Trump Confesses to Just How Bigly the Olympics Screws Over the Poor
The president said the quiet part loud, as is his wont.
On Tuesday evening President Trump was front and center, signing a document pledging the federal government’s assistance for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He was joined by several other administration officials—Treasury Secretary and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice executive producer Steve Mnuchin, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senator Lindsey Graham (for some reason), and Casey Wasserman, sports superagent and the chair of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Committee.
The meeting was mostly unremarkable, peppered with lots of “Mr. Presidents,” talk about how cool the Olympics are and how many medals the mighty United States has managed to win in them. There was also Trump validating the federal government’s role in making sure the games go smoothly, and taking a second to make sure everyone knows that he thinks having the Olympics in Los Angeles is a great idea—even if Obama wasn’t as into it, the party pooper. But, as per Messy President Rules, the meeting went a little off the rails when Trump was asked about homelessness in Los Angeles, and if the federal government had a role to play in addressing the issue in the run-up to the Olympics:
Well, we had no role, but we’re really taking a role in it. I see it. I see what’s happening to L.A. I see what’s happening to San Francisco. I see what’s happening to some great cities. And I’ve said to my people: Whether they like it not, we’re going to have to do something.
So we’re, right now, working in L.A. They’re also contacting San Francisco. They have to clean it up. You have needles. You have things that we don’t want to discuss all over the streets, flowing into the oceans. And you have beaches, and it shouldn’t happen. And if they can’t do it themselves, we’re going to do it. The federal government is going to take it over and we’re going to do it.
There is a homelessness crisis in most of the major cities on the West Coast. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles are all dealing with an excess of unhoused people in their cities, a problem caused by a decades-long creative class boom out West that has jacked up real estate prices and rents, and sent people who can’t keep up with the influx of educated, wealthy new residents tumbling into their cars or onto the streets for sleep.
But what it means to have a “homelessness crisis” depends entirely on what you think the moral failings on display are here. If you’re a person who places some inherent value on human life, the galling thing about increased homelessness is the fact that living outside for prolonged periods of time is dangerous. People freeze to death, drown in a rapidly rising L.A. river, use heroin to cope with the stress of living on the street, plunging them into a cycle of addiction that makes getting back on their feet more and more impossible by the day.
This all happens, routinely, in the wealthiest country on the planet—one that could easily afford to treat and house as many people as it needs to, as long as we made rich people pay their taxes and didn’t declare every open square footage of real estate fair game for private developers looking to build Amazon fulfillment centers and open-air malls instead of places for people to live.
But “value for human life” isn’t exactly the rallying cry that Trump and the test of the GOP establishment howl when they need to whip up support from the rubes. Instead, they choose to see the crisis as a problem of filth, of blight, an embarrassment that needs to be “cleaned up.” Trump continued:
And with L.A., San Francisco, and other places—but they have one thing in common: the leadership. There’s no reason that this should have ever happened—our greatest cities. And number one, you look at the homeless and how horrible a situation that is. But also, look what it’s doing to your cities. It’s so disgraceful. These are cities that 10 years ago were the most beautiful cities, and now people walk away and leave, and they just say horrible things. Can’t let that happen.
Sometimes, when Trump finds himself regurgitating half-baked Fox News talking points at a meeting that had up until that point been a respectable gathering, he is doing some nonsense that is exclusive to him, and leaves the other people in his orbit dumbstruck at their inability to get anything rational out of the guy they’ve staked their careers on. But, every once in a while, Trump’s tirades have the virtue of exposing the brutishness of the world he’s stumbled face first into running.
Because Trump declaring that he will use the full force of the federal government to clean up the streets ahead of the Olympics isn’t just some muttering on his behalf: it’s what everyone in that room, everyone who had a hand in bringing the games to Los Angeles, are thinking, hoping, and dreaming will happen.
The Olympics has always been a conduit for whatever the powerful elites in the host country are trying to propagate. For Nazi Germany, that was the exaltation of the Aryan race. For China, it was the forceful announcement of themselves as a top-tier world power. What does that mean for a country, like the United States, governed by a neoliberal consensus that places a monumental amount of power in the hands of a few thousand wealthy elites?
