“Trump begins each day with a sheaf of papers detailing where and how often his name has been mentioned in the global press. The reports are typically too numerous for him to actually read, but the weight of the pages gives his sensitive ego a measure of his importance on any given day. This need to be noticed, and his drive to satisfy it, has made him a singular figure worthy of close inspection.”
Say what you will about Donald Trump, his life has been fascinating. He’s been bumbling through American post-WWII history, as narcissistic as Forrest Gump was clueless, showing up at so many post-war events. I read the book to get a better feel for the man who could be president and came away shocked that he could go all the way to the Oval Office.
This book was originally published under the title Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit For Success in 2015, well before he was a serious presidential contender. D’Antonio’s reason for choosing to write about Donald Trump is a compelling one:
“But it is not Trump’s outrageousness that makes him worthy of interest. More important is that he has succeeded, like no one else, in converting celebrity into profit.(No matter how many billions he has, we are still talking about billions.) Somehow he has done this even as a substantial proportion of the population, arguably more than 50 percent, consider him a buffoon if not a menace. What does it say about Trump that he is so undeniably successful by the two measures that matter most to him—money and fame? And what, pray tell, does it say about us?”
In the end, the disturbing conclusion that D’Antionio draws is that Donald Trump is “a living expression of the values of our time.”
I wish this book was more widely read and this was the official narrative of who Donald Trump is, but every bookstore I walk into has Trump’s The Art of the Deal prominently on display, while this title is relegated to the back shelf.
Trumps’ campaign was a carefully plotted and successful effort to exploit the grievances and ire of frightened people who harbored deep suspicions about a political system that was dominated by those who donated huge sums to election campaigns.
The influence was that millions of Americans had felt powerless and even silenced by some foreign force that had taken over the country. However, with Trump they had found a voice. As Trump voter Patricia Aguilar of Everett, Massachusetts, told The New York Times, Trump was expressing what “people really feel” but “we’re all afraid to say it.”
Trump believes that much of what we are can be found in our genes and early childhood. He was born to a mother who was attention-seeking, obsessed with social status, and so money-conscious that she personally visited the basement laundries of Trump buildings to collect coins from washers and driers. She was also sick during much of young Donald’s early life. His father was, by many accounts, extremely strict and demanding but also preening, manipulative, and deceptive. Two government investigations revealed that he consistently bent the rules to wring excess profits out of programs designed to house war veterans and middle-class Americans.
Fred Trump’s most creative business activity involved not the construction of his cookie-cutter housing but the development of a web of corporations to obscure what he was doing with his government-subsidized financing. When called to account, he owned up to his greedy and unseemly behavior and offered the immoral explanation that the system let him do it. There was nothing wrong with violating the spirit of taxpayer-supported housing programs so long as it was legal.
While young men from poor and minority communities fought and died in Vietnam, he was able to avoid service because of a minor medical problem (His heel spurs didn’t prevent him from playing sports, but somehow meant he couldn’t fight.)
Operating under Cohn’s tutelage, Trump soon demonstrated an ability for using the press to build a false image of success. With a little manipulation, he got the blessing of The New York Times, which presented him as handsome and brilliant, and he got attention from the city’s most important TV talk show. The press needed good stories, whether they were entirely accurate or not, and it didn’t hurt that Donald photographed well.
His world was a gilded gutter where he became convinced that human beings are essentially venal creatures. The more he expressed greed and self-regard, the more people seemed to like it.
And now in 2016, Trump is a candidate for president who is devoid of ideals and committed to little beyond his will to power.Without a strong foundation of empathy and ethics, he exploits racial hatred, dabbles in misogyny, and tacitly encourages violence. As the election approaches, his view of humanity is being affirmed again and again. And the important questions that must be answered are not about Trump. What lurks in him is apparent. Less certain is what resides in us.
In one way or another, Donald Trump has been a topic of conversation in America for almost forty years. No one in the world of business—not Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Warren Buffet—has been as famous as Trump for as long. First associated with high-profile real estate development in 1970s Manhattan, his name soon became synonymous with success defined by wealth and luxury. Placed on skyscrapers, casinos, and commercial airliners, the name TRUMP (usually spelled in gold-colored, capital letters) became a true personal brand that connected one man to a seemingly endless number of offerings. In time it would be stamped on hotel rooms, furniture, neckties, mean; almost anything that might be sold as high quality, high cost, and high-class.
