Donald Trump is garnering a lot of press these days for things not related to eminent domain. And there's a lot of awareness of the high-profile eminent domain battle in New Jersey, in which he was the "B" in an attempted "A to B" taking. But not everyone is as aware of a later, similar controversy.
So we dusted off our review of the 2011 documentary You've Been Trumped, and post it below. The film focuses on the property owners whose land is in the shadow of Trump's golf course and luxury residential project in Aberdeenshire, on the west coast of Scotland. Compulsory Purchase Orders were threatened (but ultimately not issued), but the scenario presented the film will be familiar to anyone who follows eminent domain and property rights issues.
The film is available on DVD and streaming from a variety of sources. Definitely worth your time. Especially if you are even thinking of pulling the lever for Mr. Trump.
Movie Review: "You've Been Trumped" - Is "More" And "Better" Always Preferable?
Donald Trump has more money than you. He's also a huckster, a self-aggrandizing showman, a judgmental snob, and an eminent domain abuser with more than a hint of mean lying just below the surface. And he has really weird hair.
But we already knew that, and if these are the only insights to be taken from You've Been Trumped (Montrose Pictures 2011), the new documentary by director Anthony Baxter, the film would add little to the conversation.
But at its core, You've Been Trumped demands more of its audience by posing an essential question: in the "supersized" consumerist culture epitomized by Mr. Trump, is "better" inherently preferable? The film highlights his belief that modest, traditional, and worn-at-the-heels should naturally give way to glitzy, contemporary, and grandiose.
The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Mr. Trump's philosophy in Kelo v. City of New London, the case where the Court's majority allowed the taking of modest homes because the government asserted that someone else might make a more economically intensive use of the property. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her Kelo dissent, "[n]othing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory." That's what unfolds in You've Been Trumped. But instead of being replaced by a Ritz-Carlton, a shopping mall, or a factory, the modest homes and farms stand in the way of what Mr. Trump calls, with typical hype, "the greatest golf course anywhere in the world." And the venue is Aberdeenshire, Scotland (because, you know, Scotland has a critical shortage of golf courses, especially those on which the cheapest greens fee is £120.00 ($185)).
The property owners in the way of the golf course resist. After the local council fails to approve the project and the Trump organization threatens to take it elsewhere, along with its promised jobs and economic development, in an unprecedented move, the Scottish government removes consideration of the project from the local council, and the green light to build soon follows. Some thought is given to "compulsory purchase" (eminent domain), but that is rejected by the government as "inappropriate."
If this all sounds familiar, it is. In Local Hero, a fictional account of the objections of the quirky residents of a Scottish town to an oil tycoon's plans to turn their village into a refinery, the story is played for subtle laughs -- we tend to idealize eccentric locals with quaint accents -- and that film has, inevitably, a happy ending. But that was fiction, and the outcome depicted in You've Been Trumped is much less satisfying.
Eventually, Mr Trump decides to build around the objectors. Each in turn confronts difficulties: in a particularly uncomfortable sequence, the farmer is derided by Mr. Trump as living in a "pig-like atmosphere -- it's disgusting" and his water is cut off, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not; another neighbor is informed that a portion of his garage was built on Trump land and is going to be removed; and even the director ends up in trouble when he is arrested by the local police and his camera and footage is confiscated, simply for filming.
The objectors seem as much disturbed by the lack of respect paid them and their way of life as by Mr. Trump's heavy-handedness -- a familiar theme in these kind of films, the most recent example of which is Battle for Brooklyn, another documentary bearing witness to a property-owners-vs-developer fight. That film was the product of a tight edit -- the filmmakers shot over 500 hours of footage which they reduced to 93 minutes -- and You've Been Trumped would benefit from similar treatment, because the film plays out as a series of loosely-connected vignettes rather than a cohesive narrative. We're initially led to believe this is shaping up as a compulsory purchase fight when the issues shift to the destruction of sand dunes, and then back to the property rights issue. That may be the way the situation actually played out, but it would have helped the film if we were provided a clearer picture of where the battle lines had been drawn, and how the fight progressed.
Even with these minor imperfections, the film excels at contrasting Mr. Trump's greed-is-good ethos with the simple lives of his adversaries who seem to want nothing more than to continue on as they had been before his private jet landed and he set his designs on yet another edifice bearing the Trump name. There's no mistaking on which side the filmmaker thinks you should come down.
The danger with this type of documentary is that it fails to provide a fair overview of the subject or the situation, and indeed, Mr. Trump has claimed that the film is factually inaccurate. But just when you sense that Mr. Baxter, the filmmaker, may have crossed the line from directing a traditional documentary to a Michael Moore-ish attack piece, Mr. Trump's attitude and his own words dispel whatever discomfort you may have begun to feel:
- "When I look out in the ocean from the 18th hole of Trump International Golf Links, to be honest with you, I want to see the ocean, I don't want to see windmills."
- "I look at Mr. Forbes [one of the objectors] and his disgusting conditions in which he lives, and that people have to look at that. ... For people to have to look at this virtual slum is a disgrace. Mr. Forbes is not a man that people in Scotland should be proud of."
- "We've had tremendous support from the environmental groups ... I've received many environmental awards over the years. I think the greatest thing I've ever done for the environment is what I will be doing right here in Aberdeen."
- Mr. Trump claims he is building the resort "for the people of Scotland," and that it will be "done environmentally perfect."
One suspects that any injury his image may suffer as a result of this film is an entirely self-inflicted wound.
Often lacking finesse and decidedly one-sided, You've Been Trumped is anything but subtle. If the film's goal is to make you think Mr. Trump is a jerk, it succeeds wildly. But perhaps that was inevitable in a documentary with him as its chosen subject.
You've Been Trumped: Hawaii premiere, Friday, January 13, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. at the Doris Duke Theater at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. There is a pre-screening reception from 6:00 - 7:30, so please come early. I will be introducing the film and leading a Q-and-A session after the screening along with the Sierra Club's Anthony Aalto (journalist, writer and Chair of The Capitol Watch - the Sierra Club’s lobbying arm).