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Zero-sum Trump

What you learn from reading 12 of Donald Trump's books

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 themselvesnot 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."

Zero-sumness is the natural lesson to learn from how Trump made his fortune

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.

Zero-sumness explains Trump’s protectionism…

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.

…and his hostility to diplomacy

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.

The Art of the Deal (1987)

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Donald Trump in 1980, with then-wife Ivana.

The Art of the Deal, Trump’s most famous book, wants you to think it's a guide to, well, "the art of the deal." And it does describe how he made a slew of deals, as the book is more or less an autobiography of Trump’s life through 1987. It walks you through his "humble" beginnings in Brooklyn, his "first deal" at Cincinnati’s Swifton Village, and his greatest early-career hits, such as the construction of Trump Tower in Manhattan.

But aspirational dealmakers will be disappointed: This book has almost nothing insightful to say about how to build a good business.

You do, however, learn a hell of a lot about Trump himself. That may be why he keeps talking about it today on the campaign trail: It’s shockingly blunt about who he is and why he does what he does.

Take the very first paragraph, in which Trump describes deals as a kind of art. His life is a creative enterprise, about joy and self-expression, rather than making money for money’s sake:

I don't do it for the money. I've got enough, much more than I'll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks.

This may seem incredible, but I believe it. He's a child of privilege, who inherited assets worth roughly $40 million from his father. He didn’t need the money. What he’s actually concerned about, we learn in The Art of the Deal, is status.

For Trump, the world is full of hierarchies: Money isn't important except as proof that he is more successful than his peers. "Deals" are literal codifications of his victories over other people. When you get a "good deal," you’re winning.

"I wasn't satisfied just to earn a good living," Trump writes. "I was looking to make a statement. I was out to build something monumental — something worth a big effort."

Readers also learn a lot about why Trump lies and says so much outrageous stuff. He sees getting attention as helpful, even if it’s bad attention. He might look bad in the short run, but notoriety increases his influence and thus helps him make deals — the ultimate marker of success.

"Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all," he writes. "Controversy, in short, sells."

The meat of Trump’s autobiography is a rote recitation of facts (mostly relating to the nitty-gritty of the construction industry). The book is better seen as a guide to Trump’s psyche. The tidbits and asides are more revealing than the story itself.

Zack Beauchamp

Trump: Surviving at the Top (1990)

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American real estate magnate Donald Trump speaking at an event, circa 1990.

In his 1990 book Trump: Surviving at the Top, Donald Trump writes that while he was strolling the grounds of West Point one day, he was struck by a quote etched on a statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable," the quote read. "It is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication."

Naturally, Trump interpreted this quote as directly relevant to his life. "The general was talking to soldiers, of course, but I felt what he said applied to me as well," he writes. "My main purpose in life is to keep winning. And the reason for that is simple: If I don’t win, I don’t get to fight the next battle."

This is, to put it mildly, not exactly what MacArthur meant. The purpose of MacArthur’s quote is to place all individual desires beneath the need to fight for the good of the nation — to say that the soldier’s purpose on the battlefield is more critical than anything else in his life.

But Trump misinterprets it as a New Age-y meditation on personal success — a call for him to continue his so-called "battles" in the real estate world. It's a message he echoes throughout the book. To Trump, the only thing worse than failing in a battle is not fighting one at all, and as such he characterizes inaction as basically the same as losing.

"One thing I’ve learned about the construction business — and life in general — is that while what you do is obviously important, the most important thing is just to do something," he writes. "To be always moving toward a new goal — if that’s not the key to happiness, then it’s the key to achieving a state that’s as close to happiness as you’re going to get in this life."

Living without trying to "win," Trump says, is barely worth living at all. At one point, he says that some people get dragged down by "McClellanitis" — of acting too much like Civil War Gen. George McClellan, who refused to attack the Confederacy despite commanding superior Union forces.

Trump says he's confident he's not afflicted with the disease. The evidence? His bold decision to build the hotel ballroom of the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City at 120,000 square feet, rather than 80,000. As MacArthur famously said, in war — or in ballroom construction, I suppose — there can be no substitute for victory.

—Jeff Stein

The Art of the Comeback (1997)

The Art of the Comeback
Photo of Trump and Hilary Clinton published in The Art of the Comeback.

Early in 1997’s The Art of the Comeback, Trump describes seeing a homeless man on the street. This was during the early ’90s, and two of Trump’s big businesses — the Trump Taj Mahal and the Trump Plaza Hotel — had just gone bankrupt. Trump recalls pointing to the homeless man and saying, "He’s a beggar, but he’s worth $900 million more than me."

