It came upon a morning clear, a New York Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” This front-page story of October 30, 1975, would shape world events with its pithy summary of the president’s speech, in which he vowed not to supply federal aid to save New York from bankruptcy. President Gerald Ford’s administration had decreed that to get a federal bail-out, city officials would have to end rent control, raise transit fares, and otherwise make New York less habitable. But the Daily News helped signal the end of the safety nets so starkly that private investors were roused like irrepressible townspeople of Whoville on Christmas Eve, to save the city by buying up as much of it as possible for fire-sale prices.
One of these motivated buyers was a new small-time player with big-time backing, who concealed a lack of sufficient funds to purchase the run-down Commodore Hotel. He made false press statements and vowed to build luxury accommodations to revitalize the neighborhood. With little more than moxie, lies, and a measly $12 million from his mogul dad, the lad not only won the bid but secured an unprecedented forty-year tax abatement from a mayor who was also in his dad’s pocket. And that’s how young Donald Trump helped save the city by depriving it of more than $350 million of revenue over the next four decades, according to a New York Times calculation. This early shakedown would set the pattern for much of his debt-leveraged investment career. Trump, the great mogul on the dole, would go on to default on countless contracts and receive four additional government bailouts—maneuvers that allowed him to stay afloat long enough for his great star turn as the master of The Apprentice. The gilded penthouse suite that Trump eagerly showcased for interior shots on the show served to seal his unlikely status as capitalist folk hero. Meanwhile, Mark Burnett’s team of producers helped craft Trump’s camera-ready image as a tough-but-benevolent billionaire who made up in name recognition what he conspicuously lacked in personal character or credit rating. Trump played this role for fourteen seasons right up until the 2017 spin-off, “Commander in Chief.” But it must have taken decades to nurture the malice coming to bloom now as the Republican tax overhaul begins an enormous upward distribution of wealth in the storied Xmas season of giving.
The gilded penthouse suite that Trump eagerly showcased for interior shots on his TV show served to seal his unlikely status as capitalist folk hero.
Eleven years ago, the New York Times revealed that, just as Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say “let them eat cake,” Gerald Ford didn’t make a speech that literally told New York City to “drop dead,” correcting a misapprehension held by at least two or three readers under the age of ten. Ford’s speech now sounds like George Bailey’s pleas to the good folks of Bedford Falls. The people of this country “will not panic,” Ford assured his listeners, “when a few desperate New York officials and bankers try to scare New York’s mortgage payments out of them.” (They won’t run for help to that mean old conniving spider, Mr. Potter! They’ll stick together!) Ford ended up signing legislation giving New York federal loans with interest, but the Daily News headline haunted him like Marley’s ghost and ultimately helped cost him the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. This kind of press would get Donald Trump a second term.
He’s a mean one, Mr. Trump. He really is a heel. Scrooge, Grinch, Simon Legree: they’re elements of his brand, what keeps fans coming back. His kind of merry villainy is usually found only in opera, where nefarious baritones like Scarpia from Tosca deliver rousing arias about the joy in screwing others over. We should have seen this coming the moment the GOP picked the Heat Miser as presidential candidate. Only we’d need a capacity for suspending disbelief that we’ve since grimly honed just to make it through another day under the surreally nasty dispensations of the Trump presidency. It’s taken a continual effort of the collective national will simply to imagine this living incarnation of a flaming-haired, stop-animated villain from a 1970s Christmas special actually becoming president. Then to imagine him stepping into a role he’s likely coveted since he bullied whoever had it in his grade school Christmas pageant: the jolly old elf who, with a visible sneer, calls the impending $1.5 trillion tax cut a “Christmas present for America.”
A brown-paper neutron bomb tied up with strings, this gift joins so many others the administration already laid beneath our tree. I bet that box with the big red bow is the shiny new concealed carry law that greeted Sandy Hook family members visiting the Capitol on the day it went before Congress (and a delight to New Yorkers like me who feel the city’s main problem is not enough handguns on the street). This sits right next to December’s presidential recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, a firm push to swing terrorists that should radicalize the Middle East by Feast of the Epiphany. That big box back there is the cataclysm that Santa fast-tracked by pulling out of the Paris Accords, to please a small number of misinformed workers and really just because, Fuck you. Which brings us to GOP’s trillion-and-a-half-dollar stocking stuffer for themselves and several friends, which should fill us all with holiday cheer until we try to sell our homes, educate our children, fall ill, or 2027, whichever comes first.
And all these holiday remembrances come on the heels of a host of other Trumpian feats of unalloyed meanness: a 26 percent increase in bias incidents, twice the anti-Muslim episodes of 2016, a nationwide uptick in school bullying, millions of soon-to-be uninsured elderly, and millions of children whose sole health care will be Robitussin. Yes, Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Only he’s just more like the Dutch version, who arrives at your home with a gang of white men in black face to give some of the kids gifts and banish the others from the country.
Since we can assume all but White House-sanctioned newspapers will be outlawed or federally sabotaged within a year, ’tis the season to reprise the Daily News headline of 1975, when things looked so dark and dreary for this city without a Daddy Warbucks or Father Christmas. Now is not the time to be—over-annunciated, with T. Rex-finger air-quotes—“politically correct.” Phrases like “City on a Hill” and “compassionate conservatism” have, for one thing, way too many words. For another thing, they dishonor a man who says what he means, means what he says, and actually means to be as mean as possible. He’s not unlike the hundreds of elected officials who have waited for this moment to realize decades-held ambitions. But none have so pursued destruction so single-mindedly, on so many fronts, and with such frankly malignant intent. With last year’s How the Hell Did This Happen?, P.J. O’Rourke atoned, at least partially, for his years of providing the GOP its sole comedic voice, but spoke best to this moment thirty years ago in an essay that praised the honesty of South Africa: “They don’t say, like the Americans, ‘Indians have a legal right to live in Ohio, but oops, we killed them all,'” he wrote in 1989. “The South Africans just say, ‘Fuck you.’ I believe it’s right there in their constitution: ‘Article IV: Fuck you. We’re bigots.'” So let’s remove those few strands of tinsel obscuring our leaders’ holiday message for us all. D.C. to U.S: Fuck You. And this time, they actually mean it.