I have lived in New York City since 1977, and so have had a ringside seat for the career of Donald Trump.
He first made a splash in 1980 when he bought the Bonwit Teller building, an old department store on Fifth Avenue. It had some bas-reliefs of art deco goddesses which the Metropolitan Museum was willing to acquire; Trump jack-hammered them to pieces. Capitalism is all about creative destruction, but what then did he create? Trump Tower. The marble atrium looked like a mobster’s toilet, and the doormen wore bearskin caps, as at a Disney World Buckingham Palace. So we knew Trump was vulgar.
Early on he also bought the shuttle that flies hourly between New York and DC or Boston. He did improve it. Under Eastern Airlines, the previous owner, it was a subway in the sky. The stewardesses would trundle a dinged metal cart down the aisles to collect everyone’s payment (this was before 9/11 and the TSA). Under Trump they and the stewards wore brighter uniforms, and there were even refreshments. But after a few years it was no longer the Trump Shuttle — in other words, it flopped. This happened to other Trump projects, both grand — the Trump Plaza, the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City — and under the radar — the steaks, the wine, the university. So we knew Trump was reckless.
In 1989 a young woman jogger was mugged and raped in northern Central Park. Trump took out full-page ads in all the New York papers, calling for the execution of her attackers. Bellicose, but crime truly was spiraling out of control then. So how did he follow up? New York is notably hospitable to politically engaged rich men. They run for office (Lewis Lehrman, Ronald Lauder, Michael Bloomberg), they buy newspapers which serve as their megaphones (Rupert Murdoch, Peter Kalikow, Mort Zuckerman), they support think tanks that can have an impact on policy (all the donors to the Manhattan Institute). Trump did none of these. He gave money to the campaigns of incumbents or sure winners, otherwise zip. So we knew Trump was frivolous.
Throughout his career, there were the wives. The Trump marriage, the Trump break-up, and the subsequent Trump wedding became staples of the New York media. He liked his wives, or at least he liked displaying them. And they were all beautiful. He was a model collector — like Terry Richardson, minus a skill. So we knew Trump was inconstant.
What he was always good at — no, brilliant at — was publicity. If Trump had a pimple, he could turn it into Krakatoa. He could also be funny, in an out-there, Noo Yawk way. During the “Apprentice” years we came to think of him as playing a role. But like many character actors wedded to one character, he became it — or it had been him all along.
Trump knows how to seize attention and ride it, and he found an issue, immigration, which most of his rivals underestimated or misjudged. (Of course he would never actually do what he now says he will — when has he ever? If Jeff Sessions leaves the Senate, he should not become a loan officer in a bank.)
He is our gift to the party, and to the nation, our successor in the new millennium to Alexander Hamilton and the Roosevelts. He is a show, but so are Al Sharpton, Howard Stern, and the Times Square desnudas, and they shouldn’t run for president either.