Rudy was Trump, and Trump is Rudy: How NYC in the Central Park Five years shaped history

New York's darkest hour became "American Carnage": Before Giuliani became Trump's flunky, he was his role model

Published June 23, 2019 12:02PM (EDT)

Rudolph Giuliani, 1993; Donald Trump, 2016 (Getty/Salon)
Rudolph Giuliani, 1993; Donald Trump, 2016 (Getty/Salon)

Running on a platform of overt racial division and culture-war politics — and aggressively demonizing the most vulnerable members of society — a white male Republican wins a hotly disputed election, in defiance of all conventional wisdom and a rapidly diversifying electorate. He replaces the first black man to hold the office, vowing to turn back to clock to an idealized past.

Once in office, the newly elected leader becomes a uniquely polarizing figure, viewed by some as a hero and savior and by others as a corrupt, racist villain. He thrives on media disputes with his enemies, attacks on freedom of speech, outrageous proposals that will never be enacted and grossly exaggerated claims about his accomplishments.

You know exactly the place and time I’m talking about, of course. Then again, maybe you don’t. Possibly there’s a more recent example, but what I mean is New York City in 1993 and the election of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Yes, the parallels are striking, although there are also important differences, and we’ll get to those as well. In that election, Giuliani narrowly defeated incumbent Mayor David Dinkins — a courtly, tennis-playing African-American moderate who had built a coalition of working-class people of color and affluent white liberals.

It was no secret that New York was a city of stark racial politics, but the 1993 election made that fact more obvious than ever. Giuliani got virtually none of the black vote, but overwhelmed Dinkins in the white, outer-borough neighborhoods of South Brooklyn and eastern Queens. In Staten Island, which could certainly be described in the early ‘90s as paradigmatic home to the “white working class,” Giuliani got 84 percent of the vote.

There’s a strange circular relationship between Giuliani and Donald Trump, even before we get to the comic-book unreality of the present moment, when the latter is the actual president of the actual United States and the former is his personal attorney, trying to fend off possible impeachment and/or prosecution for any number of alleged criminal acts. (The previous guy to hold that job is now doing time in federal prison for crimes he committed at Trump’s behest. But anyway!)

You can argue that Giuliani’s 1993 campaign and then his mayoralty functioned as an accidental test run for the entire Trump phenomenon, conducted in a jurisdiction that wouldn’t elect Trump dogcatcher if the other candidate were a Rottweiler. I’m sure Rudy sees it that way; in psychological terms, his thoroughly unnecessary current status as Trump bootlicker is the closest he will ever get to redeeming his botched 2008 presidential campaign, which was undone by the financial collapse and a series of personal scandals. (You see, children, in Ye Olde Times, personal scandals were seen as politically damaging — even to Republicans!)

But it isn’t just that Rudy was Trump before Trump was Trump. That’s clearly true in the larger, thematic, history-repeats-itself scheme of things, and for reasons best known to his shrink or his father confessor, Giuliani has now enslaved himself to the Trump agenda, Gríma Wormtongue-style. But there are or were noteworthy differences between them as political leaders.

Trump and Giuliani have known each other for more than 30 years, but they were not closely aligned in ‘80s and ‘90s New York. (Trump arguably had valid reasons to be wary of a straight-shooting federal prosecutor who made his name by bringing down mobsters.) Whether out of genuine conviction or political convenience, when Giuliani entered politics he presented himself as generally pro-choice and a supporter of LGBT rights. In fairness, he pretty much walked the walk, signing a domestic partnership law in 1998 that LGBT advocates described as a “new national benchmark.”

More striking still, Giuliani spoke out forcefully in defense of immigrants, documented or otherwise, frequently observing that all four of his grandparents had been born in Italy. He also pursued a significant expansion of Medicaid and other free or low-cost health care programs, and in 2000 filed a lawsuit against two dozen major firearms manufacturers, asserting their liability in causing gun violence. (All of this would come back to haunt him when he tried to run for president in 2008.)

One can certainly argue that that was largely political opportunism, and moreover that Trump more or less supported all that stuff too, until he set out to rebrand himself as a national-scale Republican. Giuliani’s immigration rhetoric was at least partly a strategic attempt to peel New York’s fast-growing Latino vote away from the black vote and from automatic support for Democrats. (To some extent, it worked: Giuliani won 37 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1993, and 43 percent in his re-election campaign in 1997.)

But the real significance of Giuliani’s New York in understanding Trump’s America is not so much about the details of policy or ideology. It’s about the Zeitgeist, the mood and the atmosphere. It’s about the way that time and place shaped America’s discourse on race and crime, power and privilege — and about how it shaped the worldview of the man who would re-enact the Giuliani mayoralty on a much larger stage, and in a darker key.

Rudy Giuliani rose to power and prominence in New York against a climate of widespread anxiety and paranoia, which is captured with remarkable intensity in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix docudrama series “When They See Us,” about the dreadful miscarriage of justice in the "Central Park jogger" case. Giuliani was not yet mayor when a young white woman named Trisha Meili was brutally beaten and raped in the remote northern quadrant of Central Park in April 1989. In fact, that was the year he resigned as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York  and went into politics, losing his first campaign by 47,000 votes (out of 1.9 million cast) to Dinkins, who became the city’s first black mayor.

But there’s no way to separate the Central Park Five case from the rise of Rudy Giuliani, and the rise of Donald Trump. While the vicious assault on Trisha Meili was bad enough on its own terms, it was grotesquely inflamed by sensational tabloid reporting — and by Trump’s infamous newspaper ads calling for harsher policing and a return to the death penalty — into a symbol of everything that seemed wrong with New York at the time: uncontrolled violent crime, intractable racial division, worsening social disorder and incompetent or corrupt bureaucracy.

