Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
Class Traitors: The Style of Pat Robertson, Donald Trump, and Tucker Carlson
Friday, the Department of Justice released the details of their indictment of Donald Trump. Included in the indictment were a series of photos of top-secret documents, stored haphazardly in the former president’s home in Mar-a-Lago.
The online critiques of Trump’s decorating scheme emerged instantly.
The economist Paul Krugman writes this morning:
In my inbox I seem to be seeing almost as many comments about the chandelier in Trump's bathroom as about the boxes of classified documents. But there's actually a systematic correlation between anti-democratic politics and a certain kind of bad taste.
“A certain kind of bad taste.” For years, it has been standard to mock President Trump’s strangely ill-fitting suits; his too-long red ties; the tacky, gilded excess of his decorating. His sartorial choices are, to put it mildly, not preppy. He neither dresses nor comports himself like what my family has long called “Our Kind of People.” Trump may have grown up in a wealthy family and gone to an Ivy League school, but he shows no outer and visible signs of adhering to the markers of his class. Indeed, he seems to mock the WASP devotion to subtlety; in his comportment and his manner and his chandelier in every bathroom, he repudiates the etiquette of the American ruling class.
Whether by accident or by design, the effect is the same. It sends a very intentional message: No man with taste this vulgar can be a member of the ruling elite. Trump’s garish style choices signal the absence of restraint – and of course, he campaigns, endlessly, on his gleeful refusal to be constrained by tradition, decency, custom, or law. Every time the tasteful and the sophisticated mock Trump for lacking taste and sophistication, he proves his bona fides as an outsider. Donald wouldn’t be the Donald in a tailored Savile Row suit. He certainly wouldn’t have been president.
It is not that Trump’s base shares his decorating taste. It is that they share his contempt for the traditional WASP elites, and the base is smart enough to know that those absurd neckties and golden toilet bowls appall and discomfit the people that base despises. The more the Paul Krugmans jeer at Trump’s lurid style, the more the base is reassured that this really is still their guy.
There were certain words I was raised not to say at the dinner table. Slurs and profanity, of course. One other term was absolutely forbidden: “classy.” To deploy “classy” or to describe something or someone as possessing “class” was, to my grandmother, a very quick way to demonstrate that one had no understanding of what “class” was.
Another relative gave me a single piece of dating advice: avoid going out with girls who used the word “classy.” I asked if it was okay if the young lady in question used “classy” satirically. My relation glowered. “Some people pretend they spoke in jest when they are caught out. I am not sure you can always detect satire when you are smitten.”
Bottom line: Our Kind of People do not mock other people’s style, for the same reason that Orthodox Jews do not insist that Episcopalians keep Shabbat. Not everyone hears the same drummer; not everyone is called to march to the same tune. As a result, though I find Donald Trump’s taste to be rather different from my own, I also rather feel that mockery is a graver sin than gaudiness.
Maybe you think I’m a little too delicate. Fine, then think of it in political terms: just as in sports, you don’t give your opponents “bulletin board material” by jeering at them before a game, you don’t poke your political enemy’s base by mocking his “classlessness.” If Donald Trump embodies the absence of self-restraint, I suggest you show how much you are unlike him by modeling the virtue he lacks and not saying or tweeting diddly about his house.
Pat Robertson died this week. I’ve always been intrigued by the story of the man who played such a pivotal role in the rise of the Christian Right. To secular liberals, Pat was the same as Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and other televangelists who rose to fame and wealth. Class and theological distinctions among these figures do not interest those who despise all these men equally.
Those other men were all born poor, or at least lower-middle-class. Jerry Falwell grew up in a famously abusive family. Jimmy Swaggart grew up the grandson of sharecroppers, part of a large and rollicking Louisiana clan that included Jerry Lee Lewis, Swaggart’s cousin.
Pat Robertson was the son of a U.S. Senator. He went to prep school, graduated with honors in history from Washington & Lee University. Robertson worked briefly for Adlai Stevenson, the very embodiment of WASPy noblesse oblige, and later graduated from Yale Law School. And then, of course, he had a religious conversion. The rest is well-known.
Robertson, like Tucker Carlson a generation later, became a traitor to his class. Prep school educated WASPs do not often speak in tongues. They do not create exuberant amalgams of Baptist and Pentecostal theology and peddle what they have created to millions. (However, when they run for president, they do wear very nice repp ties.) Robertson never abandoned preppydom; his suits were always well-tailored, his style consistently understated.
Donald, Tucker, Pat - the style is a signal and a story.
With the possible exception of Billy Graham, it would be difficult to think of two other men in living memory who have had such a powerful, emotive connection with white American evangelicals as Donald Trump and Pat Robertson. Both grew up in wealth. Both spent their lives building empires that infuriated, unnerved, and outraged the very people around whom they had been raised. Pat and Donald each earned Ivy League degrees, and then spent their long and influential public years lambasting their former classmates and the world those classmates ran.
Because Donald Trump built his career in business and in New York City, his personal vulgarity in speech and style became a convenient way to signal that for all his success, he was an outsider. Robertson used his preppiness in much the same way – his education and his understated fashion style marked him as distinct from his fellow televangelists. Both men delighted in tweaking the noses of the establishment, and both men deployed their fashion sense as part of that tweaking.
In Trump’s case, his tastelessness is his trustworthiness: I may be rich, but I’m not like these buttoned-down elites who want to run your lives. In Robertson’s case, his preppiness was a reminder that God’s Saving Word and Apostolic Gifts weren’t just for the humble working classes, but for everyone. Trump and Robertson knew better than to wear overalls or blue jeans in a transparent and awkward effort to connect with the social class from which they drew their strongest support. (If either Donald Trump or Pat Robertson ever pretended to be a “Bubba,” the real Bubbas would smell the fraudulence instantly, and the mystique would be gone.). The editors of the New York Times may regard Trump and Robertson as frauds, but they live (or lived) their lives with the outer appearance of deep authenticity. That authenticity resonates deeply with the base that admires them. Making fun of it does not help make the case against them. Quite the opposite.
(I have grown tired of explaining to my liberal friends that Trump’s genius is that he never patronizes his supporters. When I say that, my friends howl. “He does it all the time! He is awful to them!” I ask how many Trump supporters they know and love. It’s not a matter of whether you or I think Trump is patronizing his base. It’s what his base thinks. But since you’ve unfriended most of them, you aren’t able to find out.)
I have no opinion on the substance of the indictment against Trump and I defer to those whose opinions are grounded in a better understanding of the law than my own. And while I have no personal love for the former president’s style, I do have a very strong feeling that mocking Trump’s home or his suits is as crass as the offenses the mockery purports to address.
On the same note, I also have no idea about the state of Pat Robertson’s immortal soul and am astonished that so many people are so sure on the subject. I do honor that Pat was, in a way that I do not think most people appreciate, an artful and masterful traitor to the world in which he was raised. Both the late televangelist and the former president had (or have) an exquisitely honed sense of style, and the signals style sends.
If you want to understand their triumphs, part of the answer is in their tailoring.