The ghost writer
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the recent New Yorker profile of Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter behind Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, is a sickly fascinating read. Schwartz, to put it mildly, is suffering pangs of regret over his role in Trump’s career: “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility that it will lead to the end of civilization.” But if we can manage to put that image out of our minds, at least for now, we’re left with a gossipy glimpse behind the scenes of the packaging of a certain kind of bestseller. Trump wasn’t even the one who pitched the project, as writer Jane Mayer notes:
The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or Schwartz. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong…At one point, Howard Kaminsky, who ran Random House then, wrapped a thick Russian novel in a dummy cover that featured a photograph of Trump looking like a conquering hero; at the top was Trump’s name, in large gold block lettering. Kaminsky recalls that Trump was pleased by the mockup, but had one suggestion: “Please make my name much bigger.”
The Art of the Deal, in short, was the brainchild of an entrepreneurial publisher who saw a promising subject and built a project around it. It’s admittedly unusual to have the initial idea come from the chairman of the board, although nothing about Trump has ever occurred on an ordinary scale. In other respects, however, it’s fairly typical. Memoirs or even novels have long been a component of a celebrity’s branding empire, and Trump wasn’t the first or last famous name to end up on the cover of a book that he didn’t have any hand in writing. A New York Times article from a few years ago notes that literary agents actively encourage their clients to pitch novels, as Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media group observes: “It’s a way to extend the footprint of the celebrity.” (My own favorite detail from the story is the image of Tinsley Mortimer, “the socialite and handbag designer,” taking meetings with publishers with her ghostwriter in tow, which is like Natalie Wood going to auditions with Marni Nixon.) The result is usually so blatantly about its author it barely qualifies as a roman à clef: L.A. Candy by Lauren Conrad, for instance, gives us “Jane,” “Madison,” and “Gaby,” who are asked—get ready for it—to star in a hot new reality series set in Los Angeles. And while Trump’s book is ostensibly an autobiography, Schwartz’s account makes it clear that it’s really a work of fiction, less in matters of fact than in the transformation of its subject into a sympathetic protagonist. As Schwartz says: “I created a character far more winning than Trump actually is.”
I’ll confess that I never finished reading the battered paperback copy of The Art of the Deal that I picked up at a church book sale in my teens, but judging from its success, Schwartz appears to have done a pretty good job. (For writers in search of new tricks, the New Yorker profile provides useful tips on how to transform a character’s otherwise unlikable qualities into something a reader can admire. Instead of portraying Trump as driven by greed, for example, Schwartz turns him into an artisan: “I don’t do it for the money…Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” It’s impossible to imagine the real Trump ever saying or thinking this, but if we take it as a tactical move on the ghostwriter’s part, it’s brilliant.) But what really stands out is the fact that Trump didn’t seem particularly interested in writing a book in the first place. He didn’t make the rounds of publishers, à la Tinsley Mortimer, with his cowriter already attached: the publisher came to him, and the decision to hire Schwartz as a ghostwriter seems to have been made almost casually. Instead of the driving force behind the project, Trump was a convenient brand around which Random House could and did package a book, almost without his involvement, much as developers would later license his name for hotels and condominiums that he didn’t build. The Apprentice, which did more than anything else to keep Trump relevant in the new century, came about in a similar way: Mark Burnett, the producer, read The Art of the Deal and came up with a pitch for the show. Trump, not surprisingly, agreed. It’s not like he ever would have turned it down.
And it’s hard not to see our current predicament through a similar lens. Trump’s accomplishment may be twisted, but it’s very real: he’s taught all of us how little we knew about what a large swath of voters really wanted or found important, which is altogether different from what the political class fondly told itself for so long. But if he’s gotten to this point—and it’s unclear to what extent he ever wanted to come this far—it’s for the same reasons that he attracted publishers and television producers. Like any great brand, “Trump” stands for something that is easy to grasp but hard to articulate. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump, or Schwartz, says in The Art of the Deal, and any good fantasy means different things to different people. The fact that Trump is so hard to pin down on concrete policy positions isn’t a shortcoming, but central to his appeal: he’s selling whatever people want to buy, and the details might change from one minute to the next, even if a dark core remains consistent. It’s a brand that can be slapped on just about anything, so it makes sense for shrewd operators to license it, literally or otherwise. Random House and Mark Burnett did pretty well by it. The G.O.P. didn’t, even though its motives were largely the same: it tolerated and encouraged Trump for much of the primary season, hoping to cynically leverage his celebrity, his media exposure, and his followers before channeling his support toward a more acceptable candidate. It tried to license the Trump brand, not to sell books or a reality series, but to turn the political process into entertainment for as long as it could. We know how that turned out, and it isn’t over yet. Trump’s brand, as Tony Schwartz was among the first to recognize, is more powerful than anyone could have guessed. And his brand is crisis.