Donald Trump’s attempt to make America Great Again didn’t work in Atlantic City

Taj Mahal employees have been on strike since 1 July, demanding reinstatement of medical and pension benefits. Niha Masih
23 September, 2016

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. 

In the book, which Trump has repeatedly cited on the campaign trail this year, he wrote glowingly of his own clever ruse: hiring extra men and machines to make the construction site appear busy. One of the board members pointed out to him that one worker appeared to be filling up a hole that he had just dug out. “This was difficult for me to answer,” Trump recounted, “but fortunately, this board member was more curious than skeptical.”

Harrah’s at Trump Plaza, a 210-million-dollar, 39-story building with a 60,000-square-foot casino, opened in May 1984. But the partnership based on bogus holes dug for show teetered soon after. Trump bought a second casino from Hilton, who had failed to secure a license for it. That became Trump Castle, which opened in 1985. This was a direct competitor to the Harrah’s  casino. The chain sued him for using the Trump name on a second property, and for mismanaging the first. The partnership ended with Trump buying out Holiday Inn’s stake in Trump Plaza.

What caught his eye next was the Taj Mahal casino and hotel being built by Resorts International, and which was slated to be bigger and more luxurious than any other casino in the world.

Trump Taj Mahal opened in April 1990, funded by risky junk bonds (that is to say, high risk high yield) worth $675 million at a prohibitive interest rate. With its gold painted turrets and arches, Trump’s Taj fused tacky Indian exotica with a set straight out of Arabian Nights, which many would consider a travesty compared to the original masterpiece in India it was named after. Inside, the oversized chandeliers and gilded mirror ceilings seemed to eclipse everything else with their shine.

The taste may have been poor, but the optics were good. On my second visit on 11 September 2016, I met Richard Narin, a 56-year-old who has been working at the Taj Mahal since its 1990 opening. Taking a break from demonstrating on the boardwalk, he recalled the rush of people trying to get a job there. “Everyone was interested in working in a Trump organisation. There was such a great promise because this was his third casino in town. They used to call Atlantic City, Trump City, because everyone thought he would keep expanding,” he says.

David Cay Johnston, a journalist who has covered Donald Trump since 1988, recently released a scathing indictment of the Presidential nominee in his book, The Making of Donald Trump. He told me on 15 September: “It [the Taj] was a white elephant on which far too much money was put.” “Secondly, if you’re going to have multiple brands, you have to bring in additional customers but he had no marketing strategy. Also, there wasn’t enough demand for gambling in Atlantic City in the 90s. It was doomed from the beginning,” he added. Johnston is not alone in his belief. An extensive report by Associated Press, detailed how contractors working on the Taj were grievously shortchanged by Trump.

Barely a few months after its first anniversary, Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy, followed by Trump Plaza. A public company, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, raised money from selling shares to the public to buy the ailing Plaza and later, in 1996, the Taj Mahal and Trump  Castle.

By 2004, Trump Hotels had amassed a 1.8-billion-dollar debt and the company headed for the bankruptcy court. Bondholders lost millions; an unapologetic Trump called it a “technical thing” in an interview the same year. “I don’t think it’s a failure, it’s a success,” he said.

But even Trump might struggle to spin what was to happen next as a success: in 2009, the company, rechristened Trump Entertainment Resorts, found itself in the bankruptcy court once more. Trump exited the company, ending his run in Atlantic City. The companies filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code, which allows for restructuring the business and debt, instead of liquidating the company. Trump’s companies filed four, and none were personal bankruptcies.

Johnston said, “Donald Trump never had even a dollar of his own money invested in Atlantic City. He got fees upfront on his first deal, the Trump Plaza. For his second deal, he borrowed the entire purchase price and took a $5 million fee off the top and in the Taj also he took a fee and that was entirely borrowed money.” The Washington Post reported that while he did have to sell off some of his assets such as his yacht, Trump Princess, and his airline, Trump Shuttle, his personal wealth largely remained insulated from the impact of multiple bankruptcies in Atlantic City.

