Here is a list of things that generally occur during the period leading up to and through a seasonal storm in Wildwood, New Jersey: aware tourists strip all of their bathing suits from railings, chartered boats begin to bottleneck the shore, deep-sea anglers employ talk of separating the men from the boys, local affiliates broadcast flood warnings, armchair meteorologists debate the radar, restaurants and bars begin to move all of their seating indoors, the movie theaters recoup losses, vacationing families bond over a deck of cards, the wind plays hell on banners, a wooden menu board collapses, the sky goes white with lightning, a teeming rain begins to fall, the amusement piers go dark, arcades put cardboard mats down on their floors, entire families wear cheap ponchos, a girl stands shivering in wet clothes, the air runs deep with saltwater, the streets curl up with steam, the breeze runs cool and perfect, red lights begin to gleam.
Such was the case on the evening of June 14th, 1998, an hour of which I spent inside the Guest Services booth at Surfside Pier. There was a girl working in Guest Services whom I had been eager to meet. I had noticed this girl rounding the Dime Pitch every day at 5 PM. I had noticed that this girl stood 5’2, and that she wore what appeared to be imitation Diors. I had noticed that this girl had freckles, and that those freckles came obscured by an alabaster tan. I had noticed that this girl’s body was toned, and that her hair was short, and dark, and that she either pinned it back or let it fall. I had noticed that this girl’s ankle boasted a tattoo of what appeared to be barbed wire, and that her arm boasted a tattoo of what appeared to be a crimson sun. I had noticed that this girl generally arrived for work either accompanied by a female coworker or alone. Seeing her every afternoon provided me a subtle jolt. It felt like morning coffee, like finding a handwritten note left in the dirt.
There were still players at the Dime Pitch. I could see them in the distance, tossing coins into the wind. I could see the silhouettes of several ride ops. They stood huddled beneath an awning, the hue of cigarettes dancing like fireflies whenever they inhaled. The lion’s share of employees had packed themselves into a hallway. I high-stepped over them, holding my breath due to a heightened stench of B.O. Upon entering Guest Services, I introduced myself to the girl with the tattoos. She ignored me. Undeterred, I handed the girl a stuffed frog that I had pulled out of the Lost-and-Found. This frog had a cardboard tag attached to its neck that read: “You don’t love me, you just love my froggy style.” The girl picked it up, saying, “Aw, thanks,” before tossing it into a garbage can that was positioned next to her feet.
I made small talk, and discovered that both girls working in Guest Services were roommates; that they were renting a house on East Juniper, that they had four additional roommates, and no specific plans for the evening. I gave them my address. I’d be having people over, I explained. This was an impromptu decision, one that required me inviting over other guests, as well. I was living alone at 212 East Magnolia, in a cabana behind the main house that I had lived in throughout 1993. This cabana included a kitchen with a breakfast nook, a spacious living room, a pull-out couch. It included a bedroom with twin beds. Its bayside windows opened out onto a vacant lot, which meant that late-night noise would never be a problem.
Surfside called it quits just after 11. An hour later there were a handful of people at my apartment. I was playing chess with Mike Strickler when the girl with the tattoos arrived. She was alone, wearing denim overalls that covered a three-quarter-length shirt. Across her forehead, an earth-tone bandana that accentuated the emerald in her eyes. She introduced herself. Her name was Talia. It occurred to me that I had forgotten to ask.
By 2 AM half of my guests were heading out to the bars. By 3 AM the other half had departed. Talia and I were on our own now, and we were talking. Talia was from Northeast Philadelphia, 10 blocks south of Cottman and the Boulevard. Talia had studied modern dance at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). Talia was a Scorpio, like me. She had a druggy past, like me. She dug The Roots (Questlove and Black Thought were 1989 alumni from CAPA). She was Filipino on her mother’s side.
I leaned in to kiss Talia around 4 AM. She kissed me back. There were flood whistles going off all over the island.
I walked Talia home that night. One night later we got drunk and she invited me to stay over. Talia had her own bedroom. She had proper bedding with an egg-crate liner. Talia held a second job as a chamber maid, and there were mornings when I’d wake up to nothing more than a note. I took to spending nights with Talia, and days off, and dinner breaks, and jaunts to work. I viewed Talia as a reflection of myself. I could speak freely around her. I could make funny faces and play with my food. I did not revere Talia in the way I once had Meghan, but I could identify with her, particularly because Talia struck me as being abrasive in a way that signifies hurt.
