Donald Trump has always been good at overdoing it, then thumbing his nose at anyone who would tell him to tone it down.
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That much has been clear to me since the early 1980s, when I was schoolgirl and my father brought us into the city to see the building whose design Dad had helped implement as a structural engineer for a major Manhattan firm. Trump Tower, opened in 1983, would cater to New York’s ultra-privileged. With residences designed for a percent of the 1%, a demographic for whom part of the joy of having stupid amounts of money is being able to flaunt it on Fifth Avenue, everything about the building was over the top. From the indoor waterfall in the ostentatious atrium down to Trump’s infamous gold faucets in his own penthouse occupying the top three floors of the 68-story skyscraper, everywhere you looked, excess trumped elegance.
I know from my father – and my research – that 30-plus years ago Trump was already a force to be reckoned with, twisting arms to change city building codes on the maximum height of reinforced concrete buildings to get what he wanted: the tallest New York City building of its type at the time. Trump’s name seemed to evoke a simultaneous revulsion to his arrogance and affluence, mixed with a reverence for his seemingly unstoppable ability to get it done.
The real estate mogul who bossed, bullied and bought his way into constructing that tower of his dreams – and many more around the world – has turned his hand to politics. He’s succeeded at everything virtually else, including reality show fame. Why not take the White House as well? Whether you classify his behavior as extremely aggressive, even predatory or just signs of having mastered “The Art of the Deal” as he marketed himself in his 1987 memoir, Trump has gone through life as if he’s king of the jungle. In kind, Americans have afforded him a wide berth because this is a nation that remains deeply deferential to its self-made millionaires who become billionaires – even if in Trump’s case he was actually the son of a wealthy business developer to begin with.
That deference seems to have come to a screeching halt as all of the Republican candidates for president decried or otherwise distanced themselves from his comments Monday, in which he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. Beyond the candidates, senior members of the Republican party seem aware that this time, Trump has crossed a line that will do more damage to the party than good. Politicians in South Carolina, the conservative state where Trump announced his plan to treat every Muslim seeking to enter America as an ISIS suspect, have joined the chorus of conservatives saying that this is not the American way. Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican senator for South Carolina, called on all the other candidates to condemn Trump's statement. And Matt Moore, the chairman of the Republican party in South Carolina, tweeted that Trump’s comments “sent a shiver down my spine,” noting that it was offensive to him as a conservative committed to religious liberty.
The White House said Tuesday that the comment made Trump unfit to run for president, an unprecedented statement for a sitting president to make of a leading candidate to serve as his successor.
Will this be just another spasm of criticism? Or is Trump digging his own political grave? So far, it seems that the more extreme his statements, the more his poll numbers soar. The Republican party’s intellectual elite knows just how fascist Trump sounds – and that his proposals are probably unconstitutional to boot. But the rank and file in the South Carolina hall cheered, and people interviewed by reporters seemed overwhelmingly ready to embrace Trump’s proposal as if he were capable of implementing it tomorrow.
Trump’s response to the criticism? It’s not politically correct, but I don't care. When you’re The Donald, you don’t have to care, and you never need to apologize.
You don’t apologize for making fun of a New York Times’ reporter’s disability, instead you deny you’ve ever met him, even after you just said, “The poor guy, you gotta see this guy.” You don’t see any need to qualify your characterization that Mexican immigration brings in drugs and rapists. You’re so unaware of your bigotry and stereotyping that even when talking to a constituency open to endorsing you, Jewish Republicans, you say, “You're not going to support me because I don't want your money.” Because, you know, we Jews like to buy candidates so we can throw our weight around. “I'm a negotiator, like you folks,” he continued during his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition last Thursday.
But never mind. Trump’s big numbers are not with any of the aforementioned minorities. They’re with angry and fearful white voters – more men than women – to whom the promise to “take our country back” and “make America great again” offers automatic appeal. It remains unclear whether the party’s top brass will be able to convince the Republican rank-and-file that Trump is not presidential material, and that he will never be a statesman.
To my father, now 80 and retired from those heady days of skyscraper building in New York, Trump’s announcement – and the demand a week earlier that American Muslims be made to register and have their mosques monitored – reminds him of Hitler’s rise to power.
“Next thing they’ll do is take aside all the Muslims and get them tattooed on their arms,” he says as we commiserate over the news. “To blame Muslims, all of them, is like Hitler saying Jews were responsible for all the problems of Germany.”