donald trump by gage skidmore

As almost everybody knows, right now a curious thing is happening in the political life of the United States. As of now (late September 2015), the man far in front of the polls for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in 2016 is one Donald Trump, real estate developer, celebrity and reality TV star. Indeed it’s impossible to go anywhere this summer without hearing about something Donald Trump said or did, or hearing other people’s opinions on him. He’s crept onto my blog once already this summer, in this post about the disturbing lack of attention being paid by the Republicans to the issue of climate change. Right after I did that article I realized something: I know virtually nothing about Donald Trump. Aside from the fact that he’s a New York real estate developer and had a reality TV show–and made headlines in 2011 by raising ridiculous questions about President Obama’s birth certificate–I couldn’t tell you much of anything about the man, where he came from or what he believes. Indeed he’s a curiously opaque person on the national stage today. I decided to change that, by doing a little reading on him.

Let me begin with caveats, disclaimers and explanations. I consider myself a liberal Democrat, and I’m supporting Hillary Clinton for President. Despite that, I don’t intend this article as a “hit piece” or a political essay; it’s not my place to recommend to anyone reading this article whether they should vote for or against Donald Trump. I want to know who he is. I’m curious about where he came from, what his family history is, and possibly, if we can tell, what influences helped form his political beliefs. I deliberately decided not to do this by reading one of Trump’s own books or his infamous Twitter feed. He is undoubtedly very good at projecting an image of himself and shaping public perceptions of him. That can tell us a lot, but as a historian I’m interested in his history, how he got to be who he is. This is going to take several articles, so I envision this as a series.

The vast majority of information I got for this article comes from the book The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire by Gwenda Blair (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). I deliberately chose a book that was written before Trump became a political figure. Gwenda Blair is a journalist and writer who teaches at Columbia University.

The famous Ellis Island arrival scene from The Godfather, Part II is probably not unlike how Donald Trump’s grandfather arrived in America in 1885.

Donald Trump’s story properly begins not in the United States, but in Germany. I was surprised to learn in the opening pages of The Trumps that his family came from a wine-making region of Germany, specifically the town of Kallstadt (which I profiled recently on my blog). The family’s original name was Drumpf, but it got changed to Trump during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century. In 1885, Friedrich Trump, only 16 years old, left Kallstadt and immigrated to America, arriving in New York. Thus, Trump’s family history in America begins with a classic Ellis Island immigration story, which reminded me of nothing so much as the opening scenes of The Godfather, Part II. Germany’s economic climate and particularly its inheritance laws were causing numerous young men to immigrate to the New World. Friedrich Trump in fact followed his older sister who had gone to New York with her fiancé. He lived with her for a while, and then set out west. In 1891 Friedrich arrived in Seattle and set up a business, the Dairy Restaurant, located at 208 Washington Street.

Seattle in the 1890s was definitely the Wild West, or what was left of it. Friedrich Trump made a go of it with his restaurant, which may–we’re not sure–also have been a place where prostitutes met their customers, which was common in a Western boom town of the time. In 1892 he became an American citizen through a simple naturalization process–mostly an affidavit and the presentation of two character witnesses–that was intimately connected with delivering voters to the polls, which was also common at the time. After staking out various mining claims, Friedrich grew prosperous in Bennett, British Columbia–now a ghost town–running another restaurant (and again possibly brothel) called the Arctic during the boom of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898-1900. After that he got married and returned to New York, but I was surprised to learn that he and his wife had a daughter in 1904 just before they tried to return to Germany. The daughter was an American citizen from birth, thanks to the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship. In other words, Friedrich Trump and his wife had what could be called an “anchor baby.”

bennett bc 1898 pd

Bennett, British Columbia was a supply and jumping-off point for prospectors in the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Donald Trump’s grandfather owned a restaurant here.

The Trumps were not able to stay in Germany. Friedrich had made his fortune in New York and was eager to return to Kallstadt, but the government of Kaiser Wilhelm II insisted he serve in the military, which he was unwilling to do. By the summer of 1905 they were back in America and settled in Queens. Prosperous again, Friedrich bought some real estate in Queens which he rented out to other families–the beginning of the Trumps’ real estate empire. He died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918, when his son, Frederick Christ Trump, was only eleven.

It’s with Fred Trump, Donald’s father, that the family’s real estate empire really got going. In 1934, at the young age of 28, Fred Trump, who had already gotten a name as a reliable and thrifty builder of residential houses, made a surprise bid in a bankruptcy sale of the assets of a company called the Lehrenkrauss Corporation which had been driven to ruin in the Great Depression. Fred specifically wanted Lehrenkrauss’s mortgage servicing department. This was key because it gave him an income stream and also an inside line on properties that were going through foreclosure, which he could then buy up cheap and build on. What really proved a boom to Fred Trump, however, was the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. In an effort to provide direct aid to families hit by the Depression, FDR’s White House set up the Federal Housing Administration which totally restructured how houses were built and financed in the United States. Fred Trump was in on the ground floor of this change. He started building houses all over Brooklyn and Queens, using a common sense, low-cost approach that author Blair likens to Henry Ford’s assembly-line method of building cars. That families could afford these houses in the 1930s was due entirely to federal mortgage assistance in the form of the FHA.

trump family neighborhood

In 1946, when Donald was born, the Trump family lived in this neighborhood–and on this street–in Jamaica Estates, Queens. I do not know which house was theirs.

Fred Trump was already doing well, but he got another boost from another government–only this time not the United States’s. On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II. The sudden urgent need for housing for defense workers was an opportunity of Fred Trump’s lifetime. He built huge tracts of homes especially in Norfolk, Virginia, though he still lived in the New York area. The Trumps were rich, but evidently did not live ostentatiously; their home was simply a larger version of the simple floor plan style houses Trump built for his customers. While Fred benefited from the wartime boom, like other builders his fortunes turned down after the war was over and costs of everything, especially building materials, soared. By now he had several children by his wife, an immigrant from Scotland: Maryanne, Fred Jr. and Elizabeth.

It was into this family, and the midst of the postwar Baby Boom, that Donald John Trump was born on June 14, 1946. The fact and timing of his birth is important: Gwenda Blair links Trump, his upbringing, world view and personality closely to the Baby Boom generation. But even before we get there, I think it’s important to take stock of where Donald Trump came from, his family background and their history in America. It may tell us a lot about who he is today.

In Part II of this series, I’ll detail Donald Trump’s childhood, his start in the real estate business and the early deals that made him a player on the Manhattan scene. Stay tuned!

The photo at the top of this article is by Flickr user Gage Skidmore and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of Bennett, BC is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip.