The only way America could produce a true populist, a home-grown demagogue that could rise to the top of national politics, would be through the media.
A few years ago, my beloved wife finally persuaded me to accompany her on a trip to Italy. It proved to be so sublime that tears come to my eyes whenever I reminisce about the history, culture, art, scenery, cuisine, wine, and very mood I experienced there. Italy was like a hint of heaven or a pilgrimage to the cradle of our civilization.
Perhaps what amazed me most was how eerily familiar I found one place in particular: the Most Serene Republic of Venice. For in the distant mirror of that medieval commercial republic I discerned unmistakable reflections of the values, institutions, and civil religion of modern Americans. From its founding in the 8th century to its abolition (by wicked Napoleon) a thousand years later, the Venetian Republic was officially Catholic. But its real religion was a prosperity gospel under the patronage of St. Mark, the Winged Lion who blessed the fleets and commerce of the maritime empire and sustained its power and wealth.
The cathedral of San Marco, font of spiritual authority, and the palace of the doge, font of civilian authority, are literally joined at the hip in Venice. The republic was governed by its business elites through an elaborate array of councils, but at the top stood the doge, who was elected for life. He served as high priest of the civil religion and established the template or operational code of Venetian administration, trade, diplomacy, and war.
Did Americans choose a sort of a doge in 2016?
Dwight Eisenhower, the last man to enter the White House without having previously been elected to public office, had a distinct operational code based on the military staff. Might Donald Trump’s modus operandi derive from his lifetime as an entrepreneur? In fact, he has already given us a candid answer which nearly all journalists and pundits have curiously ignored. It can be found in Trump: The Art of the Deal, his 1987 autobiography. Its ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, now regrets his role in massaging the man’s image but does not disavow the book’s contents, which telegraphed 30 years ago Trump’s startling, successful leap into politics.
It begins in disarming fashion by assuring readers, “I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form.” So Trump is an artist!
The first chapter, a chronicle of one typically busy week, highlights an act of charity he performed and goes on to mention how much he relies on female executives. The chapter on his childhood combats the assumption that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth by describing his father’s rise from poverty in the gritty construction business, the hard work he had to do as a child, and his four years in military school. That he once thought of trying to make it in Hollywood anticipates his later stardom on television. That he scoffed at public relations firms and pollsters while hyping his ability to manipulate the media anticipates his unorthodox political campaign 30 years later.
Most suggestive, though, is the book’s conclusion that asks “What’s next?” Whatever it would be, he wrote, it would not be the same:
In my life, there are two things I’ve found I’m very good at: overcoming obstacles and motivating good people to do their best work. One of the challenges ahead is how to use those skills as successfully in the service of others as I’ve done, up to now, on my own behalf.
The book’s third chapter, “Trump Cards: The Elements of the Deal,” outlines his modus operandi, which the rest of the chapters illustrate and which we may assume will inform his style in the Oval Office. But can rules learned in real estate be applied to domestic and foreign policy? Can a successful businessman, like some sort of postmodern doge, be a successful head of state?
Consider Trump’s rules of thumb.
Think Big. “Most people think small, because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning.” The way Trump achieved this was through a “total focus” that he says he thinks of as “almost as a controlled neurosis.” It is axiomatic that Presidents must be megalomaniacs just to survive the campaign ordeal. But they also need to be obsessive and tireless if they mean to master events on a national and global scale rather than be mastered by them. We certainly don’t want leaders who think small. But it remains to be seen whether Trump can exercise self-restraint in the knowledge that, in some cases, smaller government and a less interventionist foreign policy are what can “make America great again.”
Protect the Downside and the Upside Will Take Care of Itself. “People think I’m a gambler. . . . I happen to be very conservative in business. I always go into the deal anticipating the worst.” Therefore, don’t be excessively greedy; settle for compromises. In politics, such prudence is simply indispensable. So if President Trump follows his own counsel, he is very unlikely to risk national bankruptcy, much less world war.
Maximize Your Options. Another way to protect oneself in negotiations is to be flexible as to means and ends. Trump made it a point to keep many balls in the air so he could adjust whenever deals turned sour or new circumstances arose. He also endorsed the tactic, as familiar in the bazaar as the boardroom, of opening a negotiation with exorbitant demands and haggling over price, terms, and conditions until a deal is struck. During his presidential transition, Trump has no doubt “opened negotiations” with foreigners and domestic interests alike through seemingly indiscreet Tweets.
