Who is Donald Trump? A historical investigation. [Part II]

donald trump by michael vadon

This is Part II of my series on the family and life history of Donald Trump, a man everyone has heard of but who I was surprised to realize I know very little about. In Part I, I covered the Trump family’s origins from a wine-making region of Germany, Friedrich Trump’s (Donald’s grandfather) immigration to the United States, and the rise of Donald’s father, Fred Trump, who was very successful at building houses in the outer boroughs of New York during the 1930s and 1940s. As with my previous article, this profile is not intended to be a political statement. I’m just curious who Trump really is, what he believes, and how he got to be the person we’ve been seeing–almost inescapably–in the media this summer.

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).

Donald John Trump, born in 1946, seems to have been an assertive personality from the very beginning. He grew up in the family home Fred had built in Jamaica Estates, a well-to-do section of Queens, the second-youngest of five children born to Fred and his wife Mary. Donald had playmates around the neighborhood but he also had a reputation as a troublemaker, cutting up in class and causing teachers and parents grief. Still, this was the kind of relatively innocent childhood of the 1950s made idyllic by pop culture like Leave It To Beaver, so it was fairly tame by modern standards; nevertheless when Fred found out his son and a friend had been playing with switchblade knives, he decided the boy needed some discipline. Donald was sent off to New York Military Academy upstate in 1959. I was rather surprised to learn that Trump had a military-prep education; I assumed with his family’s wealth he would have gone to one of the old guard prep schools. Nevertheless, NYMA taught Donald discipline and he was quite successful. He graduated in 1964.

ny military academy

If the entrance to the New York Military Academy looks like it’s seen better times, that’s because it has–it went bankrupt in 2015. It was founded in 1889.

Interestingly, Trump seems to have missed a lot of the turmoil that his Baby Boomer contemporaries were going through in the late 1960s, the era of Vietnam and college radicalism. Trump was at Fordham University for a while and then transferred to Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn was certainly a hotbed of anti-Vietnam War activism in 1966-68, but Trump, being a business student, kept his head down and his eyes on his studies. Wharton had one of the few real estate programs of any business school in the country, and it seems clear that Trump wanted to follow his father into this business. Indeed, throughout his college career Donald was running errands for his father, accompanying him on building sites and to business meetings, and gradually preparing to enter the real estate world. This he did after he graduated from Penn in 1968, his degree technically in economics.

Early in his career, Trump began rubbing shoulders with important people in New York including politicians, lawyers and businesspeople. One of them was Roy Cohn, who had become famous as a young lawyer in the 1950s working for Senator Joseph McCarthy in his hunt against Communists. Cohn worked for Fred Trump and eventually for Donald in some of his early real estate deals–according to Blair’s book, Cohn’s job was to help Trump keep tenants he considered “undesirable” out of his properties. Interestingly, Cohn was a member of the John Birch Society, the forerunner of today’s modern Tea Party, which was co-founded by the father of today’s billionaire Libertarian businessmen, the Koch Brothers. I have no idea whether Cohn’s politics rubbed off on Donald Trump. To be fair, Trump was very chummy with numerous Democratic politicians too, such as New York mayors Abe Beame and Ed Koch (no relation to the Koch Brothers). I found little indication in the history of Trump’s early life or career that he had any interest in politics or was known to express any strong political opinions. Trump’s main interest was making money.

grand hyatt hotel by nicolae schaffer

The Grand Hyatt New York, which Trump rebuilt in 1980, was the deal that put him on the map. It was formerly the Commodore Hotel and did not used to look like this.

In the 1970s Trump went out on his own, trying to buy properties in Manhattan where his father had deliberately not done business. He tried for a long time to buy and develop some old rail yard properties that were orphaned by the 1970 Penn Central railroad bankruptcy, with only partial success. The deal that really put him on the map was the refinancing, redevelopment and renovation of the old Commodore Hotel, built in 1919 next to the Grand Central Terminal and also a Penn Central property. In the late 1970s downtown Manhattan was dying, the city was broke and needed a premier destination for travelers to help revitalize the area. A luxury hotel should have been out of Trump’s league; up until now he mostly built apartments. But he drove a hard bargain, pulled in his and his father’s contacts, and sold the city on a complicated deal involving tax abatements that would enable him to finance the expensive reconstruction of the hotel with bank loans. In the meantime Trump went all-out on the design, covering the old 1919 facade with steel and glass and making the hotel a glitzy modern bauble. In 1980 the old Commodore reopened as the Grand Hyatt New York. It made Trump a fortune.

Trump’s next deal showed his personality in full flower. He decided to build an exotic high-rise of super luxury apartments geared toward the super-rich, which he now considered himself a part of. Nailing down an old department store property next door to Tiffany’s fine jewelry store, Trump began the design for the ostentatious Trump Tower which would be grander, glassier and more garish even than the Grand Hyatt. The complicated financing and approval structure of this deal makes one’s eyes glaze over, and it seems Trump was truly in his element putting it together. By now, 1979, he was married to the former Ivana Winklmayr, a Czech skiier and member of the jet-set. Ivana’s design and decoration taste was similar to Trump’s, and what emerged as Trump Tower reflected both of them. There were some shady parts of the deal, such as the demolition crew Trump hired to tear down the old department store. They were undocumented workers, mostly Poles, whose contractor paid them in vodka and the value of scrap metal they salvaged from the site. Trump also made use of tax abatements that had never before been used for luxury apartments, and were designed to facilitate the building of low-income housing. This was legal, but many people, including Ed Koch, believed it was outrageous and unfair.

trumps hair by bostonjerry

This photo has nothing to do with the text but I couldn’t resist–it’s a view of Trump’s famous hairdo from behind. It is not, as most people think, a toupeé, but a very elaborate “comb-over.”

What’s interesting is that Trump’s big deals were mostly done with other people’s money, not his own. His big deals were financed with tax credits, advances against projected revenues, and bank financing. This is pretty common now in the real estate world. Trump was thus not getting rich and parlaying his wealth into big projects where his money was at stake, as businessmen and builders did in the 19th century; he was mostly like a wizard, bringing together other people’s money and packaging it into particular deals and properties, financed on credit, that he hoped would make money for investors and himself. This seems to be Donald Trump’s forte, and his main interest in this period of his life.

As a historian I’ve studied a lot of Presidential candidates. You can read about some of them here. Trump is unique in that, at least as far as the early 1980s, he seemed totally uninterested in politics. He clearly had no broad political vision, nor any formative experience that later turned his thinking to politics, as many of our Presidents who were formerly military commanders had, especially during the Civil War. I’m sure he had personal political beliefs, but so far as I’ve read in Blair’s book I can’t for the life of me figure out what they were. Public affairs just weren’t on his radar screen. He does, however, seem to have been skilled very early at a technique that is also useful in politics: manipulating the media and promoting himself. This, I suspect, is the seed of Trump’s sudden political ambitions.

In Part III of this series, I’ll continue on with Trump’s career through the 1980s and 1990s. Stay tuned!

The photo at the top of this article is Wikimedia Commons user Michael Vadon and is used under Creative Commons 4.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of the Grand Hyatt Hotel is by Nicolai Schäfer a.k.a. Nize at de.wikipedia and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of Trump’s hair is by Wikimedia Commons user BostonJerry and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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