On Wednesday morning in Atlantic City, conditions were perfect for a demolition: 27 degrees and clear, the sun shining over the gray sea. Inside Caesars, I walked through the forest of slot machines toward One Atlantic, a sleek wedding venue repurposed as a gallery for viewing the city’s divorce from Donald Trump.
Reporters and city officials filed onto the balcony as a crowd formed on the sand below, angling for a look at Trump Plaza as it loomed across the boardwalk for 60 seconds more, an ugly mosaic of beige cement and black tarp, depressing even by the standards of the Atlantic City skyline in February.
In 1984, the former president opened the casino as a 39-story symbol of the scalability of the Trump brand. Within three decades, he would add two more casinos and watch them all collapse into bankruptcy and closure and disrepair.
By the time he was the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, his failures in Atlantic City were so well established that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, staged a press conference on the rubble of the Trump Plaza, which had been shut down in 2014. And by the time his single term and presidency was over, the building was a carcass, teetering above a rotting Rainforest Cafe attached to what was once the lobby. It was the only Trump casino still barely standing.
Mayor Marty Small positioned himself before a local TV camera, the casino right over his shoulder. Growing up, he said, he’d attended Wrestlemania IV and Wrestlemania V, events the Trump Plaza sponsored in 1988 and 1989, just before its financial decline. Small had been hyping the demolition for weeks, even distributing on social media a flyer that looked more like a movie poster than a press release, with the casino decorated by a flaming stick of dynamite and a ribbon of caution tape. “TRUMP PLAZA IMPLOSION EVENT,” it read, along with an invitation to “pull up and watch” across the Chelsea Harbor at Bader Field.
Inside the Trump Plaza, engineers had selected columns on which to place explosives, so that the building would collapse into itself. A flock of seagulls danced up the tower and a man nearby joked that they didn’t know what was coming. I wondered how many birds died during routine razings. Trump always claimed to be concerned about birds being killed by wind turbines (which statistically kill fewer birds annually than windows on skyscrapers) because he didn’t like how windmills devalued his golf course in Scotland by intruding on the view.
The clock started at 9:07 a.m. “Here we go, countdown!” The mayor’s chief of staff said. “In three … two … one …” At first it sounded like a storm, like the first cries of thunder.
The casino was still, and then it wasn’t. In the next moment, the thunder turned to drumming and cracking and booming, and the casino seemed to shiver. It looked, in a strange way, almost alive. One side fell first, sending the rest into a slinky motion, until it was melted into pieces. The people on the balcony cheered and whistled and clapped.
Debris escaped the casino shards in puffs like a final gasp. The clouds grew so large and moved so fast that the people on the balcony came charging to the doors, shielding their faces and squinting and coughing and laughing.
It was the end of the Trump era in America and now it was the end in Atlantic City, but it was also just exciting to see something bigger than you destroyed before your eyes. Yet I left with my eyes and lips burning, ashes from the former president’s pretend empire stuck to my skin and my hair, and a sour, chalky taste in my mouth.
“Five years to build and two seconds to go down!” someone yelled. “A puff of smoke!” said another voice.
Correction: Today is Wednesday, not Monday.