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How Donald Trump forged his own image

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How Donald Trump forged his own image

(Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Way back on March 4, 2016, Mitt Romney — the previous GOP nominee for president, but not yet a senator from Utah — gave a national address arguing that his party should not nominate Donald Trump for president.

“You say, wait, wait, wait, isn’t he a huge business success? Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about? No, he isn’t and no he doesn’t.” A few days earlier, Romney declared, “I think we have good reason to believe that there’s a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes. Either he’s not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is, or he hasn’t been paying the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay.”

More than four years later, Romney can claim some vindication. Late Sunday, the New York Times revealed a major expose of President Trump’s tax returns, based upon “thousands of individual and business tax returns for 2000 through 2017, along with additional tax information from other years.” The newspaper’s biggest conclusions were that the president paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and the same amount the following year, and that Trump “paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”

It is worth noting that these returns were almost certainly leaked to the newspaper in violation of federal law. Regardless of the news value, the person who sent the returns to the paper should and may go to jail for abusing their access to them.

We still don’t know Trump’s net worth, and as far as the Internal Revenue Service and the Times can tell, all of Trump’s maneuvers to minimise his tax bill are legal — although some moves emit an odour, such as Ivanka Trump “reporting receiving payments from a consulting company she co-owned, totaling $747,622, that exactly matched consulting fees claimed as tax deductions by the Trump Organization for hotel projects in Vancouver and Hawaii.” Hiring one of your children as a consultant isn’t supposed to be a way to avoid paying the federal gift tax.

Few business moguls have relished the public spotlight the way Donald Trump did. Trump’s first major development project in the late 1970s, the purchase, rebuilding, and sale of the Commodore hotel across from Grand Central Station, put him on the map as a Manhattan real estate developer with big ambitions. Trump’s career began with a special deal, playing upon city officials’ fear that the high-profile centrally located property would become another glaring symbol of the city’s decline.

From that, Trump turned himself into, as comedian John Mulaney famously joked, “what a hobo would imagine a rich man to be… ‘I’m going to put up tall buildings with my name on them! I’ll have fine golden hair! And a TV show where I fire people, with my children!’”

He loved talking to almost any interviewer, and in light of how many people loathe him today, it is stunning to see how often major media covered him in a heroic light. The May 1984 edition of GQ featured Trump on the cover, with the headline: “SUCCESS: How Sweet It Is. Men Who Take Risks and Make Millions.” In 1989, Time put him on the cover and declared, “This man many turn you green with envy, or just turn you off. Flaunting it is the game, and Trump is the name.”

When Trump suffered a bunch of major financial losses in the late 1980s, he somehow managed to convince the major media of the time — not necessarily experts on bankruptcy law — that he had bounced back; little attention was paid to all the contractors and lenders that Trump had stiffed. “Donald Trump may have his problems, but he’s not a quitter,” Barbara Walters assured her viewers in 1990. “A lesser man might have thrown up his hands after the events of the past several months. Trump’s answer is bravado.”

By that year, Trump had the New York tabloids so wrapped around his finger that he got the infamous headline “BEST SEX I EVER HAD” on the front page of the New York Post by getting editor Jerry Nachman on the phone and (possibly) having Marla Maples corroborate his self-assessment. As former Post journalist Jill Brooke observed, “This was before Facebook. This was before reality TV. This was when privacy mattered and oversharing was considered crass.” Trump leveraged his shamelessness into a form of control over how he was covered.

Even before “The Apprentice”, Trump loved being on television, in almost any capacity. If a movie production wanted to film in one of Trump’s properties, he asked them to write a scene with him making a cameo, leading to Trump appearances in “The Little Rascals”, “Zoolander”, “Eddie” and “Home Alone 2”. He turned up in television shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, “Suddenly Susan”, “The Job”, “The Drew Carey Show”, “Spin City”, “The Nanny”, and professional wrestling. He was famous for being rich, and he gradually became famous for being famous.

