“Watch the wire.”
That’s what I was warned as I maneuvered my way around marble-topped tables and White House gewgaws at the new 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar, a Trump-themed Trump bar at Trump Tower on a recent Friday night, trying to reach two plush high-backed dusty magenta chairs that wouldn’t look out of place sitting on the side of Avenue A. Sure enough, glancing down at the dark hardwood floor, a grey wire snaked below two opposing tables positioned under numerous gilt-framed black-and-white photographs of former President Trump. There’s Trump in profile, like a Big Mac-engorged Alfred Hitchcock, against the backdrop of the American flag. There’s Trump gleefully holding up a Washington Post front page emblazoned with the headline, “Trump acquitted,” apparently a favored image since it also appears elsewhere in the bar. There’s a dignified Trump headshot reminiscent of portraits of authoritarian leaders placed in homes by decree or anointed pictures of Jim Jones sold to Peoples Temple followers. There’s Trump at a football game, signing a book, in a meeting at the White House, saluting the troops. Everywhere you look, you’re confronted with Trump’s immediately recognizable and frequently sour, toad-like mug. Overwhelmingly menacing in its repetition, yet strangely comforting in its familiarity.
“He’s been vacuuming,” the 45 Wine & Whiskey bartender further explained, although I’m not sure who “he” was. Nevertheless, vacuuming at 5 PM on a Friday night in New York City doesn’t bode well for a bustling Trump Tower nightlife scene. In fact, there were significantly more representations of Trump himself (at least 39!) than patrons at his bar. This made the trip through Trump Tower—spinning in the revolving doors past three NYPD officers, across the deserted marble lobby with a closed Trump store, and by the notorious golden escalators, the ones that Trump famously rode down in 2015 to announce his presidential campaign with a racist rant about Mexican rapists in front of the Mexican workers employed by the Trump Organization, the same escalators that are now halted and enclosed with red velvet ropes—a wholly surreal experience. Potentially one of the most surreal of my life, and one that I won’t soon forget. I’d highly recommend it as 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar is the perfect place to grab an expensive cocktail, “relax and unwind in the most exclusive of settings” (truly), and consider the end of the American empire.
I know. I know what you might be fuming with steam billowing from your ears: How DARE you go and toss money at a Trump establishment?! But hear me out: my lurid obsession with Trump as the foremost American con artist in a country with an extensive history of con artistry didn’t just end with his presidency. Nor did his unique place within American culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unfortunately, no amount of left-wing denialism will change that. Being a completist, I need to see this American fable to its very end. So when I caught a glimpse of a Guardian review, promising “rip-off drinks and a side of narcissism,” I knew I had to go as soon as humanly possible.
45 Wine & Whiskey Bar is not the first bar to be located within Trump Tower, which also features Trump Grill, Trump Café, and maybe the strangest, Trump Sweets, an ice cream parlor so chock full of candy that it will be sure to put you into a diabetic sugar coma. (If you’d like to purchase the candy on its own, you’re in luck! The Trump store offers a plethora of “sweet treats,” including two bags of gummy bears, packaged like weed gummies, for a mere $14!). Instead, 45 Wine & Whiskey is a refurbished twist on the prior, imaginatively named Trump Bar, located in the same place on Trump Tower’s ground floor. The Trump Bar, with its hideous awning, had the cheap and airy atmosphere of a sports bar at LaGuardia; 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar seems more like a smoke-filled cigar bar populated by the cast of Mad Men. However, rather than stirring Old-Fashioneds and reminiscing about alcoholic advertising executives in 1960s NYC, the nostalgia peddled by 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar is purely for the previous presidential administration, which makes its chosen aesthetic an amusing exercise in cognitive dissonance. Even though Trump would probably like to think Midtown mauve and mahogany is his brand of upper-class glamour, it’s not. Instead, his own aestheticism is on display within the rest of Trump Tower: a golden toilet trash aesthetic found throughout all his properties, including his current residence, the Winter White House, Mar-A-Lago. Even at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he was able to impose his garish trademark vision. Let’s be honest, this is more Trump’s speed:
This isn’t to say 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar nails class. It is a Trump property after all! Although the color scheme may scream Don Draper downing whiskies while waiting for the Metro-North at Grand Central, the bar’s décor itself feels like a poorly lit funhouse mirror—an uncanny valley populated solely by Trump himself. To enter 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar, in addition to showing your vaccine card (lest you forget Trump is actually pro-vax and boosted), you must stroll past a line of flags overlooking a golden railing-lined balcony, over which you can gaze at the vacant tables below at the Trump Café. Previously this space boasted display cases of Trump merch–Space Force T-shirts, Trump plastic straws, Trump Sharpie pens, various Trump hats–presumably the Trump crap available for sale, that is if any of the stores were open. Marked by a presidential seal, transforming the presidency into marketing materials, the bar is a cavalcade of Trump memorabilia, a theme park dedicated to some of the magic moments of his administration.
