“What the bulldozers and dump trucks did wasn’t important, I said, so long as they did a lot of it.”
Trump was talking about a stunt he pulled in 1982, when he owned a piece of land along the Atlantic City boardwalk and wanted Holiday Inn to partner with him on the construction of a casino.
Contrary to his representations to Holiday Inn, hardly any construction had taken place on the site, and he was concerned the company would decline to invest once they saw what was basically a plot of empty land.
So in advance of a site visit by Holiday Inn executives, he directed his construction manager to hire dozens of pieces of heavy equipment to move dirt around on the site, digging holes and filling them back up if necessary.
We see this strategy repeated over and over in Trump’s presidency. Trump signs executive orders to great fanfare, even if they have no effect beyond instructing his cabinet secretaries to prepare reports months from now. He demands that Congress pass a healthcare bill, with no particular concern for what’s actually in the bill.
Trump aims to generate the appearance of activity, to do noisy things that demonstrate that he is a do-something president.
Trump believes this strategy served him well in business. Indeed, Holiday Inn agreed to partner him on the construction of the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino.
But less than 18 months after the Trump Plaza opened, the partnership with Holiday Inn had deteriorated to the point that Holiday Inn was suing him. In 1992, the Trump Plaza went bankrupt.
In the long run, it matters what the bulldozers and the dump trucks do.
The Republican healthcare bill grows more and more unpopular over time, as people learn more about what it would do to health insurance (that is, take it away from tens of millions of people and make coverage for preexisting conditions very expensive or impossible to obtain, in order to cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans.)
In business, Trump’s strategy for when his counterparties figured out he was screwing them was to tie them up in litigation, get paid to go away, and then find new marks. He could find somebody else to fool with a bunch of useless bulldozers: new investors, new lenders, new customers.
In politics, as he is learning, there is no new set of marks. He has to face the same Congress and the same voters over and over. This is not a fact he could prepare for by reading “The Art of the Deal.”
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