Donald Trump rose to prominence in New York during the Reaganite 1980s as an embodiment of wild, entrepreneurial cowboy capitalism in an era of deregulation. Surrounded by the “greed is good” ethos of Wall Street that was enabled by the Reagan administration, Trump built his success on unrestrained finance capital that loaned him immense sums of money, often with minimal and problematic collateral, to carry through his construction projects. Trump was an extravagant consumer with a three-story penthouse at the top of Trump Tower and a 118-room mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. He flaunted a yacht bought from Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and a personal airplane to jet set him around the world to luxury resorts. Trump was featured on TV shows like “Life Styles of the Rich and Famous,” and his lifestyle was the subject of multi-page spreads in fashion and other popular magazines, making Trump the poster boy for excessive “conspicuous consumption.”
Trump’s book The Art of the Deal (1987) provides a revealing portrait of the unrestrained capitalism of the go-go ’80s, as well as insight into the psyche and behavior of its hyper-capitalist author. The book celebrates “dealing” and “the art of the deal” illustrated by Trump moving from the family real estate business of Queens and Brooklyn onto the “Magic Isle” of Manhattan where “The Donald” moved in his mid-20s to become a celebrated real estate whiz kid. He tells in detail how he transformed the shabby and faded Commodore Hotel, across from Grand Central Station, into the Grand Hyatt. The centerpiece of the celebration of “Deal Artist Donald” is the story of the building of “Trump Tower: The Tiffany Location,” which stands as Trump’s most striking construction deal. Trump recounts his moving to Atlantic Casino and beginning to take over and build casinos, his “Battle for Hilton” with mogul Steve Wynn and his short time in the United States Football League (USFL), where he ended up with an unsuccessful suit against the National Football League, and saw the collapse of the USFL and loss of his team. A high point for Trump is his rebuilding of the Wollman Ice Rink, finishing a project under time and under budget that the city was not able to complete. This experience reinforces Trump’s ideas about the superiority of free enterprise construction over bungled government projects.
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Of course, sometimes the government can aid construction projects. Trump brags about how his father controlled Brooklyn politicos to get his projects done and tells of how negotiations with city and state officials in New York helped him get tax abatements, contracts and permits to build his pet projects. Indeed, an important part of the trajectory of Trump’s business life involves manipulating government agencies and officials to aid him in his projects, and he continues to brag on the campaign trail how he bought and used politicians.
Trump’s financial fortunes hit the economic slowdown that followed the Reagan orgy of unrestrained capitalism in the late 1980s, and in the 1990s Trump almost went bankrupt. Fittingly, Trump had overinvested in the very epitome of consumer capitalism, buying a string of luxury gambling casinos in Atlantic City. The financial slump hit Trump’s overextended casinos, driving him to put them on the market. The banks called in loans on his overextended real estate investments, and he was forced to sell off properties, his yacht and other luxury items. Having temporarily lost his ability to borrow from finance capital to expand his real estate business, Trump was forced to go into partnerships in business ventures, and then sold the Trump name that was attached to an array of consumer items ranging from water to vodka, men’s clothes and fragrances.
Trump’s two books Trump: Surviving at the Top (1990) and Trump: The Art of the Comeback (1997) provide an incisive portrait of the beginning of Trump’s business troubles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and then his collapse into near bankruptcy and partial comeback later in the decade.
It is clear from his books that Trump grossly overextended himself and invested in many dubious projects, such as the three Atlantic City casinos that went bankrupt or that he was forced to sell. Comeback drips with venom against those bankers who refused to help Trump and pressured him to pay off his loans, as well as others with whom he had conflicts during the decade. Trump attacks his tormentors in little vignettes that present his enemies in negative terms, and then he flings a heap of insults upon them, just as he now does to his political opponents. His nastiness and vindictiveness is palpably out of control. He unloads on super lawyer Bert Fields, fires him (Fields said he quit), and concludes: “I think he’s highly overrated, and his high legal fees were a continuing source of irritation to me. I continued to use the firm but not Fields.” In Comeback, he also makes these attacks on the press and authors who have written books critical of him:
The media is simply a business of distortion and lies … the press writes distorted and untruthful things about me almost daily. For example, books written by Harry Hurt and Jack O’Donnell, a disgruntled former employee I hardly even knew, were so off the mark that twenty-five or fifty years from now, if people use this crap as a backlog on me, it will be very unfair. These guys didn’t know me, didn’t like me, and only wanted to produce a really negative product. Stories they told about my life and business were seldom correct, nor did these authors want them to be. The good news is that nobody bought their garbage, and I was able to blunt the impact of the books’ sales by publicly explaining the facts. This is why neither book was successful — I really knocked the shit out of both of them and took down their credibility.”
