In 1988 I was 9 years old. I enjoyed riding my bike, watching Growing Pains and collecting Garbage Pail Kids.
Oh yeah, and Donald Trump was my idol.
I had gotten turned on to Trump by reading his first book, Art Of The Deal. My dad had bought a copy. I must have picked it up when he was done. This is the kind of thing that could happen in the ’80s before there was internet.
The book purported to be a how-to guide for success. The great part was there wasn’t really that much to do, as Trump told it. “I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings… I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops,” he wrote.
I would talk about Trump with my dad. Our favorite chapter was the one about Trump Tower. Thumbing through it now, it is a rather dry account of air rights, zoning and telephone calls. Sample passage: “It was possible to get some bonuses, but on this lot, for example, the absolute maximum FAR (Floor Area Ratio) was 21.6.”
But one part stuck with me for almost 30 years: his description of how he picked the marble for Trump Tower’s atrium. Trump talks about how he found a special kind of pink marble called “Breccia Perniche” that “literally took our breath away.” It was, of course, “incredibly expensive” but Trump had to have it anyway. What’s more, he personally went to the quarry and noticed a lot of it had white spots on it. So he went through quarry and selected the best slabs and just threw away the rest.
This, as best as I can remember, is what appealed to me about Trump at the time. He was someone who, whenever he did something, insisted that it was the absolute best.
The path to material success wasn’t intimidating or complex. It seemed that you just had to want it more than the other person. As a kid growing up in a Maryland suburb, this was a very seductive idea.
‘Looking Back On It, I Know I Was Nuts’
My dad and I were also attracted to Trump for a reason that is now familiar to anyone who watches his campaign rallies: Trump was a winner.
After reading his book, my dad recalls, he viewed Trump as “the perfect business man…super smart” with “the golden touch.”
I asked him about the unbridled arrogance, which I don’t recall as a 9-year-old, but would have been obvious to any adult reading the book. “I only saw the results of his deal making. I bought into the myth he was creating,” he told me.
As a lifelong liberal, my father is a little sheepish about this period of our lives. “Looking back on it, I know I was nuts.”
But we were just getting started.
The World’s First Trillionaire
Trump The Game came out in 1989. It was a commercial flop. But not in my house. Even through my Trump-colored glasses I remember admitting it was not nearly as good as Monopoly. But we played it a lot anyway, because we loved Trump. Also it had a great tagline: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!”
CREDIT: Judd Legum
Around this time, I was invited by a friend to take a trip to Hershey Park. I thought that Hershey Park would be mostly about chocolate but there were a lot of rollercoasters and other things I didn’t like.
My parents had given me a little money so I could buy some snacks for me and my buddy while we were there. But there was a booth that immediately caught my eye. They’d take your picture and put it on a fake magazine cover. So I spent almost all of my money on this:
Trump had become a way to think about my future adult life. I was going to be really rich! My understanding at the time was that Trump was a billionaire. Taking into account inflation, I declared that I would be the world’s first trillionaire.
Pilgrimages To Trump Tower
About this time we started making yearly pilgrimages to Trump Tower. We needed to see the pink marble in person. We loaded up the car and headed to New York City.
My mother, who did not read the book, tells me that she thought me and my dad were nuts. But she gamely came along anyway.
I remember standing on the sidewalk, looking up to the top floor and thinking about Trump’s double penthouse where he had created an 80-foot-long living room. It was a very impressive looking building, just as Trump promised.
CREDIT: Creative Commons/Rev Stan
The marble and the waterfall in the atrium of Trump Tower, which Trump uses today for many of his ubiquitous television appearances, were dramatic. Otherwise, you were basically in a mall. There was an overpriced cafeteria where we ate lunch. We looked in a few stores and left.
But we’d be back. Visiting Trump Tower became a yearly family tradition.
Bored At The Top
Our relationship with Trump began to sour with the publication of his second book, Trump: Surviving At The Top. This time, I didn’t wait for my dad to buy it. I was anticipating it and devoured it at soon as it came out.
But it was boring.
It was a pale imitation of Art Of The Deal and mostly involved his dealings in Atlantic City, which didn’t have the same appeal to me as New York. There was also a lot about Merv Griffin and other people I didn’t care about.
We still visited Trump Tower that year and I remember copies of his new book were piled high at the entrance. But the mystique was fading.
One of Trump’s big successes that he chronicles in Surviving At The Top is his creation on the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. But by the end of 1991, the deal had forced him to declare bankruptcy, forfeit much of his ownership stake and sell his yacht.
Maybe he wasn’t the perfect business man after all.
This was very disillusioning to my dad. “The perfect business man was not so perfect… I started thinking that there are great men whose biography is one book. He already had two.”
We stopped eating at Trump Tower.
Will America Grow Up?
Twenty-five years later, Trump is still going. He’s had a hit TV show, his name is still plastered on buildings and he’s a dominant political figure in the Republican party.
What’s striking in looking back on my Trump-obsessed years is that all the building blocks for his successful presidential run were right there.
All you have to do is read the chapter on Trump Tower. After Trump secures the permits he needs, he starts a mad dash to complete the tower so that he can start bringing in revenue. At one point, he orders the construction crew to destroy some Art Deco sculptures from a building he was tearing down to speed things up. The decision unleashed a torrent of negative publicity. Trump describes the impact:
Almost immediately we saw an upsurge in the sales of apartments. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, and in truth it probably says something perverse about the culture we live in. But I’m a businessman, and I learned a lesson from that experience: 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.
Trump is still selling controversy. He’s taken his proven formula of business braggadocio and glamour and added a potent dose of xenophobia and bigotry.
So far, it’s won him 12 states, 389 delegates and put him on the fast track to the Republican nomination. Odd-makers rank him the second most-likely person to be the next President of the United States.
My dad and I moved on from Trump long ago. But America may just be getting started.