Acton Institute Powerblog

Understanding Trump: The Deal-Maker as Artist

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artofthedeal[Note: This is the first in an occasional series evaluating the remaining presidential candidates and their views on economics and liberty.]

In the history of American politics, there has never been a candidate quite like Donald Trump. He is an Ivy League-educated New York billionaire appealing to populists across the country. He is a crony capitalist who loves bureaucracy and yet has convinced voters that he is the anti-Establishment candidate. He is profoundly ignorant about economics and openly hostile to freedom, and yet on the verge of securing the nomination of what was once the America’s “conservative” party.

He is, as he claims, a sort of artist.

Yet for all his contradictions, understanding Trump is rather simple. The first step is to understand that he cares less about principles or policy than he does about process.

Trump brags that he is not a politician. In many ways, this is true. Many politicians are concerned primarily about their political principles and are not all that interested in the details of government policies. They tend to rely on outsiders (such as think-tanks) to help them choose fitting policies that align with the principles. Some other politicians believe that policies and principles are all but inseparable. They tend to be “policy wonks” that pay close personal attention to the details of government policies.

While Trump may have some non-negotiable principles and even some policies that he cares about, his primary concern is not with either principles or policies — he cares about the process. And the one process he deeply cares most about — the one that almost defines his personality — is deal-making. Trump thinks that he is an artist and that deals are his art form.

In the opening line of his book, The Art of the Deal, Trump writes:

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. Other people pain beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.

Trump thinks he is the Michelangelo of “deals.” If you do not understand that fact you will never understand Trump, and you will always be confused by his actions.

Even those of us who recognize this fact, however, can have a difficult time processing what it means because we do not consider deals to be an art form. We can appreciate (if not truly comprehend) the singular focus on music by Beethoven, or painting by Rembrandt. But the idea that anyone could be obsessed by deals is completely foreign to us. We think, “Surely, there must be more to it.” But there isn’t. For Trump, it really is all about “the deals.”

As Scott Alexander says in his recent review of The Art of the Deal:

[T]here’s still something alien about Trump here, even moreso than with the populist demagogue of the campaign trail. Trump the demagogue is attacked as anti-intellectual. I get anti-intellectualism because – like all isms – it’s an intellectual idea, and I tend to think in those terms. But Trump of the book is more a-intellectual, in the same way some people are amoral or asexual. The world is taken as a given. It contains deals. Some people make the deals well, and they are winners. Other people make the deals poorly, and they are losers. Trump does not need more than this. There will be no civilization of philosopher-Trumps asking where the first deal came from, or whether a deal is a deal only by virtue of its participation in some primordial deal beyond material existence. Trump’s world is so narrow it’s hard to fit your head inside it, so narrow that on contact with any wider world it seems strange and attenuated, a broken record of deals and connections and hirings expanding to fill the space available.

On the other hand, he made a billion dollars and will probably win the GOP nomination. So there’s that.

To understand Trump we must see him as he sees himself: as the greatest solo deal-maker in modern history, if not in all of human history. Trump is a deal-maker and his focus is not on consistency in principle or coherence in policy-making, it’s in securing deals.

But who exactly is he making deals with? Currently, there are three main deals he has on the table. He’s making deals with primary voters, GOP leaders (who his supporters consider “the Establishment”), and the Democratic Party.

Of the three groups, Trump cares the least about primary voters. As he’s said before, his supporter have a cult-like devotion to him that he can all but take for granted. He doesn’t really need to woo them, but he needs their support to secure a better deal with the Republican establishment. And to his credit, it’s working. The problem is that many of his supporters don’t realize (or simply don’t care) that they are nothing more than a bargaining cheap in a side deal with the Establishment.

For better or worse, Trump has no intention of actually implementing many of the promises he has made to his supporters. He’s been rather open and honest about that fact, pointing out that he’s mostly exaggerating to secure a better deal later on. He also believes his supporters don’t really care about principles or policies either. Primary voters had 15 other candidates — all of whom cared more about policy and principle than Trump — and rejected them all for the Deal-Making Artist.

To get elected, he believes, he doesn’t need to sell his policies he just needs to sell himself by getting voters excited about his abilities as a deal-maker. If that requires a bit of exaggeration, then so be it. As he wrote in The Art of the Deal:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.

Using hyperbole to gain support of the voters, though, is merely the first step. What he really wants is the backing of the Republican leadership.

Although he isn’t winning over the true believers who embrace economic freedom and small government, Trump is proving he can appeal to the Establishment. Within the last few weeks former House speaker John Boehner and former Vice President Dick Cheney have announced they will support him if he gets the nomination. Most other Establishment leaders have too and others will surely follow. They recognize that Trump is someone they can work with. He is, after all, like them: a deal-maker.

Which brings us to the third deal on the table: Trump is trying to close a deal with liberal Democrats.

Most candidates wouldn’t even hint that they are willing to compromise with liberal Democrats in the general election, much less months before they’ve even secured the Republican nomination. But for many reasons, it is not surprising that Trump would be reaching out to them now.

