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The President Who Thrives on Decay and Collapse

Bro Bibles: ‘The Art of the Deal’ by Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

Sometime in high school, while inventing baroque obscenities, my friends and I came up with “fuckity shat platter” — a phrase that, to us, seemed the pinnacle of this art. It sounded final, and it sounded total. It’s a pleasure to say. It could mean anything, really, though most probably something you hate, a steaming pile of repugnant dumbassery served up smorgasbord-style. But we tossed the phrase around too much. I hadn’t known, as a youth, that these words would take 20 years to find their proper use.

The Art of the Deal, President Donald J. Trump’s first business book, is a fuckity shat platter. It’s like being cornered at a cocktail party by the guy who won’t pause his monologue to let you escape to the bathroom. It is a verbal war crime, and I am dumber for having read it.

It’s offensive enough that Trump considers anything he’s done in his wretched goblin life an “art,” but let’s quickly reiterate that he sucks at the one thing he’s supposed to good at: President Deals is outgunned and outmaneuvered every single time he sits down to negotiations. The Art of the Deal itself is proof.

Trump gave his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, nigh unfathomable terms for an author taking on such a job: half of the $500,000 advance, half the royalties, and his name on the cover. (Schwartz now does us the penance of publicly calling Trump a “scared child” whenever he can.) Trump tells us repeatedly that you should always pay top dollar for superior quality, but he does it with a book made of cheap, crappy paper that tore when I tried to jot notes on it, and in paragraphs of uneven, blotchy type that would embarrass a vanity publisher. It’s on page 335, just 30 pages shy of the end, that he drops this pearl of wisdom: “Deals work best when each side gets something it wants from the other.” Donald…thank you.

Released in 1987, The Art of the Deal is also the snapshot of a man poised to trip over his own gold-plated shoes. He touts his success in Atlantic City, a town soon devastated by his greed and the site of colossal Trump failures, including a string of bankruptcies. He brags about plans to build new broadcasting headquarters for NBC and the world’s tallest building on Manhattan’s West Side Yards; later, he bungled the project at every turn and lost this valuable property, never to attempt a major urban development again. And the Trump of this era is convinced that the United States Football League, in which he was then a franchise owner, will be able to force a merger with the NFL, “a smug, self-satisfied monopoly,” by appealing the verdict on a go-nowhere antitrust suit. Today, the only remnant of the USFL is Trump’s grudge against the league that buried it.

The landlord philosophy, meanwhile, is as dull as it gets: tax loopholes are good, and rent control is “a disaster.” Hinting at the gossipy old bitch he’d become, he wines that celebrities like Mia Farrow and Carly Simon pay a fifth of what their luxury apartments would fetch on the open market, then criticizes a favorite target, New York Mayor Ed Koch, for keeping three rooms in Greenwich Village when he “doesn’t even live” there — because he makes his home in Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence. I guess we can expect Trump to lease Mar-a-Lago any day now, seeing as he’s got the White House and all. This diatribe erupts amid a 1980s episode that pitted him against longtime tenants of 100 Central Park South, a building he planned to vacate and demolish, and the chapter is an instructive looks at Trump’s polarized thinking: Either people are rich and renowned, the spoiled elite in ivory towers who refuse to meet his demands, or they’re the mass of “junkies, prostitutes and thieves” thronged outside.

That understanding leads to free association — always cause for dread with this oleaginous bozo. “One morning, after passing several homeless people sleeping on benches in Central Park, I got an idea,” is a chilling sentence to read in his voice. What was this dazzling bolt from the blue? Did he want to hunt the poor? Not quite. Rather he meant to horrify the tenants he couldn’t evict by letting a handful of the city’s unhoused occupy the empty apartments in the building, “on a temporary basis,” all under the guise of humanitarian largesse. “I’m not going to pretend that it bothered me to imagine the very wealthy tenants of 100 Central Park South having to live alongside people less fortunate than themselves for a while,” he adds. Like so many of his brilliant chess moves, this scheme fizzles fast, but he does cut down on amenities, reasoning that small annoyances will drive people out. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the rich, it’s that they have a very low threshold for even the mildest discomfort,” he declares.

