Proto-Trump: How Arizona Laid the Foundation for Donald Trump's America

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Arizona yearns for a businessman savior.

Where did we ever get this cockeyed idea that “government should be run like a business”? It sounds like a shrewd-enough insight when made as a declarative statement, and certainly people feel good about their own sense of probity and efficiency when making it emphatically at the Thanksgiving table. Never mind the basic reality that government is not supposed to turn a profit (if it did, it would be a thief) and that it is supposed to supply money-losing essentials like laws, regulations, police, courts, fire protection, air traffic control, parks, military, roads, mental-health care, food safety, and about a thousand other services that business never could, or would do badly. Arizona has had the idea that certain historical government provinces like prisons and K-12 schools should be turned over to opaque corporations, and it was probably no wonder that the biggest for-profit challenger to state universities was the University of Phoenix, until its influence began to collapse amid charges of scamming veterans and other venerable populations. In fact, Gov. Ducey, formerly of Cold Stone Creamery, got himself elected in 2014 mainly by proclaiming himself the most talented ice cream CEO that ever scooped a cone.

Trump perfectly fits Arizona’s hunger for a businessman-in-chief. Other than racist code language, this was the biggest part of his message that vaulted him over 16 opponents in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. “I’m really rich,” he said in June 2015. “I don’t need anybody’s money — it’s nice ... I’m proud of my net worth. I’ve done an amazing job.”

The surface appeal was that he couldn’t be bought by special interests. The deeper appeal was that anyone who could make — by his own inflated tally — TEN BILLION DOLLARS in licensing and real estate deals must possess the skills to run a country. Left unsaid, of course, was the probability that the Trump fortune was worth barely 8 percent of that, based on a 2005 assessment from Deutsche Bank and the routine puffing of his property’s values when seeking loans.

Also left undiscussed was the magnate’s habit of stiffing contractors and paying his creditors pennies on the dollar when business failures loom — a welshing strategy that made his name toxic among U.S. banks, and which he suggested he would bring to U.S. monetary policy by forcing overseas lenders to take “a haircut” on American debt. Most economists agree that writing down $19 trillion would likely crash the world economy and create a massive depression. In a state whose mortgage default rate was more than twice the national average during the meltdown last decade, and where nearly one in five homeowners is still underwater today, Trump’s lack of financial prudence is a familiar refrain.

We’re both obsessed with a magic fence.

Here was a gem of wishful thinking from Trump’s March 19 Fountain Hills speech: “We’re gonna have a wall up, a real point, okay, big beautiful wall that nobody’s crossing and nobody’s going underneath, either. By the way, just in case you have any questions, don’t worry about the tunnel stuff. Nobody’s going over it or under it and we’re going to have, by the way, a big beautiful door and people are going to come into our country but they’re going to come into our country legally. Legally.”

This is not the first time we’ve heard about this ocean-to-gulf fence, a favorite Death Star fantasy of local and national gasbags. Since 1993, various attempts have been made to erect an impregnable barrier across 2,000 miles of rocky and undulating terrain, and all have been near-total failures. The worst and most expensive was a surveillance and drone program initiated under George W. Bush, which resulted in $1 billion spent on a paltry 53 miles before it was discredited. Around the same time, U.S. officials found at least 51 smuggling tunnels in Nogales, Arizona alone, and those were just the ones detected, not to mention all the ones continuing to operate quietly outside the city limits. The desert is vast. The hundred-year-old military lessons of the Maginot Line always go unheeded by the television screamers, as do the words of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) who called the fantasy fence “a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” 

Trump’s love of architectural tackiness and golf courses fits a local narrative.

This is a stylistic matter, but a significant one nonetheless. The Valley of the Sun — a touristic marketing moniker coined in 1935 — helped build reputation and population partly through its ecosystem of grand golf resorts. Beginning with the San Marcos in Chandler in 1922, and accelerating with the Arizona Biltmore near 24th Street and Camelback Road in 1929 and the Wigwam in Litchfield Park that opened a year later, the wintertime economy boomed on links of healthy bluegrass anchored by genteel hotels at the center.

