Reviews — From the August 2016 issue

Don the Realtor

The rise of Trump

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Insofar as it is a memoir, The Art of the Deal resembles a rags-to-riches story from which the rags have been tastefully excised. Donald’s dad, Fred C. Trump, did the rags bit, becoming the man of the house at the age of eleven (Donald’s grandfather was “a hard liver and a hard drinker”); so it was Fred, toiling away in the outer boroughs, who shined shoes, delivered fruit, and hauled lumber. Even at sixteen, though, Trump Sr. was starting to get ahead, “building prefabricated garages for fifty dollars apiece.”

By the time Donald appeared, Fred was a grand master of what we would now call affordable housing; and little Donald was his father’s sidekick as together they toured the sites, checking up on builders, suppliers, and contractors, and intimidating penniless tenants when they fell behind on the rent. But “I had loftier dreams and visions,” Trump writes. Not for him the little redbrick boxes, nor yet the “three-story Colonials, Tudors, and Victorians” that Fred went on to erect. In the early 1970s, fortified by that “small loan” from his father ($1 million), Donald strode across the Brooklyn Bridge and started to traffic in unaffordable housing: skyscrapers.

If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal. One of the drawbacks of phenomenal success, Trump ruefully notes, “is that jealousy and envy inevitably follow” (“I categorize [such people] as life’s losers”); but the present reader, at least, felt a gorgeous serenity when contemplating Trump’s average day. Nonnavigable permits, floor-area ratios, zoning approvals, rezoning approvals (“involving a dozen city and state agencies, as well as local community groups”), land-rights and air-rights purchases, property-tax abatements, handouts to politicians (“very standard and accepted”), and, if push came to shove (“I’m not looking to be a bad guy when it isn’t absolutely necessary”), coerced evictions.

On the other hand, think of all the exceptional human beings he is working with. Alan “Ace” Greenberg, CEO of Bear Stearns; Ivan Boesky, crooked arbitrageur; Arthur Sonnenblick, “one of the city’s leading brokers”; Stephen Wynn, Vegas hotelier; Adnan Khashoggi, “Saudi billionaire” (and arms dealer); and Paul Patay, “the number-one food-and-beverage man in Atlantic City.” And on top of all this there’s Barron Hilton, “born wealthy and bred to be an aristocrat,” and “a member of what I call the Lucky Sperm Club.” (An ugly formulation, that: I respectfully advise Mr. Trump to settle on a more demotic alternative — the Lucky Scum Club, say.)

Then you have the social life. A sustaining can of tomato juice for lunch (“I rarely go out, because mostly, it’s a waste of time”); a minimum of parties (“Frankly, I’m not too big on parties, because I can’t stand small talk”); and an absolute minimum of hanging about in cocktail bars (“I don’t drink, and I’m not very big on sitting around”). But of course there are treats and sprees. Take the dinners. A dinner at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with John Cardinal O’Connor and his “top bishops and priests.” A dinner, chaired by Trump, for the Police Athletic League. A visit to Trenton “to attend a retirement dinner for a member of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.”

It is thus exhaustively established that Trump has a superhuman tolerance for boredom. What are his other commercial strengths? Nerve; tenacity; patience; an unembarrassable pushiness (indulgently known as chutzpah); a shrewd aversion to staking his own money; the aforementioned readiness, at a pinch, to play the villain; the ability to be “a screamer when I want to be” (but not when he senses that “screaming would only scare them off”); and the determination to “fight when I feel I’m being screwed.” Above all, perhaps, his antennae are very sensitive to weakness. Looking to buy an old hotel in Midtown, Trump rejects the Biltmore, the Barclay, and the Roosevelt as being “at least moderately successful,” and goes instead for the “only one in real trouble,” the Commodore, which he can pitch as “a loser hotel in a decaying neighborhood” and so flatten the price. Similarly, his long and apparently hopeless campaign to get Bonwit Teller, store and building, suddenly takes fire when he learns that its parent company has started “to experience very serious financial problems.” And he gets Bonwit Teller. Perhaps that’s the defining asset: a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey.

Trump can sense when an entity is no longer strong enough or lithe enough to evade predation. He did it with that white elephant, the Grand Old Party, whose salaried employers never saw him coming, even when he was there, and whose ruins he now bestrides. The question is, Can he do it with American democracy?

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has published fourteen novels, most recently The Zone of Interest and Lionel Asbo: State of England.

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