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I got my first glimpse of Donald Trump during my very first visit to New York City in 1988. To a 25-year-old Soviet chess champion, the flashy tycoon with his glamorous wife Ivana walking through the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, which he had recently purchased, was the embodiment of my illusions about what was then to me a new and glamorous Western city. To someone like me, who had read a lot about America but experienced little, Trump seemed very impressive, a symbol of the wealth and opportunity, and of the capitalist West.
Trump owned the Plaza; the Plaza was a symbol of New York; New York was a symbol of America.
Looking back on that chance encounter in light of this year’s presidential campaign, after nearly 30 years of visits and living in New York City, I realize that I was taken in by the same con game that Trump is still running today. Trump sells the myth of American success instead of the real thing.
He has proudly claimed, even branded “New York Values” — used as a smear by his chief opponent for the nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz. True to Trump form, he’s selling t-shirts on his website.
It’s tempting to rally behind him-but we should resist. Because the New York values Trump represents are the very worst kind. He exemplifies the seamy side of New York City – the Ponzi schemers and the Brooklyn Bridge sellers, the gangster traders like Bernie Madoff and the celebrity gangsters like John Gotti — not the hard work and sacrifice that built New York and America.
Born into millions, Trump wants us to believe we can follow in his footsteps if only we buy his book, go to his classes and, yes, vote for him. He stands for fake values and fake value, debt instead of cash, appearance over substance, gold paint instead of the real thing. Soon after that showy scene, the Plaza became Trump’s second bankruptcy. But he was already moving on to the next headline, to his next performance.
He may have business experience, but unless the United States plans on going bankrupt, it’s experience we don’t need.
Trump’s supporters praise him for his bluntness, for “telling it like it is.” It’s true that his language is startlingly vulgar — one of several traits he shares with his mutual admirer, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin — and it’s easy to find this refreshing after years of politically correct jargon from career politicians.
But what is the point of clear phrasing when the thoughts the words represent make no sense at all? What does “telling it like it is” mean when the meaning of “it” changes all the time? The most New York habit I can imagine is to tell someone exactly what you think. Trump tells people what they want to hear, a practice we already get far too much of from Washington.
Yes, it was Cruz who opened the “New York values” can of worms while campaigning in Iowa. That was an opportunistic campaign trail remark, typical of today’s political climate of daily attacks and instant amnesia. Bash liberals in Iowa, bash Wall Street in Texas, then hope they weren’t listening when you fundraise in New York and California.
As such, I have trouble getting too worked up over Cruz’s comment. Allowing a charlatan like Trump to exploit it for his own gain is the greater sin.
Even more troubling to me is how all the candidates use and abuse the word “values” as just another soundbite. No one who has lived under dictatorship takes human values lightly, especially those like justice and liberty, which have become clichés to American candidates and voters.
I refer to these “American values” with no sarcasm or irony. Every day I have reason to thank Ronald Reagan and the generations of Americans who sacrificed and fought for the freedom of those of us trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Today, 25 years after the fall of the USSR, the American values that won the Cold War are considered nostalgic and corny at best, cruel or imperialistic at worst. The ideals of individual freedom, risk-taking, competition and sacrifice have been supplanted by the fake values of safety, complacency and moral relativism.
To my horror, Reagan himself has become a campaign cliché even as his legacy of optimism and American exceptionalism has been trampled on. Reagan’s America was a shining beacon to those of us living in the unfree world. He brought down the Soviet Union by refusing to concede an inch to Gorbachev. Trump compares himself to Reagan while expressing his admiration for Putin and the brutality of China’s Communist dictatorship. He would abandon the Middle East and Israel and discard NATO and nuclear non-proliferation, making the world, and America, far less secure. America needs leadership that will restore confidence in its allies and fear in its enemies, not the other way around.
Still, I understand the attraction. Seven years of the Obama White House’s never-ending campaign of insisting that everything is just fine has sown frustration and confusion among the many Americans for whom things aren’t fine at all. It has contributed to the feeling that our elected leaders care only for perception and posterity, not reality, and set the stage for a reality TV star who has made a career out of faking authenticity.