The astonishing collection of black-and-white photographs hung salon-style over both the bar and the seating area creates, with their faux aged quality, an imposing and eerie effect reminiscent of Disney World’s Haunted Mansion or Tower of Terror rides. Pure conservative camp. Aside from the photographs previously mentioned, the most notable is a strikingly large, impossible to ignore tribute to Trump’s meeting with Rocket Man Kim Jong Un with the duo shaking hands in the demilitarized zone. Not pictured is the Elton John record Trump reportedly either wanted to or did, depending on which story you decide to believe, gift the North Korean leader. This photograph must be one of Trump’s most cherished as I’ve also spotted it in the background of his office at Mar-A-Lago, along with a mock-up of Mount Rushmore with an added Trump face. In 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar, the photograph is also given preferential treatment, with more wall space devoted to Trump’s nuclear handshake than his inaugural dance with our greatly missed menacing White House Christmas decorator and First Lady Melania Trump. Those international love letters must have really meant something!
Speaking of letters, photographs are not the only mementos from the past on display in the bar; the walls also feature a selection of the “best of” Trump letters, enshrined in similarly kitsch gold frames. My personal favorite? His strange letter to Turkish President Erdoğan in which he implores the leader, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” and offers, “Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy…” Convincing! If that weren’t enough to make you nostalgic for Trump’s particularly baffling form of foreign policy, the letter ends with a short, “I will call you later” before, of course, Trump’s Sharpie signature. TTYL!
While it was hard to tear myself away from the captivating décor, I didn’t visit 45 Wine & Whiskey just to mutter to Trump’s portraits like Watergate-era Nixon. I was there to drink! Sticking with Trump’s America First sensibilities, all the liquor on offer is, naturally, as the menu proclaims, “American made”! This patriotic dedication also translates to some cross-marketing opportunities as the majority of the wine list, the first half of 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar’s name, leans heavily on Trump’s own wines from his winery in Monticello, Virginia. Always be branding! While you can have your pick of red or white, Trump Chardonnay or Trump Cabernet, my expert recommendation, having tried none of them but based on name alone, would be the sparkling wine—Trump Blanc de Blanc. That’s français for the white of white! Mmm….notes of self-tanner and white vinegar!
If cocktails are more your style and wine simply does not provide a high enough alcohol content to deal with so many repetitions of Trump’s grumpy face, then you’re in luck! You can try the white of white and squint your eyes, pucker your lips, and pretend you’re Melania with the $29 FLOTUS cocktail, a Trumpian twist on the French 75 with Trump Blanc de Blanc, St George Gin, a squeeze of lemon, simple syrup, and lemon twist. Hold the glass high and ask the personless tables around you: “Who gives a FAWK about Christmas st-a-a-ff?!” Perhaps this potent elixir explains Melania’s flat affect and fixation on the carpets during the Capitol insurrection! The other signature cocktails are equally on theme such as The Mar-A-Lago Spritzer (Trump Sauvignon Blanc, Squeeze of Grapefruit, Seltzer, Orange wedge), an easy sipper perfect for imagining you’re partying in Palm Beach with Roger Stone. The White House also gets its own drunken dedications with The West Wing (St George Gin, Capano, American Midnight Blue olives) and Rose Garden (Trump Rose, St George gin, rose water, rose garnish). Of course, the man himself also inspires a drink or two, including The Don (Glenrothes, Amaretto). If you’re scratching your head and wondering why any cocktail is named after our famously teetotaling former president, you’re not alone. That paradox is somewhat rectified by the most expensive cocktail on the list: the Forty Five. For a reasonable $45 (gotta stay on theme!), the Forty Five not only provides a boozy beverage with Wyoming Whiskey, Demerara, and orange bitters, but also offers a taste of Trump’s preferred meal for eating in bed while watching Fox News: two slider burgers and a Diet Coke! God bless America! Choke down this ode to the finest of American cuisine and contemplate one of Trump’s more prescient tweets: “I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke.” Hey, when he’s right, he’s right!
