Trump’s Story is the Story of the United States

In The Truth About Trump, Michael D’Antonio presents Donald Trump as a creation of a society that rewards boasting, self-publicity, self-confidence and celebrity.

Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

The Truth about Trump by Michael D’Antonio makes for disturbing reading, but not for the obvious reasons. Originally published in 2015 as Never Enough, this book does not tell you much about the man himself that you may not already know, but it does reveal much about the country and circumstances that gave rise to such a person. D’Antonio’s contention is that now Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is not such an unusual man, but merely, “one of us writ large”. As not all of us – or even many Americans – have a hairstyle so unique that it seems unreal, or orange coloured skin, this statement seems a little strong. But D’Antonio, who was part of a team of reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting, does great, detailed work to back up his theory.

Almost at the beginning of his book, D’Antonio quotes the great observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in 1831, “Love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything Americans do.” As with the aristocracy in Europe, the very rich, with their mansions, yachts, and other doodads that wealth can buy, were fascinating to both the less privileged and the mass circulation papers, from the 19th century to the current day. But while the super wealthy have largely kept the “barbarians” away from the gates, Trump has invited the media in, and made the most of it. According to the book, “the US Gallup Poll determined that he was the seventh most admired man of the 1980s, outranked only by the pope, the Polish nationalist Lech Walesa, and the four living presidents”.

Michael D'Antonio <em>The Truth About Trump</em> Thomas Dunne, 2016

Michael D’Antonio
The Truth About Trump
Thomas Dunne, 2016

This type of fame is something that is hard to imagine. It did not appear out of nowhere. In many ways, Trump has followed in the footsteps of his father, Fred Trump. Trump Sr had made his fortune through real estate, but, as D’Antonio documents, it was also through fiddling with the system. In the case of Trump Sr, it involved friends, manifestly corrupt, in the Federal Housing Authority, set up by the government to provide housing for World War II veterans. Not only that, by the mid-1930s, he had already learned the art of garnering free publicity by sending “news releases” and announcing manufactured events, such as models dressed in bikinis wielding sledgehammers at a construction site. In some ways, he was well ahead of the crowd. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, had only just coined the term “public relations” and started teaching a course in the discipline in 1923.

Trump has built on this legacy, not only of assiduously courting the media but gaming the system. In 1976, an interview in the New York Times allowed Trump to boast that he was worth around “$200 million”; a year later, when negotiating a pre-nuptial agreement with his first wife Ivana Winklmayr, he could not lay hands on the $150,000 she demanded be deposited in an account in her name. He was earning less than $2,200 a week, which, while being a substantial sum for the time, was hardly the wealth of multi-millionaires. For good measure, he added that he was sometimes mistaken for being Jewish and the National Jewish Hospital of Denver was going to honour him as a man of the year.

While manifestly lies, these were at least interesting lies. Trump made good copy, an attribute that continues to follow him today. The boasts may not have been merely the work of a serial liar, but also that of a man who believes that self-motivation could get him anywhere. In this the great influence would be his and his father’s pastor, Norman Vincent Peale. Famous for his book The Power of Positive Thinking, which has sold at least 5 million copies (on the cover it says 40 million, but the publishers say just over 5 million – I guess positive thinking applied to book sales too), Peale counselled his followers to “be free of a sense of guilt” and to “learn to pray big prayers. God will rate you according to the size of your prayers.”

At least one of his congregants got that memo.

And if the prayers did not turn out, as they often did not for Trump, who has a string of bankruptcies behind him, the law was there to save him. Under US bankruptcy laws, a debtor who owes huge amounts had the power to tie the lenders into lengthy – and extremely expensive – lawsuits while escaping personal debt. Which is why in almost all cases of a firm going bankrupt, management is kept in place, in the hopes that the creditors can receive some of what they have put in.

Ever the showman, and an 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 been always a tarnished legacy.”

As one expensive company after another went under while Trump was at the helm, he escaped losing his personal wealth, while boasting that his credentials were so good, that the bankers wanted him to stay. Since he has so far refused to publicly declare his tax returns, we have no idea of what his personal worth is or how good he is at managing even his own money. It may be that his wealth is “huge”. Or maybe only his prayers are.

The great thing about D’Antonio’s book is that these qualities are not presented just as personal choices, but decisions made in the context of a society that rewards boasting, self-publicity, self-confidence and celebrity. In personal anecdotes, when he is just being himself, Trump comes across as an often caring employer and a nice guy. In one instance, a young boy suffering from terminal cancer, a fan of the reality TV programme The Apprentice, wanted to be “fired” by Trump. Trump could not go through with the dismissive gesture – he gave the boy a cheque for a several thousand dollars and said, “Go and have the time of your life.”

The Truth about Trump poses an essential question. If much of what we know of Trump’s character is shaped by his wish to manipulate a public and media that he has played all his life, then we remain in the dark about who he is. Maybe more worryingly, if D’Antonio is right about Trump being very much a creation of his times, then no matter who wins or loses the upcoming US elections, the season of Trump is here to stay.

The Truth about Trump by Michael D’Antonio is published Thomas Dunne Books and distributed by Pan Macmillan in India