Draining the Swamp

This essay is featured in The President’s House Is Empty.

Donald Trump calls his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, his “winter White House.” This proclamation has been met with derision as well as outrage about the security costs and conflict of interest. But the sheer hucksterism that has defined Trump’s ownership — buying the once federally owned estate, overcoming local objections by turning it into an exclusive club, and finally using it, in name only, as a public institution — should also interest us. Often casting himself as an aggrieved party fighting entrenched interests in Palm Beach, Trump’s battles there offer a funhouse-mirror version of the common man’s struggle against elites. Presented in the rarified air of Palm Beach, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago travails foreshadowed his current political narrative.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Florida must contend with the history — ripe with excesses and struggles for control of land and resources — on which it was built.

Moreover, Trump’s relationship to Mar-a-Lago and his pursuit of victory there at all costs reveal a regressive vision of community, one that resonates deeply with Florida’s history. For almost 150 years, wealthy outsiders have fought an anemic state over who gets to enjoy paradise. Aggressive development opened up Florida for millions of ordinary Americans, but in the absence of an effective state, wealthy interests have hollowed out prospects for working people, degraded the environment, and made the consumption of Florida a rich man’s game. Mar-a-Lago reflects the legacy of Florida’s past. Given the newly established winter White House, this legacy now belongs to all of us.

Now, with Hurricane Irma’s aftermath certain to shape the state for years to come, the reality of policy inaction and the cost to individuals and communities is clear. Even as Republicans at the national and state level are quick to promise relief, they are equally committed to not talking about the excesses that cause it. As one scientist explained to the New York Times, “We know that as humans, we are all too good at pretending like a risk, even one we know is real, doesn’t matter to us.” In Florida, that natural human tendency has been enhanced by Republican governors who so persistently avoid mentioning the words “climate change” that scientists even “self-censor” their work. Yet, Florida is testament to a reality that cannot be ignored. Even as the state pulls itself together, the uncertain future must contend with a pattern of denial and a history of consumption that many are eager to maintain. Mar-a-Lago reflects this legacy of Florida’s past. Indeed, while the newly established “Southern White House” will no doubt be fine this time, we should care about what Florida’s legacies mean for all of us.

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Mar-a-Lago is a link to a historical Florida that was ripe with excesses and engaged in a long struggle over who should control land and resources. The state first began to boom in the last decade of the nineteenth century, when concerns about urban congestion prompted millions of Americans to seek out nature for rejuvenation and relaxation. Doctors recommended Florida for recuperation from a range of ailments, and developers saw an opportunity to package paradise. The sparsely populated, debt-ridden, swampy state became, seemingly overnight, a popular destination.

Hamilton Disston, the head of a large Philadelphia manufacturing company, helped initiate this transformation. After visiting Florida on a fishing trip in 1881, he bought 4 million acres from the state and commenced an ambitious project to turn swamp into usable land. “What is claimed to be the largest purchase of land ever made by a single person in the world occurred today,” the New York Times announced, while noting the competition from anxious “capitalists of New York and Boston.” Disston, at least, was well-intentioned: by draining the Everglades, he hoped to turn the area into productive farmland. But while his agrarian vision failed, his efforts attracted other northern industrialists who would take a different approach.

Mar-a-Lago shamelessly restores a statement about wealth and power from a bygone era. But the Florida Dream is not sustainable.

Henry B. Plant, a railroad magnate, and Henry M. Flagler, a partner in Standard Oil, saw tourism as the path forward for Florida. Both together and separately, the men created a system of railroads and luxury hotels throughout the state. The network linked the western coast to the rest of the United States and allowed trade south to Key West and Cuba. Plant focused mostly on Tampa Bay, where in 1891 he constructed the Tampa Bay Hotel, a 511-room Moorish palace, at a cost of around $3 million, while Flagler’s chain of luxurious resort hotels would eventually stretch to Key West, embellishing the image of Florida as an idyllic wonderland.

Flagler ended up setting an aesthetic standard that would define the state, one that infused a sybaritic flavor into the built environment. For the construction of the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, he sent architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings to Spain. For his signature hotels in Palm Beach, notable architects such as Addison Mizner constructed Mediterranean-inspired villas with sun-drenched patios and massive rooms for entertaining. But Flagler’s style rested on his reputation for building huge structures in sparsely populated areas — an approach that meant the end for the Styx Community, hundreds of working-class blacks (and whites) who had built Flagler’s Palm Beach hotels. By 1910 most of the black workers had been forcibly relocated to West Palm Beach.

Paradise was for sale, but at a cost. Men such as Plant and Flagler propagated and profited from the idea of a modernizing New South, but in reality the region remained primarily agrarian. The end of Reconstruction returned Democrats to power across the region, and these “Redeemers” fought to undo reforms such as voting rights and pursued fiscal policies that undercut public goods such as education. White and African American laborers and small farmers felt the effects most profoundly, leading to a regressive economic order that African American writer T. Thomas Fortune described as a “pauperization” of laboring people across the South.

