The Pretend Populism of Donald Trump

Frank Bruni 
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Credit Ben Wiseman                    

 
For a politician who won the White House by railing against the elites and demonizing the establishment, Donald Trump presented an odd argument for why Americans should believe, as he does, that his adviser Steve Bannon is no racist, anti-Semitic ally of the alt-right.
 
“Steve went to Harvard,” Trump reminded about two dozen of us at The Times last week, and then, a few sentences later, added, “I think he was with Goldman Sachs on top of everything else.”
 
Well, that certainly settles it. If Bannon has been cleansed in the rose-scented bathwater of the Ivy League and then spritzed with the perfume of Wall Street, he can be no ideological outlier, no cultural ruffian, no threat. He knows to use the smaller, outside fork first and to put his linen napkin on his lap, not to cut eyeholes in it and wear it over his face.
 
Trump styled himself as a populist during his flamboyantly provocative campaign, claiming to hear, understand and channel the working-class Americans so wrongly ignored by other leaders. Sure, he flew in a private jet at an economic altitude far above theirs and lived in ostentatious splendor. He was nonetheless the “blue-collar billionaire,” to quote the oxymoron that some of his surrogates took to using.
 
Where’s that blue collar now? I’m seeing a spotless, perfectly pressed white one, along with a plush silk necktie and, metaphorically speaking, a pocket kerchief to boot.
Trump is also considering high-level roles for the “oil mogul Harold Hamm ($15.3 billion), investor Wilbur Ross ($2.9 billion), private equity investor Mitt Romney ($250 million at last count), hedge fund magnate Steve Mnuchin (at least $46 million) and superlawyer Rudy Giuliani (estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars),” according to the Politico article.
 
“And Trump’s likely choice for deputy commerce secretary, Todd Ricketts, comes from the billionaire family that owns the Chicago Cubs.”
 
That’s hardly the oddest or most unsettling part of the Trump transition, which has been a mesmerizing confirmation of so much about him, including his tendency to turn every aspect of his life into a self-aggrandizing pageant. It’s not enough for him to interview potential cabinet members: There must be photographs and footage of them coming to grovel for his favor, as if each is a courtier and he the king. Where’s the populism there?
 
And for all his thunderous talk before Election Day about “draining the swamp” of Washington, the water level looks fine, the mosquitoes seem unworried and the gators remain plentiful and well-fed.
 
Any suggestion that he would put an end to the self-dealing and personal enrichment of political insiders is contradicted by Trump himself, who hasn’t provided any concrete assurances that he won’t use the presidency to elevate his and his children’s fortunes.
 

In his interview with The Times, he was emphatic (and correct) that he had no legal obligation to liquidate any of his holdings or put them in a blind trust. And while he said that his concerns now are about the country, not his businesses, he acknowledged, “The brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before.”
 
He also volunteered that history provided no real guide for what he should do, because other presidents hadn’t possessed his kind of wealth. The remark came across as less philosophical than self-congratulatory.
 
This supposed populist has never been much for humility, and has spent at least as much time emulating the elites as defying and insulting them. He sent his children to fancy boarding schools. Three of them later attended the same Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania, that he graduated from.
 
The signature ingredient in Melania Trump’s short-lived skincare line was caviar, because, I suppose, nothing says hydration to the everyday American woman like ingestible fish eggs. Had her business taken off, a white-truffle facial masque and Dom Perignon toner would surely have followed: populist ablutions for the parched skin of the little people.
 
Trump’s populist daughter Ivanka appeared on “60 Minutes” wearing a gold and diamond bracelet that she sells on her website for $10,800. A press release hawking it was distributed just after the program aired.
 
Her populist husband, Jared Kushner, who may be the wiliest of all Trump whisperers, has his own Harvard degree (his is undergraduate, while Bannon attended the graduate business school) and, as Daniel Golden initially reported in his eye-opening book “The Price of Admission,” Kushner’s ticket to Harvard was punched, despite questionable academic qualifications, after his father made a $2.5 million donation.
 
Populists and more populists: Even Giuliani, who prides himself as a hero to the segment of the electorate that Trump won over, spent his post-mayoral years not fighting for the forgotten man but raking in many millions from foreign companies and governments dazzled by his star power. That’s why he’s no cinch for secretary of state. A Senate controlled by his fellow Republicans might not be willing to confirm him. He’s too swampy even for the swamp.
 
I’m not sure how Trump’s populism figured into his determination as a young man to expand his family’s real estate business from Brooklyn and Queens into Manhattan, where the ruling class romped. Or into the location of his gaudiest palace, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach.
 
Or into the staffing decisions he’s making now. As the Politico article said, “Put together, Trump’s cabinet and administration could be worth as much as $35 billion, a staggering agglomeration of wealth unprecedented in American history.”
 
Trump’s campaign cast Goldman Sachs as an emblem of all that was sinister and rigged in an economy that shortchanged the working class. But now it’s proof that Bannon’s a respectable guy, and Mnuchin, another of its alums, is reportedly on Trump’s shortlist for Treasury secretary.
 
And though in some situations Trump plays the skunk at the garden party, in others he’s the garden party itself. He can pantomime populism all he likes. The reality is still pomp.

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