An Icon of the New Gilded Age

Joe Cavaretta / AP

The winning entry of our reader contest for the best walk-on song for Trump, “You’re So Vain,” reminded me of a literary reference to vanity dropped by the conservative writer David Brooks in our March 2002 issue:

Pretty soon the hedonist will be sitting at the baccarat table in a low-cut pec-neck sweater and alligator loafers, failing to observe the distinction between witty banter with the cocktail waitress and sexual harassment. His skin will have that effervescent glow that Donald Trump’s takes on in the presence of gilded metal and ceiling mirrors.

In a similar vein, Trump biographer Gwenda Blair—via a book review by Jack Beatty for our October 2000 issue—had a pretty damning label for Trump:

“The Donald is fantastic in the golf and very good in the tennis,” Ivana Trump once observed, imperishably, of that “national symbol of luxury and sybaritic [self-indulgent] excess” Donald Trump, whom Gwenda Blair depicts as a Gatsby of self-infatuation transfixed by the green light at the end of his own dock.

William Powers similarly called out Trump in his November 2005 essay on the narcissism of aging Baby Boomers.

But if there’s one theme that most characterized Trump in our culture prior to his presidential run, it’s flashy wealth. Of the 25 print pieces of The Atlantic that referenced Trump between 1992 (our earliest mention of Trump) and early 2011 (when Trump burst on the scene of presidential politics with Birtherism, notwithstanding his flirtation with a Reform Party run in 2000), most of the Trump mentions are off-hand references to luxury.

Compiled here are many such examples, from writers across the political spectrum. From our September 2002 issue, libertarian P.J. O’Rourke:

Peering into bright living rooms, I could see another emblematic Cairo item—the astonishingly ugly sofa. An ideal Egyptian davenport has two Fontainebleaus’ (the one in France and the one in Miami) worth of carving and gilt and is upholstered in plush, petit point, plaid, and paisley, as if Donald Trump and Madame de Pompadour and Queen Victoria and The Doors had gotten together to start a decorating firm.

From our April 2004 issue, Joshua Green profiled Ralph Reed “born again as a political strategist”:

[Reed’s] position as a political consultant to [George W.] Bush is a subordinate one, however, and demands that he never outshine his client. Here Reed struggles a bit. His double-breasted navy suit, impeccably knotted silk tie, and matching gold cufflinks and wristwatch are more Donald Trump than Organization Man.

In stark contrast to Trump and Reed is the Midwestern magnate Warren Buffett, whom Walter Kirn profiled for our November 2004 issue: