The Boy Wonder

Trump: The Art of the Deal.
by Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz.
Random House. 246 pp. $19.95.

In an accelerated world, it seems hardly extraordinary that a very rich New Yorker named Donald J. Trump should, at about forty-one years of age, publish his autobiography. To write it, he has enlisted the help of Tony Schwartz, a New York journalist with a healthy taste for gossip. They have quickly found a large audience waiting to learn how Trump became, in such a hurry, a household word connoting wealth, good looks, versatility, daring, ruthlessness, and the shrewd and licit exploitation of insider information.

With a few possible nudges from his collaborator, Trump has discovered a tone of voice for this book similar to that in which boys even younger than he used to call their mothers’ attention to their cycling skills. Behind this posture of youthful enthusiasm, however, Trump stands ready to impart to others the secrets he has deployed to achieve his own success. Such success, he exhorts us to believe, goes to those who trust themselves. Market research is futile; bureaucracy, redundant; large organizations, counterproductive. In his own career, Trump has deliberately overridden all the checks and balances with which large corporations seek to avoid the risks of entrepreneurship, only (according to him) to find rust instead. He lauds the gut hunch, the contrarian approach: one should buy when everyone else thinks the merchandise is too expensive, and sell when everyone else is buying.

Naturally, we readers are to understand that Trump’s advice is to be taken seriously, ma non troppo. In the contemporary world, most entrepreneurs, historically the risk-takers of industrial civilization, have learned to follow the lead of large corporations and to avoid risk where they possibly can. If Donald Trump is the exception, not only because (as he puts it) he carries no briefcase but because he insists on courting danger, we, his readers, are expected both to thrill sympathetically to the spectacle and to be at least a little bit skeptical, if not appalled.

Thus we read of the episode in which Trump, without using his own money, decides he is going to transmute New York’s defunct Commodore Hotel into a glitzy supercharger for moribund 42nd Street. What do we want to happen? Do we hope that this boy aviator, cutting loop-the-loops above the heads of older and wiser men, will emerge the ace of all aces, thus inducing the thought that we too could accomplish the same if only we dared? Or, do we secretly hope he will come down in flames, thereby reinforcing the lesson that lies in caution? Of course we want both: to soar aloft with him in his triumphs while retaining in our hearts the sure knowledge that sooner or later his prescription for success will end by proving the greater wisdom of our less risky ways.

But what is Trump himself looking for? What is the source of the difference between him and dozens of other young entrepreneurs of his generation? Early on, he assures us that he is not out for money, having, as he says, more than he can use. The disclaimer is no more convincing in his mouth than in any other. But what this book does demonstrate is that although the public may conceive of Trump as a developer of buildings, projects, and other concrete manifestations of his ego and personal taste, his major vocation is really the making of “deals.” And at this art he is indeed a master.

In fact, Trump’s big physical developments are only two: the glass-and-chrome Grand Hyatt (nee Commodore) Hotel and the equally dramatic Trump Tower on one of the most important sites along New York City’s Fifth Avenue. In discussing the first of these structures, Trump does make clear the intense pride he took in the development aspect of his work. He loves the building, and particularly its architectural innovations—the glass sheathing, the trompe-l’oeil lobby, the restaurant overhanging the north sidewalk of 42nd Street. Equally important is his sense of what the building he developed (with, let it be said again, other people’s money) does for its surroundings.

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As for his second project, Trump Tower, he is proud of the waterfall in the atrium, the atrium itself (and, according to him, its financial success), the ingenious reversal of the normal north-south direction of the interior arcade, the selection of the “right” marble. In this case, however, he omits any mention of the secondary thrill of knowing that what he had accomplished would improve the whole neighboring area. (There may be an interesting explanation for the omission. There were persistent rumors in New York that, once having completed his Tower, Trump did what he could to prevent the low, undistinguished buildings on the other side of the Avenue from being replaced by a new building, lest they detract from the Tower’s view and the singularity of its apartments; in other words, his concern for the effect of what he was doing on his surroundings may have been replaced by a concern for what a change in the surroundings would do to him.)

Yet Trump Tower also represents a personal victory of another and perhaps more telling kind. Its meaning is to be found in the account Trump gives of his father’s reaction to the building as it was under construction. Fred Trump, originally a carpenter, had become, by doggedness, mastery of his calling, and attention to detail, a remarkably successful developer of middle-income housing that is still standing in good condition in Brooklyn and Queens. Here is how Donald, who had served an apprenticeship in his father’s business, describes the first confrontation between parent and filial project:

. . . my father visited the Trump Tower site midway through construction. Our façade was a glass curtain wall, which is more expensive than brick. In addition, we were using the most expensive glass you can buy—bronze solar. My father took one look, and he said to me, “Why don’t you forget about the damn glass? Give them four or five stories of it and then use common brick for the rest. Nobody is going to look up anyway”. . . . I was touched and of course I understood where he was coming from—but also exactly why I’d decided to leave.

