Trump’s Business Fraud Is Irrelevant to His Supporters


“Trump’s rise in the American imagination rested on his appeal as an entrepreneurial guru and carnival barker. He has long since transitioned away from that role with his most loyal followers,” O’Brien wrote in his column for Bloomberg on Monday. The far more pertinent persona is the one he’s crafted since the summer of 2015. “He is an era-defining politician now, and he oversees a cult that cares little about his business foibles or setbacks …” Trump, after all, is “not an ex-president — he’s a right-wing, nativist, revolutionary leader,” as presidential historian Doug Brinkley once put it. “He has a movement that is massive with global implications …”

Seldom have the stakes been any higher — for the 45th president who wants to be the 47th and whose path involves courtrooms as much as the campaign trail, and for a frazzled and destabilized country as well. Trump could be fined $250 million. He could lose Trump Tower, the singular symbol of the image he sought from the start to convey. For most people, of course, unsavory aspects of their past can limit their prospects for the future. Not for Trump. Never have. He is, in the memorable words of an intimate, “the most present human being I ever met.” So the scenes this week are in some sense simply an extension of a time-tested Trump tactic and truth. He makes the past not matter.

One bleak read of this dark art is that this is not just a piece of, but a prerequisite to any authoritarian’s playbook.

“They believe him, because they believe in him,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote in her 2020 book about authoritarian leaders. Trump “presented himself as a truth-teller,” he demanded “loyalty oaths,” and he utilized “this mirage of him as the successful businessman who has what all other men want” — “all of which,” she told me this week, “are things that authoritarians have done for a hundred years.”

“Obviously George Orwell taught us about the ‘memory hole,’” said Jen Mercieca, the author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. “The memory hole is very effective — this idea that you can just discard unpleasant truths and make them go away. Human beings are very vulnerable to memory-shaping.”

Consider, for instance — well, Trump’s whole life.

When he was in high school, at New York Military Academy, he asked a classmate to recount a play in a baseball game. NYMA was down by three, the bases were loaded, and Trump, the classmate recalled, hit the ball just over the third baseman’s head — the winning hit! “That’s not the way it happened,” Trump responded. “I hit the ball out of the ballpark. Remember that. I hit it out of the ballpark!”

In the 1970s and ’80s, in the ’90s and into the 2000s, exaggeration was the mother’s milk of his rise. “Truthful hyperbole,” as he put it in 1987 in The Art of the Deal, the item for which he is maybe most known after the tower that bears his name — a book O’Brien once described as a “nonfiction work of fiction.” His book Surviving at the Top? When it came out, in 1990, he was barely surviving, and he was nowhere the top. He didn’t care. Time and time again, the way Trump told his tale, failures weren’t failures, losses weren’t losses. Nothing but successes. Nothing but wins.

His political ascent made all this more sinister. It no longer could be dismissed as something that bordered on wink-and-nod schtick. His campaign was an effort to rewrite his past. His presidency was an effort to rewrite not just the past but the present — “the ongoing present,” as I wrote during his convention in 2020. He didn’t lose when he lost, Covid didn’t happen the way it happened, the insurrection wasn’t an insurrection …

“Deny something enough, and people eventually will believe you,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive. “Once they believe you, it is easy to rationalize the past.”

“As an authoritarian movement, the past must be whatever he says it is,” said Reed Galen, a former GOP consultant and a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

“You talk to voters, and unless they are just hardwired on anti-Trump stuff, they’re going to say he’s a massively successful businessman,” Republican strategist Doug Heye added, “and regardless of what a judge says, that will not be stripped away from his base voters’ minds.”

Last week, in a memo written by Club for Growth president David McIntosh to a Club-linked PAC called Win it Back, the takeaway was stark: Trump’s supporters do not care what he did or what he said before. They like him still. They like him now. “It is amazing,” McIntosh told me in a text. “All attempts to undermine his conservative credentials on specific issues were ineffective,” the memo said. “Even when you show video to Republican primary voters with complete context of President Trump saying something otherwise objectionable to primary voters, they find a way to rationalize and dismiss it.”

“What I saw there that really stood out to me was that people dismissed any negative information about Donald Trump as just another attack on Donald Trump,” Mercieca told me. “So they want to believe that Donald Trump is their guy, and he’s a good guy, that he’s fighting for them and that no one else is, that everything is corrupt, and he’s the only one who will save them. That’s the message that he has always given them,” she said. “Every attack against him feeds the narrative that he has created.”

“Trump has made grievance politics his great strength,” Mike DuHaime, Chris Christie’s campaign manager, told me. “He has made himself a victim, and makes others feel like they are also victims, and therefore they must all stick together against the unseen oppressor.”

“Once they bond to him, then he has the victim narrative,” said Ben-Ghiat. “What these propagandists do so beautifully is they establish these narrative grooves, and then everything that happens, it’s like confirmation bias — it fulfills.” This is not to say, though, that the current civil trial doesn’t matter, or that the array of other criminal trials still to come don’t matter, she said. “It hugely matters for democracy,” she said. “It’s really, really important for the future.”

Kicking off the trial this week, the judge said the proceeding might take more than two months, potentially up until close to Christmas.

An ordeal? An existential threat? Maybe. But Trump also sees it “as an opportunity rather than an embarrassment,” Alan Marcus, a former Trump consultant and publicist, told me this week. And he’ll use it as a chance for “grift,” he said. “He had the best message discipline of any client I ever had, and I had a lot of clients,” Marcus added. “No matter what, you can’t get him off his message — his message of the moment.”

In New York, on his way into and out of the courtroom, Trump called the judge a “rogue” who should be “disbarred.” He called the attorney general “a terrible person.” He called the trial “a witch hunt” and “a disgrace.”

“NOTHING can break me,” he said in a fundraising email on Monday.

“And I’m certainly not alone in this fight,” he said in a fundraising email on Tuesday. “As the unjust New York trial goes on, please make a contribution of any amount to prove that you will also NEVER SURRENDER …”


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