I had been a spinning compass for the past two summers, freewheeling from one sexual dalliance to another. During May of 1998 alone, I had disappeared from my sister’s wedding with one of the guests, engaged in sex with a pair of best friends, and slept with a woman whose daughter worked as a game operator on Surfside Pier. I had zero scruples, and limited interest beyond inflating my own ego. A lot of that changed, however, after Talia and I met up at The Fairview one June evening. Talia was wearing a skin-tight mini-dress (midnight blue), and she was dancing, as was custom. Amidst the smoke and flashing lights, I noticed a pair of dudes grinding up against Talia, from the front and from behind. I felt angry, and strangely vindicated. I would parlay this into an argument, I decided. And that argument would, in turn, lead to a clearer definition of our roles.
At some point between that evening and dawn I had transitioned into being Talia’s boyfriend – he who seemed hellbent on ruining everybody else’s good time. Talia and I shared friends, a few of whom saw fit to warn her about my sexual past, my history of behaving like an opportunist, and my tendency toward being extremely possessive in relationships. Valid arguments, which I responded to by clarifying that I had only been in one long-term relationship (despite being 24), and that I had never even come close to stepping out while I was involved. I was possessive because I suffered from low self-esteem. I struggled to understand why any woman of considerable worth would want to spend her time with me.
One night in mid-July Talia and I stayed up and we told stories and we looked over a box of old mementos in my room. We were celebrating something – a month to the day since the two of us first met. At 7 AM I walked Talia to the bus stop. She was en route to Northeast Philadelphia to spend a few days with her parents. I waved goodbye and hurried back to my apartment. I turned on the AC. It felt superb to sleep alone.
I was sitting on a worn-out carpet, leaning my back against a bed frame for lack of any chair. I was reading a Rolling Stone cover story about the final episode of Seinfeld. This story’s layout featured the show’s primary cast members, made up to look like their imaginary counterparts from The Wizard of Oz. There was Julia-Louis Dreyfus (as Dorothy), Jerry Seinfeld (as the Tin Man), Jason Alexander (as the Cowardly Lion), and Michael Richards (as the Scarecrow). All four of them were skipping off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Seinfeld’s finale was scheduled to air later that evening, capping off a five-month build that was reminiscent to that of Cheers, an NBC sitcom that had run for 11 seasons (275 episodes) to Seinfeld’s nine (180). Seinfeld was no longer as entertaining as it had once been, due in part to Larry David having departed. Regardless, the show’s popularity remained high. Seinfeld had pervaded the culture, representing the prestige of Must See TV. Without it, Thursday nights would soldier forward, NBC touting the likes of Friends and Frasier and Veronica’s Closet, two out of the three of which wouldn’t have existed without Cheers.
These were my thoughts as I sat reading in a single room along the third floor of the Mag House – a massive boarding space for Morey Organization employees. Located on Magnolia Avenue between Atlantic and Ocean, the Mag House operated like a dormitory. There was a GA on the ground floor, and he recorded the names of any guests who weren’t employed by Morey’s Piers. Rents ranged from $50-75 a week, a fee which was deducted from one’s paycheck. There was a bathroom at the end of every hallway; a dank domain of phantom razors and caked-up soap dishes. Mosquitoes magically appeared out of the spigots; any functioning light bulbs were immediately stolen. The carpet in my room showed cigarette burns and its texture pricked the skin like naked wires. Along one wall, there was a bunk bed; along another, a wooden bureau. One could borrow metal chairs from any common area. There was a kitchen on each floor.
And then there was that sound: ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch. It had a rhythm like maracas – tight, and droning on for hours. That sound came wafting up through the rafters, either putting me to sleep or plaguing my subconscious. I grabbed my Walkman and threw on a denim jacket. I left my room and wandered east.
Along the promenade I passed wet paint. I passed proprietors who were filling shelves with last year’s stock. I passed some tourists down by Mariner’s. They seemed perplexed a giant pier would still be closed. I passed the Whaling Wall along East Garfield; I passed Atlantic Books where thinning blocks ran droll. I passed it all until I reached the boardwalk’s edge. I lit a smoke and turned around.
