I was a Donald Trump Ghostwriter
Vox - January 31, 2016
Ten years ago, after an extended period of unemployment, I stumbled upon a job opportunity so well matched to my talents and experience that it felt like fateful cosmic poetry. My interview lasted five minutes. I was hired on the spot. Could I begin immediately? The job was as a copywriter for Donald Trump.
It was 2005. The company I worked for, Trump University, sold online courses, DVDs, and other business education products. The company’s tagline, “We teach success,” reflected its purported mission: to leverage the knowledge and experience of Donald Trump in order to help would-be entrepreneurs get ahead. But really, what we were selling was success itself: the idea that Trump’s accomplishments–his story–could be packaged and given to others.
I never met Donald Trump. His subordinate, who ran the company, was the one who hired me. “The Donald” inhabited the fledgling enterprise in spirit only. Our office, filled with a dozen or so employees, was in the Trump Building on Wall Street, far from the parent company’s Trump Tower headquarters uptown; a minute outpost in Trump’s vast empire, with me the equivalent of a lowly clerk.
Still, Trump was everywhere: The office was wallpapered with eight-foot high posters of the Man, all steely and severe (his trademark look), each one emblazoned with a different “Trumpism”: Think Big!–Go with Your Gut–Love What You Do. Trump video clips played constantly on computers around the cramped one-room office, as editors and course developers combined elements of Trump wisdom, creating content designed to effect the alchemy of success.
My first day on the job, I was told to write some blurbs for the Trump University website, as part of the rollout for our first major product, “The Wealth Builder’s Blueprint”–a mixed-media grab bag that came with lots of stuff (DVDs, a booklet, various “success tools,” and more). My initial attempt was all wrong–too soft, not salesy enough. “You have to find the voice of Trump,” my boss said. He gave me a DVD to watch, “Donald Trump Speaks,” a 20-minute interview where the Donald held forth on the promise of his new venture: “Action is what Trump University is all about. Our motto is ‘Learn by Doing’ . . . Think like a billionaire . . . You will be successful.”
I read articles and press releases about Trump, along with transcripts of his speeches and his radio show (daily ruminations about celebrities and current events, syndicated to more than 400 stations). All of his books sat on my desk, and few days went by without my dipping into one of them for a snippet or two.
Trump said the same things over and over and over and over again, based on the same few articles of faith: worship of material success, contempt for "losers," and certainty–above all, certainty.
I can’t recall the exact moment or what specifically triggered it, but after an unbroken string of 12-hour days, I found myself possessed by the voice of Trump: that in your face, balls-to-the-wall style, overflowing with turbo-confidence and showmanship. My boss said I had found the voice, and my co-workers agreed. I became known around the office as the Voice of Trump.
I was tasked with developing The Trump Blog (“Ideas and opinions from Donald Trump and TrumpU faculty”) and making it a key platform for the company, as Trump had only a slight online presence then. Though I’d been on the job for less than a month my boss left me to my own devices. I selected the topics and turned them into blog posts, with little or no supervision.
Each post was an opportunity to stretch out the voice, to further become the voice. In one of the early posts I wrote: “The glamour and grandeur of my buildings and my life are no mere trappings . . . It’s a product of style, and it comes from deep inside–you cannot buy style.” That went over big around the office.
Here are some other gems I wrote as the Voice of Trump:
From a blog post called “On Being a Brand: What’s in a Name?”: “The Trump brand carries a promise that whatever bears the name will be elite . . . I have to believe in whatever I put my name on, and it has to reflect who I truly am. My branding strategy is "to thine self be true." Shakespeare said it first, and I second it here–and everywhere else I put the name Trump.”
From “Adversity Builds Character (But I Prefer the View from the Top)”: “My greatest respect is for people who have experienced adversity and then come back. I was one of those people, in the early nineties. I went through a tough period, when I was more than $9 billion in debt. But I learned a lot about myself, and then came back bigger and better and stronger. . . . They say it's darkest before the dawn. You know what I say: Never ever give up.”
From “Donald Trump: Educator”: “I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about my legacy. The values I hold true and the buildings I’ve put up are intended to carry beyond the here and now, beyond my own time on earth. I’m particularly interested in my legacy as an educator, which is part of the reason I started Trump University. I relish the idea that this venture will help to shape future generations of entrepreneurs and business managers.”
Another one of my jobs was to edit the “Ask Mr. Trump” section of the website. “Ask Mr. Trump” received hundreds of questions a month from aspiring moguls all over the world, among them a host of truly luckless and desperate people. They addressed Trump directly, soliciting his advice on such topics as leadership, getting ahead, and how to buy real estate.
The submissions to “Ask Mr. Trump” offered a unique perspective on how Trump and his brand were perceived around the world: people seemed to really buy into the idea that Trump was a maverick, able to succeed against all odds. The Donald wasn‘t just a wealthy businessman and a celebrity, but also an inspiration to the masses, as the following snippets from questions illustrate:
Dear Mr. Trump: Your life experience has really been a blessing to me. Though I am in Africa, I would like to commend you for the humanitarian services you are providing to the world at large. . . .
