“I’ve been studying the history of American conservatism full time since 1997—almost 20 years now,” Rick Perlstein writes. “I’ve read almost every major book on the subject. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Then along comes Donald Trump to scramble the whole goddamned script.” Among several things I learned reading his Washington Spectator essay was the arrest of father Fred Trump at the infamous 1927 Ku Klux Klan rally in Queens.
Accelerate several decades to the drop dead years:
It is in this saga that we locate the formation of Donald Trump’s mature political vision of the world, in continuity with America’s racist and nativist heyday of the 1920s, and within the context of a cultural world much more familiar to us: New York in the 1970s, that raging cauldron of skyrocketing violent crime, subway trains slathered with graffiti, and a fiscal crisis so dire that even police were laid off in mass—then the laid off cops blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, deflating car tires, and yanking keys from car ignitions.
Think of Trump coming of age in the New York of the 1977 blackout, the search for the Son of Sam, and Howard Cosell barking out “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” during game two of the World Series at Yankee stadium as a helicopter hovered over a five-alarm fire at an abandoned elementary school (40 percent of buildings in the Bronx were destroyed by the end of the 1970s, mostly via arson—often torched by landlords seeking insurance windfalls).
Think of Trump learning about the ins and outs of public life in this New York, a city of a frightened white outer-borough middle-class poised between fight or flight, in which real estate was everywhere and always a battleground, when the politics of race and crime bore all the intensity of civil war.
This was the period of Ed Koch, Roy Cohn, Bernhard Goetz — a city fed up with crime and what Perlstein calls “liberal timorousness” supported demagogues who had no quibbles about inciting racial animosities. From this cauldron drank Trump, who I remember from the time of The Art of the Deal getting wistful about the days when “New York’s finest” protected the city (and purchased, Perlstein notes, full pages in four New York newspapers demanding, “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”).