The mid-terms are approaching and Nordea is going on a fact-finding tour to the US, but it is nigh on impossible to understand what drives America without factoring in its charismatic, controversial leader. Little did I know when I met him in Moscow 20 years ago that he would go on to become the world’s most powerful man.
Ever met someone in your life only to look back some years later with a ‘didn’t quite see that happening’ raise of the eyebrow? I have. Donald Trump to be precise. During the winter of 1997/98. And it was, of all places, in Moscow. It was quite the occasion.
I’d been working in Moscow some three years at that point freelancing for a variety of publications including The Moscow Times and also for the press back in the UK. During that stint, I interviewed a number of people who had pretensions to the throne. Umar Dzhabrailov came 11th in the 2000 elections when a formerly little known Vladimir Putin took the top prize and Boris Nemtsov had already served as first deputy prime minister. But meeting Russian presidential hopefuls was one thing. I never anticipated someone who’d one day rule the White-House roost. And nothing I saw that day convinced me that I had seen a candidate to lead the free world walk into the room.
Donald Trump: Who would’ve thought it 20 years ago? Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
That’s not to say Trump wasn’t charismatic. He held the room with aplomb. Swooping in like a modern-day Red Adair (for those south of 40, look him up https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Adair ) to add flair and his own particular brand of coiffured know-how to a multi-billion dollar real estate project that was going to revolutionise Moscow, he dominated proceedings. Of course, sat alongside a dour-looking official from the city government, that wasn’t exactly difficult for Trump and the press conference had all the buzzwords you might expect from a showman.
‘State-of-the-art’ was one. ‘Revolutionary’ was another. And I’m pretty sure ‘best in class’ got rolled out too (it was 20 years ago) as Trump held forth on a series of projects that had at its centre a complete overhaul of Moscow’s Rossiya hotel, an establishment that’s sheer size was matched only by its ugliness. Boutique it was not.
The 1960s construction showcased Soviet excess at its worst (or best, depending on your perspective). It’s 3,000 rooms not only added a certain brutalism to the Red Square skyline, it also provided a home to swarms of cockroaches who thrived in the nooks and crannies of the monolith where they ebbed and flowed in accordance with the city council’s latest and usually futile infestation crackdown.
So what on earth was in it for Trump? The project was never going to see the light of the day. Russia’s financial crisis of August 1998 put paid to that. And, while it is easy to use hindsight, the warning signs had already been in place that Russia was edging towards a cliff for the best part of a year. In other words, the project was a non-starter.
But for Trump, it was a very useful opportunity to keep himself in the limelight as well as presumably exploring the potential for business in Russia (something we’re not going to go into here). The 1990s were not that good a time to be Donald Trump. His business empire had been rocked by a debt-fueled expansion that left him with business losses of $916 million in 1995, The New York Times reports, and his casino empire was labouring. The Taj Mahal in Atlantic City filed for bankruptcy in 1991, two other Atlantic City casinos followed in 1992 and the Plaza hotel joined the party in 1994. While he wasn’t personally liable, it took the gloss off the Trump bandwagon and left his credibility stretched to say the least.
And then came Moscow. It led to nothing of course, but that misses the point. It afforded the president a few more newspaper inches (including yours truly), and kept his name out there. A certain young Kardashian was no doubt taking notes at the time.
Possibly this all sounds far-fetched. Why would Trump need Moscow? What purpose could be served by a few more columns? But the need for the oxygen of publicity defines Trump. This is the man remember, who entered the WWE ring in 2007. He also searched high and low for a vehicle to re-establish himself in the public eye alighting eventually on the reality TV show, The Apprentice, to reaffirm the no-nonsense, straight-talking man-of-business persona he wanted to make his public image and which he used so effectively in his presidential campaign of 2016.
It is, in truth, one reason why he stood for the presidency. The speculation has long existed that Trump neither expected to win, nor wanted to win. Whatever the merits of that debate, there is little doubt that he liked the ride, loved the publicity and then found himself with the keys to the White House, having overcome perhaps the one candidate the Democrats chose to push forward, that he would have a fighting chance against.
And since getting into the house, his craving for the limelight has only increased. Not content with leading the free world, he tweets at all hours of the night, picks fights with China, Mexico, Germany and the entire Muslim world, strikes seemingly random deals with Russia and North Korea only to be forced to back down in the face of furious domestic interests, oversees a dramatically dysfunctional White House and launches an onslaught against those elements of the press unwilling to give him the adulation he craves. In other words, he seems to be enjoying himself. And it follows to a tee the modus operandi that compelled him to jump on the flight to Moscow two decades ago and enter the circus of the wrestling ring 11 years ago.
Those Atlanta blues (and Georgia reds)
What does this matter to Nordea? Probably not all that much. But next month’s tour is striking out into new territory, following on from last year’s precedent-setting trip to Detroit.
Atlanta’s on the agenda for October before Nordea takes wing to Washington DC. And it’s perhaps most interesting as it strikes at the heart of the dichotomy that has split the US down the middle and left a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon since that cantankerous election campaign of 2016.
Atlanta is blue. By that, we’re talking about how it voted on November 8, 2016. Hilary Clinton took 66% of the vote. Trump took 33%. Clear Democrat territory then you’d conclude. But that wasn’t reflected in Georgia as a whole. Trump grabbed a bare majority at 51% leaving Clinton just shy of 46%, depicting the schism between city and country that was repeated throughout swathes of the US in 2016.
And the divisions remain. The line between news and fake news looks more and more like the kind of wall Trump had envisaged for the Mexican border; the attack on race continues to highlight the plight of minority ethnic groups; the gun divide leaves much of the rest of the world shaking its head in disbelief; and, given the broadsides launched against so many women in the media in the last two years, you might question whether #metoo really originated in Hollywood.
It’s what makes this year’s choice of Atlanta so ground breaking. It strikes at the heart of America far more so than a trip to some of the more obvious choices could ever do. It also gives an insight into a city that is blossoming. Population growth is rising, it’s become an information-technology hub and is strategically located to dominate the Sun Belt as its prosperity grows year on year.
Of course, we shouldn’t leave without one final word on Trump and that press conference in Moscow. When I asked him if his presence in the Russian capital meant a definitive commitment to the project, he managed to give me the kind of answer that was equivocal and offered a way out if the project fell by the wayside. Perhaps he was concerned about fake news. Or maybe he was already acting the part of the politician. But he was certainly deft. And maybe that’s why he’s ended up somewhere I just didn’t see happening all those years ago.
Atlanta by the numbers
Population: 5.8 million
Gross product: $62.4 billion
Job growth: 3.4%
Average house income: $62,437
The Nordea study tour 2018 takes place, October 1-5. The whistle-stop tour alights in Atlanta and then moves on to Washington D.C.
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