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Friday, June 24, 2016

Book Review: Trump—The Art of The Deal

Trump: The Art of The Deal 
By Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz
Ballantine Books

You read The Art of The Deal almost surprised at how little effort Trump puts into any deal that he strikes. In the book, he does some blunt talk; he calls his detractors “phonies and hypocrites” and even “life’s losers,” but he doesn’t elucidate his strategy for making successful deals. The book doesn't live up to its billing.

But he did make those magnificent buildings, so he must have a strategy—he must have the vision for real-estate development. He doesn't talk about all that in the book.

You get the feeling that many of Trump’s projects are successful because he has a knack for managing the politicians, the media, the celebrities and the tycoons. He doesn't squander his resources or time on developing a great business plan. His name recognition, his image as a successful tycoon, his exposure on the media, and his contacts with the politicians and celebrities, beckon more seductively to those with whom he is negotiating.

He usually doesn't award much importance to the intellectuals or artists. He prefers to evaluate people on the basis of their material accomplishments. About academics, he says: “My father could run circles around most academics.” He suggests that instead of relying on experts or intellectuals one should listen to one’s gut feeling. “Listen to your gut,” he says, “no matter how good something sounds on paper.”

About a painter, who, according to Trump, is highly successful and well-known, he writes: “I get a great kick out of this guy because, unlike some artists I’ve met, he’s totally unpretentious.” Apparently, in Trump’s world, being unpretentious means that the person has the ability to effortlessly and pointlessly make huge sums of money. Here’s an excerpt:

“A few months back he invited me to come to his studio. We were standing around talking, when all of a sudden he said to me, “Do you want to see me earn twenty-five thousand dollars before lunch?” “Sure,” I said, having no idea what he meant. He picked up a large open bucket of paint and splashed some on a piece of canvass stretched on the floor. Then he picked up another bucket, containing a different color, and splashed some of that on the canvas. He did this four times, and it took him perhaps two minutes. When he was done, he turned to me and said, 'Well, that’s it. I’ve earned twenty-five thousand dollars. Lets’s go to lunch.'”

The idea that a leading painter will splash buckets of paint on a stretched canvas to create his work of art is implausible, but Trump presents it as a fact, and goes on to deliver his bromide on modern art: “a lot of modern art is a con, and…the most successful painters are often better salesmen and promoters than they are artists.” If he thinks that lot of modern art is con, then what kind of art, according to him, isn’t con?

Trump doesn't seem inclined towards art, but he gives ample evidence of his flashy taste in decor. When he saw the home of Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian billionaire, he was awed by the huge size of the rooms. He decided that he would make his then-under-construction penthouse apartment as flashy as Khashoggi’s home. He got two adjacent apartments in Trump Tower merged, so that he could have an eighty-foot long living room. He also got the living room embellished with 27 hand-carved Italian marble columns.

He has a simple way of looking at the world, those who back his deals are the life’s winners, and those who oppose him are the “life’s losers.”

“Even if I never went on the offensive, there are a lot of people gunning for me now. One of the problems when you become successful is that jealousy and envy inevitably follow. There are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others. As far as I’m concerned, if they had any real ability they wouldn’t be fighting me, they’d be doing something constructive themselves.”

Trump repeatedly refers to the media coverage, good or bad, that he has received. He understands the power of the media—he knows that generating controversy isn’t always a bad thing. He writes: “good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.”

When he announced his plan to build the world’s tallest building, it became a media event. The building never got built, but Trump was satisfied by the media hype that he got.

“Then I announced I was going to build the world’s tallest building on the site. Instantly, it became a media event: the New York Times put it on the front page, Dan Rather announced it in the evening news, and George Will wrote a column about it in Newsweek. Every architecture critic had an opinion, and so did a lot of editorial writers. Not all of them liked the idea of the world’s tallest building. But the point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.”

The last sentence, in the above quote, makes you wonder, if Trump really believes that it’s only the media hype that creates value?

In recent years, the conservative columnist, George Will, has called Trump all kinds of names, and Trump has called Will “stupid,” a “political moron,” and a “disaster.” In one instance, Trump levelled the ultimate epithet on Will, by calling him “boring.” But in the 1980s both of them had lots of nice things to say about each other. George Will’s article on Trump’s world’s tallest tower project, is according to Trump, his favorite. As per the book, in his column, Will wrote:

“Trump, who believes that excesses can be a virtue, is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the super-skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary. He believes architectural exuberance is good for us [and] he may have a point. Brashness, zest and élan are part of this country’s character.”

Trump goes on to suggest that his regret was that “George Will didn't have a seat on the City Planning Commission.” This may seem like a lighthearted comment, but Trump, in all probability, means it. If he had his way, the City Planning Commission would be full of people who will enthusiastically say, “Yes, yes, yes,” to his every real-estate project.

Trump speaks repeatedly about his ability to get the talented people to work for him. But he seems to suggest that he regards only those as “talented” who are in agreement with him. About Helmut Jahn, whom he hired as the architect for the world’s tallest tower project, Trump says: “What I liked most about Helmut was that he believed, as I did, that big can be beautiful. He liked spectacle.” Apparently liking what Trump liked was the necessary condition for Jahn to be hired.

Being a real-estate developer, Trump has frequent encounters with politicians. Not all politicians are helpful, but he knows that those who oppose him are “life’s losers.”

When New York City was planning to build its convention centre, they estimated that it would cost $260 million. Trump announced that he could build the convention centre for $110 million and save the city $150 million. Even though his proposal got some media coverage, the politicians didn't react to it. Then, Trump says, he discovered for the first time “that politicians don’t care too much what things cost. It’s not their money.”

But if the politicians are not caring about what things cost, then what is the way of stopping them from pouring public money down the drain? While Trump identifies some of the regulatory problems that the real estate sector faces, he does not provide any concrete political or social ideas for solving these problems. In the comments that he makes on certain politicians and government institutions, he sounds quite unexceptional and pedestrian.

He ends the book in the typical Trump style, with effusive praise for himself. But he also indicates that he would like to move into politics. “In my life, there are two things I’ve found I’m very good at: overcoming obstacles and motivating good people to do their best work. One of the challenges ahead is how to use those skills as successfully in the service of others as I’ve done, up to now, on my own behalf.” On the whole The Art of The Deal offers a compelling and revealing portrait of Trump, the real-estate tycoon.

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