Donald Trump made an appearance in Fargo, North Dakota on June 27, 2018. The event was a campaign rally, so the president stuck to the topics that his supporters love, including taking a few jabs at “the elites.” “I hate it,” Trump said. “I meet these people, they call it the elite.” Perhaps the clip has lost its context, but presumably he left it to the audience to infer to whom exactly he was referring, which most likely was people who say things like “infer to whom exactly he was referring.”
Playing the middle of the country against “the elites” is a ploy so old that calling it a cliche is a cliche. The script usually sounds something like this: “The elite in their ivory towers and their congressional offices just don’t understand us hard working, God fearing heartlanders, and that’s why you should send me, multimillionaire Yale grad John Whiteman back to Congress for a fifth term. Look at me–I’m wearing jeans and eating a corn dog! I’m just like you!”
But Trump flipped that script: “We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are and they say they’re the elite. You’re the elite, we’re the elite….Let’s call ourselves, from now on, the super elite.”
Donald is just like us, with all of our money, houses and boats? Surely the president didn’t believe that an audience culled from the 115,000 residents of Fargo, North Dakota, median annual income $60,000, owns mansions, yachts, and luxury apartments. No, what Trump was after was a different kind of con. Instead of the “I’m not elite, I’m just like you” hustle, the president was running the “You’re elite just like me” scam.
Americans have long been suckers for aspirational marketing: Platinum cards, king-sized beds, limited edition mass produced merchandise, on and on. Stick a rarefying adjective on any product and the chumps will eat it up, or so the logic goes. Trump wasn’t dealing in truth, but rather making the sort of emotional sales pitch that we’ve heard for decades: Buy my cruddy product and you’ll be elite!
It’s a con that’s older even than me, if you can believe that. I was nine years old the first time that I picked up on the hustle. My father was working at a Miller Beer cannery–hardly an elite job–when the company launched an ad campaign for their new product, Löwenbräu, the brand with not one but two elite umlauts. It was a prestige brand for Miller High Life, itself an oddly aspirational name for cheap beer. While Miller was inexpensive beer, Löwenbräu was how you celebrated your newly minted elite status:
Man, that was the grown-up life for me! Maître d’s in tuxedos, a sweet new career as an attorney, and prime rib with my old man, on me. Thanks for always being there, Pop! Come to elite-land with me! My dad caught one of these commercials after one too many double shifts at the cannery. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, he muttered something about Löwenbräu being the same sludge in a different package. My visions of Löwenbräu classiness were shattered.
Fortunately, Perrier quickly stepped into the breach. Bottled water wasn’t a common thing when I was a kid. If you wanted a drink you found a drinking fountain, and if you were headed somewhere without drinking fountains you packed a canteen (or you just did without for a few hours. It’s actually possible). And then came Perrier, with its fancy French name and its promise of fresh mineral springs. Add a twist of lemon and there you have it: elite water. Saturday Night Live killed that one for me.
Junior high school marked the height of my brand awareness. Nikes and Levis, Nikes and Levis, my kingdom for Nikes and Levis, and even that bar was a little low. The elite kids wore designer jeans: Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jordache. Their shirts sported the telltale Izod alligator, their shoes penny loafers, Topsiders, or Sebagos. This was the preppy era, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. They think they’re so elite, but Nikes and Levis are the super elite! Better boats and houses!
My hometown was much smaller than Fargo, but it was big enough to support two classy restaurants: Red Lobster and Steak and Ale. Surf and turf, baby, meals fit for kings and prom dates. Anything worth celebrating earned a trip to the Red Lobster, where the elites chose their still wiggling dinners from the lobster tank in the lobby. Throw in a limited edition lighthouse collector glass and that’s one classy night.
But you didn’t have to eat an entire lobster to briefly mingle in the rarefied air of the elites. All you needed was a little Grey Poupon, the mustard so classy that strangers recognizing you as an elite might ask you to share a little:
We didn’t need commercials to tell us that, though. The mustard’s name was “Grey,” not “Gray.” Not even a double umlaut conveyed that level of class, though tacking on the French article “Le” might have outdone “grey” on the elite scale. “Le” sent any product into the elite stratosphere, no matter how cruddy. Just look at Le Car, Renault’s economy shit box, for example.
