Donald Trump's nastiest political beefs have always been personal: "Bullies may act tough, but they’re really closet cowards"

In his 1987 book "The Art of the Deal," he recounts his feud with then-New York Mayor Ed Koch

Published October 21, 2015 4:24PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

For months now, Donald Trump has been a leading candidate — often, the leading candidate — for the Republican nomination for president. If he succeeds and then wins the general election, he will be the most powerful man in the world, with persuasive powers over what is likely to be a Republican Congress, command over the armed forces, and the bully pulpit on everything from drug policy to the economy.

But so far, Trump has spoken more about his personal wealth, how much people love him, the dangers of immigrants, and how unimpressive his rivals are. What, actually, are his politics? What kind of leadership does he respect? What role does he see government playing in the marketplace, society, the lives of individuals?

To get a better sense of Trump’s sense of things, I turned to Trump’s first, massively bestselling 1987 book," The Art of the Deal." The book reveals a number of important things — Trump sees himself as a maverick, values personal loyalty, prefers informality, finds Japanese people strange, and learned early on the value of provoking critics.

But while he says a bit more about politics than he does about religion — it would be easy to finish the book and assume he was a pure and fairly indifferent agnostic or a passive atheist — he doesn't say much. The book is about business, of course, but for an early work by someone who would become a high-polling presidential candidate, his lack of interest in how government works, what it stands for, and so on is still a bit startling. It seems, for the most part, that the State is a bit like God — something he doesn’t think a lot about and that he doesn't find particularly interesting.

There are a few places where government and politics does emerge, though.

First, Trump seems to really, really dislike New York’s then-mayor, who he tangled with in his push to take over Central Park’s skating rink. “What you need to understand about Ed Koch,” he wrote, “is that he’s a bully, pure and simple. Bullies may act tough, but they’re really closet cowards.” Trump’s hatred of Koch seems more temperamental — and spurred by the mayor’s standing up to him — than ideologically driven.

The chapter on Trump’s quest for the ice rink includes his most explicit writing on how government works (and doesn't work.) The book came out in 1987, the tail-end of the Reagan era, and “Ice Capades: Rebuilding Wollman Rink” is fully in sync with the day’s reigning ideology — that government can’t do anything right and that business leaders are our saviors. There’s the gratuitous union-bashing — he recalls walking by the rink to find “perhaps thirty laborers… on a permanent siesta.” And he describes a Time magazine story on the fight as “a simple, accessible drama about the contrast between government incompetence and the power of effective private enterprise.”

Similarly, rent control is “like a lot of failed government programs” in its good intentions and poor execution.

There are certainly things business does well and that government does poorly. But one thing Trump downplays — as he now downplays the taxpayer-supported bankruptcies of his casinos — is how much he benefited from government funding. Often his deals include properties that are government subdized, or some kind of tax abatement. He seems oblivious to the fact that government is making his deals and profits possible. It’s not that tax abatements are always wrong. But they’re a case of the state providing services to companies that don't pay for them. It’s the government helping business — in this case, his.

The Trump of “The Art of the Deal” — at least, the one who survives the book’s editing and co-writing — is not nearly as brash or hateful as the figure we see now. In some passages he’s even likable, and he mostly comes across as pragmatic more than anything. So a search for the book’s politic does not leave me thinking the ‘80s Trump was as fascist, a government-hater, or an Ayn Rand disciple. He seems like a gifted businessman who has just not thought about government all that much despite benefiting from the things it offers.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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