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

There was a moment during Donald Trump’s rambling and free-associative speech at Fountain Hills back on March 19 that seemed to sum up his appeal to a certain stripe of Arizonan.

“They just approved a budget, which is a disaster, the omnibus, they call it the omnibus budget,” he said in that hoarse, Queens-accented roar. “It is a total disaster. It funds Obamacare, it funds Syrians coming into the United States — we have no idea who they are — it funds illegal immigrants coming in through your border, right through Phoenix and right through, right through, it comes right through Arizona. All of these things are funded with the budget that they approved, and I think it took them like 12 minutes to approve the budget. Not going to happen anymore, folks. Not going to happen!”

If you sort through the incoherence and the misleading statistics and the orotund talk-radio-obsessed, red-faced-uncle, Navy-baseball-cap-wearing, pissed-offedness, you end up with a centerpiece of impressive rhetorical energy, one rammed into the audience’s sublimated consciousness with the repetitive lyricism of hip-hop and the noise and power of a monsoon. Right through Phoenix and right through, right through, it comes right through Arizona.

This is the sort of incantation that inspires a tribal sway: a kind of group ecstasy that transports the listener from the boring world of facts and limitations into an energetic realm of vicious threats and endless possibilities for cinematic triumph. Trump was saying more than he knew at this rally in the suburb with the ridiculous jet-powered fountain where Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes his home. Because what has also been roaring right through Arizona for the last three decades is a wave of what might be called proto-Trumpism and it has run right through, right through Arizona.

In ways defined by culture, demographics, and leadership, Arizona has been preparing the way for the national ascendancy of Donald Trump. It’s not just the strong base of support he enjoys among local Republicans, ranging the spectrum from Lake Havasu City conspiracy theorists to former Gov. Jan Brewer; he earned about a quarter-million GOP votes in the March 22 primary, skunking his next-closest rival, Ted Cruz, by a 2-1 margin. It’s not only the way that he has senior Sen. John McCain, who once looked the Viet Cong in the eyes and told them where to stick it, trembling like a kangaroo rat in the gaze of a raptor, even after the cowardly and draft-dodging Trump made fun of his captivity and dismissed his wartime heroism as McCain’s own fault. It’s not only the way that Gov. Doug Ducey allowed himself to be summoned to Trump Tower in June to pledge fealty to the Republican nominee, despite his apparent queasiness. And it’s not only the temporary sugar high that Trump’s rally at the Phoenix Convention Center provided to his crowds when he paraded the victims of crimes committed by immigrants in front of them on August 31. Recent polls show that Hillary Clinton might have a chance to grab our 11 electoral votes.

Every presidential election season, in a local ritual as regular as El Nino, a raft of predictions come down about how Arizona is going to grow weary of Sun Belt Republican paranoia that never solves anything, that the sleeping giant of the full Latino vote is going to emerge and that the state will revert to its territorial-era fondness for the Democratic Party. But it has not happened yet. We must face the reality that Arizona and its peculiar misanthropic culture has been laying the foundation for Trump’s America for some time now, in at least nine significant ways.

An economy built on harebrained real-estate deals found a perfect champion.

The homebuilding economy is mother’s milk to Arizona, and has been since the 1950s: The singular imperative of “growth” has always meant the consumption of more land on the margins of Phoenix and Tucson, which had been considered worthless dry pasture or, if close to a water source, acreage for orange and lemon trees. A massive web of professional employment — from zoning attorneys, to general contractors, to title agents, to pool tile-installers — makes up 10 percent of the labor pool dedicated to shaping protoplasmic blobs like Gilbert and Maricopa into giant clusters of humanity under baked-clay roofs.

Thus when Trump is asked about his “sacrifice” for the country, and he responds, “I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures,” a significant portion of the state’s population that wrings its paycheck from stucco and glass is primed to nod in recognition. The best evidence that can be gleaned from public records — since Trump won’t release his tax returns — is that his empire is mainly an illusion. He claimed in a press release last year to be worth “TEN BILLION DOLLARS” with the capital letters added for breathless effect, but financial journalists put the real figure at closer to $250 million, noting he owns only a single building and a parking garage outright in his hometown of New York City. The majority of his assets come from the perceived value of his name for licensing purposes on properties he does not actually own. 