An alliance of farmers in the South and Midwest tried to fight back. By 1890 National Farmers’ Alliance and the Colored Farmers’ Alliance were a force in Florida state politics. Candidates for state office sought Alliance endorsement and those candidates were a majority of those elected to the 1890 state legislature. The national meeting of the Alliance in Ocala, in December 1890, marked the high point of the movement. The policies articulated there became known as the “The Ocala Demands,” and included the abolition of national banks, the end of futures speculation, and the reclaiming of excess lands held by railroads. These demands served as the basis of the People’s (or Populist) Party Platform in 1891, but despite the radical resistance, the Democratic Party prevailed. By the start of the twentieth century, most of Florida’s political leaders had fully embraced big developers as the necessary fuel for Florida’s future.

• • •

Before long, Palm Beach County became ground zero for a particular flavor of development. The barrier island became defined by its luxury and exclusivity, inspiring new communities that sprouted up across the bay in the state’s 1920s land boom, including Boca Raton (1925), Coral Gables (1925), and Deerfield Beach (1925). By 1927 Mar-a-Lago became one of the grandest creations in the extravagant tradition that defined Palm Beach.

Aggressive development opened up Florida, but the wealthy have hollowed out prospects for working people, degraded the environment, and made the consumption of Florida a rich man’s game.

Commissioned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the cereal fortune, and designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, who specialized in catering to clients’ fantasies, Mar-a-Lago (which means “between the sea and the lake”) brought Spanish, Venetian, and Portuguese architectural elements together in a 110,000-square-foot mansion. The site became a showcase for the architectural remnants and furnishings Post acquired while traveling in Europe. As a social force in Washington, D.C., and Palm Beach — one of her husbands, Joseph E. Davies, was the former ambassador to the Soviet Union — Post’s Mar-a-Lago parties did not disappoint. For one she invited Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to set up on the lawn; for another, she brought down the entire cast of a Broadway show.

Post resided in the home until her death in 1973, at which point she left the estate to the United States. The grandeur of Post’s lifestyle seemingly informed this decision; she had entertained elites in her homes, after all, and she willed a suitable location for the nation to do the same. But Mar-a-Lago never fulfilled her vision. Much of the estate was mothballed while under government control, including covering much of the furniture and wall hangings, letting the floors go unpolished, and cutting back to a skeleton maintenance crew. At an estimated cost of a million dollars a year, it was too expensive to keep up. After seven years, the Department of Interior under the Carter administration returned the property to the Post Foundation. But while the estate struggled, Florida was booming.

After World War II, the Florida dream had become an achievable commodity for many. Retirees and a constant flow of new families grew the state’s population, transforming vacation towns into cities. The boom delivered steady economic growth, but with the influx of newcomers, sustaining the promise of the Florida dream has proven difficult. An economy dominated by tourism has caused the state to struggle to provide adequate wages and affordable housing while protecting the environment from overdevelopment.

Between 1950 and 2000, for example, coastal counties in Florida added 10 million new residents. Lobbyists and the construction industry have been able to develop the coastline unabated, increasingly building in spaces that are threatened by erosion and that block public access to the beach. Property owners frequently post “Private Property” signs, even though Florida’s coastline is public property. The result is that Florida’s public coastline is often hidden in the shadow of wealthy high-rises.

By 1980 state and federal laws attempted to address some of these abuses and reign in future development. It is against this backdrop that Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 for an estimated $10–15 million, and thus began his 30-year struggle against municipal and county governments. His plans for Mar-a-Lago seemed to clash with authorities at every turn. For example, in 1992, when he wanted to develop private houses on the estate, the Palm Beach town council rejected the plan. But Florida has a history of weakly defending regulation and pandering to the rich, and Trump’s combative attitude, money to burn, and deft use of lawsuits has allowed him to get his way every time. He sued the council over the houses, but then dropped the lawsuit when the council approved his plan to convert the estate into a club. In a similar vein, he used lawsuits to maneuver the county into giving him a lease on public land that he used to create the Trump International Golf Club.

Winning the presidency has given Trump the ultimate tool of validation, erasing the clashes over control that have defined his ownership of Mar-a-Lago. The opulence and exclusivity that made it a white elephant to the national government is what attracted Trump in the first place, and his actions since represent a stance more in tune with the robber barons of the nineteenth century than with the modern regulatory state. Now, as news outlets adopt the custom of referring to Mar-a-Lago as the winter White House, Trump has managed to infuse a regressive legacy from the nineteenth century into a symbol of contemporary political life.

While Floridians are still faced with unresolved questions about education, affordable housing, depressed wages, and environmental degradation, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago shamelessly restores a statement about wealth and power from a bygone era. But his dream is also not sustainable. As sea levels rise, a federal program to assess flood risk and bolster Florida’s coastal storm protections has been cut from Trump’s 2018 budget. Scientists predict that Mar-a-Lago will be underwater by the end of the century.

This essay is featured in The President’s House Is Empty.


Originally published at bostonreview.net on September 18, 2017.

Julian C. Chambliss

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I study the real and imagined city. #Historian