For all his claims of business successes, the press has often had a hard time verifying them, given how little information the candidate has shared. The Trump Organization’s website boasts of a real estate portfolio ranging to prime Manhattan properties to Trump Towers in Turkey and the Philippines, apart from hotels and golf courses. Forbes estimates Trump’s net worth to be nearly $4.5 billion, while a statement put out by his campaign claims it to be “in excess of $10 billion.” A New York Times analysis of the financial disclosure form he compulsorily filed with the Federal Election Commission shows at least $615 million in income, $61 million in stock, and $315 million as liabilities. He has defiantly refused to release his tax returns, which would reveal how much he actually earns and pays in taxes and which are traditionally disclosed by all Presidential candidates.

On the campaign trail, Trump has inexplicably fashioned himself into a working-class champion, promising to “make America Great again” and be the “greatest jobs-producing President in American history.” He has repeatedly said, “One of the things I’m most proud about is creating tens of thousands of jobs.” But in Atlantic City, the jobs he created left like he did.

Trump Castle, now Golden Nugget, was sold off in 2011 for a paltry $38 million, just 10 percent of its original price. Trump Plaza shut down in September 2014, and the building has been stripped of the Trump name. Peeking into the dusty glass facades of Evo, one of the restaurants in the building, I saw tables still laid out—like a movie-set where the cast has disappeared.

Continuing with Trump legacy, Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy in 2014 under the now Trump-less Trump Entertainment Resorts. Carl Icahn, a billionaire investor and business rival of Trumps, became the latest owner of the Taj Mahal. Icahn has come out in support of Donald Trump in the Presidential race. This year, he announced his decision to close the casino, calling it a “bad bet.” The bankruptcy process not only added to the uncertainty around the property remaining open but stripped around 1,000 unionised workers of their health insurance, pension benefits and paid lunch breaks. Health-care costs in the United States are estimated to be twice the average as other developed countries, making it unaffordable for those uninsured.

Around 60 workers on strike are Indians, almost all from Gujarat, according to Kaushik Vashi, a 62-year-old who has worked with his wife, Beena, at the Taj since 2006. Sitting at the strike booth, signing workers in and out as per their strike shifts, Kaushik said, “We have been demanding this for two years now. He [Icahn] says he is broke. Who is going to believe that a billionaire is broke?” The couple told me that they may have to defer their retirement plan of returning to India by a few years. Though, he said, the Indian workers would not be too hard-hit by the impending closure, as all are middle-aged, with grown-up children and retirement savings.

But their much younger colleagues, such as 28-year-old Pedro Martinez, from Puerto Rico, have a lot more to worry about. Martinez told me he has over $25,000 in medical debt after losing his health insurance cover, almost all of it accrued from one night of hospitalisation for asthma. On the day I met him, his 4-year-old daughter, Gulani, stood with him outside the casino, handing out flyers to passers-by discouraging them from going to the Taj. “I used to live paycheck to paycheck, now I am negative. With each paycheck I have to pay what I’ve already borrowed. So I’m always behind,” he said with a shrug. Behind him, I could see the Taj dwarfed by a new hotel on the boardwalk.

Atlantic City itself is a bit like Trump Taj Mahal—trying to strut in its faded glory. Unemployment in the town, at 7.5 percent, is higher than the national average of 5.1 percent. The county has the highest foreclosure rate among metropolitan areas in the country. (Homeowners lose their property rights during foreclosure for failing to pay their mortgage.) Past the Taj on the boardwalk is another inoperative casino, Revel—an enormous glass building with undulating tentacles. At sunset, lights were switched on inside the casinos, and the streets empty out eerily. Shops on the main street Atlantic Avenue, two streets off the boardwalk, had downed their shutters. Near the bus terminal where I was headed, rows of factory outlets, from Michael Kors to H&M lined the avenues.

I settle in the bus to transcribe my chat with Narin. His quiet voice became steely when I asked him of Donald Trump, the Presidential candidate, “My one-word impression of him over the years, having worked under him is that he is an exploiter.” Narin continued: “He comes in, makes money, nobody else makes their money, a lot of people don’t get paid for the services that they performed and then he leaves town with someone else holding the debt. As a capitalist, he’s great—but I don’t think democracy works that way.”