Eagerly catering to the nouveau riches and the aspiring, he dismissed those who belonged to what he called “the lucky sperm club” while glossing over that he had been born into one of the wealthiest families in the country. Trump cast himself as the everyman’s rich friend, who shunned high society, except when it was helpful to sell expensive apartments.
Gleefully aggressive, Trump looks for opportunities to take offense and then wrestle a supposed enemy into the gutter.
Ever provocative, Trump gained attention by expressing raw and unrefined thoughts rather than nuanced reflections. In his calculation, honesty comes from the corner of his heart that is willing to fling insults and divide the world into enemies and friends. As veteran gossip columnist Liz Smith sees it, Trump is often ruled by the needy child who resides in his psyche and would rather get negative attention than be ignored. Of course Trump does profit financially as he gives this part of himself free rein, and he has little patience for reflection or analysis. He just presses on, defying science and battling against the facts on climate change.
Perhaps nothing in nature is more voracious that this man’s hunger for wealth, fame, and power. And it is this force that has allowed him to endure considerable mockery and substantial setbacks in business and still come back for more. Indeed, in the time after his humiliation at the correspondent’s dinner, Trump nurtured an ambition to mount his own campaign for the American presidency—a real campaign and not another of his flirtations—and thereby claim the greatest accomplishment available to a mere mortal in the twenty-first century.
Although he seems like a unique and completely modern figure, Donald Trump actually emerges from this country’s long tradition of rich-but-rough high-achievers, which Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in 1831, writing, “Love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything Americans do.”
Wilbur Fisk Crafts, a popular writer of the time, expressed it this way: “Is there anything more un-American than what we all ‘society,’ whose aristocratic code was imported from Paris and London into New York and thence spread to other large cities of our land?” To distance themselves from this vision, great men made certain that the public saw that the balls and galas were feminine affairs, in which they participated only to please their wives and daughters. In their biographies and public remarks they associated themselves with virtues such as hard work and determination. Andrew Carnegie counseled that success depended more on motivation than talent. John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, advised “singleness of purpose.”
A new era of prosperity dawned in 1946, the year Donald Trump was born. (this makes him a founding member of the baby boom generation.)
In the first decade of this century those in the middle actually lost income and the top 1 percent came to control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. In 2014 the five hundred richest people in he world controlled $4.4 trillion in assets. The sum exceeded the annual economic activity of India (population 1.2 billion) and Brazil (population 200 million) combined.
Hardly anyone argued with the proposition that wealth equaled success. In the new Gilded Age, 81 percent of college freshmen surveyed by the Pew organization in 2006 said their primary goal in life was to become rich. This was roughly double the number who expressed this notion in the 1960s. In the same survey more than half said that one of their main goals was to become famous. Fewer than one-third indicated that they wanted to “help others who needed help.”
Talent and intelligence were recognized as essential in the quest for success, but as in the past, higher education and intellectualism were deemed to be of limited value. Much was made of the entrepreneurs and inventors who dropped out of college and became wildly successful. (Microsoft founder Bill Gates was one.) Even more attention was lavished upon those who gained great fame as well as riches. No one achieved these two goals quite like Donald Trump, who became, quite literally, the face of modern success.
If he had acted with a bit more humor, Donald Trump could have been a P.T. Barnum for his time, universally beloved despite his bombast because everyone would be in on the joke. But those who compared him to the nineteenth-century showman, who was more famous than any president of his era, missed the mark by a few degrees. Trump occasionally smiled in a way that made you think he understood he was being preposterous, but he lacked Barnum’s sunny playfulness. Instead he was often combative and sometimes mean.
Comedians, politicians, and others have picked on him for everything from his ego to his extravagant swoosh of bright blond hair. But his policy of always answering a pesky jab with a roundhouse punch reveals remarkable sensitivity for someone so accustomed to verbal brawls. As a man who says he considers money to be a way to “keep score” in life, he has been especially bothered by those who suggested he wasn’t all that rich.
What does one make of a grown man who, when he argues with women, stoops to insulting their appearance and speaks so proudly of his pugnacious past? What if the same man is one of the most prominent people in the world, and a privately generous person who once handed a dying child a $50,000 check so that he could enjoy the last months of his life?
In every period of his adult life, Trump maintained his real estate business, but he also dabbled in everything from sports to beauty pageants. The one consistent element in all of these interests was the value he placed on publicity, which he sought with the skill of someone who understood that celebrity is power, reporters are often lazy about facts, and image can trump reality.
By 2014, Trump was a walking inkblot test. In him one could see extreme examples of ambition, obsession, aggression, and insecurity. He also exhibited creativity, strength, and candor.
