Monday, January 21, 2019


So I was just reading a Politico Magazine piece that's a few days old, by a group of researchers who've determined that most of America has no idea how rich Donald Trump was at birth and how much help he had in his business career. When they're told the truth, their belief in his business confidence drops.
What happens when Americans learn of the president’s privileged background? In a 2018 survey, we provided half the respondents the following question, which was intended to impart Trump’s biographical information: To what extent were you aware that Donald Trump grew up the son of wealthy real estate businessman Fred Trump, started his business with loans from his father, and received loans worth millions of dollars from his father in order to keep his businesses afloat?

... this information does have noticeable and statistically significant effects on evaluations of Trump’s character....

The difference is, I guess statistically significant -- but it's far from overwhelming. Most Republicans continue to believe Trump is a business genius, an idea most Democrats already questioned. There are similar statistics regarding perceptions of Trump's empathy before and after poll respondents learn about his life.

I was thinking of this when I turned to a big story on the front page of the New York Times site. Written by Russ Buettner and Maggie Haberman, the piece tells us that Trump is handling the government shutdown the way he handled many of his business deals.

It's not a flattering story. There's a lot in it about Trump's business failings. He comes off as amoral, ruthless, and not particularly shrewd:
“I think he was always a terrible negotiator,” said Tony Schwartz, co-author with Mr. Trump of “The Art of the Deal.” ...

During his years in business, Mr. Trump earned a reputation as someone whose word meant very little. When a commitment he made no longer made sense, he walked away, often blaming the other party with a fantastical line of reasoning.

To win financing from Deutsche Bank to build a Trump Hotel in Chicago, for example, Mr. Trump personally guaranteed $40 million of the debt. When he could not make his payments during the 2008 financial crisis, Deutsche Bank executives were open to granting him more time to repay the loan, a person briefed on negotiations later recalled.

But before a compromise could be reached, Mr. Trump flipped the script. He filed a lawsuit and argued that the bank had helped cause the worldwide financial meltdown that essentially rendered Mr. Trump unable to make his debt payments. At the time, Deutsche Bank called the lawsuit “classic Trump.”

The bank eventually settled with Mr. Trump, saving him from having to pay the $40 million. Mr. Trump expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill. “He left me with some costs,” said the lawyer, Steven Schlesinger.

... scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued Mr. Trump for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.

That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. Mr. Trump recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”
It's unflattering, and yet somehow it all comes off as ... legendary. Larger than life. Buettner and Haberman are trying -- they depict Trump as contemptible and frequently unsuccessful; they start and end with the failure of the Trump Taj Mahal. But the story appears under an aggrandizing headline, and with a photo Trump himself might have chosen:

Why this picture? The New York and national media spent so many years depicting Trump as a figure of (phony) glamour and power that they can't shake the habit -- there are just so many photos like these in the morgue and they all look great on the front page, don't they?

And so even failure looks larger than life with Trump. The media spent decades creating a monster, and now it's too late to un-create him. The myth is impossible to dislodge -- though it would be nice if some effort were made not to try to reinforce it, the way this presentation of the Buettner-Haberman article does.

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