The Trump Appeal

The supply of material about the sheer ridiculousness of Donald Trump and his improbable run for the White House is seemingly endless – and much of it is pretty juicy, too.
One of the joys of reading The New Yorker is the “financial page” feature written by James Surowiecki, whose stock in trade, at least to The Curmudgeon and at least in part, is his willingness to point out emperors who wear no clothes – or, more precisely, ideas that have become common wisdom that are actually quite lacking in wisdom. He does much more than that as well and is almost always interesting and on target.

Recently he gave the emperor-wears-no-clothes treatment to Donald Trump. You can find the entire piece here, but for your reading pleasure today The Curmudgeon presents a few excerpts.

Trump has also succeeded in presenting himself as a self-made man, who has flourished thanks to deal-making savvy. In fact, Trump was born into money, and his first great real-estate success—the transformation of New York’s Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt—was enabled by a tax abatement worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet many voters see Trump as someone who embodies the American dream of making your own fortune.

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For someone who talks a lot about winning, Trump has a résumé dotted with more than a few losses. On four occasions, companies he’s been involved with have gone bankrupt. Yet these failures haven’t dented his reputation at all, contributing instead to a sense that he’s had to deal with adversity. In other countries, such failures would make it very hard for him to campaign as a visionary businessman. But the U.S. has always been exceptionally tolerant, in terms of both attitude and the law, toward business failure and bankruptcy. Indeed, Trump brags about how he used the bankruptcy code to get better deals for his companies; as he put it not long ago, “I’ve used the laws of the country to my advantage.”

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Trump is hardly the first Western plutocrat to venture into politics. Think of William Randolph Hearst or, more recently, Silvio Berlusconi. But both Hearst and Berlusconi benefitted from controlling media empires. Trump has earned publicity all on his own, by playing the role of that quintessential American figure the huckster. As others have observed, the businessman he most resembles is P. T. Barnum, whose success rested on what he called “humbug,” defined as “putting on glittering appearances . . . by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.” Barnum’s key insight into how to arrest public attention was that, to some degree, Americans enjoy brazen exaggeration. No American businessman since Barnum has been a better master of humbug than Trump has. 

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Take the debate over how much Trump is worth. It’s impossible to get a definitive accounting of his wealth, since almost all of it is in assets—mainly real estate—that don’t have clear market values. Still, he’s clearly enormously rich. Bloomberg estimates his wealth at $2.9 billion, while Forbes pegs it at $4.1 billion—both tidy sums. But Trump will have none of that: thanks to the value of his brand, he says, he’s worth at least a cool ten billion. This number seems so absurdly over the top as to be self-defeating. But there is a kind of genius in the absurdity. Trump understands that only an outrageous number can really “attract the public eye and ear.”

 

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