Election 2016

How 'The Art of the Deal' Explains Everything We Need to Know About Donald Trump

But "The Art of War" has some pointers for his opponent.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/FlickR

Scarcely a speech or political appearance by Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, goes by without him boasting about his book, “The Art of the Deal,” and its enormous popularity. Trump calls it the best-selling business book of all time.

Not quite. It sold pretty well, but Trump’s claim notwithstanding, it was not the best-selling business book of all time…not even close (Try “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”)

But the book does help explain the mystifying political campaign of Donald J. Trump and his, to put it charitably, shaky relationship to the truth, as well as what might be going through his head with some of the outrageous proposals he has put forth. If Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States, we can’t say he didn’t warn us. Although written almost 30 years ago (well, actually ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz, but presumably Trump approved every word), “The Art of the Deal” remains the sacred, original text of The Donald.

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There's this passage:

My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.

This statement goes to the very heart of the philosophy of Donald Trump the Businessman-Turned-Politician. On the stump, a mainstay of Trump’s rambling speeches is his boast that he will make better deals with China and other nations than anyone has ever made. He is, he says, the master negotiator.

In his book, Trump relates how he once offered $5 million for a airplane he knew sold for closer to $20 million, and how the seller countered at $10 million. At that moment, Trump says he knew, wherever it ended up, he had made a great deal.

It is in this context that Trump’s promises for a wall between Mexico and the United States paid for entirely by Mexico, or the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants, or the ban on all Muslims entering the country, must be taken. There are really only two ways you can take such proposals. Either Trump is insane, or Trump the Businessman is “negotiating.” In a negotiation, the truth about where you actually stand on the matter is completely beside the point, as is the true value of the thing being discussed. The only worth of an airplane is what you actually pay for it. The only truth of a political proposal is the ultimate agreement made. As a businessperson, Trump may actually believe everything he says because nothing is actually true until the deal is made. Truth is what is negotiated, not some external value.

Another passage:

I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first. In addition, once I've made a deal, I always come up with at least a half dozen approaches to making it work, because anything can happen, even to the best-laid plans.

This may explain how it is that Trump can make so many diametrically opposed statements, sometimes within moments of each other. Perhaps this is why in 1990 he described himself as a Democrat, then in 1999 as a Republican, then in 2004 as a Democrat and finally in 2015 as a Republican. (Of course, in 2016, he settled the question: “Folks, I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares?”) Or how he was pro-choice in 1999 and pro-life in 2015. Or against gay marriage in 2000 and okay with gay marriage in 2005 and against it again in 2011. 

Pundits might call these flip-flops. Trump would call it flexibility, or never getting "too attached." In a negotiation, everything is on the table, even your beliefs. Being a Democrat not working? Try the other side. Pro-choice inconvenient? Let’s see what pro-lifers have to offer. Or as the late Earl Shorris wrote in his book, “A Nation of Salesmen," “The salesman finds it efficient to live without adhering to a theory of political or social justice.”

Another passage from Trump's tome:

When the board of Holiday Inn was considering whether to enter into a partnership with me in Atlantic City, they were attracted to my site because they believed my construction was farther along than that of any other potential partner. In reality I wasn't that far along, but I did everything I could, short of going to work at the site myself, to assure them that my casino was practically finished. My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.

A businessman’s strength comes from leverage. If he is dealing from a position of strength, he can craft a deal that favors him. That position of strength may not, in fact, correspond to reality, but if it appears real, if the opposition thinks it is real, then the leverage is still on his side. Think about Trump’s border wall. The wall will be built, and Mexico will pay for it, because the United States has the power to demand it. Don’t pay for it and the U.S. will stop trading with Mexico. A powerful threat, but only effective if Mexico believes Trump will follow through, and the prime reason why he refuses to back down on the promise to build it.

More on the leverage point:

The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you're dead.

Just in case you are wondering why Trump is so dismissive of the Iran missile deal or trade deals, or why he seems perfectly ready to abandon past agreements, desperation is not Donald Trump’s style. By appearing uninterested in making a deal, Trump no doubt believes he will come out with a better deal.

And here's vintage Trump on how to manipulate people:

I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

Donald Trump is a practitioner of what he calls “truthful hyperbole.” There is no such thing, of course, but don’t call it lying, or boasting. Call it innocent exaggeration. Make America great again! Build the best wall! Make the best deals! The Hispanics will love me! No one respects women like Donald Trump! I’m richer than anyone can believe! $10 billion! In another book popular among the business elite, a Chinese book of philosophy written centuries ago, “The Art of War,”  Sun Tzu wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” Deception—also known as truthful hyperbole.

The deception includes some self delusion as well, especially considering Trump's declared warfare with the media this week:

The other thing I do when I talk with reporters is to be straight. I try not to deceive them or to be defensive…Instead, when a reporter asks me a tough question, I try to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground. For example, if someone asks me what negative effects the world’s tallest building might have on the West Side, I turn the tables and talk about how New Yorkers deserve the world’s tallest building, and what a boost it will give the city to have that honor again. When a reporter asks why I build only for the rich, I note that the rich aren’t the only ones who benefit from my buildings. 

Even back in 1987, The Donald was a born politician. The next time you hear Trump dodge a question about Muslims or walls or illegal immigrants, remember, it’s all about “Making America Great Again.” No matter what he says in response, it’s all about misdirection, leading back to the pay-off.

His media manipulation is a well-honed strategy:

One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. It’s in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you. 

I’m not saying that [journalists] necessarily like me. Sometimes they write positively, and sometimes they write negatively. But from a pure business point of view, the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks. It’s really quite simple. If I take a full-page ad in the New York Times to publicize a project, it might cost $40,000, and in any case, people tend to be skeptical about advertising. But if the New York Times writes even a moderately positive one-column story about one of my deals, it doesn’t cost me anything, and it’s worth a lot more than $40,000. 

Blueprint for a political campaign on the fly at minimal cost? Here is the Trump manifesto. If the press had bothered to actually read Trump’s book, they might not have so quickly dismissed his campaign, outrageous from the get-go, with Mexican rapists and murderers and walls and deportations. The media bit, hook, line and sinker, and Trump reeled them in. While Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and friends were collecting all that Citizens United-fueled money and spending it to little avail, Trump was reaping the media windfall at no cost.

He wrote:

I like to think that I have that instinct. That's why I don't hire a lot of number-crunchers, and I don't trust fancy marketing surveys. I do my own surveys and draw my own conclusions.

Anyone wondering why Trump hasn’t surrounded himself with advisers and experts, look no further. One thing Donald Trump is sure about is himself. Of course, George W. Bush, too, famously went with his gut, and we all know how that ended up. Then again, Bush was, in the Trump lexicon, a loser. Donald’s a winner. Although, there is one more quote from Trump’s bible that he ignores at his peril:

You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion, you can get all kinds of press…but if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.

As for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s likely opponent in the general election, perhaps she should attack a businessman with business smarts. Trump used this Sun Tzu “Art of War” advice perfectly against his GOP opponents:

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If we wish to fight, the enemy can be forced to an engagement even though he be sheltered behind a high rampart and a deep ditch. All we need do is attack some other place that he will be obliged to relieve. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.  

But Sun Tzu has a strategy for Hillary too:

Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. 

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.