Like many of you, the outcome of the election stunned me. I have watched with interest the events of the last two weeks and have waited until today to offer some thoughts about “The Donald’s” victory. I watched the coverage of the meeting between President-elect Trump and President Obama last week only to see the forced pleasantries between men who characterized each other as something slightly lower than pond scum (no offense meant to the biologists who study phycology or algology) 48 hours earlier. I have watched the “talking heads” on television tie themselves in knots trying to figure out how and why they went so wrong. Newspaper editorial boards, pundits, and pollsters have eaten a lot of crow during the last two weeks, but we are still far from consensus on why Trump won.
The irony of the election is that supporters of “The Donald” came out in droves to support a candidate who promised change in Washington. A man who was beholden to neither party, who is a supreme narcissist, and is an accomplished huckster. He pushed a populist, anti-establishment, anti-elitist message that resonated with well over 50M voters. So why is this ironic, you may ask? To answer that question, I offer a thumbnail sketch of our President-elect.
Friedrich Trump (1869-1918)
While President-elect Trump does not come from “old money” in the sense of John D. Rockefeller, John Pierpont Morgan, or Andrew Carnegie, he is a man of privilege. Trump comes from a long line of extraordinarily successful salesmen. In 1885, 16-year-old Friedrich Trump, “The Donald’s” grandfather emigrated from Germany to the US. Even though he spoke no English, Friedrich found work as a barber only days after arriving in New York. He had been trained as a barber in Germany and found that his trade was easily transportable to his new home.
It did not take long before Friedrich found New York too limiting and insufficiently challenging, so he made his way to the West Coast in search of new opportunities; by 1891 he owned and operated a restaurant in Seattle, but he had still greater ambitions. Frederick recognized that the discovery of gold in British Columbia created an unprecedented opportunity for a man with his skills. The elder Trump moved from Seattle and his successful restaurant to Bennett, British Columbia, where he opened a combined saloon/tented hotel/brothel/casino catering to gold miners during the Klondike gold rush (1896 – 1899). Bennett was a town known for building boats used by miners traveling up the Yukon and Klondike Rivers to the area near Dawson Creek, BC. Along with a partner, the elder Trump opened The Arctic Restaurant and Hotel offering finest dining and lodging in the Klondike. He opened another establishment, the White Horse Restaurant and Inn in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in June 1900. At its peak, the restaurant was serving 3,000 meals per day. By April 1901 the local government announced the prohibition of gambling, prostitution, and liquor, which, of course, was the death knell for his business ventures. Shortly thereafter Trump sold his business and left the Yukon.
Trump returned to Germany, after his Klondike adventure, a wealthy man. He quickly married a young woman who lived next door to his parents, and soon thereafter moved back to New York City. In 1904, to his surprise, the German government revoked his citizenship for emigrating to another country to avoid military service. Back in New York, Friedrich worked as a barber, and a restaurant and hotel manager. In 1908 Friedrich entered the real estate business, buying a building and a small tract of land in Queens. He prospered in real estate, but in May 1918 he became one of the first victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.
Frederick Christ “Fred” Trump (1905-1999)
Fred was only 13 at the time of his father’s death, but he quickly followed in his father’s footsteps. Fred Trump was already working as a butcher’s delivery boy by age 10. While still in high school, he held down part-time jobs and survived academically by pumping his brainy younger brother, John, who later went on to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At 15 Fred was working as a “horse’s helper” carrying lumber up hills to construction sites because horse-drawn delivery wagons could not climb steep, snow covered roads. At 18, with an $800 ($11,100 in 2015) loan from his mother, Fred build his first house in Woodhaven, New York, and sold it for $7,000 ($97,200 in $2015). [i] Soon afterward he and his mother formally incorporated his father’s real estate projects as Elizabeth Trump & Son. [ii] This was only because Trump was not old enough to sign checks.
In addition to being a perceptive young businessman, Fred had a darker side. He was one of seven men arrested on Memorial Day 1927, in Queens, New York, when the Ku Klux Klan held a march to protest that “Native-born Protestant Americans” were being “assaulted by Roman Catholic police of New York City.” The flyer announcing the march went on to note that” Liberty and Democracy have been trampled upon when native-born Protestant Americans dare to organize to protect one flag, the American flag; one school, the public school; and one language, the English language.”[iii]
Nonetheless by 1933, he won the mortgage service business of a troubled German bank, and by 1938 was bragging in the papers about the “throngs visiting” his developments in Brooklyn. That year, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to him first as a prominent Long Island builder, then as the “Henry Ford of the home-building industry.” His ego grew accordingly.
