GETTING TRUMPED: How Donald Trump Explains America
With all the hand-wringing over Donald Trump's presidential campaign, it's easy to forget that we made him this way.
Donald Trump. Photo via Getty Images
Right now, in early August of the year 2015, Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. Remember this moment; treasure it. Because we may never again have the opportunity to put a stranger, crazier, and less plausible candidate into the White House. An abrasive, racist, xenophobic, and bizarre real-estate magnate, surrounded by lunatic lawyers and bag-holding yes-men, Trump couldn't look less like an average politician if he were actually a dog.
At this point, Trump is mostly famous for being famous—one of those only-in-America figures whose reputation seems to rest on his reputation, like a machine that powers itself. But it wasn't always this way. At one point, Donald Trump was not famous. Depending on your own personal values , his road to becoming one of the best-known—and perhaps most envied and most hated—men in the Northern Hemisphere is either a true story of the American dream realized or an indictment of corporate capitalism and celebrity greed.
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Either way, Trump's fame—and, by extension, his 2016 candidacy—demonstrates the ways in which, at a certain point, power in America is interchangeable. If you are rich and famous enough in the United States, it doesn't necessarily matter how you got that rich and famous—you can trade on that wealth and celebrity in nearly every aspect of American life, including a presidential campaign.
Now, as Trump tries to turn the presidency into another market he can bully his way into, it's natural to wonder how American politics arrived at this juncture. But first, we have to understand how Donald Trump became Donald Trump—and how we, as a country, helped him do it.
The first thing to understand about Donald Trump is that he is not the first Trump. His father, Fred Trump, was a real estate mogul in his own right; his father's father, Friedrich Trump, was an immigrant from Germany who, you guessed it, worked in real estate. But the difference between the Donald and his forebears was that where Fred was content to work in the outer boroughs of New York, building out impressive holdings in Brooklyn and Queens, from an early age Donald zeroed in on Manhattan and the tabloid visibility it could provide.
In his first book, Trump: The Art of the Deal , which he co-wrote with business writer Tony Schwartz in 1987 , Trump talks about this fixation on New York's glittering metropolis: "I had my eye on Manhattan from the time I graduated from Wharton in 1968," he wrote. "One of the first things I did was join Le Club, which at the time was the hottest club in the city and perhaps the most exclusive."
This obsession with fame and fortune—and a city that promises both—has become a central element of Trump's cosmology."My father was a Brooklyn builder, in Brooklyn and Queens. And I said, Pop, 'I really want to go to Manhattan,'" Trump recounted to Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough this Tuesday. "And he said, 'Son, that's not our territory. We should stay here. That's not—you know nothing about that.' 'But I want to build big building, Pop...' And I went into Manhattan, and I did phenomenally in Manhattan. And now we are all over the world."
Of course, Trump's only interest in having been an outsider is to make his success look more impressive. He's been on the inside since the 1970s, when he purchased the Commodore Hotel and turned it into the Grand Hyatt, his first "big building" in the big city. A crumbling hotel on 42nd Street, the Commodore was old, derelict, and generally gross to look at—a symbol of the financial and social turmoil that was eroding New York City at the time of Trump's purchase.
But Trump, being Trump, saw an opportunity to turn shit into gold—and get a first-class ticket out of Brooklyn and into the high-powered world of Manhattan real estate.
"When [Trump and Hyatt officials] reached a preliminary agreement," journalist Gwenda Blair wrote in her 2001 book The Trumps, "The New York Times announced it with a full-page article—remarkable given that Donald Trump had never built anything, had obtained neither the tax abatement necessary for the financing nor the financing itself, and did not even have a final design for the hotel. Nonetheless Trump told friends he was disappointed because the article was not on page one."
Trump didn't exactly fit in with the Manhattan crowd. In an industry filled with conservative builders in blue suits and white shirts, the budding real-estate mogul was known for his flash and excess, dressing like a French Formula 1 driver and strutted around New York in a very visible way. And as hard as it might be to believe now, Trump was actually a handsome dude in those days, six feet tall with a head of blond hair, and apparently women flocked to him.
