Donald Trump “shocked the world” when he won the United States presidential election in 2016 over the heavily favored and elite-approved and -manufactured Hillary Clinton. The results may even have shocked Trump himself, so heavy were the bookmakers’ odds against him. The New York Times reported on Election Day that Clinton had an 88 percent chance of coming out on top. The expert reporters on the liberal television networks looked ahead confidently to the official coronation of “The First Female President of the United States” and the ratification of feminism, diversity, and multiculturalism as the officially sanctioned doctrines of the land. Indeed, Clinton and her campaign staff celebrated the impending result on their flight home to White Plains on election eve, and Chelsea Clinton is said to have popped the cork on the champagne at Clinton’s hotel headquarters at 9 p.m. on election night, just as the disquieting early returns from Florida and North Carolina were beginning to come in.
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As it happened, the Clinton entourage paid too much attention to pollsters and the talking heads on television and too little to those massive rallies of twenty-five or thirty thousand voters that candidate Trump mobilized in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan in the closing days of the campaign. Those rallies should have been seen as harbingers of things to come instead of being dismissed as inconsistent with the preferred narrative of an inevitable Clinton victory. This was the “double shock” of the Trump election, for not only did Trump pull off the electoral upset against the odds, but he also turned the liberal historical narrative on its head by demonstrating that the future does not necessarily belong to the feminists, multiculturalists, and open-border enthusiasts now in charge of the Democratic Party and its affiliated newspapers and academic institutions. The disorienting result has thus sown confusion and anger in liberal enclaves around the country, along with calls to nullify the results of the election in a manner not seen in the United States since the fallout from Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
The rise of Donald Trump from Manhattan real estate mogul to national television celebrity to President of the United States was as unprecedented as it was disorienting. Until Trump came along, the presidency was reserved for politicians and generals, with prominent business figures like Wendell Willkie or Ross Perot occasionally making their bids but always coming up short. There have been politicians, like John F. Kennedy, who used the presidency as a pathway to celebrity, and the occasional celebrity, like Ronald Reagan, who used his fame to advance up the political ladder to the presidency. But no one had, until Trump, figured out how to use the dual platform of business success and television celebrity as a catapult into the White House. In bringing off his improbable victory, Trump proved that he understood something about national politics in our time that has so far eluded the wise men and women of Manhattan and Washington, D.C., who dismissed his campaign as either a publicity stunt or a suicide mission.
All this makes for a highly entertaining tale, which is exactly what Conrad Black delivers in Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other, his brisk yet informative political biography of our forty-fifth president. Black, the prominent Canadian publisher, newspaper columnist, and author of biographies of Richard Nixon and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (among other books), offers a generally sympathetic account of Trump’s up-and-down career in business and politics, mostly by casting commentary aside and withholding moral judgments while letting the story unfold through Trump’s own words and actions. The resulting volume provides a good overview of Trump’s career and manifold shenanigans, along with insights into his character and operating style. Black is especially good at unwinding Trump’s complex business deals such that they are semi-understandable to lay readers. The book has its hilarious parts, mainly because it describes, tongue-in-cheek, so many audacious or outrageous things Trump has said or done. For those who do not hate Donald Trump and who seek a deeper understanding of the man, this is by far the best biography to consult.
The rise of Donald Trump was as unprecedented as it was disorienting.
In Black’s view, Trump is a uniquely American figure, the heir to a tradition of swashbuckling egotists, risk takers, fortune hunters, hucksters and poseurs, and bruising competitors determined to win at all costs. If Trump expresses these characteristics in the extreme, then it is because he disdains to cover them up, or views them as attributes of his success. “Like the country he represents,” Black writes, “Donald Trump possesses the optimism to persevere and succeed, the confidence to affront tradition and convention, a genius for spectacle, and a firm belief in common sense and the common man.” It is easy to disparage Trump, not so easy to dismiss his all-too-obvious successes.