As he implored followers to use artificial means—study, practice, repetition—to cultivate a sincere smile, Carnegie affirmed the triumph of personality, even one that is manufactured, over character, hard work, and quality. This was the tragic fact of life in twentieth-century America that was communicated in Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman declares, “Personality always wins the day.”
At Kew-Forest, Donald Trump was a bit of a terror. He once said that he gave a teacher a black eye “because I didn’t think he knew anything about music.” According to Trump, he was then already the person he would always be. “I don’t think people change very much,” Trump would tell me. ‘When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.”
“I coached baseball and football, and I taught them that winning wasn’t everything, it was the only thing.” added Dobias, borrowing a cliche coined by Vince Lombardi, the pro football coach who became a paragon of mid-century manliness. “Donald picked right up on this. He would tell his teammates, ‘We’re out here for a purpose. To win.’ He always had to be number one, in everything. He was a conniver even then. A real pain in the ass. He would do anything to win.”
Describing a boy full of desire and drive, Dobias said Trump “just wanted to be first, in everything, and he wanted people to know he was first.”
In the world of deals and schemes that Donald planned to inhabit, suckers were the ones who watched others get rich in a game that they didn’t understand.
Although Fred trump was not accused of breaking the law in the Lindenbaum affair, he was required to testify before the New York State Commission of Investigation, which had been established in the 1950s to curb political corruption. In a setting less congenial than when he was questioned by the Senate banking committee, Fred had to contend with hours of questions about his state-subsidized Trump Village development. Much of what he said revealed an almost dazzling level of manipulation. For example, after first claiming ignorance, Trump consulted his lawyer and changed his testimony to explain how he had created an independent company to buy used equipment—backhoes, trucks, etc.—which was then leased to the Trump Village project at rates as much as twenty times their actual cost. (A truck valued at $2,600 rented for $21,000. Two tile-scraping machines valued at $500 apiece netted Trump $8,200.) Since Trump’s fee as a builder was based on the ultimate final cost of construction, like a commission, he earned money once by renting the equipment at exorbitant rates and again when he got his final fee for developing the apartment complex.
Clever in the extreme, Trump’s equipment scheme was technically legal under the rules of Mitchell-Lama, and he was plainly irritated by the probing questions of the commission’s lawyers. “I’ve got forty-three corporations I’m sole stockholder in,” he explained. “These things escape my mind sometimes.”
The last publicity stunt of Fred Trump’s career, the bikini/payloader/champagne extravaganza was a good example of a phenomenon that historian Daniel J. Boorstin had recently described in a landmark book called The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Boorstin was deeply concerned about how moral ideals, genuine relationships, and human experience were being replaced by images and “pseudo-events” that were manufactured by public relations experts, corporations, politicians, and governments. Americans, who were awash in these images and events, often accepted them as real and meaningful. One sign of this acceptance was the way people began creating more and more of their own posed photographs and staged home movies. These could then be compared with the images of famous people who were valued as “celebrities” and the concepts of the good life presented by advertisements for whatever was “new” and “modern.” Of course advertising only succeeded when people bought a product, and this way the novelty was destroyed. Status seekers were thus frustrated until they acquired the next new thing to be advertised and sold.
Although his gain of roughly 25 percent per year was more than triple the rate of growth in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the same period, Fred Trump’s profit on the Steeplechase property was much less than what he would have reaped from his original plan. He had envisioned a river of rent payments from apartments and businesses that would eventually pay off his financiers and yield millions of dollars in net revenues even as inflation drove up the value of the property. This formula—investment+time=revenue and high value—was the magic of real estate. By following it, Fred Trump had amassed assets that allowed him to develop ever bigger projects while simultaneously reducing the risk to his personal fortune. Eventually these methods allow developers to use the equity in one project as a down payment on another and escape using any of their own cash. They could even avoid paying taxes on their profits by investing them in a new property. This provision of the tax code, originally written to aid farmers, made real estate an even better business.
In 1971 more than two hundred people were killed in race-related riots from Boston to Los Angeles.
Probably not many other NYMA alumni would compare military school with actual military service.But the assertion was consistent with the self-image Trump often expressed. With ambition beyond measure, he would make the most of every experience and accomplishment and lay claim to excellence in almost everything he attempted. He wasn’t just a baseball player, he was one of the best in New York State. He wasn’t just a student at Penn, he was at the top of his class. That these claims can’t be confirmed doesn’t mean he is lying. He seems to genuinely believe them, and when he says something like “I always thought I was in the military,” he is sharing the truth as he feels it.