Almost as soon as President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s, Mr. Trump eagerly sought to make use of its loan subsidies. “The working classes have been fully awakened as to the benefits of homeownership under the F.H.A. 25-year mortgage plan,” he said at the time. Trump began building single-family houses in Queens which were sold for $3,999.99 each. By the middle of the Great Depression when his construction business slowed, he helped pioneer the concept of supermarkets with the Trump Market in Woodhaven, New York, which advertised “Serve Yourself and Save!”, and become an instant hit.[iv] After only a year Trump sold it to the King Kullen supermarket chain.[v]
Throngs of New Yorkers poured into Coney Island on a sweltering Sunday in July 1939 — shuffling past the rides, hot dog stands and freak shows — only to be confronted by one last spectacle blaring just beyond the surf. The Trump Showboat was a 65-foot yacht outfitted with enormous Trump signs was hard to miss. Its loudspeakers blasted recordings of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” over and over, compelling many sunbathers, reluctant to be seen as unpatriotic, to stand and salute each time the music blared forth. When swordfish-shaped balloons — redeemable for $25 or $250 toward a new Trump Home — were floated from the Trump Showboat over the beach, bathers nearly rioted as they raced to snatch them up.
The Trump Show Boat promotions displeased the Parks Department, slapping him with a summons for advertising without a license. Jeanette G. Brill, Brooklyn’s first female magistrate, imposed only a $2 fine on Trump’s advertising gimmick. Trump boasted to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle that “woman judges are far more sympathetic to the cause of F.H.A. housing and far more appreciative of novel advertising ideas and good music than are the men judges.” By all accounts the Trump Show Boat was an advertising success. Fred Trump won again.
The outbreak of WWII saw Fred Trump move to Virginia, where he built more than 1,000 apartments for the Navy. His projects housed thousands of G.I.’s and made him rich and powerful. Some tenants loved Mr. Trump for his solid, well-priced apartments; others loathed him for his suspected exclusion of blacks from his properties. Woody Guthrie, a tenant of Mr. Trump’s Beach Haven apartments, wrote “Old Man Trump” in 1950.
“I suppose Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line…
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
Fred Trump was a master salesman and understood what people were looking for in an affordable house. To demonstrate to potential homeowners the futility of renting, he wallpapered a model home in rent receipts. In newspaper advertisements for his Shore Haven apartments in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he referred to himself under an illustration of the Statue of Liberty as “Fred C. Trump, acting as a free and rugged individualist to meet the basic need for shelter.”
Trump was investigated by a U.S. Senate Banking Committee in 1954 for profiteering from public contracts, including overstating charges on one development by $3.7 M.[vi]In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, Trump testified that builders would not have built apartments under an expired post-war loan insurance program if regulations had set inflexible limits on loans issued by the FHA. In other words, Trump received inflated loans vastly exceeding construction costs, but was never convicted of a crime.
Fred Trump, with his thick mustache and hair combed back, was a stern, formal man who insisted on wearing a tie and jacket at home. A conservative Republican who admired Barry Goldwater, Fred Trump lived a luxurious life in Jamaica Estates, Queens. This was neighborhood where “The Donald” grew up. The Trumps’ 23-room house was distinct, not only for its size but for its ostentatious display of wealth. Seventeen brick steps led up a sloping hill to the entrance, framed by a Colonial-style portico, a stained-glass crest and six white columns. Two Cadillacs were in the driveway, with license plates bearing their owner’s initials, “FCT1” and “FCT2.” [vii] Neighbors recalled that no one had vanity license plates in those days. Unlike most families in their neighborhood, the Trumps had a cook, a chauffeur, an intercom system, and a color television, a rarity at the time.
Donald John Trump (1946 – )
By any definition, Donald John Trump is an elitist. Trump attended The Kew-Forest School, a private, college preparatory school in Forest Hills, Queens, where his father was on the Board of Trustees. The school must have appealed to his father’s concern over social status, in part because girls were required to wear skirts, and boys, ties, and blazer. Clearly, “The Donald” never had to deal with the unwashed masses attending state supported or public schools. At the Kew Forest School, Trump the younger was trouble from an early age. He was among a group of boys who pulled girls’ hair, passed notes, talked out of turn. threw spitballs and played racing chairs with desks. He is remembered as athletic, mischievous, and one who never acknowledged his mistakes.[viii] In his memoir, The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote that his focus as a youngster was “creating mischief.” As a second-grader, he boasted that he gave his music teacher a black eye because “I didn’t think he knew anything about music, and I almost got expelled.” However, interviews with his classmates at the time failed to verify Trump’s boast.
