New York Still Doesn’t Like Trump, But We Made Him

By
Trump atop Trump Tower in 1987. Photo: Harry Benson

We didn’t vote for him. We can show you the numbers if you want. We keep explaining to foreigners — meaning anyone who doesn’t live in our city — that we loathe him, that we reject him, that we never liked him, that we were the first to know him and the first to understand who he was.

We know, though, when we’re alone with our thoughts, how unconvincing that sounds. We know that, on some level, he is ours.

We can’t shake it. This is the quiet mortification of being a New Yorker one year after the election — the confession we don’t make, the guilty dread that shrouds us. The thing that all of America now has to endure came out of our clay. This gold-speckled golem who was slammed and slapped and shoved together out of the mud and sweat and smell of other people’s underpaid labor, this human vanity plate, this miasma of bombast and rudeness and noise and threat? He grew right out of the arrogant, peacocking slogans we deploy to sell this city to the world—the city that never sleeps; if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere; we tell it like it is, and if you don’t like it, get lost. He is our smug exceptionalism without our redemptive irony. We look at him and cringe, because he is New York, but the wrong New York. A caricature of our city at its worst.

We pretend he’s not a real New Yorker. He’d never eat a street hot dog because, my God, the dirty water and the rat parts and the germs. He’d never take in a Mets game because, my God, the crowds and the beer smell and have you seen the bathrooms? He’d never go to Coney Island or Orchard Beach because, my God, that’s for people who can’t afford to do anything else, and do you know how long the trip back to the city is?

We insist that all of this makes him inauthentic. We also pretend that we ourselves have never had any of those thoughts, that the Manhattan provincialism immortalized in Saul Steinberg’s famous cartoon isn’t a point of actual pride for us. We always knew that was a joke, though. Right?

We know there are many New Yorks. We erase and raze and rebuild and overwrite our own identity daily in everything from language to food to fashion to architecture. We cannot believe that he picked one of the all-time worst versions of this city — the pre-crash ’80s New York of midtown and too much money in too few hands, of the arrogance of gilded, amped entitlement and the racism and presumption that go with it, and decided to embody that forever, lodging in that moment like a bone in our throats.

We don’t like to talk about tribalism, but we always know it’s here. Our very geography warns us of its persistence. It’s baked right into the names that linger from the generation of our grandparents and great-grandparents — Chinatown, Little Italy, Spanish Harlem. The Irish got Hell’s Kitchen, the Germans got Yorkville, the blacks — yes, some people still say “the blacks,” including New Yorkers who would never think of voting for him yet allow themselves to sound in private the way he always has in public. We tell ourselves racism is just a vestigial pollutant in ever-shrinking sections of the city. But we know it’s a scent that our city has never been able to mask. We hate him for that reminder.

We know that the sparring, bordered factionalism that defines his world runs deep within us, even among nice people who give to the food bank and Planned Parenthood but will take to the streets if you screw with their school district. We’re not many generations — maybe not any generations — past electing a sneering, race-baiting lawman as mayor because we were tired of stepping over crack vials, tired of the crime, the filth, and — to use the word he loves — the animals. We wanted a bully to stand astride the ruins and testify to our toughness, our indomitability. We got one.

We thought that guy was bad enough. But he turned out to be just the preamble to this one. We remember now that this one was always there, even in the very worst of all weeks, lurking in the background, fantasizing about thousands of cheering Muslims on New Jersey rooftops and yammering to a journalist, with the rapt, oblivious self-absorption that has always been his trademark, that actually, now, downtown’s largest building was his.

We groaned. Of course he thought that. Naturally he would hate anything that’s bigger than what he built, that obstructed his vision of himself as first among titans. How petty. How pathetic. How small.

We forgot, in that moment, that we built the buildings, that we announced, as we do so often, how much size matters, that “biggest” and the bragging rights that go with it are a core New York value.

We sometimes forget how we used to say, “Actually, they aren’t very nice buildings.”

We try not to think about how a lot of things we used to say sound so much worse when they come out of his mouth.

We knew that viciousness had always fueled him, the son and heir of a landlord who thought they were all animals and wanted to keep them out of his buildings and his neighborhoods, who longed for a real rain to wash the scum off the streets, a Travis Bickle in a corner office instead of a taxi. His public coming of age was announced with the full-page ad in 1989 in which he called for the deaths of five teenage boys — four black, one Latino — who were accused of raping a white woman. Their convictions were vacated in 2002. He never apologized. Never apologize, never explain: It makes you look weak, it gives the losers an edge. But we mostly ignored the new expression of his hatred — his anti-Muslim seething, his certainty that more killers were among us. Why worry about a real-estate salesman, an Atlantic City casino hustler, who drew his energy from any camera that would turn toward him? We thought he was just another mosquito in the room. He wasn’t. He was the mole on our back that we couldn’t quite see and never got checked, the part of the infection that the antibiotic never reaches, the danger that isn’t dead, only dormant.