You’d think this kind of story would result in some kind of self-reflection from Trump. Nah.

What’s remarkable about The Art of the Comeback, a book ostensibly about Trump’s failures and rise back to the top, is how uninterested it is in his failures. Only the first chapter focuses on his actual business problems. This rest is an overly detailed narrative about various deals Trump made, as well as his personal life.

And when he does discuss his failures, he bends facts and evidence to make it look like nothing was really his fault. My favorite example of this is when he says he saw the early ’90s recession coming but couldn’t sell his assets ahead of the real estate crash because everyone figured Trump was too smart and refused to buy from him. Yes, that’s what he says.

The fact is, I saw the signs. So I started selling. Unfortunately, when I want to sell, nobody wants to buy because they figure I know something more than they do. Why should they buy something Donald Trump doesn’t want?

Trump also recasts the time he was forced to renegotiate his debts — after his net worth plunged by an estimated two-thirds in the early ’90s — as evidence of his genius. "I now realize that, if I had waited just six months longer to renegotiate terms with the banks, I might have lost everything," he wrote. "In retrospect, that decisions was perhaps the smartest thing I did."

The narrative in the book, then, is all about Trump’s unalloyed genius — despite the objective record suggesting that he suffered many setbacks. It makes the book feel far more like an exercise in PR and image management than anything else.

At times, this borders on the preposterous. Here’s a anecdote that Trump wants you to believe happened, in which he’s at a fancy dinner with his then-wife, seated next to a married woman:

All of a sudden I felt her hand on my knee, then on my leg. She started petting me in all different ways...She then asked me to dance, and I accepted. While we were dancing she became very aggressive, and I said "Look, we have a problem. Your husband is sitting at that table, and so is my wife."

"Donald," she said, "I don’t care. I just don’t care. I have to have you, and I have to have you now."

According to Trump, his life is always like this. "This is not infrequent, it happens all the time," he writes. This is peak Trump-as-brand: not a person but an infallible ideal of glitz and glamour and "10s" (as he calls attractive women). Trump cannot fail; he can only be failed.

Oh, and one other tidbit: In the book’s introduction, there’s a picture of Trump with Hillary Clinton. The caption? "The first lady is a wonderful woman who has handled pressure incredibly well."

—Zack Beauchamp

The America We Deserve (2000)

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Trump with Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura.

The America We Deserve was a significant document in the 2016 election, and particularly in the Republican primary. It's a rich "gotcha" file for conservatives eager to prove Trump is a secret liberal. It’s true that in 2000 Trump identified as pro-choice, expressed support for single-payer health care, and wanted a massive wealth tax. This all comes up in the book, which he wrote while considering a run for president under the Reform Party banner.

But more telling in the 304-page work are the ways it previewed his 2016 platform, and ultimately his presidency. It is here that Trump establishes himself as a firm, unrepentant "America-firster" who is deeply skeptical of immigration and trade.

After expressing his concerns about globalization, he asks, "Does that make me an America-firster? When it comes to protecting the jobs of American families, I'll gladly step to the front of that line."

But even on the liberal stuff, Trump is more nuanced than Republican primary attacks made him out to be. For example, it’s seems clear from his discussion of single-payer health care that he doesn't actually know what the term means. What he proposes is converting the tax break for employer-provided insurance into a tax credit individuals can use — as in Paul Ryan’s and Health and Human Services secretary-designate Tom Price's plans for replacing Obamacare. He attacks Hillary Clinton's much-milder-than-single-payer health plan from 1994, saying, "We don't want more government control of the healthcare industry." He’s not liberal — he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Where he’s much more consistent, and strident, is in his protectionism and xenophobia. He promises to make himself his own trade representative, and to negotiate tough "fair trade agreements" with "the Japanese, the French, the Germans, and the Saudis." "You only have to look at our trade deficit to see that we are being taken to the cleaners by our trading partners," he writes. "We've fallen into the habit of mistaking the easy availability of cheap, sweatshop-produced product for solid and sustainable economic stability."

"It is a scandal when America cannot control its own borders," he continues. "We can't allow ourselves to welcome outsiders to our shores out of kindness." While he does not engage in the open racism of his current anti-immigration message, he clearly is skeptical of both illegal and legal migration. "Legal immigrants do not and should not enter easily … Let's be extremely careful not to admit more people than we can absorb."

