The overdressed and over-exposed political operative Roger Stone, vocal Trump backer and future guest of the American correctional system, has become such a figure of fun that even GQ is taking potshots at him. In decades past, GQ celebrated Stone’s enthusiasm for traditional menswear, but the magazine’s latest iteration is less forgiving of political deviationism. Thus the geriatric dirty trickster’s affinity for pocket squares and expensive tailoring has been reinterpreted as something sinister: “What all these looks share is a maniacal devotion to an imagined Anglo-Saxon culture as expressed through style. …But when it comes to the clothing of the far right, it seems that the more rules you know, the more protocol you pull out from the footnotes of the handbook, the more superior you are.”
The trouble with this hilariously overwrought interpretation of Stone’s style is that it is completely wrong, both stylistically and politically. Stone’s garish tailoring is about as far from the thrifty, understated WASPs as you can get without putting on a T-shirt and jeans. Adlai Stevenson, the Princeton-educated product of a wealthy family, was famously photographed in 1952 with a hole his shoe, a look that has since been immortalized in bronze at the Central Illinois Airport. A photograph of the impeccably WASPy poet Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV reveals a man at ease in a disheveled jacket and tie. Traditional East Coast style is characterized by muted colors, lumpy sack suits, repp ties, and Oxford shirts. Stone’s European-inspired tailoring—he says he prefers English suits and Italian shoes—is utterly foreign to this style of dress.
Arguably, there is a connection between Stone’s clothing and his politics, but it isn’t because he’s a product of old money. In political terms, Stone is an arriviste, a self-made operator who got his start pulling dirty tricks for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. His political lineage can be traced from Nixon’s and Agnew’s working-class Republicanism to Pat Buchanan’s Irish Catholic conservatism in the 1990s to Donald Trump, the son of an outer borough real estate developer who spent a year at Fordham before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania. Stone’s stylistic and ideological counterpoint would be someone like John Lindsay, the genteel liberal Republican mayor of New York who eventually defected to the Democratic Party. Or to take a more modern example, the WASPy moderate Republican Jeb Bush, who was once caught campaigning with tape on the sole of his black captoes. Stone’s extravagant tailoring isn’t the look of someone to the manor born; it’s the look of someone who thumbs his nose at the Establishment. (Incidentally, Stone’s tailor is Alan Flusser, the menswear guru best known for dressing Michael Douglas in Wall Street. Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, was another rogue operator who despised old money: “Most of these Harvard MBA types—they don’t add up to dogsh-t. Give me guys that are poor, smart, hungry—and no feelings.”)
Only a few menswear enthusiasts still care about the differences between East Coast American style and Stone’s European suits, but GQ’s ignorance suggests a larger socio-economic blindspot. If you don’t know much about the modern Republican Party, it is superficially plausible to associate Stone’s bespoke suits and extravagant pocket squares with old money. But Stone’s career is linked to figures like Nixon and Trump, politicians who made their names as conservative avatars of blue-collar resentment. The Republican Party has historically been the party of big business, but a closer look at the 2016 election suggests that American politics is undergoing a seismic shift. Trump was the candidate of the economically stagnant heartland, while Hillary Clinton carried affluent suburban and urban counties on the coasts. At least for now, the economic and cultural anxieties of the white working class are driving the Republican Party, anxieties that are as foreign to the East Coast establishment as Stone’s flamboyant personal style.
Indeed, today’s well-heeled lefties are closer to the old WASP elite than a marginal figure like Stone or a gauche real estate developer like Trump. Many have noted the parallels between the current Great Awokening and earlier spasms of religious enthusiasm that swept the Northeast. The social justice pieties spawned by this new movement were incubated at small liberal arts colleges and elite universities, the same institutions founded by the WASPs of yesteryear. Easy familiarity with the increasingly baroque language of modern progressivism is now a surer sign of elitism than where you buy your suits or dress shoes. GQ’s clumsy attempt to connect Stone’s style to “Anglo-Saxon” privilege is as outdated as wearing a tie to the office.
Ignorance of American history is hardly unique to one faltering menswear magazine. When New York Times columnist Ross Douthat lamented the decline of America’s WASP elite, he was met with widespread consternation. After all, isn’t our current president a pale redhead who grew up attending Presbyterian services? Of course, this doesn’t make Trump a WASP, just as it would be a category error to lump in a West Virginia Baptist with a Harvard-educated Episcopalian. But in the rush to associate Trump and the GOP with old-money villainy, too many journalists have forgotten the importance of class and culture.
The hoary clichés about understanding the past happen to be true. If you think Stone represents old money or the East Coast Establishment, you’re likely to ignore or dismiss the resentments and anxieties of Trump’s blue-collar base, who are quite distinct from the country club Republican voters of yore. In a business casual world, Stone’s love of formal clothing is an anachronism, but his take-no-prisoners political style isn’t going anywhere.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.