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King of the jungle

March 6, 2019

During the last presidential election cycle, the only candidate whom I favored less than Donald Trump was John Kasich — Democrats don’t count. In other words, the only one whom I would have thrown overboard ahead of Donald Trump was the guy who had probably been a hall monitor in elementary school … the guy who had a white safety patrol belt with a tin “Hall Monitor” badge pinned on it, who came to school wearing flannel-lined corduroy pants with a broken zipper. You know the type:  unlikable, humorless and clueless. However, each of my preferred Republicans went down in flames one by one before I got stuck (as I then thought) with Donald Trump. There was not a chance in the universe that I would have voted for any of the Democrats, but I was not happy with the choice with which I was left.

 

Things have changed. I am thrilled that Donald Trump is president of the United States.

I grew up around the corner from Donald Trump, but we didn’t move in the same circles. He was two years younger than I and he went to military school. His father, Fred, was the largest owner of middle income apartment units in the Outer Boroughs of New York. Many Manhattanites view the residents of the Outer Boroughs in the same category as they view, say, residents of South Dakota. Many Manhattanites have never even been to the Outer Boroughs except to get to and from JFK or La Guardia airports, other than parts of Brooklyn which have in the last couple of decades become very chic and expensive. (The sociological primer about NYC is now officially over.)

 

Fred Trump and his family lived in a big house with white columns on Midland Parkway. Big, but not ostentatious. It fit appropriately into the very nice-but-not-extravagant neighborhood of Jamaica Estates in which I grew up. Fred Trump had mastered the market for middle income apartments in the Outer Boroughs of NYC and he stuck to his knitting. For the most part he stayed in Brooklyn and Queens. However, Donald, who had joined him in the business, had a far more grandiose vision. The Outer Boroughs might provide him with a great living, but they didn’t fit his vision of his own future. Donald Trump wanted to make a big splash by developing in Manhattan, but his father refused. So, Donald took a loan from his father and set out to conquer The City (to New Yorkers, Manhattan is “THE CITY”). Most observers thought that this spoiled, rich kid without much experience outside of the “nabes” would crash and burn spectacularly. And they looked forward to having a front row seat to view the debacle. Their view:  He was far too big for his britches.

 

In the 1980s, Manhattan’s real estate development community was dominated by a few very large developers; Silverstein, Macklowe, Speyer, Rudin, Resnick, Tishman and Milstein were the names of some of the major players. It was a very select group and they were cutthroat in their competitiveness. Big Manhattan real estate in the 80s (and now) was best described as a jungle filled with wild beasts who would consume anyone who dared enter their part of the jungle. When Donald Trump made his entry, they considered him a kid who was trying to play in a playpen that was far beyond his capacity. However, their problem was that the deals that he did were highly visible and successful. He kept elbowing the big kids out of the playpen — and it did not go over well.

 

In the 1980s, I was a real estate guy with a major Wall Street investment bank. We had a chance to finance some of his projects, but we refused. Trump was too cocky and wanted too many management fees before any money would fall below the line. Being his partner might have been glamorous but he was too glitzy, too brash, too crude and too visible for our taste. So Trump continued along his upward vector without benefit of me or my colleagues, with one minor exception:  One of my colleagues became spectacularly wealthy as a hedge fund operator and is now one of President Trump’s closest friends. Go know!

 

In 1987, I got swept away during the Wall Street crash. Not so Trump. He had big troubles but he kept coming back stronger than ever. This trait, common among successful real estate players, is the key to understanding Trump’s success. They refuse to be defeated.

 

When Donald Trump announced for president my first reaction was to scoff. If ever there was someone who was less presidential, I couldn’t think whom that might be. It was as if Clarabell the Clown had spritzed a seltzer bottle and announced his candidacy. Was there ever anyone who was less suited to the presidency than this guy? But, as he had in NYC, Trump just kept flying higher, riding the thermals in ever widening ascents. No one whom I knew believed that he could survive the primary process. It was like watching one of the Wallendas trying to walk the high wire across Niagara Falls. You watched the wire shaking, but all the time you watched with disbelief they make the trip across, smiling and laughing, no less.

 

We have now had the benefit of two years’ looking back on the Trump presidency. To hear the media, one would think that it has been a huge failure. But he has engineered an economy that has grown beyond any sensible forecast (with Obama trying, unsuccessfully, to claim credit). He has reduced taxes for everyone (despite the lies about it benefiting only the “rich”). He has rebuilt our military. He has reduced the regulations that tied the hands of businesses, large and small. He has added four million new jobs. He has nominated and had confirmed two dozen circuit court judges. He has nominated and had confirmed two Supreme Court justices. He has rendered Obama’s presidency a complete and utter failure and assured that Barack Obama will be at the very bottom of history’s list of presidencies (I find the last fact particularly satisfying). These accomplishments are but a few of the Trump presidency.

 

How could this have happened? I think that I have found the answer. Donald Trump became the king of the Manhattan real estate jungle by defeating every other beast in the jungle. There were very few, if any, rules. There was no quarter asked or given. He didn’t care what the others thought of him. As a matter of fact, I am willing to bet good money that he derived enormous pleasure in making all the other big dogs in the jungle eat their contempt for him.

 

Compared to the NYC jungle, Washington is no more than a zoo. It has the appearance of a jungle, but the animals are kept separated and their keepers feed them when the customers have gone home. What is important to the pussycats in Washington is unimportant anywhere else. In 1986, I was asked to go to Washington by my investment bank to interface with politicians and “journalists” for some reason or other. We had engaged a lawyer (lobbyist) to pave my way and introduce me to the players. I remember being ushered into the office of Bob Beckel (at that time a major power broker and political consultant in Washington, prior to becoming a CNN and Fox News personality for a while). For about 20 minutes, the only thing that Beckel and the lawyer (lobbyist) talked about was the names on Beckel’s speed dial list. They were incredibly impressed with each other. They had no idea that this impressed me not at all … and I was the guy whom they were trying to impress! They were clueless.

 

Later, we went to a lunch with a group of politicians and “journalists.” They, too, were all trying to impress me with the names that they could drop. It occurred to me that these people never left the Washington terrarium. They traded in currency that had no value anywhere outside the Beltway. They couldn’t (and still can’t) understand the contempt in which they are held everywhere outside of that climate controlled environment because they have no idea that what they value (connections, dinner invitations, praise from their fellow zoo inmates) has absolutely no value anywhere else. That is President Trump’s secret. He could not care less about the games that they play in Washington. He simply doesn’t play by Washington rules. The residents of the zoo are helpless when they are up against the king of the jungle.

 

When Charles Schumer tramples anyone in his way between him and a camera, President Trump lets him throw up all over the microphone and then Trump needles him. Pelosi, the same. The fact is that President Trump has all these clowns roaring at him from behind the bars of their Washington cages while he stands outside throwing fish at the seals. He laughs at them, so they can’t touch him. I can easily imagine, when Adam Schiff starts fulminating and foaming at the mouth, President Trump looking at him with amusement and, in the classic line from the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, exclaiming: “Mr. Schiff, I fart in your general direction” and then leaving the room majestically with a smile on his face.

 

As the immortal philosopher, Mel Brooks, put it:  It’s good to be the King!

 

Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.

 

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