John Nichols, the author of Milagro Beanfield War once gave the keynote speech at a conference I attended in Colorado. If I recall correctly the name of his presentation was; “Everything I know about the West I Learned in New York.”
…something like that.
Anyway, the point of the speech was that the sort of problems he wrote about in work like Milagro Beanfield War simply weren’t really unique to the western states. They were much the same as they were anywhere else. Big money can be a terrible danger to small communities. That is as true of an inner city neighborhood facing gentrification as it is a small town in northern New Mexico facing a major development project.
I thought about this last night as I watched You’ve Been Trumped (2011), the story of Donald Trump’s efforts to develop a golf course in the community of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Conflict between Trump and his team, on the one hand, and a small group of locals who want to hold onto their own homes and their own community provide the central theme of the film. At least one Youtube channel describes this film as a David and Goliath story, which seems fair enough to me. Perhaps, that’s Milagro Beanfield War was too, a David and Goliath Story. The same could be said of Local Hero (a film referenced in You’ve Been Trumped). We could certainly find other such stories if we looked, but whats most striking about this one is that it’s real. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking it was as if someone had taken Nichols book and reworked into a movie script based in Scotland. That someone would have to be Donald Trump himself. It’s almost as if he took that former story of a heartless developer stomping all over a local community and said; “Yep! That villain is what I want to be.” The rest of the plot seems to flow smoothly from there.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not the most balanced documentary I’ve ever seen. If there are arguments in favor of Trump’s development, this film makes little effort to present them. The story-line focuses squarely on the conflicts with those living near Trump’s development project.I do wonder just how representative those individuals may be, and just what the overall balance of support and opposition to Trump may have been in the local community. The movie leaves a definite impression regarding such matters, but it doesn’t answer them squarely. That said, what this film does show is damning enough in its own terms. Within the narrow scope of Trump’s relationship to those resisting his project, the film reveals enough to condemn the man. Whatever might be said in favor of Trump’s development, the actions covered in this film are truly abysmal in their own right.
It’s fascinating to see how much of the ugliness we’ve seen from this man during his presidential campaign appears in this film from 2011. His abusiveness is on full display as Trump repeatedly describes one hold out (Michael Forbes) as a filthy man living a disgusting life amidst his own trash. His penchant for simply telling the most convenient story regardless of the facts at hand can easily be seen as Trump brags about his wonderful contributions to the environment by stabilizing local dunes even as the film repeatedly shows construction tearing up the land, diverting waterways, and disrupting the natural cycles of the local ecosystem. It’s also present in Trump’s claims to be serving the people of Scotland even as he wages a heavy-handed campaign of harassment against those Scots interfering with his plans for a business clearly aimed at tourists. And of course his easy dismissal of journalism can be seen in his demands for questions from ‘real journalists’ at a press conference, effectively dismissing those who might not support his business. We here in America have seen all this time and again over the last year. The people of Aberdeen had already seen plenty of it by 2011.
Of course others have seen similar treatment in countless places where Donald Trump has done business. This is just one of many instances in which one of Donald Trump’s grand schemes for development fell like a boot-stomp of a local community.
…which brings me to another interesting feature of this film. It helps to illustrate some of the foibles of popular right wing theories about the power-relations between government and big business. As with other populist candidates, much of Donald Trump’s appeal seems to be rooted popular resentment about elites. How such resentment could lead to support for a man who so clearly asserts aristocratic privilege over the mere peasantry is something of a mystery to me. Still, he does draw a great deal of his appeal from messages systematically distorting the modern political economy all across the media. At least a portion of this can be seen in the movie.
