Trump vs. The World

10.22.11

Donald Trump's Golf Gadfly

A new documentary portrays Donald Trump as an evil villain forcing a $1.2 billion golf course onto environmentally sensitive land—and the Donald isn’t happy about it. By Lizzie Crocker

You’ve Been Trumped opens with a scene from Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, the 1983 dramedy about a hot-shot Texas executive who tries to buy up a small Scottish town for his oil company.

Cut to the fictional businessman’s real-life counterpart, Donald Trump, who plows through the idyllic Scottish countryside with a troop of black Range Rovers to the site of his latest vanity project: a luxury golf resort constructed over 1,400 acres of pristine coastline. The occasion? An ostentatious media launch for what Trump has promised will be “the world’s greatest golf course.”

It can be hard to take The Donald seriously, particularly when his coiffed comb-over blows in the wind as he tells a crew of reporters, politicians, and bagpipers that the sweeping sand dunes behind him will be “better off from an environmental standpoint” once he turns them into manicured putting greens. This might make for an absurdly comical scene in a modern-day Local Hero, but in Baxter’s documentary, it’s the beginning of a narcissistic villain’s success story at the expense of a community’s heritage.

Heritage is important to the locals in Baxter’s film, the Brave Hearts determined to protect their land. Susan Munro tells Baxter she’s lived in the desolate but beautiful region for three decades. Michael Forbes, a salmon fisherman who inherited his father’s business, has spent 45 years of his life tending to a slightly ramshackle farm bordering Trump’s course. Forbes is an easy target for The Donald, who accuses Forbes of living “like a pig” in “slumlike conditions.” But it’s Trump who comes across as an arse. He appears ridiculous in his coat and tie against a backdrop of rolling hills, slamming Michael Forbes as an embarrassment to his community. Forbes, on the other hand, is charming even when  angry. Perched atop his tractor, he’s every inch the proud but deferential Scotsman, content with his modest livelihood. In the end, he’s the local hero whom the community rallies for.

Baxter himself is somewhat of a local hero, too. He lives 45 miles south of Aberdeen in a small town called Montrose, home to the second oldest golf course in the world.

“Those old courses were molded into the land,” he tells The Daily Beast. “They didn’t have a fleet of bulldozers coming in and tearing up the place.”

When Baxter got wind of Trump’s project and saw it touted in newspapers, he felt only one side of the story was being told. “As a journalist and a local, I felt I had to document the other side that was being played down by the government. I wanted to raise the issues that weren’t being raised so that people could then decide whether money and power should cost the earth.”

“Those old courses were molded into the land. They didn’t have a fleet of bulldozers coming in and tearing up the place.”

The setting for Trumps course isn’t your average bonnie seaside village. A designated “Site of Special Scientific Interest,” the Menie Estate is Scotland’s equivalent to the Amazon rain forest, according to Dr. Jim Hanson, a Geomorphologist from the University of Glasgow. Even in the early stages of Trump’s construction, Hanson declares the damages “unprecedented.” But Trump forges on, claiming he’s had “tremendous support from major environmental groups.”

Baxter maintains that the only credible environmental groups backing the project –SEPA and Scottish Natural Heritage - were obliged to do so by the Scottish government, which greenlighted Trump’s project in November 2008 after local authorities originally rejected the proposal. The government argued that the purported economic benefits (including the 1,200 jobs Trump has vowed to create) far outweighed the environmental costs.

“They were wooed by celebrity,” Baxter laments. Trump recently said the main 18-hole golf course is on track to open in 2012, but the five-star hotel and 950 condominiums will have to wait out the financial crisis—as will the people they allegedly would have employed.

Not surprisingly, Baxter’s film was rejected by the government-funded Edinborough International Film Festival. Even some local media outlets were wary of promoting the documentary, despite the fact that its premiere in Aberdeen grossed the most advance ticket sales since the third Harry Potter film. At Britain’s Sheffield Documentary Festival, You’ve Been Trumped garnered rave reviews and was awarded the green prize. In the week since its big debut in New York at the Hamptons International Film Festival, where it won the Victor Rabinowitz and Joanne Grant Award for Social Justice, a statement from Trump’s camp denouncing the film as “a complete fraud and a gross misrepresentation of the facts” has been circulated to various media outlets.

In a phone conversation with The Daily Beast, George Sorial, the Trump Organization’s managing director and assistant general counsel, elaborated on the statement:

“Anthony Baxter was a guy that hid in the bushes, we dealt with him for weeks. He showed a shot of a field [in the film] and described that area as this terribly important scientific site. He will allege that we destroyed it, when we only ended up touching 3 or 4 percent. He stole footage from the golf channel and David Letterman. That gives you some insight into the veracity of this guy. Once the truth gets out there, everyone will know he’s just another guy out to make a dollar by using the Trump name.”

Baxter brushes off Sorial’s scathing remarks. Using the Trump name only put him at an economic disadvantage in Scotland, where every major organization he reached out to refused to fund the project. It’s not easy to take down a celebrity billionaire.

“You have to take everything Donald Trump says with a grain of salt,” says Baxter. He imagines many people in America would agree with him after the real-estate magnate’s public support of “birther” conspiracies. “I think the U.S. now sees him as a cartoon character.” (At this year’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner, President Obama roasted The Donald when he acknowledged that his long-form birth certificate had at last been released, and then proceeded to show his “birth video.”)

But Trump was a caricature long before he was a birther. Saturday Night Live has been spoofing him ever since he became a public figure. And the fact that Baxter’s film paints Trump as a serious threat and not a laughable buffoon may be one of the reasons You’ve Been Trumped has not yet secured distribution. People may prefer to think of Trump as the absurd host of Celebrity Apprentice, not a hardened criminal.

“He’s the 1 percent of the 99 percent,” says Baxter in a reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement. “It’s time we held people to account who think they’re untouchable. We have to share these stories and not be bullied into a corner by organizations that think they should be free from criticism.”