However else history comes to judge the 45th president of the United States of America, he will go down as a writer of prodigious, virtually Dickensian industry. Ronald Reagan had his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?. Barack Obama had his early-years memoir and his volume of political thought. But no other president can claim to have entered the White House with a backlist as hefty as the present incumbent’s. Seventeen books bear the Donald J Trump name and (always) the Donald J Trump mugshot in a variety of highly colourised grins and gurns. Stacked on a desk, Trump’s literary output (appropriately enough) towers. Even at 562 pages, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Living History withers to a speck in its shadow. Big win!
Of course, questions remain about how many of these 17 books Trump has, in any literal sense, written. Each of them is ghosted, a collaborative relationship in which the exact division of labour remains mysterious. Certainly most of us think of Trump these days as temperamentally more inclined to irascible tweets than to protracted meditations in prose. Nor has he ever announced himself to be a particularly voracious reader. It may be that an old joke about David Beckham applies still more firmly to Trump: that he is in the unusual position of having written more books than he has read. So, his literary career is perhaps best considered as forming a parallel with his best work in hotels and golf courses – a licensing and branding exercise in which someone else stumps up the money, further people do the spadework, and Trump gets to pin his name to the project in big gold letters at the end.
Yet there they are, muscling their way unignorably across the shelf: How to Get Rich; Think Big; Think Like a Champion; Think Like a Billionaire; Midas Touch; Trump 101: the Way to Success, and on and on. But oddly, in the early days of the new administration readers stormed the bookshops not for Trump’s The Best Real Estate Advice I Ever Received, but for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. When people sought to make sense of the eerie, chaotic and borderline incompetent dawn of the Trump era, dystopian nightmare won out over inspirational business book. Yet shouldn’t that formidable body of work be pressing for our consideration? Even allowing for the ghostwriting – and even given that seemingly nothing Trump says can be trusted to stand for longer than it takes him to say it – this is indisputably source material. If we wish to understand the man and his mission, there must be something to be gained from applying ourselves to these five thousand or so presidential pages. Mustn’t there?
The classic Trump text is widely agreed to be The Art of the Deal. Published in 1987, when Trump was 41, it spent 48 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and arguably set the tone for his literary career in its opening three sentences: “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.” Read now, those words feel as evocative of cashed-up, wad-waving, mid-Eighties Wall Street as red braces and Michael Douglas declaring that lunch is for wimps. And yet, in June 2015, when Trump descended into the atrium of Trump Tower and announced his intention to run for the Republican presidential nomination, the book was part of his pitch. “We need a leader who wrote The Art of the Deal,” he said.
This declaration rather startled Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for that book. Schwartz shared his alarm with Jane Mayer of the New Yorker and her ensuing article, published in July 2016, is an important document for Trumpian literary studies. It explains how the character that Schwartz created for Trump in The Art of the Deal was brash but charming, keen to entertain and enlighten, and blessed with preternatural business acumen. But it was exactly that: a character. In the 18 months that Schwartz had spent around Trump, the writer had come to regard him, in fact, as pathologically impulsive and self-centred.
“It’s impossible to keep him focused on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandisement, for more than a few minutes,” Schwartz told Mayer, explaining why the original plan to construct a conventionally shaped autobiography had to be ditched in favour of an anecdotal ramble through Trump’s working life. “Lying is second nature to him,” he added. “More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.” Schwartz confessed to Mayer that he had “put lipstick on a pig”, and said that if he were writing a book about Trump now he wouldn’t title it The Art of the Deal. He would call it The Sociopath.
Returning to the book now, with the light well and truly let in on the magic, one or two alarm bells cannot help but sound, even above the constructed charm. For instance, we know Trump to be “a nice guy” because he keeps telling us he is. He told us again in his later books, too. But one wonders whether genuinely nice guys have to spend so much time reminding people about it. (See also: “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”)
Or take the disarming playroom tale of Trump’s younger brother, Robert. “Robert likes to tell the story of the time when it became clear to him where I was headed,” Trump recalls. Trump arranges to borrow all of Robert’s building blocks to add to his own, on condition that he return them afterwards. He then makes a tall building with them and glues the construction together so that it can’t be dismantled. “And that was the end of Robert’s blocks.” And of Trump’s blocks, of course, though he doesn’t dwell on this potential downside.