The Trump of The America We Deserve is the Trump who was ultimately elected president: a man deeply afraid of US engagement in the world, of economic threats posed by foreigners, with a confused mishmash of policies on topics he doesn’t actually care about. Trump’s xenophobia is not an opportunistic invention. It’s core to his political identity.

—Dylan Matthews

How to Get Rich (2004)

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Trump advertises his new show The Apprentice in New York City, March 31, 2004.

In early 2004, Trump published How to Get Rich in an effort to capitalize on the impressive ratings success of the first season of The Apprentice. He uses the book to brand himself as a guru of wealth and success, offering tips to reality TV–viewing wannabe billionaires.

"These stories and words of wisdom have been distilled from almost thirty years at the top," he proclaims.

As is common in the business book genre, the pearls of wisdom Trump actually offers are a set of vague and often contradictory nostrums. Go out on a limb, but don’t take risks unless you feel sure! Trust your instincts, but use your head! Move quickly, unless the situation requires you to be patient! You get the idea.

Naturally, he illustrates all this with stories that attest to his own business savvy. These are most interesting when he goes meta about creating his own image.

For instance, he mentions how the press tends to portray him as a "cartoon" living a "comic book" life — and he adds that they’re absolutely right.

"My cartoon is real. I am the creator of my own comic book, and I love living in it," he writes.

Much of the rest of the text is a self-conscious effort to draw more pages in this comic book. A section describing what’s purported to be a typical week in Trump’s life is filled to the brim with name-dropping. According to Trump, he spends an incredible amount of time each day on the phone with celebrities and various other notable figures — all of whom, he hastens to point out, have called him, rather than the other way around.

Of course, his ugly side is rarely absent for too long. He explains that "all the women on The Apprentice flirted with me," something he says he "expected." Another section titled "Get a Great Assistant" almost immediately becomes a lecherous discussion of how "beautiful" his young female assistants, past and present, are.

Sadly, Trump confesses, he had to fire a "breathtaking European beauty" (a "knockout") because she didn’t have enough knowledge of American celebrities to realize whose calls should be put straight through to him. Such are the upsetting compromises required to get to the top.

—Andrew Prokop

Think Like a Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate, and Life (2005)

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Donald Trump introduces the new Donald J. Trump 12-inch talking doll at Toys 'R' Us in Times Square. The doll speaks 17 phrases. September 29, 2004.

The second season of The Apprentice premiered in the fall of 2004. But there was a yuge problem — it had been months since Donald Trump had released a new book. This clearly could not stand, so Trump and co-author Meredith McIver put out Think Like a Billionaire, an unmistakable rush job with little to distinguish itself from How to Get Rich, its cousin released just seven months prior.

The promise of learning how to think like a billionaire is a tantalizing one. "Turn the page and begin reading the only book I’ll ever write that will make you rich and thin," Trump writes in the introduction. (Yes, there are diet tips too.)

Alas, the advice he actually gives tends to be banal and phoned-in. Did you know you should have a home inspected before you buy it? Also, try to remember people’s names! And be on time for things! A section with advice on "how to be married" — a subject Trump really has no business giving advice about — is mercifully short.

Eventually he drops the pretense and returns to his favorite genre of writing: wealth and lifestyle porn, starring Donald Trump. One section devolves into a simple list of his favorite things — he thinks Mercedes is the best car manufacturer (though he also has "a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, and a bunch of other cars and different places"), and that "Graff, Harry Winston, Asprey, Tiffany, and Fred Leighton" provide the best jewelry. (Another entry reads, without elaboration: "The Best Shampoo: The best shampoo is Head & Shoulders.")

There’s a requisite section on The Apprentice too — one in which Trump seems to foreshadow his future presidential campaign strategy, as he marvels at how his life has changed since the show premiered. "I had always been relatively well known, but it was nothing compared to my fame now," he writes. "The media represents great power."

The Trumpiest section of all, though, is his rambling, borderline incoherent description of his new "Mar-a-Lago Diet," which he can’t stop raving about. This miracle diet, he writes, is actually pretty simple and can be summed up in four parts. "It has to be served in a fantastic setting," "it has to look fantastic," "it has to taste incredible," and "it cannot make you gain weight." Well, that’s more specific and achievable than his statements on replacing Obamacare, at least.

—Andrew Prokop

Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life (co-authored with Bill Zanker) (2007)

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Donald Trump and Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania XXIII's Hair vs. Hair match.

Donald Trump does not believe in the art of the win-win deal. You need only look as far as his own words in Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life.

"In a great deal you win — not the other side," he writes. "You crush your opponent and come away with something better for yourself."

