Donald Trump once famously said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters.” He hasn’t shot anyone, though he’s seriously wounded a number of economic interests. The most serious casualties, however, are far from Fifth Avenue. America’s urban gentry, who overwhelmingly did not vote for Trump, are doing just fine.
I’d be the two millionth pundit to point out that Trump’s economic policies disproportionately hurt people who voted for him. His trade war threatens factory jobs in the industrial Midwest and has ravaged farm incomes in the heartland. In Trump’s Appalachian stronghold, struggling families risk losing their health care.
But this isn’t about that. It’s about how Fifth Avenue — as a stand-in for the prosperous coasts — interprets the self-destructive tendencies of Trump country. This story, told by a former executive at the Better Business Bureau in New York, is a place to start.
He was going after the “boiler room” operations of financial con artists. The crooks would call phone numbers across the country offering to sell exotic investments, guaranteeing fabulous returns to whoever answered. The chumps would mail off their life savings, never to see the money again.
My friend’s frustration extended beyond the scammers to include the scammed. “What can you do for people who would send a check for $50,000 to some voice on the phone?” he asked. Then he shrugged.
The unkind word for these victims is “suckers.” One can pity such trusting souls but also see them as lazy and greedy. They didn’t bother to think anything through and wanted something for nothing.
Before he was elected president, Fifth Avenue regarded Trump as a colorful character and hustler whose victims almost begged to be fleeced. In 1995, for example, he raised $140 million by selling stock in Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts. U.S. banks at the time were cutting him off as a bad credit risk, and two of the casinos had already gone bankrupt. But the sucker investors didn’t bother to look. They bought the fiction that Trump was a business tycoon dropping gold nuggets in his wake. They lost 90 percent of their money.
Though he’s gone bankrupt more than four times, ardent followers still believe that Trump is a big rich, successful businessman with clever plans. What is their basis? Trump played a big rich, successful businessman on TV.
Immediately after winning the election, Trump went over to the posh 21 Club restaurant, a few steps from Fifth Avenue, and announced to the diners, “We’ll get your taxes down.” He then proceeded to hire multiple alumni of Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street money factory he railed against during the campaign.
Stock portfolios have done quite well, so what is the gentry’s problem with Trump? Two things. One, he’s bad for the country. Two, much of the market’s strong performance rests on a Trumpian card trick — a tax-cut stimulus soon to evaporate. The future is all flashing yellow lights.
Back in Illinois, a corn farmer tells The Weekly Standard that he’s already lost $660,000 in revenues from falling grain prices. But if Trump is determined to fight a trade war, he adds, we farmers should sacrifice.
The farmer never addresses whether the trade war made any sense to begin with. (Most economists say it’s insanity.) He was simply offering to take a financial bullet for his hero Trump.
Meanwhile, folks on Fifth Avenue watch with fascination as the shots fly over their heads and into the heart of Trump country economies. And what do they think of the shark’s willing prey? They think ‘twas ever thus. Then they shrug.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.