In 1989, I had a comical but revealing series of encounters with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his palatial mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. He had bought the giant house, with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms, four years earlier without realising that it was directly under the flight path from Palm Beach International Airport. This was undergoing rapid expansion and by the time I met him there were 200 flights a day roaring overhead.
Trump had responded to the devastating noise pollution by trying to make common cause with the less-well-off residents of West Palm Beach, who lived at the end of the runway. As with the plutocrats, they were suffering from the same chronic noise pollution that robbed them of sleep.
I learned about this furious row because I knew a Canadian paper magnate who had bought a house close to Mar-a-Lago at about the same time as Trump. My friend was bitter that the agency that sold him the property had carefully timed his visit for a moment in the afternoon when there were no planes flying directly overhead.
Trump’s first populist campaign
I did not know that I was watching Trump’s first populist campaign, which sought a curfew on night-time flying, a ban on noisier aircraft and the enforcement of existing noise regulations.
To me these demands seemed to be reasonable, but Trump’s attempt to create a popular front, combining billionaires and blue-collar workers, never really got off the ground. The two groups never bonded – the workers saying they might not like the noise but being eager for the extra jobs provided by an expanded airport.
I should have taken Trump’s abortive campaign more seriously. When I was in Palm Beach, the organisation he had set up to unite the diverse victims of aircraft noise seemed to be going nowhere fast. But a year later, I found that the agitation, along with the threat of legal action, had forced the airport to cut back on the noisiest aircraft.
The lesson I took from the episode was that people underestimated Trump because of his general weirdness. Strange he may have been, but as one of his former advisers put it, he is “a cunning nutter”. He may not have been very good, in 1989, at building what came to be called a “pluto-populist coalition”, but he was learning. When he made a grand entrance to the Republican convention in 2016 as their presidential candidate, he was hailed as “the blue-collar billionaire”.
Mar-a-Lago search will both harm and benefit Trump
Can he pull off another electoral triumph in 2024? He is now back at the centre of the political stage thanks to the search by the FBI of Mar-a-Lago on 8 August, looking for classified documents the former president is alleged to have taken from the White House. This has led to a prolonged and attention-grabbing legal wrangle about the disclosure of what precisely the FBI was looking for.
The furore over the Mar-a-Lago search will both harm and benefit Trump, strengthening him among his core supporters, which these days encompass most of the Republican Party, while hurting him among the half of the American population who detest him.
Democrats would like Trump to run again on the grounds that he is tainted by his record in office and his encouragement of those who stormed Congress on 6 January. They calculate that this would make him the easiest candidate to beat in a re-run of Biden’s narrow victory in 2020.
Democrats are playing a dangerous game
But this is a dangerous game to play, because they might get a re-run of the 2016 presidential election instead – when Hillary Clinton underestimated Trump’s bizarre but effective political abilities. As for the Republican leadership, they would privately prefer a more controllable candidate, like Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
All this is peculiarly unpredictable because both parties know that the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v Wade two months ago made abortion rights a central political issue. But nobody knows if it will be a decisive issue, making all political calculations made earlier in the year out of date. Democrats, who had expected a rout in the midterm elections in November, are suddenly full of optimism.
A scattering of election results this week show that the Democrats have some reason for hope. A hotly contested special House election in New York’s Hudson Valley saw the Democrat, Pat Ryan, narrowly win after making abortion rights the central issue of his campaign.
Even President Biden – who tends to seem surprised by events and lowly position in the polls – is sounding confident and aggressive. Buoyed up by a string of legislative successes, he told a meeting of Democratic donors that “what we are seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of extreme Maga [Make America Great Again] philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy… It’s like semi-fascism.”
It may be that the Democratic mood swing is too extreme because their hatred of Trump and the Trumpian Republican Party warps their judgement. “Jubilant Senate Democrats Head Home with momentum” reads a headline in the Washington Post, while Vanity Fair says that “Democrats are starting to see a path to victory in November”.
America may take a decisive step towards autocracy
But Democratic hopes stemming from abortion rights may be premature, washed away by the rising cost of living, with the average American paying far more for food, fuel and clothing. According to a US Census Bureau survey, more than 25 million American adults said they did not get enough to eat in the previous week. As for the midterm elections, an NBC poll shows that 47 per cent of registered voters want Republicans to control Congress and 45 per cent want the Democrats. Although Biden has had a good summer, he still has a 42 per cent approval rating, with disapproval at 57 per cent.
These are grim figures showing that the Maga Republicans are heading for a victory in the midterms and in the presidential election in 2024. America may take a decisive step towards autocracy with an extreme right-wing Supreme Court and a gerrymandered voting system that ends majority rule.
Trump’s one-man rule was undermined by his chaotic approach, but another Maga Republican president might be more systematic in ensuring that key institutions of state – such as the armed forces, judiciary, electoral authorities, FBI, Federal Reserve, IRS and intelligence services – have leaders loyal to the president and to the Maga creed.
Trump and his type of politician have learned a lot since I first saw them at work in Palm Beach 33 years ago. They will be difficult to stop.