NEW YORK—Donald Trump has developed a sudden, surprising reverence for the past. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he wrote on Twitter last week. These tributes to the Confederacy “will be greatly missed,” he added. While this opinion meshed, perhaps, with his checkered record on race, his defense of aged statuary seemed to clash with Trump’s long-standing indifference to all things historical.
Trump, according to those who know him best, is not a man given to backward looks—“the most present human being I ever met,” in the words of an intimate. Traditionally, Trump has seen the past as something to be either razed or twisted for expedience. He once ordered the destruction of a pair of unique friezes to make way for Trump Tower after he reportedly had pledged to donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the years, he has not so much read history as raided it, cherry-picking discredited scraps to wield as rhetorical cudgels.
“Trump has about as much interest in history as he does in literature and philosophy,” biographer Tim O’Brien told me recently. “Which is to say almost nonexistent.”
But Trump did not arrive at this worldview entirely on his own. It turns out there are historical roots to the president’s problematic relationship with history. As with so much of his antagonistic style, it is a trait he picked up from one of the most influential men in his life—his father. Decades before Donald Trump would irk and flout the prim preservationists of Manhattan, Fred Trump waged his own come-one-come-all assault on an old, beloved bit of the city’s cultural topography.
The elder Trump was a domineering, politically connected developer who was used to getting what he wanted, and the sordid saga of how he reacted one time when he didn’t is highlighted in a display in the open-air exhibition hall of the Coney Island History Project. On Saturday, at the base of the Wonder Wheel and surrounded by the jangly sounds of hucksters’ carnival games, I read the organization’s account. For the small group dedicated to collecting and telling the rich history of this neighborhood at the southern tip of Brooklyn long known for its boardwalk and amusement areas, what Fred Trump did in the fall of 1966 clearly still feels like a fresh wound.
Steeplechase Park, with its painted mechanical horses, gondola ride, parachute jump and arcade games, had been a Coney Island linchpin since 1897. But business was down. Its owners wanted out. They didn’t open in 1965 and instead sold the property to Trump for $2.5 million. Trump wanted to erect a “modern, Miami Beach-type high-rise apartment development,” but he encountered intense local pushback and ultimately was denied the necessary zoning change. “He could not overcome New Yorkers’ abiding nostalgia for the Coney Island that was,” Gwenda Blair wrote in her 2000 book, The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire. The past had gotten in his way.
Spurned and sour about it, Fred Trump got his revenge by staging an almost adolescent spectacle, sending formal invitations to reporters and VIPs to join him in “marking” the “demolition of Steeplechase Park” and to “record the end of a nostalgic era in Coney Island history.” On a rainy September 21, 1966, as models in bikinis posed for pictures in the oversized shovel of a bulldozer, a grinning Trump held an ax and prodded his guests to whip bricks through the signature stained glass “funny face” on the façade of the park’s pavilion. The headline in the New York Times: “6 Bikinied Beauties Attend Demolishing Of Coney Landmark.” There’s no indication Trump’s ambitious middle son was present—that fall was his first semester at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School after transferring from Fordham in the Bronx. After the party, though, Fred Trump had the rest of the site leveled, ensuring it couldn’t be granted status as a historic landmark. In the end, Trump never got the zoning change he sought, building nothing—but nonetheless pocketing more than $1 million in profit when he sold the land to the city.
“This sad event,” Charles Denson, the executive director of the Coney Island History Project, wrote in conjunction with the exhibition’s debut last summer, “was a vindictive and shameful act by a grown man behaving like a juvenile delinquent. It wasn’t business—it was personal. The desecration of an icon and the breaking of glass as public spectacle revealed a twisted personality that was unusual for even the most hard-bitten developers.”
“It’s almost the equivalent of ISIS tearing down religious icons, because the Steeplechase face was so iconic and really represented Coney Island,” Denson told me Saturday.
“Horrifying,” he called what Fred Trump did.
“Barbaric,” said Tricia Vita, the administrative director of the History Project.
It wasn’t even the first time Fred Trump had been instrumental in the obliteration of a culturally resonant Coney Island structure. In 1954, after the city seized the Luna Park area for the purposes of urban renewal and kicked it to Trump, he and his workers quickly rid the plot of the neighborhood’s oldest roller coaster. “They demolished the coaster like it was made of toothpicks, and we couldn’t salvage anything,” a member of the family of the previous owners told Denson for his book called Wild Ride! “They wouldn’t let you in there. They just went in with chains and cables, lassoed the top, tied it to a bulldozer, and pulled the son of a gun down. They wrecked everything.”
Reading these recollections, and lingering inside the Coney Island History Project on a hot, sunny, summer afternoon seven months into the first White House term of Fred Trump’s son, it was hard not to think of the friezes on the handsome front of the Bonwit Teller building. In 1980, nine miles north, in midtown Manhattan, the then-33-year-old Trump scion greenlighted the demolition of the pair of Art Deco bas-relief structures Met staffers were expecting to receive. In a brief preview of what was to come, it was Trump’s first scandal of sorts that was all his own, instead of shared with his father, a few-days dust-up in the newspapers that ultimately did little but fan his fledgling fame. At the time, Trump couldn’t fathom why the fate of tired items was a big deal. “Donald seemed genuinely befuddled by the fuss,” Trump Tower architect Alan Lapidus told Blair for her biography. “He couldn’t stand anything from before,” Der Scutt, another architect on the project, wrote in his diary, according to Blair’s reporting. “He wants his own clean image …”
“They weren’t even sculptures,” Trump told Graydon Carter four years later for a 1984 profile for GQ. “They were stones with some engraving on them. They were nothing. Just junk.”
