Yet in hindsight, the brief heyday of the yuppie actually represented the birth of Trumpism: hedonism, financial recklessness and contempt for tradition. These values veered far from the nostalgic small-town values Reagan liked to evoke in his signature anecdotes. Nor did yuppies embrace the fiscal discipline and hawkish foreign policy that Reagan preached religiously (even if he practiced them inconsistently).
Ironically, over the past three decades, the urban professionals who once flaunted this philosophy have mostly found a home in the Democratic Party. While Donald Trump was once acclaimed the quintessential yuppie, his political fortunes depend on the people who have never been and never even liked the yuppies, ultimately highlighting the exceedingly rough fit between the president’s politics and his current champions.
Yuppies, a prosperous, influential cohort of young urban professionals, were first identified in March 1983, when syndicated columnist Bob Greene dropped the moniker offhandedly into a column on ex-'60s radical Jerry Rubin’s reemergence as an investment banker. Two months later, San Francisco Bay area humorist Alice Kahn delineated this new social class — developing “yuppie” as a modified acronym for young urban professional. Kahn created the familiar profile of the typical yuppie that the news media would soon adopt: well-off young professionals who worked long hours at unfulfilling but lucrative jobs and formed their identities through luxurious leisure activities and consumption of big-name purchased goods.
A few months later, Americans began discovering yuppies everywhere. Carmakers, demographers, academics, film and television producers, record company executives, journalists and politicians began to see yuppiedom as the new, influential wave in American life. Urban churches redesigned their services to draw yuppies. Even in public health, a strange new illness — chronic fatigue syndrome — was renamed “yuppie flu.”
Yuppies also seemed to exert political influence. The success of Sen. Gary Hart’s upstart 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was credited to his hip appeal to yuppie voters. “Now that the Gary Hart campaign is more or less over,” New Republic columnist Michael Kinsley joked after Hart faded, the “specter of a federal quiche stamps program has passed. There will be no transatlantic Perrier pipeline, no National Tennis Elbow Institute, no Department of Lifestyle.”
But for all the joking, mainstream opinion leaders like Newsweek and the New York Times (which also named 1984 the “Year of the Yuppies”) saw yuppies as occupying a new niche in American politics — fiscally conservative but liberal on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. But that description missed the distinctive elements of yuppie ideology — reckless embrace of debt (both in their personal lives and in their business practices), contempt for established institutions and a taste for high-status consumer goods.
It also missed the unique social fabric of yuppiedom. According to Newsweek, yuppies’ primary allegiances lay not with family, corporation or country but with “informal associations of mutual friendship that cut across corporate lines to unite people of similar ages, professional levels and interests, principally money and sex.” Yuppies repudiated the ossified structures of corporate America and the power of union labor; they assailed the conclusions of academic authorities and the allegedly bloated bureaucracies of Big Government.
But yuppies were not creatures of “Reaganomics” — the anti-welfare, less regulation, low taxes philosophy gaining appeal in the 1980s. When it served their purposes (such as restraining unions or evading government regulation), yuppies sometimes joined in the broad 1980s celebration of the free market. But yuppie culture never truly embraced laissez-faire economics; it instead glorified dealmaking — the fearless, brilliant operator who beat the market.
Enter Donald Trump. Along with Gordon Gekko, the fictional villain of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” who preached “greed is good,” Trump embodied yuppie politics. The young developer made his national reputation in the yuppie-infested culture of 1980s New York. His audacious renovation of Wollman Rink in Central Park — a task that had long bedeviled city government and that experts thought impossible to achieve on Trump’s timetable — helped create the legend of Trump the cocky but effective disrupter, who broke the rules, beat the bureaucrats and accomplished the seemingly impossible.
By carefully nurturing this image, Trump became an emblematic yuppie. In many ways, his 1987 “Art of the Deal” was a manifesto for yuppie politics — or what we today might call Trumpism. “I play to people’s fantasies,” the developer wrote. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” Revealing his methods, Trump conceded that “I am very competitive and that I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.”
No wonder then that when humorists Christopher Buckley and Paul Slansky mocked yuppies in verse, Trump joined Hart, Rubin, “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson and “Bright Lights, Big City” author Jay McInerney in their pantheon of notorious yuppies. When growing economic inequality, insider trading scandals and corporate downsizing transformed yuppie from a demographic category into a term of reproach, Trump reappeared in Newsweek, no longer an emblem of yuppie excess and iconoclastic success, but now as an object lesson in the dangers of debt, hype and egotism.
Yuppies also flummoxed observers because they were pro-business on economic issues, liberal on social questions like gender equality and suspicious of U.S. military action overseas, but conservative on “social welfare issues,” displaying hostility to income maintenance programs.
These contradictions inherent in yuppiedom shape aspects of American politics today.
Since the 1980s, the Democratic Party tried to capitalize on the enthusiasm that once surrounded yuppies, moving in the direction of Hart and strengthening its appeal to urban professionals with market-based solutions to economic problems and support for gay rights, gender equality and ethnic diversity.
Meanwhile, Trump moved to the right on social issues, adopting positions that conflict with his earlier views and with his own personal biography, winning him the loyalty of religious voters who would have repudiated the lifestyle that catapulted him to fame 35 years ago (even if the influence of the prosperity gospel and the broad popularity of 1980s TV shows like “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” suggested a certain admiration for yuppie excesses even among social conservatives). The very fact that urban professionals, Trump’s onetime peers, now oppose the president appeals to many of his supporters.
But Trump’s roots in yuppiedom reveal both the rough fit between the president and his coalition as well as the darker economic reality of yuppiedom that persists in the economic house of cards he has brought to the national — and global — economies.