The Potemkin Presidency of Donald J. Trump

Trump's whole life has been a parade of hollow accomplishments, polished and propped up to impress the next batch of suckers.

When Donald Trump talks about unprecedented economic expansion and job growth, it's easy to assume he's more or less telling the truth. He inherited a strong economy. A regime of deregulation and corporate tax cuts is certainly a good recipe for short-term business success, even if it's ultimately toxic to the very environment that allows the businesses to flourish. And as this deals in hard numbers which anyone can look up and compare.

Even though I understand that Donald Trump is more than a habitual liar but a man for whom the truth is ultimately meaningless, his claims are repeated so often and so widely I have been surprised once or twice by a reminder that President Obama's tenure saw higher rates of job expansion and comparable rates of real GDP growth, while borrowing less money from the future. So I can well imagine how well his lies play to people who aren't paying that much attention, and are inclined to believe him, or at least to believe that everybody in politics fudges the truth and both sides fiddle around with the numbers in the same way.

Trump promised real GDP growth of upwards of 4% annually. He managed to break the 4 percent mark on a one-time basis in the second quarter of 2018 due to one-time trade contributions; this feat was not sustained or repeated, and did not beat the best four quarters of President Obama's tenure. Nevertheless ,he acted as though he had achieved the impossible, taking a remark President Obama had made about not being able to "wave a magic wand" and bring back obsolete jobs and applying it to a GDP figure that was good but not unprecedented. He still says things like "Guess I found that magic wand, huh?" at rallies and still acts as though he has delivered higher than 4% annual GDP growth, because he hit it once.

The same sleigh-of-mind is at the heart of Trump's environmental policies, which is to gut every regulation while touting our air and water as being the cleanest they've ever been. Regulation got us cleaner air and water, but any report that show that becomes the argument in favor of deregulation: "Why do we need to protect our water when it's the cleanest it's ever been?" 

To him, the point of any government-issued report is to bolster his arguments. Reports that undercut him are irrelevant at best and insubordination at worst. Why would a guy trying to sell you a condo highlight negative reviews? Why would a president trying to sell you a policy change highlight negative reports?

This is the business practice at the heart of Donald Trump's Potemkin presidency, in which he presents his customers with a mock-up of his accomplishments: hundreds of miles of border wall that are all replacements for existing barriers and which, in some cases, fell over before the footings had a chance to dry. Declarations of total victory in countries in which we're still fighting. Magical GDP growth extrapolated as a hypothetical extension of one good quarter, while reality trundles along behind it.

Donald ran on the promise to run the country like he runs his company, and he has delivered. This has been the way he does business going back decades. He loves the story of how he once fooled potential partners in a stalled building project on the Jersey shore by renting a bunch of equipment and sending it to an empty lot on the Atlantic City boardwalk to mock up an active construction site, giving the impression that the whole thing was a going concern they could get in on if they hurried, rather than a pipe dream that would go nowhere without their money. Tony Schwarz tells this story for him in The Art of the Deal, with the money quote:"What the bulldozers and dump trucks did wasn’t important, I said, so long as they did a lot of it."

One week later, I accompanied top Holiday Inn executives and the entire board of directors out to the Boardwalk. It looked as if we were in the midst of building the Grand Coulee Dam. There were so many pieces of machinery on this site that they could barely maneuver around each other. These distinguished corporate leaders looked on, some of them visibly awed. 

It's a declaration of intent and a confession to defrauding his partners, and should have served as a warning to anyone who gets a sales pitch from Trump. Instead, it enhanced his legend. It convinced people that this guy was clever and ballsy and knew how to get things done, and made them want to have him on their side. 

