Creatures of the concrete jungle descend on 2016 race
It’s very telling that of the five remaining candidates with a meaningful shot at the presidency, three have deep ties to New York City. Trump University President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), both boisterous demagogues with little respect for those who disagree, personify some classic traits of New Yorkers, and their Big Apple origins inform their candidacies in ways that are not immediately obvious. Both of their anti-elite bona fides were established fighting battles central to the heart of New York City lore. Former Secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s ties are purely political, she literally moved to New York State because she was told she ought to run for senate, but they are also meaningful for exploring other parts of her candidacy that have been off-putting to the rest of the nation.
The Trump campaign is immediately bizarre. His campaign is catering to those Americans who feel disenfranchised, but the white nationalism he espouses is built to disenfranchise. His campaign is appealing to the conservative grassroots, but he’s the candidate least consistent with conservative orthodoxy. He plans to bust up the rule of the political elite, but he’s a high profile billionaire. Those first two are bizarre and deeply uncomfortable truths about his candidacy given his frontrunner status in the GOP nomination race, but the third requires a deeper look into the origin story of the man whose business ventures are so legendarily catastrophic that he seemingly is only a billionaire because he says so.
Donald Trump is a product of Queens, New York’s most populous borough. That population, however, does not contain most of New York’s moneyed elite. Trump’s consistent mentions of fellow Queens native Carl Icahn have become notable on the campaign trail and the Donald has always shown an affinity for New York’s outer boroughs over the island in its center. In a recent interview with Politico, Reverend Al Sharpton, a high profile civil rights activist also from Queens, said that Donald Trump does feel like he was shut out of Manhattan’s upper echelon and he never felt like he was taken seriously.
It feels absurd to those of us who have not amassed a billion dollars, but Donald Trump has a real conviction that he is on the outside looking in at elitists unwilling to give him a chance. New York City’s Manhattan-centric culture really has left scars on a lot of people. Referring to Manhattan as “the city” and the centrality of the borough to New York lore has always led to a bit of resentment from denizens of the outer boroughs. The “Manhattan douchebags” are featured at every public school (and private school, but there they are called “students”) across the whole city.
This election shows what happens when that mindset is universalized. Trump believes political elites are happy to destroy things they do not care about if it doesn’t affect them. New York’s LaGuardia Airport has been clogging up traffic in Queens for years and it benefits absolutely no one except whoever happens to be living in Gracie Mansion at the time. Trump seems to think immigration and trade are the result of American political elites feeling the same way about places between the coastal populations of the country. Trump’s answer to how he feels the political elite operate overcompensates. To defeat the Manhattanites that rejected him, Trump wants absolute power and to prove he is beyond reproach. The results would almost certainly be disastrous.
Bernie Sanders hails from Midwood, Brooklyn, a heavily Jewish neighborhood that has become more diverse over time. Sanders is a classic Brooklyn Jewish socialist. He may get that meshugana health care plan from those Danes, but Jewish community leaders would kvell at how eloquently their boychik defends old Brooklyn Jewish feelings on labor policy. What a mensch.
While Sanders gets some of his policies from the democratic socialist nations in Scandinavia, he has a different driving philosophy behind it. Scandinavia’s policies are often couched in rhetoric about the unified nature of all of their citizens. Sanders, on the other hand, wants to create a unified front against the rich. This was the reaction of Jewish families that came to America post-Holocaust. When families came across the Atlantic to escape the Holocaust and other acts of anti-Semitism, Jewish communities became very sparse and started to band together very tightly. That said, as a result of the Jewish diaspora, Jewish people have been ethnically diverse for a long time and shtunks with their local businesses tried to exploit Jewish immigrants, many of whom were quite poor, by pitting different ethnic groups against one another through rumors and other slander. American Jews, especially in New York, have been in our fair share of ethnic squabbles, but whether we are religious or not, the closeness of our community means everything to Jews. In a touching answer to a question of Islamophobia, Sanders’ extension of this idea into modern politics sees discrimination as a weapon in class warfare and vows to fight against the rich and show rachmones to the poor.
The impulse towards Jewish Socialism is certainly noble, but, like Bernie, has become something of an alter cocker in the intervening years. Sanders’ policy often seems designed to watch the wealthy squeal, rather than provide meaningful benefits for the average citizen beyond vague appeals to a rigged economy. Furthermore, many people believe Sanders has a myopic view of discrimination and would do little for people who face structural barriers outside of the generational wealth people are endowed with by the lottery of birth.
Being a Jewish native of the Bronx, I see these two forces in action on a regular basis. The pair, though they have their issues, is powerful in New York politics. New York has a long line of Republicans in Name Only (RINOs) who identify with the outer boroughs and resonate with Republicans more culturally than on a policy level (for example, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani) and liberal progressives who will go on never-ending rampages against inequality despite occasional opposition from those they seek to help (current mayor Bill de Blasio). Of course, there are some self-described saviors, the classically arrogant New Yorkers who believe they can micromanage everyone into their preferences and save us from the terrifying extremes of the New York left and right (lookin’ at you, Bloomberg) who are lurking just outside our main focus in case this presidential race devolves into a New York style political brawl.
The trope of New Yorkers and our bizarre brand of libertarian socialism just does not fit nicely on the whole nation’s ideological scale. This can make New York’s political landscape incredibly hard to navigate, especially for an outsider. One person who has answered the call, however, is Clinton, our senator from 2001 to 2009.
Clinton has always gotten a lukewarm reception from the residents of New York, even liberal New York City. The Clintons were not particularly popular upon exiting the White House. Their image was marred by controversial policy actions like some of Bill Clinton’s presidential pardons and crime bills, as well as a series of well-known scandals. Hillary Clinton ran for Senate anyway in a non-competitive election.
However, she immediately got to work as a very pragmatic politician. While she was distinctly liberal, she also built a powerful base of support in New York, particularly with Wall Street, that reviled strip of the Financial District in lower Manhattan. This did not endear her to New Yorkers, but in the absence of meaningful competition, she was able to snag a second term in the Senate on her way to announcing a presidential run. New Yorkers had her back against President Barack Obama, though. We may not like to admit it, but Wall Street basically keeps our entire state solvent. We know she understands how to rein such interests in — Wall Street has become astonishingly liberal in recent years — without ignoring them completely and alienating important power players. A lot of people see this as shilling, some see it as pragmatism. The nation’s answer to that dilemma will probably decide this election.
New York has always been a cultural and political outlier in America. There is a real disdain for New York outside of the city. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) made hay after associating Trump with “New York values.” Rome, Italy or London, England would never be forced into the embarrassment of having to pay for a national tragedy on par with 9/11 out of their city budgets, but New York did. However, if you put the right faces to what we really have to say, it seems maybe we were never the outlier after all.