Know Your Market. Trump calls this an instinct that cannot be learned or turned into a science. “That’s why I don’t hire a lot of number-crunchers, and I don’t trust fancy marketing surveys.” Nor does he trust journalists, who “mostly write to impress each other, and are just as swayed by fashions as anyone else.” Trump clearly relied on his instinct when his presidential campaign located blocs of angry voters invisible to his critics. The foreign policy equivalent of “knowing the market” is what political scientist James Kurth calls “the realities of the mentalities of the localities.” The subtle values, motivations, and interests of diverse human communities mock all “world is flat” generalities, whether of the liberal internationalist or neoconservative variety. Trump surely knows very little of any of them. So let us hope that he surrounds himself with smart people who “know the market” in other parts of the world.
Use Your Leverage. Trump cautions against appearing to be desperate to close a deal lest your adversaries smell blood. Instead, exploit your ability to trade whatever you have that the others want or (better yet) need. Chances are you have some leverage or else the other side would not be negotiating at all. But if you judge that your side possesses no leverage in a given situation, walk away. Any deal you make will end badly.
Enhance Your Location. People who claim real estate is all about location don’t know what they’re talking about, says Trump: “You don’t necessarily need the best location. You just need the best deal.” The foreign policy analog to location is geopolitics. Every spot on land and sea and in aerospace possesses unique assets and liabilities with regard to all other (especially neighboring) spots. The rivalry of the Great Powers throughout history has always revolved around efforts to enhance their locations, but they defied or misjudged geopolitical realities at their mortal peril. Trump’s instincts seem to cut both ways. His feel for the relative value of “turf” could be a significant asset, but his belief that a good deal can substitute for location may be a dangerous liability.
Get the Word Out. Don’t, however, waste money on advertising. He here explains what he came to prove so well in 2016: the best publicity is free. People who dare to be a little outrageous or controversial will always attract media coverage. “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies.” Trump is a master of bravado. Indeed, his rhetoric, body language, and image really do resemble Mussolini’s. But the President of the United States is assured in advance of unlimited free publicity, so let us hope Trump can follow Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum and speak softly but carry a big stick.
Fight Back. Trump counsels being genial whenever possible, but not to let others cheat or thwart you, and is especially candid in this regard about the then-mayor of New York. “What you have to understand about Ed Koch is that he’s a bully, pure and simple. . . . Koch has achieved something quite miraculous. He’s presided over an administration that is both pervasively corrupt and totally incompetent.” He says to be prepared for plenty of lawsuits. What he takes for granted, of course, is a marketplace operating within a rule of law overseen by an independent judiciary. By comparison, foreign policy is anarchic. International law is a voluntary pretense on the part of sovereign states, whereas transnational governance through Progressive “rules and norms” is precisely what the Brexit and Trump voters rejected. So as President, his “fight back” advice can only mean threatening foreign regimes with military or economic reprisals.
Deliver the Goods. “You can’t con people, at least not for long.” Here Trump acknowledges the finality of the bottom line. For all his self-promotion and negotiating ploys, he understands that in the end, businesses make profits or they make losses. How will domestic and foreign “consumers” rate his presidency over time? No matter how closely Trump follows his operational code, he will be obliged to confront unforeseen crises beyond his control and the unintended consequences of his own acts on the world stage. So what can “Deliver the goods” really mean in foreign affairs? The answer to that is contingent, conflicted, and far more ambiguous than just making America win again. Temperamentally, Trump is a doer. But the most a wise statesman can do is to “do no harm,” as in the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, or even more aptly like the captain of a ship on an infinite sea, with no port behind and no haven ahead. His sole responsibility must be to weather the storms he knows will be coming and keep his vessel on an even keel so long as he has the bridge.
Contain the Costs. Spend what you must, but not a dime more, he advised. “The point is you can dream great dreams, but they’ll never amount to much if you can’t turn them into reality at a reasonable cost. . . . Even small jobs can get out of control if you’re not attentive.” At a juncture when the U.S. national debt will soon surpass $20 trillion, no Trump Card is more relevant to the presidency than that. Moreover, this Tenth Commandment of his comes full circle back to the first. It’s fine to “think big,” but ambitious goals beyond the means of a person, firm, or nation are worse than vain. They’re ruinous. What is more, Trump’s warning about small jobs shows that in real estate he learned the dangers of what in foreign policy is called “mission creep.”
In the decades since 1987, Trump’s businesses have had their ups and downs, most evident in his multiple bankruptcies. Did those failures teach lessons as valuable as those in The Art of the Deal? If so, Trump has learned wisdom even more precious in politics and statecraft than in business: There are no final victories.
Nobody mourned the death of a doge. Why? Because “la serenissima repubblica è immortale.” Well, not quite immortal, but its hard-headed, commonsense principles sustained the Venetian enterprise for a millennium. May our own elected doge surprise us (and maybe himself) by governing wisely through similar principles. After all, he confessed in his book that “I never had a master plan. I just got fed up one day and decided to do something about it.”