In fact, both Hurt’s and O’Donnell’s books are well written and documented. It’s noteworthy that Trump does not mention any particulars that Hurt and O’Donnell get wrong. His claim that their stories about him “were seldom correct” is ludicrous.
In Comeback, Trump’s sexism is out of control, as he attacks his former wife Ivana, going through painful details of their divorce and legal battles. In a chapter titled “The Women In (And Out) Of My Life,” Trump brags about all the women who come on to him (his second marriage is breaking up during the period, so he is a “player” again.
Yet the most revealing chapter concerning his deeply-rooted sexism is encapsulated in the “tip” to “Always Have a Prenuptial Agreement” and spelled out in the chapter “The Art of the Prenup: The Engagement Wring.” Trump is fanatic on the importance of getting a lawyer to write a prenuptial contract before marriage. In the unnumbered “Tips” page at the opening of his book Trump writes: “Anyone in a complicated business should be institutionalized if he or she gets married without one. I know firsthand that you can’t come back if you’re spending all of your time fighting for your financial life with a spouse.” Trump sees marriage as a predatory battle of the sexes and women as predators who use their sexuality and charms to get the better of men, warning that men should beware of any women who shows interest in a relationship or marriage.
Whereas The Art of the Deal describes impressive achievements giving “The Donald” bragging rights, his following two books try to sugarcoat his failures and decline as a major real estate constructor (the family business). As noted above, Trump was forced to start finding partnerships for his enterprises, since banks were reluctant to loan him money for his projects because he had so overextended himself and failed in so many ventures. Hence, Trump was forced to sell his name to an array of products to keep his cash flow going, or find partners to put up the money in any business ventures.
Indeed, Trump has been particularly assiduous in branding the Trump name and selling himself as a businessman, a celebrity and now as a presidential candidate. No doubt, Trump’s books are largely an exercise in branding the company name and rebranding it when it becomes tarnished. In fact, Trump’s presidential campaign represents an obscene branding of a hyper-capitalist into a political candidate whose campaign is run on bombast, dominating on a daily basis the mediascape, and gaining the attention of voters/consumers (with the willing complicity of the cable news networks and with the help of his Twitter feed). Trump is transparently orchestrating political theater in his presidential run, and his candidacy represents another step in the merger between entertainment, celebrity and politics — a merger in which Ronald Reagan played a key role, as our first actor-president. I would argue, however, that Trump is the first major candidate to pursue politics as entertainment and thus to collapse the distinction between entertainment, news and politics.
Having researched and followed Trump closely since he announced his bid for the presidency, I see him as a paragon of what Herbert Marcuse called the “one-dimensional man.” Trump’s one dimension is his gigantic ego, which must be fed with unlimited amounts of adulation, money, power and attention. He seems to have no interests beyond his business and political enterprises, and no interest in culture or ideas beyond those he can exploit in his business or political campaign. And as biographers have noted, he does not seem to be burdened with self-reflection or self-awareness — only an overwhelming sense of self-importance.
Trump has a gloomy pessimistic view of the world encapsulated in a quotation from him that appears in Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher’s book Trump Revealed: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you.”
Winning appears to be Trump’s only purpose of life and the organizing principle of his existence. To win, Trump appears ready to do anything. This raises the specter of what a losing Trump would do with nuclear weapons under his control, and what destruction his unrestrained ego and uncontrollable id might unleash upon the world if he gained office and then were threatened in any way. Moreover, the large following that Trump has developed through his demagoguery signals that authoritarian populism constitutes a clear and present danger to US democracy, and global peace and well-being. How we deal with these issues is the crucial challenge of the contemporary moment.