Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump unabashedly touts himself as being "really rich." According to Forbes Magazine, Trump even exaggerated his net worth, alleging to be worth almost $9 billion. Forbes pegs the number at just $4.1 billion. Trump brags that he went to a top tier school, the Wharton School of Business, and even sings the praises of an uncle who taught at MIT, John G. Trump. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump told CNN, "It's in my blood. I'm smart. Great marks. Like really smart." Trump even showcased his private jet at the Iowa State Fair by taking children for a ride.
Trump is the antithesis of the American politician. Most politicians who come from patrician backgrounds try to play down their heritage. They sometimes awkwardly try to play the role of an ordinary citizen. On the flip side, those politicians who hail from more modest circumstances often try to play up their humble origins rather than emphasizing their current financial situation.
For example, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee discusses his modest rearing in Hope, Arkansas, writing: "I think it's home," rather than showcasing his Florida abode assessed at over $3 million. Donald Trump, by boasting of his wealth, family, and his esteemed relative at MIT, is entering into uncharted territory in Presidential politics.
The greatest rouse for a politician from a patrician upbringing effectuating a narrative of being a regular guy from a humble background was perpetuated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison was elected President in 1840 by emphasizing the fact that he once lived in a log cabin. In reality, Harrison lived in a log cabin for just a brief period after leaving government service.
Some of his handlers spread the yarn that he was actually born in a long cabin. In fact, one of Harrison's supporters, whisky distiller E.G. Booze, sold whisky in log cabin-shaped bottles during the campaign to promote this master narrative (This is where the word "booze" came from). Harrison dressed down in public, styling himself as an average American. In actuality, Harrison grew up as a man of means. His father was once the Governor of Virginia. The ploy worked swimmingly. Harrison was elected President in an electoral landslide.
A hundred years later, in 1940, the Republican Presidential nominee, Wendell Willkie, often talked of his roots. Willkie was reared in the small blue-collar town of Elwood, Indiana. He rarely mentioned that both of his parents were lawyers. Willkie presented himself as a barefoot farm boy who made good, becoming a Utilities Executive. Willkie did not mention the connections to Wall Street he developed in that roll. U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickies dubbed him: "The barefoot boy from Wall Street." Furthering this joke, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, averred Willkie has: "grassroots of every country club in America."
There have been more recent examples of politicians downplaying their resumes in the interest of not appearing elitist. Lyndon B. Johnson actually did come from a modest background, but he often exaggerated it for political effect. While he was giving a tour of his birthplace, Johnson City, Texas, Johnson showed his visitors an old cabin and told them it was his birthplace. Johnson's mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, said to him: "Why Lyndon, you know you were born in a much better house closer to town which has been torn down." Johnson replied: "I know mama, but everybody has to have a birthplace."
Johnson's fellow Texan and political mentor, U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX), lived a lavish lifestyle when in the nation's capital. He dawned a posh wardrobe and enjoyed a chauffeured limousine at his disposal. Yet when he was back in his Texas Congressional District, Rayburn played the role of a simple dairy farmer, wore overalls, and drove a pickup truck. Consequently, as Rayburn moved up the leadership ladder in Congress, his constituents continued to see him at community events as a citizen Congressman as content in the North Texas prairie tending to his cattle as positioned behind the President when he delivers his State of the Union Address.
Nelson Rockefeller, an heir to the Rockefeller family fortune, spent much of his political career downplaying the elitist connotations that his background and fortune brought. When he first ran for Governor of New York in 1958, Rockefeller taught himself not to use the term "thanks a million" when a supporter praised him. He supplanted it with "thanks a thousand." In addition, Rockefeller greeted voters with the folksy: "Hiya Fella."
In 1978, Massachusetts Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Ed King called his wealthy Republican opponent Frank Hatch, "A rich incompetent." In the last days of the campaign, the King campaign aired a television advertisement which included an aerial shot of the mansion Hatch lived in, which was situated in a lavish neighborhood. To make a stark contrast, the advertisement included an aerial shot of King's home, which was quite modest and located in a blue-collar neighborhood. The ad is credited with slowing a late electoral surge Hatch had made with working-class voters, and may have won the election for King.
More recently, when running for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1988, Al Gore, who spent most of his youth in Washington, D.C. as the son of a U.S. Senator, and attended the prestigious St. Albans School before ascending to Harvard College (the only college he applied to), emphasized his time growing tobacco at his family's Tennessee farm. He told North Carolina voters: "I've raised tobacco...I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've chopped it. I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it."
While running for the 2004 and 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination, U.S. Senator John Edwards (D-NC), who had amassed millions of dollars as a top tort lawyer, downplayed his wealth, and mentioned that his "father worked in a mill all his life." The younger Edwards would pose in front of the first home he lived in located in Seneca, South Carolina. Edwards did not mention that his father was promoted to a mill supervisor, and then to plant manager. Nor did Edwards mention that after a year the family moved to a much nicer home, and that his upbringing was relatively comfortable.
Donald Trump is a rare political species. Rather than hide his pedigree, wealth, and prestigious education, he is championing it, with no fear of being tattooed as an elitist by his critics. If it works, perhaps we will witness more politicians announcing their candidacies in front of their mansions dressed in expensive suits rather than in front of their modest birthplaces wearing overalls or work clothes. This would be a political sea change from what we are used to seeing.