The Man in the Long Black Coat
Sometime around 1990, my friend Gordon and I were lunching in the stately old Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel. A group of women were at a table in the far corner. Gordon, an older Brit long in the fashion industry, took one glance and quickly pegged them "high maintenance," as only a rag trader with an Oxford education could enunciate it. I didn't give them a second thought.
Then, midway through dessert, in walks this guy in a dark winter overcoat. He looked around, spotted the high maintenance table, shuffled over to it and sat down. He was still there when Gordon and I left some time later.
No need to keep you in suspense. The woman in the corner was Marla Maples, and the man in the long black coat was Donald Trump, then married to Ivana, but with whom, the tabloids screamed, Marla was having a torrid affair. (And by the way, if your affair isn't "torrid," why even bother?) I forget what she was wearing, if I even noticed, but the Donald's overcoat was odd, for a few reasons. First, we were indoors. Second, since he owned the Plaza he could surely have found someone to hold it for him. Third, he never took it off, even after he sat down.
Oh, and fourth -- it was summer.
Since he became president, others have noticed Trump's overcoat, that he wears it indoors, and even in balmy weather. https://www.readingthepictures.org/2017/05/trumps-overcoat/. Mavens of men's fashion carp about it. https://www.esquire.com/style/mens-fashion/a19723464/donald-trump-not-how-a-coat-should-fit/. Others theorize as to what it means. Is he trying to show that he's so always in a hurry that he can't stop to take his coat off? Even between seasons? Is it his civilian substitute for the military uniform he never wore?
I generally don't do Trump-bashing. It's not that I don't despise him, but bashing him is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's just too easy, there's no challenge in it. And anyway, I can't compete with the comedians who do it best.
But that long black coat gnaws at me.
I don't think Trump uses it to communicate anything at all. I think the coat itself tells us something important about him. Sure, it's only a coat, and it's every word is nonsense. But I understand it. The long black coat is not ostentatious enough to be a costume. We don't begrudge Beyonce or Lady Gaga their outfits, any more than we object to Willie Nelson's braids or Leonard Cohen's fedora. We know those are purposeful; they define their public images, their "brand."
But Trump's brand is not a long black coat. As he will be the first to tell you, his name is his brand. That's why he has quite purposefully splattered it over every piece of realty he can. Trump complained the other day that being president has cost him $2 to $5 billion. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-loss/trump-says-being-president-has-cost-him-2-billion-to-5-billion-idUSKBN1X021I. He'll be lucky if he gets off that easy. Even more galling to him has to be that his name is being cleaned off real estate all over Manhattan, including most recently the Central Park skating rinks his company manages. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/nyregion/trump-skating-rinks.html.
No, the long black coat signifies something else. It tells us that Trump is oblivious to how he looks to other people. This has to do with the broader question of norms. We hear a lot of talk about how the Trump administration has been dismantling the norms of our democracy, but not many people talk about what that really means. Norms are nothing more than appropriate behaviors. Appropriate behavior, what used to be called etiquette or, more highbrow, protocol, are those that fit the circumstances, that don't draw unfavorable attention to you, that don't make you look weird. They are mostly common sense. Even a child like nine-year-old Sadie Markowitz has been cited approvingly for her list of rules for watching a Broadway show. https://twitter.com/sethyny/status/1144638769192230912?lang=en. You read them and you say, "but of course;" especially my personal favorite, "5. No ‘gas passing'." Anyone who doesn't instinctively know Sadie's rules is either a child (younger than Sadie) or an infantile adult.
In that same vein, most of us know that it is not appropriate to cheat at golf. https://www.golfdigest.com/story/10-astonishing-claims-from-the-book-detailing-president-trumps-cheating-at-golf. That it is not appropriate to give a smiling thumbs up when posing with an infant just orphaned by a terrorist shooter. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/09/trump-el-paso-melania-orphan-baby-thumbs-up. That it is not appropriate to extort political assistance from a foreign country. That it is not appropriate as president to book an international conference at your own resort. That it is not appropriate to send a letter to a foreign leader that begins "Let's make a great deal!" and ends, "Don't be a fool!" with threats in the middle. https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-middle-east-50080737
The airwaves are thick with talking heads trying to understand the Trump phenomenon. Let's not overthink this. The conclusion I reached in 1990 still seems valid to me. "What an oddball," I thought to myself, and probably said aloud to Gordon. "He looks like a buffoon." And buffoonery still seems the right word. Donald Trump simply does not understand what is and is not appropriate. Hell, he doesn't even understand that it is not appropriate to wear a winter coat indoors in the summer!
Back in 1990 it didn't matter how buffoonish Trump was. Trump had already spent a decade making a crass ass of himself, was on the verge of cratering in Atlantic City, losing the Plaza, and, we all thought, slipping quietly into oblivion. How we got from then to now will be fodder for a century's worth of history books. I doubt they will tell us more about him than we already know. We already know that he thinks every man's conscience is vile and depraved, but that he himself can do no wrong. There may yet be a comeuppance. I would not be surprised to see him in Dannemora, but he could as easily be reelected too. After all, 40% of the country still seems ready to go with the man in the long black coat, and they just might take the rest of us with them.