Donald J. Trump and the Spirit of Proletarian Luxury

Donald J. Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidential election raises worrying issues concerning the spirit of our times. In today’s guest post, John Armitage and Joanne Roberts, co-editors of the recent special issue of Cultural Politics on “The Spirit of Luxury,” reflect on Trump’s promotion of “the spirit of proletarian luxury.”

ddcup_12_1Donald J. Trump is a highly successful businessman with a net worth, according to Forbes, of $4.5 billion. As the owner, chairman, and president of The Trump Organization, he caters to the desires of the super-rich through the construction and operation of luxury real estate developments, hotels, golf courses, and retail outlets. Indeed, the success of his company relies on the super-rich: a demographic group imbued with “the spirit of haute luxury,” characterized by values of refinement, sophistication and discretion.

In the race for the Republican nomination, Trump is wooing mainly white working-class Republicans, many of whom are still reeling from the impact of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and who feel betrayed by the extant political classes. Trump, then, offers something fresh, as a face from beyond the realm of politics, yet simultaneously familiar, as a television celebrity. However, we contend that Trump is trading down in terms of the groups that he is seeking to attract. In the process, he is adopting crude, unsophisticated, and sometimes indiscreet language and behaviors. Consequently, Trump offers himself up as a symbol of seemingly attainable success: in Trump’s world, everyone can achieve prosperity displayed through luxury penthouse suites, mansions, aircraft, cars and a whole host of other luxury goods and services. Moreover, Trump presents the prospect of upward social mobility through hard work in a society with few barriers. In the process of promoting the contemporary manifestation of the American Dream, Trump thus advances the spirit of luxury. But he does so in ways that reach beyond the super-rich. Certainly, for us, Trump cultivates what we call “the spirit of proletarian luxury” – the brash, “bling,” even vulgar, type of luxury that satisfies the need to display success through conspicuous consumption.

Given his own great wealth, Trump has deep pockets with which to finance his campaign. However, the indirect cost, in terms of the erosion of support from his super-rich clients, is proving to be high. The results of a recent survey by BAV Consulting/Young & Rubicam, reported in Politico, suggests that the Trump brand is losing its luster among high income consumers. From the perspective of Trump as a luxury brand, therefore, we argue that the brand is being democratized such that its diversification into national politics is making it more accessible to a wider, yet, crucially, less affluent, group of followers. Nevertheless, as a luxury brand, Trump must be aspirational and inaccessible to the less well-off; otherwise it loses its symbolic value as a luxury among the super-rich.

While the Trump luxury brand may be losing ground among the super-rich, Trump’s own personal popularity has soared among those with lower incomes. By appealing to a mass electorate, then, Trump portrays himself as the personification of the American Dream, of the new spirit of proletarian luxury that is within everyone’s reach.

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