A bad landlords paradise...
A bad landlord's paradise... stockelements/gettyimages.com

The Mueller Report has already hit Trump's ratings and generated posts about how it "makes a damning case about Trump's dishonesty." But the fact that Trump abused his power comes as no surprise to his numerous critics on the right and left. The man in the report seems exactly like the man who has spent a considerable part of his presidency tweeting. But I want to propose an idea about President Trump that offers some clarity to the substance of the Mueller Report, the kind of businessman he is, and how he is running the highest office in the land.

The important thing to keep in mind as I describe this idea is that many have over-emphasized Trump the reality TV star, and ignored Trump the businessman. This has resulted in a terrible misreading of his management of the White House. People see the boss on The Apprentice extended, without a break, to the boss in the Oval Office. They see the high turnover of his administration as evidence of this continuity. Indeed, the former White House aide, Omarosa Manigault, was an Apprentice contestant; and the Omarosa on the show was much like the Omarosa in the West Wing. But this interpretation explains only a few and unhelpful aspects of the kind of presidency the US is in the middle of.

Trump was only a reality TV star for a very short period of his working career, which begins in the early 1970s. For much of that time, he was, one, a landlord, and, two, a developer. This fact is deeply important, and is brilliantly explored in the third-to-last chapter of a new book by Samuel Stein, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (the inspiration for this post). The point: Trump is not running the US like a reality TV star but like a very bad landlord.


Now, before I explain Stein's interpretation of the Trump presidency, I need to point out that over the past decade, I have heard from friend after friend horror stories about bad landlords. How they brazenly broke the rules of an agreement, took forever to fix a problem, increased rent erratically, their propensity for eccentric behavior, and how they completely ignored all manner of grievances until facing an order from the court—and even then, it wasn't certain that something would be done. In this regard, Marti Jonjak's description of a "standoff with a landlord after [she] kept getting rent-increase notices in violation of [her] lease" is at once, unoriginal and prophetic. It is unoriginal because, for those in the working and middle classes, it's a standard experience. Bad landlords are almost everywhere, and doing the same crazy and infuriating things that make life in the city miserable. It's prophetic in the sense that the experience of a bad landlord prepared Jonjak and millions of renters for Trump's presidency.

This is the point made in Capital City, a book by an urban planner who will speak in Seattle during the Red May festival. The book is very readable, keeps theory at a distance, and focuses on the historical developments in urban planning that led to the present situation. New York City is, as with David Harvey (the theorist), his model city for a form of urbanism that has been globalized.

Stein's book has two important achievements: one, it sees that urban planning has been directed not by a unified capitalist class, but one that has different interests with different consequences for the production of urban spaces. And so, for example, industrial capitalists want affordable housing because it makes labor cheaper. The removal of this kind of capitalist from the city core has meant that the low-income housing agenda has suffered a hard and lasting (if not fatal) blow.

Capitalists associated with real estate want nothing to do with social or affordable housing. That is not how they make money. But they also want places to be livable, and so side with critics (usually on the left) who place the environment above industrial production, with its pollution and land abuses. True, industrialists want cheaper housing for workers but also want lax environmental rules that don't cut into their profits. In the city of our time, capitalist in the real estate racket rule the city and also the country and globe. And it is here that Trump's presidency finally makes sense. He exemplifies the enormous power of the real estate sector, not of reality TV.

Stein brilliantly maps the history of housing in the US by first describing it, and then matching it with the story of the Trumps in the chapter, "Developer President." There is first, Friedrich Trump, a German whose American experience was defined by exploiting opportunities of the US's laissez-faire period—loose laws, outright corruption, whore houses. This Trump made his money in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest under these very relaxed political conditions. Next is Fred Trump, a white supremacist who made money from the government's attempt to resolve the flaws of the laissez-faire. He ran circles around socialist New Deal programs and made a fortune. He was also a terrible landlord and was regularly taken to court by his tenants. He drove them crazy.

Lastly, was Donald Trump, who began as a landlord but moved with the new times, the neoliberal times that emerged in the late 1970s, and became a developer who, one, developed only luxury projects, and, two, demanded huge tax cuts for the execution of these gaudy projects. In Trump the developer we have the kind of urban policies and politics that not only define Seattle's relationship with Amazon but frame that between any 21st-century city and its business community. It has a name. It is called geobribery. It is public finances at the service of private developments that are indifferent to workers and demands for affordability. Trump is a king of this kind of thing.

Stein writes:

The Trump family saga shows the progression of real estate in relation to planning over time: first from opportunists (like Friedrich) who capitalized on planners’ work; then to builders (like Fred) who were directly financed by the state; and finally to tycoons (like Donald) who starved the state before seizing it. Like the larger class of real estate developers, the Trumps played planners for profit and walked away with the country.

Support The Stranger

This family's story fits perfectly with the story of American capitalism and urbanism. And this understanding explains why Trump picked Ben Carson the brain surgeon to eviscerate the bane of all slumlords, HUD; and why he picked a hustler in the subprime racket, Steven Mnuchin, to run the country's money, the Treasury Department. These appointments, which have been the most stable in an unusually chaotic administration, are in Trump's business DNA.

And there is Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, another bad landlord and the son of a colorful criminal. In Stein's book:

Kushner’s renters... were horrified at the prospect of their landlord in the White House. One of the rent-stabilized tenants he spent years harassing told a reporter [that with] “Trump’s appointment of Kushner... the whole country’s going to experience what we’ve been going through.”

This is our presidency. In the Mueller Report is a figure you know very well. A figure who can make a renter's life a living nightmare. A bad landlord is running the country.