Our likely next chancellor John McDonnell describes himself as working class because he doesn’t “own any means of production”.
I had some fun at his expense yesterday, pointing out that according to that Marxist orthodoxy, the Queen is working class too: I don’t think she owns any factories, plants or forges.
It takes a Trotskyist zealot like McDonnell to persist in applying to modern societies criteria that were already obsolete when Marx first thought of them, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
But that doesn’t mean class distinctions don’t exist, even if class barriers are now few. A cleverer Marxist than McDonnell (any Marxist can be clever only comparatively) would probably come up with his own social taxonomy, most likely based on wealth.
Yet, as Paul Fussell so brilliantly showed in his 1992 book Class, money plays only a tangential role in social identification. He wrote about specifically the American status system, but many of his observations apply in Britain as well.
The principal one among them is that visible class is defined more by the person’s tastes, demeanour, vocabulary, clothes and general culture than by his wealth. It’s not the amount of money but how it’s spent that matters.
Fussell wrote before Donald Trump graced the international scene, but, had he waited some 25 years, he could have used America’s 45th president as an illustration.
Trump is a multi-billionaire if you believe him or at least a multi-millionaire if you believe his detractors. Yet in every tell-tale characteristic of class he is what Fussell called a ‘prole’. Trump talks like one, walks like one, dresses like one, eats and drinks like one – he is one.
His tweets are full of both grammatical and lexical solecisms, and they betray a crass personality – this, irrespective of whether he’s right or wrong (it’s more usually the former).
Trump wears red baseball caps with dark lounge suits, and his caps display legible slogans, usually Make America Great Again. One wonders if his car features furry dice dangling off the rear-view mirror, deer antlers on the roof and a bumper sticker saying Honk if You Love Jesus.
Trump’s ties are a foot longer than normal, which is a dead giveaway of the lower social orders, while his casual clothes were designed for a man half a century younger.
All this becomes especially painful when he comes in contact with British royalty. The other day the president was photographed wearing white tie next to a similarly attired Prince Charles.
Although HRH is also working class by McDonnell’s criteria, his clothes always look as though he first visited Savile Row shortly after learning to walk. His tailcoat was impeccable, as all his suits always are.
By contrast, the front of Trump’s tailcoat was a good foot shorter than it should have been, and the suit looked as though it had been hired at Moss Bros. He also needed something at least two sizes larger. Trump too fits McDonnell’s criteria of working class, but unlike HRH he actually wears it on his sleeve, as it were.
The same goes for food. When Her Majesty treated the president to dinner, the menu was a steamed fillet of halibut with watercress mousse, asparagus spears in chervil sauce, followed by Windsor lamb with herb stuffing, spring vegetables and a port sauce. One of the wines was a 1990 Chateau Lafite, costing, depending on where you shop, between £1,400 and £2,000 a bottle.
Trump’s dinner for Her Majesty at the US ambassador’s residence was rather different: beef, potatoes and vanilla ice cream, washed down with a £30 bottle of California red.
However, Trump is teetotal, which means he sampled neither the Napa Valley product nor the Lafite.
I don’t know why he is teetotal. It could be because he’s a recovering alcoholic scared of falling off the wagon. He may also be under doctor’s orders, although I’ve never met a heartless medic who’d ban a glass of Lafite. He may be afraid to reveal some dark secret under the influence. Or else he’s a control freak who hates to lose even a modicum of self-restraint.
I’ve seen all such types, miserable individuals who sip soft drinks throughout dinner. Yet that by itself isn’t a class indicator. But the kind of soft drink they sip is.
The old principle of the drier the drink, the higher the class applies to non-alcoholic beverages as well. A teetotaller of taste drinks mineral water with or without a wedge of lime. Orange juice is also possible, just.
But Trump drinks Diet Coke, which is revolting prole muck even outside the elevated context of dinner with royalty. In that context it’s barbaric.
US presidents routinely employ professional style consultants. But even a rank amateur of some taste could correct all those class aberrations in a lazy afternoon. The illiterate tweets would take longer to fix, but even that problem isn’t insurmountable.
But – and here we strike outside the narrow confines of class tastes – Trump clearly doesn’t feel the need. On the contrary, he knows that projecting the image of a man of the people is a known vote-getter in America.
And unfortunately not only in America. Democratic politics throughout the West have been reduced to rabble-rousing, and today’s rabble are roused more readily by someone they perceive as one of their own.
In Trump’s case his vulgarity is genuine: he displayed it even when he was merely a property developer on the make. But even many politicians who know better still feel obliged to compete in the Prolier Than Thou stakes. They know what they are up against.
It’s commonplace now for TV interviewers to ask an aspiring candidate for political office if he knows the price of a pint of milk or has ever changed a nappy. Someone whose response shows him for the toff he is loses votes, perhaps even the whole election.
Yet I can’t think offhand of many great statesmen of the past who could have passed such a test, not in Britain at any rate. Wellington? Pitt? Churchill? Be serious.
This modern tendency activates mechanisms of Darwinian natural selection in the political class, first bringing to the fore individuals who feel they have to pretend to be vulgarians and then those who don’t need to pretend.
Le style, c’est l’homme même, wrote Buffon. Vulgar style is often a result or precursor of vulgar thoughts, vulgar feelings – and eventually vulgar actions.
Still, by modern criteria, Trump is as good a president as a country can get, which says less about him than about our times.
P.S. Now we are on the subject of good taste, you can prove yours by attending Penelope Blackie’s recital tomorrow. Even though she’s married to me, she is a sublime pianist of the kind of noble sensibility that is almost extinct among today’s pianists. For details: penelopeblackie.com