We can’t stop explaining that he’s vulgar. We insist that this loud, tell-it-like-it-is boor is an anomaly, as if this city didn’t generate Howard Sterns and Curtis Sliwas and Bill O’Reillys by the bucket and hand every barroom loudmouth who darkly amuses us a lifetime supply of megaphones. We fancy ourselves a city of sophisticates, of people who don’t resort to overkill. We flinch at the way he slaps his name on everything, at all the crass marble and more-is-more ostentation, because he’s from Queens, for God’s sake; who does he think he’s fooling?

We recoil from his snobbery because all snobbery is wrong but also because we’re snobs who believe his snobbery is especially wrong. We think he should hide his neediness more skillfully. Didn’t he ever learn that the way to do it is to speak softly and show up for fund-raisers for the opera and the New York Public Library and occasionally endow something? Not just a road-beautification sign that makes everybody on the West Side Highway hate him the minute they hit 79th Street and see his name?

We think he should know how to be rich better.

We can’t say the city doesn’t love money, after all. That isn’t a value we dismiss — its heart hammers deep in the concrete of Wall Street and its arteries run up Fifth and Park Avenues into banks and trading firms and media empires and tech start-ups. We like ambition, but we revere achievement, and we overinvest people who make it, especially the ultrarich, with a host of qualities they may not possess — ingenuity, intelligence, savvy, street smarts — even when they’re being used to con us. We adhere too readily to the faith that somebody who is good at making money will be good at everything. Once, not long ago, a Wall Street billionaire with no political experience came along and said, “I should be mayor.” We noted his philanthropy and restraint. We told ourselves that wealth means nobody can own you. And we said okay. Then, four years later, we said it again. Then, four years after that, we said it a third time. We took the idea that America is a business that just needs a billionaire CEO and voluntarily beta-tested it for the rest of the country. Then we acted surprised when they believed us.

We reward success and size — you come to this big, hypercaffeinated, competitive city to make it big, and if you do, we will make you a star. And when he says that when you’re a star, they let you do anything, isn’t he just crudely parroting what he learned here? He is the dream, even if he is not what we want the dream to look like.

We are a city of media, and the symbiotic relationship between our ink and his lifeblood has been in place for decades. We are a tabloid town; he is a tabloid creature. He should have been easy to cut down to size, enthralled with the question of size as he has always been, and isn’t one job of a tabloid to level the field, to twit the mighty? Others might have been shamed by “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had.” He saw his picture next to the word “Sex” and called it a win. We are a city that knows how to humiliate pretenders, second-bests, wannabes, posers. But we are not a city that knows how to shame the shameless. That brought us to our knees.

We know that he is obsessed with indexes, rankings, metrics, numbers. We, the city of hundred-most-powerful lists and wealthiest-Americans rosters and stock tickers and eagerly perused cable-news overnights, taught him that. We schooled him on how much it matters to be No. 1, to have the most, to come out on top. There are winners and losers. And yes, losers is our word, too, not just his. We imagine that when we use that word, we’re hitting him where he lives. But it’s also where we live. We are a city of obsessive scorekeepers. What is pathological in him is present in us.

We think we’re actually very nice and award ourselves tiny Nobels every time we stop midstride to give a stranger directions. We wonder why we didn’t realize in time, though, that on a national stage, it’s the other New York that turns out to be the big selling point. We can’t get over the fact that much of the rest of America decided, in an embrace of ugliness, that it takes an ugly man from an ugly city to do an ugly job. We fear, sometimes, that we sold them on this.

We wonder how his supporters can hate our city so much but love a man whose soul seems to be an amalgam of the very things we hate about it. We couldn’t stand him, so we let him know it at every opportunity — in the headlines, in the streets, in editorial cartoons and late-night monologues and protest signs and graffiti scrawls. We see him as the hasty, trashy, laminate version of New York you can pick up at a Hudson News just before you board a flight to somewhere else — a mug and a Statue of Liberty bobblehead and an empty-headed secret-to-success hardcover and a plastic Big Apple with a leering worm chewing through it. He is the gaudy brochure of our city we toss at outsiders. But we wrote the brochure.

We are unmatched at expressing contempt. We have never wearied of telling him, “You will never be one of us.” In retrospect, that was, perhaps, not the wisest thing to say to the single most vengeance-driven figure in 21st-century public life. Besides, we were incorrect. He was always one of us—the public face of our most reactionary ideas, our emptiest values, and our basest instincts. Because we’re a city of imagemaking and reputation and standing, we assumed it would matter, to him or to anyone else, what we thought of him. We were wrong.

We thought we were better than this, and we don’t believe we were mistaken. We have a long way to go to fulfill the dream of a New York in which nobody would own this presumptive “we” more than anybody else. We know how far we are from it, and we find optimism a challenge right now, but we can hope.

We find ways, meanwhile, not to have to walk past Fifth and 56th, and we seethe in front of MSNBC at night and trade theories and fantasies about what will bring him down, and we count the days until the midterms, because he is standing in the way of everything we want this city, and by extension this country, to be. But also because at heart, for all our goodness, we too can be vengeance-driven. Where do you think he learned it? Why do you think he ran?

We know him. And this native familiarity with what drove him all the way to where he is now is what haunts us one year into the horror: the possibility that he did it because we taught him. He did it because we built him. He did it because we made him.

*This article appears in the October 30, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

New York Still Doesn’t Like Trump, But We Made Him