Looking north from here it became apparent how much of a monopoly the Moreys had built up along the east side of the strand. In addition to owning three of the five amusement piers within an 18-block strain, the Moreys were entering negotiations to assume ownership of a fourth. Dinosaur Beach, which had shouldered previous incarnations as Ocean Pier, Hunt’s Pier, and Conko’s Party Pier, respectively, currently belonged to the Catanosos – a family that leased the Steel Pier in Atlantic City (via Trump Entertainment). Conceptually speaking, Dinosaur Beach appeared dead on arrival. The $20-million enterprise had hitched its fortunes to a fad. This despite lacking the specificity, product licensing and accompanying scope that rendered Jurassic Park such an indomitable draw. Adding insult to injury, the Catanosos had transformed The Golden Nugget, Wildwood’s most beloved dark ride, into some suspense jaunt involving T-Rexes, all of whom kept terrorizing archaeologists on a dig. The Golden Nugget Mine Ride, as it had come to be known, was situated adjacent to Escape from Dinosaur Beach – a fairly similar dark ride that carted patrons through a warehoused grove.
In the offices above Surfside, one would hear discussions as if the acquisition of Dinosaur Beach were already complete. There were allusions to a monorail, to installing gates “across the front of all four piers.” Dinosaur Beach represented the lynchpin, providing as it did an open path from Surfside Pier to Morey’s Wild Wheels (just off Spencer Ave.) The eventual purchase appeared a given, and yet the question of how to proceed beyond that had precipitated a recent splintering between factions. On the one side, Bill Morey, Sr.’s offspring (Bill, Jr. – the acting President of the Morey Organization – Joan, and Jane), who maintained their headquarters in the offices above Surfside. On the other, the late Will Morey, Sr.‘s progeny (Will and Jack), who had consolidated their power in the offices above Mariner’s. The smart money lauded Will and Jack, particularly because their approach seemed less draconian, a bit more cognizant of the municipal risks involved with sequestering a region’s businesses at a remove from the town. Beyond which, there remained a question of governing ordinances: What would justify any for-profit organization’s obstructing a public mile’s worth of beach?
It was twilight now, the magic hour, and 90% of the boardwalk was closed. In years past I’d be transfixed by the stillness of the promenade on any afternoon like this – the awkward presence of a place that has been stripped of all its sights and sounds. Instead I found myself considering what I should do about the Seinfeld finale. I had watched the Cheers finale at a friend’s house on West 13th Street back in 1993. The morning after I couldn’t remember anything except for Sam uttering, “We’re closed.” I saw no point in house-party television. It divorced the social contract that accompanied enjoying movies in a theater. I would buy a six-pack, I decided, and watch the crowning episode on my own.
Mack’s Pizza was open, and I ordered a pair of slices to go. Upon my return to the Mag House, I could hear that fucking noise again: ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch. I followed that noise down to the second-floor corridor, where I came upon a stream of light, an open door. That’s Brian’s room, I noted. Brian was a ride operator. He had once recovered $1,300 in cash that I had lost on Surfside Pier. I felt indebted to Brian, and for a time I’d be receptive whenever he stopped by on the pier to say hello. That dynamic shifted, however, after Brian – a 33-year-old local – presented me with a copy of The Tao of Pooh. “To a great man,” the book’s inscription read – a sentiment that hit me somewhere between a come-on and a joke. I was thinking about such matters as I tiptoed close to Brian’s room. Brian had his back to me. He was sitting Indian-style. He was wearing a pinstriped engineer’s cap. He was fiddling with a control box on the floor. That control box was connected to a train set. That train set featured a metal caboose. That metal caboose had hitched its coupler to a boxcar. Several tiny wheels went ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch.
“Creative nonfiction is a term that is currently having its day. When I was in college, anyone who put those two words together would have been looked on as a comedian or a fool. Today, Creative Nonfiction is the name of the college course I teach. Same college. Required to give the course a title, I named it for a quarterly edited and published by Lee Gutkind, then at the University of Pittsburgh. The title asks an obvious question: What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but
making the most of what you have.”
