Atlantic City As GOP Metaphor

Jim Williams, of Calvi Electric, lowers the letter 'M' from the signage of Trump Plaza Casino to his co-worker Steven Nordaby
Jim Williams, of Calvi Electric, lowers the letter 'M' from the signage of Trump Plaza Casino to his co-worker Steven Nordaby in Atlantic City, New Jersey October 6, 2014. Workers began removing the large letters spelling out the Trump name from the shuttered Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City on Monday after real-estate mogul Donald Trump sued to end a licensing deal that allowed the casino owners to use his name. Trump, who has emblazoned his name across properties in various U.S. cities, sued in August to have his name taken off the Trump Plaza, which closed last month, and the nearby Trump Taj Mahal, which is on the verge of closing. REUTERS/Mark Makela (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY TRAVEL)

In a normal election cycle, this news item related to one of the two major candidates might have made it to the front page. But of course. . .yeah, you can fill in that blank.

So you may have missed the story out of Atlantic City: The Trump Taj Mahal has closed this week. The last bit of Donald's branded boardwalk excess is shutting its doors after years of financial underperformance and an intractable labor situation.

Trump will be quick to tell you that he has nothing to do with the Taj anymore. Not his fault, he'll tell you, his name just sits over the entrance. He pulled up and left town long ago in a pattern that is truly remarkable. Trump is like King Midas' evil twin: everything he touches turns to ashes. Like Atlantic City.

Atlantic City is hurting. America's original family resort town went into a slow decline after the war. Casino gambling was going to reverse that. Casinos would bring in money faster than it could be counted. All those millions of slots jockeys and dice-rollers who lived in the Northeast would no longer have to travel all the way to Nevada to feel lucky. Atlantic City was just an easy car ride from Philadelphia or New York. And if you took a casino bus, they'd spot you $20 in quarters just to get you started.

It didn't turn out that way, of course. The promise of rescuing the city with casino revenues proved as illusory as one of those big black-jack payoffs you might see on a casino billboard. Besides, now there are casinos everywhere and many Americans only have to go down the street to gamble.

Trump moved into Atlantic City in the early 1980s and opened the Taj in 1990. It was pure Trump: big (the tallest building in New Jersey), garish, and so utterly tasteless as a piece of architecture than you almost had to laugh. It also performed the Trumpian task of being both expensive to build - $1 billion - while being cheap and tacky at the same time.

He didn't spend his own money on the thing, of course. As the New York Times reported in great detail, Trump borrowed and borrowed mostly by issuing junk bonds, back when those were all the rage. Trump couldn't ever pay the money back and so he began to gut his other Atlantic City operations to cover the nut. Once his daddy had to come up with the money to make a debt payment - it came in the form of casino chips, which was very clever if, in fact, illegal.

But none of this troubled Trump. He is quite proud of how much money he made in Atlantic City. In an interview not that long ago he boasted: "Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do. Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time." In the end, (or frankly, even in the beginning) what was good for Trump was not good for Atlantic City, as the 3000 laid-off workers at the Taj Mahal will tell you.

Cash cow. That's the phrase to keep in mind. Don't think of Donald's Atlantic City adventure as a failure - as a failure to create jobs or a sustainable business or some larger civic good. Think of it instead the way Donald does: as an incredible success for Donald's ambition first and last: to promote himself and to make money.

Think of what Trump did in (and to) Atlantic City as exactly the same thing he is doing to the Republican Party. Trump saw the GOP as both a platform for his ego and a distressed property to turn into a cash cow. His charge through the primaries was really a measure of just what an empty shell the Party had become as a functional institution. Trump was a blustering, bullying buffoon but he was surrounded by midgets and hollow men because that's the best the GOP could come up with.

So having executed his hostile take-over, he's gutting the assets for his own benefit. Trump the Narcissist gets his ego-stroked every time he has a rally. Trump the Avaricious has been using the run for president as a brand-building campaign. And like those old ladies he fleeced at the slot machines, Trump continues to treat his supporters like suckers. Contributions to Trump's campaign are used to pay jacked-up rents to Trump properties for Trump campaign events for example.

On November 9, Trump will waltz on to his next reality TV gig or launch the Fascists News Network, leaving the Republican Party in disarray and in a shambles. That won't just be the collateral damage of a failed candidacy - that's the Trump model of doing business. Just ask Atlantic City.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His recent book Americans Against the City is now out in paperback.