratified as anywhere else, but, because it was ideologically committed to using the common man as its iconic role model, its stratification had a different basis.

That’s where the paradox came in. The use of economic activity as a social hoist required drive, hard work, entrepreneurial spirit – all highly individualistic qualities. Yet a society built around the common man demanded conformity to his cultural, intellectual and social properties.

That created both the most individualistic and the most conformist society of all. But its individualism and conformism are displayed in different spheres of life.

American economic individualism needs no illustration; it’s widely seen as the nation’s defining feature. But its stultifying conformism is as pervasive if less obvious.

For example, American speech is much more idiomatic than British. But, being common property, set expressions and stock phrases are conformist by definition. If Europeans often try to make their language more individual, Americans tend to go the opposite way.

Thus on a sweltering summer day thousands of New Yorkers will ask casual acquaintances and even strangers the same rhetorical question “Hot enough for you?”, only to get the same stock reply “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”.

Mandatory demotic folksiness is expected even from highly educated people, and they usually comply.

I recall that even William F. Buckley, the late pundit who possessed by far the richest vocabulary I’ve ever observed in the public arena, occasionally felt compelled to force unnecessary prole colloquialisms into his prose, sometimes to a jarring effect.

The same conformism can be seen in the way Americans dress, furnish their houses, eat and drink. (Paul Fussell covered this subject brilliantly in his book Class, written 35 years ago but still current.)

Recession to the mean occurs in every society, but only in America is it aided by an irresistible gravitational pull exerted by the country’s founding ideology and her entire history.

Donald Trump is an American in every pore of his body. Hence he grew up sensing that there’s no social price to pay for crude lexicon, bad grammar and proletarian clothes. On the contrary, there just may be a social premium to collect.

By now this isn’t his second nature; it’s his first and only, and he doesn’t have to pretend that’s the case – it is. He isn’t like Tony Blair, who comically dropped his aitches and used the glottal stop, only sometimes forgetting to do so and reverting to the speech of his class.

Trump is as close to being American upper-class as it’s possible to get without being one of the Lowells, who, as the popular ditty goes, speak only to Cabots (“and Cabots speak only to God”).

But that’s not at all like being upper class in Britain. With the compulsory ‘not every…’ disclaimer, Americans do walk a different walk and talk a different talk. Contrary to Churchill’s quip, it’s not just the common language that divides them from the British.

4 thoughts on “Donald Trump, American class act”

  1. 1. “An outsider may conclude that Trump simply puts that persona on for political gain”

    My perspective is that it is NOT an act.

    2. ” . . . he sees no reason to conceal what he is.”

    Absolutely so.

    3. “In that, the president acts as someone who absorbed with his mother’s milk a certain ethos peculiar to his country . . . He’s a stereotypical American and proud of it.”

    The common touch billionaire. And of inherited wealth for several generations. Who would ever have thought it could be so? Does have a sexy looking wife and seems to take good care of his famblee.

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