The year is 1985. Reagan has just been reelected, but Republican fortunes across the country are waning. The Gipper was beginning to show his incapacities and the party itself seemed just as hoary. The hunt was on for new blood and George Clark, the chairman of the New York Republican Party, thought he knew just the man to renovate the GOP: Donald Trump. Clark rode the express elevator to Trump’s penthouse on the top floor of Trump Tower, a kind of Versailles-in-the-Sky. The Republican powerbroker had a simple question to put to Trump: would the real estate titan consider running for governor against Mario Cuomo in 1987? Trump quickly answered. “No. President or nothing.”
A disappointed Clark descended the 1,388-feet black monolith, perhaps thinking that Trump’s decision was based on his entanglements with Cuomo, an icon of liberalism. As a young lawyer, Cuomo had represented Trump’s father, Fred, in some of his sleaziest projects. And when Cuomo ran for governor, the younger Trump was there to bankroll his campaign, certain that Cuomo would return the favors. He was not disappointed. The Cuomo administration interceded again and again on behalf of Trump projects, from the Television City development to the perennially embattled Grand Hyatt in New York. It is possible to trace Trump’s view of the government as a kind of Ponzi scheme to be plundered for his own profit to this fruitful partnership with the Cuomo regime.
Indeed, Trump became so enamored with Cuomo that the magnate privately urged him to run for president. But why didn’t Trump thrust himself into the 1988 campaign against Poppy Bush, a man he had ridiculed as a “waffling weakling”? According to Wayne Barrett’s acidic must-read biography, Trump: the Deals and the Downfall, the Donald perceived that he was fatally weighted by a political liability: his Czech wife, the feisty Ivana. “Nobody in South Carolina will like Ivana’s accent,” Trump told friends. “Plus, she’s from a
Communist country!” But Trump had a plan to polish his political appeal: dump Ivana and marry Marla Maples, a vapid beauty queen from Georgia. Trump confided to his bodyguard that Marla was the key element in his Southern Strategy. “They go wild for the glamour down there.” Alas, it was not to be.
Now, twenty years, several bankruptcies and two failed marriages later, Donald Trump is back with a new Southern Strategy, which he unveiled in enervating detail at his Alabama Trumpalooza. It was the face of a new and perhaps even more unappetizing Trump, the billionaire populist. For decades, Donald Trump’s persona was that of an upbeat pitchman, a huckster for the imperial dream of infinite growth, even when his own fortunes were flagging— especially then.
But now Trump’s public mood has soured. His pitches have assumed a dark, fatalistic tenor. He sells fear and white rage, as if he has scented the rot eating away inexorably at the core of the System he helped construct. Of course, he still markets himself as the nation’s top stud, the only figure man enough to eradicate the gravest threat to the Republic: Mexican immigrants.
Is Trump’s noxious nativism an act, a case of Trump l’Oeil politics? Who knows, but it is certainly a grandiose hypocrisy. The family fortune was built on immigrant labor. His father Fred boasted that his empire of suburban shacks was constructed by laborers “right off the boat,” untainted by union membership. Donald followed the same reasoning at his own construction sites and in the low-wage jobs at his casinos and hotels.
Donald Trump is a bigot and a pig who uses his boorishness to appeal to other pigs, his targeted demographic of second generation Reagan Democrats: white, blue-collar men, fueled by Budweiser, sexual insecurity and a roiling, if inchoate, resentment toward a political system that has pushed them to an economic cliff. It is a measure of Trump’s mystique that these economic refugees are drawn fervently to a man who trademarked the phrase: “You’re fired!”
I doubt Trump has read even a paragraph by Guy Debord, but his presidential campaign would thrill the Situationists. Trump for President is the Greatest Spectacle on Earth—or at least on Fox News. Who else has shredded Roger Ailes on his own network? What other Republican has defended single-payer health care? Derided Citizens’ United? Inveighed against global trade pacts? Denounced the Iraq War as an act of unparalleled stupidity? Aggressively pushed a progressive taxation model? It’s as if Trump has stepped right off the pages of Ralph Nader’s Dickensian romp of a novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!
But is the Donald really a class traitor? Hardly. Trump is a post-modern Nero, without the facility for poetry. He is the new master of wrecking ball politics, the rich boy with an ego as big as the Ritz, who delights in busting things up to clear space for pleasure domes for the global elite. The broken lives left behind are just the cost of the deal. In this high stake game there’s only one rule for survival: Find a scapegoat and move on.