Rene Ouellet was a Canadian transvestite who disappeared in June of 1992, almost immediately after he had begun working as a female impersonator at a bar called the Fun Spot in West Wildwood. I had been living on the island for a month when this occurred, and I remembered it because Ouellet’s apartment had been located on the same Davis Avenue block where I spent my free time. “MISSING” several street-pole flyers read, followed by Ouellet’s full name and stage name (“Michelle”). There was a photo featuring a thin man dressed in drag wearing a lopsided wig. This man looked like Michael Jeter’s mustachioed cabaret singer from The Fisher King, so much so that I had posted a copy of that flyer in the beach house where we drank.
Thirteen days after Ouellet’s disappearance, an old man sweeping the beach with a metal detector discovered the Montreal native’s body. It had been hidden inside an alcove beneath the Montgomery Avenue bandshell. Ouellet had suffered a beating; blunt-force trauma to the head, forearms and torso. Ouellet’s lungs were overrun with sand, rendering the official cause of death to be asphyxiation. Rumor had it the old man’s metal detector had zeroed in on Ouellet’s wristwatch, thereby minimizing any chance that this had been a robbery turned ugly. Ouellet had last been seen wandering east toward the beach with an unidentified male at 2:30 in the morning. Collective evidence suggested that it was this male who had fatally assaulted Ouellet, before returning to camouflage the body a short time later.
Media coverage of Ouellet’s murder began to dissipate toward the end of that September. Years passed, and the case went cold. Cape May County had all but forgotten about Ouellet until police received an anonymous tip during the winter of 1996. From that point forward, investigators shifted their attention toward Brian Halter – a 24-year old who had been working as a Wildwood lifeguard during the summer that Ouellet had been killed. Halter was arrested on June 26, 1996; nearly four years to the day after Ouellet first disappeared.
Under interrogation, Halter insisted he had passed out on the beach after a long night of drinking, waking up to find Ouellet performing oral sex on him. Brimming with rage, Halter began to punch Ouellet, prior to beating on the 30-year-old via the broad side of a board. Once Ouellet proved unresponsive, Halter covered up the body with sand. Halter left, but then returned, at which point he discovered Ouellet elbowing his way out of the ground. Halter pummeled Ouellet; he strangled him. He dragged the body to a nearby enclosure, where he re-covered it with sand before deserting it once more.
From an outsider’s perspective, Halter’s perp-as-victim angle appeared remarkably convenient. Lifeguards were known to pass out on the beach (an effective way of ensuring they could make it into work), but the idea of a transvestite taking it upon himself to spontaneously begin blowing somebody … well, it kind of screamed to the most insecurely heterosexual of males that, “Given the circumstances, you might’ve done the same thing.” The more reasonable assumption – an assumption that would’ve connected several of the ill-connected pieces – involved a drunken Halter meeting Ouellet out on the streets. This sort of thing occurred throughout the summer, and it would’ve accounted for the “unidentified male” whom Ouellet had last been seen with. Perhaps Ouellet had dropped some hint about being a man; perhaps not. Perhaps an inebriated Brian Halter had proven too oblivious to notice. Regardless, there was ample reason to believe that the two of them had disappeared underneath of that boardwalk consensually.
In August of 1997 Brian Halter pleaded guilty, effectively downgrading an original charge of first-degree murder into aggravated manslaughter. Three months later, on November 3rd, the 25-year-old was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He would be eligible for parole in a year and a half.
On the day after Halter’s sentencing, the City of Wildwood voted in favor of an ordinance that would roll back the closing times at neighborhood bars from 5 AM during the summertime to 3 AM, year-round. This decision had been a long time coming, an unnecessary byproduct of the February beating that had resulted in John Vollrath’s death. Vollrath’s attackers remained free on bail, their sentencing postponed. Club Kaladu – the establishment where Vollrath and his attackers first clashed – had been shut down, its liquor license revoked.