Do you have any plans in Bosnia and Herzegovina? . . .
What is the most important thing I would need to do to be like you? . . .
I have watched you complete the impossible mission, time and again. From Palm Beach to Dubai, your mark on our world is incredible, and now this spectacular university–your name is synonymous with success! . . .
I just started over, after my ex-husband took everything. I have four children to support and I’ve spent all my money getting licensed for real estate. What is the best way to get prospects with little or no money? I hate to keep telling my children they can't have things. I say No, not right now or You don't need that. Please, Mr. Trump Help!!
Most of those who wrote in, whatever their circumstances, were ardent fans of his show The Apprentice, which was brand-new at the time. Trump had long been huge; in New York he was an institution, like Central Park or the Carnegie Deli. But with The Apprentice and a burgeoning global audience, he assumed the dimensions of a folk hero. To his following, he was an icon of success, an incarnation of the American Dream. These forces–globalization and mega-media–made him an exaggerated version of the dream, amplified and omnipresent; allowing him, in turn, to inhabit the dreams of the masses. This is what it means to be larger than life.
Trump had somehow tapped into a fundamental yearning people have: the need for something they can call their own; a way to rise above the relentless challenges of grubby survival. The budding entrepreneurs who sought his counsel wanted to control their own destinies. To these people, Trump personified everything they aspired to; and many believed that a version of his life–or at least the opportunity to enjoy many of the things he valued–was a realistic possibility, if only they had the knowledge or training and a chance to prove themselves.
The fact that Trump himself had inherited a fortune–representing the far more common, universal paradigm: wealth begets wealth and poverty begets poverty–was left unsaid by TrumpU as far as I knew, and was either unknown or overlooked by its customers. Though not every one of these people was completely naÃ¯ve or benighted, I think nearly all of them engaged with Trump University as a way to live Trump’s life vicariously, to embrace the fantasy of being the boss and running the show; projecting power and strutting on a big stage, never pulling punches, never backing down.
Much of what I wrote for Trump University reminded me of my late father, who had been at various times an entrepreneur, an author of business books, a sales trainer, and a motivational speaker. Being a motivational speaker, especially, demanded a Trumpian attitude, which my father pulled off with aplomb. He would hold forth–without notes, sometimes for hours on end–spouting hard-boiled wisdom and aggressive optimism; fashioning an otherwise mundane lecture into a true performance–Frank Sinatra meets Tony Robbins by way of Richard Roma, the uber-salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross. Using vaudevillian shtick and faux intimacy–like stories of his quasi-mythical work history selling “the three things people want least: burglar alarms, life insurance, and cemetery plots”–he presented himself as a wily veteran of the trade, and more: a guru, a superstar, a personality. Essential to his message and presentation, his whole image, was the conflation of showbiz and sales. As he often told rooms full of burglar alarm salesmen (his specialty), performing better meant selling more.
Did you ever notice how people are always ducking life insurance guys? But you know you’re going to die, ultimately, and you don’t want to leave your wife having to go and shred coleslaw at Burger King. Hey, if you don’t believe in life insurance, just try dying once without it . . . You can’t sell people solutions to problems they don’t think they have. It’s up to us to make certain these people know they have a problem–“Mr. and Mrs. Jones, let’s get you protected now, before it’s too late.” Scare tactics? That’s a simplistic response, from people who don’t know this business at all. You can’t sell intellectually what’s bought emotionally. You can’t get into their homes until you get into their hearts. Listen: they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
My father, unlike Trump, was not successful, at least not by the standards of “serious money” he talked up in his motivational speeches. At some point, the Big Score he had been hustling after most of his life was no longer elusive, but completely out of reach. Even to him, with his inveterate salesman’s optimism, this failure became undeniable, and therefore oppressive. Probably never more so than during his last two years, when he was dying of cancer and still dragging himself to one-off seminars in hotel ballrooms across the country. He also worked the International Security Conference, at the Javits Convention Center in New York, selling his book, The Science of Selling Alarm Systems, from a fold up table–three straight days on his feet for seven hours. Soon afterwards he got sicker and couldn’t travel, which meant he couldn’t work. The inevitable gruesome decline followed, and then he died at 63.
I grew up steeped in the language of hype, beyond even the typical American boyhood of endless pitches and commercial amusements. In my house, artifacts of salesmanship were everywhere: the living room qua makeshift warehouse, stacked with boxes full of brochures; and those pictures of Dad that were always around–from when he was young and when he was old, with a mustache or clean shaven–standing with some client doing the “grip-and-grin” pose. Then, for years I promoted my own projects: rock bands, homemade books and zines, performance art.
It’s no surprise that I would drift into PR and copywriting. I was a natural; and found, to my amusement, that I was much better at promoting other people’s work–no matter how odious or unexciting–than my own. The essential skill, I had discovered, was dispassion, which I achieved by subsuming my ego into the work.
