The Emptiness of Trump's Relentless Pursuit of Beauty
Bonnie Greer explores what is driving the US President in his quest to create the world around him in his vision.
The guy who wrote the film Back To The Future has said that the character of Biff Tannen was based on Donald Trump.
In all three parts of the franchise, Biff is portrayed as aggressive and selfish; a bully who uses the term “butthead” repeatedly. He has a huge portrait of himself in his office in a pose of triumphant arrogance.
But, using “Biff” to describe Trump is a severe misreading of the US President. “Biff” only cares about his own self-aggrandisement but, for Trump, there is only one goal: the creation of beauty.
How do we know this? Because of the one word that he uses most frequently to describe his idea of mission accomplished. That word is “beautiful”.
His wall is “beautiful”. His deals are “beautiful”. The key to Trump is that he is a tortured aesthete. He is trying to make the world “beautiful” and do it in the Trump way.
Take a description of one of his myriad products, those that he deigns to bestow with the name of Trump. In the early part of the century, he launched something called “Trump Home”. When he introduced the line at Macy’s department store in a photo shoot, the photographers thought that he appeared to be concerned that the pictures taken of his furnishings might be unflattering. He complained about the convex lenses and how, in his opinion, they were distorting. He was concerned that his two furniture lines – one called “Central Park” and the other “Westchester” – would look bad. The products were named for the two areas that represent for Trump the alpha and the omega of wealth and sophistication.
Some of the pieces in his home interiors line are based on furniture in his numerous houses. Some of the colour scheme was gold, to match Trump’s hair colour, a kind of Wizard of Oz MGM yellow. The Trump name can still be found on shirts, ties, even vodka so that you could lie in a Trump bed dressed in a Trump shirt drinking Trump booze.
One of the secrets of his success is that, despite his wealth, he is an unashamed ‘bridge and tunnel’ person. He still yearns to be accepted, noticed and cared about by the ‘right people’. Deep down inside, so does his base.
Think of John Travolta staring at the bridge, that symbol of entrapment and a longing for escape to the big time, in Saturday Night Fever. That moment is classic ‘bridge and tunnel’. The secret of Trump’s success is that he has never left suburban Queens, New York, where he was born and brought up. Those who love him, love him for that.
Like Ludwig Of Bavaria, but without his level of clarity, Trump truly feels that his mission in life is to make the world fantastic and to people it with fantastic people.
But the root word of “fantastic” is “fantasy”.
Trump’s first wife and the mother of his oldest children, Ivana, became surplus to requirements when she actually began to run his hotels instead of being an ornament in them. She worked, like the good immigrant she was, from dawn to dusk to build his business and then he threw her aside. She had gotten her hands dirty. She had become real.
The 1990s film The First Wives Club is a running commentary on their marriage and its aftermath. With a cameo of Ivana in it. Every aspect of the Trump drive for beauty and order: female division is portrayed in each of the three first wives, played by Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler. They sing the ’60s pop song You Don’t Own Me at the end of the film. The genius of it is that it nails the neo “gilded age” tat of what passes for beauty in Trump World .
Ethnic minorities, Democrats, foreigners (except the kind of English types who people a Julian Fellowes magnus opus), in fact, most human beings, are just not beautiful enough. That is one reason that Trump once owned a beauty pageant – to show the world exactly what he meant about female beauty: the kind of woman a 13-year-old boy dreams about.
Of course what Trump is attempting, what is driving him, is not new.
It is said that Nero burned down Rome because he wanted to rebuild it his way. Even if the Christians actually did it to hasten the Last Day as some historians speculate – or it was a terrible accident – it is recorded that the Emperor died lamenting the world’s loss of a great artist: himself.
Adolf Hitler was obsessed with rebuilding Berlin – not the only city he wanted to refashion. Leningrad, he had determined, was just not necessary in his scheme for a new Russia so he instituted the longest siege in history, in part, to tear it down.
William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul satirised by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, was obsessed with refashioning his lover, the actress Marion Davies, into a real actress instead of his personal ornament.
Howard Hughes, the megalomaniac oil tycoon, movie producer and daredevil solo pilot, was obsessed by what Americans call “knockers”. So much so that he decided to create a bra for Jane Russell to wear in his 1940s movie The Outlaw to celebrate her exorbitant ones. This film, about Billy the Kid – the main character nobody actually came to see – was banned because what they did see was too much of his girlfriend played by Russell. The posters of the film have her upper extremities spilling out of the picture, thanks to Hughes’ glorification of his notion of beauty.
Like Nero, Hearst and Hitler, Hughes was driven by a need to refashion the world according to his own aesthetic. In the process, he destroyed a great movie studio.
In the classic opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a yellow cab is bearing Audrey Hepburn down Fifth Avenue to the window of the iconic jewellery store where she gets out, dressed in exquisite Givenchy couture, and stands drinking a coffee and eating a pastry. Before that, the cab drives past a building with a flag on it.
That building was the iconic Bonwit Teller department store, the most fashionable in New York City at the time and an Art Deco masterpiece – until Trump tore it down to make that homage to himself: Trump Tower.
Bonwit Teller’s entrance, especially celebrated, was described as “a spilled casket of gems: platinum, bronze, hammered aluminium, orange and yellow faience, and tinted glass backlighted at night”. In other words, an Art Deco extravaganza, which was promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Trump had his builders take a chisel to it simply because he did not consider it beautiful enough to survive his wreckers. When an official of the museum, nine months pregnant at the time, found out what was happening, it is said that she literally ran to the building to try and stop it. But Trump’s pursuit of beauty was faster and could not be stopped.
History tells us that every strongman has a primal pursuit at the base of his actions. Napoleon wanted to regulate everything, make laws, make order his way. Trump wants the world suited, booted, populated and decorated according to his vision – with a big “Trump” insignia on it all. Everything.
History will oblige him.