TRUMP CHANGE

We visited Trump Tower, and it perfectly epitomizes its eccentric, contradictory owner

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

It was the middle of June 2015 when the sounds of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” rang through the five-story atrium of Trump Tower in Manhattan. The loud music mixed with cheers from the assembled crowd, and the lobby lit up from the blast of camera flashes. Then Donald Trump descended down a golden escalator and announced his run for the presidency of the United States.

Perhaps no other candidate in American history has ever had a building as closely connected to his persona, business, and political ambitions as Trump. The building at 725 Fifth Avenue is the personification of the real estate mogul, and it intrigues Trump supporters and Democrats alike. It’s here that they can feel close to the candidate and buy his merchandise. It’s here that they can see manifestations of the many controversies surrounding him.

Trump Tower is like a small version of the “Make America Great Again” campaign, and in many ways, describing Trump Tower is like describing the campaign itself. You don’t need to change adjectives to describe the building’s architecture and the man who alludes to his penis size in a presidential debate; both are over the top. The campaign is Trump’s flashy persona, just like Trump Tower is his business empire’s epicenter. The way Trump talks about tenants he doesn’t like mirrors his comments about political opponents. So to understand Trump, go to Trump Tower.

Following his call to ban Muslims from entering the country and his far-too-gradual denunciation of the Ku Klux Klan, even top Republicans such as Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, and Mitt Romney have denounced Trump. At Trump Tower, all of the visitors I spoke to on a recent Tuesday had their own strong opinions about Trump’s comments, ranging from “I am terrified that he is gonna be the next president” and calling the candidate an “irresponsible jackass” to defending the GOP front-runner against attacks by the overzealous liberal media. The controversy didn’t stop people from having a good time there, though.

A couple of steps inside the lobby, it’s all gold and marble—orange and pink Breccia Pernice marble on the walls, a more neutral tone on the ground. On the left are four golden elevators. The one reserved for Trump’s personal use leads to his $100 million three-level penthouse that sports more expensive marble and gold, and is modeled after Versailles.

from Lilly Maier
Gold and marble. (Lilly Maier)

The golden elevators are flanked by men in black suits. One of them is Johnny Gonzalez. “I don’t feel like a doorman here,” he said. “Everybody is really nice, and Mr. Trump knows all of us by name.”

The 27-year-old Puerto Rican American has worked at Trump Tower for over eight years, even appearing in a couple of shots in “The Apprentice.” Aside from his full-time job, Gonzalez is studying accounting at the European School of Economics located on the 19th floor of the building. (The private British business school has no connection to Mr. Trump or to his scandal-embroiled Trump University). Once he has his degree, Gonzales hopes to work for one of the many financial firms in Trump Tower. (He isn’t the only one who sees his current job as a stepping stone. Another doorman, who didn’t want to be named, completed his MBA a while ago.)

Gonzalez is excited about Trump running for president. “We were all hoping he would do it,” he said. “Everybody here, we all love Trump. We know the real Trump.”

Across from the elevators are Gucci shop windows and a cardboard cutout of Trump’s latest book, Crippled America (a popular selfie motif). In the back of the atrium is a 60-foot indoor waterfall. Shining escalators lead visitors to shops, restaurants, and two public gardens. Ever since Trump announced his campaign here, the number of visitors has increased significantly, according to several employees.

Among the many tourists are Amy and Reed Flake, the namesakes of their hometown Snowflake, Arizona, who were on a family visit this fall and couldn’t pass up the chance to take a look at Trump Tower. Mr. Flake wore a cowboy hat and a big golden belt buckle, and works as a rodeo announcer. His wife is a musician. Both are big Trump supporters. “He is real. He can’t be bought,” Mrs. Flake said. “So you tell him, ‘You go, Trump.’”

from Lilly Maier
Amy and Reed Flake. (Lilly Maier)

A couple of controversy-laden months later, people were more cautious. “Some of the stuff he says is okay, some of the stuff he says is, you know, asinine,” said Nick Ingrassia, a young filmmaker from Long Island. “As long as he keeps leading, we will not be able to get rid of him.”

Polls show that Trump has an allure that goes beyond the traditional GOP base. Accordingly, people from a wide range of political and social backgrounds make the pilgrimage to Trump Tower. “I think Trump is awesome. He is bringing up some issues,” said the psychotherapist and radio show host, Gloria Horsley, from California. She sent a Snapchat of the empty staircase to her grandchildren with the caption, “Where is the Donald?”

“I get a kick out of him, he is good entertainment,” Horsley said, laughing. But would she vote for him? “No,” Horsley said quickly. “I am going to vote for Hillary.” Other Democrats in the lobby agreed, explaining that they were “only looking, not buying.”

Besides the public atrium, Trump Tower also houses the offices of Trump’s presidential campaign (on the former set of NBC’s “The Apprentice”) and the corporate headquarters of The Trump Organization. According to a financial disclosure form Trump filed with the Federal Election Commission, Trump serves as the executive of 515 business entities. Over half of them contain his name in their title and most of them are run out of the Fifth Avenue skyscraper. The businesses include a diverse real estate portfolio—from the Mar-A-Lago-Club in Florida to Trump World in Seoul—as well as hotels, restaurants, golf courses, a modeling agency, bottled water, and much more. As with his political campaign, Trump’s name recognition is his biggest business asset. He reportedly earned at least $9.5 million in royalties for licensing—and you can see many examples of that by simply walking through his building.