If you’re understandably wary of Trump’s “special sauce” on the All-American Cheeseburger Sliders, which I assume is just renamed Big Mac sauce, there are other bites available, including some reasonably priced $16 Thai spring rolls. However, the most intriguing dish I spotted was yet another $45 affair: The Oval Office, which the menu describes as “A platter consisting of our Daily Offerings of Artisan Cheese & Salami served with Accoutrements.” Cryptic! Strangely, the menu also includes an Artisan Cheese Board and a Charcuterie Plate, both for $24, which doesn’t exactly explain the price hike for The Oval Office other than the name and the consistent 45th President leitmotif. Regardless, I can’t help but suspect that Artisan Cheese in Trump-speak refers to Velveeta and String Cheese. Maybe I’m being too judgmental, as I ordered several Manhattans off their classic cocktail list, which were quite good. And came with a black and gold 45 napkin that, yes, I swiped as a keepsake.
I know what you’re thinking: Emily, drinks are essential, but what about the playlist? Of course, we, here at Filthy Dreams, take playlists seriously, making a mix for every holiday–hell, if we finally open our bar in the Metaverse, there’ll be a playlist for every day of the week! So my ears perked up as soon as I walked into the bar to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Sadly, some of the tunes we’ve come to associate with Trump—The Village People’s “YMCA” and “Macho Man,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” “Memory,” from the Broadway version of CATS—didn’t make the rotation, at least in the few hours I spent at the bar. However, the playlist featured a selection of songs such as Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” and Philip Bailey and Phil Collins’s “Easy Lover” that seemed perfectly selected to tug on the heartstrings as we sip and yearn for Trump’s gilded, coke-fueled, casino-crashing 1980s heyday. Other songs were more confusing like Jimmy Buffet’s tropical classic “Margaritaville,” a jarring coastal contrast with the dim environment, particularly when there’s no margarita on the menu (There is, however, a daiquiri). As a playlist expert, there could be some improvements too. Where was Trump’s doppelganger Elvis?! What about some torch song belters from that era when America was Great like Connie Francis? I have ideas! Call me!
Well-meaning advice aside, the song that struck me the most at the bar was Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which made me hallucinate, in some liquor and red pill-poisoned psychosis, Trump dancing or, better yet, roller-skating through the White House like Princess Diana in The Crown to Stevie Nicks’s warbling, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom…” Or perhaps he could roller-skate through the unpopulated hallways of Trump Tower (“Well who am I to keep you down?”), an impulse I certainly had when I felt nature calling and needed to find a restroom, a savage journey into the heart of the American Dream, to plagiarize the Good Doctor, that brought the entire 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar experience into, albeit by then booze-blurred, focus. If only Hunter Thompson were here to witness this.
Finding the loo, armed with the expert and quickly forgotten directions from the 45 Wine & Whiskey bartenders, required a steady gait and a steadier mind, both of which I wasn’t quite up to at the time. Stumbling in an awkward attempt not to tumble head over ass down the stopped escalator to the lower level, I paused in awe of the sheer desolation of Trump Tower (“It’s only right that you should play the way you feel it. But, listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness like a heartbeat, drives you mad…”), with only one table in the Trump Cafe occupied by a man in a reflective vest, a construction worker or a transit cop. Reaching the end of the towering escalator with a relieved sigh, I wandered through the desolate café towards a hallway where, apparently, I would find the restrooms. Past yet another shuttered Trump store—this one decidedly more aggressive in its Trump furor with “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirts and “Miss Me. Yet?” coffee mugs, I plunged into a fever dream of pink marble and gold. At one end, beyond a gilded sign for the restrooms lay an imposing, near psychedelic, and undoubtedly tacky labyrinth of pink marble with barely visible signs distinguishing the Men’s and Women’s restrooms (not as if either were occupied). In my confusion, panic, or a combination of both, I glanced back, finding myself reflected in the mirrored gold like a gaudy version of David Lynch’s preference for doubling in Inland Empire and Twin Peaks. I was through the looking glass.
Slowly and cautiously wandering through this pink marble maze, I finally understood The Shining’s Jack Torrance’s unraveling alcoholic breakdown at the Overlook Hotel. I would not have been any more unnerved if I had been confronted by a vision of twin girls or possibly the Trump children at the end of the hallway. I half-expected to discover myself in an aged photograph from a 1980s Trump Tower party while barely hearing the whispered strains of “Midnight, the Stars and You.” Speaking of, where was that song on the playlist?
If this weren’t strange enough, a grouping of advertisements flanked the sign for the restrooms promoting three Trump properties: 40 Wall Street, Mar-A-Lago, and The Wollman Rink in Central Park. The catch here is that Wollman Rink is no longer owned and operated by the Trump Organization. Out of a desire to rid itself of any association with Trump’s grifts, New York City canceled its contract with the Trump Organization in 2021 after long-time mismanagement. The inexplicable inclusion of Wollman Rink further emphasized the way Trump Tower seemed to exist both out of time and space like a Black Lodge of the American Dream (“In the stillness of remembering what you had and what you lost. And what you had. And what you lost”).
