Today, as Donald Trump makes his first visit to the city since becoming president, New Yorkers, both inner borough and out, may wish to take solace in the knowledge that he is so reviled here that he will be forced to forego a night spent in the comfort of his own bed in his beloved Trump Tower.
Surely, Donald had been looking forward to sleeping in his Louis XIV-styled triplex on Fifth Avenue for the first time in more than three months. Instead, he will escape to another of his palatial retreats, one in a friendlier zone on the far side of the Hudson in New Jersey. This change of plans is due in no small part to the sizable demonstrations planned against him. Huge crowds of angry sign-waving people do nothing to help presidential poll numbers.
But as comforting as this small victory may feel, New York—despite casting an overwhelming majority of its votes for his rival—has a massive and unacknowledged collective guilt when it comes to Trump’s creation.
If we now have a petulant, spoiled child as president, much of the blame rests here.
This man, who is so disdainful of the ethos and spirit of democracy, did not crawl out of some backwoods swamp. The president, who now sits in the Oval Office displaying an ignorance of essential American history that would embarrass a fifth grader, is not the product of what Jimmy Breslin used to cruelly taunt as the “low I.Q. states.” No, the current leader of the free world, who openly trifles with people who practice “Sieg Heil!” salutes before the mirror, is one of very our own. He was hatched right here in Gotham, the first native New Yorker since Theodore Roosevelt to be elected to the White House.
And if you could line up all the influential New Yorkers who helped spawn his misbegotten career—the politicians, the bankers, the lawyers, the public relations wizards, the lobbyists, the political consultants, the editors and reporters, the television executives and producers—the column would stretch from Trump Tower to the Battery.
Most of these Trump enablers, if their voter registration were examined, would show True Blue Democrat. It makes no difference. All eagerly took his money or helped to promote his ego and his brand.
No wonder the bad boy president now struts a world stage saying and doing what he pleases without worrying about little things like world peace, melting icecaps, or making sure our existing medical conditions are covered by insurance. This is exactly the way he acted as a head-strong young developer in what is supposed to be the most sophisticated city in America. Instead of being shunned he won headlines, acclaim, and investors.
An early demonstration of the virtues of flagrant bullying came in 1980 when he was demolishing the old Bonwit Teller building to make way for his flagship tower on Fifth Avenue. He had promised the Metropolitan Museum of Art he would do his best to save a pair of lovely stone Art Deco bas-relief sculptures that graced the façade. Rather than rescue them, he had them blasted in half. He watched as the guardians of municipal art responded not with red-faced rage but with peeps of dismay. “How extraordinary,” was all the secretary of the Met’s board of trustees could muster when informed of the developer’s treachery. The sculptures had been pulverized, a Trump Organization Vice President named John Baron explained to The New York Times, because the “merit of these stones was not great enough to justify the effort to save them.”
This was another marvelous lesson learned, since “John Baron” was a made-up name employed by the young Donald when he preferred to remain incognito. Loud snickers in the office presumably accompanied its use as he spoke on the phone.
Further demonstrating the virtues of deceit on an edifice he calls his proudest accomplishment, he brazenly employed a crew of undocumented, nonunion workers, most of them from Poland, to carry out the demolition, men who were barely paid for their labor. Whatever the size of the settlement he later had to make in court for this transgression, the savings he achieved through these mischievous shortcuts dwarfed it.
Likewise, when he insisted he needed a 40-year tax abatement in order to renovate a down-at-the-heels hotel adjacent to Grand Central Station, he managed to get his way despite protests by the handful of officials who recognized the extent of the giveaway. The head of the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, himself a major hotel operator, noted that the amount the deal obligated Trump to pay the city in lieu of taxes for this premiere midtown site was about the same as the tax bill for a short-stay motel on Eighth Avenue.
Trump outdueled these foes by retaining a Murderers’ Row of lawyers and consultants, all with deep political ties to City Hall and Albany. Soon, the awestruck rival hotel operator was a good friend. All the politicians invited him to buy tables at their dinners. He happily obliged.
On the same project, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority asked, as part of the deal, for him to widen a subway entrance to Grand Central to accommodate throngs of commuters. Trump said sure. And did nothing. On the day after his inauguration this January, I watched as hundreds of protesters carrying their anti-Trump signs became gridlocked as they tried to exit the Lexington Avenue subway through that same entrance, still just as narrow as it was the day the future president agreed to enlarge it 40 years ago.
None of this was kept secret from New Yorkers. The particulars of his squalid deals were revealed in investigative news stories, or at least the ones that survived the pit-bull lawyers that the developer retained to snarl and lunge at reporters who dared to question his success. In 1992, in plenty of time to give warning to an unwary populace, the late great Wayne Barrett published a fine biography of Trump that traced these manipulations along with scores of others. At the time, Trump’s Atlantic City casinos were failing and he was widely written off as a has-been. Barrett called his book, Trump: The Deals and the Downfall. (It was republished last year as Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth.)
But New York remains a generous place of second chances, at least for millionaires who briefly stumble. As soon as his fortunes were restored, the same slick tribe of handlers emerged to promote the new Trump, helping him boost huge gleaming brass letters spelling out the name on more buildings and more hotels.
We do not hear any mea culpas from this crowd today, even as they cluck their tongues at what he does to our country. After all, he was just a payday, and a very good one at that, which is the language most spoken here in Trumpland.