“Old, bad; new, good,” Blair said last week. “That was really how he looked at everything.”
Actually, when Blair approached Trump while she was working on her book—it was not only a biography of Donald Trump but a history of his family on this side of the Atlantic Ocean—he was puzzled, she recalled. “When I told him that I wanted to do a historic look at the family, looking at these three generations who had been here,” she said, “he just looked sort of … Huh? Why would you do that?”
In spite of his relatively recent assertion that he’s “a big history fan,” Trump’s far from a historian.
The Art of the Deal, published in 1987, the foundational document of the created character that is now the most important person on the planet, is a “best-selling, non-fiction work of fiction,” as O’Brien, the biographer, put it in his 2005 book, TrumpNation.
“He’s a propagandist,” O’Brien told me. “He’s a mythologist.”
After he bought Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump liked to tell people a young Walt Disney painted the nursery rhyme-themed tiles in a room in the children’s suite. The butler that doubles as house historian would roll his eyes in a reminder that this was untrue. Trump’s response: “Who cares?”
“He makes up the past to suit his need,” a former business associate told me, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about Trump’s loose, abusive relationship with historical reality. At his club in Northern Virginia, for instance, a plaque between golf holes commemorates a Civil War battle that never happened. When confronted in 2015 by a reporter from the Times with the fact that local historians refuted his whole-cloth non-history, Trump sniffed, questioning the concept of academic integrity. “How would they know that?” he said. “Were they there?”
What history is good for, Trump has said many times, is to learn from it. “If history teaches us anything,” he tweeted in 2012, it’s that strong nations require strong leaders ….” In 2013, he tweeted a quote from Dwight Eisenhower’s first inaugural address: “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.” Not too long after that, he met with Michael D’Antonio for an interview for the biography called The Truth About Trump. “I don’t like to think too much about the past—other than to learn,” Trump said. “They only thing I like about the past is to learn from it, because if you make a mistake, you want to learn from it. Now, I’d much rather learn from other people making mistakes.”
Trump told D’Antonio he reads “a lot.”
“Well,” Trump said, “when I say I read a lot, I’m talking about current reading of the press and the media.”
Although he included in his 2009 book Think Like a Champion an addendum labeled “recommended reading”—among the selections were Doris Kearns Goodwin’s works about Abraham Lincoln and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as well as one of William Manchester’s volumes on Winston Churchill—Trump confirmed in 2016 to Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher of the Washington Post that he doesn’t read biographies of presidents. He doesn’t have time, he explained.
On the campaign trail, Trump trafficked in history ranging from transparently facile to dangerously dubious. In his promise to potential voters to eliminate ISIS, he talked frequently in speeches and at rallies of “medieval times.”
“Not since medieval times have you read about heads being chopped off, people being murdered and killed to the extent that they’re being murdered and killed now,” he told the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association on January 19, 2016, in Altoona, Iowa. “When I would go and read and study history—I always loved history, for some reason—and you’d read about medieval times. This is medieval times. We’re in medieval times.”
A month later, in North Charleston, South Carolina, he relayed a tale of General “Black Jack” Pershing and the strategic, anti-terrorist use of 50 bullets dipped in pig’s blood. “This story is a fabrication,” Texas A&M historian Brian McAllister Linn said to PolitiFact, which dinged Trump with a “Pants on Fire” lie. No matter: “This is something you can read in the history books,” Trump said to the people who had gathered on February 19, 2016, at the North Charleston Convention Center. “Not a lot of history books—because they don’t like teaching this.” He transitioned from there to his contention that the early 21st century is akin to medieval times. “Medieval times!” he said. “I read—I loved history when I was in high school. And I’d read about medieval times. Boom! Boom! Chop off heads!” From behind his Low Country lectern, he swiped the air with his right hand, mimicking the brutality of decapitation.
As president, he has made a series of statements that have unsettled historians as well as lay citizens who paid attention in middle-school social studies. In February, he said something that suggested that he was unaware that Frederick Douglass, the noted abolitionist, had been dead for more than a century. In March, he wondered out loud if most people knew that Lincoln was a Republican. “Right?” he said. “Does anyone know?” In May, he asked in a radio interview with a conservative writer about the cause of the Civil War in a manner historians consideredignorant at best and sinister at worst. “The Civil War, if you think about it, why?” Trump said.
“Trump,” Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote last month, “is an ahistorical president at a time of historical geostrategic shifts.”
“This is someone who clearly hasn’t studied history,” D’Antonio, the biographer, said last week on CNN. When we talked a couple days later, he said, “I doubt that he’s read any work of history since high school.”
In the wake of his tweets about the monuments of Confederate generals, I called Blair. “The idea of his reverence of history,” she said, “would be risible if it weren’t so disturbing.”
A little more than five hours after the tweets about the statues, Trump tweeted about Pershing, re-invoking the PolitiFact-ed scenario about bullets and pig’s blood. “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught,” Trump typed last week in response to the van attack in Barcelona. “There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”
In prior iterations of this falsehood, he had put the number of years at 25, or 42.
Trump, said Denson, the boss of the Coney Island History Project, is just like his father. “They have no respect for history, whatsoever,” he said Saturday. “No respect for anything but themselves, really.”