Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Long Read: Bored Walk Empire

This week's Sunday Long Read is Book of Numbers author Joshua Cohen's case that as he looks back at growing up in New Jersey, the forces most responsible for the downfall of Atlantic City are people you, as ZVTS readers, might have heard of in passing: one Chris Christie and one Donald J. Trump.

I FIRST NOTICED THIS SEA CHANGE LAST FALL, when a certain type of red-faced, overweight, whatcha-gonna-do-about-it New Jersey/New York male commandeered our national politics. Both Donald Trump and Chris Christie were talked about in my family constantly—Trump since before I was even in utero, and Christie since George W. Bush appointed him US Attorney for New Jersey in 2001, and especially since he became governor in 2010. But it was only after suffering through their schoolyard-bully penis-contests during the 2016 Republican primaries that I began to recognize how similar they were, how alike in personality and in unctuous, disingenuous style. If I hadn’t detected their toxic resemblance before, it was only because they’d been menacing different playgrounds: Trump having always been nominally private sector, brandishing the better, or just more recognizable, brand; Christie having always been nominally public sector, an elected official who must be held to higher standards. The ongoing SEC and Congressional and New Jersey State investigations into Christie’s alleged misappropriation of Port Authority monies, his allegedly having made federal emergency relief funds available to Jersey cities affected by Hurricane Sandy contingent on city-government support of unrelated state-government initiatives, and, finally, his allegedly having ordered the George Washington Bridge closed as an act of political retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee—and so snarling a major artery from Manhattan—will likely continue beyond the conclusion of his term in 2018. Jersey’s governor has always been such an unmitigated prick that what stunned me most last spring wasn’t Trump’s emergence as the GOP frontrunner, but Christie’s dutiful dropping-out and endorsing him—his assuming a role, even after Trump passed him over for VP, halfway between that of a catamite-butler and henchman-capo, the butt of Trump’s insulting fat jokes and the fetcher of his milkshakes and fries.

The Republican primary debates marked the televised degeneration of their friendship—or whatever a friendship can mean in politics—which began only in 2002, when Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, then a Philadelphia-based judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, nominated to that position by Bill Clinton, introduced her brother to the governor. The Christies were invited to Trump’s third wedding, to Melania; the Trumps were invited to Christie’s first inauguration. A year into Christie’s first term, and six years after the State of New Jersey had started to pursue collection of the almost $30 million in back taxes owed by Trump’s casinos, the State suddenly reversed course and settled for $5 million. Trump contributed an exceedingly modest share of the money he saved to the restoration of New Jersey’s historic gubernatorial residence, Drumthwacket. New Jersey’s near-miraculous tax-forgiveness must be understood in the same way as its governor’s near-miraculous abjection: neither are demonstrations of Trump’s master outmaneuvering, but rather of Christie’s cravenness. Christie will do anything to win, or be on the winning team. If he can’t be President, or VP, he’ll plump for chief of staff, or attorney general, or even just settle for a monogrammed-T swag bag with a Trump hat, Trump steaks, Trump wine. Christie’s not only inept, he’s also running out of options: there isn’t much of his party left to knock around. Politics (budget meetings in the State House in Trenton) used to be distinct from entertainment (The Celebrity Apprentice in syndication), but no more. Christie seems jealous of Trump, not just of his financial success or his nomination, but of how well and recklessly Trump, as a former/current reality TV star, can lie. Christie has always just ignored, withheld, or fastidiously obfuscated. Trump, by contrast, can’t afford not to be blatant or audacious in his untruths, so as to keep earning free airtime from the cable networks and radio stations whose ratings and ad revenues increase—blatantly, audaciously—in correspondence.

To me, Trump was always a blusterer, a conniver, a mouth: a cotton-candy-haired clown who crashed the AC party late and left it early and ugly. To my parents and their cadre, the Republican nominee was a more malevolent breed of fraud: a dishonest client and dysfunctional boss. I spent my first weekend in AC convincing my parents to introduce me, or reintroduce me, to their casino friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, and spent my first week explaining my presence to many concerned and baffled adults, to people who didn’t recognize me from childhood, to people I didn’t recognize from childhood, and to strangers and all and sundry who’d make the time to talk Trump with me. The word I heard most often in reference to the GOP candidate—from Steven Perskie, the former New Jersey assemblyman and state senator whose original gaming referendum brought casinos to AC in 1976; from Nelson Johnson, the New Jersey superior court judge who wrote the book version of Boardwalk Empire; from Mayor Don Guardian, one of the few AC mayors in my lifetime not to have been charged with corruption; from Ibrahim Abdali and his cousin who’d only identify himself as Mohammed, Afghan refugees who sell pipes and bongs and martial arts weaponry on the Boardwalk—the word I heard most often was failure.

