Don’t have time to read this now? Scroll down for a link to this Thursday’s virtual event with journalist Andrea Bernstein.

As early as 1987, rumor had it that Donald Trump was considering a presidential bid. In October 1987, as both parties began to assemble the 1988 field, Trump took a trip to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where a crowd bearing “Trump for President” signs greeted him. He decided not to run — then, and at least three other times before he launched a seemingly implausible national campaign in 2016, billing himself as a political outsider.

But that’s not true, and unusual as his presidential bid was, Trump began laying the political foundation for his 2016 campaign when he executed his first major development deal, midtown Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, in the mid-1970s. Ultimately, as the house of cards that Trump’s real estate and hotel business became in the next two decades expanded into New Jersey, it was perhaps not just fate that Trump’s most ambitious and capable child, Ivanka, would marry Jared Kushner, the heir apparent to that state’s most powerful real estate corporation, in October 2009.

I am only about a hundred pages into Andrea Bernstein’s American Oligarchs: the Kushners, the Trumps, and The Marriage of Money and Power (W.W. Norton, 2020), but she is already making me see this well-known story differently. So far, there are two things I can definitively say about the assertions I have made above. One is that the crowd of Trump partisans who greeted the developer in Portsmouth were almost surely paid to do so by political operative Roger Stone; the second is that Trump’s real estate ventures had given him a vivid tutorial about political life. Those lessons downplayed what historians like me habitually think about: how an administrative state works, why conservatism and liberalism represent different visions for human progress, and who moves big political ideas.

Sometimes I think that many of us spent fruitless decades talking about when the “Age of Reagan” began and ended (yes, I teach a course with that title), and it was the wrong paradigm altogether. What if it was the Age of Trump all along, and the carnival that swirls around the man was staged to conceal that?

It is tempting to regard Donald Trump as only a huckster and a grifter, in part because that marks him as politically deviant. But by indulging that view of his incompetence, we the miss the decades of toughness and ruthlessness in the rock `em sock `em world of New York’s political and criminal underbelly that prepared him for the presidency we have endured. We miss the fact that his grandfather, his father, and his mother were savvy immigrants. One by one, they played the political system close enough to the edge of the law to become useful to both legitimate players (politicians, banks, and government bureaucracies) and the organized crime families who controlled the building and casino industries.

Much of Trump’s story is well known, but Bernstein, a longstanding Trump watcher, adds two critical pieces of context that produce this very different story. The first is how attentive Trump has been all along to his image. His tactics not only included press intimidation (Bernstein and Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett were once arrested when they showed up to report on a Trump event) but also bringing people who tried to stop him into the Trump organization.

Bernstein embeds her second tactic in the title: that the union of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and real estate scion Jared Kushner tells a story about wealth, power, and American politics that is bigger than one man’s ambition. Bernstein’s parallel story about the Kushner family, the hardy remnants of a well-to-do family from Novogrudok, Poland that survived the Nazi occupation and post-war displaced persons’ camps, emphasizes their differences from the Trumps as much as their similarities. I found them more admirable, and weirdly — except for the prostitute in the motel thing — more likable. But the similarities in the trajectory of both families, and particularly their reliance on cultivating politicians who obligingly carved out giant tax exemptions and zoning breaks, ask a troubling question about the last 40 years in American politics: has it all been a shell game all along?

Well, lucky me! Not only do I get to finish the book, but I am also going to get some of these questions answered in person. On Thursday, April 23, at noon, I have the pleasure of talking to Andrea Bernstein herself for an hour: and you are invited. Just click on this link to register for this online webinar, sponsored by The New School for Social Research.

What we’re reading:

Resources:

  • Have you considered giving yourself a haircut? Watch a New York Times reporter get rid of those shaggy locks. (Sanam Yar, April 15, 2020)
  • Now that masks are becoming mandatory in many states and cities, which design is best—and why? (Tara Parker-Pope, Rachel Abrams, Eden Weingart, and Tony Cenicola, New York Times, April 17, 2020)

Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.

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