Another skill required was performance, which I had long relished anyway; PR was a venue where I had my own stage, to enact the pageant of showbiz and sales. This, more than any specific objective or product, is the root of the hype trade; or at least for me the only thing that ever made it tolerable. My father approached his work in a similar fashion, with a certain clinical mastery, and a willingness to don the mask of passion whenever necessary–to “rally the troops,” for example (those hungry salesmen, who came to him for knowledge), or to close a deal.
Shortly after Trump University’s official launch, I did a blog post about former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, who had just been convicted of stealing about $100 million from the company. Among the evidence against him was a $6,000 shower curtain and a video of the birthday party he threw for his wife: a celebration in Sardinia that included extravagant ice sculptures, a private performance by Jimmy Buffet, and models dressed up as characters from ancient Rome. It was all over the news. As the Voice of Trump I wrote: “These squalid affairs give business a bad name . . . If you have to lie, cheat, and steal you’re just not doing it right . . . My problem with Kozlowski, besides the crime, is the extreme lack of taste . . . maybe tackiness is at the heart of corporate corruption.”
The press loved it! Spurred by TrumpU’s PR firm, everyone picked up the story. Far and wide, choice lines from the blog were quoted–in the business, trade, and mainstream press; in straight news, features, and gossip columns (including “Page Six” in The New York Post, under the headline “Criminally Tacky”); even cartoons: Garry Trudeau devoted a week’s worth of Doonesbury to Trump University.
Well, I was told that Trump was actually friends with Kozlowsky, Doh. I had no idea, of course; I was on my own, with no one to set me straight or temper the rhetoric. I got carried away. At the time, though, with the odor of such flagrant corruption still lingering (Enron, WorldCom, et al.), it felt like the right tone for the voice of Trump.
My boss broke the news after what must have been an exceedingly unpleasant meeting with Trump – he seemed even more deflated than I. He relieved me of my duties as the Voice of Trump. I was mortified, of course, profoundly dejected. I felt lucky, though, to still have a job. I had dodged a bullet (the same one employed as Trump’s catch phrase on The Apprentice: “You’re fired!”). A freelancer was hired to write Trump’s posts, which were then approved by Trump himself (or his assistant).
There was still plenty of work to do– writing web pages, direct mail, newsletters, etc.–but nothing that really excited me. So, a little more than half-way into my stint at TrumpU, it was clear I had peaked early. From there it was all downhill. I left a few months later.
A couple years after that, I saw Kozlowsky on 60 Minutes, being interviewed by Morley Safer. (“We wondered what’s it like to go from King of the World to Prisoner number 05A4820, serving eight to 25 years behind bars,” he intones in his introduction.) The interview takes place in the middle of a stark common room, with Kozlowski in his prison grays. Safer at one point says to him, “Donald Trump called your behavior tacky,” and without missing a beat Kozlowsky says, “Tacky? Tacky from Donald Trump? Wow. But he would know.” They both laughed.
The company was eventually renamed The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, after years of pressure from the New York State Education Department, urging the company to drop “university” from its name because it lacked the proper authorization. Trump is still involved in lawsuits in New York and California, including a class action suit by disgruntled former customers; and a suit filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which accuses TrumpU of “engaging in deceptive and illegal conduct.” To say nothing of the many complaints received over the years by multiple state attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Justice, about the company’s allegedly fraudulent practices. The suits focus on students who paid between $1,495 and $35,000 for seminars on real estate investment, supposedly taught by Trump’s “handpicked instructors.”
As far as I know, the courses costing thousands of dollars for which TrumpU was sued were developed after I left; and I had no role in promoting them – I’m innocent! And I doubt the Donald gives much thought to such legal affairs these days; he has bigger things on his mind, I’m sure, like running for President. He’s been atop the polls since declaring his candidacy early last summer.
The Apprentice boosted Trump’s showbiz instincts, honing his ability to capture an audience and command a stage. For any charismatic performer, though, politics often elicits the darker realms of showmanship, and Trump has used his talents to channel the deepest fears and grievances of his supporters. His appeal as a pure entertainer, though–neither ideologue nor pragmatist (really a pageant unto himself)–cannot be denied. Emerging as he has, with the Republican Party in a struggle for its soul and the world changing dramatically, he is both a symptom and a provocateur of volatile times.
These rallies bursting with Trump supporters remind me of the people who wrote in to “Ask Mr. Trump,” those desperate supplicants who believed that this man had the answers to their problems; or more obliquely, felt that his touch–through the example of his superlative life and career–could in some way inspire hope and motivate them to move forward in their own lives and careers.
Hearing Trump repeat the same lines over and over–“Make America Great Again . . . I’m gonna build a fantastic wall, and Mexico’s gonna pay for it.”–I see that his tactics haven't changed since I immersed myself in his voice 10 years ago. He's still hawking success, and certainty, and disdain for losers. Only this time he’s on a bigger stage, with a bigger audience, and the stakes are much bigger.