Donald Trump’s Long Publicity Con

It all started long ago with an amazing puff piece in the Times. The exaggerations, the unverifiable boasts—it was all in place even then.

11.28.15 5:01 AM ET

It all started with a gushing profile published by a New York Times reporter way back in 1976. With fawning prose—“he looks ever so much like Robert Redford”—Judy Klemesrud quoted Trump’s claim that he was “worth $200 million” and possessed, more importantly, the mysterious quality he called “flair.” A man with flair, said Trump, is “bound to be successful in New York.” Thus began what might be called the longest-running publicity con of our time.

Americans who just don’t get Donald Trump should consider his lifelong effort to exploit reporters who were happy to collude in promoting him as an exciting and important person on the flimsiest of evidence. In Klemesrud, Trump found the perfect person to start the campaign. A society reporter who nevertheless represented America’s paper of record, Klemesrud came from small town Iowa, and her roots showed in her gee-whiz approach to the Trump article. Her main source of insights into the man she profiled was Trump’s proud and loving papa, who had every reason in the world to exaggerate and inflate. She quoted Fred Trump saying, “Donald is the smartest person I know,” and she let him say “everything he touches turns to gold.” This he declared even though his son had yet to develop a single Manhattan property. (In the parlance of the building trades, he hadn’t put two bricks together.)

Klemesrud pressed on. What wasn’t gold in Donald’s life she presented as glittery and glamorous. He had “dazzling white teeth.” He dated “slinky fashion models,” frequented the fanciest clubs, and dashed around the city in a Cadillac driven by a “gun-toting, laid-off New York City policeman who doubles as a body guard.” Why would a 30-year-old real estate promoter need an armed chauffer? Why would the driver reveal he was carrying a gun? Klemesrud never said, but the detail added a frisson of exciting danger to the portrait. 

Reporting on a day in the life of Donald Trump, Klemesrud noted that he spent time on his car phone—a true rarity of the day—and earned commission of $140,000 (equivalent to $585,000 today) by helping a friend sell some property. The job required all of 20 minutes of his time. Donald claimed to be shy about publicity and personally conservative. But he dressed in a mod burgundy suit and a white shirt with his initials—DJT—sewn into his cuff in matching colored thread. He wore patent leather shoes, also dyed burgundy, and invited the reporter and a photographer to tour his posh apartment.

As a foundational document, the first newspaper account of Donald Trump’s life is a classic example of the showmanship and hype that would keep him in the public eye for decades to come. Most of the grand projects trumpeted in the article never came to pass. The $200 million fortune Trump claimed was actually built by his father. The slinky fashion models were never named. Klemesrud let Trump say he was of Swedish descent, when his family actually came from Germany and Scotland. And Trump’s connections to powerful politicians, observed as he dined at the swanky restaurant 21, were in fact the product of his father’s efforts.

A masterpiece of shading, atmospherics, and unverified suggestions of greatness, the article gave Trump the Times’ imprimatur. He was, by virtue of gracing the paper’s pages, important. It led to a TV appearance where the host declared the unaccomplished Trump a rising young “mogul.” A torrent of articles and broadcast reports followed and became, as they accumulated, proof that Donald was a very important person. Along the way Trump began to achieve some real successes, including the renovation of the old Commodore Hotel and the construction of his garish Trump Tower. However most of his grandiose proposals including plans for the world’s tallest building, a huge convention center, and a football stadium, never got off the drawing board.

Remarkably, Trump got away with some obvious whoppers. He presented his first wife Ivana as an athlete who had competed in the Sapporo Olympics as a member of the Czech ski team. Apparently no one in the press discovered that Czechoslovakia hadn’t sent a team to the games. The deception remains on the public record to this day. Next came Trump’s use of fake personas—John Baron and John Miller—who told reporters things he couldn’t say himself. It was Baron who defended Trump against complaints over the destruction of artwork when he demolished an old department store. It was Miller who shared the news that a great many famous and beautiful women were interested in dating him.

If much of what Trump offered to reporters and TV presenters was manipulative and deceptive, they were often willing participants in the dance. His claims of stupendous wealth were impossible to verify but they gave Robin Leach something to offer viewers of his program, which was called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. When Trump claimed that members of the British family were inquiring about buying property from him, it didn’t matter that Buckingham Palace would never address such a statement. What mattered was the excitement tabloid readers might feel as they imagined seeing Princes Diana coming and going in Manhattan.

Always eager for attention, Trump exploited even the crises in his life. In the 1990s his divorce from Ivana marked a new low in tabloid journalism as he and she divulged the sordid details to their favorite columnists. These self-indulgent acts gave fodder to their childrens’ classmates, who then confronted them with the headlines. Throughout his life Trump has been willing to engage in tabloid battles with other famous people—Cher, Bette Milder, Rosie O’Donnell—and he had loudly complained of unfair treatment. He has regularly insisted that his fortune was far greater than the estimates made by others, especially Forbes magazine. For its part Forbes has always stood its ground.

Besides fake personas and gutter-brawling, Trump’s tricks include making brash assertions that cannot be fact checked, and brazen claims larded with so many caveats that their dissolve under examination. His claim that the Mexican government is “sending” rapists and murders to cross the border into the United States was not offered as a statement that can be supported by fact. It was a play for attention and it worked. The same dynamic applied when he brayed about President Obama’s birth certificate, implying that the president might not have a legitimate claim to the office. The president’s birth status was never in doubt, but birtherism won Trump lots of publicity. Trump said he had backed an investigator who turned up important information. Was this true? Who knows? But it was a good story.

As a candidate for president, Trump claims to be a outsider when he has actually played at politics for almost 40 years. Long a donor to candidates, he made his first political speech in New Hampshire in 1987. In Portsmouth he spoke of how he attacked trading partners and allies in ways that sound familiar today. Back then he was angry at the Japanese, who were supposedly better negotiators than their American counterparts. They were the ones eating our lunch. Today it’s the Chinese.

The late 1980s also found Trump contemplating a run for governor of New York state or mayor of New York City. He mounted a bid for president in 2000 and repeatedly flirted with the idea of seeking the White House in the years that followed. Trump is, in fact, a failed politician, but this fact is rarely mentioned. Instead reporters, many of whom were children when Trump started dabbling, marvel at his outsider appeal. Most recently he has extolled the awfully-named Operation Wetback of the Eisenhower years. Run by a former military officer, the effort resulted involved mass deportation of Mexican-born residents of the United States. This moment is considered a tragedy by many Mexican Americans. Trump offers it as an example of the congenial Ike’s supposedly reasonable policies. Trump doesn’t mention that Ike wasn’t a fan of aggressive real estate men. Indeed, his administration went after Trump’s father over the excessive profits he made using federal financing to build homes for veterans.

In the end, Donald Trump has always been about the stories he tells and that the press repeats with limited fact checking. He is a self promoter devoted to the long game. At many moments reporters and the public at large have seemed to enjoy being fooled by the showman, appreciating his con artist gifts, especially when they cause no apparent harm. People loved P.T. Barnum for the same reason. The process seems less entertaining when Trump seeks to delegitimize a president or appeals to the fears people harbor about immigrants. But the polls suggest that Trump may yet talk his way into the GOP nomination for president. It all depends on how long the voters remain amused.