This article originally published at Politico Magazine on November 07, 2018.
His recent attacks on immigrants fit a pattern of bigoted behavior toward minorities I watched for years.
On Wednesday, the day after a midterm cycle dominated by President Trump’s divisive fear-mongering about immigrants invading our country, I listened as he told another of the lies for which has become so notorious. During his White House news conference he said, “I’ve never used racist remarks.”
I know the real Trump better than most. For 3½ years, I worked in almost daily contact with him at the highest levels of the Atlantic City casino empire over which he once held sway. I saw him treat black people and minorities as inferior. I heard him say vulgar, bigoted things and I rebuked him for them. But he did not quit. Indeed, he has continued it to this day.
Others who have known him, including his son Eric and former football player Herschel Walker insist he is not a racist. But I don’t see how anyone who has watched him across the 40 or so years could conclude otherwise. After all, he has been so public about it.
We can go back to the start of his career in the early 1970s and the outrage he expressed when Trump and his father were charged by the federal government with discriminating against African-Americans in the rental housing they owned in New York City. Trump’s response was to hire Roy Cohn, who then countersued, calling the Justice Department attorneys “storm troopers” and “Gestapo.” The Trumps ultimately agreed to integrate their buildings, but the Justice Department acknowledged they never really complied. Because they didn’t want to. As Donald saw it, and I remember him voicing a version of this idea within the inner circle of his executives on several occasions: “Blacks don’t want to live with whites, so why isn’t it OK for whites not to want to live with blacks?” I know that in similar fashion he despised the affirmative action guidelines (50 percent female and 30 percent minority at every level) we were required to implement to maintain our gaming license. He would say it was not realistic and a waste of money to train people who did not have the ability.
I recall one busy Saturday night, walking the casino floor with him, when he saw what he considered an inordinate number of black customers. “It’s looking a little dark in here,” he calmly stated. It was his way of telling me to limit our charter bus programs in urban neighborhoods. I ignored him and continued to run the business in the best interest of Donald, the bondholders and the employees.
His prejudices didn’t stop at the color of one’s skin. Everyone was subject to judgment. It could be their ethnicity, their gender, their religion. It could be their social “caste.” Like the time we were speaking of the fiancée of one of our executives who had died in a tragic helicopter crash while returning to Atlantic City from a news conference with Donald in New York. The woman happened to be a cocktail server at the casino. Donald’s take was, “Poor girl. Her ticket out was Jon. She got lucky. Now she will be serving drinks the rest of her life.”
Sometimes his petty prejudices begat very public tirades. One day, he flew into a rage over a limousine driver who arrived to pick him up wearing gray shoes, soiling his image by “looking like a f—— Puerto Rican.”
In 1988, shortly after I was promoted to president of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, he invited me up to New York for lunch. There was a lot to talk over one issue in particular: one of our senior managers, who happened to be African-American. Donald considered him incompetent and wanted him fired. When I acknowledged some shortcomings in the man’s performance, he instantly became enthused. “Yeah, I never liked the guy,” he said. “And isn’t it funny, I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
I was mortified. We were in a restaurant in Trump Tower. I worried he’d be overheard. But he went on, “Besides that, I’ve got to tell you something else: I think the guy is lazy, and it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is. I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.”
Then, eyeing me closely, he said, “Don’t you agree?”
When I told him in no uncertain terms that I did not, he swiped aside my objections with a chop of his hand. “Ah, it’s a trait,” he said.
Where did the bigotry come from? Was he possessed of some insatiable inner need for reassurance that there is a social order of which he occupies the pinnacle? Certainly, he was no less self-obsessed back then. No less brittle, mercurial, vindictive. I think it explains in no small part the reflexive ease with which he slinks into the most sordid identity politics whenever he feels threatened, as when he claimed the judge presiding over the federal lawsuits in the Trump University swindle, the American-born Gonzalo Curiel, was “Mexican” and therefore biased against him. He’s suggested the same of any Muslim judge. Knowing Donald, I’m sure he wondered how a “Mexican” came to be a judge in the first place.
I quit working for him about a year before the first of his several corporate bankruptcies in 1991 and was long gone by the time he had completely sunk what had been a multibillion-dollar gaming business. Lenders and investors lost fortunes, contractors and small business owners were never paid, hardworking employees with families lost their jobs. The casualties—in Atlantic City and beyond—were many. I had little contact with Donald, but he thundered on, never missing a beat. The “brand” not only survived, it flourished, and with it the myth of his entrepreneurial genius. Yet, had I thought about him at all during those years I wouldn’t have discounted the possibility that he could change. Don’t we all believe in that? I knew I was wrong when he seized upon the birther charade, casting himself as chief prosecutor in the shameful inquisition into the citizenship, academic achievements and work ethic of our first African-American president. Then there he was a few years later, preening in the lobby of Trump Tower amid a phalanx of American flags, launching his candidacy with a promise to build his now-infamous wall to protect us from Mexican criminals and “rapists.” He hadn’t changed at all.
The case has been made, and it’s persuasive, that Trump isn’t president in spite of his racism, but because of it. Do you remember how hard it was for him to denounce David Duke? “I’m the least racist person that you’ve ever met,” he has said. And he really believes this, because he believes we all think like him. After all, we proved this by electing him. But such is the mania of the ego we’re confronted with, utterly incapable of seeing the world as anything but a reflection of itself.
And if, as it appears, the law is bearing down on him for alleged violations of campaign finance laws and other crimes, for obstruction of justice, possibly for colluding with a hostile foreign power to subvert a presidential election, he will turn to the rhetoric of race with increasing frequency and virulence. Don’t forget that twice he’s refused to specifically condemn the racists and neo-Nazis who bloodied Charlottesville. And let’s not forget his parade of other offenses: calling African nations “shithole countries,”; assailing black celebrities like LeBron James and politicians like Maxine Waters as “dumb” and “low IQ”; calling NFL players who kneel in protest “sons of bitches.” Should he find himself fighting for his political survival, I expect he will double- and triple-down on the support of an ascendant white nationalism that looks to him for endorsement.
On Wednesday, PBS “NewsHour” reporter Yamiche Alcindor, asked Trump about whether his self-description as a “nationalist” emboldened white supremacists. Trump shot back: “I’m not a racist. Your question is racist.”
My experience tells me different.