All this would be maddening on its own—the desolation, the screwy temporality, the trademark narcissism, all that tasteless pink marble—yet, to fully comprehend the destabilizing effect of abandoned Trump Tower (“Thunder always happens when it’s raining”), you have to understand its previous state. Before our current post-45 era, I visited Trump Tower out of a similar morbid impulse in November 2019. At the time, Trump Tower was a busy tourist destination for Americans from flyover states and future 1/6 rioters to make their pilgrimage to MAGA mecca to kiss the marble and buy some merch. Crossing heightened presidential security checks, a bustling crowd stood in lines outside the now-closed stores, piled up used coffee cups and crumb-strewn plates on Trump Café tables, and took cheesy photographs of the working escalators (“Players only love you when they’re playing”). I ascended one of these escalators to the Mezzanine in order to grab a peppermint mocha at Starbucks, along with a few Secret Service officers, and observed my then-most cherished part of Trump Tower: the XXL-sized butt imprints permanently branded on the leather benches near the corporate coffee chain. Even earlier, long before the Oval Office was a twinkle in Trump’s eye, I gravitated towards Trump Tower several times, usually while looking for a bathroom or a last-ditch snack option in Midtown. Many of these trips occurred during Trump’s Apprentice years, the Mark Burnett creation that would solidify Trump’s (nonexistent) business acumen in the general voting public’s mind. Truth be told: Trump Tower was always a dump. An ugly monument to bad bad taste (as opposed to good bad taste). Spooky, sure, but never, as it is now, empty (“They say women they will come and they will go”).
In its unreal vacancy, Trump Tower reminded me of Clarence John Laughlin’s photographs of the abandoned plantations on Louisiana’s River Road from his 1948 publication Ghosts Along the Mississippi. I didn’t come to this conclusion alone. Marion, who previously penned an essay on Laughlin’s photographs, sparked this association as I was frantically texting him pictures while sitting on the toilet surrounded by, yes, more pink marble. In Ghosts Along the Mississippi, Laughlin’s black-and-white photographs showcase ghostly plantations such as Rosedown and Houmas House, which have since been turned into Disney-fied tourist traps that tend to gloss over slavery as much as possible, in a state of decay; their glory days of subjugation faded. Laughlin captures these properties covered with overgrown Spanish moss with classical statues strewn about the bare, filthy spaces. His photographs employ neglect and deterioration as a haunting commentary on America’s, as well as humanity’s, desire for excess and capacity for cruelty. As Marion writes in his essay, “…To enter the River Road is to enter the Minotaur’s lair, with our own hubris as our destroyer. Through it, we ought to learn a larger lesson about human existence: its capability for such grandeur and inhumanity happening on the same plane, especially in its attempts to rise above itself.” But do we learn? Probably not. The forsaken nature of the River Road plantations in Laughlin’s work doesn’t seem to reflect a rejection of this brutality, only that time and the country has moved on to other cruel incarnations.
Like Trump Tower, which is itself a gold-plated likeness of America’s propensity for ruthless greed, sociopathic social climbing, and seeking power at all costs at the expense of anyone that might get in our way. You know, that which we mistakenly call the American Dream. It would be easy to diagnose nearly empty Trump Tower as an indication of Trump’s waning popularity, the potential end to MAGA hat-sporting, Capitol-rioting, election fraud-theorizing Trumpism, or the predatory, all-consuming form of capitalistic narcissism that he embodies. But I don’t think that’s either fair or true. Trump certainly can still draw a crowd as observed at his recent Arizona rally that was attended by most of QAnon, at least the ones that aren’t still waiting for the return of JFK Jr. in Dealey Plaza, including soon-to-be Congressman Q himself, Ron Watkins.
Instead, I’d argue the current state of Trump Tower transcends Trump himself to become a potent symbol of America’s decline due to its own decadence, incredible suicidal stupidity, morally bankrupt scams, and uncaring inhumanity. Is this so depressing that you want to look away and cry into your twenty-dollar cocktail? Or so infuriating that you want to run screaming through Trump Tower’s revolving doors without getting a to-go box for the rest of your Boneless Buffalo Bites? Maybe. But for me—and it could be the Manhattans talking—there was something deliciously subversive and even redemptive about running through Trump Tower unobserved, unrestricted, and largely undetected. After enough time and enough booze at 45 Wine & Whiskey Bar, I couldn’t help but fantasize about taking over and throwing a theatrical party for ourselves like the Gremlins in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. He’s not here; it’s ours now! Maybe next time and there will be a next time (Who wants to come?!). As Stevie Nicks sings in “Dreams,” a song I’ve now come to—and may forever—associate with the whole wild and weird trip, “When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know. You’ll know.”