Tom Wolfe and the Rise of Donald Trump: A Review of Wolfe’s Writings

Wight Martindale Jr. writes in 2018:

* I believe that intellectually and, in some personal habits as well, Wolfe and Trump are similar. But they lived in separate worlds. Perhaps someday a doctoral student will show us that all along Wolfe was commenting on Trump.

For sure, they were both dedicated New Yorkers, loving the city’s energy and glamour. And both are great self-promoters. Trump had a TV show and sold himself along with his hotels and clubs as a brand. Wolfe got attention by wearing white suits, often with a white vest—winter or summer. When he was on the cover of Time in 1998 he added a white homburg, while holding a pair of white kid gloves and a white walking stick.

Most importantly, they both recognized themselves as natural drainers of the swamp, born iconoclasts. And they remained outsiders, for life. The political class dislikes Trump, and the West Side publishing world resents Wolfe. Trump has gone after an elite, bureaucratically protected political class, full of perks and power for themselves, using, rather than helping, the little people who elect them. They are both great defenders of the middle class, often feared by the elite (this is where the new rich and powerful will come from) and resented by the poor. Wolfe punctured the over-the-top pretentiousness of New York intellectuals—the secretive William Shawn (editor of the The New Yorker), the rival novelists who despised him, as well as insider celebrities like Leonard Bernstein (“Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” 1970). He bravely championed a new writer from Harlem, Claude Brown, whose book, Manchild in the Promised Land, was to sell four million copies (New York, July 18, 1965). “Brown,” Wolfe wrote, “makes James Baldwin look like a tourist.” Wolfe was a new kind of iconoclast, refreshingly different from people like Darwin or Freud, Marx or Chomsky. He made you laugh. He loved what he was doing. He was having fun.

I am not the only person who has noticed the Wolfe-Trump connection. No less than Niall Ferguson—Research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and one-time Laurence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard—has made the same observation. Ferguson’s commentary in the May 18, 2018 issue of the South China Morning Post, goes back to 1987, the year Trump published The Art of the Deal and Wolfe wrote Bonfire–both books being about financial wheeler-dealers. “You can easily picture the young tycoon Trump rubbing shoulders with Wolfe’s character, Sherman McCoy, the bond-trading master of the universe,” Ferguson writes. Wolfe’s second novel A Man in Full, is about an Atlanta real estate developer with a gorgeous young wife and an embittered ex-wife. His business, like Trump’s, is loaded with debt and often in trouble.

Ferguson goes on to point out that in March 2016 Wolfe recognized that Trump’s candidacy was capitalizing on the widespread distress and contempt for government and said that Trump’s “real childish side” is part of his appeal.

“Childishness makes him seem honest,” Wolfe observed. He might have made another observation: Donald Trump was having fun upsetting things. He was not just rich, but happy with his toys, his influence, and his family. Wolfe’s established literary rivals, including Noman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving, recognized Wolfe’s conservatism and said bad things about his novels. Wolfe counterattacked with “My Three Stooges,” in 2000. In this rivalry Ferguson sides with Wolfe writing, “Wolfe’s fiction is superior to theirs. For what Wolfe shows is that the obsession with money and the status it confers is only part of a triptych. Next to it, is sex—about which Croker, the central character in A Man In Full thinks a great deal—and race, America’s original sin, about which Wolfe wrote fearlessly. Most intellectuals missed completely the potency of Trump’s candidacy.”

* Why does Wolfe find this so offensive? First, The New Yorker style is exactly what Wolfe and the new journalism is not. Wolfe discovered new subjects and wrote about them in a flamboyant, original style, his style. He believed everything about The New Yorker writing was wrong. The passive-aggressive tone of its overediting had always limited the number of authors willing to submit stories. After John O’Hara, who wrote for The New Yorker for 38 years, the most used writers of fiction in its early days were Sally Benson (99 stories from 1929 to 1941) and Robert Coates. From 1935 to 1982 John Cheever sold the magazine 121stories, but he always viewed his editor, William Maxwell, as a competitor who was trying to squelch him.

Wolfe called this committee-driven style the “whichy thicket,” by which he meant “all those clauses, appositions, amplifications, simplifications, qualifications, asides, and God knows what else hanging inside the poor old skeleton of one sentence like some kind of Spanish moss.” This was the product of the fact-checking, proof reading, style-controlling system Shawn had created to preserve—Wolfe would say embalm—The New Yorker style. One rebel in the system described it to Wolfe as a literary “auto-lobotomy.”

Further, Wolfe continued, the magazine was always overrated. He lists two dozen good writers who published in Esquire first, and another dozen who published first in the Saturday Evening Post. Twisting the blade, he reminds us that J. D. Salinger was published in Esquire before he came to The New Yorker. He concludes that for 40 years The New Yorker has paid top prices and achieved a strikingly low level of literary achievement. What the magazine does have is advertisements; it has the perfect audience for those who purchase Lincolns and Cadillacs.

* For Wolfe, this was the literary establishment which he would challenge for the rest of his life, his own success being his ultimate victory. But the lines were drawn: Shawn would never allow anything resembling the “new journalism” into his magazine; its new home would be Clay Felker’s New York.

* As Maggie Haberman has written in the New York Times, “Tom Wolfe envisioned a Donald Trump before the real one came into tabloid being.”

* “Plenty of outsiders have tried to capture the spectacle that is Miami, and some, like Joan Didion (Miami, 1987), have succeeded to an extent. But nobody has ever conveyed the intricacies of the city and its roiling cultural cauldron with such breathless, gaudy literary acrobatics as Wolfe does in Back to Blood.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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