Want to understand the phenomenon called Donald Trump and his surprising rise to the top of the Republican presidential field? Then you’d better check out his German roots, Trump biographer Gwenda Blair tells DW.
DW: Why do you think that Donald Trump’s German roots are essential to understanding the person who is currently leading the Republican presidential field?
Gwenda Blair: His grandfather Friedrich Drumpf came to the United States in 1885 which was the height of German immigration to the United States when he was 16. His family was from Kallstadt, winegrowers. The first step to the Donald Trump we know today is that his grandfather did not want to be a vintner, nor did he want to be a barber which is what he was trained to do when he first said he did not want to be involved in growing grapes.
He came to New York and, after he learnt English, he went to the West Coast, ran restaurants, amassed a nest egg, then went back to Kallstadt, married the girl next door and brought her to New York. But she was extremely homesick, so they went back to Kallstadt and he tried to repatriate because he had become an American citizen. But whether on purpose or not, he had managed to miss military service – when he left he was too young and after he came back he was just a couple of months too old, which he said was absolutely coincidental.
German authorities however thought this was not coincidental at all and refused to let him repatriate. They said he was a draft-dodger, expelled and deported him to the place he came from – the United States – which is how the Trumps ended up as Americans after all instead of simply being a family in Germany that had a grandfather who had spent some years in the United States.
What traits of his grandfather and father do you think are also reflected in Donald Trump and the way he conducts his business and political career?
They are really an impressive through line of people who would do anything to get ahead and win. They are all enormously tenacious, never give up and are willing to push the envelope to bend the rules and find the loopholes.
Grandpa Trump built his restaurants on land that he did not own. In that time of the Gold Rush in the Klondike, it was the Wild West period. It was wide open, very raw, lots of single men desperately trying to find gold – and prostitutes. And Grandpa Trump’s restaurants had liquor, food and access to women. His restaurants had little cubicles off to the sides with heavy curtains – so called private rooms for ladies – which was absolutely understood to mean prostitutes. His establishment was not the exception there, but he certainly did well by that. And after that he went back to Germany and claimed that he was quiet man who avoided bars in his petition to repatriate.
His son Fred, who made his money in real estate in the outer boroughs of New York City, was very good at finding loopholes. When he was building state-financed housing he set up shell equipment companies and then rented bulldozers and trucks from himself at very high and inflated prices. It was not illegal, but he was pushing the edge and bending the rules. He was very good at that.
Donald in turn has been very good at finding loopholes and bending rules when he built Trump Towers for example. He hired undocumented Polish workers to do the demolition of the building that had been there before, paid them very low wages and had them sleep on the building site, because they were on such a rushed schedule. Later on he said he had not noticed that they were undocumented which he could not have missed. He is very good at that.
With his own family’s immigration experience how do you explain Trump’s anti-immigrant stance and his vitriolic rhetoric against immigrants?
He has been very good a figuring out who his audience is. I am not sure we can call that a German trait, but it is certainly part of his family culture of looking to who the audience is. His grandfather looked to who the audience was when he had those restaurants in the Klondike. His father looked to who the audience was when he built his housing in the outer boroughs of New York which was nothing like what we associate with Donald Trump today. It was middle income housing, but he added a little extra touch that his would-be customers appreciated like an extra closet. He was very good at marketing.
And Donald in turn has been very good at marketing to what he decided is his audience. In this case, the upcoming election, that is the big mass of alienated, unhappy and angry Americans who feel “our country used to be great and it’s not anymore and it’s somebody else’s fault.” They want somebody to make it right and get them the respect and the prosperity they think they deserve.
And Trump has been very skillful at seeing this mass of angry people and positioning himself as their champion and making it clear to them that he is going to go against anything that is in their way – no matter whether it is immigrants, a famous Republican war hero like John McCain, a woman like Fox host Megan Kelly or a hedge fund manager. So going after immigrants is an easy target to pick off when he is trying to appeal to this mass of mostly white voters in the United States who feel like they have been left behind.
So it does not bother him that he is in a way betraying his own family history with his stance on immigration?
I don’t think contradictions have ever bothered him, which has been confounding obviously to people observing the primary race. He is all over the map politically and I don’t think it matters to him. He used to be a Democrat, but now he’ll be a Republican. Now he is conservative, but he used to be liberal. He used to be for the right for an abortion, now he is hedging back on that. He used to be for immigration reform, now he is against. He moves back and forth very fluidly. I think that is the least bit of concern.
Gwenda Blair is the author of “Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire” and “Donald Trump: Master Apprentice”. She teaches journalism at Columbia University.
The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.