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Jun 30, 2005

Trumped-up success

The triumph of the American dream over reality is that nobody remembers the failures.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more television people watch, the less they know about the world. George Orwell acknowledged this in the novel 1984, when he invented a populace whose only sources of information were TV and a government that continually rewrote the history books to suit current whims.

People who rely on TV for their information now are unlikely to remember what happened last week, let alone last century. I occasionally have science-fiction style thoughts about how the screen might actually pull information and IQ out of viewers like some cathode ray-powered black hole.

I don’t know where this disappeared intelligence might go, though. I rarely watch TV myself, but I often appear on it, and I haven’t noticed any excess of intellect among those I engage with on the other side of the screen, so any data sucked out of viewers’ brains is certainly not absorbed by the hosts and ‘experts’.

Typical of this equivalence of ignorance on both sides is the top-viewed show The apprentice. The host of the US version of the show is Donald Trump, a tonsorially challenged showman born to a real estate fortune, who has squandered it several times over and each time rebuilt it with other people’s money. He regularly dispatches contestants with his catchphrase: ‘You’re fired.’

How many of his viewers remember the short flight of the former Trump Shuttle, or when the iconic Plaza Hotel on Central Park in Manhattan briefly became the Trump Plaza Hotel? Does anyone remember when Trump procured the firing of a sell-side analyst who correctly described how his Atlantic City casinos were teetering on the edge of over-leveraged bankruptcy? Not many, it would seem.

In fact, I had to go back and check I hadn’t imagined all this, and I hadn’t: it’s all true. By putting his name on every piece of property he bought or built with borrowed money, Trump cleverly obliterated the memory of his failures.

Trump’s own web site says he ‘is the very definition of the American success story, the archetypal businessman – a dealmaker without peer.’ One cannot help but worry about that ‘archetypal,’ which may be all too true. Trump weathered the last recession by being too big for his creditors to call in their chips, and is riding high on the current boom, especially the US real estate boom.

But that boom is possible only because of borrowed money. The Chinese government is pumping cash into US Treasury bonds, creating dirt-cheap credit for Americans buying property. When the bubble bursts, those Trump plaques may disappear off all those buildings and be stuffed down the memory hole as fast as the banks can repossess them.

Even so, you can’t help feeling that Donald will bounce back, and not just as a super-Rogaine salesman. He is unlikely to fire himself, and people sincerely want to believe that you can make it from nothing on skill alone. Everyone will remember the batch of Chinese fortune cookies that called the New York lottery number correctly this year. No-one remembers the thousands that didn’t. Trump’s great business secret is that for a super-salesman, failure is always forgettable.