Missing from this calculation is the fact that the Holiday Inn people he staged this elaborate spectacle for also thought they were getting him on their side. In actuality, he was getting them on his. He never felt any loyalty to them. The whole project of the Trump Organization and its elaborate network of closely-held paper companies is to provide an endless stream of opportunities for people to invest in. If none of those opportunities pay out, it doesn't matter to Donald. The secret of his "billionaire" lifestyle is that he hasn't been living on profits, but on investments: first his father's regular and large cash infusions, then the money of people and companies that were fooled by the show of success he was able to make on daddy's dime, and then increasingly dirty money from foreign mobsters and corrupt governments who don't mind losing much of it so long as the rest comes out clean and spendable.

And if it buys them an important voice in US and world politics? All the better.

Now the thing about that Atlantic City construction site is that even the story as he tells it is very likely an exaggeration. While he brags about "pulling out all the stops," can you imagine Donald J. Trump spending that much money on anything? Not before he has his investors lined up. 

The more prosaic truth is that he did a little set dressing with some equipment from other projects.

This doesn't undermine the actual, oft-neglected lesson of this story, which is that Donald Trump will lie to your face to get what he wants from you. 

If anything, it enhances it.

He lies so much, so often, and ultimately so artlessly that it's easy to forget how much he does it. The mind reels. The mind rebels. When he lied his way onto the Forbes 400 list, he essentially claimed ownership of every property and venture bearing the Trump name at a time when the family business was mostly controlled by his father.

It's a strategy that hasn't changed, and is part of the reason why he's eager to license his name to properties he doesn't actually have a major stake in (or any stake, sometimes) all over the world: it gives him a portfolio of actually successful properties he can point to when making a pitch to his next group of suckers. His claims don't stand up to scrutiny, but his name's on the side of the building. Some other group is listed as the owner and operator? That's international business. The Trump Organization has subsidiaries everywhere.

The author of the Forbes list that year didn't take the claims by Donald Trump or  his good friend"John Barron" at face value but even at his most cynical dismissal he still assumed there must be a grain of truth, and on that basis, Trump made the list. Like a favorable quarterly GDP or environmental report, this accomplishment became something he could wave around and point to as a sign of his success when lining up investors to fleece.

The casino he built with the cooperation of Holiday Inn was a failure as a casino, but it worked for Trump's purposes. He convinced them that his name had more cachet on the east coast than their brand name (Harrah's), so to outward appearances the Trump Plaza Casino was his solo accomplishment. He convinced them to not build a parking garage that would have better accommodated the masses who could have made it successful because he didn't want to obstruct views of the casino. And he used his ownership of the "successful" casino to squeeze Hilton out of Atlantic City and take over their casino project, giving him Trump's Castle, a casino in direct competition with the Plaza.

That move horrified his partners at Holiday Inn and ultimately saw them departing, as he bought them out with a couple hundred million dollars of other people's money. What did he care? It wasn't his. He had his eye on the real prize, the thing he'd wanted from the beginning: an even bigger and better casino, a true monument to himself: the Trump Taj Mahal.

He just needed the money and the permits... but who was going to say no to the guy who built, managed, and ran two big, beautiful casinos already?

This is how Trump operates, and how he has always operated. As president, he has given us infrastructure week after infrastructure week, big trucks parked in front of the White House in place of actual building projects, "criminal justice reform" in the form of high-profile celebrity-endorsed clemency cases, victory that comes in the form of big bombs dropped and high-profile killings, magical levels of economic prosperity that may have existed once early in 2018.

It's a Potemkin village of a presidency, a phrase named for Grigory Potemkin, lover and confidante of Catherine the Great, who is said to have ridden ahead of her official procession through Crimea to quickly assemble a portable facade of a village at each stop along the river so that wherever she went she would see the land as prosperous, full of the hustle and bustle of her industrious subjects, who would pack up the village and then race to the next stop as soon as she was out of sight.

Perhaps it is too fitting that this story is itself an exaggeration. While Potemkin did ensure that the settlements they viewed were spiffed up and there may have been some early construction and even mock-ups to show what developments might have looked like in the future, there's no evidence that he sought to deceive his empress.

In current English parlance, though, the phrase refers to the myth, and in that area, Donald Trump's achievements are equally legendary.