“Trump is a hustler and booster, a caricature of the real-estate developer,” wrote former Arizona Republic columnist Jon Talton in an e-mail. “This demeanor and language translates well in suburban and exurban Arizona, where the economy and ‘culture’ are built on real-estate rackets instead of a real economy.”

Trump’s aversion to friends fits the geography.

One of the most poorly understood factors behind Arizona’s political dysfunction goes to the heart of a troubling social problem. The churn of population coming through our easy-down-payment state means the untangling of traditional bonds that hold communities together as units of mutual interest. Statistics show that for every three people that move to Arizona each year, two are moving out. Clubs, churches, and social organizations tend to have less prominence here, and the majority of “dialogue,” such as it is, takes place over the broadcast waves or the internet. Neighbors report anonymity and even hostility between one another. Our state ranks near the nation’s bottom in Gallup polls that chart social connections. Only 12 percent of people strongly agreed with the statement “people in our communities care about each other.” Loneliness can flourish in Arizona more easily. Even rational citizens in social milieus like this can experience what Steven Tepper, the dean of Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, has called “vacuums of meaning” in which extreme politics can thrive. 

The relentless vocabulary of our built environment doesn’t help: detached single-family homes and their high backyard walls marching endlessly to an exurban horizon of scant sidewalks and impoverished public spaces that can take three hours to drive across on a bad day. Politics can therefore be infected with mutual suspicion and alienation, even as the simple quality of friendship — one of the best energies of a healthy society — withers and dies in the airless heat of private poolside cocoons inside Saddle Ranch or The Canyons.

Arizona’s most famous politician, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, readily admits to having no confidants or non-relatives he enjoys being around. “I don’t know what that means, friendship,” he has said. The man who possible came the closest, disgraced former Deputy Dave Hendershott, who was at least an occasional lunch companion, was quickly shoved under the bus and fired after a 2011 report from the attorney general’s office alleging misconduct. Observers have long wondered if Arpaio could be clinically diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder or even sociopathy; his Nixonian disinterest in friendship also has raised the question if he is capable of feeling anything for others, especially considering the legendary cruelty of his jail policies. He seems to get his only pleasure in life from seeing his name in print.  

If he did have a capacity for friendship or empathy, however, Arpaio might find a kindred spirit in the man he has enthusiastically endorsed for president. “I have no friends, as far as I’m concerned,” Donald Trump told an audience in New Hampshire. “You know who my friends are? You’re my friends.” The New York Times found several people who had known him for years who said he spent almost no time socializing with anyone, preferring work and golf and watching television. He also has an aversion to shaking hands and never touches alcohol. But like Arpaio, he has a bottomless thirst for publicity, which seems to be his nearest approximation of intimacy. Which is also the sine qua non of the humorless bond he has forged with Arizona.

Trump got rich from government. So did we.

Without tax breaks and other government handouts, the Trump empire wouldn’t exist. He got his high-profile start in Manhattan real estate in 1973 with a 40-year tax break on his first big project, the Grand Hyatt in midtown. His signature Trump Tower — to which he attempts to retreat every night — also enjoys a $167 million waiver from New York City’s tax collectors for the purposes of “renovation.” The Los Angeles Times found examples of political contributions in New York, Nevada, Florida, and New Jersey that were adjacent to favorable treatment by local politicians. “It’s extraordinary to me that we elevated someone to this position of public importance who has openly admitted that he has used government’s incompetence as a wedge to increase his private fortune,” a former New York City auditor told the newspaper. All this collusion and borderline bribery from a candidate who disdains government.

Arizona behaved in a similar Janus-faced way in the latter half of the 20th century, electing Barry Goldwater to the U.S. Senate and vaulting him to national prominence on a message of brawny personal initiative and a wish for vanishing government involvement: a philosophy articulated in his ghostwritten book, Conscience of a Conservative, and aped by thousands of local officials ever since. A stance made economically possible in Arizona, of course, by a massive grocery cart towering with federal bounty ranging from the Roosevelt Dam, Luke and Davis-Monthan Air Force bases, fat defense contracts for Motorola and Hughes Aircraft, crop payments for farmers, grazing leases for landless ranchers, virtually free minerals for copper companies under the 1872 Mining Act, and the biggest aqueduct in American history: the $4 billion Central Arizona Project.

