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The Mistake on the Lake

Trial lawyer Reuben Guttman questions Donald Trump's suitability as a presidential candidate.


The city of Cleveland is in the heart of what Americans call the “Rust Belt.” It is a city that evokes images of strip mills, union halls, and the grit and grime of a manufacturing economy. Over the years, Cleveland’s natural assets, the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, bore the ills of industrial toxins spewing from manufacturing plants, the output of which armed America during the great wars and the wages of which put bread on the tables of unionised workers and their families. By 1969, the Cuyahoga River was so contaminated that it actually caught fire. Now fading, this is one of the images of Cleveland. 

By the late 1980’s, when the mills closed after the captains of US manufacturing had found cheaper havens for production, the vestiges of Cleveland’s industrial past were shuttered plants, polluted waterways, and boarded up houses and buildings. The city became known as “the mistake on the lake.”

Gradually, however, over the past 15 years, Cleveland has begun to come back. Efforts have been made to clean up the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. Downtown development, new sports stadiums and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are symbols of revitalisation.

And so when Cleveland was chosen as the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention, the hope was that for several days in the summer of 2016, the City would get to focus the world on its progress. No such luck.

In what may become known as one of the great political ironies, Cleveland will become the site of the nomination of a presidential candidate whose own business practices nearly typify the sort of industrial disregard that lead to Cleveland’s woes in the first place.

Donald Trump allowed for the creation of a so-called “university” that preyed on the savings of working-class people with – at best – an education program that taught “students” how to get into the real estate market by in turn preying on those who were enticed by banks to sign onto loan products that the banks knew would fail.  He opened casinos in New Jersey and – when his financing strategies failed – he forced unionised workers to confront the proposition of foregoing pensions and bargained for wages. He has reportedly failed to pay vendors, benefited from the services of  illegal aliens who were not accorded proper wages and benefits, allowed his name to be used to market real estate deals that did not come to fruition, and he even sued the United States Government after the Justice Department accused his business of discriminatory housing practices. To top it off, he has touted his wealth and charitable giving, which remain questionable, particularly since he will not release his tax return because – irony of ironies – he is being audited by the Treasury Department. Having done all this, he published a book extolling his brilliance, though it turns out that The Art of the Deal’s ghostwriter describes Trump as a sociopath.      

Now, as the nation struggles to get past the Wall Street derelictions that nearly toppled the economy, and with Americans looking for someone who communicates with – as Harry Truman might say, “straight talk,” Trump has run a campaign that has given some the impression he is the tough guy who will solve the problems of the average American. Yet what is this straight talk? Trump, who never served in the armed forces, has questioned Senator John McCain’s status as a war hero because the senator – a pilot whose plane was downed – spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He refers to senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as “Lying Ted”, and “Little Marco.” He calls former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary.” He or his companies have been party to countless lawsuits and he publicly questioned the integrity of the judge presiding over the Trump University case because of the judge’s purported Mexican heritage (the judge was actually born in the same state where Trump’s running mate Mike Pence presides as governor). His speeches are punctuated with the words “disgraceful” and “disgusting,” which are inserted to deflect from giving substantive answers when questioned by the media. The things he has said in public have historically been a death knell for candidates who have uttered more benign words. Remember, for example, Edmund Muskie? 

Last week, just before a Republican convention rules committee was about to decide whether convention delegates would be bound by their choices on the first ballot, Trump let it leak that Indiana Governor Pence – a more mainstream Republican – would be his running mate. When the committee decided to hold delegates to their vote, word has it that Trump began to re-think the Pence decision. Perhaps Trump did not need him anymore? Yet it was too late for even Trump to back out of the choice.

This week, barring a revolt on the floor of the convention, Donald Trump will secure the Republican nomination for President of the United States, a reminder that he aspires to fill a slot held by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. Republican stalwarts from the Bush family to Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham will not be there. They are ducking for cover as they should. For the Republican Party, it is their big “mistake on the lake.” The question is whether the Republicans will take as long as Cleveland to recover.        

Reuben Guttman is a trial lawyer and founding partner at Washington, DC-based firm Guttman, Buschner & Brooks.

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19 July 2016

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