Aesthetics of Power (425)

An excerpt from Corey Robin’s new edition of The Reactionary Mind. 

When it comes to saying something with buildings, Trump is less concerned with size and scale than with surfaces. This is a man incapable of reading a summary of a briefing paper. But show him a window treatment, mention a slab of stone or pane of burnished glass, and his attention is rapt. Suddenly he becomes the most observant diarist, recording detail after loving detail of the beauty he sees and its effects on him:

Der, Ivana, and I looked at hundreds of marble samples. Finally, we came upon something called Breccia Perniche, a rare marble in a color none of us had ever seen before — an exquisite blend of rose, peach, and pink that literally took our breath away. . . . It created a very luxurious and a very exciting feeling.

Amid a complex account of the financial challenges of retail, Trump can’t help noting that one of his atrium’s tenants sells leather pants that are “soft and buttery.”

That attention to external detail informs Trump’s political judgments as well. One of his most heartfelt criticisms of Obama was that rather than hosting a celebration for foreign dignitaries in a lavish ballroom, he served dinner to them in “an old, broken, rotten-looking tent” on the White House lawn. “That’s no way for America to host important meetings and dinners with world leaders and dignitaries. We should project our nation’s power and beauty with a proper facility and ballroom.” So enraged was Trump at this failed aesthetics of power that he called the White House and, patched through to Obama senior strategist David Axelrod, offered to build a ballroom there for free. Now in office, Trump has set things right. According to an early report in the New York Times:

Visitors to the Oval Office say Mr. Trump is obsessed with the décor. . . . He will linger on the opulence of the newly hung golden drapes, which he told a recent visitor were once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt but in fact were patterned for Bill Clinton. For a man who sometimes has trouble concentrating on policy memos, Mr. Trump was delighted to page through a book that offered him 17 window covering options.

Trump’s sensibility is less monumental than ornamental. That sensibility is not simply personal or psychological. It’s a rococo aesthetic that dominated New York fashion and museum culture in the 1980s — when The Art of the Deal appeared — and that cultural historian Debora Silverman, in Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America, identifies as the true cultural front of the Reagan Administration. This faux-aristocratic ethos was opulent and ostentatious, loud and luxurious, vicious and vulgar. It was a world made for Donald Trump, the world that made Donald Trump. As Trump says: “What I’m doing is about as close as you’re going to get, in the twentieth century, to the quality of Versailles.”