When Donald Trump set up Trump University, he promised to share his “secrets of success.” He said he would tell people how they could “just copy exactly what I’ve done and get rich.” It was a fraud. Now, courtesy of the New York Times, we know for certain it could never be anything but a fraud. The only knowledge Trump can impart to anyone about wealth is an unteachable skill: have rich parents.
As the Times’s investigation revealed, Trump’s success depended on massive transfers of family wealth from his father, real estate developer Fred Trump. Ultimately, Fred Trump gave hundreds of millions of dollars to his children, a staggering amount turbocharged, as the Times reported in extensive detail, reportedly by fraud. By age 3, the Times reports, the young Donald Trump received an income that was the equivalent of $200,000 in today’s dollars from his dad. He was a millionaire before finishing elementary school. The largesse continued into adulthood. He even paid for the adult Donald’s car, and Manhattan offices — the same ones where the future president gave interviews claiming business genius.
The story Trump told on the campaign trail, about how he received only a “small” $1 million loan from his dad to build his business — and one Fred Trump made him pay back. “It has not been easy for me,” he whined. Garbage. The Times reports that the senior Trump loaned his son $60.7 million at a minimum, most of which was never repaid.
So why the pretense? Well, Americans love the myth of the self-made man. A foundational belief in our culture is that anyone can become a millionaire — or even better, a billionaire — with just the right amount of hard work, gumption and smarts. There is an idea that the person who goes out and makes himself — and it is almost always a man — a fortune is somehow a more skilled and smarter human being, capable of using his skill in one industry to master another.
Americans love this myth despite evidence that it is widely exaggerated. The United States has less class mobility than many European nations, but Americans think we enjoy more. In the United States, the quickest and easiest way to make it to the 1 percent of wealth holders and remain in that world is to be born into it.
One reason we might love this myth as much as we do: It allows us to avoid hard discussions about the reality of class in the United States. All too many Americans, the beneficiaries of what I like to call the upper-middle-class welfare state, can convince themselves that they are uniquely deserving. When Jessica Wiederspan, now a researcher studying basic income with Y Combinator, interviewed working- and middle-class families in Rust Belt states, she found many in absolute denial about what their financial backers accomplished for them. One woman, the recipient of family aid that permitted her everything from a nice home (with a mortgage in her mother-in-law’s name) to soccer lessons and summer camp for her children, told the researcher she believed the vast majority of people who did well in the United States, “are people who are willing to work for what they want.” As for the others, she sniffed, “they expect handouts to get from here to here.”
In fact, as both Wiederspan’s research and the Times story shows, it is frequently the rich and well-to-d0 who seek handouts without copping to it. It is the Trump administration that signed into law a tax-reform package that gave the typical worker a tiny and time-limited tax cut, while showering the wealthiest with a massive and permanent cut. It is the Trump administration that is seeking to make staggering cuts in social safety-net programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps, which is the only help available for people who hit a rough patch or are mired in poverty. At the same time, it is the Trump family — and no doubt many other families — who seek to skip out on paying taxes, money that can be used to help those who lack their financial advantages. That too many Americans tacitly accept this reality allows frauds such as Trump to flourish.