An Icon of the New Gilded Age

Joe Cavaretta / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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:

Buffett’s attitudes and mannerisms now stand for American capitalism itself—or at least for its more positive aspects. He is what’s good about the free market, in human form—akin to what Joe DiMaggio was to baseball. Bill Gates may be richer, and Donald Trump (the anti-Buffett) flashier, but compared with Buffett they’re mere character actors.

Kirn again underscores Trump’s ostentatiousness:

While the Trumps and Iacoccas of the world prefer to present themselves in garish books with jackets featuring large color photos of their own faces, Buffett, the legendary midwestern cheapskate with a knack for discovering hidden value in cookware clubs (The Pampered Chef) and encyclopedia publishers (World Book), has reclaimed a form of junk mail for his collected works. Buffett’s penny-pinching persona doesn’t allow for lavish photos or graphics; the reports are all text, and they’re printed in black-and-white.

William Powers went looking for penny-pinchers in our July 2006 issue:

Are there no Greens or Gettys in America today? I follow the news pretty closely, and I can’t think of a single infamous tightwad. We celebrate the filthy rich of our culture, turn the Donald Trumps and Paris Hiltons into idols. To read the mainstream press, not to mention the celebrity rags, being rich is a heroic act all by itself.

Lastly, a bit of historical irony from Joshua Green in our January 2007 issue:

If John McCain loses the Republican nomination, he’ll be too old to try again in four or eight years and would loathe waiting around—why not take a final shot at the White House? If Barack Obama concludes that his time is now and yet can’t stop the Hillary juggernaut, might he cash in his chips before his popularity wanes? And isn’t [business tycoon] Jack Welch looking for something to do? Or—heaven forbid—Donald Trump?