Many of my friends recommend Robert Cialdini’s Influence, a book about how to be persuasive and successful. I read it most of the way through, and it was okay, but I didn’t have it in me to finish the whole thing. It’s not that being persuasive and successful doesn’t sound pretty neat. But how could I be sure the book would deliver the goods?
Robert Cialdini’s Wikipedia page says “He is best known for his book Influence“. Since its publication, he seems to have spent his time directing an institute to spread awareness of techniques for success and persuasion. At the risk of being a little too cynical – a guy knows the secrets of success, so he uses them to…write a book about the secrets of success? If I knew the secrets of success, you could bet I’d be doing much more interesting things with them. All the best people recommend Cialdini, and his research credentials are impeccable, but I can’t help wondering: if he’s so smart, why isn’t he Emperor?
Donald Trump may not be Emperor, but he’s a lot closer than Robert Cialdini. I knew that Trump wrote his own book on success and persuasion back in 1988 – Trump: The Art of the Deal – and I wondered if it might not be the anti-Cialdini.
Trump is no psychology expert, but after a few months of attributing his victories to blind luck, most people have accepted Scott Adams’ hypothesis that he’s really a “master persuader”. Salon, Daily Caller, Bill Maher, and the Economist all use the word “genius”. The less you respect Trump’s substance – and I respect it very little – the more you’re forced to admire whatever combination of charisma, persuasion, and showmanship he uses to succeed without having any. If this guy has written a book on how to be persuasive and successful, that’s a book I want to read.
The downside of buying a book by a master manipulator is that sometimes you learn you were manipulated into buying the book.
Trump: The Art Of The Deal is 365 pages of some of the biggest print I have ever seen. The cover has a quote from the New York Times – “Trump makes one believe for a moment in the American dream again” – which some poor reviewer is probably desperately wishing he could take back right now.
Although the blurb says that he “fully reveals the deal-maker’s art” and that it is “an unprecedented education in the practice of deal-making” and “the ultimate read for anyone interested in achieving money and success” – only seventeen pages of very large print are anything resembling business advice. The rest of it is a weirdly deal-focused autobiography that doesn’t mention marrying his wife or having children, but devotes a lovingly detailed twenty-four pages to the time he renovated the Commodore Hotel.
But first, those seventeen pages. I am pleased to report that Donald Trump is weirdly abreast of modern science – he tells his readers looking for advice about how to make it big that deal-making is probably just genetic. Either you’ve got the deal, gene or you don’t:
More than anything else, I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with. It’s in the genes…unlike the real estate evangelists you see all over television these days, I can’t promise you that by following the precepts I’m about to offer you’ll become a millionaire overnight. Unfortunately, life rarely works that way, and most people who try to get rich quick end up going broke instead.
Every time I speak of the haters and losers I do so with great love and affection. They cannot help the fact that they were born fucked up!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2014
This is a weirdly humble and self-aware Trump. It might be that the book medium suits him well; more likely he just has a really good ghost-writer. Unfortunately, he has much to be humble about. His advice, while not bad, is vague and not too useful. For example, his first rule is “think big”. But his second rule is “protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself”, which he explains as:
It’s been said that I believe in the power of positive thinking. In fact, I believe in the power of negative thinking. I happen to be very conservative in business. I always go into the deal anticipating the worst. If you plan for the worst – if you can live with the worst – the good will take care of itself.
So – take a lot of risks, but also be very cautious. Okay. I’m not saying his advice is literally contradictory – it makes sense that you can have big plans but also be very careful about them. I just don’t get the feeling that his advice is too helpful in narrowing down your strategy.
Is there anything at all worth reading in these seventeen pages? Oh yes. But not for the reason I expected.
Trump’s sixth rule of deal-making is “Get The Word Out”. He says:
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…
The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business. [When I announced my plans to build Television City to the press], 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 other thing I do when I talk with reporters is to be straight. I try not to deceive them or to be defensive, because those are precisely the ways most people get themselves into trouble with the press. 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 it 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. I explain that I put thousands of people to work who might otherwise be collecting unemployment, and that I add to the city’s tax base every time I build a new project. I also point out that buildings like Trump Tower have helped spark New York’s renaissance.
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.
In the immortal words of Marco Rubio, “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
On the other hand, his eighth rule of business is “Deliver The Goods”. He gives an interesting example:
You can’t con people, 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.
I think of Jimmy Carter. After he lost the election to Ronald Reagan, Carter came to see me in my office. He told me he was seeking contributions to the Jimmy Carter Library. I asked how much he had in mind. And he said, “Donald, I would be very appreciative if you contributed five million dollars.
