I decided to read The Art of the Deal for a variety of reasons.
As of this week, “GOP Frontrunner” is being routinely prepended to every mention of Donald Trump in the media. This, despite the fact that Trump is the most divisive, unconventional Presidential candidate to run in my lifetime. The phenomenon of his campaign’s success is objectively fascinating, regardless of how you feel about the man.
Additionally, I have been known to dabble in the genre of business books, and Trump appears to be a good businessman, if nothing else. Or maybe he was just lucky? I figured I might be able to suss out the answer to that question, too, by reading this book.
Having now read it, The Art of the Deal was not the book I was expecting. The title itself is misleading, as it draws an inaccurate parallel to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which is a detailed manual on strategy. Deal is not even really a business book, at least not in the style I am accustomed to. Aside from a handful of brief pieces of high-level advice packed into the first chapter, the bulk of the book is composed of:
- Personal anecdotes surrounding various business deals he has been involved in, such as constructing buildings, brokering real estate sales, and promoting his football team.
- Lengthy polemics targeting people who have wronged him, mainly focusing on New York Mayor Ed Koch. These sections are alternated with gushing compliments for individuals who have done him favors.
The stories about his past deals are written in a conversational style that causes you to feel like The Donald is confiding in you. He manages to slip in a surprising amount of technical detail, and it only feels boring in a few places. The focus skips from the pros and cons of various cooling systems for skating rinks, to the personal dynamics within the NFL and the Nevada Gaming Commission, to the Byzantine legal restrictions on building tall structures in New York City. I would go so far as to say that most of the value I gleaned from The Art of the Deal had nothing to do with the deals and instead lay in the colorful and vivid depictions of wheeling and dealing in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The book feels more like the fictional Noble House than it does a “business book.”
If you do glean any business lessons from this book, I think they might not be the lessons Trump is trying to communicate. The first is that luck was, indeed, a significant factor in almost all of Trump’s big deals. He doesn’t try to hide this fact, actually, and frequently lampshades it. At one point he even pointing out that he wouldn’t have made nearly as much money on a property if the current tenants hadn’t bogged down the deal with legal challenges for just the right amount of time.
The second unintentional lesson is that business success favors the one who is willing to undertake total war. When something stands in Trump’s way, he attacks with every tool at his disposal. He sues; he manipulates public opinion; he curries favor with the politically powerful; he undercuts competitors in every way he can. When he’s going up against the NFL, he sues them on antitrust grounds, but when he’s in the dominant position, he uses every anti-competitive strategy in the playbook. Victory favors the aggressive.
The third unintentional lesson might be missed completely if you don’t keep in mind the mystery of Trump’s current political success while reading. Trump is deft at painting exactly the picture of Trump-the-character that he intends to. If you read it without your Manipulation Shields raised, you’ll walk away from the book believing on a subconscious level that Trump is a fair man, generous to his friends and ruthless with his enemies, a devoted son, great husband and loving father, who never budges and always gets what he wants in the end. These themes are the backdrop to every anecdote. If you interpret the book as a work of persuasion, then the true purpose of the book is surely to convince you that Trump is an Alpha Male, and the secondary purpose is to relate some entertaining business stories.
That last point, I think, is the most critical to understanding Trump’s political rise. Every statement a person makes carries meaning on at least two levels: the explicit content, and the implicit message. The explicit content in most of what Trump says in his public pronouncements is generally irrelevant, just as the details of some particular business transaction in The Art of the Deal are irrelevant next to the pervasive, subtle push to see Trump as a Great Man. So when Trump says something horribly racist, people think they’re reacting to the horribly racist statement, but they’re really reacting to the implicit message: “Trump is a guy who can say things like this and get away with it.”
“What an Alpha Male.”