For Donald Trump, calling someone a loser is not merely an insult, and calling someone a winner is not merely a compliment. The division of the world into those who win and those who lose is of paramount philosophical importance to him, the clearest reflection of his deep, abiding faith that the world is a zero-sum game and you can only gain if someone else is failing.
This is evident after reading all 12 of Trump’s books on politics and business (leaving out Trump: The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received, alas), as Vox staffers did over the summer of 2016.
Of course, trying to make too much sense of the books is a fool’s errand. They contradict each other frequently, and often contradict themselves — not unlike Trump’s campaign and, so far, transition team and administration. One minute he’s telling readers to trust their gut; the next, he’s emphasizing the importance of thinking it through. In one book, 2011's Time to Get Tough, he calls for a 20 percent tax on companies that outsource jobs on page 63, and then just two pages later — on page 65 — calls for a 15 percent tax.
But the books also suggest that Trump’s reputation for flip-flopping is a little unfair. On the core issues he cares about the most — international trade, immigration, foreign policy — he’s strikingly consistent. He’s always been anti-immigrant, always been protectionist, always been fiercely nationalistic on matters of war and peace.
More generally, he’s always believed in the fundamental zero-sum nature of the world. Whether he’s discussing real estate in New York, or his ’00s reality TV career, or his views on immigration and trade, he consistently views life as a succession of deals. Those deals are best thought of as fights over who gets what share of a fixed pot of resources. The idea of collaborating for mutual benefit rarely arises. Life is dealmaking, and dealmaking is about crushing your enemies.
"You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win," he writes in Think Big and Kick Ass, co-authored with Bill Zanker of the Learning Annex. "That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win — not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself." To "crush the other side and take the benefits," he declares, is "better than sex — and I love sex."
Once you start viewing Trump as a zero-sum thinker, you start to see signs of it everywhere. In his classic The Art of the Deal, he seems almost hesitant about imparting business tips, as the presence of more talented dealmakers would inevitably leave him worse off. "As for those among you who do have the genes, who do have the instincts, and who could be highly successful, well, I still hope you won't follow my advice," he cautions. "Because that would just make it a much tougher world for me."
In some areas of business, this is a basically nonsensical statement. While Apple and Microsoft clearly sometimes gained at each other’s expense, the fact of the matter is that neither would be remotely as big, and neither’s founders would be remotely as wealthy, if the other hadn’t existed.
But Trump did not come up in the computer industry, or in any other industry that rewards entrepreneurs for growing markets and innovating for consumer benefit. He came up in Manhattan real estate. In Manhattan real estate, wealth is not created by offering new products that make consumers’ lives better. There is only so much land, and strict building regulations and permitting mean the buildings on that land can only be so tall. You make money through working around those regulations and being the one to get the rights to build on a valuable parcel, while other people don’t.
Manhattan real estate is a zero-sum game.
Precisely, it’s an area of business characterized by what economists call "rent-seeking." A "rent," in economic terms, is income received not because you’re creating something of value but because you control something that’s scarce and valuable due to policy decisions. The classical example is, well, literal rent. Money you receive because you own a parcel of land doesn’t come to you because you’re producing a valuable good and are trading it to someone who needs it more than you do; it comes because the current system of property rights gives you a right to charge people money to use that swath of earth.
As a landlord, Donald Trump has made his living through maximizing rents, both the literal and economic kinds. He does not create wealth, but takes it from others through political lobbying and regulatory jockeying. And he has taken it upon himself not just to make money from real estate but to tell the world that his experience in real estate shows he knows how the economy really works.
The result, as Adam Davidson has astutely noted, is that Trump’s "whole worldview is based on a rent-seeking vision of the economy, in which there’s a fixed amount of wealth that can only be redistributed, never grow. It is a worldview that makes perfect sense for the son of a New York real estate tycoon who grew up to be one, too."
Trump, the author, lays out a vision of the world based on his own limited and blinkered experience of the business world, one that mistakes the absolute worst, most dysfunctional parts of the American economy for the way the entire world works.
That has real policy ramifications. Trump is the most avowedly protectionist, anti-immigration president since World War II. And immigration and trade are, almost every economist would agree, positive-sum endeavors.
Obviously, immigration is good for immigrants; moving from Mexico to the US more than doubles the average migrant’s wages. But even the most immigration-skeptical economists concede that letting large numbers of foreigners enter grows the American economy. The evidence that anyone other than perhaps earlier immigrants sees their wages fall due to immigration is very weak, and even if there were some losers, you could simply raise taxes and redistribute some of the gains to them. The evidence that there are significant losers from trade is much stronger, but it still makes the US richer overall.
