Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Selective Pre-History of the Major Republican Nominee for President of the United States of America

In the same year that Fred Trump founded his honeypot, a real estate investment firm that would transform him from a man of modest means into a mogul worth roughly $250 million at the time of his death in 1999, he was arrested during a brawl a Ku Klux Klan rally.  The Klan’s power and influence during this part of history is hard to underestimate.  In 1915, twelve years before Donald Trump’s father was arrested, Birth of a Nation became the first film to ever be screened at the White House by an adoring Woodrow Wilson, whose quotes on white supremacy made it into later cuts of the film.  Both Warren Harding and Harry Truman may have also briefly dabbled with relationships with the Klan, as did other prominent business leaders, celebrities, and public figures.

I’ve seen no other record of Fred Trump engaging in racist rhetoric or endorsing hate groups elsewhere in his career. So there is a possibility that his involvement with the group was what one might call a youthful mistake.    The late Senator Robert Byrd, another prominent public figure with Klan ties, had a spotty relationship to civil rights for years, but by the end of his career became one of the NAACP’s strongest advocates and consistently called his membership in the Klan the biggest mistake of his life.  However, it’s possible to speculate, and not unreasonable given what came after, that Donald Trump was raised in a household where white supremacy was second nature and where hatred of ethnic or minority groups was commonplace.

Fred Trump’s real estate business was a resounding success.  He scored contracts to a number of high profile projects.  This included some genuinely important work building low-income apartment housing in the Bronx and Queens, creating affordable spaces in the big apple for immigrant, black, and other working class communities.  His son Donald began working at the firm in 1968 and, as was the style at the time, was groomed to become president of Trump Management Corp. only five years later.    Fred Trump retained control of part of the company, but father and son split their interest.  Fred would continue his work in the Bronx and Queens while Donald would take Manhattan.

In 1941 in nearby Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders was born to Jewish immigrants, his father lucky enough to be the only sibling to emigrate to America in time to avoid the Nazi invasion of Poland.   His father did not have a massive corporation to bequeath to him.  He sold paint.  Bernie Sanders would have to work his way up, attending the more low-cost Brooklyn College for two years before transferring to the more prestigious University of Chicago.  Trump too was a transfer student, starting at Fordham and then moving on to the University of Pennsylvania to finish up in Wharton’s undergraduate business program.  At the time, Chicago and Wharton were both renowned as being first-in-class for the two programs the future presidential candidates would study in, political science and business respectively.    

Strangely enough, the two men would also face their first serious challenge in a similar terrain, one that crisscrossed the intersection of politics, business, and race relations.  In 1962, Bernie Sanders the young man, Chairman of the social action committee of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE, a radical chapter of the University of Chicago’s NAACP presence), organized sit-ins to protest the discriminatory housing practices of the University’s off-campus housing rentals.  Black students were being told that housing was unavailable while concurrently white students in the exact same circumstances were being offered places to rent.   The sit-ins lasted 15 days and ended with University officials reluctantly allowing CORE members to study segregation and weigh in with suggestions.  Not an overwhelming victory, but a marked strike in the battle against segregation.

Eleven years later, the cultural landscape had changed greatly, which is not to say that America was a bastion of racial harmony.    Those thinking that the deep south was the last major holdout in desegregation into the 1970s are sorely mistaken.   In 1973, a racial discrimination in housing lawsuit was brought against the Trump Management Corp.  Similar to what was taking place at the University of Chicago over a decade prior, potential black tenants found that listings had mysteriously been filled when they went to look at them, but white tenants were able to rent these apartments free of hassle. 

To defend his case, Trump hired Roy Cohn as his lawyer.  If Cohn’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s something of an archvillain of history.   Although he’s largely a footnote in this story, it’s worth stating that Trump chose to defend himself from discrimination claims by hiring the guy who proudly executed the Rosenbergs, initiated the Lavender scare expunging gays from government alongside his colleagues J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy, and then became one of the earliest high profile (closeted) gay men to die from AIDS in 1985 (Tony Kushner even made him into a character in his Angels in America play).  At Cohn’s behest, Trump countersued the U.S. Government for wrongful litigation, a claim that a federal judge promptly threw out.   The best the government could do though was to settle for a sizable sum in 1975 without Trump ever admitting fault.  However, the lawsuit did not die there.  A few years later, it was dredged up again when it was alleged that Trump continued to discriminate and was not complying with the terms of the suit.

While Sanders would temper his radicalism for more of an outsider-from-within approach to establishment politics, Trump too would learn from his civil rights challenge and began to master the art of the phony lawsuit.  Throughout the 80s and 90s, he defrauded New York City of millions of dollars in public money.  Many noble civil servants fought back, but Trump’s high priced friends and bankrolled politicians largely gave him what he wanted.  At a time of recessions, mass unemployment, spiraling crime rates, the drug crisis and the burgeoning HIV epidemic, a time when the needy could have severely used the aid, Trump used bankruptcy and other legal loopholes to rake in millions off the backs of New York taxpayers.   He’d use power and influence to win city contracts and then refuse to complete them until he could blackmail the municipal authorities into agreeing to his conditions, including ludicrous public subsidies to his already massively profitable real estate business.  Given carte blanche to build up midtown in the 80s, Trump was sued numerous times for harassing tenants and letting buildings slide into ruin so he could tear them down and replace them with hotels and high rises. 

