The press should have dubbed Donald Trump "frequent bankruptcy defendant," not "businessman." / Bahman

The Art of the Con

How Big Media bought into Trump’s Big Lie

The press should have dubbed Donald Trump "frequent bankruptcy defendant," not "businessman." / Bahman
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Just as in the final chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the wheezing sociopath at the center of the Donald Trump campaign has revealed his true decrepit, disfigured nature at a moment when the belated appearance of the unvarnished truth likely will do zero good for any of the interested players. The most recent Federal Election Commission filings for the presumptive GOP nominee show a scant $1.3 million in cash on hand—with princely fees seeming to go both to the candidate himself and his Mar-a-Lago Florida estate, home to many an indecorous campaign celebration during the 2016 primary cycle. The Associated Press reports that the campaign has funneled more than $6 million to Trump-run companies, while doling out more than $1 million to Trump family members and Trump business concerns in May alone, according to the Washington Post.

The impression of massive top-down disarray wasn’t dispelled by news of a major internal staff shakeup at Team Trump, with all-purpose-thug Corey Lewandowski purged as campaign manager, reportedly at the behest of the candidate’s kids. What, you thought Trump pere was going to right the ship himself? Not so long as there’s a fringe conspiracy theory to flog, or a chance to take another pot shot at Jeb Bush!

Indeed, it was perhaps fitting that, as this dismal news crashed around his head and himself, Trump was trying to win support at a conclave of nearly 1,000 evangelical leaders, with still more clumsy callouts to his alleged status as “a tremendous believer.” If ever there were a time when the almighty Trump needed to call in the support of a still greater, world-conquering higher power, it was surely now.

But amid all this entertainingly gruesome dysfunction, an awkward question loomed: Why are we only hearing now about how the most basic operations of the Trump campaign have been careening out of control? Has the press been too preoccupied with chastising the candidate for his bad manners—and with the uncredentialed outbursts of Democratic insurgent Bernie Sanders—to notice that the Trump campaign was the same sort of debt-ridden shell game that Trump’s Atlantic City empire had been?

In a word, yes. With the notable exception of our most accomplished money-in-politics scribes, such as Politico’s Ken Vogel, our campaign press has spent most of the past year taking Trump’s outlandish claims that he was captaining one of the best financed presidential bids in history (and also a lavishly self-funded one) at ludicrous face value. In reality, most of his so-called self-funding contributions have been loans, which he could readily pay back to himself from the coffers of big-money donors to his general election campaign, as NBC’s Ari Melber—another in the very select company of accomplished money-in-politics reporters—explained back in May.

#TrumpSoPoor partisans also inadvertently endorsed the idea that rich candidates come bearing superior presidential credentials.

None of this should have come as any surprise. Debt-driven and self-dealing financing is the Trump M.O., going back to his swinging eighties heyday and his casual fleecing of his Atlantic City properties. But the main run of political coverage has swallowed whole the gossamer fiction that Trump—like his erstwhile Reform Party ally H. Ross Perot before him—was simply too wealthy to be a bought-and-paid-for pol in the standard mode. At every GOP debate, candidate Trump was announced as a promethean “businessman”—itself a grand campaign credential for the party that serves as the executive committee of the one percent. But a more honest appellation would have been something like “overleveraged TV brand” or “frequent bankruptcy defendant.”

Indeed, the uncritical acceptance of the myth of the purse-lipped bully’s superior business acumen has become so widespread that even Trump’s social-media detractors implicitly buy into its logic. When the news of the Trump campaign’s straitened finances broke this week, a Twitter hashtag campaign called #TrumpSoPoor sought to make light of the news. But in seeking to highlight the familiar spectacle of Trump brazenly lying about his place in the world, the #TrumpSoPoor partisans also inadvertently endorsed the idea that rich candidates come bearing superior presidential credentials. Which is, of course, the very sort of appeal Trump can be counted on to make as he stumbles into general-election mode: Just give him more cash, and he’ll be a credible candidate.

No, the relevant truth here isn’t that Trump has been lying about his true financial state—that has been the story of his life ever since he slithered out of the Wharton School. It is, rather, that our corporate political press is so conditioned to stand admiring and slack-jawed before any apostle of the American gospel of wealth that reporters can’t be bothered to connect the most basic facts about the conduct of business life with the egalitarian aspirations of our public life. Signing off on Trump’s own self-image as a successful businessman for the past year-plus of his campaign is roughly equivalent to dubbing Ted Cruz a “personable lawmaker” or George W. Bush “a distinguished Yale scholar.” It is, in short, to collude in a Big Lie, and it’s of far greater moment to ask whether a press so conditioned to tolerating Big Lies can be counted on to deliver trustworthy campaign coverage than it is to ask whether Donald Trump is in fact rich enough to serve as president.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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