Trump inherited his business operation (the Trump Organization) and his real estate acumen from his father, but not a great deal of wealth (his father died in 1999), nor his taste for luxury properties, and certainly not his appetite for celebrity, since Frederick Trump was frugal and reserved and made his money by owning and managing middle-class residential properties in the suburbs and outer boroughs of New York City. Donald worked for his father during his teenage years by collecting rents and running errands of various kinds. He was sent by his father to the New York Military Academy in upstate New York to attend high school and to get him away from trouble near his home in Queens. He then attended Fordham University for two years before matriculating at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied real estate at the famed Wharton School of Business. Once out of college, Donald worked in the family business, learning the ins and outs of managing apartment buildings. He impressed his father to such a degree that in 1972 Frederick Trump named him president of the Trump Organization. Donald was twenty-six years old.
Donald came into the New York City real estate market at a time when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and awash in crime, which he saw as an opportunity to pick up potentially valuable real estate at cheap prices. His first play came in 1975 when he acquired an option from the Penn Central bankruptcy proceedings to develop a stretch of Manhattan real estate along the Hudson River between Thirty-fourth and Sixtieth Streets, which paid off in 1980 when the southern piece of the property was selected as the site for the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. He next acquired the old Commodore Hotel adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, also a casualty of the Penn Central bankruptcy, and through a partnership with the Hyatt Hotel chain and complicated negotiations with banks and the city succeeded in gutting the old building and putting up a handsome and profitable hotel on the site. These highly publicized transactions taught Trump the value of nurturing contacts with prominent political figures in the city and the state who were in positions to help him cut through red tape and arrange favorable tax treatment for his projects. In these efforts, Trump also learned to appreciate the value of the tabloid journalists who found him good copy and wrote him up in the Post and Daily News.
At this time, Trump had the idea of developing a real estate “brand” that he could attach to luxury or signature properties as a means of increasing their “cachet” among prospective buyers and lenders. He said he was not interested in just “collecting rents,” which was more or less what his father had done. He dreamed instead of building a real estate empire around the Trump name, an ambition that would define the rest of his career as a real estate developer—and perhaps also as a presidential candidate, Trump’s most audacious move to augment his personal brand.
His initial foray into the luxury market turned out to be his signature project: Trump Tower, a fifty-eight-story mixed-use skyscraper completed in 1982 along Fifth Avenue between Fifty-sixth and Fifty-seventh Streets, one of the priciest locations in New York City. Before proceeding with the project, Trump had to win approvals from various city agencies to re-zone the area to permit construction of his skyscraper. In the process of demolishing the Bonwit Teller building that had occupied the site since 1929, Trump ordered his construction crew to jackhammer two valuable Art Deco relief panels atop the building that he had promised to preserve and donate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Trump said the panels were without artistic merit and not worth the delays required to preserve them. The act was widely condemned around the city, and Trump was denounced (not for the first time, nor the last) as a “bully” and a “know-nothing” for destroying what some experts felt were artistic masterpieces. Trump did not appear to care, perhaps taking the view that bad publicity is better than no publicity. In any case, Trump Tower turned a quick profit when all of the residential units in the building were sold within weeks of opening.
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Trump, now riding the real estate boom of the 1980s, expanded his business rapidly into new directions, not all of them connected to real estate. He acquired three gambling casinos in Atlantic City, all of them highly leveraged with bank loans, promoted boxing matches in his hotels, paid $365 million to Eastern Airlines to buy airplanes and airline routes along the East Coast, which he named the “Trump Shuttle,” borrowed $407 million to acquire the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and even bought a franchise in the soon-to-collapse United States Football League. In 1985 he acquired Mar-a-Lago, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida, for $7 million, eventually turning it into a private club when he encountered financial troubles in the 1990s. In 1986, Trump pulled off a public relations coup when he challenged the city government and then-Mayor Edward Koch over delays in the renovation of Wollman Rink in Central Park, the project having been idle for three years. Trump stepped in to complete the project under budget and ahead of schedule, much to the embarrassment of the mayor. In 1987, still on a roll, Trump published his bestselling book The Art of the Deal, which outlined an eleven-step formula for business success that he continues to cite to this day.
