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My almost-encounter with Donald Trump in Atlantic City happened almost 20 years ago (below). I was a graduate student at Princeton, was largely unaccustomed to the American pop tastes, and was somewhat scandalized by the low brow encounters there. A side note: older and less judgmental, I would have loved being in that circus now, after living in America for over two decades and teaching Hollywood for a living. But at the time I saw myself as an intellectual Russian and Russia promised to have more than just “back to communism” future, so then Donald Trump seemed a crude, even insulting, joke. He is no less today, but he is that by the popular demand, so what we are complaining about. It seems that today more people take him seriously, over 20 percent support Trump for president after all. In 20 years we have become 20 percent more menial and ridiculous.

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A sobering moment, as Americans look at the Russians with disdain for their love of Vladimir Putin’s anti-James-Bond exploits; his 007-ish flying planes, diving in submarines, and riding horses bare-chested. A clown they say, yet America’s own millions drool over their own clown, the hair-challenged Trump.

As one author shrewdly pointed out, “For Trump, the joy of the insult seems as compelling as art of the deal. Whether his challengers are reporters or other presidential candidates, they are, according to Trump: a bimbo, incompetent, weak, pathetic, disgusting and/or can’t satisfy a husband. ‘When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can,’ Trump has written in a chapter on business advice. When that fails, he fires them.” (AP, Trump dumps insults on questioners, insists on control, Aug 26, 2015)

This sounds so much like Putin: if he doesn’t like a critic, he threatens to “mochit them v sortire” or squash them in the toilet. And as the whole country of Ukraine along with ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, anti-corruption lawyer Alexey Navalny, the gunned-down journalist Anna Politkovskaya and politician Boris Nemtsov can attest (or could have if they weren’t dead) a line–“When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can”–might as well be Putin’s.

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Not a supporter of Putin (I got to stand on the Red Square with a sign “Putin is a Dick”), I do want to encourage the ever self-righteous Americans–with their ridiculously childish sense of their own innocence, as the late Edward Said once put it–to look at themselves. Nobody’s perfect. This realization will help international affairs a great deal; it might also save us from the Trump presidency. The reality TV-carnival king is not Putin, not yet, but if elected, could Mexico, or, OMG! Canada, become America’s Ukraine?

Atlantic City: The Night of Trump

Princeton,
January 20, 1998

Does your idea of glamour include a few days spent in Atlantic City in a hotel with the exotic name of Taj Mahal? Not being very much exposed to gambling culture, either in the United States or in Russia, mine did.

Last month I was invited for a fundraising event honoring a new Russian-American magazine. The name of the magazine suited the “glamour” of Atlantic City and the Taj Mahal hotel. It was called Royal. Don’t confuse it with the British Royalty. Russia does not have any royalty nowadays, and the magazine was started by a few so-called New Russians, a brand-new social class. In fact, it is a very Russian thing to give a certain name and then try to live up to it. The same thing happened with the presidency: Mikhail Gorbachev was named President in 1989, but the first democratic elections for this position were held only in 1990. Anyway, the lack of real royalty was not going to prevent the magazine from talking about celebrities in general, or ask people with a celebrity sounding name (like mine) to write about its certain gala events.

I walked into the Taj Mahal and was stunned: it didn’t look like a hotel at all, more like an airport. Though instead of flight information, visitors were informed of how many thousands and millions of dollars had been won in Wild Cherry or Black Jack, or something of the sort.

Another difference was that the neon lights were almost blinding. I guess it was supposed to create an atmosphere of joy, merriment, and, of course, glamour. The gambling area was as enormous as the waiting halls in JFK. But again, there was a difference: in JFK the human factor is obviously present — there are a lot of feelings involved: the sadness of separation, expectations for the future. Here, in the Taj Mahal there was nothing human whatsoever. There were two types of machines: one type was of flesh and blood inserting its money into another type, a metal one, which was consuming this money with a quick automatic chuckle. There were thousands of people, but I had never felt so lonely.