Think Big and Kick Ass isn’t exclusively a Trump production: Bill Zanker, the founder of the online education company the Learning Annex, is credited as a co-author and provides commentaries at the end of Trump’s chapters. But it’s exactly the book you might expect the Donald Trump of The Apprentice to write: ruthless, impatient, and committed to dealing harshly with people less as a matter of tough love than to prove he simply can’t be bossed around.

In the world of Think Big and Kick Ass, only 2 percent of people have it in them to be genuine successes. Worse than being in the 98 percent of non-successful people, though, is being a schmuck — a Yiddishism Trump slightly misuses to mean someone who’s insufficiently suspicious and ruthless in a cutthroat world. If, when someone screws you over, you do not do "the same thing to them only ten times worse," you are probably a schmuck, and Donald Trump wants nothing to do with you.

One such schmuck: a pro athlete who confessed to Trump that his manager was cheating him out of millions of dollars but that he didn’t want to "sue the manager’s ass off." "I have not spoken to the guy since," Trump boasts.

Trusting other people is a schmucky move. Trump spends a whole chapter extolling the virtues of the prenuptial agreement, and his claims that it can mitigate the heartbreak of a divorce between two people who still love each other are a lot less persuasive than his mockery of men taken for a ride by gold diggers.

At times, even Trump himself isn’t able to practice the cold ruthlessness he preaches: Loyalty is a very important value to him, and for all Think Big and Kick Ass warns you never to trust your friends, he seems genuinely hurt by some of the betrayals. But one gets the sense that his commitment to a zero-sum worldview is so complete that when he forgets to be suspicious of everyone around him, he considers it a failure of will.

After all, he’s warned himself: "Hire the best people, and don’t trust ’em."

—Dara Lind

Trump Never Give Up: How I Turned My Biggest Challenges Into Success (2008)

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Donald Trump with Buckets and Wildkat of the Harlem Globetrotters.

What if Donald Trump wrote The Secret?

In 2006, the self-help book The Secret became a major cultural phenomenon. Its vaguely spiritual premise — that simply thinking positively can "attract" good fortune to your life — was understandably seductive (the book was a national best-seller), if a little woo-woo.

Donald Trump doesn’t trust the universe enough to believe in the metaphysics of The Secret. But in the 2008 self-help book Trump Never Give Up: How I Turned My Biggest Challenges Into Success, he attributes so much of his success to his own frame of mind — his relentless persistence and positivity — that one starts wondering if there really was some mystical force involved in things going his way.

Well into the second act of his career (as the host of The Apprentice and a generic cultural totem of Success) when Never Give Up came out in 2008, Trump could assess, at a safe distance, the end of his career’s first act in the early 1990s, when his real estate empire nearly collapsed in a cloud of debt.

"This was not a good scenario," he writes. "Then there was a turning point, and the turning point was my attitude."

So he started thinking more positively and dreaming up the next wave of deals. When he marched in to tell his weary accountants about his big plans, he writes, "they thought I had cracked, that maybe I was beginning to hallucinate from the pressure." But in his version of events, the accountants’ balance sheet realities were simply less powerful than the sheer force of his will.

"Faith in yourself can prove to be a very powerful force," Trump writes. Nail that down, and "I can assure you that success will become a permanent situation for you."

Never Give Up isn’t a terrible self-help book; it’s just not a terribly useful one. Trump’s tone is unusually warm and welcoming — the harsher edge of the macho bravado has been sanded off in an apparent attempt to appeal to the genre’s women-skewed market. Unusually for a Trump book, most of the stories in Never Give Up end with everybody getting what they want — an outcome that Trump would generally have you believe is metaphysically impossible. "Even if you don’t feel indomitable, act that way for a while. It helps!"

For many, simple positive thinking isn’t enough to overcome structural problems of inequality or racism, but Never Give Up is fascinating as an insight into the sort of person for whom it works: someone who can make his own reality by changing his mindset. Trump enthusiastically endorses bluffing, but, he insists, "I’m not pretending in any sense of the word." It’s perfectly believable. Trump is simply acting like a winner until the bout of self-doubt passes and he remembers he’s been a winner all along.

Trump is a lifelong member of the Church of Fake It ’Til You Make it, and by 2008 he had made it once again.

—Dara Lind

Think Like a Champion: An Informal Education In Business and Life (2009)

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Donald Trump, Melania Trump, and Barron Trump attend The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life book launch celebration at Trump Tower on October 14, 2009, in New York City.

