Review: Trump foretold his own grander artifice

By Rob Cox
July 22, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A few hours before Donald Trump accepted his coronation as the Republican Party candidate for president of the United States, I finished reading “The Art of the Deal,” the New York real-estate developer’s 1987 autobiographical manual for success. The timing was unintentional, but fortuitous. I departed Cleveland a day earlier than planned after finding too few serious people capable of articulating details to match the party leader’s bold promises on economic policy, immigration, global trade and finance.

Closing the book at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on Thursday morning, the reason so little substance could be found at the Republican National Convention became abundantly clear. “Art of the Deal” is essentially a guide to Potemkin dealmaking. Though published when Trump was a rising mogul from Manhattan, and not a political upstart, the book illustrates the synergies of those twin ambitions. Then as now, showmanship on the outer edges of artifice is Trump’s single greatest skill.

Plenty of ink has been devoted to analyzing the best seller for clues about the candidate, particularly in the past week as Trump prepared to accept the party’s nomination. Tony Schwartz broke nearly 30 years of silence since ghostwriting “Art of the Deal” with critical views about his co-author in an explosive tell-all to the New Yorker magazine earlier in the week. Though he guiltily accepts some blame for helping to create Trump’s persona, there is still no better brochure for the perplexed on the man himself than their collaborative tome.

In part, that’s because in place of the broad platitudes put forth by candidate Trump, the book describes his core competencies with storytelling and lively anecdotes. Schwartz may deserve credit for bringing them to life. The clarity they shed on Trump’s modus operandi, however, is as relevant today as when he was reviving Manhattan’s Commodore Hotel, ripping down the friezes of the Bonwit Teller building or outwitting a Hilton heir (whose name Trump’s youngest son now bears) nearly four decades ago.

The wheeler-dealer who emerges from “Art of the Deal” is not afraid to mislead, in what he calls “truthful hyperbole,” make things up to get his way and manipulate the media to gain advantage. While this doesn’t necessarily distinguish Trump from many other politicians or successful businessmen, few made a career of bragging about it. Trump’s unabashed embrace of his own morally questionable behavior makes him especially unique, not a little fascinating, and potentially dangerous.

Some attractive qualities do emerge from “Art of the Deal.” Despite a Ptolemaic view of the universe, with Trump Tower at its center, women play important roles in his life and business. Trump’s first wife, Ivana, is conveyed as something of a partner, too, even though he has since replaced her – and her successor, Marla Maples – with Slovenian ex-model Melania. Trump made Barbara Res, at 33, the first woman ever put in charge of building a New York skyscraper. He also calls out Louise Sunshine and Blanche Sprague as important executives in his company.

It’s hard not to admire Trump’s chutzpah in trying to create a competitor to the monopoly of the National Football League, which he wrote “painted me as a vicious, greedy, Machiavellian billionaire, intent only on serving my selfish needs at everyone else’s expense.” His underdog role in taking on City Hall to rebuild Wollman Rink in Central Park is laudable, too.

Indeed, in Mayor Ed Koch he finds a worthy adversary, and learns the power of toying with the press to win in the court of public opinion. He convinced the city to let him refurbish the rink, an eyesore from his Trump Tower aerie, in less than six months and substantially under budget. The episode provided a formative lesson for the fledgling tycoon on how private enterprise can get things done where governments and municipalities fail.

These victories, like others in the book, come with giant asterisks that cannot be ignored. To gin up sales at Trump Tower, for example, he hoodwinked a reporter into believing newlyweds Prince Charles and Lady Diana were considering the purchase of an apartment by refusing to confirm or deny the story.

He tells of blustering his way into getting Equitable Real Estate to sell him the Bonwit Teller department store building and scaring city planners into approving his plans by creating “hideous” models of alternative structures should they stand in his way: “Naturally they were horrified,” he wrote. “I’m not sure they believed we’d ever build it, or even that it was buildable, but there was no way they could be sure.”

Tactics designed to deceive and generate fear in his adversaries and partners feel particularly relevant as Trump campaigns for the presidency as the “law-and-order” candidate. Richard Nixon successfully did the same in a tumultuous 1968.

A crowning deception came while trying to lure Holiday Inn into an Atlantic City casino partnership. When he discovered the company’s board was meeting in the New Jersey seaside resort town, Trump writes: “I called in my construction supervisor and told him that I wanted him to round up every bulldozer and dump truck he could possibly find, and put them to work on my site immediately. Over the next week, I said, I wanted him to transform my two acres of nearly vacant property into the most active construction site in the history of the world.”

The ploy worked, and in June 1982 the two sides reached a deal. It fell apart a few years later for reasons Trump said he could not reveal for legal reasons. “Art of the Deal” ends before the difficulties of Trump’s casino businesses became the stuff of four bankruptcy court filings.

Nevertheless, the ruse, like other episodes in the book, instructs readers to accept that negotiations and dealing with counterparts – be they real estate developers or world leaders – is a game, one where tricks like moving earth around or creating a set of ugly blueprints are acceptable.

In construction and casinos, he may be right. But Trump is no longer merely asking Americans to admire his gleaming marble foyers and gilded escalators. He is asking voters for stewardship of an $18 trillion economy and keys to the nuclear codes. Before doing so, they would be well served to read or reconsider the man who features in “The Art of the Deal.”

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