I am revealing my age when I disclose that I can remember clearly my first flight on the Trump Shuttle. Looking at the shiny new chrome seat belt buckles bearing the letter “T,” fake wood veneer paneling, and in the lavatories, faux marble sinks and fake gold fixtures, I remember thinking, “tacky.” And since that time, the T-word emerges time and time again in appraisals of Mr. Trump. The National Review has called Trump “tedious, tacky, and trite.” Trump and his first wife Ivana were called by New York magazine “two of the tackiest people in the history of America.” The New York Times called Celebrity Apprentice, “alluringly tacky.” Trump’s Art of the Deal ghostwriter wrote of Trump’s “gaudy, tacky, gigantic obsessions.”
Given all the seriously disturbing things we have learned about Mr. Trump, to examine his tackiness might seem to be a trivial, irrelevant distraction. But so often we find that the small and seemingly superficial provide useful clues to things more profound. So let’s ask the questions, what do people mean when they accuse Mr. Trump of being “tacky” and does it matter?
Having just spent an unsettling hour reviewing tweets and posts accusing other tweeters, brides, and celebrities of tackiness, I observed three distinct but related uses of the word. Most often it refers to appearance and means that the thing appears flashy, garish, gaudy, loud, showy, and flamboyant. It means that it lacks “style.” This usage, often signaling nothing more than deviation from current fashion, strikes me as wholly subjective and thus not particularly relevant.
The second way “tacky” is used layers on an accusation that the thing also lacks quality -- a sense that the thing may appear flashy, but actually is cheap or “trashy.” This one hits closer to home. It suggests that one essential feature of tackiness is a misguided or failed attempt to portray quality or “class.” It can be misguided in the sense that it gets it wrong (no, the people you are trying to impress do not consider it admirable to cover every conceivable object in gold leaf) or that it unwittingly reveals a delusional grandiosity (a Business Insider editorial reported “Donald Trump has the home-decorating taste of a third-world dictator. This is not a coincidence.”). And the attempt to promote the trashy as flashy often fails (e.g., the vodka may be in a gold bottle, but after one sip you know it’s garbage). In this sense, Trump’s tackiness does matter, as it provides additional evidence of his indifference to integrity, propensity for manipulation, gross superficiality, and habitual attempts, in both business and politics, to peddle illusions.
But I think the explosion in the use of the T-word with respect to Mr. Trump is mainly due to its third sense: “tacky” behavior is crass, impolite, embarrassing, obnoxious, vulgar, or crude. While this type of behavior by Mr. Trump is authentic (in the sense that it reflects his personality), it also in part may be a deliberate tactic. Mr. Trump is an avid fan of (and occasional participant and character in) Vince McMahon’s Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment (formerly WWF), which features extreme vulgarity, fake spectacle, and overall outrageousness. It is an in-your-face explosion of tackiness on steroids. WWE’s audience shares the demographics of Trump’s most ardent supporters, and some have suggested that Trump has consciously modeled his campaign on the WWE recipe of character names (Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, etc.), insults, feuds, and conspiratorial fantasy.
In the realm of entertainment, the WWE formula has been a huge success. Americans sit fascinated week after week as these appalling behaviors play out on their screens. Similarly, no matter how appalled we may be by what we are seeing, all of us have been drawn into the lurid spectacle of Trump’s campaign, aided by the media’s giddy embrace of politics as entertainment. But I believe that at some level, most Americans understand that Mr. Trump is as tacky as the most outrageous character on WWE, Jersey Shore, or Bridalplasty. And most of them have the common sense to know that while extreme tackiness may make for entertaining “reality” TV, it signals a stew of personality defects that belongs nowhere near the oval office.