Long before he became a surprisingly significant political figure, Donald Trump was famous for being rich. Meanwhile, there are plenty of people with far more wealth than he ever had who are much less in the public eye.
So why do some affluent people become household names while others don’t? In a 1990 paper for the Journal of Consumer Research, Elizabeth C. Hirschman set out to learn how some affluent individuals, including Trump, have achieved legendary status. She looked for clues in magazines aimed at affluent consumers: Town & Country, Architectural Digest, Connoisseur, and Avenue.
By far the most common theme in the magazines, found in nearly a quarter of the total material Hirschman looked at, was entrepreneurial achievement. Profiles of prominent wealthy people very often focused on their individual ability and hard work. For example, a 1987 Avenue story on Leonard Norman Stern called him “one of America’s richest men, and also one of its most driven.”
The focus on entrepreneurship is consistently tied to social benefit, expressed in quantitative terms, and tied to the idea of progress. For example, Stern “transformed more than a thousand swampy acres of North Jersey meadowlands into what is now some thirty million square feet of offices, factories, homes, retail shops, and hotels,” according to the Avenue profile.
Trump in particular “represents himself as an entrepreneur in its purest form—an independent person who built ‘something from nothing,’” Hirschman writes (despite the fact that his father was also a real estate investor). As with many of the prominent wealthy individuals, a big part of his self-presentation lies in creating something visibly impressive—in his case, Trump Tower. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Trump Tower was an unqualified success. It has given me visibility, credibility, and prestige.”
After entrepreneurship, the next most common themes found in the magazines was the achievement of celebrity status through consumption, which represented more than 14 percent of the total text.
A 1987 profile in Avenue detailed the extravagance of Trump’s Palm Beach estate, including a gold-leaf ceiling in the living room and a two-ton table made of Florence marble and inlaid with semi-precious stones. Other wealthy people won attention through their art and antique collections. Magazine profiles described this high-profile consumption as a route to fame. One wealthy couple won attention from museum directors who hoped to house their collection. A rich antique car fanatic received acclaim for owning the largest collection of Rolls-Royces in the world.
Just below the theme of consumption, the idea of legacy and inherited wealth showed up in 14.1 percent of the magazine text. Affluent individuals were celebrated not just for their own achievements but simply for being part of wealthy dynasties. Heirs of wealthy families highlighted their own business or philanthropic activities by emphasizing their pedigree.
Ultimately, Hirschman’s analysis suggests that if rich people really want to be famous, they can channel their entrepreneurial work and consumption in ways that make it happen.