During his elementary school years Trump spent time honing his aggressive skills and nurturing his inflated ego. It is safe to say that Trump was a teacher’s worst nightmare, and among his schoolmates he was well known as a trouble maker. In fact, he spent so much time in detention that the punishment became known as “DT’s” – short for Donny Trump among his classmates. He has also called, “The Trumpet, and “Flat Top” by friends.
What he lacked in academic achievement and decorum, he partially compensated with his athletic ability. Trump’s best sport was baseball. By sixth grade, his power as a right-handed hitter was sufficient that fielders shifted to left field when he batted. Along with his athletic ability, he also displayed his temper. Trump played catcher, and once after tagging out a playmate from the neighborhood, Trump took his bat, a coveted Adirondack, and smashed it on the pavement. The bat cracked but Trump did not apologize.
By age 12, Trump left the cozy confines of Jamaica Estates to explore a distant land of soaring, exotic promise, Manhattan. He dared not ask his parents for permission to go on any expeditions, as Manhattan was too far and too dangerous. Undaunted, on he went. Exiting the train at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue, Trump explored Central Park’s bucolic recesses, watched African American men play basketball on courts along the East River and observed the panhandlers and hustlers in midtown. Around Times Square, he discovered novelty shops, where he bought stink bombs, hand buzzers and fake vomit — perfect accessories for a player of practical jokes.
On Broadway, “West Side Story” was a smash, and Trump, imagining himself a gang member, bought several switchblade knives to fit the part. Near the end of seventh grade, his father discovered the younger Trump’s large collection of knives purchased on his numerous clandestine trips into the city. Fred decided his son’s behavior warranted a radical change and just months before eighth grade, and he enrolled him in the New York Military Academy, a boarding school 70 miles from Jamaica Estates. His parents hoped “the discipline of the school would challenge his energy in a positive manner.”[ix] His departure from Kew Forest School was a bit of a surprise for his schoolmates, but not so much for his teachers and parents living in the Trump neighborhood, who recognized “The Donald” as an obnoxious, arrogant bully. Many were glad to see him go.
At the NYMA Trump wore a crew cut, a thick wool uniform and awakened each morning to a recording of “Reveille.” Instead of steaks prepared by his family’s cook, Trump dined on meatloaf, spaghetti and something called “mystery mountains,” a stew of deep-fried leftovers remade as meatballs. Instead of his own bathroom, he had to shower with fellow cadets. Instead of his father, Donald’s new taskmaster was Theodore Dobias, a no-nonsense combat veteran who had served in World War II. Dobias believed in strict discipline would slap his cadets with an open hand if they ignored him. In order to encourage appropriate behavior and decorum, Dobias set up a boxing ring, and students with poor grades or disciplinary problems were forced to fight each other.
Much to his parent’s surprise, “The Donald” flourished and he won medals for neatness and took pride in his grades. He also distinguished himself on both the baseball and football teams. To his classmates, Trump was a blend of friendly and cocky. He boasted that his father’s wealth doubled every time he completed a real estate deal.
At times, Trump clashed with his fellow cadets, and in one incident, his roommate. Trump was extremely neat and tidy. “Mr. Meticulous” was a moniker given to him by other cadets. Trump was consistently promoted while at NYMA, and once while conducting an inspection of cadets he found his roommate had not made his bed. Trump tossed the sheets on the floor. His roommate was furious and threw a combat boot at Trump and hit him with a broomstick. Trump responded by trying to push his roommate out a second-floor window, thwarted only by the intervention of two other cadets.
