THE MASTER BUILDER
I'm getting used to being shocked every day by a headline in the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, or any of the other major outlets I get on my computer. Up until now my head would knock back and I would begin to think of the disintegration of the Weimar Republic, the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the implosion of Venezuela or Brazil as possible parallels to the chaos in Washington. My head would shake, my mind would go numb for a moment, and I could think of nothing to say in response. Except to think, "This is out of my control; what can I do about it?"
But that was then. After twenty more such abrogations of common sense, I began to feel a creeping irony in my life. I was getting used to being blindsided, to having things suddenly float up instead of down when I opened my fingers. I began to sense that novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits, even Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Borges' Ficciones were not making things up. South American writers had been exploring another hemisphere of sense opened up by a century and more of revolution, upheaval, and political corruption. When the leaders tremble, the mortal earth they rule over begins to convulse and crack open to reveal some vast Dantean underworld of repressed longings.
Trump's origins spring, as many have observed, from the irrational extreme of capitalism in New York, the energies that have flowed unimpeded in creating the skyline of Manhattan ever since the Flat Iron building arose at the start of the last century. After that, shapes began to push up like some exotic garden from a nightmare. Frank Lloyd Wright asked a reporter if any of those buildings was based on an idea instead of a motive of profound greed to cram as much living space in a limited parcel of land. He called it capitalism gone amok, in so many words, and that kind of madness spawned Trump's imagination. He grew up like Rabelais' Gargantua, on excess and over-indulgence that led him to build towers with sprawling gold-plated penthouses.
No one had quite put into plaster and reinforced concrete the fantasies of Americans who had made their fortunes and longed to manifest their success in a form that would rival the wildest extravagance of the Ottoman emperors. A century before, the Vanderbilts and the Hearsts tried to find the limit of whatever money is with their own ersatz versions of Versailles; others bought Scottish castles and had them reassembled on Long Island, and gilded the Atlantic coastline with palaces that would attract Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. The dream of a largely peasant population that came to America in search of fulfillment was laying the groundwork for Trump's Utopia of the super rich. Disney provided the folk tales of poor girls and boys marrying into the nobility, and Trump would finish the narrative by supplying the gilded estates and gold-lined penthouses to those whose dreams of a New World aristocracy had come true. He was more clever and resourceful than the Wizard of Oz, though both figures have not really constructed a permanent illusion to solidify American character.
The dream of wealth is an old story and lies at the heart of America as a promised land. Streets paved with gold. Oil rushing out of the ground from its own excess. Everyone wanted to believe we were all special, entitled to wealth and maybe a title or two. My aunt Olive paid for a trip back to Norway to lay claim to a long cherished myth that my family owned a castle near Oslo. She found out that we were the swineherds living in a hovel in the back yard. "O lord, won't you by me a Mercedes-Benz," intoned Janis Joplin with false gravity. But the snippet of verse rings true through the many generations that have camped here hoping for good fortune. Trump's grandfather, Freidrich, struck it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush and passed along the money to fuel the real estate empire of the later Trumps.
From the start of Frederick Christ Trump's career, Donald's father, he knew he could make big money building houses and apartments for the middle class, for returning vets and their families. He was throwing up cheap brick houses in Queens by the late 1920s, and after WWII, he saw his main chance in government contracts for housing Navy personnel. He had sewed up the low-income rental markets in Brooklyn and Queens by the 1960s, but not without running into trouble over cooking the books on his Federal Housing loans. Back in 1927, he was accused of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan after joining a protest against the abuse of "Native-born American Protestants" by Catholic priests and the police. Donald came along in 1968 after shoving out his brothers, and became president of his father's Trump Management Company. The other big rival to the real estate market was the Kushner family who had taken over New Jersey as their domain. They were serving up the America Dream with bungalows and a wooden porch, just enough to make one think he or she had arrived finally.
When you are a dream peddler like the Trumps, you learn to pitch your wares in the language of grocery hucksters and gadget sellers. It was the language of Yiddish ghettoes, where Donald's father had carved out his fortune. The art of the deal depended on luring in the gullible first, then the skeptics would follow. Your job was to move goods, not to question their use or value. You turned cement into money, and moved on. There was no such thing as a society involved in the transactions, unless of course you happened to catch the ear of progressive politicians eager to house vast numbers of people in a post-war urban economy.
When the fortunes of the middle class began to sour in the 1970s, the wealthy became the class to cajole and flatter with symbols of their status. Donald Trump focused on Manhattan and ignored the other boroughs; here was the land of the super rich, of old ladies clipping coupons and enjoying their twelve and fifteen room digs with servants and caterers keeping them comfortable. Demi Moore and Bruce Willis recently put one of their sprawling apartments on the market with a price tag of seventy million dollars. Yachts were going for fifty and even one hundred million by the turn of the century. Life was good and Trump was eager to expand his empire. The White House was coming available and he made his pitch to the same public that had been buying Trump goods and promises for the past eight decades. Reality seemed drab and uneventful after a Trump rally, where everything was measured in hyperbole and boasting. He was selling square feet of imaginary freedom and security, turning on lights that didn't have bulbs or wires, just the glow of his poetic tongue and the ardor of his self-assurance.
When Hillary spoke, it all sounded like the whining of a self-doubter, someone who knew the difficulty of solving America's problems, from employment to health care to pollution and wars abroad. When he spoke, everyone was offered the chance to be great again, to forget there was such a thing as inertia and despair, of resistance and pain and medical bills. It was a contest between a prosaic wonk and a snake-oil salesman, and escapism was always a more potent gospel than was the mundane prescription of two aspirins and a lot of hard slogging.
Trump knows the American soul well. He sees its hunger and loneliness; he understands the immense dread Americans feel about being left behind, about being labeled ordinary and sentenced to a life of hard labor. College was the Trump penthouse of an earlier generation; get a degree and you can join the white collar elites powering America from their desks in a sky scraper. When college imploded from student debt, the new dream was to throw out the drab rules of a nation struggling to compete against world markets and to imagine a new world coming, the one that had filled the minds on the Mayflower four centuries ago - a chance to dream of miracles and magic, of fairy tales about kissing frogs and finding the gates to secret gardens.
We are a nation of poets and dreamers, of fantasists who don't really want to shovel coal or hoe fields, or sweat in the hot summer sun for a subsistence wage. We want to inhale the magic and let our minds glow with the turrets of the Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road. And there is Trump, whose very hair is the color of those cobbles Dorothy traced to her own dream. He is there with his mouth full of poetry and contradiction, a man who can't make anything come true but loves to dazzle and inebriate all those who want to hear him cast his spells.