Take five minutes at the end of the week and dive into this fascinating, lurid account by former Forbes reporter Jonathan Greenberg of Trump’s efforts to land himself on the earliest iterations of the Forbes 400. The highlight is a cameo from Trump’s old PR flack “John,” a man who sounds suspiciously like Trump himself yet whom no one has been able to locate or even identify despite his longtime connection to the most famous person in the world.
The piece indicts Trump for two things he’s famous for, his obsession with status and his alleged exaggerations of his wealth. The takeaway is that Trump is a con man, an accusation that’s been leveled at him from places as lofty as a presidential primary debate stage. But Greenberg’s story could just as easily be repackaged as testimony to Trump’s cynical genius. He recognized instantly the value of being included on an authoritative list of America’s richest people; he said what he needed to say to land himself on it; he parlayed the notoriety it gave him as a Major Player into actually becoming a Major Player, or at least a reasonable facsimile. Then he parlayed that into international fame as an alleged master businessman. And then he parlayed that into winning an election that made him the most powerful person in the world. He is to self-promotion what Einstein was to physics. It may be centuries before we see a huckster this brilliant again.
And do note: Greenberg didn’t get completely suckered in his dealings with Trump. He was appropriately skeptical. He refused to take many, or even most, Trump claims at face value. But even so, he was up against an unscrupulous PR master.
I was a determined 25-year-old reporter, and I thought that, by reeling Trump back from some of his more outrageous claims, I’d done a public service and exposed the truth. But his confident deceptions were so big that they had an unexpected effect: Instead of believing that they were outright fabrications, my Forbes colleagues and I saw them simply as vain embellishments on the truth. We were so wrong.
This was a model Trump would use for the rest of his career, telling a lie so cosmic that people believed that some kernel of it had to be real. The tactic landed him a place he hadn’t earned on the Forbes list — and led to future accolades, press coverage and deals. It eventually paved a path toward the presidency…
In the absence of a functioning balance sheet, the list didn’t just make Trump feel like a winner, according to O’Brien; it may have provided some of the documentation he needed to borrow reckless sums of money — vast loans that he used, for years, to actually make him a winner. “The more often Forbes mentioned him, the more credible Donald’s claim to vast wealth became,” O’Brien said, arguing that Trump and the list were “mutually reinforcing”: “The more credible his claim to vast wealth became, the easier it was for him to get on the Forbes 400 — which became the standard that other media, and apparently some of the country’s biggest banks, used when judging Donald’s riches.”
He told Forbes he was mega-rich. They concluded he was lying, but that he must be *pretty* rich to claim he was mega-rich. The public bought that and soon Trump had the funds he needed to become something closer to mega-rich. NBC took that and presented him as the archetype of a successful manager, helping to turn the brand “Trump” into a byword for tycoon. And then he took that to voters in 2016 and they reasoned that any man who could achieve as much as Trump had in business and who could build a fortune so incredibly vast must surely also be a man who could move mountains in Washington. Greenberg assumed Trump must have big bucks, if not quite as big as he claimed, because it never occurred to him that someone might be so brazen as to wildly inflate their net worth to Forbes. He took a call from “John Barron” at face value for the same reason, because it never occurred to him that someone might be so brazen as to pose as his own PR guy to talk him up to a reporter. Incredible.