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Donald Trump: the last of the Yuppies Their Eighties triumph has turned into tribulation

The 'short-fingered vulgarian'. Daniel J. Barry/WireImage

The 'short-fingered vulgarian'. Daniel J. Barry/WireImage


June 20, 2024   5 mins

I know something about yuppies: the acronym for the young urban professionals who entered the popular imagination in the Eighties, obsessed with their money, their careers and all the preoccupations, predilections and playthings that came along for the BMW ride.

I myself had matured from Pepsi to Michelob to bloviating with great intellectual depth and subtlety about olive oil from Tuscany. From my elite institute of higher education I had descended upon the big city, sold magazine articles, then the book, then the movie rights — all of which was mere preamble to the first Cuisinart, the first VCR and chopping shitake mushrooms on butcher-block countertops. I was convinced that The Big Chill was a major cinematic achievement and that Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was the great American novel. As my wife and I strolled from our renovated loft in an old industrial building — our little corner of real estate procured by means of a mortgage at a ridiculously high rate our dual-income household had been ridiculously happy to obtain — we took our first bite of forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden that was New York City: not an apple, but a David’s Cookie.

So it was with great anticipation that I began to flip through the pages of Tom McGrath’s Triumph of the Yuppies. Finally, someone might bring order and perspective to the cognitive dissonance of Jane Fonda workouts, LL Bean suspenders, MBAs, hardwood floors and the epic advent of The Preppy Handbook.

Of course, McGrath would not be the first to go long or short on the Eighties, from the frenzied traders of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker to the toxic class warriors of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities to the epicureans who populate the infamous comic book series, Yuppies, Rednecks, and Lesbian Bitches from Mars. Still, I nurtured hopes that, at long last, McGrath might shed light on an enduring paradox: how a decade of hard work, high hopes and extraordinary ambition led us to our present moment of collective anger, distrust and despair. Today, our world is threatened by the last (and arguably the apotheosis) of the yuppie tribe, Donald Trump, who still believes a red tie is de rigueur, that lying is a form of venture capitalism, and that lipstick on a pig is a good business strategy — as long as it’s Dior or Louboutin. But perhaps that would be too much to ask of McGrath, or of any author of a book that also includes musings about Tofutti.

To his credit, the author earnestly reminds us that: “while thousands of people in Ohio and Michigan were visiting soup kitchens, and two-thirds of all Americans reported feeling anxious about losing their home or business… people who were well off were spending freely on things like travel, high-end real estate, jewelry, gourmet food, fine wine, and furs.” Unfortunately, McGrath offers no profound explanation for the fact that the evisceration of the American middle class went unnoticed by so many, except for the mesmerising pull of watching rich people behave badly on 357 episodes of Dallas and 220 episodes of Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty.

The book underscores the injustice of America’s tragic split, but stops short of condemning my generation’s blithe indifference to other people’s suffering, which could only be matched by our fascination with other people’s money. There is no moral outrage here, no foreboding sense of privatisation’s ineluctable advance across the globe, no disgust registered about the fact that finance capital writ large would leave a trail of third-world misery. And there’s no sense of how that fatal fracture between haves and have-nots might eventually be turned to profit by those who would exploit envy, resentment and rage, and turn the disempowered remnants of a disillusioned electorate into incensed insurrectionists, as was the case on 6 January.

Ignoring such intimations of impending doom, McGrath keeps to the straight and narrow by following the story of Michael Milken, who rose from finance nerd to junk bond king before succumbing to securities trading fraud. He details General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s conquest of the quarterly report while ruining livelihoods across small town America. But he fails to deliver a deeper sense of why, at the time, we actually envied our friends with MBAs who were heading for the C-suite. While we knew something of immense import was going on in the offices Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Shearson Lehman and Kidder Peabody, we did not really consider that 100 hours at the office each week might have some impact other than who could pick up the check at Nobu.

“Our world is threatened by the last of the yuppie tribe, Donald Trump, who still believes a red tie is de rigueur”

The yuppie era saw American innocence sacrificed on the altar of corporate mergers, leveraged buyouts and junk bonds. McGrath contrasts Ronald Reagan’s rosy speeches with the economic realities of a hollowed out middling class and the sociological stratification that resulted in two Americas. But here, too, he fails to note the ominous bifurcation of ad man Hal Riney’s promise that “It’s morning again in America”. This optimistic declaration that led Reagan to the Oval Office would eventually decay into the paranoid catalogue of American carnage that drove Trump to the same destination in 2016 — and might once again do the trick.

We are reminded that elitism, white flight, racism and cocaine-fuelled corruption went along with Perrier, Cross pens and premium ice cream. But Yuppies struggles to tell a pair of irreconcilable tales: McGrath must deliver the failures of the United States auto industry, the tragedy of the United States steel mill worker and the devastation of widespread farm foreclosures — while not forgetting to note the surge of coffee culture in Seattle and McMansions in Connecticut.

