All politicians use anecdotes and props to sell themselves. Like the medals on a sergeant’s chest or a convict’s tattoos, a candidate’s life-story or favourite possessions (a battered pick-up truck, perhaps, or a clutch of winsome children) offer a handy short cut for voters too busy to study detailed policy positions and past voting records. You already know this stranger seeking your vote, such symbols tell the voting public: that is why you can trust their campaign promises.
Donald Trump is different. Because promises, facts and consistency matter so little to the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party, his best-loved anecdotes and badges of success – from his education at the Wharton School of Business (“the best school, it’s like super-genius stuff”) to his airplanes in Trump livery – have become the most solid planks of his campaign. In the absence of policies that make sense, the self-serving parables and stories that fill Trump speeches do not just back up his campaign pitch, they are his pitch.
I have travelled the country to watch him in debates and on the stump, and interviewed him twice. The first involved a 45-minute telephone conversation in August 2015; the most recent was a face-to-face encounter in early May. Interviewing Trump is a strange and often frustrating experience. Plenty of candidates are slippery in meetings with reporters. Lots of politicians try to filibuster questions that they dislike, chewing up precious minutes with talking points. But Trump in full flow is a more elemental force. Pinning down what he really thinks about big questions of economics or geopolitics is like standing in a fast-flowing salmon river, trying to grab passing fish with your bare hands.
In both my conversations with the Republican candidate I asked about his promises to rewrite American terms of trade and military relations with China (I used to be a correspondent in Beijing). In Trump rhetoric, China is not a giant competitor that was bound to alter global trading patterns and become a manufacturing power after emerging from decades of self-imposed Maoist seclusion. Rather, China is a devious cheat that has been stealing jobs and money from an America that still holds all the cards, but which has been betrayed by the stupidity of American political leaders. A President Trump would slap punitive tariffs on Chinese goods (depending on the day, his threatened tariffs run from 5% to 45%) and – it is promised – China will soon buckle. “We have a lot of power over China economically,” he says. “Because we're the piggy bank that they keep robbing.”
When Trump is challenged on an especially egregious fallacy or falsehood, he jumps straight to one of his favourite anecdotes. Asked how, precisely, America might safely exert leverage over China without triggering economic and geopolitical mayhem, Trump consistently tells two stories. One is about an unnamed friend, a big manufacturer (“I don’t want to embarrass him, but he makes a great product”), who tells him that China is “absolutely killing us” with “ridiculous” tariffs on American goods – a tale apparently meant to suggest that current relations are already tantamount to a trade war. To assuage fears that this tough talk on trade might enrage the Chinese, Trump likes to reel off another fact: the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), a state-owned behemoth, is his tenant in Trump Tower, the slightly fusty, brass-and-pink-marble temple to 1980s style on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
In our conversation last August, Trump raised his landlord-tenant relations with ICBC a bit bashfully, saying that he was making this point strictly off the record. This May was different. I was at the Trump Tower with a colleague from The Economist’s Washington bureau, who was writing a cover story about Trump and had secured a meeting. At the end of our 90-minute interview in his office on the 26th floor, Trump announced that he wanted his guests to see his Chinese tenants for themselves. Sweeping out of his office, past a counter on which stood scale models of his private aircraft, he led the way to a waiting lift, trailed by the hulking, earpiece-wearing Secret Service agents who now guard him in his capacity as a presidential candidate.
The lift, operated by an attendant in tailcoat and striped trousers, stopped at the 18th floor and the doors opened to reveal the ICBC’s reception area. “Oh, guys, maybe you stay in the elevator,” Trump murmured to the agents, solicitously avoiding a federal invasion of Chinese property. At first the reception desk was empty, but by chance a Chinese banker wandered in. He stopped, and gaped. “Hello… Mr Trump,” he managed after some time, then offered brief words of encouragement for the presidential primary in Indiana, which was being held on that day (and which was to prove decisive, driving both remaining Republican rivals from the race). “It’s going to be a good night,” Trump assured his tenant, before stating that ICBC loves being in such a beautiful building. After some final smiles and nods of awkwardness, Trump stepped back into the lift. When the doors closed, he offered his take. “You see,” he beamed. “All the things I say about China, but when it came time to renew the lease they were happy to stay. It’s all about respect,” he concluded, jaw jutting.
Despite his intentions, the moment proved nothing and revealed less about how a President Trump would fare with China’s steel-spined leaders. The tycoon-turned-politician has a habit of making foreign policy sound like a series of commercial real-estate transactions. In a much-touted speech on world affairs that he delivered on April 27th, Trump vowed to cut a “great deal for America” with such rivals and foes as Russia, Iran and China by showing that he is willing to walk away from the table. “When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win,” he opined. But world events do not present themselves tidily to American presidents as a series of discrete, take-it-or-leave-it transactions.
As he rode with us down to the lobby, Trump appeared delighted with how this impromptu visit had unfolded. His skyscraper, the guards, the stunned-but-reverential Chinese banker: all were props in a mini-drama about toughness and deal-making savvy. Millions of Republican primary voters have been moved by such show-and-tell theatrics. Trump’s private airplanes, his boasts of vast wealth and air of swaggering confidence have all helped supporters to swallow a story that they already want to believe: that if a man as successful as Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office, global competition can be willed away in an instant.
Does Trump buy his own pitch? In person he is as hard to read as any master-fabulist. But if he believes even half his own stories, it is another reason to hope his show never transfers to the world stage.