Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you.
==Donald Trump, in a 1981 interview
What kind of a businessman is Donald Trump? What does his business career reveal about what kind of a President he would be?
I read two biographies, THE TRUMPS: Three Generations That Built an Empire by Gwenda Blair (2000) and NEVER ENOUGH: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success by Michael D’Antonio (2015), and some magazine articles to try to learn an answer.
Gwenda Blair’s book goes into Trump’s family background – his immigrant grandfather, Frederick Trump (originally Friedrich Drumpf), who operated saloons during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, and his father, Fred Trump, who built FHA-subsidized housing in Brooklyn.
Michael D’Antonio’s book brings his career down nearly to the present. Neither book is a hatchet job and both authors are careful to give credit where credit is due. But both writers reinforced my belief that Donald Trump is not the kind of person I want to see in the White House.
Trump’s purpose in life is to demonstrate that he is a winner, which is validated by making others into losers. Winners, because they are strong and smart, deserve to be both rich and famous—fame being the most important. Losers, because they are weak and gullible, deserve no pity.
Like his lawyer and mentor, Roy Cohn, he never backed down, always counterattacked, and never forgave an injury.
He was a risk-taker, a skilled negotiator and a brilliant self-promoter.
He was a skilled negotiator, who understood the other person’s weaknesses and desires, He could not be bluffed or intimidated. Seemingly insurmountable difficulties spurred him into redoubled efforts. All these are good qualities.
But he was not always a man of his word, did not always told the strict truth, and made others pay the price of his failures.
He played off multiple negotiating partners against each other. He enticed lenders into giving him so much credit that they threw good money after bad rather than cut their losses. He was a master of publicity and used notoriety as a business asset.
He is a workaholic who does not drink, smoke or use drugs. He lives in luxurious settings among expensive possessions, but takes no time to enjoy them. He is uninterested in art, music, literature or fine food and wine. His one indulgence has been the company of beautiful women, which adds to his fame and celebrity.
Unlike his father, Fred Trump, he was not an especially good manager of his businesses. Once he has completed a deal, he then becomes interested in the next deal. The same was true of his first two marriages.
Based on his life history, I think it is plain that Trump regards the Presidency as another prize to be won, rather than a duty to be performed or a means to right wrongs. I don’t know what he would do if elected. I’m not sure he knows.
Donald Trump’s business success was based on his use of his father’s millions and political connections to acquire distressed property in Manhattan in the late 1970s and his decision to cater to the super-rich rather than the mass market.
Not everybody would have seen these opportunities in the New York City of that day. It’s also true that not everybody else would have been in a position to seize these opportunities.
He could be tricky. In one deal, he acquired property from the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad on behalf of the City of New York for a convention center. He said he would forego his $4.4 million commission if the city named the building for Fred Trump. City officials were tempted, until somebody got around to looking at the paperwork and noticed the actual commission was only $500,000.
When he built Trump Tower, there was strong neighborhood opposition because of the shadow they would cast over the city. He won over Ada Huxtable, the New York Times architectural critic, by showing her a “dramatically handsome” design. She despised the actual building and said so, but Trump displayed her “dramatically handsome design” quote in the atrium.
He worked closely with John Cody, the head of New York City’s building trades union, who later went to prison on racketeering charges, and provided luxury accommodations for Cody’s girlfriend, Verna Hixon. In return, Cody made sure Trump’s construction sites were protected from pilferage, and he gave Trump advance notice of strikes.
Cody turned a blind eye to one of Trump’s contractors, William Kaszycki, who held down costs by hiring undocumented Polish immigrants and paying them substandard wages, sometimes in vodka. A judge later held there was a “tacit agreement” between The Trump Organization and the House Wreckers Union Local 95 on the immigrants.
Trump’s opening of casinos in Atlantic City was the second phase of his business career. It was not successful. His four business bankruptcies were the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1991, the Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City in 1992, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts in 2004 and Trump Entertainment and Resorts in 2008.
