At the height of his fame, Donald Trump was the caped hero—or was it the villain?—of the national comic book The Eighties. In a time of instant wealth and instant gratification, he was the man with the most toys—skyscrapers, yachts, helicopters, mansions, babes, cover stories, casinos, sports franchises, babes. Gwenda Blair opens her new biography of Trump in 1989, when Trump was, she claims, “the most famous man in America, if not the world.” (How about the Pope?) She opens the curtain on a mob scene in which Trump is gleefully signing copies of Trump: The Game, a Monopoly-type board game in which the lowest denomination of money was $10 million and Donald’s face appeared on every bill.That was Donald, all right: the brazen hero of a new Gilded Age.
Then, of course, he fell. Trump had bought too many toys, and, like the age itself, collapsed—the human equivalent of imperial overstretch. In the Trump literature of the early Nine-ties, when Trump was in the midst of what bankers euphemistically call a “workout” to repay his debt, the all-conquering tycoon is seen to have finally been brought low by his own folly. The subtitle of Wayne Barrett’s 1992 biography (from which Blair has plainly borrowed heavily) is “The Deals and The Downfall.” Those who had deplored the age took reassurance from the demise of its leading symbol. You can’t keep behaving like a selfish jerk forever and get away with it.
Well, not so fast. The Eighties are back, albeit in a new form, and so is the Donald. After a brief interval, the market went back to minting millionaires, and the worship of the market that began with the Reagan administration is now, if anything, more widespread than ever before. Consumption is perhaps a bit less conspicuous—but so is the Donald. As Blair explains, Trump: The Game disappeared from the stores when the real estate market plunged in the late Eighties; but Trump, shorn of many of his properties, emerged with the value of his name undiminished. He’s back on the Forbes 400 list, even if only number 368. He’s not going to go away. We might as well accept the fact that Donald Trump is the price you pay for living in a marketplace culture.
Trump is an almost sickeningly familiar figure to much of the reading public. Why bother to revisit him? Gwenda Blair, a writer of celebrity biographies (her last book was a biography of the newscaster Jessica Savitch, who was killed in a car crash), has tried to solve this problem by turning Trump’s life into the final stage of a multigenerational saga. This is not necessarily a bad strategy. Real estate has been a family business in New York since the time of the Astors and the Goelets in the late eighteenth century. Among the first families of the industry—the Rudins, the Tishmans, the Urises, the Zeckendorfs—fortunes have risen …