It’s a cliché that Americans are particularly prone to idolize the wealthy. This is sometimes interpreted as a result of the once-revolutionary belief in meritocracy, an elevation of personal achievement and discipline over the sources of status prized by the ancien régime: land and lineage, culture and manners — in short, to pick an overloaded word, “class.” This myth of the “self-made” American man is so familiar that satire of it is itself a venerated part of the anglophone canon. What would a nineteenth-century novel or English country-house costume drama be without a crass robber-baron crashing the party, his dollars buying access that his character can’t support?
Trump seems like a bloated fusion of the myth and the satire. He pitches himself as a self-made business-man, a man who knows how the real world works, who has his eye on the bottom line, who can get things done. He knows “The Art of the Deal” — hell, he almost wrote the book on it. It simply doesn’t matter that Trump’s rise to the top, like the success of many of his enterprises and like the very idea of the self-made man in general, is a myth. After decades of lauding a “business approach” and a “CEO style” to running government, education, and so much else — through corporate scandals and economic crises — it’s a myth that we’ve sunk considerable resources into insisting we believe.
Yet Trump doesn’t seem to fall victim to the satirical flip-side of this myth. Indeed it’s often been said that he’s beyond satire. By this might be meant that his overt statements and behaviour are already so outlandish and objectionable that there is no space left for comic exaggeration; whatever a satirist might want to put in Trump’s mouth in fun, Trump has already volunteered, in apparent seriousness, something worse. Where do you go looking for jokes when your starting point is mass deportations? The border wall is childish and ludicrous, cartoonish — but Trump came up with that himself. What would be funnier, and a little more extreme? Mass executions?
But I don’t think Trump is beyond satire; he has co-opted it, turning its natural targets into positive selling points. Crassness, coarseness, pettiness, vindictiveness, prejudice, incitements to violence — the stock-in-trade of demagogues and dictators — become so many marks of authenticity. No career politician or public servant, no one with a diverse constituency, a professional code of conduct, or donors to court, would enthuse publicly about the size of his penis, or blame a reporter’s questions on menstruation, or identify a neighbour as a nation of rapists, or suggest a religious test for immigration to a secular state. But Trump is not beholden to such “politically correct” norms; he’s independent, a self-made man. This is why he is immune to accusations of racism, sexism, and so on. They help him — not only because they confirm and validate his bigotry among those of his supporters who share it (though that is significant), but also because they underline his independence even among many who don’t. The satire substantiates the myth.
The key to this claim to independence, however, and to much of Trump’s wider appeal, lies in an idea much older than the idolized or satirized American moneybags, older indeed than the United States itself. This is the idea that, thanks to his wealth, Trump “can’t be bought.” I’ll take this up in Part 2.