In the cities, midrange home values stagnated and even fell because demand declined. In the suburbs, new-home buyers who made low-down-payment purchases often saw the value of their home rise quickly and then traded it in for a bigger and fancier residence. As people caught on to the seeming magic of “trading up” with the help of rising values, houses became not just homes,. but assets that could be leveraged to produce wealth.
On January 12, 1974, Cohn and Donald Trump, who was becoming the face of the family business, called the press to a conference room at the New York Hilton. (A favorite spot of publicity hounds, the hotel had recently been the site of the first cell phone call in history, which was made by an executive for a firm developing the technology.
As Donald managed the firm’s dealings with the federal government, he established a template for most of the legal disputes he would face in the future. Whenever possible he would, in Roy Cohn style, go on the offensive. he would admit no wrongdoing and define a conflict to insist that he was the victim, and not the perpetrator of some immoral or illegal act.
In a bankruptcy the trustees who control a corporation typically have little motivation to seek the best prices as they sell assets. The money paid will not fund future business activity or find its way to their pockets. Instead they want to move quickly, satisfying the barest requirements of the court overseeing the disposal of assets, and get away from the rotting corporate corpse.
The right setup would, in Trump’s mind, include generous help from the government. Just as his father had benefited from federal and state programs that subsidized his apartment developments, Donald thought the taxpayers should help make him money.
Even with the equivalent to a $4-million-per-year subsidy from the taxpayers, Donald Trump had to work hard to get financing to tear down the old hotel and build a new one on its bones. Months passed as he negotiated for a loan with executives of the Equitable Life Insurance Company, who had gradually been committing more of their firm’s cash to real estate. Equitable’s investments reflected a big shift in the large-scale-development industry, which, up until 1970, had been dominated by individuals with the wealth required to accept personal responsibility for loans from conservative bankers. The new model allowed for “nonrecourse” lending, which would allow a builder such as Trump to borrow big sums even if he didn’t have the assets to cover the loan in the event of a default.
“The New York Post is no longer merely a journalistic problem. It is a social problem—a force for evil.” Elliot was expressing an industry consensus. Times editor A.M. Rosenthal said the Post practiced “mean, ugly, violent journalism.” Nevertheless, as Elliot noted, Murdoch’s method produced circulation gains, and his presence in New York, home of the nation’s major magazines, TV news organizations, and wire services, gave him outsized influence on the national scene. Others noticed and imitated Murdoch’s formula of gossip and provocation, which delivered a reader’s version of a sugar high, satisfying in the moment but also creating a craving for more.
Historically, men and women were celebrated for heroic achievements or for leading others in a noble cause. Broad public adulation was reserved for those who represented the virtues and moral character that society prized. Joan of Arc was a celebrity in this sense. In the age of mass media a new “synthetic celebrity,” as historian Barbara Goldsmith termed it, emerged. Publicity in any form was enough to make a person into a celebrity, rewarded with fawning attention, money, and power.
In his 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch described an America in which people accepted that one’s image, whether it was transmitted on television or in a family photo album, was a vital source of identity and power. At the same time, people felt alienated by their work in large corporations and life in sprawling suburbs. Taken together, these developments made vast numbers of people feel dissatisfied and determined to relieve their anxieties through the development of an appealing image for others to see, complete with the possessions and experiences—fancy vacations captured in snapshots—others could admire. Image-making became so important in everyday life that family photos and homemade videos were typically composed and later edited to mimic the work of professionals.
But for those who sought to be truly important figures, it was not enough to merely succeed. “Success in our society,” he wrote, “has to be ratified by publicity.”
Publicity came so naturally to Donald Trump, who grew up watching his father accept plaques and present bathing beauties to the eager press, that he was able to grab more than his father almost without trying.
The prenup was Roy Cohn’s idea, which he raised after failing to persuade his client that marriage was not in his interest. Agreements covering the disposition of property in the even of a divorce had been illegal for most of American history. Under a legal concept called coverture, which was part of English common law, wives lost their individual rights to sign contracts and hold property when they married. State legislators and judges began to reconsider the issue in the 1960s, and by the end of that decade the prenup signed by Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis was widely reported in the press.
Scutt’s drawing allowed Trump to practice a bit of gamesmanship that would become a regular part of his repertoire. By proposing something that might seem threatening or outrageous, he staked out a position that would allow him to seem flexible and reasonable as he negotiated his way to his actual goal. In his exchange with Hoving, Trump offered a vision of an ugly building and then explained that he could build a far more beautiful structure, one more appropriate to its surroundings, if Hoving sold him Tiffany’s air rights. Hoving soon gave Trump what he sought, receiving on his company’s behalf the promise of $5 million and the assurance that his store would not be devalued by an ugly next-door neighbor.