Perhaps it is fitting that McGrath’s emotional register goes no further than irony, typified by his narration of Jerry Rubin’s journey from Hippie to Yippie to Yuppie to stockbroker to capitalist nabob of networking — then back to cultural irrelevance. But McGrath’s irony ends there, neglecting to add how Rubin’s collection of 70,000 business cards from his fellow yuppies would lead to the venal absurdities of Soho House and Zero Bond.

How else did the army of rapacious Material Girls and Saab-driving Modern Families define today’s cultural arena? McGrath had a chance to connect the yuppie’s infamous commodification of everything everywhere all at once to a world in which Eighties fashion icons such as Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt would make that Eighties mantra, “dress for success”, into a full-time gig for influencers. But once again he shies away from the ugly truths that raw lust for fame, money and power would grow into armies of living, breathing avatars of capitalism — from toned pecs to perfect complexions.

McGrath describes the change to language itself, as in the yuppie’s spreadsheet-adjacent parlance of “interface”, “bottom line”, “fast track”, and “prioritise” — but will not take the next discomfiting step: that modern love and friendship would eventually align with algorithms. Nor does he delve into the meta-textual obsessions of the era, the victory of surfaces over depth, the defeat of Sixties idealism by the trivial pursuit of pop culture regurgitation, as the interrogation of corporate and political responsibility was replaced by a more pressing question: Who shot J.R.?

Yuppies also fails to show how the rapey ruthlessness of Dynasty‘s Blake Carrington might have had anything to do with the rise of a philandering nepo baby whom the ultimate chronicler of yuppie mores, Spy magazine, famously dubbed a “short-fingered vulgarian” — Donald Trump. In this regard, McGrath may be guilty of ignoring the most plangent of all yuppie phenomena, namely the origins of the absurd dictum that in order to succeed we must all become our own brands. This scourge was not lost on that same Eighties real-estate developer, who after a series of business failures and financial losses of more than $1 billion (and the ultimate embarrassment of being banished from the Forbes 400 list) reached a fateful decision: This particular ĂŒber-yup would no longer develop and sell properties — or anything real, for that matter — but only his gilded name. The consequences would be devastating.

A quarter century after the Iranian hostage crisis doomed Jimmy Carter’s presidency and made the star of Bedtime for Bonzo into the most powerful man in the world, a new era came to dawn. On 8 January 2004, The Apprentice made its debut on NBC, delivering an unending feast of yuppie signifiers to the short-fingered vulgarian himself. It was the moment triumph transformed into tribulation.


Frederick Kaufman is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and a professor of English and Journalism at the College of Staten Island. His next project is a book about the world’s first political reactionary.

FredericKaufman

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El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

I had a hard time overcoming this stream of consciousness

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  El Uro

Don’t try. Let it carry you back to that golden age of power suits, overpriced sushi, and The Art of the Deal.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
1 month ago
Reply to  El Uro

The big words confuse you?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
1 month ago

The Trump cultists that slither around here are not going to like this one little bit!

Karen Fleming
Karen Fleming
1 month ago

CS- why do you seem to enjoy insulting readers instead of just commenting on the article? I notice you do this all the time.

Kerry Davie
Kerry Davie
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen Fleming

Either too much champagne or too much socialism. Both should not be taken in excess.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Kerry Davie

I think it’s exclusively the latter. I can hardly imagine that someone with this level of errrrm 
 intellect and with such terrible manners could afford champagne.
This “champagne “ part seems purely aspirational rather than reflecting the real situation.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen Fleming

If CS had the intelligence or insight to comment thoughtfully on these pages he wouldn’t be a CS.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen Fleming

Insulting readers is the only reason he is here.
The sad thing for him is that he can’t insult those who have known him for a long time. They just give him a “dislike” without even reading what he wrote – this is the maximum attention he can get.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  El Uro

Very true.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen Fleming

He’s a troll, just not a particularly effective or interesting one. I’m perverse and cynical minded enough to appreciate trolling when its done well. Whatever happened to Charles Stanhope? He knew how to troll. Stirring the pot was rather his thing and I miss his over the top comments and the often ridiculous reactions they generated.
This is not trolling done well, rather the opposite, trolling in its lowest, most juvenile form. I know you are but what am I simply doesn’t engage my intelligence the way it did when I was seven. CS is just not up to the task of trolling on a serious website with an intelligent reader base and thoughtful commenters. Would that he upped his game to the standards of the rest of of us here, but alas, I fear this is beyond his intellectual capacity or rhetorical skill.

Chipoko
Chipoko
1 month ago

Wrong! It’s you they don’t like one little bit!

