In his long career as a celebrity businessman, Trump used the world “elite” the way the agency did, as a bit of marketing boilerplate more or less interchangeable with “classy” or “luxury.” Trump’s golf courses were “elite.” His buildings, in New York or Toronto, in Panama or Las Vegas, were “elite.” Mar-a-Lago was “elite.” Applied to people, it was an unvarnished compliment: Eli Manning was an “elite” quarterback.
This, however, changed abruptly in the summer of 2015. When Trump started running for president, “elite” no longer was a thumbs-up affirmation. He had followed politics long enough to understand that it meant something else when said in front of a red-meat Republican crowd. “The elites want Common Core,” he tweeted not long after he announced his bid, “so they can take education out of parental control. NO!” He stopped using the word only as a compliment. In interviews and speeches at rallies, as his campaign gathered momentum, the steady target of his ire was the establishment and its even more suspect inner circle: “media elites,” “the political elites,” “the elites who only want to raise more money for global corporations,” “the elites who led us from one financial and foreign policy disaster to another.” Hillary Clinton, he said, hammering away at starkly sketched lines, “stood with the elites.” In this, the otherwise unorthodox candidate was adopting a time-tested populist tactic, an insult used to great effect by such political notables as Huey Long, George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It even served as one of the linchpins of Trump’s closing argument. “It is time,” he told a crowd in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the day before the election in 2016, “to reject a failed political elite.”
But then he won. And over the past year, as he has settled into the trappings of the presidency, he has begun to do something none of his populist forebears ever attempted. He has been reclaiming the word “elite” with an almost vengeful pride. Having vanquished his opponents at the polls, having slammed the “elites” as corrupt, incompetent and out of touch, Trump now has bestowed upon himself, as well as his most fervent supporters, the mantle of “elite” as if it were a spoil of war. “You know what?” he said last year in Arizona. “I think we’re the elites.” In recent months, this approach has ramped up markedly. “Why are they elite?” he said in Minnesota. “I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president, and they didn’t. And I’m representing the greatest, smartest, most loyal, best people on earth—the deplorables.” He and his voters are now the elite, the new elite, “the super-elite,” Trump said in South Carolina. “Just remember that,” he said in West Virginia toward the end of the summer. “You are the elite. They’re not the elite.”
This Trumpian rebranding is more than mere semantic sleight of hand. It is a true novelty in politics, and a window into the source of his power. “The phenomenon of the Trump voter is twofold,” veteran Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz told me. “Half of the people felt forgotten. And half of the people felt fucked. I call it F-squared.” The “F-squared” portion of the population was the key to his victory. It continues to contribute to his sway over members of Congress. And it will help determine, one way or another, his fortunes in the next two years and maybe beyond. “Trump,” Luntz explained, “is seeking to elevate those who feel oppressed by and taken advantage of by the elites, and he seems to raise them up and say, ‘Hey, guys, you’re now in charge. … You matter.’” And now Trump is upping the ante. “I don’t remember the last time that someone ran for president championing being the elite,” Luntz concluded. “This is truly groundbreaking.”
“The phenomenon of the Trump voter is twofold. Half of the people felt forgotten. And half of the people felt fucked. I call it F-squared.”
Many have noted the sheer implausibility of a plutocrat stepping out of his chauffeured limousine, or off his private plane, and making common cause with some of America’s most down-and-out voters. But Trump always has felt an intense antagonism for what he sees as a privileged class of Americans, and particularly New Yorkers, who long mocked his outer-borough origins and sniffed at his signature achievements. And this in turn has made him an especially savvy combatant in the culture wars. His gut appeal to voters has nothing to do with the big ideas that have energized the right and the left—like morality or personal freedom—and it isn’t even a matter of dollars and cents. His acrobatic use of “elite” is not some cynical political contortion but precisely the opposite. Trump’s abiding sense of grievance, his unconcealed mix of envy and resentment of this class of person, constitutes an unmistakable point of consistency in his character.
“It betrays this Janus-faced quality that’s deeply embedded in President Trump, which is that he alternately disparages elitism but also wants to be a member of the club. … He had every reason not to feel like an outsider … and yet he feels that in his bones all the time. And then he articulates it. And that’s why a good chunk of the electorate responds to him,” biographer Tim O’Brien said in an interview.
