It’s well known that Donald Trump’s biggest supporter is Donald Trump.
But his second biggest supporter is too—sort of. Geoffrey Palmer, recently revealed to be Trump’s largest single donor, is Trump’s Los Angeles doppelganger: a blunt-talking real estate developer with bad taste in architecture.
According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Palmer has donated $2 million to a pro-Trump super PAC called Rebuilding America Now.
Although little known outside of his home city, Palmer is, as Trump was in New York, alternately beloved and reviled. On the one hand, his tacky, Italianate condos have brought new development to downtown L.A. On the other hand, Palmer has successfully eliminated numerous affordable-housing requirements, and his inward-facing, fortress-like developments are the antithesis of urbanism.
According to an assessment by Bloomberg Politics, Palmer’s company owns 10,400 units in Southern California, at a total value of over $3 billion.
Palmer did not respond to a request for comment by The Daily Beast, but last year, at an event hosted by the Urban Land Institute, he described affordable-housing rules as “immoral.”
“We don’t need social engineering,” Palmer said, as reported by the L.A. Downtown News. “Why is it that these people think that real estate developers should give 15% of their profits away? They’re not asking from grocery stores, gas stations, haberdasheries. They only ask real estate developers. Why is that? Private individuals should be subsidizing these people? It’s not American.”
Thus far, Palmer has provided the overwhelming majority of Rebuilding America Now’s funding: $2 million out of a total $2.2 million raised so far. The group has focused on running negative ads against Hillary Clinton, and is chaired by yet another real estate tycoon, longtime Trump friend Tom Barrack. That amount is dwarfed by Clinton’s largest Super PAC, Priorities USA, which has raised over $100 million.
The unlimited spending, of course, is a result of a series of Supreme Court decisions including Citizens United, which the Clinton campaign has vowed to overturn, by constitutional amendment if necessary. Since the spending of money is considered a form of free speech, Super PACs can “speak” as much as they want, as long as their activities are (supposedly) independent of political campaigns.
Remarkably, a brand-new Rebuilding America Now ad, released on Aug. 1, shamelessly flouts these rules, concluding with the Trump campaign logo and slogan.
Dancing on the edge of legality would not be out of character for Palmer. Indeed, as much as New Yorkers have complained about Trump’s tacky, faux-gold-clad buildings and monolithic developments along the West Side Highway, urbanists in Los Angeles are even more critical of Palmer’s.
“Developer Geoff Palmer has built more apartments in Downtown Los Angeles than anyone else,” wrote Adrian Glick Kudler in the L.A. neighborhoods and real estate blog Curbed, “and they're all fucking terrible… They're vacuums designed to suck the life out of a neighborhood that has worked so hard to become lively in the past decade.”
Indeed, Kudler’s piece is a brilliant account of where kitschy aesthetics and sinister politics intertwine. The buildings, with names like the Medici and the Da Vinci, [Office1] aren’t just ugly pastiches of faux-Italian architecture. They’re also designed to shut out the world, built like cloisters that face away from streets and toward inner-courtyard parks that are inaccessible to the public. Some even feature skybridges to allow tenants to avoid public sidewalks entirely.
In another theme reminiscent of Trump, Palmer also has a record of shady dealings and casual lies. For example, there’s the time when a bulldozer owned by Palmer’s company “accidentally” backed into a historic building that stood in the way of one of his developments. He got off with a slap on the wrist: a $200,000 fine and the installation of an ornamental fountain.
And then there’s that time when Palmer’s company was caught making illegal contributions to a Los Angeles city councilman. According to Kudler, that led to another slap on the wrist – $30,000 in fines for 15 campaign finance violations.
And like Trump, he’s also ignorant of history. “The Italians actually settled L.A. before the Spanish and Chinese,” Palmer once wrote in a letter to Los Angeles magazine explaining why his buildings were covered in fake Italian facades. That, of course, is incorrect.
Perhaps the greatest similarity between Trump and Palmer, however, is how their aesthetics reflect their politics. Long before Trump or Palmer were born, art critic Clement Greenberg described how kitschy art and reactionary politics were related. “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations,” Greenberg wrote. “Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.”
Likewise, demagogues like Trump provide an empty simulacrum of politics—all slogans, nationalism, and braggadocio. His slogans are exactly like Palmer’s Italian façades: fake. With not a trace of irony or self-awareness, their buildings and their political statements are clichés—gestures that evoke pre-conditioned responses.
It’s no surprise, then, that Trump’s largest donor shares both the candidate’s ideology and his aesthetics. They are birds of a reactionary feather, occupying a world in which bluster is taken for strength and corny façades mistaken for class. They’re a perfect, tacky match.