A hurricane descended on south Florida Sunday night. And it was not Hurricane Isaac. Before a hooting and hollering crowd of over 1,000, Donald Trump arrived to accept the Statesman of The Year award from the Sarasota County Republican Party.
They held the event in the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Sarasota, about 60 miles and two wind-swept bridges away from the Tampa Bay Convention Center. I got there just as Sarasota’s upper crust is settling in. Women in designer gowns were chatting pleasantly while their husbands in tailored business attire sussed out the logistics of getting into the VIP reception.
Tickets for the dinner started at $150 and ran up to $1000 (if you wanted a photograph), and the line of luxury cars waiting for valet parking seemed endless. Every nook and corner of the hallway buzzed with the excitement of having Donald Trump in the house. (Last year’s statesman was a more low key Haley Barbour). The Republican convention next door was surprisingly not much of a topic for discussion. This crowd already had its mind made up. If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times talking to the guests: “This country can’t survive another four years of Barack Obama”––although I suspect most of them will.
Sarasota County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, and much of it is old wealth: family fortunes made in lumber, insurance and real estate that have gone to Florida to become foundations. “These people don’t have a million dollars, they have tens of millions,” one man tells me, pointing out the scions of various families. So it is a genteel wealth gathered in the Ritz Carlton ballroom this evening, genteel up and until the point where Trump is introduced.
He enters to the “Money, Money, Money” theme of his TV show The Apprentice and the crowd goes wild. A woman at a back table lifts two fingers to her lips to whistle and swings a jewel-encrusted purse around like a lariat. “Oh, this is going to be good,” another woman says breathlessly beside me as she races forward to snap a photo.
Dragging Through the Down Ballot
As happens at these events, Trump’s triumphant entrance is quickly drowned out by a long-winded and boring series of down ballot candidates the Republican party wants to showcase hogging the limelight. For an hour and a half, they come to the podium to take practice swings at President Obama. (One state representative lamely tries to lead a call and refrain: “What do you to a man who ruins the economy in four years? Fire him.”) Even Trump is getting anxious. So when county party chairman Joe Gruters starts his introduction of “Tornado Trump” with a recitation of all his real estate deals, Trump interrupts him on stage: “Let’s just get out of here, Joe,” he says, and the crowd again hoots its agreement. Gruters retreats off the podium and Trump, now in full command, introduces his friends in the crowd, leading of course to the inevitable: “But seriously.”
A Country in Decline
Trump speaks extemporaneously with no notes or teleprompter. “We are in a country that is in decline,” he begins. “Now we can say oh, that’s not so. And we can say, no we’re not, we’re doing great. But we’re not doing great. Even here, I see so many different signs (on houses) for sale, for sale, for sale, owner-financed housing available, you know, because the banks aren’t lending.” Trump sprinkles stories of friends who can’t get bank financing into his remarks, and friends who will close down their health care companies if Obamacare isn’t repealed (everyone seems to be a friends of Trump). He criticizes the president for an unemployment rate pegged by the labor department at 8.3 percent, “but really when you look behind the definitions, it’s 21 percent;” and trade policies with China that allow them to float their currency. “ We have a country that has serious, serious trouble. If we have four more years of President Barack Obama, we’re not going to have a country left,” he says, sounding a theme I’m afraid I’m going to hear too many times this week.
The reason, Trump concludes, is “We have somebody in office that truly doesn’t have a clue. He never built anything. He never made a deal except to buy his house – and if you want to look into that deal, there was a lot of monkey business going on, I can tell you – he doesn’t know how things work.”
In Defense of John Galt
But here is where he speech gets interesting. Trump is aiming to make the point that Mitt Romney has the business experience to run the country. But he can’t get there without recounting his own aborted run for president, and mixing in a little John Galt.
“I’ve always heard if you were a successful businessman you can’t run for office. I see so many successful people who want to run, but during the course of their success, they beat the hell out of some people. They won. There’s no shame in that. Usually, they win honestly, sometimes not so honestly, but let’s hope they win honestly,” he begins. “But they’ve been tough, they’ve been competitive. They worked. They built their business, and honestly, they have left people in their wake. And they made enemies. So now they want to run a state, a country, or something, and they can’t win . . . They can’t put it together, they can’t really go out there because all of those people that they beat consistently over a lifetime . . . all of those people come back to haunt you.
“And I see it happening with Mitt. Mitt was a successful man. He did a great job. You look at Staples. You do a hundred great deals, and you do one that didn’t work out. All they want to talk about is the one that didn’t work out. It’s terrible. “
Trump’s Advice: Get Nasty
The takeaway from his own effort to be president is that the Obama’s campaign operatives are vicious. Obama’s 2008 race against Hillary Clinton “was the most vicious campaign in modern day political history,” he says. “They’ve used words in this campaign like felon”––he curls his lip to make it sound dubious––”and murderer, and they are going to keep doing things like this.”
“So you have to fight fire with fire,” he concludes. “You’ve got to not be so politically correct. We are in the fight of our lives, and it’s like I told Mitt and Paul, you’ve got to get tough and you’ve got to get nasty.”
When Trump finishes, the audience again gives him a standing ovation. That’s what passes for statesmanship this year in politics, and it probably won’t get much better when the convention opens Tuesday.