Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Trump and Political Philosophy (3): The Rhetorical Myth of Trump the Self-Made Billionaire

                                                       Trump's Business Bankruptcies

                                               The Story Behind Donald Trump's Wealth

             New York Times Reporters Breaking the Story of Fred Trump's Financial Bailouts of His Son

President Obama Roasts Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2011

Applying Aristotle's Rhetoric to Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric makes clear that Trump's primary rhetorical technique for his election campaign was the argument from the character of the speaker that stressed the prudence or practical judgment of Trump as a wildly successful businessman, which would allow him as president to Make America Great Again.

This argument can be put into the form of an enthymeme:
Major premise:  Because of stupid politicians, America no longer wins; and America will not win again until a successful businessman who knows how to win is elected president.
Minor premise: Donald Trump is unique in his business success and his prudence in knowing how to win, because he is a self-made multi-billionaire.
Conclusion:  Therefore, Americans need to elect Trump president.
Both of the premises are open to dispute.  Here I will challenge the minor premise by pointing to the evidence that Trump's business career shows many failures from his imprudent decisions, that he was saved from ruin by his father's life-long transfer of money to him, and so he is not the self-made billionaire that he claims to be.  I will also suggest that Trump's financial imprudence as a businessman has been continued in his financial imprudence as a president who has promoted reckless increases in the federal budget deficits and the national debt, which contradicts his promise in his campaign rhetoric that he would show his fiscal prudence as president.

One can see Trump's campaign enthymeme by reading Trump's campaign book Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America (New York: Threshold Editions, 2016), which brought together all of the recurrent language and themes of his campaign speeches.

From the very beginning of the book, Trump identifies his political opponents as all being incompetent.  They are "politicians who talk a great game in campaigns--and play like total losers when they try to actually govern because they can't govern, they don't know how to govern" (xi).  And "as for the presidency and the executive branch, the incompetence is beyond belief" (xii).

Instead of the failed leadership of these incompetent losers, America needs the leadership of a successful businessman who has shown he knows how to win.
". . . It needs someone with common sense and business acumen, someone who can truly lead America back to what has made us great in the past."
"We need someone with a proven track record in business who understands greatness, someone who can rally us to the standard of excellence we once epitomized and explain what needs to be done" (xiii).
"America needs to start winning again" (1).
So here's the major premise in Trump's argument from character:  all of America's political leaders in recent decades have lacked the political judgment necessary to lead America into greatness--"they don't know how to govern"--and the only good alternative is to turn to a successful businessman who has shown the "common sense and business acumen" that he can use to lead America back to greatness.

To support this major premise, he offered arguments from examples--examples of failed leadership (from the Carter years to the Obama years) in both domestic policy and foreign policy.

For the minor premise in his argument from character, Trump had to argue that his unique success as a businessman identified him as the prudent leader who knows how to govern so that America can win again.
"I'm not bragging when I say I'm a winner.  I have experience in winning.  That's what we call leadership.  That means that people will follow me and be inspired by what I do.  How do I know?  I've been a leader my whole life.  Thousands of my employees know that I'll deliver and help them deliver" (9).
To support this minor premise, Trump offers arguments from examples of his success in business.  His book ends with an "About the Author" section that gives a story of his business career in 16 pages, which begins: "Donald J. Trump is the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports, and entertainment.  He is the archetypal businessman--a deal-maker without peer."  So as the "archetypal businessman," no other businessman is equal to Donald J. Trump.

This story in the book concludes with a long list of 70 "properties" said to be "owned and/or developed and managed or licensed by Donald J. Trump," which includes everything from Trump Tower and The Estates at Trump International Gold Club (Dubai) to his Boeing 757 and 3 Sikorsky 76 Helicopters.

Look, Reader, at this stunning list of Donald Trump's luxurious properties!  Don't these examples of his pile of wealth prove that he's the only person who can lead you and Make America Great Again?

As Trump relentlessly repeated this rhetorical argument from character--insulting all professional politicians as losers and bragging about himself as the rich business genius who always wins--his opponents in the Republican primaries and in the general election were thrown into stunned confusion without finding any effective response to Trump's rhetoric.  If they had read Aristotle's Rhetoric, they could have understood Trump's rhetorical technique, and they could have found the best rhetorical counterattack that could have defeated him.  (If Trump had been running against Obama, then Obama might have employed his rhetorical skills in mocking Trump as he did at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2011.)

To understand the rhetorical argument from character, Aristotle explained, one must understand those circumstances that shape character in ways that are pertinent to rhetoric.  This includes understanding how character is formed by the experiences of good or bad fortune.  In particular, the characters of fortunate people can be distinguished into at least three groups--the nobly born, the rich, and the politically powerful (1391a20-1391b3).

Aristotle is bluntly critical of all three character types.  People favored by fortune, he says, are generally inclined to be arrogant and thoughtless.  Yet he also ranks these characters as better or worse, with a progression from the nobly born, who are the worst, to the rich, who are better, and then to the politically powerful, who are the best of these three types.  Political rule is elevating in a way that noble birth and wealth are not.

Aristotle says that wealthy people tend to be insolent, arrogant, and impulsive.  They think they possess everything that is good since they believe they can buy everything, and so they think they possess what all human beings seek.  They think that displaying their wealth proves their superiority.

Aristotle concedes that, insofar as many people do need the wealthy, there is some truth to their claims.  Even the wise, Simonides observed, are seen to wait at the doors of the rich.  Even so, the essential character of a wealthy man, Aristotle concludes, is that of a "fortunate fool."

Aristotle does add the qualification that those of long-established wealth are better than the newly wealthy.  But his point is not that the former are free of the vices of the latter, but only that they have these vices to a somewhat lesser degree.