"He made his presence known on the island of Manhattan in the mid 70s, a brash Adonis from the outer boroughs bent on placing his imprint on the golden rock," Marylin Bender wrote in wrote in the New York Times in 1983. She continued:
Senior realty titans scoffed, believing that braggadocio was the sum and substance of the blond, blue-eyed, six-footer who wore maroon suits and matching loafers, frequented Elaine's and Regine's in the company of fashion models, and was not abashed to take his armed bodyguard-chauffeur into a meeting with an investment banker... "At 37, no one has done more than I in the last seven years," Mr. Trump asserted.
He also started to get a reputation, in certain circles, for being a first-class asshole. Blair tells a story of when Trump, upon seeing Hyatt founder Jay Pritzker with a beautiful woman at a party, decided he would steal said woman and arranged a meeting—but when he found out she was just a friend of Pritzker's and not his date, he lost interest.
Of course, the Grand Hyatt wasn't enough for Trump—the Donald, as you are no doubt aware by now, is never satisfied, and anyway, the hotel didn't even have his name on it. According to a story published by the Times in 2000:
Trump grumbled that the name "Hyatt" covered what he called "my building," settling for a restaurant called "Trumpets" instead. But he fixed that slight with Trump Tower, the glitzy peach-colored Fifth Avenue confection where, as his architect joked, Trump's name was large enough for passengers flying into New York to see.
A scan of early media coverage of Trump goes far in explaining why a loud man with insane hair and a face like overtanned burlap behaves as though he's the most desirable human being on the planet. For two decades, when Trump was on the rise as a developer, everyone in America told him that he was the most desirable human being on the planet. He was on the cover of Business Week, Newsweek, and People; his first book, The Art of the Deal, was a massive hit. That kind of ego-stroking sticks with you.
But while Trump was the toast of the business world, he wasn't quite the ubiquitous celebrity we know him as now. The real infamy began with his marriage to Ivana Zelnickova Winklmayr, a Czech model whom Donald spotted while out on the town one night and then aggressively courted, although she was still living with her Czech skier boyfriend. The couple got hitched on April 9, 1977, at which point Ivana quickly settled into the task of re-doing Donald's wardrobe. She wasn't just a wife—she was a business asset, a totem he could use for publicity and tabloid-fantasy fulfillment.
In the meantime, Trump was building his flagship Trump Tower, the 58-story skyscraper topped by a luxury shopping center that would make his name shorthand for wealth and excess in New York City. What Trump would also discover is that once you've outfitted your yacht with a disco that flashes huge pictures of your face on the ceiling, it gets much harder to pretend you're an outsider. Americans love an upstart, especially one that tells them how to get rich themselves, but Trump was finding that they don't love a ruling party nearly as much.
In 1979, the Village Voice came at Trump hard with a profile claiming that Trump's success was mostly the result of family connections and political favors; that he had tried to bribe the Voice's reporter, Wayne Barrett; and that, fundamentally, Donald Trump was a liar, a fraud, and an asshole. It was the beginning of a major shift in the way the public thought of Trump, and it also preceded his first near-downfall.
Which brings us to Marla Maples. For those of you who weren't yet sentient in the 1990s, Maples was a 22-year-old former beauty queen from Georgia, whom Trump met at his Art of the Deal book launch party—a star-studded affair attended by an assortment of 80s-era celebrities like Joan Rivers, Michael Douglas, and Norman Mailer. He began lavishing Maples with attention, putting her up in his various far-flung properties and generally trying to keep her hidden from public view. Ivana, meanwhile, was being pushed out of Trump Inc., upgraded like the business asset Donald saw her as.
"After her husband complained that she looked old and haggard, she had extensive plastic surgery and emerged looking at least a decade younger, but he seemed unmoved," Blair wrote. "He had refused to have sex with her for more than two years and complained that she was flat chested; after she made her entire body over, he recoiled from the sight of her implanted breasts."
The situation peaked when, on the ski slopes in Aspen, Ivana and Marla literally got into a fight. According to a New York Times report, Marla reportedly berated Ivana, "Are you in love with your husband? Because I am." And tabloid history was born. People magazine ran news of the Trump divorce under the headline "The Biggest! The Flashiest! The Most Public!" Liz Smith, the New York Daily News's famed gossip reporter, covered the story relentlessly, as did the New York Post's Page 6.Even the Chicago Tribune suggested people should watch the saga as a replacement for the hit show Dynasty. Trump, who had once wished that news of his Grand Hyatt deal had made the front page, now had his Day-Glo face plastered regularly on A1.
