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Trump Taj worker ripoff didn't make America great again

The brutal takedown of several thousand service workers out of the middle class by a billionaire vulture who is Donald Trump's friend and occasional business partner is exactly the thing we should be talking about in the 2016 campaign...but we probably won't.

Well I got a job and tried to put my money away/But I got debts that no honest man could pay

— Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"

The Trump Taj Mahal was Atlantic City's tallest building when it opened in 1990, and Marc Scittina got in on the ground floor, hoping to ride an elevator up into the middle class.

Scittina, now 54 and living in Egg Harbor Township, did exactly that for most of his 26-year career as a unionized food server at the casino's Players Club — but then the ride started going back down, fast.

At the start of last year, the owners of Trump Taj Mahal convinced a bankruptcy judge the only way to keep the gambling palace open was to strip nearly 1,000 union workers who've gone roughly a decade with no pay raise of their company health insurance and their pensions to boot.

"We felt like they threw away our dignity, too," said Scittina, who's married with a grown child. He didn't think twice about joining the picket line in May when the union struck to get health insurance and better working conditions — even when management threatened to close what had once claimed to be the world's largest casino. That's the brand of freedom offered by nothing left to lose.

"We stood up for the middle class," Scittina told me by phone Wednesday, just minutes after the owner declared it will close Trump Taj Mahal after Labor Day weekend rather than meet the workers' demands, claiming the strike is costing millions of dollars. "We're doing this for our children and our children's children...[The owner] left us no choice."

His words were hard to hear as a hot August wind whipped down the boardwalk behind him. A roaring, uncertain wind.

The news that a famous New York billionaire plans to close an iconic Atlantic City casino that still bears the name of the GOP presidential nominee spilled over into the race for the White House on Wednesday — but arguably for the wrong reasons.

It's both fair and important to note that currently Donald Trump currently has no financial stake in the Trump Taj Mahal, even if it's impossible to wash your hands or walk across a carpet without still rubbing the dirt into Trump's gilded name.

No, Trump — who years ago wrung almost every dollar he could out of Doing AC, into his jets or Mar-a-Lago or his wherever — sold most of Trump Taj Mahal over the years, including to its junk-bond financiers in 1991 bankruptcy proceedings, just months after it opened as "the eighth wonder of the world." Earlier this year, he unloaded his final 10 percent stake to his on-again, off-again billionaire best friend Carl Icahn, whom Trump has touted as a potential Treasury Secretary if the Trumpocalypse arrives in January.

It's likely the national political media — so preoccupied with Khangate, Babygate, Ryangate, Devilgate, PurpleHeartgate, and the six or seven other Trump scandals that presumably erupted since I started writing this column — will brand what happened Wednesday in AC as Icahn-not-Trump and move onto the next fiasco.

But then the fate of the hotel and casino workers like Scittina and the other 3,000 workers — union and non-union -- facing an unknown future after years of anxiety over doctor's visits and tuition bills is everything the historically horrifying 2016 race ought to be about.

"I would never have thought Carl Icahn was so one-dimensional," Bob McDevitt, president of Scittina's union, Unite Here Local 54, said in a statement. "The great deal-maker would rather burn the Trump Taj Mahal down just so he can control the ashes. For a few million bucks he could have had labor peace and a content workforce, but instead he'd rather slam the door shut on these long-term workers just to punish them and attempt to break their strike."

Icahn has accumulated a net worth of $21 billion while gutting once-iconic American employers such as TWA. You don't need a "Breaking News" chyron on CNN to understand that what vultures like Icahn have done to the middle-class economy is exactly what's fomenting the anger causing millions of voters to look for radical solutions, from Trump's nationalistic authoritarianism to the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders.

Yet for all his "I will fight for you" bluster about helping struggling Americans, Trump only knows how to do battle for (or with) the Carl Icahns, not the Marc Scittinas. The Donald's laudable notion about bringing back manufacturing has no factual basis nor rational chance of success, most economists agree, yet he pretends that service workers — the real backbone of the 21st Century economy, forever squeezed in an era of CEO pay raises — don't exist.

The Democrats should know better. Both Hillary Clinton and Sanders showed up on the boardwalk to voice their support for the workers. That's great, but I can't help but worry if there'll much follow-up if Clinton becomes the 45th president. Labor activists and issues were mostly not ready for prime time at Philadelphia's DNC, and since then the nominee has been busiest paling around with other billionaires like Mark Cuban and Warren Buffet and courting Republicans like Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, who has eliminated 85,000 jobs.

What's happened at Trump Taj Mahal over the last 22 months points to our ongoing crisis in achieving truly universal health coverage (many of the Unite Here workers couldn't afford new insurance once their company plan was gone) and in offering retirement security. One of the many, many deadly sins of the fast-imploding Trump campaign is its distraction from the debates we need to be having.

But it's just as troublesome that our elites don't even get the fundamental worth of what these service workers do. "I consider myself a professional," Scittina said, thinking of all the smiles and the little things he and his colleagues in the hospitality business did to make the guests actually want to come back.

Far short of retirement age, Scittina's not sure what comes next, yet remains optimistic. I want to share that. But it's hard not to wonder...if the American voter is so mad this time around, what's going to happen in, say, 2020, if America's places like Atlantic City keep racking up debts that no honest man could pay.