Then there is the oft-repeated tale of his mother Mary Anne’s love for Scotland, and of how thrilled she was to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on television in 1953 – a detail that has been evoked as a guarantee that Trump will be conveniently sympathetic towards British interests in the uncertain aftermath of Brexit. However, the anecdote is rarely broadened to include Trump’s father’s darker reaction to the mother’s sentimentality in this regard. ‘‘For Christ’s sake, Mary,” he said, “enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.’’ Come the negotiations, the specialness of Britain’s trade deal with the US will depend in large measure, presumably, on whether Trump is channelling his mother or his father that day.
“I didn’t consider it my job to investigate,” Schwartz told Mayer, referring to Trump’s tales of business successes that were, in fact, failures. Similarly, Ivana Trump was neither “a top model” nor a member of the Czech Olympic ski team. Trump’s father was not born in New Jersey to Swedish parents: he was born in the Bronx to German parents. Timothy O’Brien, the author of a 2005 investigative biography of Trump, argued that The Art of the Deal was best described as a “non-fiction work of fiction”. Or one might use the category into which the writer Andrew Anthony inserted Glenn Hoddle’s delusional diary of England’s 1998 World Cup campaign: “magical realism”. Trump, naturally, has his own explanation: “I call it truthful hyperbole,” the book says. “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
True – and for an instance of that, look no further than the puff from the New York Times on the front cover of the paperback of The Art of the Deal: “Trump makes one believe for a moment in the American dream again.” It is easy to breeze past the sceptical weight of the phrase “for a moment”, but, once noticed, it alters the nature of the endorsement. What that sentence says is that he makes one believe in the American dream fleetingly, deceptively: thus, not really at all. In the original and playfully doubtful review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the next sentence read, “It’s like a fairy tale.”
With The Art of the Deal, the Hans Christian Andersen of the business shelves was only just getting started. The death of three business associates in a helicopter crash brings a more sombre, pithy tone to the beginning of 1990’s Surviving at the Top. This doesn’t last, though, and by page 27 we are on to the subject of Trump’s painfully thin skin and into a litany of trivial grievances and irritations – how people were wrong to say The Art of the Deal was poorly reviewed; how the story of him purchasing thousands of copies to boost its position on the bestseller lists was false (he did buy thousands of copies, but he did so wholesale, in order to sell them around his hotels and resorts); how wrong it was of the media to say he had been blackballed by a tennis club in Palm Beach; how his Forbes wealth rating in a May 1990 issue of the magazine ($500m, down from $1.7bn the previous year) was wildly inaccurate (“Major failure . . . mediocre reporter”). Trump thinks that the Forbes publisher Malcolm Forbes turned against him after he bought a “more luxurious” and longer yacht than Forbes owned. We struggle to glimpse the imminent birth of the people’s crusader and humble ally of the working man.
The problem for the contemporary reader of Surviving at the Top is that what we now know keeps interfering with the simple pleasure of the text. “I’ve always been blessed with a kind of intuition about people that allows me to sense who the sleazy guys are,” writes the man who would appoint Steve Bannon to a seat on the National Security Council. “Toughness is knowing how to be a gracious winner,” writes possibly the least gracious winner of our times. Be honest, suggests a man whose lying appears to be pathological. Trump is also frequently bored, and by many things. “Travel is time-consuming and, in my opinion, boring.” “I find exercise boring.” Successful people? “You’ll probably find their company boring.” In fairness, these lapses of interest are covered under a general clause in Surviving at the Top: “I get bored too easily. My attention span is short.”
By the time of Trump: How to Get Rich in 2004, further fame has arrived via reality TV and The Apprentice, and the concerns adjust accordingly. “Emphatically and categorically, no: I do not wear a rug. My hair is 100 per cent mine.” The new approach, in which scraps of barely digested anecdote compete for space with doomed nuggets of wisdom and mock-casual lifestyle signalling (“I like going to the Waldorf, especially when I’m receiving an award”), continues in Think Like a Billionaire, published that same year, whose cover boasts another boldly appropriated puff, wherein the phrases “Trump has put his name on a steady stream of classics . . . the Donaldian voice never wavers. This is a truly astonishing achievement” almost lose the six-inch layer of sarcasm they wore in the original, highly dismissive article by Joe Queenan in the New York Times Book Review.