“It is,” O’Brien added, “one of the very few authentic things about him.”
It has been said that nothing gave Trump more pleasure than accepting Clinton’s concession call on election night. Finally, he had irrefutable proof that he was better than all the gatekeepers who had ever found him lacking. As the 45th president, he is now a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and his daily occupation of the White House is a fundamental rebuke to the many people who view him as unfit for the job. The longer Trump holds it, the more his standards become norms of their own. He already has remade the Republican Party in his image, and he continues to turn campaign rhetoric into policy reality; in early October, headlines announced the replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement with a rejiggered trade deal of Trump’s own naming. Is Trump, the master of reinvention, also now turning a lifelong grudge into a radical redefinition of what it means to be elite in American society?
In late 1985, when Donald Trump paid a headline-worthy $7 million to buy the Mar-a-Lago estate in tony, old-money Palm Beach, Florida, word was he didn’t receive an invitation to join the ultra-exclusive Bath & Tennis Club, known in local society simply as the B&T. “Utter bullshit!” Trump bellowed in 1990 in Vanity Fair. Perhaps, but the talked-about slight was still on his mind a decade and a half later. Tooling about town in his red Ferrari with O’Brien riding shotgun, Trump railed at the rumors. “I don’t want to get in,” he insisted. “I have a better club than them.” He called Mar-a-Lago “much bigger.”
It was the South Florida version of what had already happened to Trump in New York, as the Queens-born real estate heir tried desperately to crack the Manhattan social scene and found himself scorned and shunned by the tastemakers, the philanthropists, the lovers of culture and art, even his would-be peers, the top people in the real-estate business. He was “too tawdry” for them, according to Gwenda Blair, another Trump biographer. “Many of the developers believed that his ego was out of control,” said George Arzt, who was an aide to former New York Mayor Ed Koch. Trump, for his part, again claimed he had never wanted any part of it. “In my opinion, the social scene—in New York, Palm Beach, or anywhere else, for that matter—is full of phonies and unattractive people,” Trump told O’Brien in 2005.
The roots of Trump’s resentment of elites run even deeper than that. His father, a wealthy and established builder whom Trump admired profoundly, forever had felt like an outsider. The son of an immigrant, Fred Trump was German at a time when that wasn’t helpful; for decades, he insisted that he was actually Swedish. He was Presbyterian when most of his competitors were Jewish. He was awkward and shy, and the vast wealth he acquired building homes and apartments in Brooklyn and Queens did little to alter this mindset. He forged ties with the boroughs’ Democratic political establishment for business reasons, but his personal politics tended toward the anti-elite; he was, by 1964, a supporter of the outsider Republican Barry Goldwater.
If Fred Trump was the first important influence on Donald Trump, Roy Cohn was the second. And Cohn, notorious for his role as red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy’s scowling chief counsel in the 1950s, had managed by the ’70s to master an inimitable insider-outsider straddle. He called himself “an iconoclast” and pooh-poohed the “stuffed-shirt” elite, all while being driven around in a Rolls-Royce and living and working in an Upper East Side townhouse. “Cohn’s position in the culture was such that he could scorn the establishment from one side of his faux-populist, pro-little guy mouth even as he suckled the power structure from the other,” journalist Tom Gogola once wrote, “and get away with it again and again.”
“He wanted to be part of [the New York society elites], but because he was not, he hated them.”
Trump was Cohn’s prize pupil. And in the ensuing two decades in midtown Manhattan, Trump turned the old Commodore Hotel into the new Grand Hyatt and built Trump Tower and fixed Wollman Rink when the government could not—consistently hawking himself as a magnanimous savior of the city. This made headlines around the country, but miffed the people who mattered the most in New York. With the Grand Hyatt, he extracted an unprecedented tax cut from a financially struggling city; with Trump Tower, he jackhammered valuable friezes off the face of the building it replaced even after he had promised to donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He then used a series of Cohn-coordinated appeals to win another lot of public subsidies for Trump Tower; and with the skating rink in Central Park, he relished ribbing Koch and his administration, turning it into a tidy tale of private enterprise over public-sector incompetence. Unquestionably successful though the project was, the never-ending series of self-congratulatory press conferences rubbed people (and not just in the mayor’s office) the wrong way, especially coming from a guy who owed as much as he did to government assistance. “I think that’s where people lost patience,” a former Trump associate told me.
