Is Trump’s Ostentatious Lifestyle Part of His Appeal?

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A political scientist compares the Donald to the Great Gatsby.

By Tom Jacobs

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From left: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby; Donald Trump visits his Scottish golf course. (Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures; Jan Kruger/Getty Images; Pacific Standard)

To many, Donald Trump disqualifies himself anew nearly every day. With each new gaffe or vulgarity, it becomes more difficult for some to understand what his supporters see in the presidential candidate.

While racial and ethnic animus and the appeal of authoritarianism are clearly a factor, there’s something about Trump that his fans identify with and find appealing. But what’s so relatable about a billionaire to someone who is just scraping by?

Amanda Friesen has a theory: It’s not Trump’s wealth so much as the way he flaunts it.

“I wonder if Trump supporters at a certain economic level, and from a certain cultural background, would make exactly his choices, if they had the money,” she writes in a recent essay. “They do not aspire to hobnobbing over foie gras and a ’78 Margaux before the Met gala; they want ringside seats at Mayweather-Pacquiao with the penthouse suite at MGM Grand.”

In other words, Trump largely shares his supporter’s tastes; the difference is that he has the money to act on those mutual desires. And that, Friesen argues, forges an emotional connection with his working-class supporters.

The political scientist, who is on the faculty of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, discussed this idea, and the research that led her in this direction, in an interview with Pacific Standard.

Let’s start with the research that started you thinking along these lines. In a paper published earlier this year, you and a colleague found a relationship between political conservatism and personal materialism. How did you discover this?

You hear all the time the idea that government should be run like a business. “If I can balance my household budget, why can’t the government?” This relates directly to wanting a businessman to be in the White House.

With that in mind, I wanted to find out if being conscientious about money would relate to people’s political attitudes. I discovered people don’t seem to connect how they think about money with their belief about how government should think about money. In other words, there are frugal liberals and frugal conservatives.

But then I looked at questions that related to how people feel about material things. Participants indicated the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “Buying things gives me a lot of pleasure,” and answered whether they put more emphasis on material things “than most people I know.”

What did you find?

Our research found if a person looks at material items — be they cars, houses, clothes, jewelry — as central to their sense of self, they are less in favor of distributing wealth through political policies favored by liberals. That suggests their attitude is “Because things are central to who I am, I don’t want to give up any more money in taxes, because I want to buy things.”

So it’s not the enjoyment of material possessions that correlates with conservatism, but rather the extent to which they are tied up with one’s personal identity.

Yes, and that led me to start thinking about Trump, who is always flying around in his private jet. That must seem like a dream come true for some folks! By jetting off to Vegas, he’s doing things people are familiar with — things they might do if they had the money.

In some respects, Trump is Jay Gatsby, throwing the party and drawing people in with his excess and opulence. He’s Gatsby without the earnestness.

But instead of Long Island, his sensibility is more Las Vegas?

There is a Trump Tower on the Strip. I’m not aware if he still owns that hotel or if he sold it. But his name is still on it, which is a piece of the puzzle. When people on the left speak of his business failures, his supporters say, “But if he were so unsuccessful at business, why would his name be on all these buildings?” That goes with his flashy persona.

Your colleague John Sides recently noted that a majority of Americans don’t realize Trump was born into wealth. Why is that important?

In order to relate to someone like Trump, you have to think, “If things go right for me, maybe that could be me some day.” If he talked about the fact he was born into wealth, I think that would distance him from folks. Hillary Clinton came from very humble beginnings. But because of the way she speaks, and the fact she’s an attorney, there’s a sense that she comes from old money.

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Amanda Friesen. (Photo: Twitter)

I think it’s key that people think of him as a self-made man — “a hard-working guy, just like me.” He’s in the construction business; at times he’ll talk about going on job sites and wearing a hard hat. He interacts with people who work in that sector of society, which is more relatable than Clinton working as a lawyer or a politician.

So it makes sense for Clinton to mention at the debate he got a large loan from his father. Should she keep doing that?

Probably. But Trump supporters will dismiss what she says as inaccurate. I think the tax return thing will be more effective (in weakening his support).

Do people care that he has declared bankruptcy several times?

To an extent, that depends on gender. A lot of research has found men are bigger risk-takers than women. Trump has a very strong male base. For them, somebody who isn’t afraid to fail, and keeps going after his goal, is an attractive quality in a leader. It suggests tenacity and a tendency to not give up.

So the political really is personal.

Yes. People’s political views are an extension of how they view and process the world, and how they think about their place in the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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