Recently Ezra Klein did a great job of succinctly putting one of the biggest questions about Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency:
Trump’s campaign is an embarrassment. His policy proposals are a joke. The saving grace of his candidacy has been the suspicion that he’s playing a deeper game — that the offensiveness is calculated, that the proposals aren’t serious, that the Donald is more than he appears. But maybe he’s not.
I decided to take it upon myself to try to answer this question by reading two biographies of Trump, by Wayne Barrett and Gwenda Blair. I’m reading the two books side by side, and while I haven’t finished either yet, the picture they paint isn’t pretty. While I didn’t expect either book to improve my opinion of Trump, both tell a story far worse than I expected.
In short, the Trump that comes across in these biographies is reckless, mendacious, boorish, and corrupt, with no real talents for anything except self-promotion. While some of his current political positions do seem to have been adopted only recently, out of political opportunism, the basic persona he’s displayed on the campaign trail does not seem to be new. If it’s an act, it’s one he’s been keeping up for decades.
While I knew Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was politically well-connected, I didn’t quite grasp the extent to which he got rich through outright corruption, or how the Donald took part in this same corruption. In Blair’s book, Abe Beame (mayor of New York from 1974 to 1977), is alleged to have once said, “Whatever my friends Fred and Donald want in this town, they get.” (Barrett attributes similar words with slightly different phrasing to Beame.)
The Donald himself is alleged to have once boasted–with a restaurant full of people listening–of his ability to buy politicians. Barrett reports that Trump tried to bribe him directly, and Barrett isn’t the only journalist to have a story like that. Then there was the time David Berger, a lawyer representing the shareholders of another company, suddenly stopped objecting to one of Trump’s business deals, after Trump agreed to join a class-action lawsuit Berger was putting together.
(The Berger affair was the subject of a federal investigation, but ultimately the government couldn’t prove a quid pro quo.)
Incidentally, Trump has been surprisingly open about his history of political favor-trading in his campaign for the presidency. It’s how he explains his history of donating to Democratic politicians. More than that, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop puts it, “Trump is presenting himself as someone who has so mastered the corruption of American politics that he can be trusted to resist it.” It’s a somewhat bizarre pitch, but it certainly fits with Trump’s business history.
The most damning thing I’ve learned through reading these books, though, is that Trump seems to be even less competent at business than I’d previously argued. I knew Trump had relied on his dad to get financing for his first big business deal, what I didn’t know is that the project went $60 million over budget, and his dad had to bail him out. So needing bailouts wasn’t something that only happened to Trump in the 90s–it was there from the start of his career.
Worst of all, I had previously assumed Trump was minimally competent in that he avoided personal bankruptcy by only taking on large amounts of debt through companies he owned, allowing the companies to go bankrupt without affecting Trump’s other assets. In reality, at one point Trump had personally guaranteed loans totaling $840 million, and escaped ruin only by convincing his creditors they were better off bailing him out and getting some of their money back, rather than seeing him go bankrupt and potentially losing it all.
What would motivate someone to behave this way? Blair gives a plausible answer:
Eichler often wondered why someone who already had family money would be so driven. Once when they lunched at another elegant Manhattan restaurant, the ’21’ Club, Donald supplied a clue in an uncharacteristically reflective moment. He told Eichler that he assumed he would not marry and would be dead before he was 40, but in the time he had left he intended to be bigger than Harry Hemsley, then the largest real estate magnate in New York. “I knew that whole world of builders,” Eicler said, “and the guys who really cared about making money were very private. Donald was different. For him, the purpose wasn’t the money. It was to be famous.”
So if Trump is actually elected, there’s a serious chance we could wind up dealing with someone who’s willing to engage in reckless, flagrantly corrupt behavior in the name of his own self-aggrandizement. Be afraid.