By Dan Cantagallo
It’s said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. In the case of Donald Trump, the documentary Trump: What’s The Deal? attempts to show that his crimes are legion: shady mob connections, backroom political deals, dirty tricks and mountains of legal woes. Back in 1988, billionaire Leonard Stern produced a whole series of puff profiles on celebrity businessmen, including Trump. In Trump’s case, however, this resulting TV-style film featuring a few friends but mostly enemies turned out to be more venomous takedown than vanity piece. Apparently, Trump threatened to sue any distributor or network that picked it up, and the documentary has subsequently been “suppressed” for 25 years. Until now.
Trump, of course, was the media’s brash poster child of Reagan’s “Me” decade, where big was better, greed was good, image was everything and money was God. What’s The Deal?’s smattery investigation takes aim at what it sees as the vast gap between the glitzy facade of Trump’s business empire and its grubby reality. But it’s now most enjoyable for its buried time capsule quality, offering eye-rolling chapter headings throughout (“The P.T. Barnum of Business,” “A Trump Grows in Brooklyn”), an eminently-voiced narrator and a kitschy survey of late ‘80s/early ’90s moneyed New York with bonus appearances by odd cultural bedfellows like Graydon Carter, Phil Donahue and Christopher Reeve.
The producer of the film, Libby Handros (The American Ruling Class), stated she released What’s The Deal? for free online now, not as a revenge doc but in order to show the public that the ruthless real estate boy wonder back then is no different than the cranky presidential aspirant sucking up the country’s political oxygen today. While the doc may not hold the Trumpian silver bullet for his haters, it’s full of the dirt and muck that made his real-estate rise to power. Here’s what we learned about the 2016 Republican frontrunner and author of “The Art of the Deal”:
1. He’s an insider with an outsider’s chip on his shoulder.
Trump may not have been born an Astor or a Vanderbilt, but What’s the Deal? states he is not the self-made billionaire he’s made himself out to be. Before Donald there was his dad, Fred Trump, a well-connected Brooklyn real-estate developer who taught his son the family business — building government-financed middle-class housing projects in the outer boroughs. Donald borrowed some of his father’s playbook and connections and later he applied it to a much loftier challenge: Manhattan. When the 28-year old Donald started his assault on the island with a plan to gobble up old railroad properties on Manhattan’s West Side at bargain prices, he and his father went to see a childhood friend, Abe Beame, who just also happened to be the Mayor of New York at the time. According to Trump business associate Ned Eichler, Beame put his arm around Fred and quipped, “Whatever Mr. Trump wants in this town, he gets!”
2. He’s down with OPM (Other People’s Money).
While Trump likes to trumpet his extraordinary wealth, his greatest strategy has been to avoid using his own money in real-estate deals. Like his father before him, his game is to use other people’s money to foot the bill and absorb the risk. Whether it’s securing federal money to have the Javits Convention Center built on his land, private equity to go in big on the Trump Tower and his casinos or discovering loopholes to get tax breaks reserved for hospitals and low-income housing, this empire-builder hardly ever ponies up himself. To this day, he is well-regarded for his philanthropic gesture of rebuilding the ice skating rink in Central Park. What most people don’t know is that Trump got paid in full for his part, while the construction company unwittingly did the work for free. A hilarious moment in the film comes when an engineer is interviewed about the project. He said Trump told him his firm was hired but there was one caveat: the work had to be “pro-bono”. The engineer’s suckered response was, “Pro-bono, my goodness, I’m Italian-American… Pro-bono has to be Italian. I’ll go for it.” He did. His firm never got paid.
3. Trump has always been his own greatest hype man.
Boast. Bully. Insult. Trump cut his teeth in New York’s vicious media circus. He learned to play the game early on in his own particular way, mostly by employing the tactic that the best defense is an aggressive offense. No wonder he tried to literally buy boxing champ Mike Tyson at one point: he has a pugilist’s sense of social life. Trump also helpfully coined the term “truthful hyperbole”. In one gotcha montage in the film, we see him in various press interviews singing the praises of his properties, “the greatest….the biggest…the best…a mystical experience.” He likes to sling his insults as much if not more. He tells Larry King he has bad breath and takes a swipe at the then New York Times architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, calling him “an idiot…with probably the worst taste I have ever seen.” Part of Trump’s showmanship is a matter of smoke-screening the media and the public. Whatever distracts us from what is really going behind closed doors is a strategy that just happens to work in politics, too.
4. He’s not above dirty deeds, done dirt cheap (with illegal immigrants and the homeless).
When it was time to build his crown jewel, Trump Tower, Donald hired a window-washing company for the demolition job. They in turn brought in “The Polish Brigade” — around 200 immigrants with no working papers who slept at the work site and were exposed to asbestos. Trump denied all knowledge. It gets even more outrageous. When Trump bought 100 Central Park South, a rent-stabilized apartment building with stunning views, it was rumored he was going to demolish the building to make way for another one of his towers. Problem was, the building was occupied. So he threatened all the tenants with eviction and slapped them with lawsuits. Trump’s superintendent told them they would be investigating their personal and sex lives for eviction leverage. To top it all off, Trump told the city he would be happy to house the homeless in 14 of the building’s empty apartments: “I just want to help with the homeless problem.” The city politely declined his offer.
5. He’s got a serious “edifice complex.”
You may not find it in the DSM Manual, but many people in the film believe Trump has a serious psychological disorder: “an edifice complex,” according to journalist Sydney Schanberg. For a long time, he was obsessed with building the world’s tallest building in Manhattan at any cost, but he faced fierce resistance from New York writers, activists and actors including “Superman” Christopher Reeve, who called the plan “the American Dream gone berzerk” (perhaps an apt description of Trump himself). Trump comes off less Lex Luthor, though, and more like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort. He’s the kind of New York anti-hero that Martin Scorsese has been chronicling for years, climbing to the top of the urban heap by any means necessary and enjoying the hell out of the ride. For Trump, however, I wouldn’t bet on a moral epiphany coming anytime soon.
6. Donald is in a class by himself.
Despite its concern for everyday New Yorkers, What’s The Deal? seems mostly focused on painting Donald as an entitled nouveau riche boor with a Trump-takes-all ideology. After all, this kid from Ocean Parkway declared war on the old guard of wealthy New York society not just financially but aesthetically. Even when Ivana was by his side playing the dutiful hostess — and despite his half-hearted gesture toward Palm Beach and other rich legacy enclaves — it never seemed like he wanted to be a part of their world. He’d always rather they to submit to his. Tellingly, Atlantic City was a little more welcoming and a better fit for his gaudy taste and gambler’s mentality. Ultimately, his hostile attitude toward entrenched power may hold the secret to his appeal: If he took on elite Manhattan and won, why not the old boys club in Washington D.C.? At one point in the film, he’s interviewed about his political ambitions on a television program. Trump rails, “This country needs major surgery.” The interviewer quips, “Are you the surgeon?” The answer is classic Trump: “I think I would do a fantastic job.” Whether the procedure is life-saving or just a face-lift, we may find out shortly.