Donald Trump is a champion, according to Donald Trump, and Think Like a Champion 50 essays in 188 pages of self-help book — is his guide to how you can be a champion too.

Fittingly, the series of essays begins with an example of a champion, someone to aspire to become at the end of the next 49 essays of advice. Published in 2009, Champion predates Trump’s predilections for presidential campaigns and the Republican Party. His champion of choice is President Barack Obama, and Trump has nothing but kind words for the then-newly elected leader of the free world.

Obama has the "mark of a strong leader," Trump writes. He comprehensively understands the economy and surrounds himself with competent people; "the world is excited" about Obama:

What he has done is amazing. The fact that he accomplished what he has – in one year and against great offs – is truly phenomenal. If someone had asked me if a black man or woman could become president, I would have said yes, but not yet. Barack Obama proved that determination combined with opportunity and intelligence can make things happen – and in an exceptional way.

While Trump’s current political rhetoric is now essentially the opposite of this kind of praise, the book offers a certain insight into how the businessman operates. The stories both shed light on why Trump is Trump, while simultaneously presenting a series of egregious contradictions to his current platform.

Trump’s "thinking" is essentially a series of overarching and often contradictory platitudes: Be a self-starter; be informed; there is "no excuse for having a blind spot"; think big, but be pragmatic.

The advice has strong parallels with his campaign strategy, emphasizing the importance of capitalizing on success, having an ego, being surrounded by loyal and competent people, winning deals, working hard and reaping the benefits. Foreshadowing of the Trump campaign and presidency is present in every piece of wisdom; his boastful and bombastic "me, me, me" characteristics are evident in all of the advice.

Except when they’re not.

After all, had Trump listened to his own formula for success he might not currently be saddled with a massive blind spot when it comes to actually being informed on what it takes to do the job of president of the United States.

—Tara Golshan

Midas Touch: Why Some Entrepreneurs Get Rich — and Why Most Don't (co-authored with Robert Kiyosaki) (2001)

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TV personality Donald Trump leaves a taping of The Talk at Alice Tully Hall on December 14, 2011, in New York City.

Attila the Hun, Donald Trump writes, had a pretty great brand. Trump thinks it’s clear the leader of the Hunnic Empire in the first century really had quite the knack for marketing.

"One of the greatest brand-builders of all times was Attila the Hun. His brand preceded him so powerfully that opposing armies often surrendered before fighting him," Trump writes. "Although he was the leader of the Huns from 434 to 453 A.D., people still speak of Attila today."

This sounds silly, but Trump’s got a point: More than 1,500 years after his death, we still know exactly who Attila is.

Again and again throughout Trump’s 2011 book Midas Touch: Why Some Entrepreneurs Get Rich — and Why Most Don't, which he co-wrote with businessman Robert Kiyosaki, it becomes clear that Trump regards branding as something amounting to a mythical force of all-consuming importance.

To him, the perception about someone — his "brand" — can often prove more consequential than the reality of who he is. "Branding is a way of life, not an event," Trump says. "We know that it is the brand that enables us to fulfill our life’s purpose, so it is worth our energy and time."

Over and over, he recasts world history as a marketing battle in which the powers of name recognition and "branding" are the central driving forces. Religions rise or fall on the strength of their brands.

"Crooks have brands," Trump continues — just look at Bernie Madoff and Charles Ponzi. The Army, Navy, and Marines all have "great brands." Trump lavishes particular praise on the branding savvy of SEAL Team Six, the US special operations group that killed Osama bin Laden. Not talking about who their members are, Trump said, was a brilliant marketing move.

Trump’s incessant harping on branding makes clear just how incredibly central the idea of a "brand" is to his view of how the world works — and can reveal the logic behind many of his seemingly bizarre campaign decisions.

The Trump brand, in Trump’s mind, is someone who’s tough, who’s unlike ordinary politicians, who’s not "politically correct." So when he refuses to apologize for racist comments, or gleefully employs juvenile insults against his opponents, he’s merely extending his brand. Just like Attila.

—Jeff Stein

Time to Get Tough: Making America Great Again (2011, updated 2015)

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Donald Trump promotes a new show on the Golf Channel in 2011.

Time To Get Tough: Make America Great Again!, Donald Trump’s 2011 book, swings wildly between originality and mind-numbing derivativeness. When he’s talking about his passions — making deals, making great TV — he’s entertaining, even when he’s totally wrong.

