by Luke Mayville
“I don’t do it for the money,” reads the opening line of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. “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…or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals.”
Contrary to the efforts of Elizabeth Warren and others to castigate Trump as a money-grubber—someone monomaniacally obsessed with accumulating wealth—the Trump campaign has sought to present him less as a money-maker than as an artisan and a master-builder whose greatness lies not in his wealth but in the structures he has built.
“In our business,” proclaimed Ivanka Trump in her speech at the RNC, “you’re not a builder unless you’ve got a building to show for it, or in my father’s case, city skylines.” Donald Trump’s ruling desire, the story goes, is not merely to accumulate but to build and create—jobs, skylines, deals.
This persona is in keeping with a story that Americans have long told about private ambition and the desire to get rich. Consider Ayn Rand, a writer who is idolized by Fortune 500 CEOs and who may be peerless in her influence on American culture. The heroes of Rand’s novels are not maniacal money-grubbers but rather inventors and architects. Howard Roark, the heroic protagonist of The Fountainhead (and a character whom, by the way, Donald Trump strives to emulate), is described by Rand not as a greedy egoist but as a man who “struggles for the integrity of his creative work against every form of social opposition.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke for an American tradition when he insisted that the pursuit of wealth was driven by something much nobler than greed, ostentation, or a lust for power. “Men of sense,” wrote Emerson, “esteem wealth to be the assimilation of nature to themselves, the converting of the sap and juices of the planet to the incarnation and nutriment of their design.”
Emerson’s suggestion is that the Donald Trumps of the world should be recognized as master craftsman who repurpose the raw stuff of nature into ingenious works of art.
But as we learned in July, Trump’s Art of the Deal was ghostwritten. The real Trump, according to ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, is motivated not by the passion of the craftsman but by an insatiable desire for “money, praise, and celebrity.” What Schwartz revealed is that the career of Donald Trump does not fit the mold of America’s romantic ideal of money-making. Instead, Trump’s character and motives are better explained by an alternative strain of American commentary.
John Adams, who was the second President of the United States and also a shrewd critic of America’s emerging commercial culture, believed that the pursuit of wealth was driven by a raging passion for social distinction. The desire for riches was akin to political ambition, which Adams described as a motive that “strengthens at every advance, and at last takes possession of the whole soul so absolutely, that a man seeks nothing in the world of importance to others or himself, but in his object.” The desire for riches, which was merely one variety of the desire for praise and distinction, was maniacal because it was ultimately insatiable. “The love of gold,” wrote Adams, “grows faster than the heap of acquisition; the love of praise increases by every gratification, till it stings like an adder, and bites like a serpent; till the man is miserable every moment when he does not snuff the incense.”
Martin Luther King Jr. echoed Adams when he described Americans’ love of money as a variety of the “drum-major instinct,” a desire “to be out front … to lead the parade … to be first.” The desire to stand out was not a bad thing in itself. In fact, King believed that the instinct should be harnessed to motivate service to humanity. But much more common was the case of the avaricious man who, moved by the drum major instinct, buys a fancier car and builds a bigger house than the next man, all in an effort to out-do the Joneses.
Among the revelations of Trump’s ghostwriter was that the depiction of Trump as a passionate artisan—someone who crafts real estate deals in the same way that a poet writes poetry—was merely a cover-up used to hide his true ruling passion: to get rich and, beyond that, to prove “I’m richer than you”—to be distinguished and celebrated for his wealth.
Surely, not all money-making is driven by such self-absorption. Riches have often been the reward of the bourgeois virtues of thrift, saving, timeliness, and industriousness. Much of America’s wealth can in fact be traced to extraordinary feats of invention and ingenuity. But the phenomenon of Donald Trump reminds us that the idea of money-making as craftsmanship—even if it contains a substantial part of the truth—is also readily deployable as a self-serving myth. And the problem is not just that the myth excuses the greed of those billionaire politicians who wish to govern us. It also flatters the pervasive yearning for riches among the broader public, the same yearning that motivated droves of Americans to buy The Art of the Deal.
Luke Mayville is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. He is a contributor to Commonweal and the author of John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy.