Donald Trump is even more of a monster than you think: Why his golf courses are environmental disasters

Filmmaker Anthony Baxter on how elitist billionaires are destroying the environment in the name of golf

Published June 27, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/David Moir)
(Reuters/David Moir)

Here in the United States, Donald Trump gets a lot of flak for the many, many things you can hardly believe he said: claiming that a cold day disproves the reality of global warming, for example, or, more recently, declaring that most Mexican immigrants are "rapists."

Trump's no less loathed in Scotland. There, however, the problem is less about what Trump says, and more about what he's actually done -- run roughshod over protected dunes to build an elite golf course, attack an offshore wind energy project because it "ruined" his view, cajole politicians into supporting his every whim. He's also run into trouble for the promises he's failed to keep -- when the deal ultimately went sour, he flew off in his private jet, leaving behind none of the economic prosperity he'd sworn the project would create. His fate as one of the country's top villains was sealed with Anthony Baxter's 2011 documentary, "You've Been Trumped," which documented a saga so egregious it inspired a folk song, and made such waves that Trump finally agreed to sit down with Baxter on camera.

That interview could be read as the climax of Baxter's newest documentary, "A Dangerous Game," which picks up where the last left off. But Trump knows how to hold his own against angry activists -- or, at least, he knows how to deflect their questions. With no evidence to back himself up, he explains at one point that he himself is a "great environmentalist." The film's more alarming revelation is that it's not just Trump: elitist billionaires, in Baxter's telling, have co-opted golf, creating vast artificial environments for play that strain local resources and shut out all but the wealthy, and which all too often subvert democracy. This plays out as tragedy in Dubrovnik, Croatia -- a World Heritage Site -- where residents' efforts to keep out a golf resort result in the passing of a local referendum with an 84 percent majority, only to see the project green-lighted anyway.

Salon spoke with Baxter about the golf industry's need to embrace a more sustainable model, and about his continued pursuit of America's would-be 45th president. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

To start, it would be great to hear about how you went from this one local Donald Trump story, and then branched out into this larger problem of elite golf courses.

It was through taking it to communities that really led me to make this film, because people kept saying to me at screenings around the world that they were having the same type of thing happening to them in their communities. It’s not always Donald Trump, but it’s people like him. That was really the journey I set out on.

I also wanted to focus in on the ludicrous situation of these golf courses being built in places like the California desert, for example, which has experienced the worst drought in history. And when you consider that the average golf course uses 312,000 gallons of water per day, and the average American family of four uses 400 gallons/day, it really is shocking, the scale of this stuff. I wanted to explore how our planet cannot afford these gated, super-luxury resorts for very wealthy people like Donald Trump, yet they keep being built in places that are so unsustainable.

Donald Trump recently announced plans to build a new golf course designed by Tiger Woods in Dubai, and it’s just crazy. I don’t think anybody could make a case as to why, environmentally, that is a sound idea. They’re so vulnerable as well to an economic downturn, as we’ve seen: the first golf course of Tiger Woods’ design of the desert in Dubai has now been reclaimed by the desert because the whole plan went belly up.

So yes, it was a case of wanting to explore that, but also to continue to tell the story of what was happening in Scotland, because, despite having had the first film on the BBC, where there is a real backlash against Donald Trump, his organization, and the way they had treated those local people, I was so shocked to find that that treatment was continuing, even after that. So 90 year-old Molly Forbes still didn’t have a proper working water supply several years after Donald Trump’s work was cut off while building the golf course, and there were still mounds of earth being built next to the residents’ homes and Donald Trump was telling the media that he was treating them well. I think that those things were really the powerful driver to want to continue to follow the story.

You really have a clear-cut villain in this one of Trump. I keep thinking back to that image of Molly carrying the water up from her well to wash her dishes ...

Yes, I think the problem with Donald Trump, and the reason these late-night chat shows have so much fun with him, are the inflammatory things he says. Just take his comments about Mexico sending rapists and drugs dealers and crime into the U.S., and his big idea to build a Berlin Wall-style barrier between the two countries. That, of course, allows people to have a laugh about those ridiculous ideas, but the point is, as we show in the film, that it’s not just what he says that is bad and dangerous, but it’s what he does.

