Last week, I, along with some unknown number of my fellow Americans--I would guess less that 100,000--read the New Yorker article by Jane Mayer about Tony Schwartz, Donald Trump's ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal, and his guilt over his role in creating the Trump phenomenon. I found Schwartz's personal drama sad and a bit pathetic, but as so often happens, the story set me thinking about much broader issues. Donald Trump is, even by American standards, a unique individual--yet he would never have gone as far as he has in business, entertainment, and politics if he had not tapped into some profound problems in contemporary American life. That indeed may be his secret: one by one, he tapped into critical trends in business, publishing, the entertainment world, and now, politics, bringing him to the threshold of the White House. His story is also a parable of the dark side of his, and my, Boom generation (Trump as it happens is one year older than I am.) These subjects could fill a whole book, and some day I hope some one writes it. This week I can only make a few broad points.
Let us begin at the beginning: Trump, like so many well-known Boomers, was not only born into privilege but entered (and transformed) his successful father's profession. His father was a very successful real estate developer who, typically for that bygone era, made his fortune building relatively small suburban homes for working Americans. The suburbanization of America left empty pockets in our major cities, and Donald was one of the developers who stepped in to fill the vacuum with commercial buildings or luxury properties. Trump's life in this respect is parallel to two of the previous three Republican Presidential candidates. Mitt Romney's father built family cars; Mitt became a private equity magnate. George W. Bush followed his father unsuccessfully into the oil business, and then made a fortune as an owner of the Texas Rangers by arranging for local authorities to build a new stadium. On the Democratic side of the aisle this trend is noteworthy in politics. Al Gore Sr. was a Senator (and a far more liberal one than his son) whose connections obviously eased Al's way into politics. Governors Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo both succeeded their own fathers. The Presidents from the GI generation, from Kennedy through Bush I, included three truly self-made men: Nixon, Ford, and Carter. By this time next year we will have had three Boomer Presidents, and the only one who rose from modest origins, interestingly enough, will be Bill Clinton.
Trump's economic rise, of course, represents all that is worst about our new economy. He rose by making deals, which involves using other peoples' money to acquire property and build things, taking quick profits off the top,. and letting his investors take any losses. That is another form of the technique of private equity firms who buy existing enterprises, sell of their assets, and liquidate them. I haven't seen anyone mention this, but The Art of the Deal came out almost at the same moment as Wall Street, Oliver Stone's extraordinarily generational film about the prototype of the new kind of tycoon, Gordon Gecko. Trump probably recognized a kindred spirit. The 1980s were the Reagan era, and for the first time since 1920s, great wealth and ostentation became something to be proud of, to study, and to dream of. The hit dramas and comedies of the 1970s--All in the Family, Laverne and Shirley, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show--dealt with ordinary people or young professionals. The hit shows of the 1980s, Dallas and Dynasty, focused on the super rich,. Eventually Trump became the star of his own show.
It was in the mid-1980s. before The Art of the Deal, that Trump began building Atlantic City casinos. Now in his (and my) father's world, earlier generations had tried to make it difficult for businesses to profit from human addictions. They had outlawed illegal drugs, pornography, gambling--and even, in a failed overreach, the consumption of alcohol. The Boom generation, of course, rebelled against all such restraints, and corporate Boomers found ways to capitalize on addictive substances, including opioids. (The greed of big pharma is mainly responsible for the current opioid epidemic, which is taking thousands of lives a year.) Most states now have lotteries, which prey on the poorest members of the population, and gambling is legal in quite a few, including New Jersey. Trump climbed on that bandwagon, and although his casinos often went into bankruptcy, he managed to escape ahead.
And that leads me to perhaps my most important point: Trump's business success could only happen in a business environment in which most of the players had allowed their lust for ever-growing profits to overwhelm their rational faculties. The inability of money managers to make realistic choices has been the great lesson of all our recent booms and busts, most notably, of course, with respect to the housing bubble. Trump has earned his contempt for the rest of us, in a way, because he built his fortune on the gullibility of others. Now he has won the Republican nomination the same way.
This brings us to the story of The Art of the Deal, the subject of the New Yorker article, which reads to me like a parable of the decline of modern publishing. Half a century ago writing non-fiction books was an honorable profession out of which men and women (see Tuchman, Barbara) could make an excellent living. The reading public, which had memories of one of the great heroic ages of western civilization (1933-45), had a taste for serious subjects. In addition, because the higher education system was much more rigorous in the first half of the twentieth century, successful businessmen and political leaders could often write their own autobiographies. By the 1980s, the era in which publishers no longer marketed books, but marketed names, had begun, and ghostwriting--while hardly a completely new phenomenon--was becoming more widespread. That is why a publisher was willing to offer a $500,000 advance for The Art of the Deal in 1987--an investment which, as it turned out, paid off very handsomely. But in fact, the problem was even deeper than that: according to Mayer's article, it was the owner of Random House, Si Newhouse, who had the idea for the book in the first place. Neither Trump nor any nonfiction writer was interested in the project--but Newhouse, focused on the bottom line, recognized its possibilities. The days in which publishers felt any obligation to market quality products widely were passing away, ushered out by the Boomer MBAs who were becoming so influential in all lines of work.
