The Sleight of Hand at the Heart of Trump’s Appeal

Stephen Ross, chairman and majority owner of the Related Companies, attends the grand opening of phase one of the Hudson Yards development on the West Side of Midtown Manhattan.
Stephen Ross, chairman and majority owner of the Related Companies, at the grand opening of the Hudson Yards development in Manhattan. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In February, this magazine described Stephen Ross as “what [Donald] Trump used to play on TV” but never was: a brash deal-maker with a discerning eye for lucrative real-estate projects, the execution of which made him one of the richest people in New York City. When asked what he thought of the president, Ross was equally disdainful. “I don’t like Donald, okay, we can stop there,” he told New York. “We’d be here all day.” On Wednesday, the Washington Post made it clear just how meaningful this aversion was. Ross is hosting a fundraiser at his Southampton home on Friday to benefit Trump’s reelection campaign, the Post reported, and the president is scheduled to make an appearance. At between $100,000 and $250,000 per plate, the event is priced to exclude all but those rich enough to invest generously and expect an even bigger return. Ross is worth $7.7 billion. In 2017, a judge ruled that he’d scammed the IRS by overstating the value of one of his gifts to the University of Michigan, enabling him to claim a $33 million tax deduction on a donation worth $3.4 million. Given Trump’s zeal for cutting taxes for the rich — and willingness to pardon those loyal to him, should they get in legal trouble — it’s not hard to see why such a return might appeal to a man like Ross.

Of course, the 79-year-old magnate was careful to frame his support more diplomatically in public. “I have known Donald Trump for 40 years, and while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions,” he said in a statement. Damage control was prudent. On top of his real-estate ventures, Ross owns the Miami Dolphins, the Equinox fitness company, and SoulCycle — entities which employ a large number of black athletes and cater to upscale female and LGBTQ urbanites, respectively. Some threatened boycotts after the Post’s report. “I started my business with nothing and a reason for my engagement with our leaders is my deep concern for creating jobs and growing our country’s economy,” Ross added. “I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges.”

This is a nimble sleight of hand: To reconcile his more egalitarian pursuits with efforts to ensure a two-term presidency for a virulent bigot, Ross is trying to split Trump in two ideologically — a racist one hand, and a leader with good ideas about the economy on the other (no matter that the economic growth for which Trump takes credit is mostly an extension of Obama-era trends). With unemployment already below the historical norm when he took office and monthly job gains topping 200,000 per month on average during his predecessor’s second term, Trump just needed to keep the keys in the ignition. So far, he’s managed to create jobs at a lower rate than Obama. But with this bar set, surely one of the 22 Democratic candidates could be an equally competent steward worth Ross’s investment — and as a bonus, perform said duties without the ICE raids or lethal prison camps for immigrants poisoning the results. Instead, Ross is either lying or delusional. Trump’s racism cannot be divided from his economic policies, because the former enables the latter. Appealing to racists, xenophobes, and Islamophobes is how Trump mobilizes white middle- and working-class support for Republican economic policies, and especially its tax cuts, which are otherwise unpopular and disproportionately benefit rich people and corporations.

It also continues a trend older than the United States itself, by which monied interests stoked — and often created — racist divisions to consolidate their own power. To quote historian Edmund S. Morgan, the “screen of racial contempt” erected to quell interracial revolt in the early Virginia Colony is a case in point. Within this divide lay the seeds for American slavery, which became both the backbone of a fledgling U.S. economy and the rationale for a war that almost broke the country in two. In 1607, when Englishmen began settling the mid-Atlantic, those with means relied on the indentured labor of mostly fellow Europeans to build an economy atop farming, and most lucratively, tobacco. But the terms of servitude were such that workers were free after a few years. Landowners had trouble sustaining a steady labor stream. They lobbied successfully for new laws that extended the required time served and forced ex-servants to come back, resulting in a citizenry “continually on the brink of rebellion,” as Morgan writes in his book American Slavery, American Freedom. By the late 1600s, when Nathaniel Bacon led his infamous interracial revolt against the Colony’s white governors, black slaves had been present in Virginia for decades. But they were expensive, and had become a sound investment only once longer life expectancies made pricey laborers-for-life cheaper in the long term than less-expensive servants leased for a few years. The Colonists pounced on this opportunity, and made laws enshrining its dynamic. “By a series of acts,” Morgan writes, “the assembly deliberately did what it could to foster the contempt of whites for blacks and Indians” — including forbidding black people from assaulting whites, but not vice versa.

As black enslavement became the norm and then the defining feature of black American life, these efforts produced an enduring black underclass still present more than 150 years after emancipation. This is why Eric Trump isn’t exonerating the president when he says, “My father sees one color: green … He does not see race.” Those who created American slavery and its corresponding caste system didn’t do so out of an ideological commitment to white supremacy. They did so to get rich. And their blueprint has been kept alive by leaders of both political parties — even as racism’s uses and manifestations have expanded, obscured, and been reconstituted to greet new persons and epochs. The dynamic is so timeworn that even the most outspoken bigots have tried appropriating its origin story as one that flatters them. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, a man who spends a chunk of his work hours spewing vitriol at “dirty” immigrants and Muslims, argued on Wednesday that progressives who draw attention to racism are the ones preventing class consciousness, not Republicans advancing white nationalism. “Every minute you’re angry about race is a minute you’re not thinking about class,” said the right-wing demagogue with a cable show that draws $97 million in revenue annually. “[Rich pundits on MSNBC] whip you into a frenzy of racial fear so it never enters your mind. It’s a diversion.”

That racism remains profitable nonetheless is undeniable, as is the fact that it’s the defining feature of Trump’s rise and Carlson’s success. Stephen Ross isn’t just shrouding his support for the president in denial of its relevance. He’s a breathing emblem of its material benefits. Even if he doesn’t endorse racism himself, he’s more than happy to reap its benefits. Because without it, the president he’s entrusted with expanding his personal wealth would have to convince millions of everyday white people that corporate welfare is good for them on its own terms. This tall order has eluded Republicans since the civil-rights era — which is why, instead, the party has spent the subsequent decades casting integration, poverty, unemployment, and the federal largesse that sought to respond to them, as stemming from the innate pathologies of nonwhite people. Ross doesn’t need to believe in this mission on a profound level to support it. Like those before him, dating back to the Colonial era, he just needs to recognize what’s good for his pocketbook and hop onboard for the ride.

The Sleight of Hand at the Heart of Trump’s Appeal