The wealthy think that their wealth makes them worthy to rule.  But Aristotle makes it clear that the politically powerful are generally better than the wealthy.  The exercise of political rule requires that powerful men be "more manly," "more serious," and "more dignified" than wealthy men.  "They are more dignified rather than more pompous, for their reputation makes them more visible, so that they observe a mean; and the dignity is a mild and becoming pomposity" (1397a27-28).

Public responsibilities call forth exertions of human capacities and impose standards of conduct that are unequalled by the activities of wealthy men.  This is not to deny, however, that politically powerful men promote greater mischief than do wealthy men.  In fact, as Aristotle notes, precisely because powerful men are never satisfied with petty things, their injustices are never small, but always great.

One can see here suggestions as to how Trump's opponents should have answered his rhetorical argument from character--that his success in becoming wealthy proves that he is more qualified to govern than are all those professional politicians who are really stupid.  His opponents should have exposed the false and silly pretensions of this argument coming from Trump as the "fortunate fool," which would have required refuting his claims to business success that made him a self-made multi-billionaire.

In his book, Trump writes:
"There's nobody like me.  Nobody."
"I ask people to look at what I've done throughout my whole career.  Look at how successful I've been doing things my way.  So they have a choice.  They can pretend some impossible solution is actually going to happen, or they can listen to the person who has proved he can solve problems."
"I started in a relatively small real estate company based in Brooklyn and made more than $10 billion.  I now live on what is considered the best block of real estate anywhere in the world--Fifth Avenue between 56th Street and 57th Street , right next to Tiffany's in the heart of New York City."
. . . 
"Nobody understands business better than I do" (74-75).
 . . .
"During the recession of 1990 many of my friends went bankrupt, and never recovered.  I never went bankrupt."
. . .
"The money I've earned was the result of my own work--projects I created, deals I made, companies I bought and turned around" (80-81).
"I work hard, I've been honest and I'm very successful.  The billions I have?  I earned every penny.  When I was beginning my career, my father never gave me much money, but he gave me a great work ethic.  I always know a hater when they say my father gave me $200 million when I was starting out.  I only wish!" (98)
 "I never went bankrupt" is a lie.  In one of Trump's tweets (on June 19, 2015), he wrote: "Stop saying I went bankrupt.  I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage--smart!"

What he means by "using the laws to corporate advantage" is that he was forced to put 6 of his properties into bankruptcy.  Trump's Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City filed for bankruptcy in 1991.  The next year, two other properties in Atlantic City and his Plaza Hotel in New York City went into bankruptcy.  In 2004, Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts filed for bankruptcy.  In 2009, Trump Entertainment Resorts went into bankruptcy.  Trump has said that the first three bankruptcies count as only one, so that the total is not six but four.  And when he says "I never went bankrupt," this is his evasive way of saying that only his companies went bankrupt!  None of these bankruptcies are mentioned anywhere in his book.

And when he says "my father never gave me much money," he is lying about his dependence on the huge amounts of money his father gave him--beginning when Trump was 3 years old and continuing throughout his life whenever Trump needed to be bailed out from his failures.  The best evidence for this comes in an investigative report published in The New York Times on October 2, 2018.

The investigators for the Times studied over 100,000 pages of confidential tax records and financial records of Fred Trump and his children.  Some of these documents are attached to the article.  They found that Fred Trump transferred over $1 billion in wealth to his children without paying the tax rates for gifts and inheritances.  This included the equivalent of $413 million in today's dollars going to Donald Trump, much of this through secret transfers.  So the original source of Donald Trump's wealth was from his father.

President Trump refused requests to comment on the article.  One of his lawyers sent a letter to the Times denying much of what the article reported and threatening a suit for defamation, which has never been filed.

By age 3, the young Donald Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today's dollars as an employee of his father.  By age 8, Donald was a millionaire.

Over Donald's lifetime, there were over 295 streams of revenue to him from his father.  Whenever Donald started new building projects, his father increased the flow of money to his son, sometimes in the form of loans that were never repaid.

Whenever Donald's businesses began to fail, his father would give him more money.  In one of the most famous examples of this, Fred Trump once bought $3.5 million in casino chips to help his son make a bond payment on an Atlantic City casino.

The most dramatic discovery by the Times that has never previously been reported is how Trump family formed two companies--All County Building Supply and Maintenance in 1992 and Apartment Management Associates Inc. in 1994--through which Fred Trump transferred his wealth to his children without paying gift or estate taxes.

Throughout all of this, Fred carefully promoted the myth of Donald as the Self-Made Billionaire by telling reporters that Donald had done it all on his own.  This myth then became the basis for Trump's presidential campaign rhetoric--arguing from his character as the "archetypal businessman" who would use his genius for moneymaking to Make America Great Again.

The falsity of this rhetorical myth explains why Trump as president has failed to show the astute practical judgment for solving America's problems that he promised in his campaign speeches.  For example, in the campaign, he warned about the economic danger from federal budget deficits and the national debt:
"Right now this country is in serious financial trouble.  Our national debt is more than $19 trillion, and we're on our way to $20 trillion.  Even the most liberal economists warn that as we head past the $20+ trillion debt levels, we'll be in big, big trouble.  That's when our financial system really starts to falter and diminish our borrowing capacity as well as drive up the interest costs on our debt" (82).
In his campaign, Trump promised that he would be using his genius for financial management to balance the federal budget and pay off the national debt.  But today, the national debt is over $23 trillion and climbing, and the yearly federal budget deficit has risen to over $1 trillion.  Trump has even stopped talking about the national debt as being a problem.

Now President Trump can't rely on his father to bail him out of debt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All true, and sad that we have such a person making crucial decisions. But Ms. Clinton would have been even more dangerous.