As bad as Le Car was, domestic auto manufacturers were the worst for mass marketing faux class. The ’70s were the era of the “personal luxury car,” boat-sized two doors with landau roofs, overstuffed interiors, and opera windows. Do you really think many Chrysler Cordoba drivers were rolling up to the opera on a regular basis? Why would they when they could luxuriate on those rich Corinthian leather seats?
Marketing “elite” went into overdrive during the ’80s. Shows like Dynasty and films like Wall Street fueled that fire, but it was the syndicated television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that really fanned the flames. Lifestyles was hosted by Robin Leach, a Brit whose Dickensian surname tells you everything you need to know about him. Leach would attach himself to some tacky rich celebrity and take viewers on a video tour of his or her rich and famous lifestyle. Look at that house! Look at that apartment! Look at that boat!
It was all about conspicuousness, the bigger and gaudier the better: lots of gold, marble, and diamonds; chandeliers in the bathrooms and self portraits in the other rooms; yachts, helicopters, and bright yellow Lamborghinis. Lifestyles was an aspirational show: You, too, can someday sit on a solid gold toilet. Warren Buffett’s Omaha home never would’ve made the cut, regardless of the fact that Buffett could have bought anyone who was featured on the show.
Some of the folks at that Fargo rally were watching Lifestyles back in 1994, the same year that Donald Trump appeared on the show. This was his Trumpian heyday, when his role in popular culture was to serve as our collective shorthand for wealth in the same manner that the names Hughes, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller once did. Trump’s rich and famous lifestyle typified a lottery winner’s dreams: gold and marble, yachts and jets, Doric columns as interior design elements, gaudy furniture, a fridge stocked with Löwenbräu, Perrier and Grey Poupon. Le classy!
Eventually those “elite” products become commonplace, and when that happens they descend into tackiness. Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren–they’re all logos you’ll see at discount stores and tractor pulls these days. Elite will cost you about ten bucks at Ross Dress For Less.
You’d think we’d learn, but elite status is still marketed. One can pay extra for the privilege of standing in the elite line at airport boarding gates, for example, and Starbucks carries on the tradition of using foreign words to fancy up cruddy products. People who would never step into a low class fast food restaurant gladly stand in long lines to overpay for venti macchiattos and a stale, prepackaged biscotti that the barista discreetly removed from its plastic wrapper before stuffing it into a paper bag.
So it’s still going on, but some of us have caught on. Löwenbräu isn’t a thing anymore, but good quality microbrews are, “quality” being the key word. Of course people still fall for packaging, but quality seems to be more of a purchasing factor these days. Perhaps that’s why more and more people seem to be rejecting Apple’s “brand loyalty beats value” business model. You can only sucker people into believing that they’re elite because they own the same phone as 100 million other people for so long. The magic eventually wears off, and you’re left with a thousand dollar phone that’s as tacky as a ten dollar Calvin Klein tee. As for bottled water; well, we’re all still suckers for that, apparently.
But where are we with “elite status” in general? Does the average American really believe that it is something that you can buy, like a house or a boat? Judging by the prevalence of Swarovski, Escalades, and gated communities I’m guessing that the answer is yes, and that’s just weird to me. “Elite” connotes superior abilities, not superior things. Elite athletes aren’t the ones with the most stuff, but rather those who perform at the very tops of their sports. Elite military units are composed of the one-half of one percent of soldiers who perform better than the already great 99.5% of their peers. Imagine Einstein explaining to you the mysteries of the universe, and your response is, “I got a nicer boat, you stone cold loser.”
One can’t buy “elite.” No purchase will get you there, nor does simply referring to yourself as elite magically transform your character. Declaring “I’m smarter” no more makes one intellectually elite than bragging “I’m faster” makes one athletically elite. You have to earn it. Rendering “ourselves, from now on, the super elite” is the ultimate participation trophy, an unearned accolade that strips the honor of all meaning.
Anyway, I’m rambling and I need to get that case of Perrier out of my Le Car before I hit the Red Lobster. They’re having a special for elite shrimp lovers like me today. Here’s hoping I can get mine with a little Grey Poupon.