Predators of New York

Kevin Hagen/Getty Images North America

Over the weekend I flagged this video clip of Fox Business News’ Maria Bartiromo previewing her weekend show. Today we picked up clips from the show itself. The gist in both cases is Bartiromo, once a reasonably well-respected business news journalist, is aping the wildest conspiracy theories about a ‘deep state’ conspiracy against President Trump. Watching the reaction to her comments put me in the mind of a topic I have been wanting to write about for some time but don’t yet know enough to fully capture it in its fullness.

There’s something about New York, New York City, that is, that is at the root of the Trump phenomenon. This comes from watching the Trump story unfold over the last three years. It also comes from my own experiences living here for fifteen years.

New York City is a liberal city, probably the most progressive big city in the country, as far as it goes. Yet its power structure, its money class includes a whole community of people with extreme wealth who live in a culture in which predation and acquisition is the norm.

Some of it is rooted in the culture of the big city real estate dynasties.

Consider a few facts. We know about the Trump family, not even that big a real estate family in the city, despite their pretensions. We know about the deep corruption they are based on. A couple decades ago the head of another of these families was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his business partner. The heir of another of these families appears to be a serial killer. The head of another of these families – sort of a cadet branch from New Jersey – got in a dispute with his brother-in-law and hired a prostitute to have sex with the brother-in-law, film the sex and blackmail him. That guy is Jared Kushner’s father. All three went to prison. That’s just a subsection of the stories which police uncovered, certainly just scratching the surface.

There’s a lot of weird transgressive behavior for only a tiny community of people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a TV show close, to literally based on the mix of power and bad acts of these people. Outside the real estate families, there’s simply the New York City investor class. I’ve crossed paths with a few of these people over the years living here. One I shut down half a dozen years ago when he was trying to get me to write a hit piece that his paymaster wanted to get published about Eric Schneiderman of all people. To be clear, it had nothing to do with any of the bad acts that ended Schneiderman’s career a few weeks ago. It had to do with an obscure claim of unethical legal practices that didn’t even hold up. Earlier this year I got a phone call from this character out of the blue with a series of totally insane threats. “You fucking cock-sucker, I’ll destroy you!” Weird stuff. But that’s how they talk and think.

There’s a whole ecosystem of these predators, operating in the city’s real estate world, its investor class, on Wall Street. When I heard those tape recordings of a young Donald Trump and Roy Cohn hard-selling that Forbes reporter on the idea Trump had a net worth of literally 100 times his actual net worth I recognized it. I heard the high-velocity hard sell voice – back at it again and again and again, bam, bam, bam – it was the same carnivorous voice I’d had with this other guy a month or two earlier. It’s of a piece with the various Trump rackets we’ve learned about. It’s the Scaramucci talk. Whatever world he was in before he left the Mayor’s office, Giuliani has marinated in that world for the almost two decades since he left office. Roger Ailes was part of it.

Ailes is important because at least the current version of this New York power and predator class I’m describing is heavily bound up with Fox News. That’s another part of the connection with Trump, even though a lot of the people – Trump included – were once at least nominal Democrats. The Kushners, of course, were major, major Democratic donors. Indeed, that’s one of the striking things about the Trump Family, in the mafia sense. A lot of the biggest players, maybe even most, were Democrats before Trump came to power. The key is they come from a place where party affiliations are more like factions in a 15th-century Italian city-state than what we think of as modern political parties. It’s about personalities, money, and power. That world I said Giuliani was marinating in for two decades is the city’s GOP money world, except of course when it overlaps with the Democratic power brokers.

One of the deepest dynamics of the Trump presidency is his mounting rage at his inability to control the press. To a degree, this is simply that nothing is like the national political press in scandal mode. No matter what pond you’re from or how big it was, nothing compares. But a major part of the story is how well Trump did working and directing and playing the New York City press for decades. They ate out of his hand. All the crime and money laundering and crazy bad acts went mostly unreported in the big papers – and this is in the national media capital.

I’ve been thinking about this for months. As you can see, my thoughts about it are still quite inchoate and incomplete, fragmentary. I was excited to read Frank Rich’s recent essay about Roy Cohn and Donald Trump. It’s the closest I’ve read to a discussion of this. But it’s still somehow different. It’s more focused on indictment than capturing the milieu, how the social sickness of Cohn/Trumpism was allowed to germinate in the city’s political and money class. This isn’t a criticism. It’s quite good. I strongly recommend it. It’s just maybe thirty degrees off the piece, the discussion I’m thinking of.

To some degree, this is probably just the confluence of vast wealth and power, no different in New York than anywhere else they come together in such vast and raw proportions. When I flagged that Bartiromo clip I mentioned above, several people said to me, ‘What happened to Maria Bartiromo?’ When did she get so nuts? To me, there was zero mystery. She’s part of that milieu I’m describing. Of course, she’s singing from the same page. They all are.

With all this, there’s something specifically New York to it. Trump is an outlier. In most respects, he’s considered a clown and always was considered a clown by the New York City money and political elite. But he’s of it to a great degree, the voracious appetite and instinctive predation. There’s a common New York root to all of it. But it’s also somehow a story about early 21st century plutocracy, media barons like Murdoch, foreign kleptocrats like the ones who seem to have bought into Trump and channeled his rise to power toward their goals. It’s all of a piece.

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