You’ve Been Trumped: American arrogance in Aberdeenshire

In this blog, I have yet to discuss the smattering of studying I’m in the process of completing as I prepare for my five-month residency in Scotland. However, I’m filling in the gaps in my knowledge of Scottish history and culture in a variety of ways, including seeking out documentaries – the topic of this post.

In 2011, Anthony Baxter released a documentary that revealed stunning abuses of power in the village of Balmedie, Aberdeenshire. The events stemmed from American tycoon Donald Trump’s bid to build a golf course in Balmedie – directly on top of a rare and valuable dune landscape. Baxter’s film, You’ve Been Trumped, traces the distressing ways in which Trump’s project disrupts the lives of local property-owners and residents while also tracking the devastation of the dunes.

The film begins with an interview with elderly, widowed resident of Balmedie named Molly Forbes. Baxter sets the film’s atmosphere of fragility, loss, risk, and heritage by taking the time to fully characterize Molly’s daily life. Reminders of mortality are constant as Molly turns on a radio to keep foxes from hunting the hens she cares for in her garden and shows Baxter her deceased husband’s hat from his time as a seaman. Archival footage of Molly’s own father reveals Balmedie’s deep roots in traditions of fishing and farming.

However, the image of Molly’s idyllic, removed existence is shattered when the camera pans back to reveal that the back side of her shed is spray painted with a political message denouncing Donald Trump.

Trump’s first appearance in the film characterizes him in a far from flattering light. Memorably, Trump notices a woman at a media event regarding the golf course and calls her over. “Miss Scotland?” he loudly calls, not even asking her name. Immediately, he boorishly points out that she failed to secure a spot in the Miss Universe pageant, putting her on the spot as he asks whether the selected contestant is as beautiful as she is. After a series of rude comments, Trump dismisses her, remarking that “she might be good for sales and stuff” while his son leers on.

Although I was disturbed by Trump’s role as essentially an utterly inappropriate, disrespectful, and ignorant ambassador of America, the film surprised me by protesting actions of the Scottish government and local police as much as it protests Donald Trump’s arrogance. Protestors repeatedly accuse the Scottish government of being swept up in Trump’s grand promises of boosting the local economy, a political goal that ignores the scientific, environmental, cultural, and aesthetic value of Aberdeen’s unique dune ecosystem.

Baxter gave Americans a chance to redeem themselves in a series of “man on the street” style interviews at none other than St. Andrews’ world renown golf course. Most dismissed Trump’s project as a grandiose expression of wealth and power and had low expectations for Trump’s ability to incorporate a sense of authentic Scottish heritage into the resort. The Old Course at St. Andrews is among the oldest golf courses in the world and attracts visitors from around the world, and Trump’s course would deliberately compete with the Old Course, a goal dismissed by the St. Andrews golfers Baxter interviews, who feel little interest in visiting a course other than the historic and prestigious Old Course during their time in Scotland.

As the film rolls on, the construction invades homeowners’ lands, flattens nearby dunes, and wreaks havoc including loss of running water and electricity in nearby homes. Scottish public figures including scientists and economics professors contribute expert opinions throughout the film, each offering evidence of the negative impact of the golf course. However much evidence the film raises in opposition to Trump’s project, the camera captures the unceasing, irreversible damage done to the dunes.

The film also offers an interesting look at Scottish police when Baxter is arrested while filming the construction from private property (local resident Susan Munro’s driveway). The police roughly cuff Baxter, confiscate his camera, and lock him in a jail cell for four hours. As I listened to Baxter’s arrest, his camera showing hectic skewed images as he resists the police, I felt that something was off, something was missing – and it occurred to me that the exchange lacks the reading of Miranda rights that is ingrained in the ritual of arrests in America. The notion of Miranda rights, or basic rights granted to persons under arrest such as the right to call an attorney and the warning that anything said can be used against one in the court of law, is so much a part of my schema of police that it had never occurred to me that other countries’ handle policing with different customs. I felt slightly embarrassed by this obvious realization – a feeling I expect to repeat many, many times during the course of my time abroad.

The documentary also allowed me to listen to an hour and a half of interviews colored by thick Scottish accents and words I had never heard applied to familiar objects. For example, Molly Forbes refers to potatoes as what sounds like “tatters,” a word just like American use of “taters,” if not the same word pronounced in a Scottish accent. A few of the interviews were subtitled, and I carefully listened as I read the subtitles that popped up on screen. Overall, I didn’t find the Scottish accent terribly difficult to decipher, despite warnings from my family and friends – but I plan to keep listening to Scottish interviews and television shows in order to further develop my ability to easily understand a new set of pronunciations and vernacular.

As troubling as this story was, I’m glad that I’ll be able to come into Aberdeen with some knowledge of recent current events, as I have plans to visit Aberdeen soon upon my arrival in Scotland. A quick follow-up revealed that in May of 2013, Trump lost his battle against the wind farm that would obstruct views of the North Sea from his planned hotel, an event anticipated by Baxter’s documentary but which had yet to develop at the time of the film’s release.

I’ve got more to come on the resources I’m using to prepare for my study abroad experience in Scotland, and I’m looking for new suggestions every day. I haven’t had many comments on my blog yet, and this request may hang in cyberspace to the sound of virtual crickets, but do any of my knowledgeable and friendly readers have suggestions for me? If so, I’d love to hear them!

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