Club Kaladu was located along the southeast corner of Schellenger and Pacific – a commercial intersection that unfurled much like a crucible. Schellenger’s Y axis came buffeted by a Ferris wheel along one end, and a two-block spate of projects along the other. Schellenger was home to Mariner’s Landing and Midway Pier, Castle Dracula and The Landmark Motel. But it was also home to the Stardust Nightclub, the Hurricane Strip Club, and the seafood restaurant behind which Susan Negersmith’s body had been found. Pacific Avenue intersected Schellenger about its midsection, running north to south from 26th Street all the way through Wildwood Crest. The Pacific Street Mall – perennially recognized as the centrifuge of Wildwood’s nightlife district – boasted the same red-brick walkway as Cape May’s Washington Street Mall. Over time the two had been rendered a fascinating study in the impact of socioeconomic development on architectural design.
This was not so much indicative of a year-to-year struggle as it was a decade in decline. The 1990s in The City of Wildwood had started off with what appeared to be a municipal cover-up (200 meters east along Schellenger Avenue) before disintegrating into a wave of violence that included at least 10 murders in less than seven years (independent of Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood). Compare that with four murders within the city limits throughout the 1980s and a feeling of animus began to take hold. Tourism was down; the city’s poverty rate kept rising. Wildwood at-large had gone from being an enjoyable punchline to pretending as if it weren’t in on the joke. Throughout that November, wherever one stood, regardless of whether he were one of the 125,000 who made up Wildwood’s height-of-season population or one of the 5,500 who remained there throughout winter, whether he were in favor of a 5 AM closing time or opposed, in favor of a hospitality tax or beach tags, budget cuts or a multi-million-dollar casino; regardless of whether he were Kent Negersmith insisting on justice for his daughter or John Vollrath, Sr. demanding justice for his son; regardless of whether he were applauding the incarceration of Brian Halter or denigrating the alternative lifestyle of Rene Ouellet, the fact remained that everyone – and I mean everyone – along Five-Mile Island had taken to accusing everyone else of having ulterior motives. Amidst the empty streets, the weather-beaten porches, there were scarecrows missing faces, slow-rotting pumpkins on the corners. The holiday season was approaching, an opportunity for order.
(Header image taken by digital designer and photographer Jenny Chang, whose work can be found here.)
“It all comes down to class, doesn’t it? And I mean the middle class, because there is no other significant class. It’s about the theme-park-ization of Britain. We’re all supposed to aspire to the generica that the middle class aspires to. It’s not only the working class that’s disenfranchised but the owning class as well – disenfranchised from their intellectual and artistic aspirations. For the middle class, the only thing that matters is sitting on the fence, whereas the disenfranchised classes aspire to soul values. I am of that other class that defined itself as different because – ridiculous word – we ‘discovered’ things and defended them with sharp objects and wrote them down.”
We kissed for the first time while sitting in a tree, eight feet up inside of Glenwood Park. We were drunk and it was 4 AM. We were 23 and we were young.
I had known Jen for six years; we had kept each other company during the loneliest of hours. There was that night in 1993 when Jen got into a fight with her boyfriend, and she and I sat on a merry-go-round, talking about our relationships until dawn. There was that morning when I came across Jen on the front porch of a beach house on Poplar Avenue. Jen was alone, wrapped up in a blanket. And we sat there and we drank and we listened to 100.7.
Jen worked the games on Surfside Pier from 1992 to 1994. She bounced from job to job after that, and eventually she stopped working on the boardwalk altogether. I called Jen after the two of us had lost contact, on Christmas Eve of 1995. Meghan and I had broken up, I informed Jen. I was in Delaware County, nearby. Jen rushed me off the phone, and after that we didn’t speak until the second week in August, 1997. Jen came meandering along the promenade one afternoon. She was holding hands with a boy named Andy. Andy was short and tan, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and a baseball cap. Jen introduced us, before continuing east to visit the water park. She returned alone a few hours later, at which point I agreed to meet her at the Poplar Café after work. Once there, Jen and I drank; we played the jukebox. We decided to leave. We walked through Glenwood Park.
It was Jen’s idea to climb a tree. She helped me up, then we sat cradled by the base. I kept trembling when we kissed, holding onto a nearby branch for balance. There was a gazebo to the right, and – for a moment – I considered leading Jen onto its canopy. We climbed down and wandered west toward my apartment. The following morning Jen made arrangements to stay with me for a few more days.
