Steve Rhodes/Flickr

The preferred ride of the wealthy and powerful is an equally powerful cultural symbol.

Last Friday, hours after President Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., a group of protestors set fire to a limousine parked on K Street NW, just blocks from the inaugural parade route. “We the People” had been scrawled on its side.  

The image of the wrecked Lincoln became one of the most powerful images from that day, appearing in news stories around the world and, at the Women’s March the following day, on at least one protester’s sign.

“He’s got my vote,” one commenter declared.

The limousine—that irresistible symbol of money, class, and social status—has been separating people, literally and figuratively, since the early 1900s. From its first iteration, in which a driver ferried his wealthy passengers from a discrete outer compartment, to the blinged-out stretch limos of the ‘80s and today’s UberLux, chauffeured luxury cars not only enact our socioeconomic divisions, they also symbolize them.

In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, AAAA Limousine spells this out on their web page, under the heading, “What a limo rental can do for your image”:

A limo…is the epitome of class, screaming wealth, stability and style. There is nothing more enviable than seeing someone arrive to an event and then step out of their limo so elegantly and graceful...[People] are going to look at you and say, “Wow, that guy deserves to be here”…They are going to immediately think that you inhabit all of the qualities that go along with a limo.

A limousine can also signify societal change. A scene in The Great Gatsby, for instance, uses a limo to represent the (relative) breakdown of social and economic barriers in 1920s New York. As Nick, the novel’s narrator, and the millionaire Jay Gatsby are driving Gatsby’s shiny Rolls-Royce across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, they see three black passengers in a limo that’s being chauffeured by a white man. “Anything can happen,” Nick thinks to himself. “Anything at all.”

Donald Trump, whose wealth and penchant for gaudiness has earned him some latter-day Gatsby comparisons, tried to get into the limo business in the late 1980s with two lines of stretch Cadillacs. They sported gold accents, Italian leather upholstery, televisions, VCRs, fax machines, and early cell phones. He unveiled the prototypes in Atlantic City in 1988, declaring, "You can see the kind of quality there is. We left nothing out…Frankly, I deserve it.” Like many other Trump business endeavors, the limo idea later fizzled.

Such opulence (and ego) make limos an effective symbol to call out those with wealth—even those who purport to advocate for “the people.” Conservatives often use the term “limousine liberal” to disparage well-to-do progressive types who claim to champion reform. Steve Fraser, author of The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America, wrote in Salon about the image: “[Limousine liberals] stood up for the (black) poor but had no intention of bearing the cost of doing anything about their plight…[They got] around town in limousines, not subway cars.” Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a limousine liberal, Fraser argues, helped made her politically vulnerable in the 2016 presidential election. (This probably didn’t help, either.)

Some early limousines, like this Cadillac, had drivers’ compartments that were covered but not enclosed. (Courtesy of The New York Public Library)

When powerful people eschew the limo, that too sends a powerful message. See Jimmy Carter ditching his wheels and walking his inaugural parade route in 1977, or the progressive Pope Francis getting around by bus or Kia.

The vehicle, of course, transcends individuals users. As a provocative cultural icon, it exudes money and power—making it something to aspire to, deliberately rebuff, or even burn in effigy.

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