Although he appeared from time to time in the press,John Baron (sometimes spelled Barron) was a name that Trump and at least one of his employees hid behind when they didn’t want their identities attached to a statement. John Baron called a lawyer and threatened to bring a lawsuit against him in retaliation for claims made against Trump on behalf of members of the House Wreckers Union. Baron also responded to a rumor by saying that though “Mr. Trump enjoyed eating at the 21 Club, he has absolutely no interest in buying it.” And John Baron said, “We don’t know what happened to it,” when reporters called to ask about the Bonwit’s grillwork, which was also supposed to be preserved. In its report The Times noted that “repeated efforts to contact Mr. Trump over the last three days have been unsuccessful.”
A handy fiction, Baron was a character out of Fred Trump’s book. In his day Fred had used the name Mr. Green to hide his identity when he called certain people. The ruse was so familiar to members of the extended family that a lawyer/brother-in-law often told Donald that he wondered how soon after being issued a subpoena John Baron would take sick and die.
From a high of 25 percent in 1970, the proportion of ads depicting working-class Americans slid to 11 percent in 1980. Blue-collar Americans became so rare on TV that the series Rosanne, which depicted a working-class family in the Midwest, would appear as a revolution when it debuted in 1988.
In the Reagan formula, people could relax and allow tax cuts, increased defense spending, and big reductions in aid to the poor to magically restore the middle class. When legions of economists said the administration couldn’t pull off this trick, the president offered not cogent arguments but words that made him sound like an actor delivering lines from a script. “Yes, we can,” he said with great confidence, “and yes, we will.”
Reagan was only loosely devoted to the truth. He continued to claim that he wrote his own speeches, even after it was shown that he did not, and he habitually offered apocrypha alongside facts, daring the listener to separate them. In time, this way of speaking would be labeled “truthiness” by the satirist Stephen Colbert. (It comes “from the gut, not from books,” he would explain.” In Reagan’s day it was described by journalist James Reston as a style of speaking devised “to evade the facts.” With exasperation, Chief of Staff Donald Regan compared the task of answering questions about the president’s statements with serving in “a shovel brigade that follows a parade” of elephants.
While he produced much to shovel, the president’s methods were so effective that despite his record-breaking deficits, he built a nearly unassailable reputation as a fiscal conservative.
But even as the nation’s most respected architecture critic inveighed against his creation, Trump sought to exploit her credentials. To her dismay, the phrase “dramatically handsome design,” which she wrote to describe Der Scutt’s drawings of the building, were put on display in the Trump Tower atrium. Neither she, nor her publisher, granted permission for this use, but nothing in copyright law prevented it.
He was neither a politician, like Dinkins, nor a public official like Giuliani, who was the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and therefore the federal government’s chief prosecutor in Manhattan. Trump wasn’t even the most successful builder in the city. However, he was one of the most famous rich men in America, and this made him worthy of consideration.
Trump had become remarkably famous thanks to new kinds of mass media that seemed all but invented to lavish attention on men like him as they expanded the ranks and the very definition of celebrity. On television, this so-called celebrity journalism was pioneered by the program called Entertainment Tonight, which debuted in 1981. Designed to look like an evening news show, Entertainment Tonight functioned mainly as a window on the lives of the famous and those who would be famous.
When first used by psychologist Alfred Adler in 1929, lifestyle referred to strategies people used to avoid dealing with problems or uncomfortable situations. To word was repurposed in the 1960s to mean something akin to “way of living.” In 1967 a new magazine called Avant Garde promised to explore the :life-style” of the “mad mod scene,” and the journalist Gloria Steinem used the hyphenated version of the word in an article for the New York Times. Within a decade, advertisers and consumers understood the term as a catchall that suggested social class, taste, and apparent wealth. This last factor loomed largest, and the appearance of wealth rather than its actuality mattered most. No one new if your expensive car came with a big monthly loan payment or if your fancy house was rented. Far more important was the impression one made driving around town, or stepping out the front door.
