15 years ago today, a “magical merger” took place which, with the wisdom of hindsight, helps explain much of our current cultural moment in 2020. It was the wedding of Melania Knauss and Donald j. Trump. In front of family, friends, 10,000 flowers and some of the most famous and influential people in the world, our current president — then a celebrity businessman, now facing impeachment — was married, for the third time.
The Palm Beach affair got a positive New York Times write-up, detailing the lavishness and “lifestyles of the rich and famous” flourishes. “The bride’s gown was worth more than most American homes. Her diamond-studded ring cost more than many yachts,” The Associated Press wrote at the time. “Donald Trump married Slovenian model Melania Knauss Saturday with all the glamour, glitz and gold that money and star power can buy.”
It was a celebration of excess — and included a guest list of so many who wouldn’t be caught in the same room with Trump today.
It was a celebration of excess and elitism — and included a guest list of so many who wouldn’t be caught in the same room with Trump today. But many people in that room of reportedly 450 helped enable the rise of Trump, even if they didn’t realize quite how high he would go. Looking back at the guest list provides some interesting insight — both for those who hate Trump, and those who love him.
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There may be no single reason why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, but the image of her and former President Bill Clinton laughing with Trump about who-knows-what certainly didn’t help her candidacy. Why did the New York senator and former secretary of state attend the nuptials? According to Clinton, who was asked about it on the campaign trail, the answer was fun. “I happened to be planning to be in Florida and I thought it would be fun to go to his wedding because it is always entertaining,” she said.
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Trump remembered it a little differently. “She had no choice,” he said during a 2015 debate, claiming that because he was a donor to the couple’s Clinton Foundation, they felt obligated to come. That sort of transactional nature certainly helped Trump’s rise. But it is often swept under the rug by his most ardent supporters — and opponents. As is the fact that so much of his political donations went to Democrats prior to his GOP run. Trump supporters are missing the reality of the empty vessel of policy and principle that is Trump’s political persona — someone who made his career by doing whatever it took to accrue personal power and wealth. As a New York City developer, and later as a fixture among the NYC elite, that largely meant donating to Democrats. Trump himself was a registered Democrat, and Republican, and independent, at various times of his life.
Just as important as Trump’s association with politicians has been his historic association with the media — a sadomasochistic, symbiotic web of relationships built on decades of flirtation and wooing. Long before he railed against “fake news” for the cameras, much of the media elite celebrated with him at his wedding 15 years ago. Jeff Zucker was there, then-NBC Universal president and now the president of CNN. Katie Couric was there, back in her NBC days and a year before her jump to CBS. Gayle King was there too — now an anchor at CBS News. Media mogul Mort Zuckerman watched the happy couple say “I do.” (Zuckerman owned the New York Daily News until 2017; the tabloid helped “make the myth of Trump” in the 80s and 90s but turned against him during and after the 2016 election.) TV pundits, hosts and high-profile reporters such as Chris Matthews, Barbara Walters, Matt Lauer, Kelly Ripa, Les Moonves were all also in attendance.
Many of these people probably regret their decision to honor the invite. Perhaps some don’t. But the elitism at that Florida wedding pulls back the curtain.
Indeed, progressive, liberal celebrities were there from all fields — Billy Joel performed at the wedding, Tony Bennett was in attendance, Anna Wintour of Vogue Magazine. Heidi Klum, Russell Simmons, Derek Jeter and Shaquille O’Neal all paid their respects and sipped champagne.
Many of these people probably regret their decision to honor the invite. Perhaps some don’t. But the elitism at that Florida wedding pulls back the curtain; it gives away the game. It shows the true nature of who Trump is — not a swamp dweller but a swamp developer who interacted with titans of industry and celebrity for decades. He’s someone who lives by a code, and that code is “what can you do for me.”
But the guest list also shows something about the people around Trump. When you hear critiques of Trump by those who attended his wedding, one has to wonder — is it guilt? Trump certainly wasn’t espousing the kinds of political opinions that media and celebrities decry so voluminously today, but they still knew the sort of transactional man he was when they shared in his wedding celebration.
The cultural landscape post-Trump would never allow half these people to be seen in the same room with him. And this massive cultural shift has not been lost on a skeptical public — skeptical of elitism to begin with, and with a front row seat to hypocrisy in 2020.
Will that sentiment propel Trump to another term this year? We’ll see.