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t even answer him.
But that experience also taught me something. Until then, I’d never understood how Jimmy Carter became President. The answer is that as poorly qualified as he was for the job, Jimmy Carter had the nerve, the guts, the balls, to ask for something extraordinary. That ability above all helped him get elected president. But then, of course, the American people caught on pretty quickly that Carter couldn’t do the job, and he lost in a landslide when he ran for reelection.
Ronald Reagan is another example. He is so smooth and so effective a performer that he completely won over the American people. Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.
Trump-1988 is weirdly prophetic.
Finally, his tenth rule is “Have Fun”:
I don’t kid myself. Life is very fragile, and success doesn’t change that. If anything, success makes it more fragile. Anything can change, without warning, and that’s why I try not to take any of what’s happened too seriously. Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what I should have done differently, or what’s going to happen next. If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer. Except that I’ve had a very good time making them.
Marcus Aurelius, eat your heart out.
So much for seventeen pages of business advice. The other three hundred forty-eight pages are Trump gushing about the minutiae all of the interesting deals he’s been a part of.
“GUYS, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE THIS, THERE WAS THIS ONE SKYSCRAPER THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE A FLOOR TO AREA RATIO OF 6, BUT THEN I BEAT HILTON IN NEGOTIATING THE AIR RIGHTS FROM THE COMPANY NEXT DOOR, AND ACTIVATED AN OPTION TO BUY A PROPERTY ON THE OTHER SIDE OF IT, AND ALL OF THAT LANDED ME A PARTNERSHIP WITH ONE OF THE BIG BANKS, AND THEN THE PLANNING BOARD TOTALLY CHANGED THE FLOOR AREA RATIO! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT, GUYS??!”
Overall the effect was that of an infodump from an autistic child with a special interest in real estate development, which was both oddly endearing and not-so-oddly very boring.
I started the book with the question: what exactly do real estate developers do? They don’t design buildings; they hire an architect for that part. They don’t construct the buildings; they hire a construction company for that part. They don’t manage the buildings; they hire a management company for that part. They’re not even the capitalist who funds the whole thing; they get a loan from a bank for that. So what do they do? Why don’t you or I take out a $100 million loan from a bank, hire a company to build a $100 million skyscraper, and then rent it out for somewhat more than $100 million and become rich?
As best I can tell, the developer’s job is coordination. This often means blatant lies. The usual process goes like this: the bank would be happy to lend you the money as long as you have guaranteed renters. The renters would be happy to sign up as long as you show them a design. The architect would be happy to design the building as long as you tell them what the government’s allowing. The government would be happy to give you your permit as long as you have a construction company lined up. And the construction company would be happy to sign on with you as long as you have the money from the bank in your pocket. Or some kind of complicated multi-step catch-22 like that. The solution – or at least Trump’s solution – is to tell everybody that all the other players have agreed and the deal is completely done except for their signature. The trick is to lie to the right people in the right order, so that by the time somebody checks to see whether they’ve been conned, you actually do have the signatures you told them that you had. The whole thing sounds very stressful.
The developer’s other job is dealing with regulations. The way Trump tells it, there are so many regulations on development in New York City in particular and America in general that erecting anything larger than a folding chair requires the full resources of a multibillion dollar company and half the law firms in Manhattan. Once the government grants approval it’s likely to add on new conditions when you’re halfway done building the skyscraper, insist on bizarre provisions that gain it nothing but completely ruin your chance of making a profit, or just stonewall you for the heck of it if you didn’t donate to the right people’s campaigns last year. Reading about the system makes me both grateful and astonished that any structures have ever been erected in the United States at all, and somewhat worried that if anything ever happens to Donald Trump and a few of his close friends, the country will lose the ability to legally construct artificial shelter and we will all have to go back to living in caves.
Trump’s greatest pride is his ability to construct things on time and under budget. He gives the story of an ice rink that New York City was trying to renovate in Central Park. After six years and $13 million, the city had completely failed to renovate it and just made things worse. Trump offered as a charitable gesture to do it himself, and the mayor, who was a political enemy, refused. The press hounded the mayor, Trump eventually was allowed to try, and he finished it in four months for only $2.5 million. He boasted that he finished fixing the rink in less time than it took the city to complete their study on why their rink-fixing project had failed.