The most valuable of these trophies were mentions in People magazine, which enjoyed the largest readership of any glossy weekly in America and was the most important arbiter of celebrity in the world. Brief and breezy, People articles necessarily deployed stereotype and caricature, but the magazine’s early judgments about a person’s essential traits often turned out to be accurate. Strong leaders acted decisively. Temperamental actors behaved abysmally. In some cases a kind of confirmation bias was at work, as observers noticed what they were expected to see. In other instances the anointed celebrity might have unconsciously lived up (or down) to his billing. Either way, the words in People were often confirmed later by a subject’s behavior in ways that made them seem accurate.
Writer Lee Wohlfert-Wihlborg made efficient use of Trump’s own words to provide her readers with a fleeting glimpse of his psyche. “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat,” he told her. “You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you.”
As Trump spoke of life as a series of conflicts, waged by vicious creatures, he was offering, in his vernacular, a view that the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes had ominously described as the “war of all against all.” Hobbes saw, in legally organized human communities, a way to avoid the chaos of constant and universal conflict among men. Trump saw, in his world, no moral agreement but, rather, vicious combatants engaged in a struggle without end.
In a world of winners and losers, suckers and deceivers, casinos represent a diabolical vision of paradise. Built on a monumental scale, they exert a magnetic pull, beckoning the curious and the deluded. The deceptions begin with marketing campaigns that show not the retirees who prop themselves on canes before the slot machines, but handsome men at felt-covered tables flanked by beautiful women in low-cut dresses, their mouths agape in ecstasy. Once the pilgram arrives in this land, he discovers the campy architecture—fake Tuscany, fake Old West, fake Havana—that makes the casino seem like a playhouse for grown-ups. Inside waits a delirium of flashing lights and carnival sounds that establish this as “fun” and “entertainment.” No one hides that casinos exist to persuade suckers that losing their hard-earned dollars is nevertheless glamorous and exciting.
The DGE report pointed to one of the key elements of Trump’s business strategy. Whatever he gained in profit with successful projects such as the Hyatt or Trump Tower, he used to start new endeavors with vast amounts of additional borrowing. In the 1990s, one former Trump executive told the writer Harry Hurt III that “it was all a shell game” in which Trump shifted small amounts of cash among a number of corporate entities to qualify for loans to develop new enterprises. Lenders. especially those who had done business for years with Donald’s father, felt confident based on Fred Trump’s record. They also understood the Trump methods.
Trump, who took great risks in his businesses and his personal life, drew the line when it came to wagering in a casino: “I’ve never gambled in my life.”
In Los Angeles he visited with Michael Milken. Before being imprisoned for violating securities laws, Milken was the undisputed leader of a new approach to finance that encouraged investors to accept greater risk to obtain higher interest payments on bonds that were openly described as “junk.” Trump went to see Milken after he had recently sold $160 million in bonds to help Las Vegas gambling mogul Steve Wynn build the Golden Nugget in New Jersey.
The showmanship and schmoozing that soothed the Holiday Inn board was a perfect example of the Trump style, which depended on the goodwill that most people, even experienced businesspeople, bring to their encounters with potential partners. As social animals, human beings naturally seek agreement and depend on others to act in good faith. Most of us are so inclined toward this attitude, which includes the tendency to fill in the gaps in our understanding with benign assumptions, that magicians and con artists rely on it as they practice their deceptions. Trump had a way of talking—sharing supposed secrets, offering praise, extending sympathies—that created a synthetic form of friendship. Under these conditions, people had trouble asking hard questions. If Trump said something like, “You and I know what we’re talking about,” they would nod and allow a conversation to continue for fear of seeming rude or stupid. In this way, he got the benefit of the doubt.
Hilton was, in Trump’s estimation. a member of “the Lucky Sperm Club. He was born wealthy and bred to be an aristocrat.” Trump offered this assessment in 1987 without a hint that he realized that he himself had been lavished with attention and benefited from the small fortune invested in his private education as the chauffeured child of one of the richest men in America. Few spermatozoa ever had it better.
The distraction provided by reports on the lifestyles of the rich and famous helped divert attention from how the middle class as it was known in the fifties and sixties was rapidly disappearing. Stabilized for thirty years, income inequality began to increase sharply in 1980 as the richest Americans seized more of the wealth generated by the economy and workers barely kept up with inflation. Tax rates levied on capital gains from investments were slashed, and salaries of chief executive officers in American corporations rose from forty-two times the average workers’ pay in 1980 to a multiple of eighty-five in 1990. In the same decade the ranks of American billionaires would increase from about a dozen to almost one hundred. The number of Americans with fortunes greater than $100 million more than tripled, to twelve hundred. For these richest Americans, investments in stocks, bonds, and high-end real estate, Trump’s specialty, were the surest source of wealth. In New York, where Wall Street millionaires competed with the global rich to buy choice apartments, prices rose and Trump reaped the profits.