We avoided any talk of Jen’s relationship, opting instead to drink and dance, then eat at Ernie’s (the late-night king of sausage and eggs). Jen was a Northeast Philly girl; she had graduated from Archbishop Ryan. I was a product of the suburbs, Cardinal O’Hara. The two of us were skinny, built like coat bags; we had long hair with lemon streaks throughout. Time and again, Jen and I bonded over our lack of communication with our fathers. I was Jen’s mistress, and I felt in control.
Jen left town that Tuesday, but she came back the following weekend. On Saturday night, Jen got plastered and she told me that she and Andy had agreed to see other people. I assumed this was a lie told for our mutual convenience; one of those heresies people justify by saying, “It’s just made matters easier.”
Jen got along with my roommates, and the three of them spent a great deal of time together whenever I was at work. As a result, I became increasingly consumed with the possibility that Lori or Joanna might dissuade Jen from seeing me. Joanna, in particular, had ample reason to see me thwarted. I had acted cruelly toward her throughout that summer, acknowledging her with vitriol (on the occasions when I acknowledged her at all).
Jen and I were entering a new phase. We spent our free time at the apartment, or in public places, surrounded by people. Jen remained vigilant, fearful of who might see us on our own. There was sex, but only during pre-dawn hours, when the two of us felt weary and the walls ran dark with sweat. Beyond that, the closest thing Jen and I shared to intimacy amounted to passing notes beneath the bar. I dared not mention Jen to friends we shared in common, and Jen, at large, continued pretending as if I didn’t exist.
It was the bottom third of August now, and each day was passing by with the intensity of weeks. Jen’s late-night calls were arriving less frequently. I would phone Jen from the pier, only to be told that she was out. I knew Jen would be heading back to Shippensburg the first week in September, and I was growing frustrated over this when I came across Gerry Vessels one afternoon.
“Whatta you been up to?” Gerry asked. He was standing along the front porch of his house.
“I’ve kinda been seeing somebody,” I said. “I think it’s somebody you know.”
“Oh, yeah,” Gerry said. “Who’s that?”
“You can’t tell anybody,” I cautioned Gerry.
“Who the fuck am I gonna tell?” Gerry asked.
“It’s Jen,” I said. “Y’know, Pier Jen? Jen who used to work up at the Fishy Fish?”
“Hippy Jen?” Gerry wondered. “Like, Whacky Jen?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s been coming down every now and again.”
“Be careful with that,” Gerry told me. He was shaking his head.
“Be careful with what?” I countered.
“Be careful with getting too caught up in the way things were,” Gerry told me. “The two of you are older now. Besides, if I remember correctly, isn’t Jen a little shady?”
“Yeah, but not, like, bad shady, y’know?”
“Didn’t she get fired for stealing?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t get too caught up in it. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
“She’s got a boyfriend,” I muttered.
“A boyfriend?” Gerry blurted. “Dude, what are you thinkin’?”
I had made plans to travel back to Delaware County so I could see Jen before she left for school. Jen had agreed to this, but as the day in question neared, I could not get her on the phone. I traveled to my parent’s house anyway, taking two buses and one train to get there. I had been day-drinking, and when I called Jen, she insisted she didn’t have access to a car. I gave Jen the address of a bar where I would be, and she showed up unexpectedly around 9 PM. My demeanor was off-putting. I kept reintroducing Jen to a handful of people whom she had already met. Jen left alone – and unhappy – a few hours later.
Jen was gone now, back at Shippensburg, but I would think of her throughout September, whenever I passed that lazy cigar tree in the park. I’d envision Jen on autumn nights as if she was meandering the promenade – cigarette in-hand, wearing a cable-knit sweater that ran two sizes too big. We had shared this thing that maintained no integrity whatsoever. And it was because of it her sudden absence left a void … some emotional hurt based on having rediscovered each other after so much time, and determining in the end that neither one of us was especially proud of who or what we
Donald Trump is the most publicized human being on the planet, and he has been for a little over five weeks now. The momentum of Trump’s campaign is such that any Republicans who downplay his significance wind up making an embarrassment out of themselves. Take Lindsey Graham, a flat-lining senator who deserved to have his cell phone number released after referring to Trump – a man who he had previously petitioned – as a “jackass”. Take Jeb Bush, an ex-Florida governor who initially reacted to Trump’s comments regarding illegal immigration in the same way that an elephant reacts to a fly. Take Chris Christie, who could’ve been the Donald Trump of 2012, eons before bad press transformed him into a pariah. Donald Trump represents an age-old metaphor; that of the tall, dark stranger, wandering into town. His campaign will be undone, but not before it exposes several front-running conservatives for the antiquated group of charlatans that they are.
