This year's Nona Balakian award for Excellence in Reviewing went to Carlos Lozada for his submission of three reviews from The Washington Post. “I just binge-read eight books by Donald Trump. Here's what I learned” is the second. (The essay also appeared in the print edition of the Sunday Washington Post, August 2, 2015, under the headline “What I learned by reading 2,212 pages of Trump.”) Reprinted here with permission of The Washington Post.
Sitting down with the collected works of Donald J. Trump is unlike any literary experience I’ve ever had or could ever imagine. I spent this past week reading eight of his books — three memoirs, three business-advice titles and his two political books, all published between 1987 and 2011 — hoping to develop a unified theory of the man, or at least find a method in the Trumpness.
Instead, I found . . . well, is there a single word that combines revulsion, amusement, respect and confusion? That is how it feels, sometimes by turns, often all at once, to binge on Trump’s writings. Over the course of 2,212 pages, I encountered a world where bragging is breathing and insulting is talking, where repetition and contradiction come standard, where vengefulness and insecurity erupt at random.
Elsewhere, such qualities might get in the way of the story. With Trump, they are the story. There is little else. He writes about his real estate dealings, his television show, his country, but after a while that all feels like an excuse. The one deal Trump has been pitching his entire career — the one that now culminates in his play for that most coveted piece of property, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — is himself.
“We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal,’ ” Trump declared during his presidential campaign announcement in June, and he has repeatedly cited that 1987 book in other appearances. In it, Trump, then 41, explains the power of psychology and deception — he calls it “bravado” or “truthful hyperbole” — in his early real estate acquisitions. Before he was a brand name, he had to convince people that he was worth their time. It was small things here and there. Like asking his architect to gussy up the sketches for a hotel so it seemed like they spent huge sums on the plans, boosting interest in his proposal. Or having a construction crew drive machinery back and forth on a site in Atlantic City so that the visiting board of directors would be duped into thinking the work was far along. “If necessary,” he instructed a supervisor, “have the bulldozers dig up dirt on one side of the site and dump it on the other.”
“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump explains. “. . . It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” Perception is reality, he writes, and achieving an “aura” (a recurring word in his writings) around his projects, his ideas and himself is essential.
Trump has been mocked for emblazoning his name on every building, plane, boat or company he touches. “Mostly it’s a marketing strategy,” he writes. “Trump buildings get higher rents.” But this is more than branding. Trump writes of his buildings as if they were living beings — friends or even lovers. “My relationship with 40 Wall Street began as a young man,” he writes in “The Art of the Comeback,” published in 1997. “From the moment I laid eyes on it, I was mesmerized by its beauty and its splendor.” Or, referring to his 110,000-square-foot private club in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump writes: “My love affair with Mar-a-Lago began in 1985.” Or, of one of his longest-standing properties: “Trump Tower, like a good friend, was there when I needed it.”
These relationships seem no less meaningful, and are certainly far more lasting, than those with, say, his two former wives. For all the gushing over his properties, Trump is hard-headed when it comes to married life, one of the few arenas he cannot fully control, where it is by definition not all about him. “My marriage, it seemed, was the only area of my life in which I was willing to accept something less than perfection,” he writes in “Surviving at the Top,” released in 1990. He reflects at length in several books on the necessity of prenuptial agreements, which he says served him well with Ivana Trump, his first wife, and Marla Maples, his second. (“The Art of the Comeback” even includes a chapter titled “The Art of the Prenup.”) And he tells a friend with a “nagging” wife that he’s better off leaving and cutting his losses. “If he doesn’t lose the ballbreaker, his career will go nowhere.”
Trump has some experience at cutting those personal losses. Though he assures readers that he’ll “never say a bad thing” about Ivana, he proceeds to paint his ex-wife as cold and duplicitous, even mocking her accent when he describes a phone call she made to him during their legal wranglings: “I vant my money now. I have decided to honor the contract, and I vant a check for ten million dollars and all the other things immediately.” It’s hard to know how intentional this is, because Trump disparages even when offering praise. “There’s nothing I love more than women, but they’re really a lot different than portrayed,” he confides. “They are far worse than men, far more aggressive, and boy, can they be smart!” Boy.
To be fair, it is not just his wives, not just women — it’s everyone. Trump’s books are sprayed with insults, like he’s trying to make sure we’re still paying attention. He trashes a former Miss Universe for gaining weight. When he meets a one-star general, he asks, “How come you’re only a one-star?” The Rolling Stones are “a bunch of major jerks.” He dismisses Paul McCartney, “the poor bastard.” (That was for not getting a prenup. Obviously.) Trump also slams complete unknowns — random banking executives or real estate types, lawyers or community activists, anyone who dared cross or disappoint him. “If someone screws you,” he writes, “screw them back.”
Trump’s world is binary, divided into class acts and total losers. He even details how physically unattractive he finds particular reporters, for no reason that I can fathom other than that it crossed his mind. The discipline of book writing does not dilute Trump; it renders him in concentrated form. Restraint is for losers.
Streaks of insecurity run through the books. Trump constantly reminds readers that he studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, a concession to the credentialism he purports to despise. (“I went to the great Wharton School of Finance and did well” . . . “I learned at the Wharton School of Finance that the economy runs in cycles” . . . “I have had friends, many friends, who went to the Wharton School with me who were very smart.”) Everything he owns is the best, biggest, hottest. His apartment: “There may be no other apartment in the world like it.” His yacht: “probably the most beautiful yacht ever built.” His living room: “While I can’t honestly say I need an eighty-foot living room, I get a kick out of having one.” And his third wife, Melania: “considered by many, including me, to be one of the most beautiful women in the world.”
