The Man Who Stood Up to Donald Trump: The Lesson of Michael Forbes

Most Americans have probably never heard of Michael Forbes. And perhaps that’s understandable since the man resides in far-off Scotland and is not a typical celebrity. Forbes is an elderly Scotsman who owns a family farm in Aberdeen province and works hard to make ends meet.

But to the Scottish people, Forbes is a national hero. In a well-known annual poll taken in 2010, he was voted “Top Scot,” beating out  Sean Connery and other rich and famous candidates. His claim to fame? His refusal to be pushed around by one of the world’s best-known developers, Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump would, of course, take umbrage at Forbes’ fame at his expense. Michael Forbes goes on Trump’s list as being an obstructor of progress and blot on humanity. But no spinning by the Donald erases the fact that this common man faced him down, stood up for his rights, and came out looking pretty good.

The source of the disagreement between the two men involved a golf resort that Trump decided to develop on the scenic Aberdeen coast in 2006. The development, intended for a well-heeled clientele, was to displace the inhabitants who currently lived around the site. Trump saw it as an easy bonanza and natural extension of his entertainment empire.

True to form, Trump began by lining up all the usual politicians, business organizations, and opinion-makers to bless his project. Promising vast economic benefits to Scotland, he was able to create considerable momentum for the plan. While the local Aberdeen Council voted to block the development, the Scottish government, which had been heavily lobbied by Trump, came back the next year to overrule the Council and approve it.

But even with the official go-ahead, Trump had to grapple with a key local issue: the resistance of the affected landholders. Trump’s plan required that their homes, which stood between the proposed golf course and the coastal beach, be demolished in order to afford golfers a clear, unblocked view of the ocean. Getting the owners to sell and vacate their properties was an unusual challenge. Many of them had lived their whole lives on this strip of land and saw themselves as its natural caretakers. For them, money was not the issue.

Trump became aware of this problem early in the game after sending some of his delegates to try soft persuasion. When this appeared to have little effect, Trump summoned the owners to a local mansion where he laid out his plans. Those few who attended showed little enthusiasm. Michael Forbes, the owner with the largest property, passed the word that if Trump wanted to meet him, “he knows where I am,” giving Trump and his entourage little choice but to walk over to Forbes’ home and engage directly. A few offhand remarks were made about the price of land. But the atmosphere was tense.

Things worsened as Trump began applying pressure. Trump’s deputies took to pestering Forbes regularly in an effort to change his mind. Trump himself launched a campaign of invective, claiming that Forbes’ property was unkempt and “disgusting.” Local officials sympathetic to Trump began finding things wrong with Forbes’ property and requiring intrusive inspections.

When the screw-tightening appeared ineffective, Trump lost patience. After he received government approval for his project, he took the step of asking the government to force the hold-outs to sell. Trump deployed legal surrogates to justify such a bold maneuver. Unfortunately for Trump, the government seemed unwilling to go that far, reluctant to further antagonize the local inhabitants,

Judging from the subsequent tide of public opinion, Trump’s request seems to have been a strategic mistake. As Michael D’Antonio explains in his book Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, the bid for coercion sullied Trump in the eyes of the public and gave his opponents “the high moral ground.”  Trump had failed to take into consideration local pride and tradition. Historically-minded Scots were keenly aware of how the English government had once forcibly appropriated the land of Scottish landowners to make way for hunting estates for the English upper classes. The abused small owners, called “crofters,” were the stuff of national legend and were glorified in Scottish history books as resisters to outside authority. Michael Forbes and his fellow cohorts were seen as part of that esteemed tradition.

Although thwarted in his efforts to persuade or coerce, Trump still showed no let-up in his pressure tactics. As construction work got into full swing, Forbes and his neighbors found themselves facing ever more obstacles to their daily activities and freedom of movement. Mountains of dirt were piled high around their properties, blocking their view and increasing their isolation. Lanes leading into the area became eroded and damaged. Forbes’ access to a beach where he had rights to fish was hindered.

Forbes, as the leader of the holdouts, soon garnered a loyal following among the public. To deter the possibility of government intervention in Trump’s behalf, a group named Tripping Up Trump devised a complicated stratagem of co-ownership for a slice of Forbes’ land involving 7,000 people. The multiple co-owners each held an individual deed to make any attempt at confiscation a potential nightmare for the authorities. On a second front, sympathetic filmakers came down to make a documentary on the standoff entitled You’ve Been Trumped. The film boosted Forbes’ celebrity as a Scotsman willing to fight for his rights.

All of this, of course, only further incensed Trump. His efforts to retaliate publicly, however, only revealed the extent of his pettiness. After Forbes received the “Top Scot” award, largely on the basis of the documentary, Trump decided to take out his anger against the company that sponsored the competition, the Scotch whiskey producer Glenfiddich. By his order, Glenfiddich whiskey could no longer be served at any of his hotels around the world.

In the end, Trump’s Aberdeen golf resort turned out to be a lot less than first boasted. Instead of a grand resort with a golf course, 450 room hotel, conference center, and community of villas, it wound up being a course with a clubhouse and 19 rental rooms in a nearby mansion. Forbes and his neighbors’ plucky resistance was undoubtedly one of the factors that reduced Donald Trump’s dream down to size.

Forbes, of course, paid a heavy price as he witnessed the diminishment of his mobility, his view, the free use of his land, and the surrounding environment. But his independence and pride remained intact throughout the ordeal. There was also the bonus of knowing that he had given his country and the world an important lesson in the limits of greed and power when bravely resisted.

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