Thursday, October 04, 2018

Generations of Trumps--and Americans


Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, in July 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, we learn in Bob Woodward’s book Fear, brought the President and his senior advisers into a meeting at the Tank in the Pentagon to discuss post-1945 American foreign policy.  “The great gift of the greatest generation to us,” Mattis said, “is the rules-based, international democratic order,” which brought security, stability, and prosperity. “This is what has kept the peace for 70 years,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added.  Unimpressed, Donald Trump—who was himself 70 at that very moment—shook his head. Later in the meeting he railed against ungrateful NATO allies, threatened to pull US troops out of South Korea, and argued that international trade merely took advantage of the United States.  He left the meeting defiant.

This week, the New York Times published one of the longest news-feature stories in history about the financial relationship between Donald Trump and his father Fred, who was born in 1905 and therefore qualifies as a member of the greatest generation himself.  It turns out that Donald Trump has treated his father’s financial and corporate legacy in the same way that he wants to treat the diplomatic and economic legacy of his parents’ generation.  Having taken advantage of it to become rich himself, he repudiated its basic principles and created an organization based on completely different values.  In so doing he has evidently destroyed the foundations of an extraordinarily successful business, while insisting, all along, that he is one of the great businessmen of all time.  That, essentially, is what he is now doing on the world stage: ripping up the foundations of a stable order, risking disaster not simply for himself but for the nation and the world, and claiming, all along, the status of a political genius.

Whatever his own politics, Fred Trump was a self-made man.  He apparently never attended college and started his construction business in New York in the midst of the Depression at the age of 15.  When he was in his twenties he built houses and a supermarket.  Then his career as a builder became intertwined with major developments in American life. He built barracks and apartments near shipyards on the East Coast during the Second World War, and after it was over, he built more middle-class houses and apartments with government help.   Fred Trump—like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life—was providing homes for his contemporaries and their growing families, and he was well-rewarded for it.   And like so many fathers of his generation, he spoiled his own five children materially.  Thanks to him, the Times tells us, his second son Donald—evidently his favorite—was a millionaire by the age of 8.  Two decades later, it turns out, Fred’s wealth allowed Donald to launch his career, and for the rest of Fred’s life, it allowed him to continue it, providing a safety net to bail the younger Trump out when, as so often happened, one of his more speculative moves went awry.

Comparing Donald’s real estate empire to his father’s can easily make one think of the contrast between two very popular television shows:  All in the Family, which like so many programs from the 1950s through the 1970s, focused on a lower middle-class family, and Dallas, which titillated the audience with a portrayal of profligate, super-rich Boomers in the 1980s.  Donald Trump wasted no time on housing for ordinary people.  He took advantage of the Reagan-era wealth explosion and a freer business environment to build luxury apartments and hotels.  Later, instead of providing for the most fundamental needs of working Americans like his father—the need for a house or an apartment—he tried to get richer by taking advantage of their addiction to gambling—an addiction which he, in his own way, seems to share.   He eventually turned himself, not his buildings, into the product that he was selling, enabling him to move into television and then into politics.  And he managed to move his role within his family onto the national stage.  He appears to have been the son who could get away with anything, confident that his father would bail him out when necessary.  In the same way he survived repeated bankruptcies in the 1990s by convincing banks that they needed his name to recoup more of their disastrous loans, and he now occupies the White House thanks to a political following that will forgive him for anything.

Sadly, the story of Fred Trump, his son Donald, and the two very different Americas they represent reflects a much broader contrast between the GI or Greatest generation on the one hand and the Boom on the other.  Boomers grew up in an era of large families and expanding infrastructure, including schools and universities, roads and bridges, and hospitals.  Their parents paid for all this with the help of high income tax rates (and high estate taxes, which Fred Trump, the Times shows, managed to avoid paying for the benefit of his children.)  The stable economy of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected tough regulation of Wall Street as well.  Today, after 25 years of Boomer rule, many public school teachers do not make enough money to live on. University education costs at least three times as much as it did in the 1960s, even allowing for inflation, students have to mortgage their futures to pay for it, which Boomers did not. Infrastructure is falling apart. Right wing Boomers unreservedly praise free markets and the benefits they have reaped with them.  Left wing Boomers seem to think that all is well as long as women and minorities claim their fair share of elite positions within our society.  Neither are meeting the needs of the mass of the American people.  In foreign policy, the last GI President, George H. W. Bush, left the nation with unprecedented power and prestige, only to see his own son squander it in an endless, useless crusade for democracy in the Middle East.  Now President Trump is turning the US into a rogue state whose closest allies are Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Rather than extend their parents’ and grandparents’ legacy, the Boom generation has largely squandered it to enrich themselves.  Eventually we may find out that Donald Trump’s share of his father’s fortune is now gone.  Meanwhile, Trump’s extraordinary presidency reminds us, every day, of the collapse of our political life in the era of the Boom generation.


