Most people consider Donald Trump to be a gratuitous self-promoter, a somewhat charismatic actor, a clown, a demagogue, a misogynist, or a racist. But what everyone needs to understand about him is that what he considers himself, first and foremost, is a builder. In his latest book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again—the third book that he has written as a politician, after The America We Deserve (2000) and Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again (2011)—he repeats the same gesture that he also makes in the other two, namely that he constantly cites his building accomplishments as qualifications that make him better suited than any career politician imaginable to be President of the United States.
The most essential passage in Crippled America comes in the chapter titled “Teaching the Media Dollars & Sense” when Trump explains how he finally lost his temper with the media, even though “reporters have been writing about me and talking about me, even interviewing me, in newspapers, magazines, and television for almost four decades.” Trump had made the principled decision “to ignore most of these attacks,” but things changed when a relative of his reported to Trump that someone in the media had attempted to invalidate Trump’s reputation as a master builder.
“My cousin, John Walter, called and started complaining about a particular story he’d heard saying that I hadn’t built a building since 1992 and told me I had to set the record straight,” Trump declares. “I couldn’t let reporters continue to get it so wrong.”
You can almost see his nostrils flare as he continues:
“I hadn’t built a building since 1992? That’s just bizarre. You’d have to be blind as well as ignorant to say something like that. It’s got to be the easiest thing in the world to check the things that I’ve accomplished.”
Trump goes on to provide an exhaustive list of post-1992 Trump construction projects, too long to reproduce here, following which he exclaims, “And many, many more. I’ve obviously been a very busy man since 1992!”
Trump’s sense that people do not respect his accomplishments as a builder as much as they should is one of Crippled America’s major themes and he goes out of his way to mention building and his ability to build whenever he can.
In another chapter— titled “Our Infrastructure is Crumbling”—Trump states that, “When you talk about building, you had better talk about Trump. There is no single builder in this country who has his name on as great a range of projects as I’ve constructed.”
Trump’s heated effort to remind the American people to appreciate him as a great builder suffuses so much of Crippled America that I have become convinced that Trump is running for President just so he can build a 1,000-mile wall on the Mexican border as a statement of what he himself, as America’s greatest builder, is capable of; and that the rest of his presidential campaign, including his alarmist, racist remarks about illegal immigration, only exist to bolster his real cause: to build the wall.
If that sounds ludicrous, it is only because no one understands how truly insane Trump really is. He cherishes his identity as a builder as the essence of his innermost, authentic self, and in order to see exactly how, one must look beyond Trump’s trilogy of political books, to his first trilogy of books, the memoirs Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987), Trump: Surviving at the Top (1990) and Trump: The Art of the Comeback (1998). Together, they have a structure that is very analogous to Star Wars Episodes IV-VI, which forms the backbone of the Trump legend.
Contained in these three books is the saga of great early success, downfall, and redemption that provides the basis for all that Trump claims about himself: he came to prominence in the 70s and 80s by tearing down old buildings and erecting gleaming glass-and-steel structures like the Grand Hyatt and Trump Tower and in so doing helped kick off the luxury real estate boom of the 80s (The Art of the Deal); went broke when the real estate market dipped in the early 90s and simultaneously was eviscerated in the press during his divorce from Ivana Trump (Surviving at the Top, the Empire Strikes Back of Trump); and then paid off his debts, returned to full preeminence, acquired the Miss Universe pageant, negotiated an advantageous divorce settlement with Ivana, and went to dinner at Le Cirque with Michael Jackson (The Art of the Comeback).
Throughout, Trump takes building seriously, or so he claims, but possibly not as seriously as he takes The Art of the Deal, a holy text in Trump World. It is great fun to imagine his children Ivanka, Robert, and Donald, Jr. and other retainers sitting around in a gaudy, gold-hued lounge somewhere in Trump Tower having a reading-group discussion about it. For in The Art of the Deal, Trump emerges not only as a builder, but also as a self-builder.