He had a couple more stories like this – but throughout all of it, there was a feeling of something missing. Here is a guy whose job is cutting through bureaucracy, and who is apparently quite good at it. Yet throughout the book – and for that matter, throughout his campaign for the nomination of a party that makes cutting bureaucracy a big part of their platform – he doesn’t devote a lot of energy to expressing discontent with the system. There is no libertarian streak to Trump – in the process of successfully navigating all of these terrible rules, he rarely takes a step back and wonders about a better world where these rules don’t exist. Despite having way more ability to change the system than most people, he seems to regard it as a given, not worth debating. I think back to his description of how it’s all just a big game to him. Most star basketball players are too busy shooting hoops to imagine whether the game might be more interesting if a three-pointer was worth five points, or whatever. Trump seems to have the same attitude – the rules are there; his job is to make the best deal he can within those rules.
Maybe I’m imagining things, but I feel like this explains a lot about his presidential campaign. People ask him something like “How would you fix Medicare?”, and he gives some vapid answer like “There are tremendous problems with Medicare, but I’m going to hire the best people. I know all of the best doctors and health care executives, and we’re going to cut some amazing deals and have the best Medicare in the world.” And yeah, he did say in his business tips that you should change the frame to avoid being negative to reporters. But this isn’t a negative or a gotcha question. At some point you’d expect Trump to do his homework and get some kind of Medicare plan or other. Instead he just goes off on the same few tangents. This thing about hiring the best people, for example, seems almost like an obsession in the book. But it works for him. When somebody sues him (which seems like an hourly occurrence in real estate development no matter how careful you are) his response is to find the best lawyer, hire them, and throw them at the problem. When he needs a hotel managed, he hires the best hotel managers and tells them to knock themselves out. Even his much-mocked tendency to talk about all the people he knows comes from this being a big part of his real estate strategy – one of the reasons he can outcompete other tycoons is because he knows people on the planning board, knows people in the banks, knows people in all the companies he works with. It’s a huge advantage for him.
These strategies have always worked for him before, and floating off into some intellectual ideal-system-design effort has never worked for him before. So when he says that he’s going to solve Medicare by hiring great managers and knowing all the right people, I don’t think this is some vapid way of avoiding the question. I think it’s the honest output of a mind that works very differently from mine. I’ve been designing ideal systems of government for the heck of it ever since I was old enough to realize what a government was. Trump is at serious risk of actually taking over a government, and such design still doesn’t appeal to him. The best he can do is say that other people are bad at governing, but he’s going to be good at governing, on account of his deal-making skill. I think he honestly believes this. It makes perfect sense in real estate, where some people are good businesspeople, others are bad businesspeople, and the goal is to game the system rather than change it. But in politics, it’s easy to interpret as authoritarianism – “Forget about policy issues, I’m just going to steamroll through this whole thing by being personally strong and talented.”
I said it before, but it bears repeating – this book has a really good ghostwriter. Yeah, it comes across as narcissistic; there’s probably no way to avoid that in a Trump autobiography. But Donald Trump’s interest in Donald Trump pales beside his blazing hot interest in the sheer awesomeness of hotel property deals. And part of me wants to say that people with obsessive interests in bizarre things are My Kind Of People.
But there’s still something alien about Trump here, even moreso than with the populist demagogue of the campaign trail. Trump the demagogue is attacked as anti-intellectual. I get anti-intellectualism because – like all isms – it’s an intellectual idea, and I tend to think in those terms. But Trump of the book is more a-intellectual, in the same way some people are amoral or asexual. The world is taken as a given. It contains deals. Some people make the deals well, and they are winners. Other people make the deals poorly, and they are losers. Trump does not need more than this. There will be no civilization of philosopher-Trumps asking where the first deal came from, or whether a deal is a deal only by virtue of its participation in some primordial deal beyond material existence. Trump’s world is so narrow it’s hard to fit your head inside it, so narrow that on contact with any wider world it seems strange and attenuated, a broken record of deals and connections and hirings expanding to fill the space available.
On the other hand, he made a billion dollars and will probably win the GOP nomination. So there’s that.
Trump ends by saying:
What’s next? Fortunately, I don’t know the answer, because if I did, that would take all the fun out of it. This much I do know: it won’t be more of the same.
I’ve spent the first twenty years of my working life building, accumulating, and accomplishing things that many said could not be done. The biggest challenge I see over the next twenty years is to figure out some creative ways to give back some of what I’ve gotten.
I don’t just mean money, although that’s part of it. It’s easy to be generous when you’ve got a lot, and anyone who does, should be. But what I admire most are people who put themselves directly on the line. I’ve never been terribly interested in why people give, because their motivation is rarely what it seems to be, and it’s almost never pure altruism. To me, what matters is the doing, and giving time is far more valuable than just giving money. [note: a contrary perspective]
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.
Don’t get me wrong. I also plan to keep making deals, big deals, and right around the clock.