NATIONAL POLITICS

What does Palm Beach really think of Donald Trump? He's 'vulgar,' but they still might vote for him

People on this island don't use the word classy, cover things in gold, or display signs much larger than an index card to sell their homes.

Yet it is here where Donald Trump has chosen to define his brand of wealth and success, telling the New York Times he is king of Palm Beach and pointing to his relationship with its clubby society to show how good he is at getting along with all types.

Palm Beachers, who keep their expensive homes shrouded by 30-foot-tall ficus hedges, have a long and fraught history with Trump, full of lawsuits, zoning battles and lingering contentions from some that Trump is a tacky outsider.

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“I thought he was vulgar and I still do,” said Douglas EJ Fredricks, who owns a vintage clothing store full of citrus-colored Lilly Pulitzer jackets and patched pants.

The auto-lot-sized American flag Trump planted on the lawn of Mar-a-Lago, the 90-year-old estate he acquired in the 1980s, is a waving emblem of his defiance of town codes and mores. It’s the subject of one of several legal and political battles Trump has waged with the town since he bought the sprawling Italianate estate – originally built for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post – for $10 million from the federal government.

It was too expensive to maintain as a home, so Trump attempted to subdivide the property into a series of mansions, which the town government rejected. At the same time, he began fighting with the county government over the flight path for Palm Beach County Airport because he did not like the airplane noise that could be heard from the mansion.

“He was just trying to bully his way through, and Palm Beachers just don’t do that,” said Richard Rampell, a longtime resident who works as a certified public accountant on the island and whose brother served as one of Trump’s attorneys. “Trump insisted on sticking in his finger in everybody’s eye.”

Trump eventually settled on turning the property into a private club, which opened in 1995, fighting the notoriously prickly town council over nearly every regulation.

“Little by little, he got his way,” said Bruce Helander, an artist and art critic who long dealt art on Palm Beach.

But unlike most clubs here, which have a history of segregating and discriminating by religion, race and family connections, Trump allowed anyone to join, as long as they could afford the membership.

That has added to Trump’s mixed legacy here. Many applaud the changes, even if they remain members of older clubs.

“To Donald Trump’s credit –- and I don’t have a lot to give him –- he did open a club where you pay to play,” Helander said. “In this town, most of the people have the money, if the initiation fee is $100,000.”

Some of the old guard still see him as an ostentatious avatar of new-money values who promotes the club the way he sells steaks on television.

Trump, though, worked his way through society, turning Mar-a-Lago into a grand venue for some of the most prestigious charity balls, and visiting each table like the politician he would become. And, at least until he became a presidential candidate, many had grown to like him, even if they did not view him as a typical Palm Beacher.

Jeff Davidson, a part-time resident who owns a manufacturing company in Ohio and belongs to the Bath and Tennis Club next to Mar-a-Lago, remembers taking his mother to meet Trump.

“A fabulous person. Very nice, very gracious,” he said. “The man I see on television is not the man I have met.”

“It’s a polarizing subject,” said a man carrying a pitching wedge golf club out of a restaurant this week, explaining why he did not want to have his name in an article about Trump.

“I like him, but I’m not going to tell anybody I do,” said another man, dressed in salmon-colored shorts, taking a leisurely bike ride on a weekday afternoon as the breeze blew the fronds on the tall palms.

In fact, almost everyone you encounter on this island, with a population of less than 9,000, says they have met Trump, usually more than once.

Trump now regularly uses Mar-a-Lago and its gold-accented columns as a backdrop for televised news conferences, including one on Friday, where he was joined in front of five American flags by Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate who endorsed him.

Trump also points to his relationships here to dispute doubts about his temperament.

“I deal with society,” he said during a town hall in South Carolina last month. “Society loves me, and I can act differently for different people.”

Yet even though registered Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one on Palm Beach, there’s a sense of embarrassment among the wealthy here when they’re asked if Trump’s public persona represents their town.

“I have never seen him behave as badly as he’s behaving,” said Vicki Halmos, a theater producer who has lived here 30 years. “Were he to behave in Palm Beach the way he’s behaved in the trail, I think he’d be drummed out of town.”

“This person who’s gone across the country and practiced buffoonery, we’re all saying ‘Oh my God,’” she said.

Even those, like Rampell, who take a more critical view of Palm Beach society values, see Trump as an outlier.

“Palm Beach, in general, is much more subtle about its bigotry than Donald Trump has been,” said Rampell, who is Jewish.

Rampell said people may whisper about Muslims and immigrants at private settings, but not in the brash public manner Trump has exhibited.

Trump is favored to win Florida’s presidential primary Tuesday, but no one knows how the small population of Palm Beach will vote. The Palm Beach Daily News, known as the Shiny Sheet, published a story this week indicating a wide split among residents. There may also be a group who are quietly voting for Trump, but won’t talk about it in polite conversation.

Fredricks, whose family has been here since the 1920s, said he had a moment of recognition when Trump ticked off his priorities during his announcement speech over the summer.

“I was going ‘check, check, check, check, check,’” he said, motioning with his fingers that he agreed with Trump’s diagnosis of the country’s problems. “He’ll do very well here.”

Twitter: @noahbierman

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