President Trump was not in attendance at John McCain's memorial service on Saturday, but nearly everyone else in official Washington was, from former presidents to current members of Congress to media figures. Were someone else president right now, the week of events honoring McCain might not have been so grand and drawn out, but it became for everyone a way not just to celebrate McCain's life and virtues but to make a statement about the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Those in attendance on Saturday no doubt thought of the event as a rebuke to Trump—his naked corruption, his dishonesty, his bigotry, his lack of respect for the institutions of government, all contained in references one speaker after another made to the president without ever uttering his name. "John McCain's funeral was the biggest resistance meeting yet," read a headline in The New Yorker, but Trump himself almost certainly saw it as something more specific: a message to him saying, You're not one of us. You may have defeated the establishment for now, but the establishment despises you.
You might think that Trump would welcome their hatred. But he does not, not at all. Quite the opposite: Trump may exploit hatred of the elite for political advantage, but he is desperate for the grandees of politics and finance to welcome him into their ranks and at last acknowledge his membership in good standing.
Politicians are supposed to boast of their humble beginnings, the better to signal their firm connection to the common folk. You can't do that when you grew up the son of a real-estate magnate, but Trump nevertheless is gripped by as much class envy as any poor bootblack. Trump knows only too well that New York's aristocrats have always looked down on him as crass and vulgar, and he responded to their contempt by becoming more crass and vulgar than anyone could have imagined.
At the 2016 Republican Convention, Donald Trump Jr. told of his father's extraordinary journey from the outer boroughs: "When people told him it was impossible for a boy from Queens to go to Manhattan and take on developers in the big city, rather than give up he changed the skyline of New York," Junior said. Only in America could a man navigate treacherous obstacles like the Queensboro Bridge, and—with nothing but a multimillion-dollar inheritance and a dream—eventually build condos slathered in gold-leaf wallpaper. So inspiring!
But no matter how gilded Trump's buildings, the ruling class never truly accepted him, and his resentment of the elite still burns. He can at least say that unlike some Republicans, he comes by his feelings about the elite honestly. Others have adopted an anti-elite message even when it was patently ridiculous, like George H.W. Bush, the son of senator and alumnus of Phillips Andover and Yale, proclaiming his love of pork rinds and saying Michael Dukakis's views were "born in Harvard Yard's boutique." But Trump doesn't just tell his audiences to despise the elite. Instead, he complains that he isn't being accepted as one of them. Look at this passage from a recent rally in West Virginia:
I always hate when they say, well the elite decided not to go to something I'm doing, right, the elite. I said, well, I have a lot more money than they do. I have a much better education than they have. I'm smarter than they are. I have many much more beautiful homes than they do. I have a better apartment at the top of Fifth Avenue. Why the hell are they the elite? Tell me.
The working-class Trump fans in attendance might have scratched their heads a bit at this riff about how Trump has accumulated the traditional status markers—money, an Ivy League degree—and still is not admitted to the club. Because the whole point of the populist argument is supposed to be that those things are meaningless, that virtue and dignity reside in people who will never have them. Populists don't want to join the elite, they want to end its control over their lives.
But in his desire to be accepted by the aristocrats, Trump has adopted what he sees as their values. A recent Politico article on Trump's displeasure with Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed that he has been "griping to aides and lawmakers that the attorney general doesn't have the Ivy League pedigree the president prefers, that he can't stand his Southern accent and that Sessions isn't a capable defender of the president on television." Imagine if that had been reported about Barack Obama. We would never have heard the end of it.
Trump's base has never quite understood this incredibly important part of his psyche, or perhaps they have simply chosen to ignore it. They patiently wait for Trump to finish his thoughts on the elite before he moves on to playing the old hits ("Build the Wall," "Lock Her Up"). If they've heard Trump's thoughts about genetics—he has often attributed his success to his genes, believing he comes from a long line of ubermenschen, of whom one supposes Don Jr. and Eric are only the latest and most glittering examples—they may not have considered the implications for how he thinks of them. Instead, they see him as a striver, a hustler, someone who like them is just working for something better.
This was part of the populist appeal of Trump's celebrity persona: The tawdry ostentatiousness was the whole point. As I wrote here almost three years ago, "If I had a billion dollars, many of his fans say, that's just how I'd be: I'd put my name on my plane, get myself a hundred solid-gold toilets, trade in one fashion-model wife for a younger, prettier model as soon as she hits her forties, and tell everyone how successful and rich and better than them I am. I'd be a winner."
Trump understood that perfectly well, which is what enabled him to build a career selling crap to people gullible enough to consider it the height of premium quality, whether it was his steaks or his ties or his "university." Those regular, non-elite people who thought he had their best interests at heart were nothing more than marks, the targets of a scam. They didn't realize they had been taken until it was too late. Not much has changed.