I was recently astonished to learn that my own home of Seattle played a prominent role in the Trump family saga.
Politico reported recently on the sordid, but fascinating family history of Donald Trump. Specifically, his grandfather, Friedrich–whose name, earlier in family history had been Drumpf–who first emigrated to the U.S. at age 16 in 1885. As an aside, my own great-grandfather, Max Silverstein, becaume a U.S. citizen in 1888, three years after Friederich Drumpf arrived. Max arrived here after emigrating from Hungary.
One night, facing a future he didn’t relish as a barber, he wrote his mother a note saying he was leaving their home in Bavaria. He packed a few things and departed, sailing on the first boat he could and landing in Manhattan.
With little more than naked ambition, he headed to the most likely place where he felt he could make big, fast money. That was Seattle, where outfitters were provisioning miners who were headed for the gold fields on the Yukon. He landed in the city’s Red Light district, then known as Lava Beds. After scoping out the commercial opportunities, he decided to buy a restaurant called the Poodle Dog. It wasn’t just any restaurant, it was an establishment well-known at the time: was a combination of a speakeasy and a brothel. Men came to dine with their female consorts. Some restaurants even had private rooms (with beds) for favored women who brought their Johns there for a repast and a dalliance.
When Trump learned that John D. Rockefeller had bought a share of a mine in the Cascades called Monte Cristo, that’s where he headed as well. He needed a restaurant to repeat the formula that had worked for him in Seattle. But there were none. So he decided to build one. But he knew he was unlikely to remain in the town so he didn’t want to buy any land. Instead, he found a suitable piece of land, staked a fraudulent claim to mineral rights, and built his restaurant. He never bought the land itself and thus had no right to build anything on it. But that didn’t matter as long as no one raised a fuss. And they didn’t.
True to form, Trump heard the Rockefeller was selling his stake in the mine and that’s when the former abandoned his restaurant and moved on. This time he decided to go right to the Yukon gold fields themselves. He once again filed a mineral claim and built another establishment without owning the land. His operation proved quite lucrative as the women who frequented his establishment often were paid by the Johns in gold dust. In this fashion, Trump amassed a $500,000 fortune.
But he needed a wife and for this he turned toward home. He returned to the little village he’d left nearly two decades earlier and married the girl next door, who had been only five years old when he first left for America. The new couple wanted to settle down in their hometown, but there was a problem. Trump had emigrated before serving mandatory duty in the army and returned when he was too old to serve. Without military service, and having renounced his German citizenship when he took American citizenship, he could not reside legally in Germany.
He set up an audacious plan: he would give his fortune to the town, to be deposited there and used for the town’s benefit, if he would be permitted to live there. The town was delighted with the prospect of his fortune benefiting the residents. But the mayor’s regional superiors didn’t approve. They rejected the offer, which left Friederich a man without a country. He could not remain in Germany.
So when his native land turned its back on him, he turned to the only other thing he knew and the place where he had once succeeded: America. He took his new wife and sailed once again for New York. But this time, he never left the city. He set his sights on the part of the city which was like the Yukon had been to him years before. The uneveloped borough of Queens. A place which he foresaw could absorb some of the millions of new immigrants fleeing, like him, from their native lands and seeking a place to call home.
He bought wide swaths of Queens and built starter homes for those looking to buy a small piece of the American Dream. He moved his own family there. And then, quite suddenly, he died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.
There are many ironies to be plumbed in Friederich Drumpf’s life story. Here was a man with enormous ambition which far outstripped his means. A man who through a bit for knavery, fraud, and avarice exploited the vices of the common man, all the while offering him a service he craved.
Here was a man driven from his native country when he found he couldn’t manipulate his own countrymen as he’d successfully manipulated others. But unlike Friederich’s grandson, who wishes to deport these same sort of immigrants from our shores, the grandfather got a second chance. America remained accessible to him when he faced deportation from Germany. It welcomed him and permitted him to create a family dynasty.
If Friederich was anything like Donald, he was far better at manufacturing a family narrative than learning from history. Far better at projecting the future than understanding the past. If the grandson had any sensitivity to his own family history, he would understand that his own family could never have succeeded if America had been governed by views like his.
Donald Trump can never understand that what makes America great is not that we are a nation that takes risks, that embraces the unknown, that welcomes the downtrodden. We are a nation based on hope, not fear; on change, not status quo.
That is Donald Trump, unlike Friederich Drumpf, will lose.