Donald Trump’s Fingers Were Always Short

In business as in politics, there’s never been much behind the splashy surface.

Chris Lehmann July 6, 2016

Donald Trump, serially bankrupt performance artist. Sad! (Josep Lago / AFP / Getty Images)

What­ev­er else we end up say­ing about Don­ald Trump’s his­toric run at the pres­i­den­cy, no one can plau­si­bly sug­gest he came out of nowhere. A fix­ture in the New York medi­a­s­phere for rough­ly four decades, the blovi­at­ing devel­op­er has been the equiv­a­lent of wall­pa­per: bright orange, tantrum-prone, ter­mi­nal­ly self-infat­u­at­ed wall­pa­per. When I lived in New York in the late 1990s, many of my work­days began with a trip to my cor­ner bode­ga, where talk radio played at full blast, with Trump as a near-con­stant call-in guest. As a result, I’d have to wait for a com­mer­cial break to take a bite of my bagel, so my teeth could stop gnash­ing long enough for me to eat. 

Trump, much like his own overvalued gilded properties, is a garish collision of surface impressions—the business world’s version of a performance artist, Singer notes.

Mark Singer has been writ­ing New York­er pro­files for about as long as Trump has been inflict­ing his ego on the greater New York medi­a­s­phere. In 1996, then-New York­er edi­tor Tina Brown returned from a break­fast meet­ing with Trump deter­mined to com­mis­sion a pro­file of the real-estate mogul, and turned Singer loose.

The premise was that Trump was in the midst of a Nixon-like moment of self-rein­ven­tion. Trump’s casi­no-and-hotel com­plex in Atlantic City was drown­ing in red ink and dras­ti­cal­ly deval­ued junk bonds. To extri­cate his empire from bank­rupt­cy, he gave up assets and titles, even his yacht, and sad­dled his cred­i­tors with between $600 mil­lion and $800 mil­lion in bad paper. 

Singer leapt to the project with some­thing less than ardor. In Trump and Me—a gen­er­ous­ly padded re-release of his sto­ry in book form — he recounts the chief chal­lenge of the assign­ment: Unac­cus­tomed though I am, I have to take Don­ald Trump seriously.” 

And so he spent months as a fly on the wall as Trump schmoozed with hang­ers-on and B‑list pub­lic fig­ures, from Russ­ian strong­man (and very short-lived pres­i­den­tial prospect) Alek­sander Lebed to Wheel of For­tunes pro­fes­sion­al ges­tur­er Van­na White. 

What, then, does Trump and Me tell us about the unlike­ly 2016 GOP pres­i­den­tial stan­dard-bear­er? Chiefly that the longer you gaze into the inner work­ings of the great man’s self-adver­tis­ing empire, the less you are per­suad­ed that there’s an actu­al there” there. For exam­ple, as he sizes up the deal to refi­nance the flail­ing Trump Cas­tle project (which had been shed­ding rev­enue at an annu­al clip of 10 per­cent, the worst of any casi­no in Atlantic City”), Singer abrupt­ly real­izes that the refi­nanc­ing deal was actu­al­ly just a fur­ther expan­sion of the facility’s debt lever­age — less an invest­ment than a loan.”

Nev­er mind that the whole agree­ment col­lapsed when Trump’s new part­ner, L.A.-based Colony Cap­i­tal, pulled out. Trump claimed he was the par­ty who walked away, and the lie once again helped the Trump bub­ble remain aloft, at least in the pub­lic eye. 

So it is, Singer notes, with vir­tu­al­ly every facet of the oper­a­tion: Trump’s vaunt­ed art of the deal has giv­en way to the art of image ownership.’ ” 

Among oth­er things, this real­iza­tion wrought hav­oc with the con­ceit of the pro­file itself: The come­back’ Trump is much the same as the Trump of the 80s; there is no new’ Trump, just as there nev­er was a new’ Nixon,” Singer writes. Instead, Trump, much like his own over­val­ued gild­ed prop­er­ties, is a gar­ish col­li­sion of sur­face impres­sions — the busi­ness world’s ver­sion of a per­for­mance artist, Singer notes.

This cen­tral insight has grue­some con­se­quences for what might gen­er­ous­ly be termed Don­ald Trump’s moral char­ac­ter. As Singer writes, here is a man who had aspired to and achieved the ulti­mate lux­u­ry, an exis­tence unmo­lest­ed by the rum­bling of a soul.”

There’s no rea­son to sus­pect that the pre­sump­tive 2016 GOP nom­i­nee will do any­thing dif­fer­ent this time out. He’s already giv­en every indi­ca­tion that he’s sim­ply lever­aged him­self into anoth­er decep­tive part­ner­ship with the flail­ing cor­po­ra­tion known as the Repub­li­can Par­ty, and is ful­ly pre­pared to walk away and declare him­self the savvy win­ner once this dis­as­trous mis­al­lo­ca­tion of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal is con­vert­ed into still more bad paper. When Trump’s FEC fil­ings revealed a scant $1 mil­lion in ready cam­paign cash on hand — and a host of feath­er-bed­ding expen­di­tures to Trump fam­i­ly mem­bers and Trump-owned com­pa­nies — the Repub­li­can elec­torate got a crash course in the les­son Atlantic City learned long ago: Ignore all that aggres­sive­ly brand­ed glitz, and hold fast to your wallet.

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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