Karen Fleming
Karen Fleming
1 month ago

It seems as though the author started out including himself in this group of yuppies with all his nihilism and mindless activities of enjoying money and all the trappings, ignoring the deeper issues of life- and then ended with the predictable and boring “ isn’t Trump an awful human being”. And said basically nothing very interesting or enlightening in the whole process.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen Fleming

He unwittingly nails the real root of the hysterical hatred that the graduate class feels for Trump: pure snobbery.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen Fleming

Yes. The eighties was awful and Reagan was awful and we were awful and we made Trump and he’s awful and he stirred up an awful insurrection using his awful, hollow, racist, grandstanding, and now he’s going to lead the awful ignorant peasants and blow up everything we thought was good and right in the world. Sounds about right to me.

Everything is awful and we’re all doomed doesn’t make for very compelling reading, and the actual working class or those of us who long saw this coming would do well to ignore this self-pitying drivel. I cannot conjure much sympathy for this author. I’d rather gloat and say I told you so. Yep, yuppie globalist urbanites. That’s what happened. This is why you’re currently under siege, crammed into your deep blue urban fortresses along with millions of others of your kind along with the migrants you exploit, the thieves and idlers you empower, and the racial minorities you pander to, surrounded by a sea of hostile natives who reject you entirely and a set of international frenemies who you thought allies but were only ever using you for their own purposes. I have no absolution to offer. You have sowed and now shall you reap of the bitter harvest. I suspect there will be many a disappointed aging globalist urban yuppie inhabiting this particular bandwagon of self-pitying hollow self-reflection soon enough as the world increasingly fails to meet their expectations. The times they are a-changing.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

Huh? I don’t get it.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Donald Trump

Kerry Davie
Kerry Davie
1 month ago

I started out close reading this stuff; then rapid reading; then skimming; then….why bother.

Chipoko
Chipoko
1 month ago
Reply to  Kerry Davie

Me too!

Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago

The Yuppie era, in many ways, ploughed right on to 2007/8. All the dot-comers, the idea of digital nomads and making billions from the beach. It started to ground to a stop around the Iraq War and then 2008 when the money popped, the administrators started to impose more and more regulations, the internet stopped being free (in both senses), and friends of the administrators started to make lots of money influencing government action to promote/protect their interests.
Up to that point, world poverty had shrunk, developing countries were competing with the wealthy world, countries under dictatorship was declining, women were taking control, and lifespans were increasing, and global action had beaten acid rain and saved the ozone layer – all shameful outcomes of the horrors of free market capitalism. But a capitalism that hadn’t yet woken up to the profit potential from manipulating governments and the ‘free money’ tree that comes when competitors are regulated out of business, or can be obtained by grabbing as much QE as possible.

alan bennett
alan bennett
1 month ago

What insurrection, trespass is the main charge against almost all insurrectionists! get a life and try another skill.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
1 month ago

Nothing but elitism showing off it’s self infatuation.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago

Alas! Yet another article in UnHerd that I was not able to read till the end, despite being an avid reader otherwise.

I gave up after the first couple of paragraphs. However, as a fan of statistics, decided to check how many times Trump is mentioned in the article. Three times.

Apparently, mentioning Trump in the title is a clickbait, pure and simple.

And what I could infer from what I managed to read and from the statistics, the article goes like “Me, me, me, me and a bit about Trump”.

General Store
General Store
1 month ago

Moronic

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

The book, ‘Generation of Sociopaths’ describes this better. The Baby Boomers unleashed the American Id on the world, a selfishness unseen in any society (because now it was technologically and politically enabled). Either left or right, you can see the self-interest in the policies that were voted in as soon as they became of age and continues even now (Social security running out just as the last boomer dies, btw). They inherited a highly functional society and systematically deconstructed and destroyed it, to their short term benefit. And their ethos infected subsequent generations so here we are. All it takes is one terrible generation to hold power for 40-50 years to destroy a society. At least we got some good music and movies from it, for awhile.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Your psychiatrist didn’t want to listen to you today?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Today, our world is threatened by the last (and arguably the apotheosis) of the yuppie tribe, Donald Trump.
Threatened how? The rent-free head space this man occupies has to be valued in the millions. The border is being overrun, cities are lawless, Team Biden is insistent on provoking a larger war with Russia, and this guy is obsessed with Trump.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago

There’s a definite problem in that the West has struggled to cope with foreign competition. Undoubtedly people have suffered.

However “the fact that finance capital writ large would leave a trail of third-world misery.” This is not true. Poorer parts of the world have become much richer; there is far less destitution than during the 80s.

As I read further, I found that this was typical of the writers rather half baked understanding of the world.00

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago

He’s definitely drunk the koolaid.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago

I first heard about trump from my brother. He was a big fan after reading the art of the deal. I probably should have read the book. Maybe I will now. The wiki on it is funny.