In his senior year, Trump was appointed to the prestigious position of captain of A Company, much to the dismay of cadets who had out ranked him at the end of the junior year. As a leader, he delegated almost all of his tasks to his officers, in particular that of inspection of the cadets. Cadets recall that Trump led in absentia. He would order his officers to keep the cadets in line, and hazing was a practice routinely used to do so. In one incident, a cadet complained to the school administration about being thrown against a wall by a sergeant for being too slow to snap to attention. The administration was embroiled in another serious hazing incident and was sensitive to new allegations of abuse. The academy concluded that Trump had not monitored his officers “as closely as he should have.” The sergeant was demoted and Trump was reassigned from captain to battalion training officer. Trump never admitted that the reassignment was a demotion for allowing the hazing to occur, characterized it as a promotion instead.[x]
Trump went on to attend Fordham University, a Jesuit school in the Bronx, for two years, then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. While at Fordham Trump’s grades at Fordham were “respectable,” but it is puzzling how he was admitted to Penn? An interview with a “friendly” Wharton admissions officer, a classmate of Trump’s older brother, likely enhanced his chances significantly. [xi]
“The Donald” received his Bachelor of Science degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1968, a fact that he is quick to note in interviews and speeches. However, he was not enrolled in the prestigious Wharton MBA program, but he does little to disabuse people of that notion. He was enrolled in the Wharton undergraduate business program. Contrary to Trump, as well as stories in the New York Times in 1973 and 1976 claiming that he graduated at the top of his class, William Geist reported that “the commencement program from 1968 does not list him as graduating with honors of any kind.”[xii] Such is the mendacity of “The Donald.”
“The Donald,” born in 1946, was just as interested in being famous as in being wealthy. His first big coup, the Grand Hyatt hotel, opened in 1980, launching a decade of extravagant acquisitions (including two Atlantic City casinos and the Plaza Hotel) that made “The Donald” a byword for ’80s excess. But Fred’s son wasn’t interested in following in his father’s footsteps, building houses in the boroughs. “The Donald” immediately sought out building projects that were larger and carried higher profiles than his father’s outer-borough apartment blocks. Fred was reluctant at first but eventually backed Donald’s projects in the heart of the New York City.
Donald used the tools and tricks that he learned from his father to identify distressed real-estate properties. With the entirety of New York City sliding toward bankruptcy in the early 70s, there were more than a few such gems available. He was given control of his father Fred’s real estate and construction firm renaming it the Trump Organization in 1971.
Trump’s biggest early deal was rescuing the once-grand Commodore Hotel (named after “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt) from bankruptcy and transforming it into the Grand Hyatt. He bought the option to buy the hotel for $1 in 1977. He spent $100M converting the dowdy Commodore into the glitzy Grand Hyatt. He opened the refurbished hotel in 1980, with the help of a 40-year tax holiday from the City of New York. In 1983, Trump put his stamp on the city with his ostentatious 68-story Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan. The mixed-use skyscraper featured the black glass surfaces and brass trimmings that would become the trademark of most of his later buildings. [xiii]
And so, the story goes. The purpose of this blog was not a history of the Trump family businesses, but to make clear that Donald Trump came from privilege and enjoys more than just a lavish lifestyle, but a reality that has little if anything in common with most of his supporters. It is ironic that President-elect Trump’s appeal was the message that he was an outsider and spoke plainly about the plight of working Americans. There is little to suggest that Trump’s entire presidential campaign was little more than blue smoke and mirrors. To think for a moment that President-elect Trump has ever done a day’s work, like so many that voted for him, is ludicrous. He hasn’t. Even in the direst financial straits during the collapse of his Atlantic City casino and others, Trump continued to live large, using a private helicopter for his commutes, living in the lavish suites, and enjoying all the perks of the life of the rich and famous.
By industry standards, Trump is considered a genius at sales. He is expert at determining what people want to hear and giving it to them. On issue after issue it was clear that Trump relishes the recognition and attention generated by his iconoclastic style. I fear that those so slavishly devoted to the President-elect will be bitterly disappointed when they find that the only thing that Mr. Trump cares about is himself, and secondarily his family.
In sum, President-elect Trump is a made-to-order leader of the party of Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics. Trump is likely to give to the very rich and take from the rest of us. Mr. Trump lives in a separate reality from us mere mortals. He has never known what it was like to do without, or at best live paycheck to paycheck. Garish and excessive are synonymous with Trump name. Never in my lifetime has there been a President-elect with less of an understanding of the real implications of the unequal distribution of wealth here and around the world, than Donald J. Trump. One can only hope that Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is right when she said “There’s something about the office…Something happens when they get in the presidency.”[xiv]
[xi] Elliott, J. (2011). Just what kind of student was Donald Trump? Salon. New York.
[xii] Geist, W. (1984). The expanding empire of Donald Trump. New York Times.