A Vietnam War veteran named Stanley Goldstein reined his electric wheelchair to a halt and planted a small American flag between the planks of the famous boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. It was a sizzling August Saturday morning as Goldstein set up for another day of business as a professional panhandler duly licensed by the oceanside municipality. Times had been rough, he avowed, but he had turned down a job with a local police force because, he said, “I didn’t want to carry a gun again.”
Behind the mendicant was the white-foamed sea, and in front of him were the mock-Mughal minarets and (literal) white elephants of Donald Trump’s nearly bankrupt Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino, placing Goldstein—like the rest of this astonished nation—squarely in the shadow of the preening, brilliant, motor-mouthed billionaire known to his lessers (this includes everyone else on Earth) simply as the Donald.
“Would you vote for Donald Trump for president of the United States?” the ex-soldier was asked. It is a question that a substantial (and growing) plurality of registered Republicans in the early-decision states of Iowa and New Hampshire have been answering affirmatively, placing this country’s paramount self-promoter on track to win that party’s nomination for the Oval Office in 2016.
“Trump’s got some good points,” Goldstein observed. “I like the part he said about deporting the foreigners who don’t belong here. As a veteran, I like what he said about John McCain not doing enough for veterans. I’m a Democrat. I think the only Republican I ever voted for was Ronald Reagan. But I won’t rule out Trump.”
A Maclean’s correspondent, combing public opinion at three disparate locations of what the real estate and reality television tycoon likes to call “all things Trump!” found a solid majority of voters—registered Democrats included—in the Donald’s corner, or at least willing to consider voting for him. They applauded his bombastic tweets and affirmed his combed-over sincerity while cluck-clucking only the most egregious of Trump’s undiplomatic yawps. As the Donald himself once noted, “Passion is more important than brains or talent.” (Of course, asked about a presidential run in 2004, Trump also said, “It’s not my thing. I think I’m too honest in many respects.”)
Meanwhile, out here on the boardwalk was a struggling black guy named Goldstein, hardly the prototype of the so-called “angry white man” whom the fulminating mogul is often deemed to represent, with some nice things to say about a candidate whose campaign strategy—if it can be called a strategy —has been to not say anything nice about anybody.
An interviewer asked about Chris Christie, the loose-lipped governor of New Jersey, whose own “tell it like it is” mantra has been completely eclipsed by the Donald’s 24-karat-imitation-gold bluster. After all, the governor never wrote a book entitled Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life, as Donald Trump did in 2007. All Chris Christie (and Jeb Bush of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio and George Pataki of New York and Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, among the other Republican midgets) ever did was run an entire state government. “I’m not in love with Chris Christie by a long shot,” Goldstein said.
Across the street, at the tollgate of the hotel’s self-park garage, a man named Richard Douglas was lifting $20 from every driver in the queue (the cost of the privilege of parking à la Trump). The attendant, who used to own a beauty-supply business before it went bust, styled himself as an independent. He had voted for Barack Obama twice, he said, but back in 1992, he had cast a ballot for a third-party billionaire named Ross Perot, a Texas data-processing tycoon whose plain-talking wisdom (“Measure twice and cut once!”) gained him 19 per cent of the popular vote, blindsided George Bush Sr., and awarded Bill Clinton the White House.
“Could you imagine the Donald as commander-in-chief?” a tourist wondered, grudgingly handing over 20 bucks. “He’d have all the world leaders on his next Apprentice show,” Douglas replied. “ ‘Blow ’em up! You’re stupid!’ ”
Douglas said that he was looking forward to watching Trump disembowel his rivals on the debating stage. “He’ll get all those other politicians to speak their minds and stop being so political,” Douglas said. “Otherwise, ‘You’re fired!’ ”
Not everyone at the Trump Taj Mahal was in love with the eponym. In the coffee shop, a server complained that Trump had sacrificed the staff on the altar of his political ambitions. “He’s too big for us now,” she said.
“Would you vote for him for president?” she was asked. “Yeah, right,” the waitress snarled.
But on the boardwalk—and it would be the same at the Trump Towers in Brooklyn and the Trump Pavilion for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the borough of Queens—few were as quick to dismiss the erstwhile tyrant of a waterfront Taj as a legitimate candidate to become the Grand Poobah of the free world. “Donald Trump is no idiot by a long shot,” Goldstein said, summing up the trend. “How could a man who’s made billions of dollars be an idiot?”
“Fourteen Candidates Not Named Donald Trump will participate in the same event tonight,” headlined the Washington Post. This was on the first Monday in August, when the overloaded circus car that is the 2016 Republican campaign came to a screeching stop in Manchester, N.H., and all the clowns came tumbling out except for Bozo, the king of them all.
The front-runner’s lead was amazing, and expanding. In June, 59 per cent of Republicans told Fox News that they never would vote for Donald Trump. Now, that number was down to 33 per cent. So he skipped Manchester altogether.
Two days earlier, five of the candidates had been in California, palms up, trying to work the über-wealthy and hyper-conservative Koch brothers for cash. “Puppets?” tweeted @realDonaldTrump, skewering the beggars with a single word.
Now those five, plus nine more, were taking part in the Voters First Forum on the campus of Saint Anselm College. Each man, and former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field, would be granted six minutes to answer questions and to try to pretend that Trump did not exist.
Some takeaway lines:
Sen. Rand Paul: “I’m not eager for war.”
Sen. Ted Cruz: “I intend to make 2016 a referendum on Obamacare.”
Sen. Marco Rubio: “We can build for our children a new American century.”
Dr. Ben Carson: “Fifty per cent of Americans still don’t know who I am.”
Gov. Scott Walker: “I’m a new, fresh face versus a name from the past.”