By 1990, with the softening of the real estate market, Trump encountered difficulties managing the mountain of debt he had taken on with his manifold projects. Black performs a valuable service for readers by interpreting these deals and explaining how they ran aground, due mostly to excessive leverage and poor business judgment. The Trump Shuttle hemorrhaged losses, the football franchise folded, the casinos lost money, and the Plaza Hotel was too highly leveraged to turn profits in the short term. By June of 1990, writes Black, the Trump Organization was carrying $3.2 billion in debt, two-thirds of it owed to a consortium of New York City banks. Trump at this point was effectively bankrupt. At a meeting of his creditors in 1990, he agreed to cut expenses, sell off some of his properties, and reorganize others, while promising to repay all outstanding loans. Miraculously, the bankers took the deal. As one said afterwards, “Trump was worth more to us alive than dead.” In the end, as Black explains, Trump dug his way out of debt by guiding some of these projects through bankruptcy and restructuring other debts, with lenders and bondholders absorbing losses in the process.
A successful candidate would have to capture one of the major parties.
At this time Trump began to take a greater interest in politics, floating for the first time in a television interview the possibility of running for president (with Oprah Winfrey as his possible running mate). He took note of Ross Perot’s independent run for the presidency in 1992, when, for a short time, Perot led in the polls against both Bill Clinton and President George H. W. Bush. Perot made a mess of his campaign by pulling out and then trying to get back in when it was too late. Nevertheless, despite his amateurish campaign, Perot managed to win nearly 20 percent of the popular vote with his commonsense appeal to working- and middle-class voters. From this episode, as Black recounts, Trump concluded that such a campaign could succeed, though not via a third party. A successful candidate would have to capture one of the major parties—and in Trump’s case, that pointed to the Republican Party.
In the year 2000, he published a thin campaign book, The America We Deserve, outlining a conservative platform of strong national defense, lower taxes, measures to stop crime, and opposition to illegal immigration—mostly issues that he would reprise in his presidential run in 2016. In that year he dismissed the major presidential candidates—Al Gore and George W. Bush—as “stiffs,” implying that he would be a much better candidate than either of those men. Still, he bounced back and forth between the parties, and bungled easy questions in interviews, including one on partial-birth abortion, admitting afterwards that he did not know what partial-birth abortion is.
In 2004, a television producer approached Trump with the idea of doing a reality show with a business theme—with Trump as the star figure. The show would be cast in the form of a business interview, with contestants competing for a prize and Trump acting as the judge. Trump initially had doubts about the project because, as Black reports, he thought reality television was for “the bottom-feeders of society,” an admission that may have been true albeit impolitic. He eventually signed a deal with nbc for the program to be titled The Apprentice, with episodes to be shot in Trump Tower to make production convenient for the star. Trump semi-accidentally developed the tag line “You’re Fired” as a recurring element in the program. nbc executives were pleasantly surprised when more than twenty million viewers tuned in to the show, making it one of the network’s more watched properties. The program remained popular until Trump had to pull out when he announced his candidacy for president in 2015. The program, with its large and loyal audience, turned Trump from a well-known but unpopular businessman into a television idol, thereby winning him (as he later said) “the love and respect of Middle America.”
The celebrity Trump won by his television program opened up new opportunities to attach his name to a range of consumer products, including his own line of business apparel for men, fragrances, sunglasses, mineral water, and other products, many of them sold at his retail outlet in Trump Tower. Now, instead of developing his own real estate projects, Trump learned that he could sell his name to developers who wished to exploit the Trump brand. Trump Hotels quickly appeared in cities around the world beginning in 2007 as part of the “Trump Hotel Collection.” There was also a string of new golf courses, emblazoned with the Trump name. He was invited to perform cameo roles on popular television programs, so sought-after had he become via The Apprentice. Trump found that he could enhance his celebrity, along with the value of his brand, via a technique he called “truthful hyperbole”—basically a strategy of exaggeration based upon a few facts here and there.
Along the way Trump continued to accumulate valuable properties in New York City and around the world. The Trump Organization now owns at least a dozen high-priced properties in Manhattan, including Trump Tower, the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle, Trump Palace on East Sixty-ninth Street, Trump Park Avenue at Sixtieth Street, and several others of great worth. The Trump brand has significant licensing value, now reinforced by his election to the presidency. In his recent campaign filings, Trump estimated his wealth to be around $10 billion, which Black thinks is exaggerated, while also conceding that it could easily be in the range of $3 or $4 billion, in view of the number of valuable properties under the Trump umbrella and the licensing value of the Trump brand.
