The Trump mirage


Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times, published 22 November, 2016

Reports circulated in the American press in the past week of a startling real estate project in Pune. Developers in the city have erected two tall, black residential towers and named them after the American real estate tycoon-turned- president-elect Donald Trump. “Trump Towers Pune” is one of at least five developments the Trump Organization is involved with in India, together worth $1.5 billion.

The American media’s interest in the project had less to do with the development itself than with Trump’s role; how a man about to assume the highest office imaginable is still immersed in peddling his “brand”. News stories focused on a recent meeting between the Pune developers and Trump, which was seen as evidence that the president-elect was failing to disentangle his business interests from his new role in public life. Beyond those ethical concerns — real as they are — this episode offers a reminder that Trump and his much-vaunted brand represent something intangible to the American public and the wider world, and much of the job of following his presidency will be untangling just exactly what that is.

In October (a less surreal, more innocent time than the present), a Trump presidency still seemed totally outlandish. Journalists in the US naively speculated that Trump’s fortunes were sunk not only politically but financially. He had run such a mean-spirited, inflammatory and crass campaign that many observers assumed his brand would be ruined after the election. The dark months of the campaign had changed Trump from a mildly incendiary buffoon to a dangerous demagogue, a transformation that would surely devastate a business enterprise wholly based on the value of his name. Why would the wealthy want to live in his condominiums, or play golf in greens named after him?

At least here in New York City, that perception endured Trump’s seismic victory; the management company of three upscale apartment buildings decided to remove Trump’s name from their complex in order not to scare away prospective renters. But much as it was proved in the electoral map, the distaste of liberal New Yorkers may be the exception not the rule. There is no doubt that a Trump presidency adds further gloss to a very glossy image. Many of the good people who decide to shell out crores for Trump flats in Pune may do so precisely because they are Trump flats, an address enhanced by its new attachment to the White House and Oval Office. A 75-storey Trump tower may soon rise above Mumbai. As Pranav R Bhakta, a consultant involved in the Trump Organization’s activities in India, told the New York Times, “If they didn’t know Trump before, they definitely know him now.” It seems voters in Wisconsin have the power to sell real estate in India.

It’s worth considering what that Trump brand is, since it is as revealing of him as his actions, his statements, and his incessant tweets. The New York Times describes Trump Towers Pune as a pair of “elegant” buildings, but in pictures they loom over the city like two strange monoliths, less the dwellings of human beings than the tomb-like lairs of an alien species. Trump Tower in New York City is much the same, all black-glass and textured steel and unlovable lines. Apart from Trump, its tenants have included a Haitian dictator, a Saudi royal, and Cristiano Ronaldo. From the outside, its opacity makes the building seem almost austere. But we know what lies within. In his first televised interview after winning the election, Trump brought the nation into the confines of his penthouse apartment in Trump Tower. Beneath preposterous diamond chandeliers and florid ceiling murals, he sat on a golden chair teetering on an ocean of marble, the king of his own Rococo fever dream.

Trump has always been less interested in wealth than the spectacle of wealth. He floods his home with gaudy signs of largesse, lacking any aesthetic or moral imagination. His buildings epitomise a vision of wealth as an end in and of itself, of style permanently divorced from substance. Unsurprisingly, even Trump’s proponents struggle to detail his convictions or belief system. From real estate to reality television to his campaign for the presidency, he has built and championed a world in which principles are incidental and mirage is everything.

For those who care to look, there are many moments when the illusion falters. I was struck by a photo taken of Trump and Nigel Farage — one of the lead engineers of Brexit in the UK — in Trump Tower in the wake of the election. The two men were caught laughing uproariously in one of the building’s gilded elevators. It was a picture of the most powerful “anti-elitists” in this bizarre bend of the 21st century, an American billionaire and a British commodities trader cackling at the world from a golden cage.

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