The story behind the strange Trump mural inside a children’s immigration detention center

This one piece of art almost perfectly sums up America today.

Murals of presidents adorn the walls of a Brownsville, Texas shelter where approximately 1,500 migrant children are currently detained. (Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Murals of presidents adorn the walls of a Brownsville, Texas shelter where approximately 1,500 migrant children are currently detained. (Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

On Wednesday, MSNBC reporter Jacob Soboroff joined a group of reporters on a guided tour of a government facility in Brownsville, TX, where nearly 1,500 boys between the ages of 10 and 17 are currently being detained, having been separated from their parents as they await adjudication for entering the United States illegally.

Among the many details Soboroff provided in MSNBC’s report on the facility — the boys sleep five-to-a-room in an ersatz dormitory environment; they receive two hours of time outside each day — was the picture of a mural, painted on the wall near the facility’s cafeteria, bearing President Donald Trump’s visage and a quote attributed to him.

The odd quote, affixed to the mural in English and Spanish, reads: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

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It is, perhaps, an unsettling sentiment to see on the walls of a detention center for children. It’s worth noting, however, that similar murals of other presidents adorn the facility’s walls. As Soboroff reported, a mural of President Barack Obama can be found elsewhere, with a quote reading, “We are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”

Nevertheless, it’s possible to attribute too much sinister meaning to this — and, indeed, a cursory trawl through the Twitter commentariat will reveal that many are doing just that. Rather than paint a dire picture, however, this Trump mural should be viewed as the perfect cultural artifact of our time.

First, there is the provenance of the quote. Trump’s meditation on battles lost and wars won is not from some shopworn stump speech or presidential oration. Trump is not referring to an actual war. In fact, the line predates his interest in politics. Surprisingly enough, those words can be found at the start of the 10th chapter of The Art of the Deal, the president’s ur-text on all things related to his alleged business savvy.

The first thing worth remembering about The Art of the Deal, is that the book was ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz. It may be an understatement, in fact, to call the book ghostwritten: Schwartz has, at times, suggested that the whole tome was his invention, cobbled together out of a series of confusing and recursive conversations with the then-real estate mogul, along with many hours spent observing Trump in his element. As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported in July of 2016, Schwartz noticed that in the years since the book’s publication, Trump had taken to speaking of the book as if he’d authored it on his own.

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“If he could lie about that on Day One,” Schwartz told Mayer, “he is likely to lie about anything.” (Like, say, being visited by the parents of children killed-in-action during the Korean War.)

The salient point, however, is this: there is a non-zero chance that Trump is not the actual source of this line from The Art of the Deal. (Also: there is a non-zero chance that Trump has never read the 10th chapter of this book.) That mural, perhaps, should bear Tony Schwartz’s face.

Of course, the story of the mural gets even more surreal from there. Chapter 10 of The Art of the Deal is the story of the lessons Trump supposedly learned from his attempt to turn an apartment building at 100 Central Park South in New York City into a luxe high-rise full of high-priced condominiums. This is the “battle” to which the quote refers. Naturally, the backstory of Trump’s misadventures at 100 Central Park South gives the lie to the notion that he emerged from the effort with anything resembling bragging rights.

As the New York Times’ Jonathan Mahler reported in April of 2016, Trump’s plans for the building went awry when he ended up in a classic “New York brawl with a group of tenants fighting to save their homes and clinging with white knuckles to some of the city’s legendary rent deals,” that “played out for years in courtrooms and the New York news media.”

Trump, who purchased the property in 1981, inherited a building full of tenants living in rent-controlled apartments with monthly terms that were well below market. For Trump to realize his dream of a stylish condo with Central Park views, he had to shift the existing tenants elsewhere. But rather than offer the existing residents equitable terms to vacate the premises, he instead resorted to the sort of cartoon villainy that would make Snidely Whiplash blush. Per Mahler:

Leaks went unfixed, tenants alleged, and broken appliances went unrepaired. Aluminum foil was placed over windows in empty apartments, giving the building a run-down appearance. (Mr. Trump defended the action as standard procedure for vacant units.)

More dramatic were the eviction notices from Mr. Trump’s lawyers, on a variety of grounds. One tenant was told that he had not paid his rent on time. (He presented a canceled check in court to prove that he had.)

Others who had done construction on their apartments, with the approval of prior landlords, were told that they had 10 days to restore them to their original conditions.

As Trump was also waging this battle in the press, he made personal attacks on the residents themselves, depicting them as whinging plutocrats “exploiting an undeserved government subsidy,” who made regular use of a free phone in the lobby of the building to “call their friends in Gstaad and St. Moritz.” In truth, the residents were a mix of well-to-do strivers and pensioners getting by — and the phone they were allegedly using to converse with their fancy European pals was remembered by those that lived there as a mere pay phone.

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At one point, Trump lobbied New York City officials to allow the homeless to move into the building’s vacant units, as a way of prodding his tenants out the door. City officials balked at the notion that housing Manhattan’s neediest in a building the owner intended to raze was a good idea.

After a protracted five year fight, Trump scuttled his plans. And while he did eventually get his condo conversion, the existing renters were permitted to stay on in their apartments. According to the New York Times, many live there to this day — along with Trump’s son Eric.

As Mahler reports, the two sides differ on who won the battle. Madelyn Rubinstein, a current tenant who lived through the ordeal, told the Times, “Oh, absolutely, we won.” Trump, who tends to remember his most historic business botches with a fondness they don’t deserve, recalls things differently:

“A great deal,” he said, without hesitation, when describing 100 Central Park South — now known as Trump Parc East — during a phone interview last week. “It was a long battle, but it was a successful battle. As usual, I came out on top.”

In the end, we might never find within ourselves the capacity to care about this real estate deal. But all of this bizarre backstory truly enables a full appreciation of this mural: It is a flourish of delusional bravado, written by a ghost writer, about a failed condominium deal, on the wall of a children’s detention center.

As far as having a single objet d’art that perfectly encapsulates this particular moment in America, this mural is :::chef’s kiss:::.