The story of how Schwartz became the ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal (a title he claims to have coined) is equally revealing. Schwartz, as it happened, had written an attack on Trump as a predatory landlord in New York magazine just a couple of years earlier--for which he presumably received a couple of thousand dollars. To Schwartz's amazement, Trump made clear that he loved the article simply because it painted him as an outsize figure. And here, a key paragraph of the story needs to be quoted in full.
“I was shocked,” Schwartz told me. “Trump didn’t fit any model of human
being I’d ever met. He was obsessed with publicity, and he didn’t care
what you wrote.” He went on, “Trump only takes two positions. Either
you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest. I became
the greatest. He wanted to be seen as a tough guy, and he loved being on
the cover.” Schwartz wrote him back, saying, “Of all the people I’ve
written about over the years, you are certainly the best sport.”
Now unfortunately--as I know only too well myself--it is a human trait to be sensitive both to the feelings of people you have treated badly, or--worse--who have treated you badly. In each case, they have a power to move you with kindness, precisely because it isn't what you expect. And thus, when Trump turned around and offered Schwartz the deal of his life [sic!] to ghostwrite his autobiography, Schwartz said yes.
Beginning the project, Schwartz immediately found that Trump was impossible to work with, and nearly gave it up. (This was confirmed by his agent at the time.) But for whatever reason--financial or other--he could not tear himself away. Here again we encounter one of the dreadful facts of our age: the extreme inequality of wealth in our society makes it very difficult for anyone in the lowest 90% to say no to some one at the top. Writing the book, Schwartz realized that presenting the real Trump was not an option. Trump had no attention span and couldn't talk about anything but himself for more than a minute or two. He also constantly lied. “'He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of conscience about it,'” Schwartz told Mayer.
"Since most people are constrained by the truth,' Trump’s indifference
to it 'gave him a strange advantage.'" To get this aspect of Trump into the book in some acceptable fashion, Schwartz invented the phrase "truthful hyperbole" and put it into Trump's mouth.
I encourage readers to follow the link and read the whole article, but I shall stop recapitulating it here to return to broader issues. Newhouse's judgment was vindicated: the book was one of the great publishing success stories of the 1980s, parallel to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (a throwback to the past) and Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (which business people bought because they thought it would enlighten them about the threat from Japan.) Significantly, no book like those two could possibly become a best seller today, but celebrity authors (like Bill O'Reilly) still rise high on the best seller lists. Tastes had changed.
I have not studied the question in detail, but it seems to me that what did the most to keep Trump high in the national consciousness in the early 1990s was his first divorce and his remarriage, which were huge in the tabloids and on tv. That was apparently unplanned, but he still milked it for all it was worth. Then in the next decade came the reality TV era and The Apprentice, which I have to admit I watched for two seasons. He never impressed me, but I'm a sucker for any kind of competition (I haven't missed more than five episodes of Survivor in the whole history of the show), and I was curious about him. Thankfully, I did not get hooked.
What Trump grasped some time ago, I think, was that our political world had become just as morally and intellectually bankrupt as the world of finance, and that he could achieve success within it by a mixture of bullying, self-promotion, and pandering to our worst instincts--hatred and fear in politics playing the role of greed in business. But what also strikes me is that Trump is very obviously trading on his utter lack of self-restraint. His calculated insults, his obvious lies, and his hateful rhetoric excite a substantial portion of our population, who have not been taught, as other generations really were, that they must keep certain feelings under control, or at least out of sight.
And here I come to the bottom line. Trump's success in any field depended on the increasing corruption of the world he lived in. He would never have gotten very far in a business environment in which investors had a sound sense of the worth of a project, or in a publishing world dedicated to bringing out quality work--or in a political system that still served the needs of the American people. He is not the only candidate who is only intermittently constrained by the truth. In nearly every speech, Hillary Clinton conflates two years with the Children's Defense Fund more than 40 years ago into a lifetime of struggle for the less fortunate. In the same way, Hitler took advantage of the German elite's catastrophic plunge into the First World War, their decision to inflate Germany's currency out of existence rather than solve their budgetary problems, and their inability to ease the German people's distress during the great depression. Hitler was more dangerous than Trump--but Trump has already been far more successful electorally than Hitler. Before Hitler took power and controlled the machinery of terror, the Nazi vote peaked in July 1932 at 37% of the total. Trump will do much better than that in November whether he wins or loses. In Germany in 1932 as in the United States today, the old order had fallen apart. The country was vulnerable to a vision of a new order--whether it had the slightest basis in reality or not.
The question is not about Donald Trump, so much as it is about how we have become a society that about half its voters would support. "Cassius was right," as Edward R. Murrow said at another moment of national crisis. "The fault, dear Brutus, was not in our stars, but in ourselves."