One consequence of this hysteria, as “When They See Us” makes clear, is that five teenage boys and young men who happened to be in Central Park that night were chosen, almost at random, as scapegoats for the attack on Meili, although no physical evidence or credible eyewitnesses linked them to the crime. Another consequence is that many “ordinary citizens” — mostly but not entirely white, and mostly but not entirely middle-class — retreated into psychological bunkers built of fear and false stereotypes.

To be fair, the fear was not entirely imaginary: Violent crime rates in major cities had grown rapidly from the late ‘60s through the late ‘80s, and crested right around the time of the Central Park assault. In 1990, there were 2,245 reported murders in New York, an all-time high. When I tell younger New Yorkers that within my adult lifetime it was best to avoid Union Square Park or Tompkins Square Park after nightfall — both of which are now surrounded by $18 cocktails and lovingly grilled pseudo-meat dishes — I get that glazed-over expression I no doubt provided my own dad when he started talking about egg-cream sodas.

Although that threatening trend line seemed inexorable at the time, crime rates began to fall precipitously right after that, for a variety of demographic, cultural and social reasons that remain disputed. Although there has been a recent spike in gun violence in several American cities, violent crime in New York remains at or near a historic low point, a fact relatively few people outside the city understand. Last year there were 289 reported murders, the lowest total since 1951. New York City has less violent crime, proportionally speaking, than Madison, Wisconsin, or Portland, Oregon, and is roughly on par with Honolulu.

But in terms of the popular imagination — and especially the collective imagination of conservative white Americans of Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s generation — none of that matters. (I’ve heard older white New Yorkers insist that they don’t believe the crime statistics of recent years, which have somehow been cooked by “politically correct” white liberals.) The image of New York, and urban America more generally, as lawless and dangerous, plagued by dark-skinned “super-predators” who were likely to rape white women in dark places, is deeply entrenched.

Three years after the Central Park rape trial had mesmerized the city (and much of the nation), Giuliani won his rematch with Dinkins in 1993, running as a hard-ass prosecutor who promised to crack down on homeless people, panhandlers, turnstile-jumpers and “squeegee men.” As I’ve mentioned, he avoided stigmatizing immigrants, but the racial coding was unmistakable: He would make sure that poor black people wouldn’t be in your face all the time.

Interestingly, I can find no evidence that Donald Trump played any role in that campaign: He had donated modest sums to both Giuliani and Dinkins in 1989 (as was his wont), but apparently gave to neither of them in ‘93. But I think it’s obvious that Trump made a careful study of the way Giuliani was able to galvanize white resentment and win an unlikely victory in an overwhelmingly Democratic, majority-minority city, and then of the way Giuliani used the power of his office to keep his base energized and engaged.

I’ve listed some of Giuliani’s non-Trumpy policies and positions above, but there’s a much longer list of things that sound awfully familiar. He ordered the police to conduct numerous sweeps of parks and other public places, rounding up homeless people and confining them to shelters as far outside Manhattan as possible. (Sometimes they were simply bused across the river to New Jersey and released.) When City Council members criticized these sweeps, he tried to evict social-service organizations in their districts and replace them with homeless shelters.

Giuliani frequently attacked the press, and shunned or castigated journalists he believed were unfair to him. His press secretary, Cristyne Lategano (who was widely presumed to be his mistress), was repeatedly accused of lying to reporters, and spread false allegations about corruption in the Dinkins administration in an effort to deflect attention from present-tense scandals.

Giuliani’s administration was sued dozens of times over violations of the First Amendment, and lost at least 35 such cases. Most famously, he tried to cut off city funding to the Brooklyn Museum over a single painting of the Virgin Mary (partly made using elephant dung). One imagines Trump taking admiring notes on that one. Civil liberties attorney Floyd Abrams wrote in his memoir that Giuliani repeatedly insisted “on doing the one thing that the First Amendment most clearly forbids: using the power of government to restrict or punish speech critical of government itself.”

While Giuliani came into office promising to fix the public schools, he repeatedly slashed the budget and found ways to reallocate resources to whiter, more middle-class neighborhoods. His relationship with the black community began badly and got worse. He was an avid supporter of racial profiling by law enforcement. Rev. Calvin Butts, a conservative Harlem preacher who initially supported Giuliani, ended up with a simple conclusion: “I don’t believe he likes black people.”

Although Giuliani gleefully took credit for the rapid decline in crime over his eight years in office, that process had begun before he was elected and continued, or even accelerated, after he departed. As with Donald Trump and the U.S. economy, the likeliest conclusion is that Giuliani’s vaunted “broken windows” approach to policing had little or nothing to do with the falling crime rate. (Nor did the now-notorious 1994 crime bill, passed under Bill Clinton with the enthusiastic support of both parties.)

To most Americans who felt baffled and terrified in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election, his “American Carnage” inaugural address seemed like a bizarre and delusional portrait of a dysfunctional society that was totally unconnected to 21st-century reality. To New Yorkers, however, it seemed eerily familiar and specific: It was the landscape of irrational (if not wholly unjustified) fear surrounding the Central Park Five case, when five young men were railroaded for a crime they didn’t commit and a supposedly liberal and tolerant world city embraced a racist authoritarian as its savior.

It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump really believes that New York and other American cities are violent, alien hellscapes, and that all evidence to the contrary is fake news. How would he know? He never goes anywhere that isn’t a Trump-branded property. But debating what Trump believes is fruitless, because he believes in nothing except his own immortality and greatness. Here’s what he knows: Rudy Giuliani exploited racial animosity to win an election against the odds. Then he used a series of invented outrages and scandals, along with a fascistic show of force, to win re-election against a weak and divided opposition. And it was a whole lot easier the second time.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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