Trump makes clear repeatedly that not merely the events described in The Art of the Deal, but the experience of packaging them into a book and sharing them with the public had a transformative effect on his life. In the Acknowledgements of Surviving at the Top, Trump confesses, “Looking back on it, I see that writing The Art of the Deal was one of the most satisfying and fulfilling experiences of my life.” Trump reveals in Deal that it was through the business ventures described in its pages that he fully becomes himself for the first time, though that is not the only thing about the book that makes it so special to him. What Trump perceives as the enthusiastic public response to Deal is significant because it also gives him the sense that the public could recognize what he had become, and share the experience of his becoming with him.
One must read The Art of the Deal in order to understand why the Trump of this month’s Crippled America is acting so bitter about America’s refusal to recognize him as the nation’s greatest builder. The episodic series of real estate deals that Trump and co-author Tony Schwartz narrate in the book demonstrate how a kind of vague public-mindedness has always been an essential feature of what has come to be known as the “Trump brand,” no matter how shallow or ultimately false Trump’s heavily brand-conscious version of populism may be.
This is especially so in the chapters about the construction of Trump Tower and the renovation of the Wollman Rink, the latter of which has been a fixture of Trump’s political writing since at least 2000.
There is a lot of vintage 80s “greed is good”-type stuff in the chapter on Trump Tower; Trump makes completely clear that he wants the building to be as tall as possible to pack in the largest number of condominiums with the best possible views, so that he can charge as much as he can. Trump’s demand that it be a “great skyscraper” and “the most fantastic building in New York” also demonstrates his unsurprising desire to build a giant phallic monument to himself. It is also well known that Trump utilized illegal immigrant labor in the construction of Trump Tower, and he never mentions that anywhere.
In order to get a zoning variance from the City Planning Commission, though, he and architect Der Scutt add a six-story public atrium to the ground level. Trump quickly falls in love with the atrium, extolling how its “glamour” is decisive in imbuing Trump Tower with what he calls its “mystical aura” when it opens in 1983. The City Planning Commission lauds the battery of shops in the atrium—which to this day is still open to visitors from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, though I don’t recommend Trump Bar, the uncharacteristically divey tavern in the atrium—as “extraordinary public amenities,” and Trump lavishes much more attention in Deal on the unique spatial experience that his atrium can provide casual visitors than he does on the actual condominiums located farther up the building.
It is appropriate that the Trump Tower public atrium resembles a giant womb, however, because it infantilizes visitors. It reduces participation in “public” space to mere spectatorship by placing visitors in the position of vicarious participants in the lives of Trump and his clients. In this sense, the Trump Tower atrium plays the same role in the promotion of the Trump myth that media have played in it ever since: Trump’s books, his cameo in Home Alone 2, The Apprentice, and the now-defunct Trump University all reinforce the illusion that the very rich can share their wealth with the public, in a virtual sense, purely by making their wealth known to the public.
“The rest of his presidential campaign, including his alarmist, racist remarks about illegal immigration, only exist to bolster his real cause: to build the wall.”
No matter how flimsy the illusion of Trump’s populism may be, he needs to maintain it so that his buildings will be viewed, however illegitimately, as contributing to the public good. That is what makes the Wollman Rink section of Deal such a significant episode from Trump’s early career for Trump’s post-2000 life as a politician and political-book writer. Even though Trump’s renovation of Wollman Rink is uncharacteristic of the building he has done throughout his career, he has inflated it into legend because it lets him publicly play out the conservative fantasy that any private-sector businessman can finish better, cheaper, and faster what any elected official would take years just to botch up.
Wollman Rink opened in Central Park in 1950 and closed for renovations in 1980. Trump moved into Trump Tower that same year. By 1986, when the city announced plans to scrap all of the work that had been done on Wollman Rink since 1980 and start over, Trump had become frustrated by the city’s lack of progress because “I had a view of Wollman Rink” from Trump Tower and “it was not a pretty sight.”
On May 28, 1986, he writes a letter to Koch that includes the following: “I am offering to construct and pay for a brand new Wollman Ice-Skating Rink and have it open to the public by November of this winter. I would lease the rink from the city at a fair market rental, and run it properly after its completion.” Koch releases a response to the press, but the press takes Trump’s side, and Trump finishes the renovation in four months, albeit without paying the contractor who he actually hired to do it.