For most of his life, Trump was registered as a Democrat (he has has changed his party affiliation five times since registering as a Republican in Manhattan in 1987). He’s donated to the political campaigns of liberal Democrats, including to his new rival, Hillary Clinton. On many issues, he takes positions that are far to the left of the Republican mainstream.

Yet despite his life-long allegiance to liberalism, it’s still surprising to hear him claim he will be adopting the message of a self-proclaimed socialist. A few weeks ago Trump said on MSNBC, “Bernie Sanders has a message that’s interesting. I’m going to be taking a lot of the things Bernie said and using them.”

So what does that mean? In the next post we’ll look more closely at some of the leftist economic issues that Trump is proposing to adopt.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Steve Vinzinski

    Joe today is May 10th and Mr.Trump after West Virginia and Nebraska is 130 delegates away.A real shock this man may win the GOP nod with percentage wise in better standing than Hillary Clinton over Mr.Sanders.I thought i never see this day as a matter of fact never even thought of this situation.

    • Clyde Bridges

      when we get a VP iwant a yard sign to go with my Mc Cain Romney signs that stay up year round.

  • RsGoat

    How do we justify your political salesmanship against Trump’s and then compare those with the known actions of our sitting president and his administration keeping in mind the pretender to the thrown will continue in his footsteps!
    For those of us that are politically opposed to the path our country has been taking in the past eight years the choice is to follow one who is more likely to take us in a new direction of proven prosperity (200 years worth) or stay with a style of leader and this “new path” which has proven to not be as beneficial to a vast majority of our nation as we seem to be told.
    I keep in mind the Bureau of Statistics was placed under control of the Oval office and they have a lot more control over what comes out of there now then any other administration has ever had in the past. That needs to be fixed, it puts a question mark on all their data. Please forgive me for finding this so late.

  • baldev

    Writing on the wall -Trump is the need of America going forward for next 8 years .

  • Eastman

    It is clear that the author does not understand business and cannot relate the fact the government needs to behave in business like manner to for the benefit of its citizens. The art of the deal is not winners and losers. That is the art of the Con. The deal makers find ways that both parties benefit. Otherwise why would anyone enter a deal making process. Trump has claimed that politicians, who are usually lawyers, make poor deals. Remember a lawyer’s job is to protect his client from harm. If there is no deal the lawyer must have done his job and his client is no worse off than where he was. That trail leads to being out of business and out of money.

    Trump can make a better trade deal with China. There are looming risks and benefits for each country in making a different agreement and both holding up their end of the resulting deal. For example, China holds a tremendous amount of US bonds. What happens if the US does not pay the interest or even the face value on those bonds to China. I know the credit rating of the US would be severely damaged, but what if the US said when China cheats on trade, we will adjust our bond payout by an equal amount. That is over simplified, but demonstrates that both countries have current risks and can come to a mutually beneficial outcome. We need a person who understands business to make the political agreements it takes to get us out of a free fall towards communism. Communism has never been good for the general population in all of human history. Vote Trump.

    • jacky

      Cons don t have the ” good fruit” this man has.

  • Richard Cottone

    Trump has no interest in being President.In his delusional mind he is going to be ” EMPEROR TRUMP”. The well being of anyone other than “EMPEROR TRUMP”is of no interest to him. It certainly seems that he will say ANYTHING, regardless of how ridiculous, and , or off the wall, just to make sure that he is always at the top of the headlines, be they in the print, or broadcast media. If you really want to live in “THE TRUMP EMPIRE”, go ahead and vote for him. I most certainly don’t, and won’t. R.Cottone Lakewood Ohio.

    • Barbara Fuller

      Richard…According to your theory, if Trump becomes ‘Emperor in Chief,’ then he would just be replacing ‘Dictator in Chief’ who’s in the WH now. The current one’s wife is even a Co-Dictator, as she crafted the disastrous ‘healthy school lunch’ program that the school children promptly tossed into the cafeteria dumpster! When Obummer didn’t get the legislation he wanted, he just picked up his pen and wrote it into (illegal) law by Executive Order! As a ‘Constitutional teacher,’ he conveniently forgot that he is in the Executive branch of government, not the Legislative. And he did this time and again. Your dribble is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

  • Charli

    Donald Trump in the oval office, is the best thing for our country. The POTUS,has been the one to make him shine. He is the proverbial ” stone” in ” Barry’s ” shoe. All the damage Obama has done….can slowly be undone. We are at a crossroad people. We have been crippled by ” Barry”. Left in open waters and the last ship is coming our way. If we don’t climb aboard, we drown. Hillary is the final nail in the coffin, for the U.S. GIVE TRUMP FOUR YEARS TO START THE HEALING PROCESS. Do not be afraid to stand for right. Wrong, will bring about severe consequences for us all. God Bless You All and may God Bless The United States.

