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Opinion If Sharpton is a ‘Loudmouth,’ Trump is so much worse

Donald Trump and Rev. Al Sharpton speak at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Sharpton's National Action Network Convention in New York in April 2002. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

When I first met the Rev. Al Sharpton in 1993 as a cub editorial writer at the New York Daily News, he had already earned a reputation as a rabble-rouser at the center of every racial controversy in the Big Apple.

But when I recently watched the new documentary “Loudmouth,” which focuses mostly on the early years of the activist preacher’s public life, I got a clearer understanding of that Sharpton — and of former president Donald Trump along the way.

By “that” Sharpton, I mean the bombastic version who preceded the more sophisticated one I have covered and known for the last 29 years. “That” Sharpton is the man who led Black marchers through the White streets of Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986 to protest the death of Michael Griffith at the hands of a White mob. He’s the man who did the same in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1989, to protest the similar murder of Yusuf Hawkins. Each time, Sharpton and the protesters who joined him were met with the kind of racism once thought to occur only in the South.

“I marched 29 times, including the time I was stabbed [in Bensonhurst], and they never failed to come out and call us the n-word,” Sharpton told me during an interview last week. “People literally went and bought watermelons so they could wave them in our face.”

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Having grown up around New York, I can’t say I was surprised by the open racism back then. Still, seeing and hearing it in the film touched a present-day nerve. During our interview, Sharpton succinctly pinpointed why: “That’s Donald Trump’s New York.”

Sharpton is perfectly positioned to say so. He and Trump have known and sparred with one another for decades. Take a step back, and you can see how similar they are. Both were quintessential New York showmen who knew how to get and hold the spotlight in a city awash with performers like them. “We understood each other, which is why we could never trust each other,” Sharpton admitted.

Of course, the two men are very different in how they used the attention they gained. In “Loudmouth,” we see Sharpton use theatrics to bring attention to cases and issues ignored by the criminal justice system, media and public. We’ve long known that Trump’s theatrics have always been about pumping up his own image, especially at the expense of people of color.

Indeed, Trump’s followers loved him because, as one once said, “He is not afraid to say what we’re all thinking.” Like calling Mexicans “rapists” in 2015, nicknaming Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “Pocahontas” for the first of many times in 2016, declaring there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville in 2017, complaining about immigrants from “s---hole countries” in 2018, demanding that three American-born congresswomen of color “go back” to their countries in 2019, and calling the coronavirus the “kung flu” in 2020. All the while, Trump was assuring us, “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.”

Stop laughing.

Sharpton says the racism on display in “Loudmouth” is the key to understanding the racism displayed by Trump decades later. “He grew up watching Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani use race to become mayor of New York. And he knew how to play to the basic instincts of White racism in New York,” Sharpton said. “He did nationally what Rudy did in New York.”

But it goes back farther than that. Remember, Trump grew up in Queens under the tutelage of his real estate magnate father, Fred Trump. In 1973, they were sued by the Justice Department for housing discrimination against African Americans. According to a New York Times story at the time, Trump Management Corporation was already more than 40 years old with 14,000 apartments in 39 buildings in areas of Brooklyn and Queens not too far from the neighborhoods that raged during Sharpton’s protests.

Trump’s problems with race is an old story for New York. But the vitriol in “Loudmouth” still hits differently, especially in a post-Trump-presidency America suffering from the ugliness he unleashed on our country.

Even more especially in a country facing another Trump run. Despite the fact that the Republican National Committee said it would stop helping cover Trump’s hefty legal bills if he declared a reelection campaign, the ex-president did just that earlier this month, in an announcement filled with his greatest mendacious hits. But don’t worry about Trump’s bottom line just yet: You can trust he wouldn’t have made this decision if he didn’t think it the better financial move.

“I said it before, I’ll say it again: If Donald Trump had been born Black, he’d have been Don King,” Sharpton said, invoking the legendary boxing promoter. “Showmanship to make money.”

Okay, now you can laugh.