7 comments:

Bozon said...

Professor
Crazy as Trump in many ways seems to be, I side with him on some fundamental things.

Once again, as Thomas Friedman noted, some things are true even if Trump believes them.

Here are a couple of very big ones, from your post itself.

I side emphatically with Trump and against the likes of Mattis and Tillerson, for a lot of different very good very detailed reasons spelled out on my site.

The LIEO is dead as a mackerel, for reasons these apologists do not want to discuss.

The question these apologists should really be asking themselves is this: If the LIEO Order has been so great, then why are we finally, after 70 years, where we are today regarding both prosperity, and as importantly, security?

"If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"

Or: Why didn't Trump play by the LIEO rules?

Or did he?

Another very important point no one here wants to address, but all this discussion of Trump and his father evading taxes, is and has long been in the LIEO just good sharp international business practice, not mainly (but possibly significant) fraud, or corruption:

"Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, in July 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, we learn in Bob Woodward’s book Fear, brought the President and his senior advisers into a meeting at the Tank in the Pentagon to discuss post-1945 American foreign policy. “The great gift of the greatest generation to us,” Mattis said, “is the rules-based, international democratic order,” which brought security, stability, and prosperity. “This is what has kept the peace for 70 years,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added. Unimpressed, Donald Trump—who was himself 70 at that very moment—shook his head. Later in the meeting he railed against ungrateful NATO allies, threatened to pull US troops out of South Korea, and argued that international trade merely took advantage of the United States. He left the meeting defiant...." DK



"...It turns out that Donald Trump has treated his father’s financial and corporate legacy in the same way that he wants to treat the diplomatic and economic legacy of his parents’ generation. Having taken advantage of it to become rich himself, he repudiated its basic principles and created an organization based on completely different values...." DK

All the best



Ed Boyle said...

Serious journalism. NYT should deserve the Pulitzer. Al Capone couldn't be caught on anything but tax evasion. Now to be completely fair the Times should do the same to the Clintons for their Foundation, Uranium One and cheating Bernie of the presidency. Then we would have real democracy and the paper of record. All should land behind bars. Fair is fair.

Bruce Wilder said...

I can only second Bozon. If Mattis and Tillerson were giving Trump pious lectures on the value of the liberal international economic order (LIEO) aka "the rules-based, international democratic order", then they were more delusional than Trump.
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I highly recommend Aaron Timms' article on Baffler, This Is Not A Blip
What’s wrong with what liberals say is wrong with the world
as a corrective.
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https://thebaffler.com/latest/this-is-not-a-blip-timms
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As you document in your post above, the domestic order bequeathed by the New Deal and the post-war Liberal Consensus has been dismantled to give tax cuts to billionaires. Ditto for the international order.
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Trump, like populists elsewhere, is a response to the dissatisfaction felt by the lower orders with the results of this dismantling, which Clinton, Bush2 and Obama all played a large part in delivering. In many respects, Trump, again like populists elsewhere, is more neoliberal than the establishment neoliberals. He's not an alternative any self-respecting liberal or progressive could like; the question is how long are liberals and progressives going to go along with pretending a politically impotent centrist Democratic establishment isn't playing for the billionaire nihilists, too. We got here pretending Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are not monsters; they are monsters, and the operative question is where do we find an alternative to the Trump monster, 'cause they and their like ain't it and have never been it.

Gloucon X said...