  • r ryan

    Trump should produce an add with the video of FBI Directors comments re HRC…e g classified docs, poor judgemenr, etc

  • Doc Martin

    Mandy and I are Trump supporters. As we watched Melania step onto the stage last night we were both biting our nails and holding our breaths. Mandy kept saying “This is not going to be good.” She was right. Everything has been going great until this situation. I have no idea if Melania copied Mrs. Obama’s speech or not but you can’t deny it was almost identical. Why Why Why??? Donald is such a great businessman and should have known better. She was nervous about doing the speech and no one can blame her. English is not her first language and she has never been put in the spot light in front of so many people before and she was understandably nervous. If I would have been in that situation, I would have never expected Mandy to give the speech if she did not feel comfortable giving the speech. Let’s hope in the future, Donald will let his very beautiful wife stand behind him with her strength and love and not in front of a microphone.

    • Barbara Fuller

      Doc…The person who actually wrote her speech has already apologized for borrowing these words from Michelle’s speech. Melanie just answered his questions about he life and upbringing. When expressing what she learned from her parents, he crafted her answer by using what Michelle said, because the content was the same. It wasn’t Melania who plagiarized. Also, several radio personalities recounted how MANY Democratic politicians plagiarized others speeches, including how Biden once plagiarized one man’s whole life! CHECK OUT THIS LINK:

      This is perfect proof of just how much the Liberal media is determined to push the Liberal agenda, truth be damned.

  • Richard Cottone

    I can’t wait for when “The Donald” is asked for about the 100th about his wife’s speech. He will be pissed off ( rightfully so ),and say what he really ” thinks” , which he is known to do. I expect him to say something along these lines.”she is not the one running for President,, so she can say anything that she wants to, and did you SEE HER UP THERE? , she’s GORGEOUS HUH!.” Let us not forget that this is the man who once said that ” it doesn’t matter what the media says, as long as you have a pretty [deleted] next to you”. It will be kinda fun to watch Fox news defend him, Again.

  • Teresa Naylor

    Enjoyed hearing Dr. Ben Carson defend Mr. Trump! He made a great point: If Hillary is elected president there will be far reaching effects of her actions such as the federal judges she will appoint etc. That’s vision! As a Trump supporter, I would like to see Donald Trump remove the horrific insult from Ground Zero, the gun tied in a knot. I would like to see it replaced by a hand in hand huge statue of Davey Crockett and Betsy Ross…visionaries from the foundation of this great nation. Loved what I heard about knowing who is in our country and making them traceable. People respect being made accountable, even when they don’t like it.

    • JJS

      Are you serious? You are worried about a gun tied in a knot?? I am thinking that their might just be a few more important things too worry about than that! Its so wonderful to see how ignorant Trump and his supporters think! By the way, I would guess that you voted for the republican president that probably put that statue their in the first place….The worst part of this post is that I’m giving that chtrump* publicity at all!

      • Teresa Naylor

        “Its so wonderful to see how ignorant Trump and his supporters think!” Wow! Are you from this Country?
        Serious? Something more important than the Constitution? More important than our rights as Americans? We have owned guns for 53 years in our house and never have shot anyone with them. NRA supporter? Yep! No matter who put the gun tied in a knot there, it is a grave insult to Americans and the Constitution of America. Ten to one Hillary has armed body guards :)

  • Jenkins Noah Kiwanuka

    Talk about the Japanese, the Indians, the Africans, the Greek, the Irish, the English, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Latinos and many other nationalities. There are all there in America. What then does Trump mean by ‘we don’t want them in our country’? Whose country is America and who are those that Trump wants to keep out? He sounds like a real successor to those who murdered Sadam Hussein of Iraq by accusing him of possessing weapons of mass destruction when he didn’t have any.

  • “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”

    All politicians have to lie to the American voters or they won’t get elected. Travolta had it right in “Primary Colors.” Our problems have nothing to do with politicians and everything to do with the decline of Christianity.

  • jan platovsky

    ISIS and Russia are his best partners. Either one will come through with a terrible mass murder terrorist attack that will stun the World and the American public. If this happens just a few days or a week before the USA elections, Trump is guaranteed to be elected.
    This is an evil possibility but unfortunately a pretty real one.
    For ISIS, it’s in their favor to have Trump elected, it justifies their violence going forward … For the Russians it’s already a known fact they support Trump.

  • jack cornell

    Trump is scared to be president. He is not stupid, He’s “playing”/manipulating the media. Wake up America. All he’s selling are “Woof Tickets”. His narcissistic/egotistical bombast has always had one destination…his own anal aperture, which is another way to say “Bankruptcy” . And Trump does know bankruptcy. Real history chronicles the truth through the ages.

  • Charles Dial

    Trump is a thug from Queens. There are a lot of successful thugs. Many, I’m sure, were not given a million by their fathers. There are still a lot of successful thugs. Its a good thing he’s not in fashion or hair styling. However, he is good at what he is good at. Building things. So give him a job building things. Put him in charge of the Army Corps. of engineers. Let him fix the bridges, the roads, the dams. He is not suitable to live in the White House. We have never had a president who makes fun of nationalities. We’ve never had a first lady who finds it necessary to take her clothes off. What would Tony Soprano’s evaluation of Trump be? We’ve never elected a thug to meet the vast number of Heads of State nor have we asked a thug to negotiate with them. Turn him loose on the roads, the bridges, affordable housing. He can be useful. He just can’t be president.