In Scotland, he claimed that he was going to be creating 6,000 jobs, and he invested one and a half billion dollars into what he claimed was going to be the greatest golf course in the world. Now, that was 10 years ago, and to date we have one golf course built, we have less than 200 jobs created, we have tens of millions of dollars having been invested, and not the $1.5 billion -- which was such a stupid number under any scrutiny. But the Scottish government believed his promises, and that’s also part of the problem with this whole thing, because we look to our governments to protect us from these kinds of developments, and the Scottish government completely failed in this case to protect a site of special scientific interest, which was supposed to be protected for future generations to enjoy, and that’s now been lost because of the golf course built there.

Donald Trump has now stabilized the dunes, he’s nailed them down, so that they don’t move and shift as nature intended. He’s built a golf course, which is for wealthy people to play, and he had plans to build another one, which he pulled the plug on after the Scottish government won the battle against him over the wind farm which he took great umbrage over.

The things that he does that we document in the film are simply dangerous and worrying, and I hope as many people as possible in the United States can see the film. Even seeing those polling numbers Tuesday, where he’s polling No. 2 in New Hampshire, you have to ask yourself: Do people really know what he does? They enjoy his entertainment value, maybe, but take a look at this film and you’ll see what he actually does.

About those ridiculous things he says: As somebody who’s confronted Donald Trump a few times, and then being finally able to sit and talk with him, did you get the impression that he kind of plays dumb as part of a strategy he uses for getting away with things?

Yes, well, he’s used to inviting people up to the boardroom in Trump Towers for interviews, and the first question I’ll ask is about his hair, which he obviously loves. But the point is, it’s that kind of deflection that’s the real problem. He’ll make points to journalists that they’ll just repeat as facts, and that’s what’s so concerning.

In the Scottish case, for example, he said he was going to be investing $1.5 billion and clearly wasn’t. The thing is, he’s such an expert at manipulating the media, and he also has access to the airwaves and the lawyers that ordinary people don’t have; he just needs to jump onto Fox and Friends for anything he wants to say, and it’ll just be believed. It’s a very, very worrying situation. Yes, it’s entertaining, but it’s concerning that a man who thinks he stands a chance of becoming the next president of the United States could be making such ludicrous claims and saying such inflammatory things on prime-time television.

I think that people really need to wake up, in terms of what his track record shows on delivery. If he talks about being the greatest “jobs president” that God ever created, which he said last week, we should remember that in Scotland that he’s created just a few dozen jobs. His blueprint for the plan originally was to have a “worker's hostel” on the side, because he knew nobody would want to take his low-paid job locally, because there’s zero percent unemployment in Aberdeenshire. So he was going to offer those jobs to eastern Europeans, and pay them low wages.

His track record just speaks for itself, and we actually see in the film him awarding himself a certificate for the greatest golf course in the world, because he knows that nobody will actually give him that award -- and then that’s published as fact by the press in Scotland, that he’s just won this amazing award. You couldn’t make it up, really. People need to scrutinize his track record more and not believe these flimsy claims, which are based on no hard facts.

The impact of these elite golf courses, and not just Trump’s, seem to consistently impact local communities negatively. Generally, the trend seems to be that there’s a huge disconnect between promises made and what actually happens.

That’s absolutely the case. In Croatia, for example, 1 percent of the population plays golf, but the idea of the golf course in Dubrovnik, in the film, was to create a huge gated community for very wealthy people who would fly into Dubrovnik, play a few rounds of golf, and stay in luxury hotels that would be taking all the water from the town. They’d be pouring chemicals onto the golf course to keep the greens green since it’s in the desert, and then nobody really knows where those chemicals end up.

In that case, there’s a myriad of complex tunnels that are linked to the water from the town. So you start pouring chemicals, as Alec Baldwin said in the film, using the example from the Hamptons where there was a similar situation, nobody really knows where they end up. The super-luxury resorts that the super-rich are building for their own enjoyment and entertainment are having a really detrimental impact on local communities, and rather than actually supplying the community with jobs and economic benefits, they’re actually costing the community greatly.