A casino industry analyst, Marvin Roffman, warned the Trump Taj Mahal would fail because the market was saturated. He said it would do great business in the first few months because of the draw of the Trump name, but the luxuriousness of the casino would not be enough to offset winter weather or the general rundown condition of the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Trump demanded Roffman back down and, when he refused, got him fired from his job and vilified him in the press. He was later proved right and Trump wrong, but that didn’t get Roffman his job back.
Trump boasts that even though his corporations have been reorganized and broken up under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, he never has gone bankrupt himself. That’s another way of saying that he has made others pay the price for his losses.
The third phase of his career, which was highly successful, was based on entertainment, celebrity and the licensing of the Trump name. The centerpiece was The Apprentice television series, which ran 14 seasons.
His other failed ventures included an airline, a board game, a football league that attempted to complete with the National Football league and an attempt to create a luxury golf resort in Scotland on environmentally sensitive land by use of the power of eminent domain.
Possibly Trump’s worst failure is Trump University, which supposedly taught the secrets of Trump’s business success. Many struggling people paid top dollar for what was basically, according to New York Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman, a weekend of motivational speeches.
Schneiderman is suing Trump and Trump University for $40 million, which for Trump is chicken feed, and may or may not damage his reputation.
I don’t criticize Trump for having attempted things that failed. Business enterprise involves risk, and almost every enterprising business person has failed at one thing or another.
I think there are many worse business sinners than Trump—people who are responsible for financial crises, fatal industrial accidents or large-scale environmental damage.
There also are many more capable business people than Trump. D’Antonio mentioned William Barron Hilton, who bought and developed distressed Manhattan property at the same time Trump did, without benefit of municipal subsidies, and entered the Atlantic casino business about the same time Trump did, but without any of his casinos going bankrupt.
But Hilton never matched Trump as a showman. None of this competitors did.
Deborah Friedell reviews ‘Never Enough’ by Michael D’Antonio for the London Review of Books.
Donald Trump: Embracing Contradiction, Not Thinking Too Much, an interview of Gwenda Blair by Lauren Kelley for Rolling Stone.
What I learned Writing Trump’s Biography by Michael D’Antonio for POLITICO.
21 Questions for Donald Trump by David Cay Johnson [added 3/2/20160
Woody Guthrie, ‘Old Man Trump’ and a real estate empire’s racist foundations by Michael Kaufman for The Conversation.
What Donald Trump’s Plaza Deal Reveals About His White House Bid by David Segal for The New York Times.
How Close Was Donald Trump to the Mob? by David Marcus for The Federalist. [added 3/2/2016]
How Trump’s Atlantic City Gamble Went Bust by Delphine d’Amora for Mother Jones.
I Watched a Casino Kill Itself: The Last Awful Nights of Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal by Olivia Nuzzi for The Daily Beast.
Donald Trump’s Companies Filed for Bankruptcy 4 Times by Amy Bingham for ABC News.
Top 10 Trump Failures by Stephen Gandel for TIME magazine.
Donald Trump: Not As Great a Businessman As He Claims to Be by Doug Mataconis for Outside the Beltway.
Donald Trump’s Less-Than-Artful Failure in Pro Football by Joe Nocera for The New York Times.
Lawsuits against Trump University claim students paid thousands for nothing by Kristina Davis and Shelby Grad for the Los Angeles Times.
New York Attorney General Sues Donald Trump and His Alleged ‘Sham’ University – Says Students ‘Defrauded’ Out of $40 Million by Steven Perlberg for Business Insider.
The 9 Wildest Complaints Against Trump University by Thomas Stackpole for Mother Jones.
The reviews of Trump Steaks are hilariously bad by Stefan Sirucek for deathandtaxes.
One of Donald Trump’s Biggest Failed Investments May Be Back on the Market Again by Alexandra Rosenmann for AlterNet.
For Trumps, Abandoning US Workers to Manufacture Fashion Lines in China Is a Family Affair by Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash.
Tags: Donald Trump