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'A poor person's idea of a rich person': Donald Trump's gaudy taste

Thinning, comb-over hair, orange fake tan, ill-fitting suits, long ties held in place with tape. Most would agree, Donald Trump has appalling taste.

But what many see as an undignified and tasteless mode of self-presentation for the US President are signs of success to his followers, who fail to distinguish between the superficial appearance of luxury and the cultural value of the genuine treasures imitated in his Manhattan penthouse and private club Mar-a-Lago: the "winter White House".

"Liberals" – a label that Trump and his supporters use pejoratively – cringe at the President's attire and the glitzy decor of his public and private buildings. Despite his privileged background, his styling, clothes and the objects he surrounds himself with are not the trappings of the sophisticated cultural elite.

The aspiring nouveau riche of the past made a show of collecting antiques and works of art to claim their place among the old-money set. Trump makes no such attempt to conform to established principles of taste to win social acceptance from the in-crowd.

Long before he ran for public office, Trump's opulent "taste" was integral to his public and professional persona; a symbol of his success in business. He represents himself as a self-made man with money to burn.

As Vanity Fair contributing editor Fran Lebowitz commented: "He's a poor person's idea of a rich person ... All that stuff he shows you in his house – the gold faucets – if you won the lottery, that's what you'd buy."

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The display of "conspicuous consumption" is central to the Trump brand: gold is the colour of money and the finish of choice in his Manhattan penthouse and Mar-a Lago. The term "conspicuous consumption" was coined by 19th-century sociologist Thorstein Veblen to explain the extravagant displays of railroad millionaires and robber barons. Veblen argued that open acts of extravagant spending were a means of establishing the real or perceived power and prestige of individuals who held an otherwise precarious social position.

Famous displays of wealth by social climbers of the late 19th include the "Petit chateau" on Fifth Avenue New York, built by railroad millionaire William K. Vanderbilt, the mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick (now home to the Frick Collection), and Waddesdon Manor in Oxfordshire built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, a scion of what was then the richest banking family in the world.

The Vanderbilts, Fricks, and Rothschilds surrounded themselves with the very best porcelain, furniture, tapestries, sculptures and paintings created for the nobles of the French Court in the 17th and 18th century. Each of them would have given their eyeteeth to own the fine furniture and works of art found on display in the summer exhibition of National Gallery of Australia's Versailles: Treasures from the Palace.

But where these industrialists and bankers sought to attain social prestige by association with authentic objects that belonged to a lost world of ancien-règime France, Trump's interiors mimic the only the most superficial aspects of French Court art. This is particularly evident in the additions he made to Mar-a-Lago in the 1990s.

Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 as a private residence that he, his family, and business associates enjoyed for a decade before the complex was transformed into a private club and spa.

The villa was one of the most prestigious estates in Palm Beach, built by American cereal heiress and businesswoman Marjorie Meriwether Post in the 1920s. The building is a quintessential example of conspicuous consumption. Post's interior designer, Joseph Urban, imported 36,000 tiles from Spain, some dating to the 15th century, and 20,000 roof tiles from a Cuban castle. The living room ceiling is a copy of that found in the Academia in Venice, and the villa was filled with genuine antiques.

He's a poor person's idea of a rich person ... All that stuff he shows you in his house – the gold faucets – if you won the lottery, that's what you'd buy.

Fran Lebowitz

Ironically, Post had intended her villa to become an official Florida residence for the American president. She left the estate to the federal government on her death in 1973, but they eventually gave it back to her daughters, when it was deemed too expensive to maintain.

When Trump transformed Mar-a-Lago into a private club, he added a "Louis XIV-style" ballroom decorated in a reported $7 million of gold leaf. In truth, this ballroom has very little to do with the style of the Sun King, and is much better understood in relation to the extravagant architectural follies and rich interiors created by Post, the Vanderbilts and the Rothschilds.

Trump has drawn upon the aesthetic of flamboyant patrons of the gilded age. But unlike the European-style salons designed for the new money of the late-19th and early-20th centuries filled with genuine treasures, nothing in Trump's interiors are real. His world is one of empty symbols that reference only the surfaces, colours and basic forms of such exquisite things.

The rich once bought the best French art and furniture in the pursuit of social acceptance from high society, but Trump has no such ambitions. His gaudy trappings and bad styling show he is not of the old order. No doubt that adds to his appeal for those who feel forgotten by the established elite.

Dr Robert Wellington is a lecturer in art history and theory at the Australian National University. He will speak about Donald Trump and Louis XIV at the Enchanted isles, fatal shores: Living Versailles conference at the National Gallery of Australia, running from 17-18 March.