This basic model helped spawn a $3.4 billion cash flow and hundreds of Grayhawks, Esplendors, Boulders, Pointes, Kierlands, Legacies, and various lesser estates with lower standards of taste, but with hard perimeters of guard booths, electric gates, a defensive ring of townhouse casitas for the plaid-pants set, faux-Tuscan clubhouses, and stiff membership fees that give physical walls to the modern class system. All this in an environment hostile to grass: Golf courses are the greediest water hogs of Maricopa County, sucking down 80 million gallons per day just to keep them alive.

Some of the mega-chateaus at the heart of these fake Scottish pastures are designed in déclassé glitter with all the refinement of the poker room at the Golden Nugget. Few hotels had a more notorious history than the Phoenician, financed with $300 million of mostly-swindled money by S&L bandit Charles Keating. He gilded its dome with 24-karat gold; the sumptuous pool and its waterfall were designed by architects flown in from Tonga; 11 Steinway pianos were placed throughout the echoing public areas.

Just like home, in other words, for Donald Trump whose own sense of bad taste radiates throughout his branded hotel properties: an emphasis on gold-plating, smoked glass, vomit-colored carpet, and baroque interiors, even after you get past that name slapped everywhere in screaming capital letters. “A poke in the eye,” said a local architectural critic of the 20-foot TRUMP sign on the Chicago Trump International Hotel & Tower, now the second-tallest building in town.

He has no Arizona properties — yet.      

For a time during Trump’s bad week of insulting the family of a slain Muslim American soldier, it appeared his tacky star might be sinking in Arizona and that the Democrats’ longstanding post-New Deal dreams of “turning Arizona blue” might finally be realized. But a series of polls near the end of August had him leading Hillary Clinton by a comfortable four-point margin. He may well lose the presidency in an epic drumpfing, but his turnout numbers here are likely to be significantly above the national average. No surprise that he should have chosen to give his “major immigration speech” at the Phoenix Convention Center.

“I am so glad to be back in Arizona,” he said then. “The state that has a very, very special place in my heart. I love the people of Arizona, and together we are going to win the White House in November. Now you know this is where it all began for me.”

Where it all began. He found his second political home in Arizona because we have been running a greenhouse for him and his malodorous brand of politics for years. Our state and its punitive and symbolic immigration laws provided a test market for Trumpism. Its survival here encouraged him to look beyond the Hudson River for new domains to conquer. “We are the litmus test for the nation,” noted Jack August.

Let us be clear: the argument of this essay is not meant to imply an Arizona Exceptionalism that somehow created Trump on its own. His rise was a convergence of multiple factors: the economic frustrations of white America, his own vainglorious personality, the singular money-is-celebrity tabloid culture of New York City, ideological rot within the Republican Party, the reluctance of the press to take him seriously, his undeniable entertainment value, the unapologetic racism among a certain portion of the electorate. The significant factor described in the paragraphs above is a type of influential 21st-century political style that manifests especially loudly in Arizona and with which the state will have to confront after Trump has passed from the scene. Proto-Trumpism will likely survive its chief spokesman.

Historians will probably look back on the presidential season of 2015-16 and wonder how it all could have happened, and marvel that the biggest and strongest democracy in the world could have been held hostage and abused in such a way: a tinseled huckster with a bullying streak who could roar a few coded racist phrases and find an enthusiastic audience of aggrieved suckers, thereby hijacking our entire majestic apparatus of executive selection in the service of his bottomless need for approval that no prize could ever satisfy.

They might also look at the equally majestic expanse between the Grand Canyon and the Santa Rita Mountains and wonder how it might have been lacquered with orange-and-red horizons of characterless instant housing labyrinths, artificial lakes and urban commercial waste, a dead-zone where conversations and friendships and real human connections were pushed to the side — not in the name of building a humane civilization but out of a gnawing hunger for growth and profits and individual hubris that also had no bottom.

Tom Zoellner, a fifth-generation Arizonan, is a former staff writer for the Arizona Republic, and the author of A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America.  

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Tom Zoellner
Contact: Tom Zoellner