After Obama’s soothing and sophisticated spin, Trump’s incoherent fury and outlandish promises can feel like a welcome change.
Unfocused anger makes people vulnerable to political snake-oil salesmen touting simple solutions and utopian outcomes. It opens the door to the aggressively uninformed authoritarianism of Trump as well as to Bernie Sanders and his siren song of socialism. (I’m sorry, Bernie fans, but I lived it, and the failures of capitalism are still better than the successes of socialism.)
It’s hard to imagine the quality of Trump’s campaign improving with the recent addition of political fixer Paul Manafort, a connection to Putin more direct than The Donald’s dictatorial rhetoric and fascist fear-mongering. Manafort worked most recently for Viktor Yanukovych, Putin’s puppet president in Ukraine, who was literally chased out of Kiev in 2014 while the scope of his corruption and allegiance to the Kremlin were being exposed.
When the protesters reached Yanukovych’s residence, its interior revealed garish riches on a scale that can only be described as Trumpian. Imagine the letter of recommendation Manafort received from Yanukovych, currently in hiding in Russia under Putin’s protection. As any Mafia boss, Putin doesn’t respect leaders who get along with him, as Trump has promised to do, only those who stand up to him.
New York has plenty of representatives to turn to in order to align our moral compasses. Alexander Hamilton may now be doomed to be remembered only as a character in a musical, but he championed a strong government that protected liberty instead of smothering it. Teddy Roosevelt went after rising inequality the American way, by busting up the trusts to create more competition and opportunity.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had the hard-charging character and bombast of the New York stereotype Trump presents himself to be, but La Guardia was also a brilliant reformer and anti-crime bulldog who relished policy details and spoke a half-dozen languages. Teddy cracked down on the “too big to fail” monopolies of his time and battled giants like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. La Guardia went after the “too big to jail” bosses of the Italian Mafia.
Contrast them with Trump, a bully who targets the most vulnerable.
Perhaps the clearest break with the best New York values is on immigration. New Yorkers are open to the world and to its tempest-tossed citizens, not afraid of them. It has been said that immigration is the sincerest form of flattery, so now that I live in New York City you don’t have to rely only on my past statements to believe that my admiration for the United States of America is genuine.
In 1989, I told an interviewer from Playboy that Americans were “very close to true human nature” and that working hard to be rewarded for winning, for achieving, as in America, was normal and that it was only in the Communist USSR that everything was backwards, like a house of mirrors. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 shattered the mirrors once and for all. No one could have been happier than me about this historic shift, but there were long-term consequences for America, not just for Russia. The removal of an existential threat allowed complacency and a risk-averse mentality to set in.
Main Street demands both lower taxes and more services and the government is happy to guarantee it all. Globalization and the internet opened the entire world to American business, but investment and jobs also went abroad, contributing to stagnant wages and rising inequality. The problems of capitalism are usually best met by more capitalism: less regulation, more risk, more investment, more innovation.
Instead, the U.S. and its flagship and bellwether, New York City, have gone largely in the other direction. Capital booms while labor slumps, overregulation strangles entrepreneurs and feeds bureaucracy, and in the span of a generation, the symbol of American innovation went from the moon landing to a slightly larger iPhone.
Trump represents the worst of it all. He is an Angry Bird instead of an Apollo mission. He is a symptom of fake values who trades in false promises and divisiveness. He attacks the immigrants that built this great city and this great country, dodges the taxes the working class can’t avoid and claims to represent the hard-working New Yorkers he exploits. Most alarmingly, he imitates Putin and other dictators by conjuring enemies against whom only he can protect us, the most dangerous type of fascist propaganda.
That Trump rightly boasts of the courage of New Yorkers after 9/11, only to then say we must be afraid of everything, is the height of cynicism.
I believe in good and evil. I believe that the values of the free world are indeed under attack and must be defended. But the greatest threat comes from profiteers of fear, ignorance and hatred like Trump.
He believes that the rights and ideals expressed by the American Constitution are expendable. He tells us that the American experiment of freedom and inclusiveness is over. New Yorkers should tell him that he is very wrong on both counts.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the NYC-based Human Rights Foundation and the author of “Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.”