Trump did not come off well. "However unlikely it seemed, Ivana was now considered a tabloid heroine, and her popularity seemed in inverse proportion to the fickle city's new dislike of her husband," Vanity Fair's Marie Brenner wrote in 1990. Citing a Daily News story, Brenner added that Trump tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. "'When a man leaves a woman, especially when it was perceived that he has left for a piece of ass—a good one!—there are 50 percent of the population who will love the woman who was left.'"
Trump's problems weren't contained to his love life, or even his public image. By the early 1990s, his business bets on casinos, including the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, began to fail. Spy Magazine reported in 1991 that Trump had lied about the prices and income of nearly every one of his properties, and that the press had, for whatever reason, failed to call him out on those lies.
This also marked the beginning one of the business world's favorite games: trying to figure out how much money Donald Trump actually has. At the time, while Trump was claiming to be worth something like $1.5 billion, Spy wrote that his bankers put the number "between $282 million and negative $295 million."
In 1990, Forbes tried to pin the mogul to the wall, with a cover story headlined "How Much Is Donald Trump Really Worth?" that claimed Trump was down to his last $500 million. (Forbes has kept on that beat, claiming that Trump's recent estimate of $9 billion, which he gave out freely around the time of his 2016 presidential announcement, was about twice as high as his actual net worth.)
Trump filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and his name was taken off the Forbes 400 billionaires list from 1990 to 1995. His relationship to Maples, whom he'd married in 1993, crumbled soon after. But that divorce was far less of a big deal than Ivana's. Because by that point, Trump had started another public transformation: from Donald Trump, the Human, into Donald Trump, the Brand.
By the end of the 1990s, Trump was back on the Forbes billionaires list, with his net worth climbing slowly from $1.5 toward $2 billion after selling off assets, taking his companies public, and diversifying into golf courses and other luxury pursuits. and he was back on their billionaires list. When the New York Times continued to claim, in 2005, that Trump was still overestimating his net worth, the resurgent Trump responded, with characteristic color: "You can go ahead and speak to guys who have 400-pound wives at home who are jealous of me, but the guys who really know me know I'm a great builder."
The truth was, Trump had moved away of the building business, and into the Business of Donald Trump. As Wayne Barrett, the former Village Voice reporter, wrote in the Daily Beast in 2011, Trump was making much of his money by licensing his name, putting it not just on hotels and casinos, but on beauty pageants, mattresses, perfume, and basically any other consumer item that could fit a bold-faced letter T. In other words, Donald Trump was—and still is—making his living off of simply being Donald Trump.
All this culminated with the first season of The Apprentice. Produced by Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor and a billion other reality TV hits, the reality game show took the already-cartoonish Trump, with all his braggadocio and aggression, and turned him into a fetishistic hyperbole of the American businessman, passing judgment on aspiring moguls, firing one at the end of each episode. The first season was an enormous hit, averaging 20 million viewers a week and becoming the most popular new show of the year.
The success of The Apprentice meant that Trump was finally immune to the kinds of squalls and turmoil that had hurt him in the early 90s. His celebrity was so complete and impregnable that just his name alone generated money. And because he was doing less actual building and business, he was less at risk for the kinds of debacles that sunk him in the early 90s.
He still had to deal with bankruptcies and restructuring —his companies went bankruptin 2004 and 2009—but as a TV talking head and blustering Twitter mouthpiece, rather than an actual businessman, these types of failures hit him less hard. By the time he put a bounty on President Obama's birth certificate, Trump was more of a symbol than an actual person—almost like performance art designed to show the absurdity of American capitalism. But real.
Some of this helps explain the strong reactions people are having to Trump's presidential campaign—including why he's polling near 20 percent among Republican voters, and why Democrats, liberals, and plenty of Republicans are acting like he's going to take down the Republic.
Because Trump is, in many ways, a referendum on ourselves. He doesn't represent a system of politics or beliefs so much as he does a version of what it means to be successful in America. Trump is very successful in America. Now, how does that make you feel?
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