Let us start with libertarianism! This school of thought generally counsels us to avoid government entanglement with business, and with people’s personal lives. In principle this applies to any number of things, but in practice, the message is more likely to carry the day when the issues at stake are progressive taxation, welfare programs, or any number of government regulations tying the hands of big business. It’s a school of thought that consistently tells us we should not look to government to resolve questions of economic inequality. Central to the force of this message is a vision of equity in which government officials treat all people with equal regard and government programs afford equal rights to all of us. You’ve Been Trumped presents us with countless situations in which the Trump organization uses official power to defeat the mere peasants who stand in his plans. Those people suffer loss of electricity, water, and destruction of their property, to say nothing of a deliberate effort to block their view of the sea for the sake of doing just that. At each stage in this process officials are slow to listen to complains or respond to requests for assistance and quick to enforce rights claimed by Trump. It might be that particular disputes can be sorted out in the courts, but Trump’s organization clearly has the upper hand at stage in this process. The notion that this system is consistent with any formal sense of fairness is at best a laughable proposition.
Libertarians might object that they too wouldn’t support Trump’s use of municipal authorities to abuse local enemies, assuming of course that the abuses shown in this film stand up to critical scrutiny, but that hardly addresses the problem. What this film shows is the leverage that monied interests do get over every level of government authority in existence. It isn’t enough to moralize the issue, to stand on the sidelines and shout; “Hey stop, don’t do that.” The point is that this is exactly what happens when we allow substantial disparities in the distribution of economic resources. Those with more at their disposal WILL use those resources to skew government authority (something Donald Trump appears to have done throughout his long career as a public menace). Despite this fact, libertarian narratives continue to focus on the problems of aid to the poor. They offer no solution whatsoever to the sorts of problems shown in this film, but libertarians continually present themselves as underdogs hard at work fighting against ‘statist’ power. In practice that fight is virtually always a fight to take away what little help and what little protections those in need may have.When an actual aristocrat takes it upon himself to destroy the life of a man he deems to filthy to accord even the most minimal respect, libertarians are simply silent on the matter.
Anti-globalists provide one of the more consistent sources of support for Donald Trump in this election campaign. Alex Jones of Info Wars would have to be counted among his most visible supporters. He and his own fans often speak of Trump’s detractors as globalists, thus framing the whole election in terms of support for, or opposition globalism. Trump’s support for Brexit, combined with promise to build a wall on the southern U.S. border would seem to have earned him a great deal of points with this crowd. But of course this only counts if you have a really myopic view of globalism. It is one thing to stop people at your borders, which is what Trump is happy to offer the anti-globalist crowd, but of course money and power can easily flow right over those same borders. Yes, Trump has also declared his opposition to a number of international trade deals, but this is a man who has also taken advantage of opportunities on the other side of the border throughout his career. Simply put, big money doesn’t need a special trade deal to take advantage of foreign workers and foreign markets, and this movie illustrates that very clearly. It is Donald Trump’s wealth that enables him to go to a foreign country and simply have his way with a small local community. Nothing in Trump’s political agenda suggest that he intends to stop such things, and a good deal suggests that he intends to continue them.
Trump is happy to control borders, precisely because restricting the movement of workers is critical to optimizing profits under global market conditions. A world in which cheep labor can be found to the left and rich buyers are over to the right is not a bad deal for people like Donald Trump. In this respect, he is the perfect candidate for the anti-globalists. He will make a show of national boundaries, one they can be proud of, but he will never actually challenge the power relations at stake in the global economy. Neither Donald Trump nor Alex Jones really want to see anything truly revolutionary happen there. That might disrupt Jones’ sale of dietary supplements or keep Donald from demolishing coastal communities for his jet-set customers.
In the end, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that Donald Trump could run as a populist candidate. He isn’t the first pampered elitist to pose as the hope of the common man. Still, he does seem to be one of the most clueless, and it does scare me that he could easily become our President. I’m not a fan of Hillary either, to be honest, but I worry that the whole nation may soon hand the keys to a problem child with a history of wrecking most everything he touches. More than that, his candidacy helps to illustrate precisely why the underdog themes of those on the right always ring so hollow for me. Time and again, they consistently seem David for Goliath, or perhaps the David of later years, the one who steals another man’s wife at the height of his own wealth and power for the David of David and Goliath, the one who actually does face down a more powerful opponent. Time and again, the right wing plays the underdog to government power, all the while ignoring real questions about who is really putting one over on whom. It’s a bad habit that some have fallen into. It’s a habit that may soon cost us all.
Just ask the people of Aberdeenshire.