In November 2012, one week after Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the presidential election, Trump filed a patent and trademark application for the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Ronald Reagan had used that catchphrase in his 1980 campaign, though Trump claimed to be unaware of it. Trump began to travel more about the country, ostensibly to inspect his real estate holdings or to scope out business opportunities, but also to assess the political temperature of the public. As Black writes, “He could see opinion building like a pressure cooker, especially among blue-collar conservatives alienated not just from the direction President Obama was taking the country, but from the establishment Republican party that was supposed to offer a political alternative.” Trump, recalling Ross Perot’s campaign, saw that there was an opportunity for a similarly themed campaign in 2016 when there would be no incumbents in the race. Given his age—sixty-six in 2012—Trump would not get another opportunity.
Black deftly chronicles Trump’s steady advance through the 2016 election campaign
Black deftly chronicles Trump’s steady advance through the 2016 election campaign, beginning with his announcement at Trump Tower when he emphasized the issues of illegal immigration, crime and drugs, and U.S. trade policy, to his march through the Republican primaries where he rode voter discontent to victory after victory, to his surprise upset in the presidential election, despite continuous media declarations that he could never overcome this or that misstep, or that his campaign was doomed, or that Hillary Clinton was fortunate to have drawn such a hopelessly outclassed opponent as Donald Trump. Black emphasizes that Trump won the Republican nomination and the election due to a spontaneous voter revolt, not because Trump or anyone else manipulated the outcome from on high. The author takes a fair amount of pleasure in citing these flawed forecasts as evidence of Trump’s claim that the national news media and “inside-the-beltway” experts are out of touch with the public—and richly deserved the rebuke that the voters gave them. He considers laughable the claim that Russians somehow manipulated the outcome.
The book concludes with a fast-paced recap of Trump’s first year, with notable successes in the war on terror, tax policy, court appointments, the elimination of needless regulations, and quickening economic growth. These achievements, as the author notes, have not satisfied the “never Trumpers” on the left and right, nor have they diminished efforts to nullify the results of the 2016 election. The “Russia Investigation,” a “hoax” as Trump calls it (with Black much in agreement), proceeds apace, the latest effort by Democrats and their allies to delegitimize a Republican presidential victory.
It is worth noting in this regard that Democrats have challenged the legitimacy of nearly every Republican presidential victory going back to 1968, when they claimed that Richard Nixon intervened with contacts in South Vietnam to delay peace negotiations until after the election. Nixon, in so doing, committed “treason” in the eyes of Lyndon Johnson and other Democrats. In 1972 there was, of course, the Watergate break-in; in 1980 claims that Ronald Reagan purloined Jimmy Carter’s debate preparation book; in 1988 condemnation of George Bush’s use of anti-crime ads to discredit Michael Dukakis; in 2000 attacks on the Supreme Court for handing George W. Bush the victory in the midst of the Florida recount; in 2004 claims that John Kerry was unfairly “Swift-boated” by Bush’s allies; and in 2016 the claim that Trump stole the election with assistance from the Russians.
The efforts to discredit Trump’s election are nothing new, though they are more determined, and are now joined by a cadre of beltway conservatives who never reconciled themselves to Trump’s candidacy and were embarrassed when he won the election. Black does not think these investigations will lead anywhere, except perhaps to the embarrassment of the partisans in the fbi and the Obama administration who launched them and of the anti-Trump zealots who hope against hope that Robert Mueller will discover grounds for overturning the results of the 2016 election and thereby punish the voters for refusing to listen to their expert advice. Time will tell. One hopes that Black is right.
Donald Trump is, as Black writes, a president like no other, partly because of his business and celebrity background, but mainly because he has cut through the ideological divide that has defined national politics since the 1970s by appealing to voters on the basis of national issues like immigration, assimilation, trade, jobs and incomes, and a foreign policy based upon national interests rather than universal principles. This largely explains the furious response to his election victory, but it also points to a new constellation of issues in national politics that will become increasingly obvious as the Trump presidency proceeds and future elections are fought. There is no going back to the politics of the 1980s and 1990s—and to understand why, readers would do well to consult Conrad Black’s outstanding biography.
1 Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other, by Conrad Black; Regnery Publishing, 221 pages, $27.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 73
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