Federal handouts come big in Arizona, but not as big as the ingratitude and hypocrisy. “They’ve had all this wealth handed to them, but there’s also this John Wayne idea: ‘We did this,’” observed Jack August, director of the state historical museum. “The culture of affluence enabled people to divorce themselves from their own history.” 

Traditional political hierarchies aren’t worth much in the end.

Trump tore through the Republican primaries like an orange-colored wrecking ball, shouting a coded gospel of white nationalism that found a surprisingly enthusiastic audience among voters who had called themselves Republicans but were left frustrated by Congressional paralysis, bewildered by job losses, and upset with what they perceived as a culture of political correctness that kept leaders from identifying the “real” source of problems, namely immigrants and freeloading minorities. Establishment figures like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — no moderates themselves — were left with political wedgies, wondering what happened to them.

A crack-up in Arizona’s GOP political hierarchy foreshadowed this shift 30 years ahead of time. The quintessential insider, house majority leader Burton Barr, was ready to accept his coronation as governor in 1986 after years of making strategic alliances with Democrats and working through party hierarchies as any ordinary politician must. But the primary election instead went to a perennial candidate who many considered an anti-tax crank: Glendale Pontiac dealer Evan Mecham (television slogan: “If you can’t deal with Mecham, you just can’t deal”) who subscribed to the nutty far-right views of the Mormon demagogue W. Cleon Skousen and believed the role of the federal government ought to be strictly limited to raising an army, printing money, and delivering mail.

After winning the general election against divided Democrats, Mecham immediately commenced a Trump-like stampede of impulsive and tone-deaf proclamations, starting with his nullification of the state’s new Martin Luther King, Jr. paid holiday, followed with gratuitous swipes at Japanese businessmen, small black children, and gays. His finances were also shady: He accepted a secret loan from a Tempe lawyer that he barely knew, Barry “Scary Barry” Wolfson, who had made a fortune convincing poor cities to borrow money at high interest rates. Mecham went down in American history as the only governor to be impeached, indicted, and facing a recall all at the same time — a trifecta of dishonor that might (except for the recall) play out on a horrific presidential stage in case Trump somehow blunders into a path to victory in November.

In any case, Arizona has elected plenty of sub-Mechams to public office ever since the 1980s: vicious grandstanders with no capability for good management practice and no real interest in governing. Together they form a rump parliament of proto-Trumpism, as some commentators have called it — Sylvia Allen, Paul Gosar, Joe Arpaio, Paul Babeu, Frank Antenori, Al Melvin, many others barely worth the mention — and their presence in the halls of power helped normalize their paranoid discourse and even make it seem sort of centrist, inoculating us against further outrageous lies and preparing us for the vile bacteria of Trump.

Public policy gets made with all the compassion of talk radio.

The internet not only turned local newspapers and television stations into sad husks of their former selves, it also changed the way Americans digest their information and form their opinions. For most of the twentieth century, the carefully neutral Associated Press pyramid in Rockefeller Center beamed out a stream of colorless words that used to form a general view of the average citizen’s conception of “public events,” and newspapers from the New York Times to the Mesa Tribune would generally fall in line, as did virtually every radio and television station.

Information sources are far more specialized and fragmented today, and it has become far easier for latter-day Father Coughlin fabulist blowhards like Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity to define a partisan “reality” that happens to lovingly caress the victim-reward center in the neurology of the listeners and allow them to get in touch with their deep-seated repressions — sexual and otherwise. With its flaccid mainstream media culture, Arizona features an especially fortissimo chorus of these troubadours of white-man anger, including Tucson’s favorite mountebank, Jon Justice of KQTH, virtually every interchangeable jabbering voice on KTAR, and the now-retired Barry Young, who gassed up the airwaves with verbal flatulence on KFYI for nearly 30 years. Arizona loves its right-wing radio hosts so much that one of its own former Congressmen, J.D. Hayworth, found a new career as one after he left office.

The biggest public-affairs difficulty with conservative talk radio is not the loathsome drivel that it spews in the name of entertainment, but rather the expectation it fosters in its listeners that all political differences are really mortal combats between good and evil, and that instant solutions to problems — such as those that can be snarled in a declarative phrase on the radio, preferably with an edge of violence (“Build a wall!” “Defund Obamacare!” “Lock her up!” “Kill the terrorists!”) — are immediately at hand if only these annoying liberals and their pantywaist friends would get out of the way. Compromise becomes unthinkable.