Gov. Rick Perry: “We made it through Jimmy Carter, we’ll make it through Barack Obama.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal: “I’ve got the bandwidth to get us through this.”
Carly Fiorina: “We have to have a nominee on our side who is going to throw every punch.”
Sen. Rick Santorum: “This is all about jobs.”
Gov. John Kasich: “We need to reach out to people who have traditionally lived in the shadows.”
Gov. Chris Christie: “I’m like the bad relative you invite for Thanksgiving—I come early and stay late.”
Gov. Jeb Bush: “I have a different view from my brother. My father is the most perfect man alive.”
“New Hampshire debate preview event draws 14 Republican White House hopefuls, but no Trump,” bemoaned London’s Daily Mail.
The dog park in Trump Village in Coney Island is smaller than the Donald’s head. Here, on a summer night, a tenant named Lily Markov and a black teacup Havanese named Lala are out in the cooling umbra of the 22-storey edifice where they live.
“In truth I am dazzled as much by my own creations as are the tourists and glamour hounds that flock to Trump Tower, the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, 40 Wall Street or any of my other properties,” the Donald once wrote. But few would be dazzled in Coney Island; these are just workaday flats, erected half a century ago by Fred Trump, the billionaire’s millionaire father. More than four-fifths of the current residents came from the Soviet Union.
“I wish I could talk to him because in this building we have a lot of problems,” Markov said. She spewed venom about her building’s new board of directors, and how the elevators and the lights don’t work as well as they used to, and how she wished that she could get in touch with the Donald and give him an earful, just as he had been giving an earful to the Republican Party establishment. “I think that if I called him, he would answer the phone, and he would come to fix what is wrong,” Markov said.
“Does a good landlord make a good president?” she was asked. “I tell you one thing,” Markov answered. “He’s going to be better than the president we got now.”
“I like this person,” she continued. “I don’t care how many times he’s been married. No matter that he’s a rich guy. He will talk to the people. Reagan, he was just an actor but for eight years, things were good. He was never political, but he stood by people. Trump will be the same. He’s gonna close the border, stop them bringing drugs to our kids.”
There was a pattern here, a theme that overwhelmed previous party affiliation, gender, economic status and national origin. Trump understands ordinary people. Trump is just like us. Whoever we are.
A man named Dmitri came down from the tower with a milk-chocolate poodle named Lucy. “He has inspired me from a young age,” Dmitri confessed. “I follow him on Twitter. His daughter Ivanka—that’s the brain!”
A recent Trumpian tweet about Hillary Clinton—“if Hillary Clinton couldn’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”—was brought up. “That’s the part where he needs to cool it,” Dmitri sighed. “If you piss off one wrong country, that’s a lot of wars.”
“His passion is real estate,” the dog owner said. “I’m not sure that he is going to want to give that up. Probably he will invite Sarah Palin, and she will do all the work of running the government.”
The fourteen Republicans at the Voters First Forum in Manchester spoke for a total of 120 minutes and not even once did any of them breathe the magic word “Trump.”
When the speed-date ended and the audience—woozy after two relentless hours of vows to balance the federal budget, reform immigration, repeal Obamacare, and drone-bomb Islamic State into dust—wobbled out into the night, this reporter charged into the so-called “spin room” to remind the candidates that each of them was far, far behind a certain unmentionable New Yorker in the polls.
“Donald?” winked Lindsey Graham in reply. “How do you knock him out of the lead?” the South Carolinian was asked. “You talk about this country’s problems and compare your solutions to his,” Graham answered.
“Four years ago, I was in last place in the polls, and the two candidates who were in the lead didn’t get a single delegate,” crowed Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who won 11 primaries in 2012 but still was trumped by Mitt Romney for the nomination. (The front-runners in August 2011 had been pizza tycoon Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, congresswoman of Minnesota.)
“Is it possible that many Americans actually want Trump to be their president?” Santorum was asked. “Anyone who has support might keep that support,” he allowed. “But I’d rather have support in February than in August.”
“Donald Trump has tapped into people’s frustration with political correctness,” said Gov. Jindal of Louisiana.
“What if it is more than that?” Jindal was pressed. “What if the polls are right, and voters really, actually want him to be president?”
“Then I trust the voters,” Jindal said.
Back to New York, where a Chrysler Town & Country hauled up in front of the Trump Pavilion for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the Jamaica section of Queens. Out climbed a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Mary of Washington, D.C. “Would you vote for Donald Trump for president of the United States?” the woman in the long blue habit was asked.
“I’m sort of up in the air,” she said. “I’m not sure the rest of the world would take Donald Trump seriously,” Sister Mary said. “That’s the problem when you get too much fame.”
“Everybody knows Donald Trump,” the nun said. “We know things. But do we really know him?”
Out of the pavilion—it was a bright new building, spotless and welcoming, endowed by Donald Trump’s father and named for his mother Mary Anne—came an aide from the dietetics office named Michael Taylor. Taylor had been displeased by the Donald’s anti-immigrant rant; in so many words: “Mexicans are illegal criminal rapists.”
“I know you should talk your mind and all that. But maybe you should reflect before you open your mouth,” said Taylor. “After he said the Mexican insults, he turned around and said that he employs a lot of Mexicans. That’s just one of the things he said. The thing is, you can’t get racial.”
A fleet of school buses had brought patients from other facilities to their appointments at the Trump Pavilion. The driver of one of them was a Haitian immigrant named Alex Oaru. Like everyone, Oaru had much to say about Trump. “He is a bad man,” Oaru snapped. “What he said about Mexicans was very, very bad. This is an immigrant country. You better know what you are talking about.” Then the bus driver thought for a moment. “He is very good for businessman,” Oaru said. “He better say sorry. If he says sorry, I vote for him, no problem.”