To reach Trump Tower we fought our way through the Christmas shoppers on Fifth Avenue. A police officer asked our business. “We want to see the Tower,” we replied, sheepish, rubbernecking foreigners hoping to catch a glimpse of the President-Elect or his ghoulish retinue. He let us through. Unusually for a residence, Trump Tower is open to the public. When it was built in the early 1980s, city authorities allowed it to be built so high—58 storeys—only if there were shops in the atrium. The public’s presence now costs the city a $1m a day in security.
It turned out we has missed some action. In previous days, Bill Gates and Kanye West had arrived to dispense their wisdom; but now, like many wealthy New Yorkers, Trump was sunning himself in Florida. We wandered round looking for things to mock. Naturally, we were spoiled for choice: the gold-plated elevator doors made famous by Nigel Farage; the Ivanka Trump jewellery range; the Donald Trump fragrances (“Success” and “Empire”); copies of his books, including Trump: The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received and a 50 Shades-style novel called Trump Tower, co-authored with Jeffrey Robinson—“the sexiest novel of the decade.”
The Trump Grille or Grill (the spelling is uncertain) looked fairly empty, but we weren’t keen on the $18 taco or much else on the menu. An Indian-American shopkeeper tried to sell us a “Make America Great Again” red cap for $25. Before the election it might have been a funny gift; now the joke had turned bitter. Most people trudging through the atrium looked bored. There is much less to Trump Tower than initially meets the eye. Passing three sad-looking journalists sitting opposite the golden elevators, we went into the street. A small but loud group of protestors shouted anti-Trump slogans. Most shoppers walked past oblivious.
A couple of nights later we had dinner with some New Yorkers, and the election came up fairly quickly. One of our number was an African-American accountant, born in Queens, but now living on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. He was a political junkie who had been following the election closely. Now he was listening to a podcast that went through all the US presidents one by one, looking for the worst, trying to find crumbs of comfort in the Republic’s survival.
The discussion turned to what the Democrats had done wrong. Had they, as the academic Mark Lila argued in his post-election opinion piece in the New York Times, been too enamoured of “identity liberalism,” at the expense of common values? Our accountant thought there was some merit to Lila’s argument. It’s bad for all Americans that the police are shooting black people without cause, not just the communities involved. His girlfriend disagreed. You have to fiercely call out racism and sexism whenever you see it, she said; not try to smuggle in liberalism by the back door.
Two days later we were at a family dinner with a Muslim-American family in Long Island. Were they scared of Trump? “If the economy grows, we’ll take the racism,” said one young man. I wasn’t sure how serious he was. One doctor told me that on the night of the election his friend rang him to say his clothes would soon be ruined by a yellow star and crescent. Everyone laughed uncomfortably and the conversation moved on. No one wanted to spoil the occasion by dwelling on what might happen.
I heard there was going to be an anti-Trump demonstration under the banner “Refuse Fascism” on New Year’s Eve at Columbus Square. (“Bring glowsticks” said the flyer.) I went along and talked to some of the protestors. There were about 150 people, chanting near the revellers hoping to hear Mariah Carey sing in Times Square. (As it turned out, the revellers hoped in vain.) One was an Indian American, who had heard that Trump was going to introduce immigration restrictions, maybe even “deport millions.”
A middle-aged woman told me she was “terrified for her country.” But is it right to be calling it Fascism, I asked? Is there a danger that rhetorical overkill will alienate people on the centre ground? “Absolutely, it’s right,” she said, going on to describe how fake news and celebrity culture had contrived to bring Trump to power. “He lost the popular vote by three million votes… he does not have the will of the people.” I wasn’t sure that technical argument cut much ice. “They are white supremacists, they’re fascists,” she said, citing mainstream Republican policies such as freezing the minimum wage and privatising prisons. A professor of fashion design, she was planning to cut down her hours to focus on protesting.
I overheard three friends having an interesting conversation about how to oppose Trump. When I told them I was a journalist they were suspicious. “How do we know you’re not from the FBI?” I cited my British accent and gave them my card. “Anyone can fake an accent or make a card.” Maybe their paranoia will prove justified but I sensed they were enjoying the drama of it all. I had more luck with a jazz musician who told me he was worried about the racial aspect of Trump’s rise. “I think it’s going to be so insidious and poisonous, the new attorney general [Jeff Sessions] is a known racist and that really scares me.” Despite the small numbers at this protest he was optimistic. “By the 20th there will be millions marching on Washington DC,” he said.
A couple wearing red bandanas walked past and shouted pro-Trump slogans, but there was little other reaction from the rest of the crowd—either positive or negative. Mainly there was indifference. Perhaps they wanted to forget politics for the night and enjoy New Year; perhaps this is the phoney war and when the full extent of Trump’s awfulness is on display the country will rise up. From my few conversations, though, it seems that outside the usual suspects there is—so far—little appetite for rebellion. Maybe the Muslim-American friend I spoke to was right: as long as the economy does well—and economists such as Kenneth Rogoff have said that with the relaxing of environmental legislation there is every chance it will—then most people will just get on with things. Until that is, to paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemoller, Trump comes for them.