Democracy Dies in Darkness

Style | Opinion

Donald Trump, taste and the cultural elite

By Anne Midgette

November 11, 2016 at 8:59 AM

Donald and Melania Trump at an American Ballet Theater gala in New York in 2008.

It's said that taste defines us. The music I like lets you know, to some degree, what kind of person I am. Yet though this year's presidential election has raised issues of racism, sexism and classism, not much has been said about taste, and the role it may or may not have played in getting Donald Trump to the White House.

There's a vast and obvious disparity between Trump and many of the people who most passionately supported him. Trump somehow became the candidate of the working man — the good ol' boys, the gun lobby, the Rust Belt worker, the downtrodden — even though he is patently none of these things. Indeed, with his slick penthouse and expensive suits and private jets with gold-plated seatbelt buckles, he is the very opposite.

In terms of taste, however, the divide is not great at all. Trump not only has bad taste, but prides himself on it. Beauty, to him, appears to be a commodity measured in terms of beauty-pageant qualifications and chrome fixtures and size. His taste, I'm not the first to say, is that of a character in a soap opera. And this is exactly the point: Donald Trump represents the vision of a rich person as a large swathe of his supporters envision it — something to which the so-called common man aspires.

And while aspirational upper-crust "taste" used automatically to include things like the ballet or opera — as recently as the 1990 film "Pretty Woman," in which a visit to the opera is part of the process through which a prostitute is transformed into a wealthy man's beloved — these days, the popular vision of wealth and prestige has little or nothing to do with the commodity known as "the arts."

[Is it better for the Obamas to support or be visible on the DC arts scene?]

Some people, in D.C.'s arts community, were critical of President Obama for not frequenting the Kennedy Center or supporting the city's large arts institutions during his tenure. (Obama's main cultural contribution, and it is a significant one, was hosting themed concerts of musical greats — stars of R&B;, jazz, Motown, and other areas — at the White House.)

Donald Trump seems even less likely than Obama to appear at a Washington National Opera production – judging, at least, from the fact that he has rarely been spotted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Admittedly, we know very little at this point about Trump's high-culture tastes.

When it comes to painting, we know that he likes portraits of himself; in terms of performing arts, he attends an occasional gala. We also know, as demonstrated by the music at his rallies, that he likes mainstream rock/pop groups and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber; he evidently saw "Evita" six times.

As for literature, he has said that he doesn't read much at all — certainly a reason why the intelligentsia, for lack of a better word, tends to look down on him.

But this lack of high-culture markers is something to which your average Trump voter, as he or she has been presented to us — flyover state resident, lower-income, feeling despairing and betrayed by leadership in this country for several decades, and emphatically preferring "Evita" over "Tosca" — can respond.

Indeed, one of the hot buttons for this admittedly hypothetical voter is a sense of resentment at being talked down to or patronized by urban-dwellers and the media establishment. And in this sense, Trump represents an underdog that she can get behind.

It's not a question of economic class, but of "class" in the cultural sense, as a signifier of polish and other things this voter is sensitive that he, too, may lack. And I suspect that the more that Trump's opponents, or the media, attack Trump on this front — for having bad taste, for being boorish, for his lack of intelligence and refinement — the more these voters are, or shall I say were, inclined to embrace him.

[Would Donald Trump make art great again?]

You might think people who are drawn to gold-plated seatbelts would be attracted by the glitter and splendor of a concert hall or opera house. After all, the "elitist" accoutrements of much high culture have a glitzy razzle-dazzle (ballet costumes! red velvet seats! traditional opera sets!) in common with the Trumpian aesthetic.

But in these art forms, elegance conceals the barb of an event — the art itself — that seems to require explication, that is not immediately accessible, that can make the uninitiated feel stupid.

The institutions themselves unwittingly foster this idea: well-meaning pre-concert lectures and other introductory events only support the notion that there's something you have to know, and that you have to put up with being talked down to, in order to get into this particular club.

That's the real handicap the arts are dealing with: Though people use the tag "elitist" to deride their cost, we all know that a stadium concert ticket costs more than tickets to most classical performances and that the resistance is actually due to associations with the kind of intellectualism that a certain segment of the population assumes is designed to exclude them.

No one is yet sure what will become of the arts under a Trump administration, but I would suggest that his continued disinterest in this sector is necessary to retain the support of many of the people who helped put him in to office. And sticking to his more or less anodyne list of classic musical favorites — the Stones, Elton John, "Evita," a list of near-universal appeal that seems, like so many of his preferences, somehow borrowed and not quite his own — allows him to avoid the restrictions of an actual character portrait, or the challenge of revealing the possibly polarizing personal tastes of an underdog who, against the odds, made good.

And indeed, maybe his tastes really are anodyne — allowing his fans to project on him anything they want.


Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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