And here’s the thing: He’s right. Trump is stupid and wrong about everything except rich people. He knows they’re vain, petty, cowardly and — crucially — gullible.

While overseeing construction of a hotel in partnership with Holiday Inns, he shows their board of directors around a work site swarmed with bulldozers and dump trucks he’s rented just to give the illusion of bustling activity. When one director notices the crew is simply digging holes to fill them up again, Trump successfully brushes him off, noting he was “more curious than he was skeptical.” He understands that the ruling class is often too lazy and distractible to look after their interests.

One eye-popping insult is reserved for Prudent Real Estate Investment Trust: “They were the sort of people who’d throw money into a project in Puerto Rico without even going to see it.” Incredibly, he disparages his fellow aristocratic scions as members of “the Lucky Sperm Club” and even advances the notion that heirs to dynastic fortunes are doomed to feckless lives, noting how hotel magnate Conrad Hilton “believed very strongly that inherited wealth destroys moral character and motivation,” and then: “I happen to agree that it often does.” Special ire is saved for men who take managerial roles in their father’s company.

But it shouldn’t surprise us that 40-year-old Trump essentially hated his sons already — you almost feel for Don Jr., who features early on as a 9-year-old calling his dad at the office to ask when he’s coming home from work. Trump, amused by the kid’s insistence on a definite answer, bizarrely muses: “Perhaps he’s got my genes.” (Does he not know how reproduction works, or is he genuinely questioning his paternity? It’s hard to tell.) Nor is it any secret that Trump is no self-made mogul. He doesn’t mention the literal millions of dollars his own father, Fred Trump, gifted or loaned him before dying in 1999, though he’s privileged enough not to realize the extent of his starting lead. “When I graduated from college, I had a net worth of perhaps $200,000, and most of it was tied up in buildings in Brooklyn and Queens,” he humbly informs us, as if he were an immigrant arriving at Ellis Island with a handful of change.

Shades of the future tweeter-in-chief are everywhere: Trump rails against the press while craving their approval, relates the favorite fat jokes he’s leveled at his enemies, sneers over welfare programs and public housing, ogles women, blames losses on others (or the albatross of his evident greatness), oozes weirdly archaic racism (“He was a very smooth, attractive guy, an Italian who looked like a WASP”), ignores legal advice, does everything on a whim, compares his penthouse to Versailles, relishes controversy, makes ridiculous threats, and praises anyone who kisses his ass as “loyal.”

What ought to worry us more than his inexhaustible supply of character defects, however, is an awareness that he thrives on decay and collapse. Daddy’s money was only part of his recipe for mythologized success; Trump rose to power in the ’70s and ’80s, in a hopeless New York. “The funny thing,” he says in recounting his purchase of the failing Commodore hotel, “is that the city’s desperate circumstances became my biggest weapon.” It’s a short leap from here to “Make America Great Again,” which is less geared toward renewal than reinforcing the point that we currently live in a hellhole.

The few meager bits of value, I think, are where Schwartz strives to paint Trump as larger than life, as opposed to a tedious brat in a suit — the moments of near-literary invention. “I never had a master plan. I just got fed up one day and decided to do something about it,” is how he opens a chapter on the renovation of Wollman Rink in Central Park, but in its impulsive menace you glimpse the germ of his presidential run. And the book’s first words are like novelist Joseph Heller introducing his sociopathic white-collar villain in the overlooked masterpiece Something Happened: “I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it,” Trump says.

Naturally, there’s no reason to believe this, but if you did, it’s not exactly the same as buying into Trump’s chosen legend — that he was put on the earth to turn a profit.

Instead you’d be accepting the truth that screams underneath his every statement: He doesn’t know why he does anything, because he cannot or will not gaze within.

It would take him another couple of decades to develop the habit of referring to himself in the third person, but with The Art of the Deal he laid the groundwork for his political persona as a creature of unexamined and unchangeable habit, a puppet of forces beyond his control.

His decisions as president have been catastrophic insofar as he views government as a business, and he views business as a game, one in which he is rarely at risk; he cares not for the consequence, as it always fails to reach him, and so the choices are meaningless. In short, he is a bored and boring man who has ever dreamed of being somehow interested — and of being interesting. He may as well give up now.