The real reason I wanted out of my father’s business—more important than the fact that it was physically rough and financially tough—was that I had loftier dreams and visions.

There is no question that Fred Trump’s mustache makes him a fierce-looking man; and that he is tough, hard, determined, one has no doubt. Thus, one readily understands that to his son, he must have appeared a tyrant who had to be either outstripped or humbled. Donald J. describes the scene at Trump Tower as a “classic.” So it is, by Freud out of Sophocles.

But what about those “loftier dreams and visions”? After Trump Tower, the emphasis in the book, as in the author’s life, shifts from physical development in Manhattan to the casino business in Atlantic City, with a few incidental excursions. One of these involves the rebuilding, at no profit, of New York’s forlorn ice-skating rink in Central Park. Trump offered to complete a reconstruction job that the city had botched, and he finished it on time and under budget, reaping a magnificent public-relations reward and setting Mayor Edward Koch’s teeth permanently and understandably on edge. But what Trump does not say in the book is that the reconstruction was actually done by a contracting firm which he was able to hire because he was not bound by a New York State law requiring municipal contracts of this kind to be awarded separately to four subcontractors. Trump, in other words, was smart enough to see, and to exploit, the potential in the mess posed by the unfinished rink.

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Aside from a brief flirtation with professional football, the casino phase of Trump’s life now overshadows everything else. It began with his contrarian acquisition of a small boardwalk site in Atlantic City. On the lot, he started to build after receiving a license from the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. By book’s end he has become the owner of two operating casinos in Atlantic City, with a third under construction. Although still active enough in New York City, he is now a gambling entrepreneur—that is to say, an entrepreneur who accommodates other people’s uncontrollable taste for gambling.

Though its social cost is grossly exorbitant, the gambling casino does have its economic usefulness. It is a bank for fools. Where other banks attract money by offering depositors a convenient and safe resting place for their cash, easy procedures for transferring it, and a modest return on their capital (made peculiarly safe by government insurance), the casino bank attracts “deposits” by holding out the possibility, the bare possibility, that some individual depositors will be rewarded at a gigantic rate of return (calculated on the capital risked on a successful wager in isolation from the sum of the same depositor’s losing bets). The great majority of depositors in a casino kiss their money goodbye when they enter; but since it is impossible to identify either losers or winners in advance, each entrant can believe that he stands a chance equal to anyone else’s of earning that spectacular return on his deposit.

So much for the “consumer”; from the point of view of the owner/operator, the economic utility of such an enterprise is even more simply stated: the after-tax profits of a successful casino are huge. They can be justified, as great wealth can always be justified, on the grounds that so much concentrated capital in the hands of shrewd or humane people can either stimulate constructive economic activity or provide amenities for the public that could not be supplied nearly so well by government, and would not be available if the wealth were left scattered in the hands of individual fools. Those who like to offer such justifications for casino gambling also like to argue that people would gamble anyway, on horses or “numbers.” The argument is disingenuous: it takes real perseverance to lose money on eight races or on one daily lottery to the degree and with the thoroughness one can achieve in a casino where action is continuous around the clock. And as far as the state is concerned, it is much easier to tax casinos than illicit numbers operators.

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Donald J. Trump knows all this, but he does not discuss it here, concentrating instead on telling his readers how he won sole ownership of his three casino hotels. But the reader should not misunderstand what such ownership means. It means that Donald J. Trump has an income that ranks him among the very richest people in the United States. Thus, the test of the grown-up Donald is no longer whether he has “loftier dreams” than his father but whether he is now prepared to play the role that, say, the Rockefeller family has played in the use of the resources it gathered and nurtured.

The record so far is not encouraging. Away from the world of real-estate development, Trump is still playing with toys. He has bought the world’s (allegedly) most luxurious yacht. He owns the biggest house in Palm Beach. Instead of financing new industries or enterprises, he has been using some of his vast capital, still in its formative stages, to enhance his fortune in stock purchases and sales, sometimes at the expense of fellow stockholders and not even in the pursuit of more effective management of the companies in which he has invested.

Despite Donald J. Trump’s “loftier” intentions, then, a fair verdict at the present time is that Fred Trump’s housing developments are a more impressive exercise of the social potentialities of private capitalism. The only mitigating factor is that the present verdict may yet not be the final one.

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