Woody Guthrie, the famed American folk singer, hated Donald Trump’s father, Fred. In 1950, Guthrie moved into an apartment building named Beach Haven that had been built by Fred Trump. Guthrie was so disgusted by the racism he saw at Beach Haven that he condemned the elder Trump’s behavior in song. The lyrics, never set to music, offer a glimpse into racist origins of Fred and subsequently Donald’s real estate empire.
Guthrie titled the song, “Old Man Trump”:
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just cain’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
The racism that Guthrie described in his song is embedded in the Trump real estate empire. In 1954, Fred Trump faced investigation by a U.S. Senate committee for war profiteering, including overcharging $3.7 million for the Beach Haven building. In 1973, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice charged the Trump Organization with violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Trump Organization routinely refused to rent to African-Americans and tried to decrease the number of black tenants. The DOJ claimed that “racially discriminatory conduct by Trump agents has occurred with such frequency that it has created a substantial impediment to the full enjoyment of equal opportunity.” Trump attorney Roy Cohn (who had worked for Joseph McCarthy) countersued the government for $100 million. Cohn claimed that the Trumps were the victims of unchecked government power. After sinking millions of dollars into battling the DOJ, the Trumps signed a consent decree in 1975, settling the case without an admission of guilt. The Trumps claimed victory while acknowledging the systemic discrimination in their real estate holdings. The DOJ forced the Trump Organization to hire and promote minorities, to advertise vacancies in African-American newspapers and magazines, and banned discrimination by the Trump organization.
In comparison to his father, Donald Trump engages in overt and more subtle forms of racism. He publically embraced the Birther Movement that challenged Barack Obama’s citizenship and tried to delegitimize the nation’s first African-American president. He has demonized Mexican immigrants, describing them as “criminals” and “rapists.” He attacked GOP candidate Jeb Bush over his Mexican-born wife. He has blamed African-Americans for untold murders and crimes in major cities. With these efforts, Trump has contrasted what he sees as good, law abiding citizens (i.e. white) with criminals (people of color, Latinos, those who are not white). In his description of criminality, Trump attempts to paper over his own racism. Crime becomes a coded way of discussing race without necessarily having to directly attack African-Americans or Latinos.
Fred Trump created a real estate empire by refusing to rent to African-Americans and overcharging the government. Over the years, Donald Trump’s racism has proven more flexible. He’s equally comfortable accusing the first African-American president of faking his birth certificate and equating criminality with Latinos and African-Americans. Turns out that sixty-seven years ago, Woody Guthrie figured out the Trumps. Too bad the rest of us didn’t.