Commentary: New York is to blame for Donald Trump

Both the city and state, governed largely by Democrats, set the stage so that a rich, white man could be rewarded for shamelessness, dishonesty and criminality.

Former President Donald Trump returns from a court recess and speaks to the media during his trial in New York State Supreme Court on December 7, 2023 in New York City.

Former President Donald Trump returns from a court recess and speaks to the media during his trial in New York State Supreme Court on December 7, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Anyone who follows politics has lately been inundated with warnings – including from some of his own first-term officials —  that former President Donald Trump plans to break the surly bonds of the U.S. Constitution and claim dictatorial powers, should he be inaugurated president next year. 

If that happens, there will be plenty of blame for Trump’s enablers, such as congressional Republicans too craven to resist the man who sent a violent mob to ransack the Capitol.

But one group of people who are among the most responsible for unleashing Trump on the American public have almost entirely escaped recrimination: New Yorkers. It is New York that gave the world Donald Trump. One would never know this from hearing New York’s Democratic politicians inveigh against Trump, but it was their own city and state, governed largely by their own party, that created the monster that so threatens us all. 

If there is a common thread between Trump’s assaults on fact, common decency and the rule of law, it is impunity. 

Trump’s successful candidacy demonstrated that media fact-checking does not negate the advantage he derives from always saying whatever is most convenient for him without any regard for truth. 

His self-described record of serial sexual assault has gone unpunished. Even E. Jean Carroll hasn’t received her civil-suit judgment against Trump, as he continues to appeal the $5 million ruling. 

Trump went far beyond the expectations of even many of his critics in his refusal to accept the 2020 election results, and if he is back in office in 2025, he will likely pardon himself and get off scot-free. 

Trump’s superpower is being unconstrained by shame or fear of consequences. And where did he learn that shamelessness, dishonesty, and criminality will be rewarded — at least, when the perpetrator is a rich, white man? In New York.

Born from real estate

National political pundits struggled to comprehend the scale of Trump’s mendacity, leading them to speculate on his mental health. 

But to an observer familiar with New York City real estate, Trump’s deceitfulness was unsurprising because he is merely typical of the cutthroat, unethical, dishonest industry from which he came. This is a universe in which brokers lie about a neighborhood’s name and school district, while developers over-promise and under-deliver everything from community benefits to amenities for residents. 

Consider Trump Tower. In 1979, Trump received permission to build the building 20 stories taller than otherwise allowed by creating a fourth-floor “public garden.” But, like so many of these privately owned public spaces created for a zoning density bonus, it is barely accessible to the public because it is hard to find and rarely open. 

There are laws to prevent this sort of bait-and-switch, they just aren’t enforced. But even when the laws are enforced against developers and landlords, the penalties are typically negligible. Just ask Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner, whose company filed false paperwork with New York City claiming it had no rent-regulated tenants in buildings that actually had hundreds. This allowed him to push out rent-regulated tenants, replace them with higher-paying market-rate tenants and sell the buildings for a massive profit. The maximum $25,000 penalty per false filing is laughable to people with Kushner’s or Trump’s wealth. There is no threat of jail time. So, to anyone with no scruples, breaking the law is simply rational if the potential profit is bigger than the fine. 

Trump has applied this lesson to New York’s legal system itself, demonstrating the limits of Judge Arthur Engoron’s gag orders: The ex-president spread a false rumor on social media about Engoron’s law clerk in an effort to portray her as biased, and Engoron fined Trump twice for a total of $15,000. At 0.000006% of Trump’s estimated $2.6 billion in net worth, this seems like a weak deterrent.

In 2018, The New York Times exposed the various, often illegal, means by which Trump’s father, the mega-developer Fred Trump, had evaded taxes on the millions of dollars he passed to his children. For example, the Trump family formed a company that supposedly bought products like boilers for Fred Trump’s buildings, but really just padded purchases made by Trump’s employees, moving millions of dollars from the elder Trump to his children while evading gift or inheritance taxes. And by inflating the cost of building upgrades, Trump was then able to charge rent-stabilized tenants more than would otherwise be legally allowed. 

State and local prosecutors and tax agencies never took notice – nor did the local press expose the scam until two years after Trump became president. 

Instead, the Times’s fluffy profiles advanced Trump’s self-mythologizing by repeating his unsubstantiated claims, like that he supposedly graduated first in his class from the Wharton School of Business.

It wasn’t until Trump was elected president that prosecutors began to investigate his alleged tax frauds. Had he stayed out of politics, he could still be stealing in peace. 

“Crime pays,” Queens-bred rapper Kool G Rap observed, for “big-dollar, white-collar, suit-and-tie criminals.” 

He’s not the only guy from Queens who could see that.

Donations to Democrats paid off

Besides teaching Trump that liars and cheaters will get ahead, New York gave Trump more valuable lessons he would apply to national politics. 

Where, for instance, did Trump learn that making race-baiting, fear-mongering appeals would not harm his standing in society? 

In New York, where he bought a full page Times ad calling for reinstating the death penalty in the wake of the framing of the Central Park Five for a violent rape. 

Did that, or the 60 lawsuits accusing him of reneging on his obligation to pay employees or contractors, or his notorious sexism, make New York’s politicians turn their back on him?

No. Former Govs. Andrew Cuomo and George Pataki, Sen. Chuck Schumer, former Sen. Hillary Clinton, and former Reps. Charlie Rangel and Anthony Weiner all took his campaign donations. Taking money from developers was just what New York politicians did. 

Trump’s cynical view that all politicians are corrupt and transactional may have something to do with his lifetime spent buying influence in what is frequently ranked the most corrupt state. And his blithe confidence that he will pay no electoral penalty for lawbreaking may stem from the fact that legislators in his native state have often won reelection while under criminal indictment

Trump’s tough-guy shtick that so enthralled Republican primary voters — the cursing, the threats of physical violence and flinging of insults — also owes much to New York. The angry blowhard as a conservative archetype is largely a New York-area phenomenon, with Trump-aligned practitioners such as Rudy Giuliani, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity paving the way for Trump and serving as his attack dogs. 

Even Trump’s 2011 turn toward overt racism with his slander that Barack Obama was born outside the United States did not lead to his rejection by New York high society. He stayed close with his wealthy associates while it took until 2020 for any of his daughter Ivanka’s childhood friends from Manhattan to call her out for endorsing her father’s reactionary agenda. 

Going along to get along with the Trumps was the way of the New York elite. For New York’s newspapers, burnishing Trump’s glamorous image made for good copy. For New York politicians, staying in Trump’s good graces was easier and more remunerative than taking a stand against his greed and bigotry. For New York, it’s worth contemplating whether it’s not just Trump who debased our politics and culture by reveling in his vulgarity, but our hometown as well.