New York society never warmed to him. Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive, always thought of it as a love-hate relationship, and a veritable engine of his existence. “He wanted to be part of them,” O’Donnell said, “but because he was not, he hated them.” In his efforts to build a so-called Trump City, he tangled for the rest of the 1980s with the Upper West Side’s resident intellectual elite, who found him unbearably “boorish,” according to Ruth Messinger, the neighborhood’s liberal city councilwoman at the time. And he kept putting his name on everything he built or bought, “like a barbarian marking what he had seized,” in the words of New York University urban policy and planning professor Mitchell Moss.
As Trump continued knocking on the door and finding it closed, he came to realize—grudgingly, say people who worked for him—that he was much more admired and accepted by another set of people, the kinds of Americans whom Hillary Clinton later would label “deplorables.” Some 130 miles south of New York, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, flanked by bodyguards, he paraded through the lobbies of his three casinos—Trump Plaza and Trump Castle and the Trump Taj Mahal. The small-time gamblers who flocked there on cut-rate buses wanted to shake his hand, or just rub him for luck. “It was always very interesting to watch,” recalled O’Donnell, the casino exec, “particularly knowing that he really despised them. He hated it when they touched him.”
Often, O’Donnell said, after these theatrical sweep-throughs, Trump beelined to the bathroom to wash his hands. “The first thing he did.”
“He was disgusted by his customers,” a former Trump Organization higher-up told me. “He would say, ‘Can you believe these are the people I make my money with?’”
But they were the ones who loved him, and Trump nurtured that love by publicly disparaging the caste of people he so wanted to impress. “Perhaps the most important thing I learned at Wharton,” he wrote in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, referring to the business school of his Ivy League alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, “was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was nothing particularly awesome or exceptional about my classmates.” An avid country club golfer, he still hosted at his casinos the decidedly more lowbrow sports of boxing and professional wrestling. While he once considered reality television so much pap for “the bottom-feeders of society,” according to Trump Revealed, he used “The Apprentice” to present himself to that very audience as an uber-successful and omnipotent corporate titan. Forgoing “pheasant under glass,” as he once dubbed fancy fare, he preferred hamburgers, meatloaf and well-done slabs of steak slathered in ketchup.
“He could never be old money,” Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization vice president who started working for him in the late 1970s, told me. “He could never be the kind of people who were into museums and art and opera, things like that. He could never, ever be that. And he wanted it, and he resented it, and then he played upon it—and then he said, ‘Oh, I’m better than that, my elite is better than the old elite.’”
What he lacked was a way to prove it.
Trump glided down the gilded escalator in his midtown tower in June 2015, in the estimation of Moss, the NYU professor, because “almost no one admired or deferred to him in New York City.”
As angrily personal as his motivation might have been, Trump’s campaign also tapped into a deep American history of anti-elitism as a potent political tool. Huey Long, the force-of-nature governor and United States senator from Louisiana in the 1920s and ’30s before his assassination in 1935, railed against oil companies, big banks and utilities and denounced the wealthy as “parasites” who gorged themselves at the expense of the poor. More than 30 years later, George Wallace, the racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate, saw himself as “the very incarnation of the ‘folks,’” wrote biographer Marshall Frady, “the embodiment of the will and sensibilities and discontents of the people”—a new user of “Long’s coalition of frustration.” Reagan injected into the equation the actual word “elite” in 1964, 16 years before he was elected president. In his speech in Los Angeles in support of Goldwater—“A Time for Choosing”—he launched his political career and gave the culture wars a fresh lexicon, “pitting a supposedly indignant Middle America against the liberal snobs of the coasts,” as Yale history professor Beverly Gage has written.
It was Nixon, of course, who made all this stick as a national candidate, running and winning on an anti-elitist resentment four years later. “He had a gift for identifying, from his own personal prejudices, the gnawing sense of grievance in others,” Nixon biographer John Aloysius Farrell told me. “Nixon’s whole life was a chip on his shoulder,” presidential historian Doug Brinkley said in an interview. For Nixon, it was a formula for success; for others, it offered a road map. “Nixon’s anti-elitism,” Farrell pointed out, “was a foundational element of modern Republican populism”—and, some would add, its various offshoots, from Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan to Sarah Palin to … Trump.