Trump likes to present himself like he was an easy mark, a moving target because of his wealth and infamy and will always be quick to point out how unsuccessful many of the suits against him were.  But there’s a clear pattern in each of them, a man of enormous power and influence stepping on the disadvantaged to clear way for a new gentrified, upper-caste Manhattan.  With Roman-esque indulgence, he gilded his buildings in gaudy splotches of gold to intimidate the rabble and entrance the investor class.   

In one instance, the king of Casinos sued the New York Lottery on the grounds that their video Quick Draw game would put an undue burden on the welfare state.  One could find plenty of people who sympathized with Trump’s sentiment, but the message was clear; gambling is a luxury of the monied and the peasants need to be protected from themselves.  Apart from that, this was largely seen as a business move, Trump being leery of seeing legalized gambling move to New York after his Atlantic City casinos had already started to lose money to the Indian casinos that had moved into Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

For someone who takes U.S. identity very seriously, Trump has certainly had a share of nasty things to say over the years about those for whom America is actually their birth rite.   Trump went on a rampage in the 1990s, using his lobbying powers to argue against tribal sovereignty to protect his casino empire against competition.   He persistently harassed the Pequots, owners of the Foxwoods Casinos, by insisting that they were not really Native Americans and no such tribe ever existed.   He ran brutal, insulting smear campaigns against the Mohawk people to stop a casino from being built in the Catskills, including ads in the local papers that depicted them as violent, junkie, smugglers and implying that if the casinos were allowed an influx of drugs would follow.   He was quoted as saying  "One of my executives told me the only good thing about the Indian reservations is that we don't see (crime figures) anymore." (Anquoe, Bunty. “Trump slams Tribal Sovereignty”. Indian Country Today. 20 Oct 1993)

"I've got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! “  Trump once also said with disapproval as quoted in a book written by the former COO of Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City.  “I hate it...Laziness is a trait in Blacks. It really is. I believe that. It's not anything they can control."  Though Trump had carefully resigned these comments to private conversations throughout his career, he couldn’t resist using the institutionally embedded fears of white society to his advantage.   

Never was this more apparent than during the infamous Central Park jogger case of 1989.  The case came about when a VP of the Salomon Brothers Investing Banking firm was brutally raped and assaulted while jogging through Central Park one morning, leaving her in a coma for roughly a year.  Five suspects were arrested quickly, all of them either Black or Hispanic and teenaged.  Before the case even went to trial, Trump took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for New York to “Bring Back the Death Penalty”.  The fact that the alleged perpetrators were minors did little to deter Trump, who in a show of pre-Twitter fury, announced “Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”  The ad was filled with all the popular code words for equating minorities with some kind of subhuman criminal underclass.  Years later, DNA evidence and the confession of a serial rapist who chanced upon one of the accused exonerated all of the young men, but not before they had each served several years and had their lives destroyed by the case.  Trump rejected the decision to acquit and published an op-ed in the NY Daily News insinuating that they may still be guilty.

Based just on this aggressive stance and his renunciation of Mexicans as “rapists”, one might think Trump were a chivalrous champion of women’s autonomy.  Shockingly, this is not the case.   In addition to the litany of sexist remarks lobbed at reporters, colleagues, celebrities, and others, there’s the whole matter of his former wife Ivana Trump.  During the messy divorce proceedings of the early 90s, a deposition proclaimed that Ivana told confidantes that Trump had raped her.  The incident describes a “violent assault” in which Trump pulls out giant clumps of his wife’s hair and then assumedly forces himself on her.    When this was publicized, Trump responded by calling the author of the book in which the story appeared as an “unattractive guy who is a vindictive and jealous person”. 

Not content to toss around petty insults, Trump sent an army of lawyers over to Ivana.  What proceeded after that is up for speculation, but given the history of how rape allegations against powerful men historically pan out it’s likely that she was “convinced” to respond by denouncing the allegations in the book.  Even after what was surely a massive intimidation effort, her sentiments , which were sued into an addendum of the book Lost Tycoon, still come off like someone describing a sexual assault; “As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent.  I referred to this as a ‘rape’, but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense”.  IE, she won’t be pressing charges against the man who yanks out her hair, smacked her around, and then (consensually?) aggressively fucked her. 

Their divorce was even granted on the grounds of “cruel and inhuman treatment” and Ivana was barred from discussing her marriage to Trump without permission by way of a gag order.  When asked about this years later by The Daily Beast, who dug the issue up from the archives, Trump’s lawyer flippantly (and falsely) replied “by the very definition you can’t rape your spouse”.