The answer, in case you didn’t figure it out already, is: “Whatever makes those wealthy elites wealthier, and serves to reshape the place where it happens in their ideal image.” The people who put together funding for the Wasserman-directed bid aren’t publicly known at this time—for an organization doing something that everyone in Los Angeles is apparently really excited for, LA2028 is really going to great lengths to obscure who’s paid them to pitch Los Angeles as a host city—but it’s safe to assume that there are a lot of people who stand to personally profit from the Games pushing to make this happen. Wasserman himself, a sports agent, will surely see his pockets lined by the exposure his clients would receive from playing in an L.A.-based Olympics.
You see, when your city is hosting the Olympics, all of a sudden, you need all kinds of stuff. We need enough hotels to serve all these people coming from all over the world! We need to build new, up-to-date facilities so we can host the Games! Transit projects so we can move everyone! Academic Jules Boykoff, a former professional soccer player and expert on these matters, calls the flurry of activity that surrounds the Olympics “Celebration Capitalism,” a clever spin on Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism,” where the hurricanes, earthquakes and fires that necessitate mass redevelopment into profit centers for wealthy elites are replaced, instead, by the gentler hand of a fun sporting event. The movement to utilize real estate to feed the Olympic beast will obviously continue to exacerbate the L.A. housing crisis and deprive even more people of affordable housing which will, you guessed it, create more homeless people.
But don’t worry: the cities who court the Games have a plan, and it is exiling the unhoused from the host city’s central spaces, by any means available to stakeholders. The 1996 Games in Atlanta were accompanied by a massive spike in arrests of the homeless, and Fulton County went so far as to pay for one-way tickets out of town, where the city’s homeless could be someone else’s problem. Rio’s police declared open war on the residents of the city’s favelas in the run-up to their games. The sweep has already come to L.A.: last year, in an effort championed by Eric Garcetti, the city’s Democratic mayor and a big LA2028 booster, the city began enforcing rules against living out of a car.
“Inevitably in these Olympics bids, the sort of language used is: ‘Clean, global city, innovation,’” says Spike Friedman, an organizer with NOlympics LA, a local effort to oppose the 2028 Games. “And those are euphemisms for essentially getting rid of poor people. If you look at the developments associated with the L.A. 2028 Bid, it’s maybe not as expansive as some other bids, but what it does have is a massive component around things like hotel development. And so what you’re seeing in Los Angeles is the loss of, like, rent-stabilized housing and people getting what’s called an ‘Ellis Act eviction,’ where the building that they live in can be taken off of the rental market and used for other purposes, frequently redeveloped.”
Friedman continued: “And you’re seeing a lot go to hotels while we’re in the midst of a housing crisis. That fits with a vision of Los Angeles that is centered around catering to the wealthy, catering to tourism, and not really thinking about the city as a holistic organism that has lots of different types of people living there. And that’s what Los Angeles is. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities on Earth.”
The document that Trump signed on Tuesday established that the 2028 Olympics, like most major sporting events in America, would be designated a National Special Security Event by the Department of Homeland Security, subjecting the entire Los Angeles area to federal oversight and increased policing and surveillance during the span of the Games. In addition to the bonanza the Olympics create for developers, it also creates a boon for local police, who take the opportunity to leverage a lot out of the local and federal government, in the name of security. Last time there was an Olympics in Los Angeles, the ‘84 Games, the LAPD managed to finesse the acquisition of a tank for anti-terrorism reasons (the shadow of Munich was alive in people’s minds), but they just ended up using it for drug raids.
It’s here where the popular impulses that Trump’s exploited to get into office—authoritarianism, tough-guy talk, a disdain for human life—meet the dreams of the moneyed urban elite, who are seeking to transmute our cities into playgrounds for the rich. You can’t do the latter without the former. The Olympics, and the chaos they bring, make it easy for everyone involved. An actual, humanitarian-based transformation of urban spaces isn’t going to be found in the pockets of self-serving billionaires; it can only come from a mindset that places people and their most primal needs first.