 People from a wide range of political and social backgrounds make the pilgrimage to Trump Tower.  

Trump gift stores sell everything from his books to Trump perfumes to chocolate in the form of gold bars. In the months following the start of his campaign, the stores often sported long lines, but now they also serve to showcase some of the many controversies surrounding Trump’s persona.

First, there are the ties. “I like the fact that Trump was the only brand that could sell a $50 million apartment and a $37 tie,” Trump wrote in Crippled America. Those elegant silk ties, along with shirts, fragrances, and cuff links, had been sold at Macy’s for almost a decade, giving countless men a spark of the Trump flash. It was a fruitful relationship—Trump even appeared in some Macy’s commercials, most recently in 2013. Then he referred to Mexicans as criminals and “rapists” in his announcement speech. Two weeks later, the department store stopped all business relations with the candidate. Now fans looking for a Trump tie have to come to Trump Tower.

The pattern repeated itself months later with the “Trump Home” line, after the GOP frontrunner made his anti-Muslim remarks. The Dubai-owned retail chai Lifestyle pulled all merchandise from their 160-plus stores in the Middle East, including fluffy blankets and white candles currently sold at Trump Tower.

What was initially only a problem outside of Trump Tower now seems to affect business within the skyscraper as well. Before the first votes were cast in February, the amount of Trump merchandise available at Trump Tower was more than double than what they sell now. And just a few weeks ago, one of the two main Trump stores in the lobby was removed.

“People no longer want others to know they are supporting Trump. There is a lot of hate right now,” said Johnny Gonzalez about the decreasing interest in Trump gear. “They buy his shirts as memorabilia, but they don’t wanna be seen wearing it,” he said.

As of now, it is difficult to say if Trump is losing money because of his presidential run (he does get a lot of free publicity from it, after all). But Macy’s and Lifestyle are only two examples in a long list of former business partners who have distanced themselves from Trump.

There is one more intersection with the merchandise at Trump Tower and the business mogul’s presidential ambitions: Trump’s repeated claims that he is self-funding his campaign. While it is true that Trump has given more personal money to his campaign than any other candidate, filings with the Federal Election Committee show that he received almost $7.5 million in individual contributions. This amounts to a little less than a third of the money received by his campaign, and puts his self-funding claims into question. There are two ways to donate to “Donald J. Trump for President”: write a check, or buy a “Make America Great Again” hat. And this is where Trump Tower comes into play again.

from Lilly Maier
The since removed Trump store, in Trump Tower. (Lilly Maier)

The Trump gift stores also carry campaign gear. While the hats, T-shirts, flags, and dog raglans might seem inconspicuous, there is some legal ingenuity involved in selling the (tax-free) campaign merchandise in a regular store. The topic gets trickier with the many tourists coming to Trump Tower. Foreigners are not allowed to donate to a campaign, so technically they aren’t allowed to purchase political merchandise. (This only goes for “Make America Great Again” products; they can still buy Trump ties.)

Trump Tower is 68 stories high, and many floors are apartments or businesses. The tenants get an unobstructed view of Central Park. But if they somehow manage to upset Donald Trump, he treats them like his political opponents—spitefully. The most notable recipient of this was the second-floor Starbucks coffee store.

The trouble started in November when Christian groups first accused the Seattle company of a “war on Christmas” for not putting any symbols on their red holiday cups. Initially, the Fifth Avenue Starbucks didn’t stand out amidst the controversy. But then Trump jumped in, suggested boycotting Starbucks, and threatened to kick the store out of Trump Tower.

Starbucks must have more stamina than Jeb Bush, however. It’s still there five months later. Or maybe Trump simply forgot about it, because he is rarely in the building anymore. During the fall, Trump’s presidential campaign was confined almost exclusively to Trump Tower. He hosted several rallies and required networks to do all his political interviews in the atrium. “Now we see Mr. Trump a lot less,” said his doorman Johnny Gonzalez. “We used to see him almost every day, now we see him maybe three or four times a month.” But the Trump Tower staff—a lot of them minorities who passionately defend Trump against all accusations of racism—still get to share in some political moments.

“After he won New Hampshire, he came here the next morning, and when he got off the elevator on his floor, all the employees were there clapping for him,” said Gonzalez. “It was cool to see his face. He was like, ‘Wow!’ You know, you see a serious guy all the time, but this was cool.”

While Trump is flying around the country, his staff is masterminding his campaign on the fifth floor. The biggest surprise about the campaign offices is how “very much at odds they are with the rest of building,” said Ali Elkin, a former Bloomberg Politics reporter, who visited them in the summer. Housed on the former set of “The Apprentice,” the offices set a stark contrast to the splendor of the rest of the building. Bloomberg photos show raw walls, exposed pipes, and loose-hanging cables surrounding the handful of people trying to get the political outsider elected.

Visitors and supporters don’t get to see any of this. But the allure of Trump Tower lies in its promise to help people get closer to Trump. After all, no other candidate has a famous building open to the public. It’s a place where you can always find some of his supporters. A place where Trump’s business personality and his political personality coincide, be it when he attacks one of his tenants to score political points, or when he sells merchandise that others won’t anymore. A place where there is as much gold and marble as there are hyperboles in Trump’s speeches. Trump Tower is a place that serves as the backdrop to an opulent play, with Donald Trump as the only character.

Follow Lilly on Twitter @lillymmaier and at her blog, Lady Liberty Votes, where she writes about the presidential election from a New York perspective. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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