How Donald Trump’s path to the White House wasn’t paved in gold, but rather, a peculiar shade of orange
Ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration this Friday, political pundits – along with much of the general public – still seem bewildered as to how he managed to become the next President of the United States. Explanations abound: the surge of right-wing populism, America’s racist underbelly, angry white men, depressed Sanders supporters, The Apprentice, media-friendly treatment and even Russian hackers.
There is one factor, however, most commenters have left unconsidered: Trump’s tan.
Yes, the trademark orange glow that has been mocked by everyone from fashion magazines to Saturday Night Live may be more than an epic use of spray tan. Although it’s next to impossible to imagine, the Oompa Loompa-inspired look may not only be intentional, but a calculated attempt at manipulation.
Let’s examine the facts.
The President-elect is indisputably a peculiar shade of orange. If it was still the 1990s, this could have been the result of a fake tan gone wrong, but today such mishaps are inexcusable. Spray tans, and even at-home self-tan formulations, are no longer the risqué propositions they once were. Gone are the days of orange skin, unsightly streaks and that horrendous fake tan smell. With today’s advanced products, a finger-painting toddler could achieve a beautiful, even bronze glow. Models, celebrities and average people fake tan all the time – and not one of them ever looks like Trump.
Not to mention that Trump can obviously afford the best of the best. He would not use inferior tanning products – because that’s what “losers” would do – and if, heaven forbid, something did go wrong, he could hire the industry’s best makeup artists and tan pros to correct almost any misstep. Yet, he’s consistently stepped into public rocking a bizarre orange hue for the better part of two decades. It’s perhaps his most notorious fashion statement since getting his swept up hair under control.
The fashion choices of politicians in general are often either symbolic or carefully planned attempts to convey a certain image. Respected outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN have dissected the politics of fashion. Bernie Sanders’ ill-tailored suits are an attempt to seem anti-establishment; Elizabeth Warren’s rolled-up sleeves are meant to mimic the look of her male counterparts and connect to the hard working blue-collar voters; Michelle Obama’s outfits have been analyzed and catalogued more than anyone could count; and Republican candidates’ sudden preference for zip-collar sweaters was meant to make them seem more approachable than a sharp business suit would.
Like fashion, tans have a long history of being underestimated as purely superficial pursuits. However, the reality is that they’ve long been symbolic of more than meets the eye.
For much of modern human history, the tan was seen as undesirable. European royalty and upper class citizens would spend much of their time indoors, while the lower classes would slave away on farms outside in the sun. In colonial nations, whiteness indicated wealth and power, and thus a pale complexion was desirable. To this day, whitening products for skin are popular in many formerly colonized nations.
This changed after the industrial revolution, when the average worker moved indoors to factory jobs. Time spent in daylight was precious, and vacations were even more rare. When Coco Chanel caught too much sun on a Mediterranean cruise in the 1920s, she set a new precedent. Suddenly, tanned skin was a symbol of luxury, fashion and wealth. Since fake tanners didn’t exist, the only way to get a deep bronze was to vacation somewhere sunny and exotic. Tans became an aspirational indicator of social status and class.
The western world is still largely obsessed with getting and maintaining “a glow.” The tanning industry is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut and, while most tanners will claim they look better with a tan, the reality is that an almost century-old social signifier influences their preference. We still associate tans with wealth, glamour and, increasingly, celebrity.
While more ostentatious symbols of wealth, like fur and in-your-face designer logos, have fallen out of favour, the tan endures. Ironically, the fake tan seems more natural than draping ourselves in designer clothes or showing off a new sports car. It’s the perfect understated way to still convey privilege in a world that increasingly resents it.
The thing is, Trump’s tan is anything but under-the-radar. It’s everything a modern tan shouldn’t be: orange and noticeably unnatural. It’s clear he didn’t achieve his skin tone by vacationing in warm locales or cruising the world on a giant yacht (although he certainly does both). He didn’t bother to pay a professional to make his skin perfect. His orange skin is a blatant rejection of the tan – and everything it stands for.
Trump miraculously managed to convince a large portion of the American public that a billionaire businessman, born to wealthy parents, is somehow anti-elitist. That he’s really one of the people. Similar to those “Make America Great Again” baseball caps he insisted on wearing at press conferences, his mess of a tan conveys an unmistakable anti-establishment message that somehow simultaneously reminds us of his privilege.
Trump’s skin isn’t airbrushed – and he’d like us to believe his image isn’t either. What you see is what you get. When Florida senator Marco Rubio infamously remarked that Trump has “the worst spray tan in America” and should “sue whoever did that to his face,” he connected his political rival with disenfranchised Americans who also felt scorned and humiliated by the perfectly sun-kissed elite. They know what it feels like to be devalued and underestimated.Trump was never surprised that his tan was the butt of jokes, and he never reacted to them. The tan was always a dangling carrot, in all its obnoxious orange glory, waiting for the establishment to pounce.
While comedians, fellow politicians and flabbergasted onlookers were busy making fun of Trump and his tan, the joke was always on us. Trump’s path to the White House wasn’t paved in gold, but orange.