This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
The Sport of Plutocrats
Golf Is Trump
By Robert Lipsyte
While waiting for Trump to jump the tracks, let's savor the day when his inevitable train wreck first passed through a critical safety switch. On June 9th, President Trump alienated his true base -- the reactionary rich -- by driving his golf cart onto the green at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. In doing so, he committed an unpardonable sacrilege in the high church of capitalism. It was time to start counting the days until he dropped off the scoreboard.
For successful greedheads and their wannabes, golf is the most sacred of sports, the symbol of all that is retrograde and exclusionary in American life. There's far more to golf, however, than mere inequality or a history of institutional racism and sexism. Golf is also a waste of space and water, and a sinkhole for chemicals poisoning the local aquifer. Think of all the organic vegetables that could be grown on those swards or the walking trails and wildlife sanctuaries that could be established. Think of the affordable housing that could be built on that land. There has to be a better use for the millions of dollars that will be squandered this year on overpriced golf duds and equipment, lessons, playing fees, and memberships in the latest trendy clubs (that these days often have you-know-who's name on them in large golden letters).
Golf is marketed as a test of character -- especially of those business school values of focus, perseverance, and self-improvement. A golf course is laid out as a hero's journey. You strike out from the tees (usually at different distances from the hole for men and women) onto a long carpet called a "fairway" that winds among natural "hazards" to be avoided: small ponds, sand traps, patches of undergrowth representing the oceans, deserts, and jungles that must be colonized or conquered on your 18-hole journey to capitalistic triumph. (Golf nomenclature, including "par" and "lie," which is where the ball comes to rest after a shot, is too vulnerable to mockery to be addressed here.)
The fairway, of course, leads to the green, a small, manicured area that contains the hole, the winner's circle, the C-suite, the gated community, the Oval Office. It was onto such a green that Trump drove his cart -- he looks to be in no shape to walk the course -- and that is not only considered a moral crime in the world of golf, but an obvious defacement of grass meticulously preserved so a competent player can "read the green" and plan his or her final putts.
Trump is unquestionably a competent golfer, way better than average. He's also an avid golfer and has, in the past, enjoyed the rarified company of such criminal media celebrities as O.J. Simpson and Bernie Madoff. As the Juice's successful parole hearing was coming up recently, the former football hero told a friend, "We'll be playing golf again soon." Possibly as soon as October O.J. may be back home in Florida, maybe even golfing at Mar-a-Lago. (He was, after all, a guest at Trump's wedding to Marla Maples.)
As for Madoff, long before his Ponzi scheme was busted, he was known for his oddly consistent, too-good-to-be-true golf scores. Trump, who knew Madoff from Palm Beach, crowed about refusing to invest with him and later called him "a scoundrel without par." It takes one...
To understand golf is to understand Trump. He uses golf as a social lubricant for business, which is its most important function in American culture. Since it operates on the honor system, golf is convenient for lying cheats. As the joke goes, the difference between boastful golfers and fishermen is that golfers don't have to produce proof. Golf jokes, invariably evoking sex or religion, are a staple of stale pale-male humor. The locker-room quip for which "golf" is an acronym -- "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" -- may no longer be totally accurate but it certainly captures the sensibility of the game. And as a perfect complement to Trump's own relentless boasts about his wealth, the most popular ranking of professional golfers has always been "the money list." There are no batting averages in golf. It's all about prize money and endorsement fees.
Trump is more than a golfer. He owns and operates golf courses. The Trump Golf website lists 18 "iconic" ones in "the world of Trump Golf," stretching from upstate New York to Dubai. And yet none of the domestic ones even made the list of Golf Digest's 100 top American courses. Despite widespread protests last year about his 2005 pussy-grabbing remarks, the U.S. Women's Open was held this July at Trump's Bedminster, New Jersey, course, also the site of his green desecration. Only recently was it revealed that The Donald had threatened to sue the United States Golf Association if it dared move the event as some in the Ladies Professional Golf Association had evidently suggested.
For him, golf isn't just a sideline presidential activity, it's central to his plutocratic vision of his presidency and of the promoting of the Trump brand (clearly synonymous in his mind). His golf courses, after all, are considered a critical part of his family's revenue stream, although typically, actual financial information on them is scanty and may eventually reveal less profit than he claims.
Recent American presidents have certainly sought out fortunes after their time in office, but Trump is certainly our first president to promote his fortune so centrally while there. He has, for instance, reportedly spent 21% of his presidential time at one or another of his golf clubs, making himself a living billboard for the brand and the business. (As he took office, the fee to join his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida doubled to $200,000.) And it's a business that desperately needs a presidential gold seal of approval. The golf industry hit its financial high mark in 2003, and its numbers -- golf courses, players, profits -- have sagged ever since. In response, there has been a concerted effort to speed up the game for distracted millennials and to make it friendlier to women and children, while cutting costs by vigorously fighting property assessments and other tax regulations.
No wonder one of Trump's early executive orders not only attempted to reverse Obama's environmental progress in general but, as the Associated Press noted, called "for a review of a rule protecting small bodies of water from pollution and development," which was "strongly supported by golf course owners who are wary of being forced into expensive cleanups on their fairways." It seems that no future hazard is too small for our golfing president to avoid.
Duffers in Chief
Actually, it may be through golf that Trump has scored his most significant victory so far in dismantling the Obama legacy. After all, during his first six months in office he's probably managed to play golf far more often than his predecessor, whom he criticized repeatedly on the campaign trail for his time on the course. (Precise comparable statistics are unavailable because Trump aides have been secretive about his golfing schedule.) As it happens, there's hardly been a president since William Taft who didn't hit the links. So let's give Trump this: his golfing may be the most presidential, possibly the only presidential, thing he's done so far.
Since Taft, who was criticized not only for playing badly but for playing while fat (a kind of shaming now tolerated only for Trump's sometime pal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie), golf has been the presidential sport of choice. Dwight Eisenhower, a good golfer, gave the game a boost when he had a putting green installed alongside the White House in 1954.