Back in October 2016, when she was asked to explain how it was that then-candidate Donald Trump managed to overcome his fantastic wealth and connect with lunch-pail voters in Rust Belt America, Vanity Fair contributing editor Fran Lebowitz came up with an aphorism to beat a campaign filled with aphorisms.
“He’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” Lebowitz said at the time. “They see him. They think, ‘If I were rich, I’d have a fabulous tie like that. Why are my ties not made of 400 acres of polyester?’ All that stuff he shows you in his house - the gold faucets - if you won the lottery, that’s what you’d buy.”
As it turns out, Trump won the ultimate Lottery: The genetic one.
As The New York Times explosively reported this week, Trump received hundreds of millions of dollars from his father, the late developer Fred Trump.
Inherited wealth? That’s a rich guy’s idea of a rich guy.
The Times’ reporting blew a giant hole in Trump’s repeated claim on the campaign trail that he started off with a paltry $1 million loan from his father that he was ordered to pay back.
But Trump being Trump, there’s a seedy underbelly to his creation myth: The future president received some $413 million in today’s money from his moneybags dad, the late Fred Trump, that came through tax dodges, and in some instances, “outright fraud,” in the 1990s, The Times reported.
And that $1 million loan? It turns out that Papa Trump loaned his son at least $60.7 million, or $140 million, in today’s dollars, The Times reported.
And while most of his supporters were still eating paste and looking forward to naptime at kindergarten, Fred Trump also was quietly enriching his children when they were barely out of the cradle, The Times reported.
At age 3, young Donald was receiving an equivalent income of $200,000, The Times reported. He was a millionaire before he got out of elementary school.
Which is exactly what happens to the rest of us, right?
After all, who among us hasn’t taken our paper route cash; the babysitting money, or the coin we pick up shoveling snow, and then employed a bunch of shady tax deductions and other maneuvers, to build on those earnings?
Yes, The Times’ story takes a wrecking ball to Trump’s conception of himself as a self-made man.
But when it’s viewed in the totality of the actions that Trump has taken in his more than 18 months in office, there’s nothing particularly surprising about it at all.
While he’s played a populist on TV, the majority of policies that President Trump has pursued benefited wealthier Americans at the expense of his Rust Belt base.
Consider just these three actions:
- The administration’s first budget proposal in 2017 called for more than $1 trillion in spending cuts to social welfare programs, deductions that disproportionately would have affected the president’s voters.
- Last year, Trump signed into law a tax cuts package that mostly benefited the wealthiest Americans, even as it blew up the deficit. Not content with that, House Republicans this week passed a package of bills, collectively dubbed “Tax Cuts 2.0” that would extend the windfall to the wealthy.
- Trump’s trade war with, well, the entire world, hit farmers who voted for the president in 2016. Last summer, the administration turned around and doled out $6 billion in relief to help the farmers ride out the pain from the White House’s tariffs.
Look, Americans love the rags-to-riches story. It’s shot through our film, literature and other bits of popular culture. We’re entranced by the idea that anyone can get ahead, based solely on sweat and some moxie, is fundamental to our conception of ourselves.
In fact, the United States lags other nations when it comes to economic mobility. But we’re more optimistic, overall, about our perceived ability to climb the socio-economic ladder.
So, for some of us, at least, Trump’s Platonic conception of himself helps to feed our collective belief that anyone can go from rags to Rockefeller, given the right combination of circumstances.
And because it’s core to his brand, Trump, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, will be true to that image to the very end.
Even if, as we now know, it’s as full as sawdust as a carnival sideshow.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.