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Column: Trump claims Beverly Hills residents stink. I put it to the smell test

From left, Shirley Hamstra, Mavis Manus,and Viola (declined to give her last name) she a laugh after a "Balance" class at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills.
Shirley, left, Mavis and Viola share a laugh after a balance class at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills. (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

It was a lovely spring day in Beverly Hills, sunny and mild, and as far as I could tell, everyone smelled pretty good.

I didn’t exactly sniff anyone’s skin or clothing, so as to avoid arrest. But on Wednesday I walked through Roxbury Park, where lawn bowlers and dog walkers seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I didn’t pick up any foul odors. The same was true inside the adjacent community center.

So I’m not sure what Donald Trump was talking about last fall when he claimed people “don’t smell so good” in Beverly Hills because they’re limited to a small amount of water when showering. Which, by the way, is not true. Last month, he doubled down, saying, “You can only brush your teeth once a day” in Beverly Hills.

These comments may be intended as laugh lines, but coming from a guy who still insists he won the last presidential election, it’s hard to know.

Recently, my colleague Doyle McManus neatly summed up Trump’s contempt for the entire state of California, which the former president insisted is “failing,” despite the state’s standing as a global economic power. Not that we don’t have major problems with poverty, homelessness and housing, among other things. But as McManus noted, Trump has falsely claimed the state promises pensions and mansions to undocumented migrants, and that it can “take children away from their parents and sterilize them.”

Read more: ‘A symbol of our nation’s decline.’ Trump vows to remake California

Trump also has said he would send federal officers to Oakland and other cities to shoot shoplifters, and his new name for the governor is Gavin New-Scum.

At least he's not suggesting that we shoot smelly people — not yet, anyway.

Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump stand next to a man in a plaid shirt and baseball shirt at a podium.
Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, left, and former President Donald Trump at a legislation signing rally with Bakersfield farmers in February 2020. (David McNew / Getty Images)

On my field trip to Beverly Hills, smelling strangers was just one objective. What I really wanted to talk to people about, particularly with those who’ve been around a while, is whether they can recall such a level of absurdity in American politics.

A man facing four criminal indictments encompassing 91 charges is the runaway GOP nominee after failing to deliver nearly every major campaign promise in his first term. What's more, the Capitol is only slightly less chaotic and dysfunctional than it was when congressional representatives hid under their desks during the insurrection, and the country appears at times to be lurching toward civil war.

But getting back to body odor and Beverly Hills, what I heard about Trump ran the gamut, from those who fear for the republic to those who can’t wait to vote for him as they have in the past.

Let’s start with Mavis Manus, Shirley Hamstra and Viola, who didn’t want to share her last name because of privacy concerns. I found the three friends relaxing at a table outside the community center, enjoying a snack after an exercise class. When I asked about Trump’s claim that Beverly Hills residents stink, Manus cringed, saying she hadn’t heard that one.

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“I stopped reading about Trump, I’ve got to admit. I just can’t take that anymore,” said Manus, who lives in Beverly Hills; her friends live in nearby communities.

“It’s just terrible,” Viola interjected.

“He’s too insane,” said Manus. “Too dangerous.”

Hamstra called the current climate of provocation and polarization upsetting, but Viola had a different word for it: "It's scary."

As Manus sees it, Trump ripped the scab off the wound of festering populist disenchantment. I agree, although it’s only fair to assign at least some of the blame for that populist anger to Democratic politicians who looked past the struggles of working-class people.

In an evolved civilization, Manus said, you “work on your humanity, your kindness, your love, empathy, whatever.” Trump, she said, “has gone the other way.”

The next person I met, who also asked me to use only her first name, said economic grievance was just one of the tickets Trump punched on his way to the White House.

“I don’t think, in the beginning, that it had anything to do with people feeling like they weren’t getting their fair share,” Susan said. “I think it all came down to racism.”

A man in a beret and camouflage jacket, seated at a table with books and papers in front of him
Don Butler, a Vietnam vet and retired Beverly Hills mail carrier, believes the U.S. is "sleepwalking towards dictatorship." (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

Don Butler, a Vietnam veteran and retired Beverly Hills mail carrier who lives in Inglewood and regularly stops by the Roxbury Park Community Center, which offers a number of senior activities, said the United States was greatly divided back when he served overseas. “But I don’t think it touches the division we have now,” Butler said.

“We compare, I think, pathetically, to the greatest generation,” said Butler. He hasn’t forgotten that Trump once said of the late Arizona senator and Vietnam War POW John McCain, “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

Read more: Column: Is age really just a number? Not when it comes to Biden and Trump

“I’m waiting for him to say, ‘I like Christs who don’t get crucified,’” said Butler, who worries that a second Trump term would be “nothing but vengeance and retribution.”

Democracies do collapse, Butler said. People become disenchanted and in the fray, “The idea of freedom becomes more self-centered, more greedy. It degenerates into anarchy and winds up in a dictatorship. ... I’m afraid we are sleepwalking towards dictatorship.”

Ray Diwan, who takes a dance class at the community center, said there’s a long line of global leaders past and present who have used race, religion and the politics of scapegoating to win and hold power. But as someone who was born in India and came to the U.S. from Pakistan as a boy, he’s saddened by the current state of affairs

“When Reagan said this was a shining city on a hill, it was true at that time. Now, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that way, and it’s a pity,” Diwan said.

As I mentioned, I found a bit of everything in Beverly Hills. Jay Squires, who was having lunch with his wife, Reycie, at the community center, said: “You go back to the four years of Trump, the economy was booming, there was no inflation, we had no skirmishes around the world. Things under him were fantastic.”

A line of older people taking a dance class
Ray Diwan, fourth from left, looks at dance instructor Tony Munoz, left, at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills. (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

That’s one way to look at it.

Squires had not heard about Trump’s claim that body odor is a problem in Beverly Hills, but he wasn’t taking it personally. Sure, Squires said, Trump says outlandish things now and then, but he believes the former president also gets misrepresented and taken out of context at times.

The Squires both voted for Trump before and they’ll do it again, although Reycie wanted to make clear that she favors arresting shoplifters rather than shooting them on sight.

For her husband, illegal immigration is a big deal, and he’s got a solution Trump might consider, if he hasn’t already.

“Any retired policeman, or part-time policeman, they could be bounty hunters. You know, you find some illegal aliens, send them back,” Squires said.

A posse. A roundup. Problem fixed.

I asked Squires what kind of work he does.

Hair restoration, he said, handing me his card.

But it’s not my hair I want restored.

“We can do a lot for you in just one session,” Squires said.

I fear it may be too late.

For my head.

For the republic.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.