Deal through strength or get crushed every time.
You may recognize the sentiment as lyrics from the menacingly catchy Donald Trump campaign theme song, “Freedom’s Call,” performed by USA Freedom Kids, a jingoistic girlband, at a Trump rally this month in Pensacola, Florida.
But it’s also a neat distillation of Trump’s entire worldview—and an explanation for his decision, announced Tuesday night, to boycott the upcoming Republican debate, hosted by Fox News on Thursday in Des Moines, because he dislikes Megyn Kelly, one of the moderators.
Trump is following the playbook he laid out himself in 1987’s The Art of the Deal, the second-best book next to the Bible, according to its author. Trump’s preoccupation with negotiating from a place of strength is clear from the outset of the text.
His older brother, Freddy, he wrote, couldn’t hack it in the family business because “he wasn’t the kind of guy who could stand up to a killer contractor or negotiate with a rough supplier.” But unlike Freddy, his younger brother was a natural, just like his father. According to The Art of the Deal, The Donald once negotiated with businessman Charles Blackburn to buy his company’s luxury 727, complete with a bedroom, a bath, and a working area, for $8 million. A new 727, he boasted, “sells for approximately $30 million.”
The key to becoming a master negotiator like this, Trump wrote, was to “use your leverage.”
“The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” he wrote. “That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead. The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you have. Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs. Or best of all, simply can’t do without.”
But, Trump acknowledged, “that isn’t always the case, which is why leverage often requires imagination, and salesmanship. In other words, you have to convince the other guy it’s in his interest to make the deal.”
Nearly 30 years have passed since Trump explained this tactic, and now he’s putting it to use on Fox News.
“As someone who wrote one of the best-selling business books of all time, The Art of the Deal, who has built an incredible company, including some of the most valuable and iconic assets in the world, and as someone who has a personal net worth of many billions of dollars, Mr. Trump knows a bad deal when he sees one,” Trump said in a statement announcing his decision to forgo Thursday’s event.
“Mr. Trump knows when to walk away.”
Why Trump would walk away from the center of the Republican debate stage in Iowa, just four days before the caucuses, seemed to mystify some in the establishment.
In the polling averages, Trump leads his closest competitor, Ted Cruz, by 5.7 points at 33.2. And as the debates have gone on, Trump has only gotten better and better at performing in them. In the most recent debate, on Jan. 14, he seemed to come out on top of Cruz, who at the time was threatening to overtake him in the Hawkeye State.
“What’s the rationale for not letting the voters take a look at all the candidates, including you, if you’re Donald Trump?” Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard who joined National Review in denouncing Trump in its latest issue, wondered on CNN, just as the news was announced.
“Really? He’s so offended that he can’t possibly show up there on the stage?”
One Republican strategist told me that it would be “hard to say what he turns it into. His campaign has existed in free publicity, but this could cut both ways.”
But Trump has succeeded so far by flouting establishment conventions.
Before his candidacy, few would have predicted that alienating entire races and religions, or fighting with the Republican National Committee, or making enemies out of the conservative elite, would make for a successful primary campaign.
Yet for seven months, Trump has led the polls and packed tens of thousands of people into stadiums while doing just that. He has created a populist movement, and he has only himself and his zany decisions to thank.
Trump has always been upfront about what motivates him, even as he has flip-flopped on what he supposedly believes. He has never held back, never been shy about it, never couched it in caveats or qualifiers: He wants to win, sure, but most of all he wants to make everyone around him feel small in comparison to himself.
Unlike his stances on abortion or the Clintons, Trump has consistently stood by his negotiation principles since The Art of the Deal was published.
In the campaign, The Art of the Deal informs his policy positions to the extent that he has them. When the Iran deal was announced in July, Trump called it “terrible” and explained that he couldn’t understand President Obama, because “he dealt from desperation, and he shouldn’t have been desperate.”
Trump’s leverage in negotiating with Fox is his popularity and the fact that the media are certain to pay close attention to any spectacle he manufactures. And by walking away from the table, he stands to benefit twofold even if Fox doesn’t come crawling back to him: He demonstrates his negotiating prowess, which is sure to impress his anti-establishment supporters, and he further starves Cruz of much-needed attention right before the caucuses, just as he did by announcing Sarah Palin’s endorsement last week.
“FOX News is making tens of millions of dollars on debates, and setting ratings records (the highest in history), where as in previous years they were low-rated afterthoughts,” Trump said in his Tuesday statement, suggesting that the success of the debates was directly correlated with the success of his candidacy.
“Roger Ailes and FOX News think they can toy with him, but Mr. Trump doesn’t play games.”