Late on the afternoon of 31 August 2016, I walked towards the semi-deserted driveway of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, a resort town in coastal New Jersey, in the United States of America. One of the few cars that entered the driveway was quickly accosted by a woman in a red t-shirt with a megaphone, who yelled, “Taj Mahal is on strike! Taj Mahal is on strike!” The driver didn’t pause, and continued into the parking lot.“Shame on you, Sir!” the woman called out after him. She was one of the workers belonging to Unite Here Local 54, a union representing the Taj Mahal employees who have been on strike since 1 July, demanding reinstatement of medical and pension benefits.
In1990, spring had arrived in Atlantic City in style. Trump Taj Mahal, then the world’s largest casino-hotel complex, opened in April with Michael Jackson as its chief guest. The complex cost over $1 billion, and the casino floor alone was around the size of two football fields. A younger Donald Trump, who owned the Taj, walked around the hotel with Jackson, while paparazzi snapped photographs and crowds lunged at the pop sensation’s fedora. Trump called the Taj—his third Atlantic City casino—the eighth wonder of the world.
Though the Republican US Presidential nominee has not been involved with the Taj since 2009, the struggling casino continues to use his name, hoping for a turnaround. Today, stone elephants flank the entrance but there are few people to welcome. The neon lights of some of the alphabets on the signboard no longer light up. Inside as well, the sheen of the Taj has worn off. On the mostly empty casino floor, I saw elderly tourists staring vacuously at noisy slot machines, which have names such as “Stinkin’ Rich” and “Princess of Amazon.” Gold-coloured elevators take you up to shuttered ballrooms and inoperative water coolers on the first floor. In its heyday, there were several restaurants, but the only lines I saw were for low-budget fast food franchises—Panda Express and White House sandwiches. The Trump Exchange, a general merchandise store, had a clearance sale. In the store, a quote by Trump on “thinking big” is emblazoned in gold lettering above the cashier. The stock, seemingly from another era, is a haphazard mix of clothes, crockery and Trump cufflinks. The new additions are Trump election merchandise: bobble-heads, baby tees and adult tee-shirts that read “Combover in Chief,” referring to his much-lampooned hairstyle.
The Taj has been in trouble for several years, and the latest union strike is one in a long series of twists and turns. With falling revenues and fruitless negotiations with the union, the current management announcedthat the Taj would shut down at 5.59 am on 10 October, leaving 2848 workers unemployed. While Trump has had nothing to do with the Taj Mahal for several years now, its decline is inextricably tied to his business dealings. In the middle of a heated Presidential campaign, this assumes added significance. So much so, that a week into the strike this July, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, gave a speech in Atlantic City, slamming her opponent, steps away from his erstwhile casino. On a debate stage during the primaries (the first part of a US Presidential election, where party members vie for the party’s presidential endorsement), Trump claimed that he had “made a lot of money in Atlantic City” as a way of proving his business acumen. But a closer examination of his time there reveals a different story—that of a bullish developer who bet big, but whose early successes ended in four bankruptcies and thousands of lay-offs.
Trump got his break in Atlantic City in the early 1980s by partnering with Holiday Inns Incorporated, which owned Harrah’s casino in another district of the city. Holiday Inns agreed to pay Trump for the construction, share the profits equally, and underwrite any losses for the first five years. To seal the deal, the company’s board inspected the construction site, a spectacle Trump brazenly details in his 1987 book, Trump: The Art of the Deal.