Every Trump account I was given in AC described a man so extraordinarily bad at business, or at being anything besides a business-celebrity, that he was forced to switch from building casinos to branding casinos with his name, that polysemous pentagrammaton he charged his partners to use and then sued them to remove once the decaying properties became a liability. In the 1980s and ’90s, the casinos with which Trump was associated comprised between a third and a quarter of AC’s gaming industry. The Playboy Hotel and Casino, which was founded in ’81, became the Atlantis in ’84, and went bankrupt in ’85, was acquired by Trump in ’89 and renamed The Trump Regency; he renamed it again as Trump’s World’s Fair in ’96, and it was closed in ’99 and demolished in 2000. Trump Castle, built in cooperation with Hilton in ’85, was rebranded as Trump Marina in ’97, sold at a loss to Landry’s Inc. in 2011, and is now operated by Landry’s as the Golden Nugget. Trump Plaza, built in cooperation with Harrah’s in ’84, went bankrupt and shuttered in 2014 and now just rots.

And then there’s the Trump Taj Mahal, which Trump built with the help of Resorts International in 1990 on financial footings so shaky and negligent that by the end of the decade he’d racked up more than $3.4 billion in debt, including business (mostly high-interest junk-bond) and personal debt which he handled by conflating them. By lumping them together under the auspices of a publicly traded company, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, he dumped all his burdens onto the backs of his shareholders even as he continued to treat his casino receipts as profits, to be raided and reinvested in development in New York. Even while Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts bled an average of $49 million a year into the late ’90s, even while its share price plummeted from $35 to $0.17 through the early 2000s, Trump himself continued to receive a salary in the millions, not to mention bonuses and the monies his personally held companies made from his publicly traded company leasing office space in Manhattan’s Trump Tower and renting Trump Shuttle helicopters and Trump Airlines airplanes to fly around showroom-acts and high-rollers. Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts finally went bankrupt in 2004, and in its restructuring became Trump Entertainment Resorts, which itself went bankrupt in 2014 and was fire-sold to Icahn Enterprises, whose subsidiary, Tropicana Entertainment Inc., has run the Taj into a $100 million hole. Carl Icahn, the conglomerate’s chairman, was once a wary adversary who now endorses Trump, though he’s declined Trump’s offer to become the next secretary of the treasury: “I am flattered but do not get up early enough in the morning to accept this opportunity.”

On July 1, at the height of the season, the Taj’s unionized employees from UNITE HERE Local 54 went on strike, demanding a wage increase and the reinstatement of health and pension benefits suspended in the transfer of ownership. Negotiations were never scheduled; Icahn and the union couldn’t agree on a venue, let alone an agenda. In early August, Icahn announced that he’d be closing the Taj after Labor Day. And so the fall forecast kept getting grimmer, with the loss of the city’s most prominent casino and more than 2,800 jobs.

The Taj’s demise would be chronicled throughout the summer by the New York Times and the Washington Post, in articles framed as analyses of Trump’s finances. These articles, like the leveraged-debt practices they documented, were virtuoso feats, given that they were researched without access to the candidate’s tax returns, which he refuses to release. But reading them induced headaches: all those loans and defaults and shell-companies shattered, keeping track of them was like counting the beach, grain by grain.

As several of you have mentioned before, Trump is the evil carney barker of American entrepreneurship, the blending of Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko of Wall Street and Jonathan Pryce's Mr. Dark of Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Nothing brings this to the forefront like Trump's abject failures in Atlantic City and the lengths to which he went to cover them up. 

The reality is that the one guy in America who could have absolutely ended Donald Trump's political career before it started was Chris Christie, who could have easily opened the boardwalk books on Trump and sunk him, but my suspicion is Christie, being a lawyer and federal prosecutor himself, realized too late that cozying up to Trump was a thread that if he pulled at would have unraveled his own campaign as well.  Perhaps that why Trump was so confident he could run against Christie and win, and did just that.

Cohen neatly dissects the pathology of Trump, the con man who failed at business spectacularly, but who succeeded beyond his wildest dreams at convincing everyone else he was a success, and the trail of victims in Trump's wake certainly includes the current governor of New Jersey.  If anything Cohen's piece giving voice to the warnings about Atlantic City stands as a prediction of what awaits America's economy in a Trump administration should the unthinkable happen.

Maybe it's not so unthinkable after all.

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