The danger of a Donald Trump, ironically, is that he is not funded by special interests. In fact, the only interests Donald Trump seems to be funded by are his own. Consider what Trump has said during interviews, how he’s used the approach of slapping China (pronounced Chai-nah) and Mexico down before extolling their virtues. “Their leaders are much smarter than ours,” Trump has said. “Their negotiators are much tougher.” A self-effacing statement; the type of rhetoric that’d cause any pundit to cream in his pants. And yet, what Trump is advocating for is this idea of cut-throat dealings; some notion, perhaps, that the goal of any first-rate power should be to keep the exchange rate under its heel.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump suggested that George W. Bush should’ve invaded Mexico as opposed to Iraq. The obvious follow-up would’ve been, “Do you still believe that the United States could benefit from such an invasion, and, if so, would you pursue that type of invasion assuming you were elected into office?” Trump’s answer might’ve dovetailed into some rigamarole concerning how we need to build a wall, and how he could get the Mexicans to pay for it. But the real answer has to do with how – and why – Donald Trump believes we need to teach the rest of the world a lesson, and why he’d prefer to use our bordering neighbors as a means of establishing more control.
During previous election cycles, top party candidates were largely focused upon jobs, guns, the economy, the military, healthcare, terrorism, China, Iraq, equal pay, education, economic disparity, the government and taxes. These were bedrock issues, the kind that make or break a presidency (and a nation). In the absence of them, what have we got? Foreign trade, illegal immigration, building a wall, “getting the oil”?
Bill O’Reilly recently referred to Donald Trump as having “no fear,” but it would seem more accurate to assert that Donald Trump has got no shame. There is no lawsuit that can sully Trump, nor mortification that can deter him. And so what the American public is treated to amounts to political kabuki. There is an expiration date to such things, a shelf-life that is already dwindling. And in the end the corporate suits will hoist Jeb Bush upon their shoulders, parading him around despite disposing of their best-bad chance to win the presidency.
For now, Donald Trump will continue touting himself as a Wharton-educated billionaire who co-wrote a best-selling book about negotiating several years before portraying the unsympathetic figurehead on a reality TV show. In political terms, this means that Trump identifies as a ruthless capitalist villain who has proven brilliant at getting his own way. So why does it work? It works because Donald Trump is more in-touch than the average candidate, because Trump is intelligent and calculated and sober and the majority of his skeletons have already been flushed. It works because Donald Trump is not a prisoner, nor has he been in the game for too long. It works because Donald Trump has inserted himself into a party that is so far off in outer space its last high-profile endorsement came by way of Clint Eastwood, who was talking to a chair. It works because Donald Trump is a showman, much like his good friend, Vince McMahon. It works because Donald Trump is an orator, much like his good friend, Howard Stern. It works because Trump is aggressive, because he’s telegraphing the media, because his goal in every interview has become to “win” rather than explain.
It works because Trump is ingratiating himself to the far right-wing masses, preaching about how we need to give power back to the police and the military. His message is not so much about racism as it is about classism. This is a man who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, advocating the reinstatement of the death penalty to punish five innocent teens – all of them poor, all of them from minority households – who had been accused of raping a young, financial analyst from the Upper East Side. A quarter-of-a-century removed, despite all five boys being exonerated, Trump remained defiant, claiming (via Twitter): “Tell me, what were [those boys] doing in the Park, playing checkers?”
On balance, Donald Trump represents a positive for the Republican Party, a ritual cleansing. Trump is forthright, despite being misguided, and he may be on the mark when assuming that some – but not all – of America’s leaders are inept. The question we need to ask is what a man like Donald Trump might do after replacing all of our borderlands with walls … and how a fortified facade might actually appear to any countries on the outside looking in.
(Donald Trump is currently running for the American Presidency. He is, by his own admission, the best builder.)
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”