His instincts were populist and generally conservative.With the exception of his frequent references to his own Ivy League education, he almost always favored a stubbornly anti-intellectual type of common sense that played to the grievances of the kind of white men represented by the TV character Archie Bunker, who, like Trump, came from Queens and offered his opinions with chin-jutting pride.
As USAir relieved him of responsibility for the shuttle, Trump and his lenders, including dozens of banks, undertook complex negotiations to salvage what they could from his companies and avoid bankruptcy court. This course only made sense ti those who knew that under US bankruptcy laws a debtor who owed billions was a greater threat to his lenders than they were to him. If Trump used the courts, he could tie up his assets for years and escape most, if not all, of the debt. If his creditors stayed in business with him, they stood a chance of receiving more of what they were owed, while avoiding the enormous legal fees that accompany such bankruptcy cases.
Ever the showman, and and optimist, Trump saw in this outcome a public relations advantage. “If I had filed a personal bankruptcy, I don’t feel that my comeback story would have been nearly as good a story,” Trump said. “It would have always been a tarnished story.”
For generations journalists had ignored the sexual transgressions of major public figures under a sort of gentleman’s agreement. The Gary Hart—Donna Rice scandal of 1987 ended this agreement and announced a new era in which salacious stories, expressed at sufficient volume, would find their way into mainstream media. Journalists would say this new practice revealed truths that should not be hidden and served some public purpose. This Taylor dismissed as a fig leaf that couldn’t obscure the value of the story, which was the entertainment of the masses.
Arriving at a time when wealth was being redefined—the real rich claimed not millions, but billions, in assets—Trump was not alone in his ambitions. In general, the rich men and women of his generation indulged at a level not seen since the medicine of the Great Depression quelled the fever of the twenties. In his prime, Fred Trump was among the richest men in America, yet he lived among doctors, lawyers, and accountants. He rarely traveled, except for vacations in Florida, and was careful about expenses. In 1955, when Fortune published a study on the subject, this far-from-ostentatious life was the norm for top executives across the nation, who remembered the excesses of the Roaring Twenties and refused to repeat them.
By saying almost everything, Trump created a record that allowed him to appeal to various kinds of people depending on what he hoped to achieve.
This man reflexively put his own interests first. How else could one explain his effort to overturn a law that allowed impoverished Indian tribes to operate casinos? His suit alleged that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination because, like laws granting special tax breaks for developers, the Indian gaming law benefited only a “very limited class of citizens.”
With the advent of the Internet and then social networking sites such as Facebook, individuals in all walks of life developed sophisticated, brochure-ready versions based on flattering pictures, tales of their impressive exploits, and reports on their latest purchases. Sizing up the ed of the twentieth-century,an NBC TV executive with a doctorate in sociology said that superficiality had triumphed over substance. “All the stuff our parents told us didn’t come true,” said Rosalyn Weinman, PhD. “No one cares if you’re good. People only care if you’re good-looking and rich.”
The images and messages people absorbed as they viewed omnipresent video screens changed their expressions in the real world. The polished skin, teeth, hair, and physiques presented by even minor media figures led to spikes in eating disorders and plastic surgery as viewers sought to copy what they saw. As art imitated life, and then life imitated art, a self-reinforcing cycle was established. To attract attention, the media were required to present provocative people and behaviors. When viewers imitated what they saw, extremes in style, behavior, and even the human body became normalized. Thus the stakes were raised, and soon the media provided even more extreme offerings to keep the public watching.
By some measure—height, perhaps—Donald Trump may have been the “largest real estate developer in New York,” but many builders could reasonably claimed to have accomplished more. The company controlled by Jerry Speyer, to cite one example, owned $10.5 billion in real estate. Trump was by far, though, the most successful real estate showman in America, and by the end of the first episode of The Apprentice he was a genuine TV star.
Financial writer David Pauly of Bloomberg News offered a caustic assessment: “All Trump, 58, can teach anybody about managing, if Trump Hotels is a guide, is this: Sell more bonds than you could ever pay back, let the competition eat your lunch, live the good life as chief executive—and then go bankrupt.”
The book Trump published with Kiyosaki, title Why We Want You to Be Rich, was not part of Trump’s main occupation, which he stressed was still developer/builder. However, among the four hundred Americans listed by Forbes on its 2005 “richest” list, only Trump delivered paid lectures, sold self-help books, and appeared on a TV series.
