Monday, November 7, 2016

The Trump ‘Brand,’ Part 3: Deceiver

In my first post on Trump as a “brand,” I discussed how Donald Trump’s campaign and persona have involved 4 D’s: deadbeat, deceiver, demagogue, and danger. My second post related to this attempted to comprehensively cover his career as a deadbeat and what that might portend for his leadership of our economy. With precious little time left in this election, I thought   I would devote this post entirely, in detail, to his career as a deceiver.

This year, the GOP nominated a candidate who, by virtue of intellect, training and temperament, is completely unqualified for the Presidency. One has to ask how this came to pass. In no small part, the answer lies in the nominee’s capacity to hoodwink large portions of the public about his background and beliefs.

Some trace the source of Trump’s initial popularity with GOP primary voters to his lack of caution or a filter—his “lack of political correctness,” they’ll say. That is an entirely too generous an assessment of his personality, however.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant’s ad man noted that in his profession, there were no lies, only “expedient exaggeration.” Trump took this notion—and, typically, galloped away with it—in The Art of the Deal:

“The final key to the way I promote is bravado. 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.

“I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration -- and a very effective form of promotion,” he added.

“Truthful hyperbole” makes rather rich Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton “lies all the time.” I write this with no love lost for either her or her priapic husband. (For proof, see this prior of mine, “The Clinton Playbook: Bipartisan Survival in the Sex-Scandal Age.”)

But Trump’s falsehoods have been so broad and brazen that Politifact had to put them in a whole category of its own. It couldn’t award him a single “Lie of the Year,” so it had to assign a whole group to it.

In a remarkable six-page editorial urging America to “Bury Trump in a Landslide,” The New York Daily News was not engaging in the slightest hyperbole when it referred to him as “the most extraordinary, if not pathological, liar ever to seek the Presidency.”

Trump's Own "Birther" Problem

Among his lies that proved central to his unlikely candidacy for the Oval Office were his dark insinuations about Barack Obama. He not only stage-managed “birtherism’s” movement from the political margins to a constant issue dogging the President, but also hinted that Obama might not be releasing his Columbia University transcript because it would prove that he had been admitted to the school on the basis of affirmative action.

But Trump has an “origins” story far darker—marked by persistent obfuscation, the influence exerted by the very rich, and lying—than the President he so relentlessly criticized. If Barack Obama Sr. figures hugely in the paranoid nightmare of members of the Alt-Right, then Fred Trump plays an even more central role in the murky tale of his son’s beginnings.

In a section of his 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal, detailing his family history, Trump observed that his grandfather “came from Sweden as a child.” The only problem is that the real-estate mogul is no more Swedish than I am. (For the record, I’m of Irish descent on both sides of my family.)

For the record, Friedrich Trump — Donald’s grandfather —came not from Sweden, but from Kallstadt, a small town near the German border with France. After emigrating to the U.S. at the turn of the century, he tried to go home, but the authorities’ reminder of his military-service obligation sent him back to the U.S. again, this time for good.

More than 30 years later, Friedrich’s son Fred—now selling homes, with a large base consisting of returning WWII veterans—began to peddle the story that he was the son of a Swedish immigrant. What would have led him to make that claim?

Some have implied that he was trying not to excite zenophobes who blamed American involvement in two world wars on German aggression. But there may well have been more to it than that.

A June 1, 1927 article in The New York Times reported that Fred Trump had been among individuals arrested after a "near-riot" involving 100 policemen and 1,000 Klansmen in Jamaica, Queens, at a "Memorial parade." This was not a case of mistaken identity, as the address listed was one not only linked to Fred (21 at the time) on Census records but where he lived for much of his adult life.

The article is ambiguous about the extent of Fred’s involvement, if any; it notes that Fred had been discharged, so it is possible that he was an innocent bystander. But by the late 1940s, he would not have been eager for the war vets (many Jewish) he was trying to attract to his housing connect him to a racist, anti-Semitic organization. A claimed Swedish ancestry, on the other hand, would have thrown peopled off the scent. Just to make sure it stayed that way, Fred backed Israeli bonds, according to a Michael Daly article earlier this year in The Daily Beast.

The family inclination for fabulous tales, then, passed from Friedrich to Fred to Donald. The grandson’s mounted as high as his Manhattan real estate. 

'First in His Class'? Really?

Although Trump’s promotion of the birther lie about Obama has gotten more attention, the tycoon’s hit-and-run insinuations about the President’s attendance at Columbia University may be more hypocritical. Even before he implied that affirmative action might have been behind Obama’s successful transfer from Occidental College to Columbia, he hinted, even more outrageously, that the President might not have attended at all, because none of Obama’s classmates could even remember him from those years!

That line of attack is typical of Trump’s method: first try one line of attack, then, if that doesn’t fly, try another. Even if that second one doesn’t work, it would be like a plate of food hurled against the wall: even if it bounced off, it would leave a mess afterward. His hints about Obama’s collegiate career had its intended effect on that portion of the Republican base who could never bring themselves to believe that an African-American had achieved enough—or even possessed enough intelligence for—to attend not just one, but two (Columbia, Harvard Law School) Ivy League institutions.

