Timothy L O’Brien: ‘President’s strange, parallel universe sees every defeat as a mammoth victory’
Hanging on a wall behind the omelette bar at US President Donald Trump’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida is an old, framed poster. It is from an ad campaign Walgreens once ran featuring the president, back when he was the sorcerer of ‘The Apprentice’.
In white block letters on the poster, next to a photo of Trump cocking his index finger at the camera, is a question: “Can you walk the walk?”
It’s likely that versions of this query still run through Trump’s mind. That explains why he constantly spins his narratives toward success, even in the face of obvious failure. To admit defeat is to admit he’s not walking the walk.
The White House released a document on Friday titled ‘President Donald Trump’s Border Security Victory’ a day after Congress passed a spending bill that didn’t fund the border wall Trump demanded. The memo described a “legislative win” for Trump and outlined his intention to take action by raising funds for the wall unilaterally.
It was inevitable Trump would take a victory lap regardless of what happened in the real world. Spinning victory yarns from losses was a hallmark of his troubled business career. Back in the early 2000s, his casino company Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts was forced into bankruptcy. “I don’t think it’s a failure; it’s a success,” he said.
Warren Buffett, one of the smartest people in the country, made fun of Trump’s business failures during a skit he performed in 2005. An actor played a sobbing Trump, distraught over bad headlines, and he was gently consoled on stage by a sympathetic Buffett – until Buffett realised that someone as self-made and successful as he is actually has nothing in common with Trump, and the skit ended.
Trump told me he wasn’t insulted by Buffett’s satire. He also told me that he didn’t think that Buffett’s vast wealth made him any more successful than him. “He’s running a public company and he’s, like, a hundred years old,” Trump explained. “You know, I’m a (expletive) smart guy.”
In 1983, Trump bought into the nascent US Football League. Although the USFL was trying to avoid a head-on confrontation with the National Football League by playing in the spring and was trying to keep a cap on salaries, Trump pushed the league into autumn play, began tossing out lavish salaries, and spearheaded an unsuccessful antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The USFL, and Trump’s franchise, the New Jersey Generals, collapsed in 1986.
“The USFL wasn’t a big deal,” Trump later said. “It was a small deal. I didn’t lose.”
Trump overpaid for the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle in 1989, using borrowed money. He rechristened it the Trump Shuttle and made a number of operational errors, including installing gold-plated fixtures and other private-jet features that made little sense for a no-frills airline. Trump lied in a book, 1990’s ‘Trump: Surviving At The Top’, that his Shuttle was profitable. “I’m glad I saved it. I’m proud of the way it’s been improved. It is now the best,” he wrote. The Trump Shuttle went bankrupt in 1992.
“I got out at a good time. I walked away saying, ‘I’m smart’,” Trump later said of his ill-fated Shuttle venture. “It was a great experience. I enjoyed it.”
Trump brought this same brio to his presidential run. “If I’m president, there won’t be stupid deals any more,” he said in early 2016. “We will win on everything we do.”
It was only after Trump recognised in January that he was being consumed by a government shutdown that he fully embraced a border wall as his last stand. Now that he’s declared that building it might not be due to an emergency (“I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster,” he said).
Trump is cornered and outmanoeuvred, so we’re likely to get more of the same as he continues to test the boundaries of presidential authority: constant spinning about winning, even when the losses are apparent.