Donald Trump: The Man Behind the Gold Curtain

Then what does all this — the yacht, the bronze tower, the casinos — really mean to you?

Props for the show.

And what is the show?

The show is “Trump” and it is sold-out performances everywhere.

— Donald J. Trump, interview with Playboy magazine, 1990

The show, as it turned out, had been going on for longer than people realized — long before it ended up on NBC and Fox News. The set design was not subtle, but it was effective. And the production went far more over budget than we knew, until now.

A New York Times investigation into President Trump’s taxes published Tuesday revealed that even during his 1980s “Art of the Deal” heyday — when he was posing for glossy magazines in his Fabergé egg of a penthouse, buying a 281-foot boat from the Sultan of Brunei, going on “Donahue” and “Oprah” — he was losing staggering sums of money: over a billon dollars, with a b, by 1995.

By early Wednesday, “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite morning show and support system, had transformed into an emergency finance tutorial on why down is actually up. Squinting at his notes, the host Brian Kilmeade argued that the president’s losses — “if you consider a billion dollars a lot of money” — showed that “he’s a bold businessman.”

Meanwhile, the host Ainsley Earhardt assured us that “the voter” still looks at Trump and sees a successful, rich man because “he was campaigning on the trail with his plane behind him that’s as big as a Delta jet, with his name on it.”

Ms. Earhardt may just have been telling her most important viewer what he wanted to hear. But she did have a point. President Trump’s career has been, foremost and for decades, a media production. And in a media production, as he well knows, what sticks with people are the images, the symbols — the props.

The green-eyeshade origin story of Donald Trump’s finances is debt and losses and money gifted from Dad. But the visual story, which he has told for decades, has been: A private helicopter. A golden tower. A palace in Florida.

Donald Trump’s entire career, arguably, has been a bet that people will remember the pictures longer and better than the words.

Has he been wrong? Those early years of losses chronicled in the Times investigation came exactly as he was branding himself the braggadocious face of Reagan-era capitalism, and the media and Hollywood gladly let him.

In 1987, with an adjusted gross income of -$4.5 million, he released “The Art of the Deal,” which mythologized him as a Manhattan money magnet. In 1989 (-$90.3 million), he put his face on a board game with the slogan, in gold print, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!” In 1992 (-$751.1 million), he welcomed Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” to the lush lobby of the Plaza Hotel, which was about to be taken off his hands in real life.

That image, and the value it gave to the properties he’d slapped his surname on, was arguably a form of leverage. The agreement he reached with creditors in the early 1990s provided him an allowance to keep up appearances, the better to keep up the price of the assets. The show had to go on, or else someone would get stuck with the bill.

So the show went on. It was no secret by the 1990s, if you read New York newspapers, that Donald Trump had gone through financial disaster. But if you just watched the talk shows and sitcoms that he appeared on, he still had his flash, his respect and his props. Samantha eyed him up on “Sex and the City.” He showed up on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” with Marla Maples and a briefcase of cash.

Donald Trump made himself, like a B-roll shot of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the media’s go-to visual symbol for “wealth.” So he was a natural choice for Mark Burnett to cast as the host of “The Apprentice.” Reality TV is the art of big, unsubtle symbols, and he had been producing his life as a reality TV show before reality TV existed. What matters there is what’s in the camera frame, not what’s in the accounting office.

Big business success, real business success, is boring and untelegenic and has to be explained. No one has to explain a jumbo jet and a ton of marble and brass. “What if … you could have it all?” asked the opening credits of “The Apprentice,” and the show could only do that because Donald Trump had been amassing, like a semiotician, a trove of visual signifiers of “it all.”

“The Apprentice,” of course, made sure that for over a decade, NBC’s viewers would see the future president surrounded by stage-managed images of luxury and power. But it also relied heavily on the props he brought with him. He flies in his Trump-branded helicopter in the show’s introduction. The show gushes over his gilt apartment and his plane. He was shot, again and again, coming down a gleaming escalator, an image he cribbed for his campaign kickoff.

All of this, we’re seeing, was a production financed at the outset by heavy losses, each rolled over into a new project, with new partners invested in maintaining the brand’s value regardless of the facts. He parlayed his 1980s flash into pop-culture ubiquity; he parlayed that into reality-TV stardom; he parlayed that into a weekly commentary gig on “Fox & Friends”; he parlayed that into conservative base adulation; and he parlayed that into real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Donald Trump’s business career, it seems, does not hold up robustly to scrutiny. But his media career — his principal career — has been a largely successful bet that it is far more important to seem like a thing than to actually be that thing.

The cost of creating that image, it’s turning out, was substantial. But the payoff? Priceless.

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