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Donald Trump’s Secret Shame About New York City Haunts His Trial

With jury selection underway in Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Lower Manhattan, the former president’s chickens have finally come home to roost. It feels uniquely appropriate that Mr. Trump will have to endure the scrutiny on his old home turf. New York City residents have been subjected to his venality and corruption for much longer than the rest of the country, and we’re familiar with his antics — the threats, the lawsuits, the braggadocio, his general ability to slip through the tiniest crack in the bureaucracy or legal system just fast enough to avoid the consequences of his actions. He rose to fame here, but was never truly accepted by the old money elites he admired. The rich and powerful sometimes invited him to their parties, but behind his back they laughed at his coarse methods and his tacky aesthetic. His inability to succeed in New York in quite the way he wanted to drove much of the damage he did to the country as a whole, and arguably his entire political career.

For many of his admirers, Mr. Trump represents a certain kind of rich person whose wealth and success are emblematic of the American dream, and on the campaign trail, that was the story he told. That illusion was reinforced by “The Apprentice,” a heavily scripted pseudo-competition in which Mr. Trump pretended to fire people, something that in real life he generally has others do. He likes having authority but not doing the hard work of leadership and prefers to outsource the dirty work to underlings and lawyers.

It’s harder for Mr. Trump to avoid the actual untelevised reality of who he is in New York City, where he grew up the son of a wealthy Queens real estate developer and used his inheritance less to grow the family business than to grow his personal brand. His business dealings were murky, sometimes mob-connected and riddled with high-profile failures and bankruptcies. Serious real estate investors did not regard him as a peer. Eventually, banks began to refuse to lend him money. He was ruthlessly skewered by New York publications, most famously by Spy magazine, which called him a “short-fingered vulgarian.”

But he had a taste for being in the public eye — constantly. Gossip columnists at his favored tabloids often received tips from Mr. Trump about himself, even about his own sexual escapades, under the pseudonym John Barron. If you want to get attention without paying for public relations consultants, another good way to do it is to run for public office. Mr. Trump expressed interest in the presidency starting in the late 1980s, took steps in that direction in 2000 and considered it again in 2012 before being elected in 2016.

All of these qualities make Mr. Trump what the complexity scientist Peter Turchin refers to as an “elite aspirant.” It may seem absurd to refer to a rich guy who went to an Ivy League school and has been a public figure for a long time as an aspiring elite, but by Professor Turchin’s definition, Mr. Trump fits the term because he wanted forms of power he did not have. He had wealth, which is one of Professor Turchin’s four types of elite power, but precariously. He had neither the kind of influence that media figures who deal in persuasion have nor the raw political power that elected officials do. He admires dictators and people whose power is derived from violence (military figures, law enforcement) because he doesn’t have that, either.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, the song goes, but Mr. Trump couldn’t make it here — at least not the way he craved — despite being born here and being one of the few people who could afford it.

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