As those of you with access to the Internet will know, President Obama recently discovered the executive superpower to rename mountains. As a consequence, Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America and the tallest mountain in the world when the measurement is taken from the surrounding ground, is now known by the name given to it by the Athabascans: Denali.
In a prepared statement, Mr. Obama said, “With this action, I am fulfilling two of my most cherished dreams. First, I’m living the progressive dream of presiding over the surrender of a national monument to a native group. Secondly, I’m honoring my childhood memories of Mount Kenya, which rose in splendid African majesty over the place of my birth and early years.”
Just kidding, of course. Mr. Obama is as American as Dave Matthews or Steve Nash and to suggest otherwise is to lend strength to the right-wing racist slander of people like Linda Starr and Philip Berg. But enough of that twaddle. If you’re like me, your initial reaction to the news was simple: What does this mean for General Motors?
Face it: When you hear “Denali”, you think “GMC”.
The only people who don’t are certain native-born Alaskans and people who knew what a “piton” was before Krakauer published Into Thin Air. GMC has spent millions of dollars and sold hundreds of thousands of vehicles to make sure that you associate the word with a Remington-shaver grille and not a national park. If you don’t realize just how critical the Denali sub-brand is to GM’s fortunes, let me bring you up to speed.
“GMC’s Denali line represents about 23 percent of all GMC sales but is nearly 60 percent of Yukon and Yukon XL full-size SUV sales and 44 percent of Sierra HD sales.” Think about that. The plain-Jane Yukon is actually rarer than the Denali nowadays, which is a staggering fact once you consider the seventeen-thousand-dollar premium for that chrome cheese grater up front. Much of that seventeen grand is profit, and every penny is needed to balance out the continuing and inexcusably tragic implosion of GM’s passenger-car line.
Just as important, the demographics of the Denali line are beyond reproach. Buyers of the Yukon models are eight years younger than Escalade owners (46 v 54) and nearly as wealthy ($188k household income v. $200k) despite that age gap. If you read between the lines of PR comments about Denali owners, you’ll also hear a lot of socioeconomic clues about race and class. GM wrings its hands about the “athletes and rappers” image of the Escalade — “Cadillac says they wouldn’t mind retaining them, but aren’t going out of their way to attract them.” I assure you that any time a company says it “wouldn’t mind retaining” a few customers for a $90,000 product, that what they really mean is “we wish to God that we could prevent those people from driving them in public.”
The positioning of the Yukon Denali as the vehicle of choice for old money, horse-farm types, and “quietly confident” self-made business owners, compared to the old-people-and-rappers Escalade, combined with the never-ending tailspin of Cadillacs that don’t have a twelve-square-foot grille mounted at the height of the average American woman’s thorax, means that the Yukon Denali XL is, effectively, the flagship of General Motors. It’s the American S-Class, complete with a Cheap-class variant (the Acadia Denali) for the people who want the look of the premium product without the functionality or price. As such, the name is slightly less likely to disappear from GM order books than the names “Corvette” or “Silverado” no matter how politicized it becomes in the near future. If Donald Trump is re-elected and he changes the name of the mountain back, it might even cause a few progressives to shed their LX470s and Range Rovers in favor of the big GMC refrigerator, strictly as a statement of intent. “Yes, I drive a Denali, not a McKinley, thank you very much.”
Truth is, you can learn a lot about America from the place names given to GM cars in any particular era. Think of the Chevrolet Malibu: it appeared in 1964, just in time for the nation to fall in love with California. The Monte Carlo? 1970, a time when more Americans were focusing outward and looking to Europe for ideas about cars and fashion. The Pontiac Bonneville? Straight outta the power-crazed, post-war Fifties. The Cadillac Calais? An attempt to give the base ‘Lac some Continental glamour. The Celebrity Eurosport? Let’s just forget about that one.
But the choice of “Denali” twenty years ago to adorn an upscale GMC truck was one of GM’s marketing master strokes. It was the perfect name, on the perfect product, at the perfect time. At the time, the country’s upper middle class was entering a period of bizarre self-exaltation-via-self-abnegation. Bling was out: conspicuous non-consumption was in. The farmhouses of upstate New York were stripped of their rough-sawn furnishings as Manhattan housewives battled tooth and nail to make their kitchens “rustic”. David Brooks nailed it in 1998:
It is perfectly acceptable to spend lots on money on anything that is “professional quality”… You must practice one-downmanship… you will proudly dine on a two-hundred-year-old pine table that was once used for slaughtering chickens… Eventually, every object in your house will look as it had once been owned by someone much poorer than you.
The Denali, therefore, was acceptable, even desirable, “one-downmanship” from the S-Class or Siebener in your neighbors’ garages. It was “professional grade”, and it could easily be used for an expedition that your ninety-hour work-week at Goldman Sachs or Intel would never permit. Once the truly wealthy bought in to the Denali ideal, the upper middle class dutifully lined up behind them. What it means when suburban attorneys shoulder a $1700-per-month car payment they can ill afford, all in the service of pretending to be Boston Brahmin in their slummin’ truck, is an exercise I leave up to the reader.
Thus it happens that this most American of vehicles is named after a mountain in a park in a state that wasn’t even a state until after the Korean War. Nobody goes there, although it’s possible to be short-roped up the thing the same way the socialites are dragged up the side of Everest. I have no idea what the terrain around Denali looks like and neither do you. What matters is that it represents something beyond civilization:
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
That’s what Denali is: the territory ahead that we will never reach. Instead, we’ll stay at the office for another evening of forcible civilization and Starbucks. It’s all the better for being essentially useless and inhospitable, because that helps it remain just an idea and not a place you’d use your NetJets share to visit on a long weekend.
And that’s what America has become in 2015. You live in offices and put the names of things you’ll never understand on the side of trucks you don’t need, can’t afford, and can’t even change the oil on yourself. Our president is so helpless in the face of the economy and the multinationals and the media that he resorts to apologizing to people he’s never harmed in hopes that someone will grant him absolution for crimes he didn’t commit. The daughters of your friends drive Jeeps to party schools and the daughters of the people who grow your food drive MRAPs over landmines. There are no jobs left and the ones that are available are all at Amazon, and that’s a hellhole. Every day you’re beaten over the head about your responsibility for the inevitable climate change but when you fly anywhere it’s in the middle seat of a Southwest 737, not the teak-appointed cabin of a G-Five. You don’t believe you can change anything and if you thought you could you’d be afraid to try.
No wonder, then, that the mountain is being renamed. We don’t deserve a Mount McKinley. McKinley was a winner. He protected American jobs and saved the economy and won a war and picked up Hawaii while he was at it. And when he died, the man he agreed to take as vice-president did a pretty decent job, too. We couldn’t use a guy like that nowadays; wouldn’t know what to do with him. So it’s perfectly reasonable to change Mount McKinley back to Mount Denali. Maybe Rainier will change back to Tacoma before you know it. That’s been in the works since 1921 or so, and it makes more sense. And it would free the name of Rainier to find its natural home: on the side of upscale Enclaves. Enclave Rainier. You know it makes sense. What better way to celebrate a class of vehicles, and of owners, that never looks up from the quotidian to the mountain, or, indeed, anything at all?