Trump claims to dislike parties and socializing, but he can’t help but boast about his star-studded galas, exclusive dinners and celebrity friendships. His books double as a wall of fame, stuffed with pictures of the Donald with notables from Liberace to Tiger Woods to Hillary Clinton. (“The First Lady is a wonderful woman who has handled pressure incredibly well,” reads the caption.) He’s not above betraying their confidences, either. Trump reports that at a dinner with Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board went on a rant about “f—ing broads” being “the scum of the earth.” And recalling the time Michael Jackson and his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie Presley stayed at his Palm Beach club, Trump puts all doubts about their liaison to rest. “People often ask me whether or not the relationship was a sham. . . . I can tell you, at least for a period of time, those two folks were really getting it on.”
Trump’s books tend to blur together, with anecdotes and achievements enhanced with each retelling. Did you know, for example, that Trump renovated the Wollman ice skating rink in Central Park in the mid-1980s? (If not, pick up any of his books and you’ll find the story there.) By the new millennium, Trump had moved on from autobiographies to business-advice books, adapting elements of his life into bite-size financial wisdom. “Don’t let the brevity of these passages prevent you from savoring the profundity of the advice you are about to receive,” he writes at the beginning of “How to Get Rich” (2004).
I’m no billionaire, but much of the advice usually falls between obvious and useless. Stay focused, he says. Hire a great assistant. Think big. Where he gets specific, it’s stuff like: “The best way to ask for a raise is to wait for the right time.” Or this gem from “Think Like a Billionaire” (2004): “People should always be encouraged to follow their dreams (my children have) but realize that a lot of time and money can be wasted chasing dreams that just weren’t meant to be true.”
Even if your dreams aren’t meant to be, Trump’s are, because his dream is the American dream. Throughout the books, he conflates himself with New York City (“When I’m attacked, in a strange way, so is New York”), and because the Manhattan skyline embodies the country’s aspirations, he becomes, by the transitive property of Trumpness, America. “When you mess with the American Dream, you’re on the fighting side of Trump,” he warns. He accuses regulators — or “burons,” a cross between “bureaucrats” and “morons” — of “Dreamicide.”
Trump’s dream, however, is born of a narrow view of America. They say presidents struggle to break out of their bubbles, but Trump has designed his quite deliberately. “The reason my hair looks so neat all the time is because I don’t have to deal with the elements,” he explains. “I live in the building where I work. I take an elevator from my bedroom to my office. The rest of the time, I’m either in my stretch limousine, my private jet, my helicopter, or my private club in Palm Beach Florida. . . . If I happen to be outside, I’m probably on one of my golf courses, where I protect my hair from overexposure by wearing a golf hat.” Even when Trump tries to relate, he can’t pull it off. In one instance, he complains about awful traffic on the way to the airport. A common gripe. “Luckily,” he adds, “it was my plane we were heading to, my plane, so it’s not as if I could have missed the flight.”
Beyond his bubble, Trump has other aspects of the commander in chief role down. He is reluctant to admit mistakes, for instance. When he does, he usually says he miscalculated how awful other people would be. Or it’s the Trumpiest remorse possible: “I have only one regret in the women department — that I never had the opportunity to court Lady Diana Spencer. . . a dream lady.” His confrontations with the news media (“a business of distortions and lies”) would make Ari Fleischer’s and Jay Carney’s press shops look cuddly. After questioning whether Ronald Reagan had “anything beneath that smile” in his first book, Trump eventually shifts to the standard GOP Gipper worship. Finally, he struggles to delegate. As president, he would appoint himself U.S. trade representative, for example, and “take personal charge of negotiations with the Japanese, the French, the Germans, and the Saudis,” he writes in “The America We Deserve” (2000). “Our trading partners would have to sit across the table from Donald Trump and I guarantee you the rip-off of the United States would end.”
Yes, Trump has a pretty serious savior complex, a common affliction for presidential hopefuls. “Look, I do deals — big deals — all the time,” he writes in “Time to Get Tough” ( 2011). “We need a dealmaker in the White House.” The first Republican presidential debate this coming week should help clarify whether Trump is a real candidate or merely a sign of the GOP’s disenchantment with its options. Either way, his rivals should brace themselves. “I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win,” Trump writes. “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.”
But, judging from these books, I’m not sure how badly he really wants the presidency. To win it — yes, I think he’d love to close that deal and, of course, write another book about it. But to actually be president, day to day? Trump has always been about the next big thing, whether the next deal, spouse or fight. “The same assets that excite me in the chase, often, once they are acquired, leave me bored,” he writes. “For me, you see, the important thing is the getting, not the having.”
Books cited in this essay:
Trump: The Art of the Deal by Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz. Ballantine Books, 1987.
Trump: Surviving at the Top by Donald J. Trump with Charles Leerhsen. Random House, 1990.
Trump: The Art of the Comeback by Donald J. Trump with Kate Bohner. Times Books, 1997.
The America We Deserve by Donald J. Trump with David Shiflett. Renaissance Books, 2000.
Trump: How to Get Rich by Donald J. Trump with Meredith McIver. Random House, 2004.
Trump: Think Like a Billionaire by Donald J. Trump with Meredith McIver. Random House, 2004.
Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and Life by Donald J. Trump and Bill Zanker. Collins Business, 2007.
Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again by Donald J. Trump. Regnery Publishing, 2011.