The hot rhetoric encourages Arizona politicians to make cinematic and totally unrealistic promises to voters, such as privileged scion Ben Quayle threatening in a video ad to “knock the hell out of Washington” in his 2010 Congressional campaign (it was the other way around: He served only one forgettable term), or career lobbyist Sydney Hay patronizingly asking voters via highway signs if they felt “Pain at the Pump?” during an era of high gasoline prices, suggesting to the gullible that a first-term backbencher could lead a grateful nation into drilling into wildlife refuges and further unsavory bargains with corrupt dictatorships, thus ushering in an Eden of unlimited petroleum and no health care for poor people.      

An acknowledged Grand Wizard of the laughable promise is, of course, Donald Trump, who managed to pull off that first Hyatt coup in 1973 by telling both the city and the hotel that both sides had signed off, when neither had. Tony Schwartz, the repentant co-author of a tiresome 1987 brag disguised as a business manual called The Art of the Deal, said that Trump’s attention span was so short he could not sit for more than five minutes without getting agitated and that he had likely not ever read an entire book through (despite Trump’s recent insistence that “nobody reads the Bible more than me,” followed by an inability to cite even one verse of it).

Here’s Trump talking about Trump in The Art of the Deal: “I play to people’s fantasies. ... People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and it’s a very effective form of promotion.” This is the same major party nominee who praised the professional conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, who repeats National Enquirer headlines as though they were fact, who endorses the dangerous lie that vaccines cause autism, who says he’s learned everything he knows about foreign policy from Sunday television talk shows. 

Just as a fun thought exercise, assess the following statement concerning 2 million people now inside the U.S. with alleged criminal convictions: “Day one, my first hour in office, those people are gone. And you can call it deported if you want. The press doesn’t like that term. You can call it whatever the hell you want. They’re gone.” Or this: “On day one, we will begin working on impenetrable, physical, tall, power, beautiful southern border wall.”

These statements were made in Phoenix on August 31.

Trump and Arizona both demonize immigrants while clandestinely exploiting them.

Despite his nativist bombast, Trump employed at least 200 illegal Polish workers to help bulldoze the historic Bonwit Teller department store on Fifth Avenue to make room for Trump Tower, and then, true to a longstanding business practice, stiffed them on their wages and tried to pay them in vodka. His Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida runs almost exclusively on cheap foreign labor. Trump Model Management (not surprisingly, there is such an entity) encouraged young women from overseas to ignore visa requirements.

He would be right home in Arizona, where the pitch of anti-immigrant pandering in the GOP is often equaled only by the extent to which the state’s business community — especially those catering to homebuilding and tourism, where landscaping, cooking, and cleaning are always needed — have gotten rich from exploiting the sweat-and-callouses labor pool that streamed northward from 2001 until 2010, when it began to dwindle. During that time, State Sen. Russell Pearce (a former Arpaio henchman with a scowling disposition) convinced the legislature to pass the notorious and unconstitutional SB 1070 that forced local police officers to interrogate suspected migrants, becoming racial profilers in the bargain. National media gave this cruel law wide coverage, as well as the euphoric response it received among the FOX News base. 

Unfounded hysteria about immigration still infects Arizona’s GOP like dengue fever, even though illegal migration is now at record lows since it peaked in 2005. Data also shows that migrants contribute far more money to the economy than they take away, and they also commit fewer crimes than native citizens. 

Those figures are nevertheless disbelieved like climate change, perhaps because the real picture doesn’t fit the demons-from-hell narrative that found one of its most strident spokesmen in Paul Babeu, a current candidate for Congress who made his name as a Pinal County sheriff who spent as much time appearing on right-wing talk shows as he did stockpiling Humvees for useless war games in the desert against drug mules. The Shakespearean marriage between Arizona and its immigrants — a local version of Trump and his Slovakia-born bride, Melania — found the pinnacle of its human expression in Sheriff Babeu himself, who allegedly threatened to deport a jealous male Mexican immigrant lover named Jose Orozco had who found the lawman’s shirtless photo listed in a profile for “studboi1” on a hookup website as he trawled for new boyfriends.

We yell about them by day and screw them by night.