Donald Trump’s taste is difficult to describe. You know it when you see it, but that’s not quite the same thing as knowing what it is. If you’re looking at a tufted velvet settee that looks like one of Michael Jackson’s bedazzled military-style blazers from the Dangerous tour, you are looking at Some Trump Stuff. If you see a big stone sculpture of a lion that is both indoors and near a golf club’s pro shop, you are seeing it. Something that looks like a heraldic coat of arms but then when you look closer it turns out there are golf clubs in there? That’s some Trump shit you’ve got there, buddy.
But also: What? Why does that couch have fringe-adorned epaulets? Why is there carpeting in the bathroom? Why is there a carving station with a heat lamp and a damp roast and a man in a toque set up next to what appears to be a marble replica of Rome’s Trevi Fountain, and also why is there an oil painting of Donald Trump himself peering rakishly over a croquet mallet hanging nearby? Obviously that is all just Some Trump Shit, and the stuff that the man himself likes and thinks is cool. But no one else would do any of this, so where did all this come from?
Trump’s current state visit to the United Kingdom does only a little bit to answer these questions, which to be fair may be unanswerable. One of the most inexplicably stubborn fallacies about Trump, both among his political opponents and the broader community that’s just interested in rubbernecking at his blowzy public feuds, is the idea that Trump does things for a reason. There is no evidence of this.
It’s unquestionably true that Trump wants things. He wants to be noticed, on television if possible, and he wants to appear impressive when he is noticed. He does not want anyone to seem to have more money than he does. He wants a big beautiful piece of the most amazing chocolate cake you ever saw. All of these things he wants very much. But he is accustomed to demanding these things and then either receiving them (the biggest slice of cake, the television appearances) or believing that he has (the respect of other people). All of this goonish entitlement would be kind of darkly funny if Trump were not also president, but that is not the world we live in. It is not clear even today how much Trump wanted to be president, although he also clearly did not want to lose the election he somehow wound up in. It’s always seemed more accurate to say that he’d prefer to be a king, or some other less readily beheadable royal.
The decorative colonnades and gratuitous reflecting pools and endless gaudy sconces, the all-upholstered-everything interiors that somehow still offer no comfortable place to sit, all those overstuffed corridors connecting gilded banquet chambers to other grand and uninhabitable spaces, the sheer stuffy tackiness of his various pretenses—if there’s any sort of precedent for the grandiose style that Trump prefers, it’s royalty. It would be inaccurate to say that Trump seemed at home during his various ceremonial visits to Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, because he only really ever seems comfortable when he is making what he imagines is a stern face behind a large desk or driving a little golf cart around. This visit involved a lot of walking around observing ceremonial things and standing still while being photographed, and neither walking nor standing are particular strong suits of the president’s.
But to the extent that Trump has ever seemed happy or even content during his time as president, it has been in ceremonial moments like this that match his florid self-conception—arriving at fancy engagements by limousine, shaking various rich people’s hands and saying “terrific, good luck, enjoy it,” getting up and Making A Few Remarks before staff in formalwear bring him two big scoops of vanilla ice cream in a bowl of the finest bone china. Trump brought not just some of the usual aides and his wife along on this trip, but all of his adult children as well. There’s a photo of them standing at the entrance to a long corridor in Buckingham Palace, all in their avant-garde Trump stances—Donald Jr. appears to be astride a very small horse, Eric wobbling atop some kind of malfunctioning hoverboard—and fancy clothes before going into a state dinner with Britain’s royal family. The words “No Photography” appear on a sign that is otherwise obscured by Tiffany Trump’s head.
Given that he’s not paying for it, it’s no real surprise that Trump would bring a bunch of people with him on a trip like this; both Trump policy aide and aspiring genocidaire Stephen Miller and Christopher Ruddy, CEO of the elderly-skewing Trump juche website Newsmax, were also at that state dinner for some reason. The stuff with the kids feels different, though, because Trump’s weird pretensions of royalty go beyond his inexcusable and otherwise inexplicable tastes. “He wants Ivanka, Tiffany, Eric and Donald Junior to hold a ‘next generation’ meeting with Princes William and Harry,” the Murdoch-owned tabloid The Sun reported after an interview with Trump. “The President said: ‘I think my children will be meeting them. It would be nice.’”
Although it’s been honored more in theory than in practice, the United States does not technically do hereditary “next generations” in our politics. Or, more accurately, this is the sort of thing that everyone makes a big deal out of saying immediately before electing or not-electing people to office who have the same last names as people who have been elected to similar offices before. But these goofy and unconcealed ambitions of royalty fit Trump better than he knows, if not in the ways he likely imagines they do.
It’s true that he seems at home in these cavernous rooms dripping in dreary oil paintings and lit by chandeliers, because he has lived his life amid just that sort of claustrophobic grandiosity. He’s cultivated it not so much because he likes it—what does Trump really like?—but because it’s what he believes he deserves. He has never really seemed to have any idea what the rest of the world was like, or much interest in knowing it. He has never really seemed to care about other people beyond what he can extract from them, and at this stage in his broader occlusion and hardening that will not change. But in these gaudy rooms, surrounded by other rich people with nothing much to say and no real inclination to listen, Trump is at least at home.
This is true when he’s in the United States, too; he is happy, if he’s ever happy, when there are other rich people around to give him compliments and tell him how rich he looks and how well he’s doing. This is his class, but they are not really his people. Even with the servile dermatologists and thrice-divorced yacht ghouls and buttery finance lordlings that crowd his social orbit and pay to belong to Trump’s clubs, there are still some latent traces of dirt under their fingernails—these people have to work to make the money to pay those dues, even if that work amounts to a few moments of strained patter during a Botox injection or taking long lunch meetings while underlings hide other rich people’s money from taxation. They’re rich, in many cases entirely richer than any ethical society would permit, but they’re not where Trump imagines himself to be. They’re not where he sees the Next Generation of his legacy.
In the narrow and technical sense, America does not have royalty. The country is still too young, and still kind of passively invested in opposition to the idea. But look at Trump squinting and scowling and plodding around in his cummerbund; look at his kids leering and jutting in their fancy clothes. And then look at the royals, made feeble and translucent and uncanny after generations of fixation on the same sort of bullshit—The Best Genes and Good Stock and The Right Families—that Trump has always offered as explanation for his amazing and unprecedented success. No one in those rooms does anything, really. None of them have to do anything. Their whole lives are about having what they have, and being admired for it.
There is no place in the world where Donald Trump would really feel at home but this. He believes that he belongs with all these rich people in some cold and crowded room with the whole boiling world shut away outside, each shaking the other’s hands, everyone saying what a pleasure it is, what an unbelievable pleasure and honor it is, to be in such wonderful company.