Trump met Reagan, but he knew Nixon. In the 1980s, they were both regular guests in the Yankee Stadium suite of team owner George Steinbrenner. They had a mutual confidant in political operative Roger Stone. “Your man’s got it,” Nixon told Stone, sensing Trump’s political potential, Stone wrote in his book, The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution. “Trump was intrigued by Nixon’s understanding of the use of power.” In 1989, Stone helped organize a weekend meeting in Houston, where Trump and Nixon holed up in a hotel room and talked for hours. Nixon, according to Stone, was “downright impressed.” Trump, meanwhile, “absorbed as much as he could.” In Trump, Nixon saw a provocative, room-filling presence. In Nixon, Trump saw a kinship in their disdain for elites.
Heading then into 2015, and given his past, Trump needed no tutorial on the politics of resentment. “No. He got it,” former political aide Sam Nunberg told me, recalling his conversations with Trump in the two or three years leading up to his candidacy. “We talked about us versus them. Populism. Going for low-income, working-class voters, non-college-educated voters. Going against the system.”
Now, though, Trump is doing something different from his predecessors. He has embraced the notion of a populist revolution without renouncing a single trapping of his gold-plated lifestyle. Can he really run as the elite instead of against the elite?
Another former Trump adviser suggested to me that it’s less strategic, and more a visceral response to discovering that he can be president and still not considered elite by the arbiters of the standard. “He doesn’t think he got enough credit for overcoming the odds to win,” this person told me. “And I just think it’s a way of legitimizing his victory.”
But can it be more than just pinning a medal on himself? Whether he believes it or not, Trump’s rhetoric actually taps into a deeply American idea: The promise of true democracy is that nobody is better than anyone else, that the power over the government should be broadly shared rather than commandeered by monied elites. Long, maybe the most purely populist campaigner ever, distilled his anti-elite platform into four simple words: “Every man a king.” Even people who disagree with and fear Trump acknowledge that he’s getting at a painful truth: A lot of Americans really have been excluded.
But Long’s phrase came with another, less-quoted clause: “But no one wears a crown.” No one thinks for a moment that Trump believes in Long’s socialist redistribution of wealth as a cure for income inequality. But they do fear that by channeling a legitimate economic grievance into a hatred of establishment elites he might be paving the way for a form of governmental power that is not democratic, but the opposite.
“Elites are masters of their eras, but they are also metaphors for them. They illustrate what is valued, how success is earned, and how power is garnered and wielded. ... Indeed, elites reveal how we see our own societies.”
Luntz, for one, doesn’t think Trump, no matter how well he communicates to the “forgotten” and the “fucked,” can actually reshape society—for the better or for the worse—simply by giving his supporters the ultimate confidence booster.
“Absolutely not,” Luntz said. “And here’s the reason: Donald Trump in his convention speech said it clearly, when he said, ‘I alone … ’” This, Luntz believes, is temporary. “It’s not a movement,” he said. “It’s about a man.”
A very self-obsessed man. For all the ferocity of his anti-establishment agitation, the germophobic distance Trump keeps from the crowds at his rallies reminds his critics that when he says, “We’re the elites,” he’s speaking of the “royal we.” This is what makes some people suspicious of his motivations and unwilling, even though he is president, to accord him the honor of the office. It is not the job that makes the man, they believe, but the other way around.
In Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making, David Rothkopf offered an expansive assessment: “Elites are masters of their eras, but they are also metaphors for them. They illustrate what is valued, how success is earned, and how power is garnered and wielded. They also reflect what flaws we tolerate in those at the top and what flaws we find unacceptable. Indeed, elites reveal how we see our own societies.”
How, I asked Rothkopf, based on the definition in his book, is Trump not elite already?
He was unmoved.
“Trump,” Rothkopf said, “is a tiny little boy, knocking on a big mahogany door, saying, ‘Let me in!’ And he’s never going to get in. And I think the ultimate irony of his life is he has been elevated to the most powerful job in the world. And so long as he is in it, it declines in importance.” He likened it to Greek tragedy. “There is no bigger job. There is no greater way for him to do it. And there is no greater proof that he is a pretender.”
The fact is, though, the “pretender” is the president. And already, halfway through his first term, it is hard to outright dismiss the notion that Trump is in some sense redefining each and every day what it means to be elite, merely by existing in the White House.