You only need to look at California, which is second to Florida in the number of golf courses it has, and there are 921 in an area with the worst ever drought, and the town sprinkles tap water onto the San Diego golf courses. So you have these situations where these golf courses and gated communities are benefiting such a tiny, tiny proportion of people, like Donald Trump, who are getting richer, and then the poor who are getting poorer are having to pick up all the pieces from these stupid decisions that are made about building them in the first place.

As we show in the film, I hope, golf is enjoyed by a lot of people, and it’s a great sport. But, originally, the idea of it was that it should be a game for everybody, to be played on stretches of land in Scotland that were near the sea. There weren’t any bulldozers 450 years ago back in Montrose when they popped a couple of holes in the ground to create a golf course, which was on common land, for the entire town, and intended for people from all walks of life.

Is it really just about golf courses? Or would you say the problem, in places like Dubrovnik, is a larger anti-development attitude?

Well, in Croatia, in Dubrovnik, they were not anti-development. They knew that that area of land above the town needed to be developed, and they were in favor of that. The problem is, these developments, which are brought in by very wealthy people -- in that case, the idea was bankrolled by an alleged arms dealer from Israel who’s a billionaire -- they have access to the politicians, and then the democracy is twisted and corrupted. As Robert Kennedy Jr. says in the film, “Whenever you see large-scale environmental injury you will also see the subversion of democracy. The two things go hand in hand. They always do.” It is a very depressing statement, but it’s really a case of, we have to, as human beings, make the decision that we can’t continue to do this.

The planet cannot afford all those golf courses in California. It’s absolutely nuts to have all these golf courses in a part of the world where the sun beats down every day, and there’s no water. Ordinary people are told they have to have restrictions on the amount of water they can use, but then we find that Donald Trump gets his water at a fraction of the price that local residents pay for theirs. As we document in "A Dangerous Game," Trump National  club in Bedminster, New Jersey, sucks up 50 million gallons of public drinking water a year, in a drought-prone and densely populated watershed. Yet the course pays only a fraction of the cost per gallon that homeowners pay.  All so a couple of hundred fabulously rich members (the joining fee is $150,000) have intensely lush and manicured fairways year round. It’s one rule for the super-rich, and it’s one rule for everybody else.

In the case of the Las Vegas resort, they have a lake there that’s filled twice a year with 2 billion gallons of drinking water, just as a water feature for the golf course. I think there should be a ban on golf courses on that part of the world. Unless there’s a way of using artificial turf to create them, I think they are no longer sustainable and they should be shut down.

Is there any kind of effort being made by the golf industry to create more environmentally sound policies?

There is, but there’s not enough. The Royal and Ancient, which sees itself as the governing body of golf, doesn’t really do anything to promote the fact that these golf courses are unsustainable. There are examples like the organic golf course in Scotland, which is fairly new. It was built maybe in the last 10 years. The sad thing is that an individual like Donald Trump had the opportunity, when he came to Scotland, to do something like that, because he was building a golf course in a part of the world where there is enough water: It rains a lot in Scotland, and there’s no need to worry about the conservation of water. "So why not take a different approach to the building of that golf course, Mr. Trump?" he was asked by all of the environmental organizations in the country. And take it away from the site of special scientific interest -- you’ll still have a golf course right on the the seafront, and on the dunes, but you’ll save the site of special scientific interest. And why not refrain from using chemicals?

He completely refused to do that. He pours huge amounts of chemicals onto those greens, and now we have a situation where that land has been lost forever due to the pig-headedness of somebody who is so used to getting his own way. I think the governing body of golf also doesn’t do anything like it should be doing, in terms of promoting this, and promoting the more sustainable approach to golf courses that has to take place. The bottom line is that these golf courses in the desert, that even Barack Obama was playing in Palm Springs over the weekend, just shouldn’t be built in the first place. They are completely unsustainable, they soak up billions of gallons of water, and the planet can’t afford them.


By Lindsay Abrams

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