Trump’s own path through academe poses a good deal more questions than Obama’s, though. He, too, transferred to an Ivy League school—in this case, from Fordham University to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. For anyone who claims he at least was not admitted to this selective institution because of affirmative action, they might want to keep in mind that it likely came through an even surer means: family influence.

I don’t mean simply Fred Trump—whose wealth alone, to be sure, might have smoothed the path for Donald. No, I’m talking about Fred Jr., Donald’s brother, who was friendly with an admissions officer at the school, according to Trump biographer Gwenda Blair.

What was he like once he got into the school?

 In 1973, he told a reporter from The New York Times that he had graduated first in his class at Wharton. (It would not be the only lie he would tell journalists that year: he also decried the discrimination lawsuit against his father then as “ridiculous.”)

There was only one problem with this, and knowing Trump, you’ve probably guessed it already: the likelihood that it was true was close to zero. An article in The Daily Pennsylvanian from 1968 did not list him among 56 people who made the Dean's List at Wharton in 1967-68, nor did any of his classmates recall him being valedictorian or even especially academically accomplished. 

These last few anecdotes collectively tell a story: By the time Trump was making his way into the business world, he was already lying. These were not lies to protect himself or someone he loved because of a mistake, but lies to puff himself up, to see his name in the paper again and again. What he learned was that it would take such a long time for someone to catch up with the lie that by that time he’d be in another situation requiring a different, larger fraud.

The Alternate-Reality Candidate: A Partial Checklist

We should have known that someday, Trump would become a reality-show star. It’s not only because such shows are fake and manipulative, but because they involve the creation of an alternate reality—most notably, the construction of a persona, dependent on an audience without memory of his ceaseless chameleon changes. 

And so, in this campaign, we have a Republican nominee for President who:

*Nearly 14 years ago, wisecracked that Paula Jones’ problem was that she didn’t run away fast enough from Bill Clinton—but who, before his second debate with Hillary, held a press conference featuring Jones and other women who had accused the former President of improprieties;

*A decade ago, knowing all the accusations against Bill Clinton, nevertheless invited him and his wife to his third wedding—but who now hits out at them for mistreating women;

*Claims that no man respects women more than he does—but was forced to apologize after being caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s private parts;

*Claimed a couple of times, in 2015 and 2016, that he didn’t “know anything” about David Duke after the Ku Klux Klaner endorsed him—even though he had previously denounced him twice, a decade apart;

* Says that the “real” current unemployment rate could be as high as 42%, conveniently forgetting the fact that unemployment in the Great Depression—generally regarded as the worst economic crisis in American history—peaked at only 25% in 1933;

*Said in 2003 that he would probably support the American invasion of Iraq (“Yeah, I guess so”), only to deny doing so today—even though he is shown on videotape doing so;

*Said that Clinton’s approach to borders meant that she “wants to let people just pour in; you could have 650 million people pour in and we do nothing about it,” ignoring the inconvenient facts that, as Associated Press reporters Calvin Woodward and Jim Drinkard note, “every other country in the Americas, from Mexico south to Chile’s southern tip, and a chunk of Canada would have to empty its entire population into the U.S.”;

*Until six years ago, he supported various gun-control measures, only to go all-in with the National Rifle Association now;

* Tweeted during the primaries that rival Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy;

* Claimed falsely that the 9/11 terrorists' friends, family, girlfriends in the United States "were sent back for the most part to Saudi Arabia. They knew what was going on. They went home, and they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television";

*Impersonated a publicist in order to brag about himself in the early 1990s, only to deny doing so during the primaries (and, of course, lashed out at the Today show for bringing it up)—even though he admitted as much to People Magazine two decades ago.

A Habit of Hiding the Truth

Part and parcel of Trump’s deceit has been not simply his continuous, unashamed lying, but his penchant for concealing the truth. That has meant destruction of documents required in court cases (on a scale that dwarfs Hillary Clinton’s problems with e-mail); suing opponents of his projects; threatening libel suits against media outlets; and inciting crowds at rallies and his Twitter followers against individual reporters (after the candidate lashed out at her, NBC reporter Katy Tur required Secret Service protection to shield her against Trump supporters).

In fact, Trump has shown far greater solicitude toward the ambiguous Second Amendment than he has toward the very clear First Amendment. While he has gone all-in with the National Rifle Association, his proposal for banning Muslims amounts to a religious test for entering the country; his vow to make it easier to sue for libel amounts to a shield against inquiries into his own activities; and his threat to pursue anti-trust litigation against Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos represents blatant vindictiveness against a newspaper that has published some of the reports most damaging to his candidacy (e.g., David Fahrenthold’s stories about Trump not donating all the money he’d claimed to have made to charities, and about the groping tape). 

I could go on and on like this. The beauty of such a list is that it’s interactive: Trump has generated so many falsehoods, on a daily basis, that readers can readily add to this compilation.

Sometimes, in the course of this long campaign, I have despaired about writing this series on Trump in what has been called a “post-factual” environment. Too many people (and that includes those of the left as well as the right) remain so wedded to their ideology that they are impervious to any challenge to it.

But to accept this state of affairs is to throw up one’s hands about the possibility of the effective mass persuasion needed for democracy. Moreover, it means abandoning the need for accountability toward all who seek public office. That way lies a danger almost as significant as the Trump candidacy itself with its war on truth.

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