But whenever politics comes up, it’s as if someone ran the Wall Street Journal editorial page through a Trump syntax generator, a stultifying experience for anyone who already lived through the 2012 election once. To keep myself turning pages, I start a drinking game: A sip for Solyndra. A gulp for "community organizer." Finish the glass for Michelle Obama’s "lavish" vacation to Spain, and oh, my God, we’re only on page 17.

There’s a reason for this. Trump is writing his first political book since 2000, and he’s a man in search of a platform. Early in the book, he notes that his previous foray into political commentary, 2000’s The America We Deserve, didn’t sell. "People didn’t want to hear from Donald Trump about politics but about business," he writes.

To avoid that in Time to Get Tough, Trump portrays politics as business by another name, a zero-sum game where nothing is more important than being a tough negotiator. The president, as dealmaker in chief, faces off against untrustworthy representatives of other countries who can’t wait to take advantage of us.

Having defined President Obama’s job as dealmaker in chief, Trump goes on to make the case that he was bad at it. The book opens with broadsides against the foreigners who are screwing America. The Chinese, in Trump’s telling, are stealing American technology, building up their military, and taking American jobs. OPEC is colluding to keep oil prices high and wreck the American economy.

The rest of the book talks about domestic issues — taxes, spending, immigration, Obamacare. The problem with these sections is that when your conception of the presidency is "making deals" and "cheating foreigners before they cheat us," it’s hard to apply that frame to the federal budget or to health care reform.

And so Trump, when he’s talking domestic politics, is ... boring, a litany of oft-heard anti-Obama talking points. Some might call it low-energy. The problem is that the issues he is passionate about aren’t the issues that stir Americans’ souls. To get the nomination, he’d need that worldview-driven energy on an issue Republicans actually care about.

In retrospect, immigration seems the obvious chance, but in the book Trump doesn’t seem to have realized it just yet. There’s just one illegal immigration chapter near the end, after rants about Obamacare and federal spending.

But the rest of the book shows why this message was uniquely successful for Trump in the 2016 race: For his zero-sum view of the world to apply to domestic policy, he needs internal enemies he can negotiate against. By the start of the 2016 campaign, when he called Mexican immigrants rapists and suggested that Muslims be banned from entering the US, he’d finally found some.

—Libby Nelson

Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (2015)

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A typical campaign biography seeks to introduce a politician already well-known in the Beltway to a broader American public — and usually portrays the author as steadfast and forthright.

By contrast, Donald Trump’s 2015 biography Great Again: How to Fix our Crippled America (originally released as Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again) features a candidate who genuinely needs no introduction. And, oddly enough, one key theme of the book is that Trump is not a particularly steadfast or forthright person.

Most campaign biographies carefully construct a persona for political purposes. Trump just tells his readers this is what he’s doing. Most politicians smile on their cover photos. Trump is scowling. It’s a striking look, and one that Trump addresses right on the first page. He says he "had some beautiful pictures taken in which I had a big smile on my face" and "looked like a very nice person." But then he "decided it wasn’t appropriate." The content of the book called for a scowly, angry Trump, so he created an image of a scowly, angry Trump to slap on the cover.

In chapter two, he explains that he’s an "I say what’s on my mind" kind of guy, but pages later explains that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily an honest guy. "If you do things a little differently," he writes of the media, "if you say outrageous things and fight back, they love you." The free publicity that results from deliberately provoking controversy is invaluable. And if a bit of exaggeration is what it takes, Trump doesn’t have a problem with that. "When," he asks "was the last time you saw a sign hanging outside a pizzeria claiming ‘The fourth best pizza in the world’?!"

That sort of marketing claim — what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls "bullshit," a deliberate falsehood that nonetheless doesn’t truly rise to the level of a lie — is part of what Trump calls "a mutually profitable two-way relationship with the media" that he developed over the course of his business career and that he’s now using in politics.

The rest of the book is full of riffs on a range of policies issues — immigration, ISIS, taxes — that due to the book’s recent vintage are generally going to be familiar to anyone who watched the campaign and transition. But Trump himself repeatedly raises the question of how seriously the reader should take any of this. "I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing — or thinking," he writes. "I like being unpredictable."

Looking to the text of Trump’s book for a precise picture of what, exactly, he would do as president seems misguided. The important proposition of the book is simply that America is broken and Trump has the business skills to fix it. He’s not going to tell you exactly how it’s going to happen. He’s not even going to promise you that the things he says are 100 percent accurate (rather than calculated for political effect). But he’s a guy who gets things done. So trust him. Just look how serious and determined and angry he seems on the cover.

—Matt Yglesias