Trump even once suggested that Mike Tyson be able to essentially buy his way out of his rape charge by paying millions of dollars to rape victims in exchange for jail time.  Well, Trump said that, but then later said it wasn’t what he meant.  Like, you couldn’t do it all the time.  Just in this one special instance.  And sure, he’s happy Tyson’s in jail.  Because when Donald Trump says it isn’t rape, it’s not rape.  And when Donald Trump says it’s not an aristocracy purchasing special rights, it’s just one special time in which assets can be turned into bribes to victims of sexual assault to keep silent.    Perhaps as payback, Tyson recently endorsed Trump.

Or there was that time when Donald Trump tweeted “26,000 unreported sexual assults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”, suggesting that the natural inclination of every male is to rape whenever they can get away with it.  Or perhaps he was just talking about the men in the military. It’s difficult to tell, but there’s really no good angle you can put on this, or the fact that the tweet is still up there, still searchable by a major candidate for the highest office of the land. 

Trump’s Twitter is instructive at examining the id stream of consciousness of entitled white privilege, be it through his support of the birther movement, his retweets of blatant white nationalists, his soft approval of various international tyrants, his repetition of conspiratorial anti-Muslim myths, and more.   But it’s important to focus on what is now being considered a pre-history of the candidates specifically because of the long-term effects that our collective cultural amnesia seems to have brought upon us. 

The media seems to renew its shock at Trump’s proven bigotry at every pass, the cycle of which has admittedly accelerated in the algorithmic infotainment.  However, there should be nothing outlandish or baffling about new statements in which Trump wants to deport 11 million immigrants or ban Muslims from re-entering the country after visiting the Middle East.  It falls perfectly in line with someone who has been groomed in the doctrine of white male upper class privilege and has exhibited a history of white supremacy and sexism throughout his career.  Ta-Nehisi Coates recently stated “It really isn’t too much to say, if you’re going to govern a country, you should know its history”.  And it’s also true that if you’re going to choose a candidate to govern a country, you should know their history.

I only had knowledge of a few of the above biographical tidbits when NBC announced that they’d be giving him a show over a decade ago, which was hard to stomach at the time, even harder as it gained credence and appeal in popular culture.  It should have disgusted nearly all of us, but we were caught in the whirlwind of culture’s trajectory, high off of seeing a self-branded Rand-ian ubermensch “Winner” stomp on “Losers” and declare them “fired”.  It was an abusive, disgusting term when this became normative.  From Karl Rove to Simon Cowell to Tucker Max to fat-shaming shows, Trump, absent any context, must have not seemed to be the most hideous monster among us.

Trump has even played this to his advantage at times.  In 2000, he was running in the primary as the potential Reform Party candidate and presented as a less crazy counterpoint to the unequivocally racist Pat Buchanan (who himself became a correspondent on MSNBC as Trump’s reality show took off).  Dana Milbank of the New Republic followed him around for part of his campaign:

“As part of his California trip, Trump toured the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where he was led from one disturbing display to another: hate speech, Bosnia, Rwanda, the civil rights struggle, the Holocaust. But Trump seemed detached, focusing his attention on the presentation rather than the content. Shown a video of a racial confrontation, he remarked: "Good actors." He spent an hour or so wandering around the exhibits, muttering "fabulous" and "unbelievable" and "brilliant execution" and "extraordinary" and "outstanding." The mood was occasionally broken by Roger Stone's telephone, which played the "Grande Valse" whenever there was a call.

After a guide asked the TV cameras to leave, Trump quickened his pace, galloping through the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust in about three minutes. Rejoined by the cameras, Trump slowed down and was handed a guest book to sign. He paused thoughtfully, as if searching for the perfect sentiment, then scribbled two words in the book: "great work!" He underlined "great" three times and dotted his exclamation point with a loop. He then contrasted his own tolerance with the "racist" views of his Reform opponent, Buchanan, whom he linked to Hitler. But even here Trump sounded like a developer. He marveled that Hitler came to power "so brilliantly." Fabulous! Great work, Adolf! “

Pols continue to act in puzzlement over Trump’s success and act as if we had no way to see him coming, but not only should Trump’s shift into lite-fascism not be surprising, neither should his support.  It’s exactly the types of things all of us polite liberals find so horrifying about Trump that his supporters adore.  They are aware of the hate and find it refreshing, which is why his approval rating is so high on sites like Stormfront.  This is what happens when you actively choose to forget or misremember macroaggressions and ignore microaggressions as they occur.  We’ve trained him to be this way by allowing him to get away with it all and remain a figure of public fascination. 

He has been sued dozens of times and frivolously wasted courtroom time with his own baseless lawsuits countless times, yet he’s never seen a jail cell. Like all other things, he demands our attention and we’ve given it to him.  Trump is a clown and a villain, yes.  But his clownery is our shame, and his villainy is our history.  Only in choosing a different future can we ever truly rid ourselves of him and his ilk.  

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