But in his discussions about these issues in his books, Trump makes it clear that he doesn’t believe engagement with the world can benefit both immigrants and native-born Americans, or Americans and other countries. The problem is not just that he’s ignorant of the economics (though he is); it’s that he appears to sincerely believe the proper way to evaluate whether a policy is working out for the US is to examine not whether it makes the US better off than it was but whether it leaves the US better off relative to other countries. The "great" in "making America great again" is "better than the rest," not "better," period.
In The America We Deserve, the campaign book for his abortive 2000 campaign for president under the Reform Party banner, Trump declares, "It's become a cliché to say that business, especially trade, is like war … But cliché or not, it's true."
You can see this attitude in how Trump discusses China. Over the medium term, both the US and Chinese economies have been growing, but China's has been growing a lot faster. Overall, both countries are much richer than they were 20 years ago. This is not how Trump sees things. "Roughly every seven years, the Chinese economy doubles in size," he writes in Time to Get Tough, his would-be campaign book had he run in 2012. "That's a tremendous economic achievement, and it's also why they clean our clocks year in and year out on trade." Trump thinks about nations as actors, as the losers being not particular Americans but America itself.
The growth of China, in Trump’s mental model, comes directly at the expense of the US. The Chinese steal our trade secrets, he frets. They use money from US consumers to fund their military (as though the US doesn’t do the same by taxing income earned from trade with China). The only reason they’re beating US manufacturing is that they’re gaming their currency.
He shows the same attitude on immigration. While between 2000 and 2017 his views on a wide variety of topics — guns, single-payer health care, taxes, abortion — have changed, he was every bit as anti-immigrant in 2000 as he is today. "We can't allow ourselves to welcome outsiders to our shores out of kindness," he writes in The America We Deserve. "A liberal policy of immigration may seem to reflect confidence and generosity. But our current laxness toward illegal immigration shows a recklessness and disregard for those who live here legally. … We must take care of our own people first. … It's irresponsible to give a helping hand to outsiders so long as there is one American deprived of a livelihood or basic service."
Note the argument he’s making here. He’s arguing that the only reason to let in immigrants is out of altruism — that it is a selfless act, that precisely because it helps others it must leave Americans at a disadvantage. He is describing a world where immigration is a zero-sum game.
So, too, for his views on war and peace. Much has been made of Trump’s advocacy for seizing Iraq’s oil to pay for the American occupation — an idea that gets a full chapter in Time to Get Tough. "Call me old school, but I believe in the old warrior's credo that 'to the victor go the spoils,'" he writes.
The same attitude pervades his political books. He is across-the-board dismissive of the idea that the US should ever intervene on humanitarian grounds, even if doing so would bolster our international reputation. "America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe," he writes in The America We Deserve, shortly after the conclusion of the Kosovo War. "Their conflicts are not worth American lives."
His post-election attacks on NATO echo calls in his writing to cut off US military aid to Europe, a position he seems to take out of personal pique more than anything: "Our allies don't seem to appreciate our presence anyway. ... Here we stand today, the greatest superpower on Earth, and everyone is eating our lunch," he laments in Crippled America, his latest political work. "That's not winning."
The foundation of American diplomacy is the idea that we and other countries can reach arrangements that are mutually beneficial. The US gives up some nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union does the same, and both are safer as a result. The US gets to invest in Cuba, and Cuba gets a normal relationship with the US in return. The US and allies get to inspect Iranian nuclear sites; Iran gets relief from sanctions for its cooperation. The focus is on maximizing absolute gains — not how well the US does relative to other countries, but how much better off it is than it was before.
That is the attitude that produced the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, the Bretton Woods financial system, the Camp David Accords, and every other major American-negotiated accomplishment in history. Trump believes it is sheer fantasy. These were deals, and the US either won or lost. If a deal stands to benefit the US but benefit another nation more, he will leave the negotiating table. That, in Trump’s philosophy, is what strong dealmakers do.
Trump’s writing suggests that on the issues where he diverges most markedly from the political mainstream, his views are deeply held and strikingly consistent — much more so than either his critics or his supporters recognize. Trump believes that engagement in the world is a blood sport in which you win or you die. He believed that in 2000, he believed that in 1987, and he believes that today. His core philosophy is that cooperation is folly and America cannot thrive unless others fail. And now that will be the core philosophy of the American president.