If more people read back into Trump’s bibliography, and could see how often references to the Wollman Rink renovation recur in his political writing, the absurdity of the outsize significance that the Rink holds for Trump would blow their minds.
And whenever he discusses Wollman Rink, over the decades, he usually uses follows the same template. Whereas in Deal Trump calls a Ed Koch “a bully, plain and simple” and a “closet coward,” in The America We Deserve (2000), he says that Koch is “ridiculously incompetent,” that NYC “for six years bungled, bobbled, and botched the job of fixing a no-story municipal skating rink” before Trump got involved and “got the job done in four months flat, $750,000 under budget, and a full month ahead of schedule”; in Time to Get Tough (2011) he writes that “for seven straight years [I thought he said it was six], the rink was closed on account of New York City’s management fiasco” and “I told the city I would have Wollman Rink finished in six months” and “I did it in four”; and, finally, in Crippled America (2015), he reminds the reader once again that “New York City wasted seven years trying to get a skating rink done. I did it in less than four months—and got it done under budget.”
Conservatives since time immemorial have argued that businesspeople would do a better job running the government than the government itself does, but Trump leans on this myth more heavily than most because the association between populism and “Trump” is so essential to the brand, but at the same time so tenuous. Despite the small scale of the ice-skating rink renovation, Trump clings to the Wollman episode because it provides the only example of him contributing to the public good concretely, rather than through media that afford the public the opportunity to experience his wealth vicariously.
Notwithstanding any project in particular, the real reason why Trump thinks of himself as a public builder is that the act of building itself fills him with fiendish glee, and, in the same way that he thinks of the Trump Tower atrium as a “public amenity” because of the vicarious enjoyment of his own wealth that it affords to visitors, he believes that anything that gives him the pleasure he craves will automatically trickle down to society in one way or another. At one point in Crippled America, he claims, “I speak for the people!” but does not explain why or how, and the lack of an explanation suggests that he imagines a connection between himself and his millions of spectators that is too irrational to be explained.
In the annals of Trump, the closest analogue to his plan to build a 1,000-mile wall on the border with Mexico has to be “Television City,” the complex that Trump had unsuccessfully tried to build on the far Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 80s. Trump wanted to build “the tallest building in the world” there, and even he admitted that there was no good economic reason to do it: “If maximum profit is your sole motive,” he writes in The Art of the Deal, “you’re far better off putting up three 50-story towers than one 150-story skyscraper.”
But he pursues the building 150-story tower anyway—and ultimately fails—because of the pure aesthetic experience that it would afford: “I’ve always loved tall buildings,” he writes, “I remember coming in with my father as a kid and pleading with him to take us to the Empire State Building, which at the time was the world’s tallest building.” He also relishes “bringing the world’s tallest building back to New York” from Chicago.
As Trump says in the opening sentences of The Art of the Deal, “I don’t do it for the money... I do it to do it”—and that would be OK if Trump were legitimately building for the public. But he’s not: he builds solely for his own self-aggrandizement, but under the assumption the public will experience his pleasure with him vicariously.
It’s obvious that building a 1,000-mile wall excites him as much as any of these older projects ever did and that he can’t wait to be able to journey to the Southwest and start digging, building, and dealmaking at whatever the cost. That is why it is almost sad that he should pitch this blatant attempt to recapture the glory of his Deal years with Crippled America, his worst book by far.
Some people might look at what I am arguing and conclude that, by emphasizing the role of Trump’s desire to build and be worshipped as a builder in provoking his unhinged run for president, I am underestimating Trump’s sheer virulent racism. After all, he uses the term “anchor babies” constantly throughout Crippled America and he expresses a clear determination to end birthright citizenship as currently guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. That point of view is not incompatible with my assessment, however, in which Trump’s narcissism is equivalent to an endless internal hall of mirrors from which he can never escape, and the humanity of the people who he has defamed by calling them “anchor babies” and “rapists” can never reach him and has no meaning.