News World US US Election Larry Hackett: If Trumpism is a virus where was it seeded?
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Larry Hackett: If Trumpism is a virus where was it seeded?

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If Trumpism is a virus here to stay, 1980s New York City was its wet market.

That’s where this stubborn civic plague first took root – a more benign strain to be sure, one where the local population achieved herd immunity before a more virulent strain jumped to the broader population, thanks to the bat bite that was The Apprentice.

No Patient Zero wants to accept responsibility, and New Yorkers are no different.

But it’s hard to look at Mr Trump, and his screeching henchman Rudy Giuliani, and not wonder what we were thinking 30 years ago when we eagerly served as host bodies to this nascent political pandemic.

Back then, New York was on its knees. Crime, in particular, was rampant, with murders topping 2000 by 1990.

Homelessness was overwhelming the streets, city services were crumbling and entire boroughs, like Brooklyn and Queens, had yet to even dream of the renaissance that was just a few years away.

Mr Trump was already a presence, a self-promoting showman who – in his best moments – seemed to reflect the city’s against-all-odds spirit.

He famously rebuilt Central Park’s ice skating rink in a matter of months after the city’s repeated failure to get the seemingly simple project done.

His Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, however gaudy, was a stake in a city others were thinking of leaving.

In his worse, and more frequent, moments, Mr Trump was the outraged id of a guy tired of all the liberal experiments and sociological excuses that had led the city to ruin.

He famously called for the execution of five teenage boys accused of a brutal rape (for which they served nearly 20 years before their convictions were overturned). He insulted local politicians, and he gleefully stiffed business partners as part of the Art of the Deal.

But he was a tabloid operating system, a man any city desk could rely on to provide a headline on a slow news day. I saw this symbiosis up close as a reporter at the New York Daily News.

Nobody took it all too seriously, because, honestly, who could take this guy seriously? We reporters all thought the whole city was in on the joke, and that readers indulged Mr Trump’s egomania because it was a harmless diversion for a city that needed more than a few.

Mr Giuliani, meanwhile, was a white knight with a dark streak.

On Saturday, Giuliani spoke during a news conference on legal challenges to vote counting in Pennsylvania. Photo: AAP

He spent the early ‘80s prosecuting mobsters and Wall Street brokers, making him seem like a law-and-order zealot. He lost his first run for mayor in 1989, but won four years later and set about taming the chaos that had engulfed the city.

How much credit he deserves for New York’s turnaround will forever be debated, but it’s indisputable that the city soared in the 1990s.

Crime plunged, new residents flocked in and neighbourhoods were transformed. There was no one cause for the change, but it was simple to point to Mr Giuliani. And he didn’t disagree.

But even amid his success, Mr Giuliani betrayed a crazed bitterness. He fought constantly: firing his first police commissioner in an act of jealousy, gay-baiting the schools chancellor, warring with the Brooklyn Museum over a painting he felt was blasphemous, even driving the Grammy Awards permanently to Los Angeles over some long-forgotten feud.

We should have seen it all coming.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, Mr Giuliani spurned the beloved underdogs Brooklyn Dodger baseball club and was a Yankee fan instead. What kid does that?

To anyone who lived here, Mr Giuliani’s steadiness in the days after 9/11 seemed an outlier compared to the eight years of City Hall conflict that came before.

But we celebrated his 9/11 performance, just as we’d celebrated Trump’s brash outspokenness. These two guys, however obnoxious, seemed worth the price – of either amusement or civic order.

Today, we think back to those early signs of megalomania, now full-blown and threatening national order.

Mr Trump seems anything but benign or amusing, while whatever remained of Mr Giuliani’s “America’s Mayor” persona was left in the parking lot of the Four Seasons landscaping company during his embarrassing post-election press conference.

Their efforts to keep Mr Trump in office will be unsuccessful. But they are already passing on their virulence to the next generation of denialists and demagogues.

And why not? Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani may not have known it at the time, but they managed to dupe the most savvy city in the world.

What’s duping the rest of the country after you’ve accomplished a feat like that?

Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America