Donald Trump claims to be the one person who can avert the certainty of impending doom. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he asserted in accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for president, “which is why I alone can fix it.”
What does Donald Trump know that others don’t know?
One thing is how to beat back a gang of hungry creditors and rebound from a self-induced financial disaster. How much is that worth?
Profiled in the Wall Street Journal the day before his convention (“How the 1990s Became Donald Trump’s Personal Crucible,” July 20), Trump spoke in piteous tones about being stretched on the financial rack.
In the early 1990s, his real estate empire was crumbling under the combined weight of excessive debt (some $3.4 billion) and falling real estate prices. Seeing a blind man with paper cup begging on Fifth Avenue in New York, he realized that this man, with no more than the rags on his back, had a net worth several hundred million dollars north of his own.
At this point, the famous deal-maker did not try to trick the beggar (little knowing how fabulously rich he really was, in a comparative sense) into trading places. Instead, he sought personal redemption. He fought tooth and nail against the impecunious demands of the least advantaged of his creditors (not the big banks, but unsecured contractors and the like). Alas, the poor man (Trump, not the beggar) had to suffer the indignity of selling his jet and yacht and being put on a strict allowance for personal and household expenses of just $450,000 a month.
“That was a terrible, horrible period,” Trump said. “All of a sudden, you’re in this position, where the world is falling around you, and it could take you down.” But Trump also called this time his “most brilliant period.”
Certainly he was no sap. He absolutely refused to play the part of a soft-headed sea captain who thinks it is his duty as ship’s commander to save everyone else before saving himself. Screwing his courage to the sticking place, he battled for space on the first life boat. Speaking scornfully of those he pushed aside, he told the Journal:
I had some banks I was negotiating with that were fabulous people. I also had some very terrible people that I was negotiating with, and had I not been more terrible than them, I might not be here talking with you right now.
Trump survived and eventually prospered. In the midst of all his troubles, he dumped one wife and wooed and wed another. He gave wife #2 a dazzling engagement ring “the size of a golf ball” from the shop of a famous jeweler. The bankers controlling the monthly purse strings were stunned by this act of extravagance. Alan Pomerantz, a lawyer with a firm representing Citibank, told the Journal:
We said, “Donald, where did you get the money for this ring? He said, “I didn’t pay for it. It’s a loaner.”
Trump corroborated the story, saying: “As a celebrity when you would go out in those days, the Harry Winstons of the world would give you jewelry for the night. So maybe they were talking about that.”
This seems an especially apt example of Trump’s adroitness — even as a deadbeat — in finding ways to work any kind of a confining “system” to his own advantage. Operating on borrowed time and borrowed money, he still managed to create a super-sized, if false, impression of his own “hugeness.”
On a recent visit to London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, I was studying exotic marine specimens when I learned something that caused me to think of Trump’s gift of the one-night-only engagement ring in a new and humorous light. I burst into laughter, startling other visitors in the hushed museum. Here among the fishes, I thought, was some real insight into the great man’s modus operandi — both as a master brander and a wildly successful populist political leader.
I was in a section of the museum with small jars preserving the remains of several pufferfish, a group that includes balloonfish, blowfish, bubblefish, and swellfish — and also the porcupine fish and (truly) the bright orange clownfish.
Pufferfish are famous for their “inflatablility.” With highly elastic stomachs, they can ingest huge amounts of water and swell up to several times their normal size — causing would-be predators to flee and a larger group of smaller fish (we might assume) to stand up and clap. What could be more Trump-like?
But that still begs the question of whether Trump can puff up anything more than his own persona. Can he — as he says — make America great again?
As a 24/7 braggart and self-promoter with a well-known nasty streak, Trump stretches truth to the breaking point with the claim that he “joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves.”
All populists are pufferfish — making big promises and pretending to be more than they are. Pufferfish have dominated this electoral cycle — Bernie Sanders on the left, Trump on the right. Free college for everyone who wants it is to Sanders what promised toughness in cutting great-for-the-U.S. trade deals is to Trump — an exercise in magical thinking… the old story of hoping to get something for nothing. More fist pounding at the trade table won’t create millions of new jobs and cause incomes to rise… any more than Sanders (or Hillary Clinton as the now unchallenged Democratic Party standard bearer) can conjure up a college education for all that is both free and costless.
Trump seems to have little appreciation for the real well-spring of American prosperity. America became the strongest, richest, and maybe even the happiest nation on earth as a result of unrivalled economic as well as political freedom, combined with deeply ingrained traits of individual initiative and individual responsibility.
Trump may puff himself up — even to the point of becoming president of the United States. But to raise a divided and dispirited America to a new pinnacle of greatness will take more than puffery… or the fulminations of a crazily narcissistic blowhard.
But who knows? Trump has surprised his critics and the traditionalists so many times before over the last 14 months. Maybe he can do it again — upon achieving high office. There are worse things that he could be than a human wrecking ball — blasting away at all of the conceits and certainties of eight years of progressive government under Barack Obama.
Andrew B. Wilson, a long-time contributor to The American Spectator, lives in St. Louis.