The event was starting at 9 o’clock in the evening, so after checking in I had plenty of time to take a walk on the Atlantic shore. And let me tell you, there is nothing more solitary than the ocean in the winter. Gray, lonely, naked beach. Closed ice cream and soda stands. The sideshow machines, covered with tarpaulins. And on top of this dissolute emptiness, there are bright flickering neon signs: Welcome to the Trump Taj Mahal! Good Luck at the Trump Castle! Have a Happy Day! This insensitive fake imposition of happiness on my feelings, disturbed by the true despair of the place, only intensified the sadness.

I went back to my room. It was time to get ready for the evening. The event, I was told, would consist of a fashion show, brought to the States by the Moscow Fashion Theater, and then dinner, hosted by Donald Trump. “You will be sitting with Mr. Trump at the same table!”  the publisher of the Royal promised me, “Isn’t that exciting?” It was not. First of all, even if theater itself is a Russian forte, fashion is definitely not. Second, I had never been particularly fascinated by the whole Trump phenomenon. (There are only two interesting things about him: that he met with the Russian presidential candidate General Lebed in New York last winter, and that there was an article about him in the New Yorker approximately at the same time).

The fashion show, in genuine Russian fashion, started forty minutes late. My worst fears came true — the models didn’t particularly know how to act. The room was cold, and it was cold to look at them coming out in cocktail dresses. The show was called “Solitude.” “How appropriate!” I thought. Although not everyone agreed. The audience, which mostly consisted of Russian men and women with lots of gold in their apparel, found the whole thing very entertaining — they were making loud comments, cracking bad jokes and laughing for their own amusement. I got up, left the auditorium and went to my room, crying in disgust and despair. Nothing in the world would have made me go back again. “It’s all right if I miss the dinner. There is also breakfast tomorrow morning, with the same Trump and Co. I will see them then,” I thought, cleaning the smeared makeup from my face.

Needless to say, I didn’t stay for breakfast with Trump. Though I did have coffee in the morning. And all the despair I felt before seemed nothing in comparison with what I experienced there, in the cafeteria. There was a man sitting next to me. He was calmly drinking his coffee, and, in between slow sips, methodically and hopelessly cutting his credit cards into pieces with the little scissors on his Swiss-Army-knife. Apparently he had lost everything overnight. There would be no future. This was more than I could possibly bear.

At 8 a.m. I was at the train station, waiting for the train, which would take me to Philadelphia, and then to Trenton, and so on, until I would finally get home, to Princeton. I don’t have a car, which usually doesn’t inconvenience me. But not that day though. I also couldn’t take a bus although there was a direct one to Princeton. Gambling culture is an interesting phenomenon, you know: it is not there for people to consume; people themselves are there to be consumed. Therefore, it is easy to get to Atlantic City (buses bring people in the morning), but it’s impossible to take a bus out until the evening. So the train was my only option, otherwise I would have been stuck there for at least 10 more hours.

It took me a long time to get home, but it gave me enough time to understand what of this experience was the most painful. It wasn’t even so much Atlantic City itself, although it alone can make one feel suicidal. It was mainly the “glamorous event” hosted by Donald Trump, which was happily and appreciatively accepted by the publishers of the Royal Magazine, and so excitedly consumed by the audience.

There are so many other great things in America’s versatile culture, but the choice that the new Russia is making for adoption and imitation is the lowest, the most tasteless. After meeting with Mr. Trump last year, General Lebed said that if as president in 2001 he met certain conditions for investments in a “civilized” way, these investments would be “civilized” as well. I wonder what kind of “civilization” the General was talking about: a glossy Moscow Trump Tower or a brightly lit Taj Mahal casino next to the Kremlin?

I’ve started seriously worrying about the cultural future of my country.

With these thoughts I finally got home. There was a message on my answering machine — I was invited to Las Vegas for another fundraising party for another new Russian-American magazine with Donald Trump sponsoring, again. I will not go.