Along the way, everyone just assumed Trump was rich, and took him at his word that he was a billionaire several times over. Getting a precise figure on the net worth of any mogul inevitably involves estimates — what’s the exact value of a property? What’s the exact value of a collection of items? What about undisclosed assets or savings debts? But Trump took it to new heights.

In 2005, Timothy O’Brien, then a reporter at the New York Times, wrote a biography of Trump entitled, TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald, and in the book he estimated Trump’s wealth somewhere between $150 million and $250 million, attributing the figures to people with direct knowledge of Trump’s finances. Trump sued O’Brien for libel; the lawsuit was dismissed in 2009, and an appeals court affirmed the decision in 2011. In a December 2007 deposition, Trump testified:

Trump: My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings, but I try.

Ceresney: Let me just understand that a little. You said your net worth goes up and down based upon your own feelings?

Trump: Yes, even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day…

Ceresney: When you publicly state a net worth number, what do you base that number on?

Trump: I would say it’s my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked. And as I say, it varies.

Trump may have been a mere multimillionaire, but he still had his plane, his helicopter, and his luxurious properties with his name on them. (Trump enhanced the public perception of his wealth by leasing the use of his name to buildings that other people owned. As of 2015, seventeen New York City buildings had the name “Trump” on them, but Trump owned only a handful.) By almost every definition, Trump was “rich,” but he succeeded in convincing almost everyone he was spectacularly, wildly rich.

When Trump descended the elevator and made his presidential campaign official, most political pundits doubted he would go far. This underestimation probably was in part because those pundits didn’t see just how much the media world had already established Trump’s reputation as tough, accomplished, and successful, and subsequent coverage wouldn’t be able to change the public’s mind about that. What’s more, the media had treated him as an all-purpose, all-knowing expert on all matters in the news.

For most of the Bush and Obama presidencies, Donald Trump was a regular featured guest on news programs and not touted as a partisan Republican, hate-monger, or ranting fool. NBC’s “Today” show regularly had him on to promote “The Apprentice” and let him vent about whatever else was on his mind. CNN’s Larry King would regularly have him on and ask about the news of the day, like what the US government should be doing about Somali pirates — as if Trump was some sort of naval-warfare expert. On Fox News, Greta Van Susteren asked him how he would negotiate a deal to avoid a government shutdown. He was a frequent guest of Regis Philbin. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “most fascinating” people of 2011, alongside Kim Kardashian. Even publications like the Guardian did quasi-admiring can-you-believe-this-character profiles. Rolling Stone was happy to interview him.

Many of Trump answers from back then were his now-familiar stream-of-consciousness gut-reactions, bluster, and baloney. But the substance of Trump’s answers almost didn’t matter; his ubiquitous presence on the news had established him as a credible voice who was worth listening to for answers on the major problems of the day. Surely, major news programs wouldn’t have him on to talk about those topics if he had no idea what he was talking about.

Then there was “The Apprentice”, which portrayed Trump as an icon of accountability; when someone screwed up or didn’t do the job well, Trump fired him. While Trump bluntly sent someone home at the end of every show, the federal government was invading Iraq, ignoring a housing bubble and shaky management on Wall Street until it was too late, leaving veterans dying while waiting for care, sending guns to Mexican cartels, telling Americans to buy health insurance from a web site that didn’t work, etc.

What viewers at home didn’t know was that the show went to wild lengths to preserve the image of Trump as a wise, or even rational decision-maker.

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as the editor Jonathon Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasise the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.

During the making of “The Apprentice,” Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, “We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.” Braun noted that President Trump’s staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”

GOP political consultant Liz Mair notes that Donald Trump entered the presidential race in 2016 with 99.2 per cent name recognition. By the time Trump ran for president, he had more than two decades in the spotlight as a fabulously wealthy, successful, shrewd, sharp-eyed, tough-minded businessman who knew how to turn around a failing enterprise. Much of this reputation was illusory. If you feel the media failed to accurately and adequately cover Donald Trump, keep in mind this problem started well before the 2016 presidential election.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 81%
  • Interesting points: 85%
  • Agree with arguments: 84%
30 ratings - view all

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