“Donald Trump wasted no time on housing for ordinary people. He took advantage of the Reagan-era wealth explosion and a freer business environment to build luxury apartments and hotels. Later, instead of providing for the most fundamental needs of working Americans like his father he tried to get richer by taking advantage of their addiction to gambling---”

By the 1980s, nobody in NYC was building the kind of garden style middle-class family housing that Fred Trump had built 30-60 years earlier. The price of land was too high, and such people were moving in droves to the suburbs, the exurbs, and the Sunbelt. You can't blame a single generation for a world that is physically changing and growing more crowded. When physical reality changes, society changes. The stable industrial based economy of the mid-20th century changed due to changes in technology and new global realities that were hardly under the control of a single generation.

Live from Portsmouth said...

I found this piece helpful, refreshing, and deeply depressing. Helpful because of its clear link between postmodernism and a particular strand of feminism. Refreshing because it makes a case for an older kind of liberalism in which ideas of equality, originally limited to white men, were universalized to extend to all. Depressing because the old liberalism, while not dead yet, has been deconstructed with no alternative left but identity politics, which would simply be a new form of tyranny. No solution is clear, but it is always worthwhile to be aware of the problem.

Unknown said...

Following up my comments on Postmortem, which I now have read -- and reread chapters on bullet III and How the Frame Occurred. I must say you have proved what I always believed: that particular bullet, with a left hand twist, was a substitute. Your careful analysis of the eye witnesses and the autopsy results I find most convincing. You've managed to prove what I thought could never be proved, and you used the trial evidence to do it. I'm unaware of any previous author, including the exhaustive writings of Mr. Ehrmann, putting together such a coherent description of the events of April 15, 1920. As much as I had read about this case I was never certain about how many gunmen fired shots or who fired the fatal shot.
Around the mid-seventies, when my uncle Albert Cacciagrani (1918 - 1980)was at my home in Readville, I asked him about Ferruccio Coacci who worked at the Norwood Foundry -- less than two miles from my current home in Westwood. My uncle had worked in foundries prior to WWII. After the war, with a partner, he began a foundry in Canton. Coacci, I believe, was a sander. I asked my uncle, who was a hands-on owner, if Coacci could have been absent from work without the boss knowing it. He said, "Absolutely not." He said it was a key job that would have to have been filled by somebody. A minor detail, but I thought you might like to know.
The most startling revelation to me is your chapter on the .32 H & R revolver that had belonged to Beradelli. To learn that the prosecution knew months before the trial that Vanzetti's .38 H & R was not taken from the payroll guard offends me greatly.
It had always been my theory that Van Amburgh fashioned the substitute bullet III after the trial but by 1923. I based this mostly on that by the later date he was now certain bullet III had been fired through Sacco's gun. I had to reread your chapter on this subject before I became convinced that your theory is a lot better than mine.
When I first got into this case in about 1969, I had the attitude that the jury had said they were guilty and appeals courts and the Lowell Commission had upheld their verdict. Although of Italian descent myself I had no predisposition to believe they were innocent. Mr. Francis' book left me confused. Mr. Ehrmann's book led me ultimately to believe in their innocence. I wrote to Mr. Francis and he kindly supplied me with some information that convinced me that trolley conductor Cole was a liar. Mr. Ehrmann and his wife still lived in Brookline back then. I considered writing to him but never did.
Thank you for the determined and intelligent work on the vitals of this case. I am now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that both men were innocent.
Although I am both old and white, a agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the current state of our Union. I registered as a Democrat for my first election in 1958. I've never had cause to change.

David Kaiser said...

Dear Unknown:

I attempted to publish both of your comments but something seems to have gone wrong with the first one--I don't know what. Could you resubmit your information about yourself? We live quite nearby, by the way.

I appreciate your kind words about the book and I'm glad people are still discovering it. The credit for the bullet II analysis goes to my dear friend Bill Young who worked out the eyewitness testimony and the significance of Magrath's autopsy, and noticed how careful Williams was not to let Magrath see the bullets at the same time. My research assistant Michael Levitin found the grand jury report in which Magrath said he thought all the bullets had come from the same weapon. That was one of the most amazing moments of my life.
I visited the crime scene in the 1980s before the shopping center was built, and I met a man, whose name I no longer remember, who had been working in a newstand near the station on April 15, 1920, and saw the getaway car escaping.
You can reach me at KaiserD2@gmail.com.