Loose on the Internet, his theories resonated with those who hated Obama and did not trust mainstreams sources of information. As an unlimited resource for connection, the World Wide Web has made it easy for isolated paranoid people to come together and reinforce their beliefs.
“Questions” about Obama’s birth, and his claim to Americanness, circulated with the power of a Joe McCarthy/Roy Cohn Red Scare smear. Just as Roy Cohn used doctored photos in the McCarthy era, birther Orly Taitz presented a faked Kenyan birth certificate to bolster the Obama-as-foreigner meme. Like McCarthy and Cohn, Obama’s antagonists said they were merely seeking answers to questions, while ignoring the evidence.
Any sophisticated consideration of the birther campaign had to consider that Obama was the first black president, and the first with a Muslim parent.Racial prejudice and religious fear lurked in the background if the birther movement. Hence the cartoon, circulated online, that showed the Obama family as chimps above the caption “Now you know why—no birth certificate!”
In his public life, beginning with his complaint about being required to rent to welfare recipients in the 1970s, Trump has exhibited what might be called insensitivity rather than bigotry.
The survey, which was conducted in early April, found him running second to Romney among the subset of citizens who identified themselves as Republican primary voters. This result may have had something to do with his plain speaking—“China is raping this country,” he said—but was more likely the product of his visibility. As a celebrity of many years running and the star of a TV show, he was much better recognized than all the other candidates.
At various moments Trump returns to the idea that he is better at many things, from golf to business, because of his genetic gifts. “I’m a big believer in natural ability.” He would even say, “I have a natural ability for land.” This belief in the Trump bloodline would be explained more bluntly by Donald Jr., who says, “I’m a big believer in racehorse theory.” Gesturing upward, to the heavens and his father’s office on the floor above he adds, “He’s an incredibly accomplished guy, my mother’s incredibly accomplished, she’s an Olympian, so I’d like to believe genetically I’m predisposed to better than average.”
In an era when economic inequality is a growing public concern, genetic superiority is a handy justification for stupendous wealth, whether it is inherited or earned. (In the case of Donald Trump, both apply.) Not surprisingly, social scientists have found that the rich and powerful are more likely than others to credit “innate ability” for their status. But while nature can favor some people, so many forces shape us that settling on one as determinative is a kind of magical thinking.
What Trump understands is that anyone he might offend by, say, calling Obama “Psycho!” rejected him long ago, and those who like him draw nearer when he does this sort of thing. In a nation of 300 million people, a following as small as 20 percent is such an enormous market that he doesn’t need anyone else. This is the same calculus that the Fox cable news network uses as it designs its programming. For many businesses it is better, in a world of almost infinite options, to cultivate a proportionally small but intensely loyal following of repeat customers (or viewers) than to win the mild approval of everyone else.
As the public feasted on images of excess, Trump’s face was associated with all the tantalizing pleasures that money could buy. Obscured by hype, the facts of his life didn’t matter as much as the idea of him.
“Have you ever heard of Peggy Lee? ‘Is That All There Is?’ It’s a great song because I’ve had these tremendous successes and then I’m off to the next one because it’s, like, ‘Huh, is that all there is?’ That’s a great song actually, a very interesting song, especially sung by her, because she had such a troubled life.”
Trump has offered his observations about the Peggy Lee line to other interviewers, which makes me think that he keeps it in reserve for a moment when he’s supposed to demonstrate self-awareness.
In 1946, the year he was born, America was on the cusp of a prosperity the world had never before seen. An explosion of mass media was making image-making and celebrity elements of daily life. A fiercely intelligent child, growing up rich and privileged at this time, would think that anything was possible. Add enormous ambition, and he would try to achieve it.
The factors that influenced Trump’s development were present in the lives of many of his peers, whom Christopher Lasch found to represent the culture of narcissism. But Lasch doesn’t suggest that these souls are worthy of contempt, even though they often injure others. They are, themselves, harmed by a spiritually hollow society that exalts and rewards the self-promoter and the supersalesman while relegating everyone else to isolated anonymity.
Yes, he can be boorish and obnoxious and is unnecessarily cruel. But considering the world as he found it, Trump should be regarded as a genuinely successful man who triumphed in the winner-take-all game. He is a living expression of the values of our time.
In a world where many habitually broadcast photographs of their sandwiches just before they are eaten, we no longer agree that intense self-regard is a sign that something is wrong.It may, instead, be a reasonable reaction to life in a society where extension of the self, through media, is an accepted way to escape feeling insignificant.