What goes by the name of helpful advice here is fairly thin. It may or may not assist you to learn from Trump that you might get more for your car if you clean it before you sell it. That said, “There are no guarantees in this life.” Also, “life is very fragile”. And “fame is a kind of drug”. But “time will heal all wounds”. So: “Be optimistic – but always be prepared for the worst.” With Think Big in 2007, the proverbial circularity seems to be making even Trump dizzy: “My motto is: ‘Never give up.’ I follow this very strictly. I only give up on something when it is perfectly clear that there is no other option.” Or, to put it another way, never give up until it’s time to give up. This, it perhaps goes without saying, is also the theme of his opus Never Give Up (2008).
But if there is a stifled and poignantly despairing air to these volumes, it is, in fairness, intrinsic to the form. It’s unlikely that anybody ever got rich by reading a book called How to Get Rich. Reaching for a book called Think Big generally wouldn’t be the reflex of someone naturally inclined to think big. This school of personality-driven business publishing – “things I learned on the way to my first fortune” – boils down to narratives that, though they may loosely be labelled inspiring, don’t offer useful precedents at all. Usually, as in The Art of the Deal and its spin-offs, the resulting book isn’t a manual so much as the showy account of one person’s successful passage through a set of circumstances that resist duplication. The fact is, there is no business lesson to be extracted from the career of Donald Trump even if he had the will or the skill to impart it, which he doesn’t. The motivational business book is at best a publishing sleight of hand and, at worst, a bottle of snake oil. Still, we should give Trump credit; he is the honorary and actual president of the genre.
One notices the stirrings of political ambition as early as 1990 and the end of Surviving at the Top. America, Trump notes, has grown weak in the face of its trade rivals. He recommends the direct introduction of a 20 per cent tax on imports from Japan and Germany. It’s a shy version of “America First”. And then in 2000, the ambitions become overt in The America We Deserve, designed to pave the way for a presidential bid that he never made, and sounding what will become our time’s loudest dog whistle: “But who are the experts, and what have they done for us lately?”
The America We Deserve asserts: “A Trump candidacy would do best in an economic downturn, when American voters would likely turn to a can-do businessman prepared to make the tough decisions.” The tacit admission here is that America will call on Trump only when the country is desperate enough to do so. Sixteen years later, when his presidential run took place against the backdrop of an economic upturn, rising employment and historically low crime rates, he simply insisted that it didn’t, and created the “American carnage” myth of his inaugural address.
By then, he had hammered home the message with Time to Get Tough (2011) and Crippled America (2015), which is essentially his 2016 campaign manifesto, and on the jacket of which the author wears a suddenly necessary frown. For these two books, the ghostwriters disappear from the cover and enter the acknowledgements so that Trump can appear to be speaking with one voice, and so sound electable. No more playful stuff about hair, nor about playing fast and loose. “The country I love is a total economic disaster right now,” he writes, referencing “the make-believe problem of global warming”. Obama is “a lousy international deal-maker”. Furthermore, “The president cannot even speak intelligently without a teleprompter. It’s embarrassing and sad!” Trump accusing Obama of ineloquence represents a high-water mark for bluff. This moment also brings the first appearance in the Trump literary canon of the trope “Sad!”.
Perhaps the most germane question these books prompt is not whether America can be run like a company, but whether it can be run the way Trump runs a company: impulsively, on the fly, in the absence of consistent belief or principles and from the centre of a tight circle of cohorts that never seem to know what is coming next. It is not entirely fanciful to suggest a link between Trump’s voluminous literary output and the slew of executive orders he issued in the first days of the presidency, which were similarly vague, impracticable and inclined to skate blithely over complications that the author didn’t seem much inclined to notice or consider. And which, of course, were also ghosted. Since then, the abiding and constantly alarming impression has been of a president who, essentially, is winging it. But why would anyone be surprised? It was written. In a whole shelf of books.
Yet all authors, even the ghosted ones, are in the end at the mercy of their readers, who retain the power to put their books down unfinished, to fail to recommend them to friends, to decline to buy the next volume. In a rare moment of reflection in The Art of the Deal, this thought appears to occur to Trump. “You can’t con people,” he writes, “at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” Which, 17 books in to Trump’s literary career, but just a handful of weeks into his presidency, is where we are.
Giles Smith writes for the Times
This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda